At IT panel's first meet since Covid-19, MPs ask if they could attend Parliament...

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The first meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology, chaired by Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Shashi Tharoor, on Tuesday, after the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak was reported in the country, centred on the members’ keenness to know about the government’s contact-tracing Aarogya Setu mobile application (app), the recent ban on 59 Chinese apps and whether MPs could attend the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament, which is likely to begin after August 15, online because of the pandemic.

Around eight members of Parliament, including Tharoor, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Tejaswi Surya, Rajyavardhan Rathore, Nishikant Dubey, Sanjay Seth, and Anil Aggarwal were present at the meeting, which was also attended by officials from the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).

The panel has 29 members, including 21 and eight from the Lok Sabha (LS) and the Rajya Sabha (RS), respectively.

Typically, a House panel meeting lasts for an hour, but on Tuesday it went on for about two hours and 15 minutes, as the MPs dissected the government’s decisions amid the pandemic.

The last meeting was held in mid-March ahead of the nationwide lockdown restrictions, which were enforced from March 25 to contain the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Later, Thiruvananthapuram MP Tharoor put out a tweet about the meeting.

“The Parliamentary Standing Committee in Information Technology met on Tuesday. The eight MPs, who braved quarantine restrictions to attend, heard briefings from MeitY & the Union Ministry of Home Affairs on recent developments including the Aarogya Setu app and cybersecurity,” Tharoor tweeted.

“Due social distancing norms were observed and attendees came masked. This could well be the new normal for a long time to come. Still, it was a useful meeting, where serious questions were asked and constructive discussions took place,” he further tweeted.

According to officials present at the meeting and familiar with the matter, some MPs sought to know whether they could be allowed to virtually attend the monsoon session of Parliament.

“Our response was simple, we can do it tomorrow,” said a MeitY official on the condition of anonymity. “We just need the go-ahead to conduct it. Parliament, in any case, is telecast live so it is not much of an issue.”

However, the standing committee members need to meet in person, as these are confidential matters, said the official.

Derek O’Brien, Trinamool Congress’s RS MP and a member of the panel, also raised the issue of virtual presence during Tuesday’s meeting.

“The Meeting of the Parliamentary Select Committee examining the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, has called a meeting on Friday (July 17). Amid these Covid-19 times, a three-day notice was given to members. This is strange. A virtual presence is still not allowed. Strange methods are playing out in Parliament,” O’Brien tweeted.

However, the official quoted above said that the notification for the standing committee for IT was done over a week ago.

According to another official present at the meeting, Surya, the BJP’s Bengaluru South MP, was among those, who wanted to know about the ban on 59 Chinese apps and Aarogya Setu.

“Everyone praised the move to ban the apps. Some even asked whether there are other apps that are likely to be banned soon,” said the second official.

“The MPs were keen to know about the new features of Aarogya Setu and also about the government’s move to protect data,” he added.

An MP, who was present at the meeting, the thrust of the discussion was about cybersecurity, Aarogya Setu and the ban on 59 Chinese apps.

“It was a productive discussion,” said the MP, requesting anonymity.

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