The Palais de l'Assemblée in Chandigarh is perhaps the most beautifully designed legislature building of independent India. The Swiss French architect, Le Corbusier, designed it to house the bicameral legislature of the state of Punjab.
The creation of a separate state of Haryana following the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966, led to Chandigarh becoming the joint capital of both states. Thereafter, the Assembly building was shared by the legislatures of the states. The hyperbolic domed Assembly chamber became the legislative chamber for Punjab and the chamber with a pyramid-shaped roof became the home of the legislative chamber of Haryana.
It is in these grand surroundings that the 14th Assembly of Haryana met for three days of its first session, earlier this month. The first session of a newly-elected Assembly is usually a short one. The agenda is broadly taking the oath of office by newly elected MLAs, the election of a Speaker and an address by the Governor to the Assembly, which is followed by a debate on the address.
In three days, the Assembly accomplished all three items on its agenda. Most members took their oath in Hindi and English, while three took it in Sanskrit. In the 90-member Assembly, nearly half the MLAs (44) have been elected for the first time. Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala is the youngest legislator in this Assembly. While it is his first term as an MLA, he has prior legislative experience, having represented Hisar in the 16th Lok Sabha.
There is no dearth of executive and legislative experience in the Assembly. Sixteen of its MLAs have held ministerial positions in previous Assemblies. The leader of Opposition, Congress party’s Bhupinder Singh Hooda, has been the chief minister of Haryana for a decade, was elected to Lok Sabha four times and this is his fifth term as MLA. His party colleague Raghuvir Singh Kadian is a former Speaker of the Assembly who had won his first MLA election in 1987. This is his sixth term as legislator. Anil Vij of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also in his sixth term and has been a member of the Assembly since 1990. Abhay Chautala, the lone MLA of the Indian National Lok Dal, was leader of Opposition in the previous Assembly and this is his fourth stint in the House.
The next order of business for a new Assembly is the election of the Speaker, who will preside over its proceedings for the next five years. Gian Chand Gupta was unanimously elected as the Speaker. He was the mayor of Chandigarh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in the previous Assembly and is in his second term in the Vidhan Sabha. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, in his statement congratulating Gupta, made three points about the functioning of the state legislature.
Khattar said to maintain the dignity of the legislature, members of every political party should be given equal opportunity to participate in its proceedings. He gave statistics about the number of sitting days of Haryana Vidhan Sabha. The chief minister also appealed to the Speaker that a copy of every Bill introduced in the Assembly should be provided to MLAs at least one day in advance to allow them to study the Bill and participate in discussions.
Truth be told, the Haryana Vidhan Sabha has a less-than-stellar record on all three counts. For example, the proceedings of the Assembly have been disrupted regularly. On multiple occasions, there have been unruly scenes. For example in 2018, an MLA was suspended from the Assembly for using derogatory language and for charging towards another member, shoe in hand.
On another occasion, some members had to be suspended for disrupting the governor’s address and tearing copies of his address. Almost a decade ago, 30 MLAs were suspended for disrupting proceedings while demanding the resignation of the then minister Gopal Kanda.
The situation is no better when it comes to sitting days and legislative functioning. The previous Assembly (2014 to 2019) met three times, each session lasting an average of 17 days a year. Thus, in the last five years, it met only for 84 days. That works out to an average of five hours every day. The Assembly before that (2009-2014) met twice a year for an average of 11 days a year. In its five-year term, it only met for 54 days.
The situation was no better in earlier years. Comparisons with the sitting days of some other state legislatures shows how badly these numbers compare. For example, legislatures in states, such as Kerala and Odisha, regularly meet for an average of 50 plus days every year. The Vidhan Sabha of neighbouring Himachal Pradesh has met for an average of 33 days over the last decade.
So, what should be the benchmark for the ideal number of sitting days of a legislative Assembly? To deliberate on this and other questions of the functioning of legislative institutions, the presiding officers of both state and national legislatures meet, usually on an annual basis. On multiple occasions, this conference has recommended a minimum of 60 days of sittings in a year for state legislature with less than 100 members.
The ball of implementation of this recommendation lies squarely in the court of the state government, which decides when to call for Assembly sessions. Different states and their Assemblies have dealt with this situation differently. The Odisha legislature has specified in its rules that it will meet mandatorily for 60 days every year. Karnataka has enacted a legislation that requires the government to summon the assembly for a period of 60 days a year.
A reduced number of sitting days means that state legislatures do not have time to study, scrutinise and deliberate legislations. For example, the previous Haryana Assembly passed 10 Bills on its last day of functioning. Some of these were legislations such as the Haryana Control of Organised Crime Bill, the Sports University of Haryana Bill and an amendment to the Cow Protection Act. Again, this is not new. Between 2009 and 2014, almost half the Bills were passed by the Vidhan Sabha without any discussion.
Over the last decade, on multiple occasions, anywhere between 10 to 17 Bills were passed in a day. The law-making processes of Haryana Vidhan Sabha are further weakened by the lack of a robust committee system to scrutinise Bills. Such committees exist in other states, such as Kerala and Himachal Pradesh.
The words above do not paint a pretty picture of the Haryana legislature. The beginning of a new Assembly, however, is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. A start was made in the last Assembly. To give MLAs more time to read and understand the impact of legislations, the previous Speaker had written to the government asking them to only introduce Bills after MLAs had been given adequate time to scrutinise them.
The chief minister has also urged MLAs to focus on legislative work in addition to the issues related to their constituency. He has also suggested to the Speaker to organise a training programme for first-time MLAs to improve their legislative capacity. But this might not be enough.
The Assembly and MLAs will have to do more. The Haryana Assembly needs to take a hard look at its past functioning and institute mechanisms to ensure more and in-depth deliberations and scrutiny of legislations. If it is unable to do that, it will continue in its failure as a law making and representative body for the people of Haryana.
Chakshu Roy heads legislative and civic engagement initiatives at PRS Legislative Research. The views are personal.