It shouldn't be business as usual for the newly elected state assemblies.
Voting in the five state assembly elections, in Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, is finally over. The run-up to the elections saw candidates and political parties making the usual promises and plugging welfare schemes in their campaigns. Profiles of candidates, campaign mudslinging, inner party wrangling and electoral trends were passionately discussed in the public space and received extensive media coverage. What was not talked about was the work done by these state legislative assemblies in the last five years. These assemblies play a role in the states that is similar to the Parliament's at the Centre. They are responsible for making laws on subjects specified in the state and concurrents list of the Constitution, ensuring the accountability of the state government, passing its budget and representing people.
One would expect that an institution entrusted with these constitutional responsibilities would meet for longer periods and at regular intervals. But that is not the case. Over the last five years, on an average, the Madhya Pradesh assembly met for 35 days a year, Chhattisgarh for 31 days, Rajasthan for 23 days, Delhi and Mizoram for approximately 20 days. The sittings of these assemblies were not spread out through the year. The business to be transacted was packed in a long budget session at the beginning of the year. For example, in 2012, the Chhattisgarh assembly met for a 20-day budget session,a six-day monsoon session and a seven-day winter session. Similarly, the Rajasthan assembly met for a 22-day budget and a three-day monsoon session. Most of these assemblies did not fare well in terms of working hours either. They clocked in an average of about five hours on a working day.
Fewer sitting days have had an impact on the assemblies' ability to debate and pass legislation. Over the last five years, on an average, the Madhya Pradesh assembly passed 34 bills in a year, Rajasthan 24 bills, Chhattisgarh 20 bills, Mizoram 16 bills and Delhi 10 bills. Most bills were not referred to a select committee for scrutiny and were passed within a few days of their introduction, with little or no debate. For example, in the last five years, the public service delivery bills passed by the legislative assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan were all pushed through one day after they were introduced in the assembly. In the case of Delhi, the records of the assembly show that the bill was introduced, considered and passed on the same day in 15 minutes.
The statistics of these five legislative assemblies are not an aberration. Most of the legislative assemblies work in a similar fashion. So these numbers raise serious questions about the effectiveness of state assemblies in scrutinising the work of state governments and whether they are able to do justice to their legislative responsibilities. The vice president, while addressing the All India Whips Conference in 2008, had remarked, "The instrumentalities at the disposal of our legislatures have either been blunted or become dysfunctional. The single most important issue of concern today is the decreasing credibility of our legislatures as effective institutions capable of delivering the public good and contributing to the effective formulation of laws and public policy. What is needed is a review of the functioning of legislatures in their day to day work in order to optimise their productivity."
The blame for the decline in the working of state assemblies should be shared equally between the state governments and the legislative assemblies. State governments have the power to convene longer sessions of the assembly, but they choose not to do so. Legislative assemblies have the power to change their procedures to ensure debate and greater scrutiny of the governments' work. But they have not taken any initiative to update or change their rules. In 1997, the Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies in India, and in 2001, a committee of the Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies, had recommended that there be constitutional provisions to ensure a minimum of 100 sittings for bigger state legislatures, that is those with at least 100 members, and 60 sittings for smaller state legislatures, those with less than 100 members. So far, no progress has been made on these recommendations. Some legislative assemblies have rules that specify cooling off periods for discussions in the House, but these are rarely followed.
These state elections have seen record-breaking voter turnouts, which is a clear signal that people have faith in legislative institutions. An immediate overhaul of the working of state legislative assemblies is the need of the hour. It would result in effective laws, responsive governance, and go a long way in fulfilling people's expectations.