Authored by Anil Nair and CV Madhukar PRS just concluded a workshop for MLAs from 50+ from more than a dozen states. What an AMAZING experience this was, even though this is the sixth such workshop we have held in this past year! This three day workshop on 'Mastering the Budget' was designed to help MLAs understand how to work with budget documents and numbers, find trends, understand the most critical macro numbers to track, etc. The second day of the workshop was tailored to reflect on the big thematic issues that have an impact on state finances. The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, the Goods and Services Tax, the pattern of quantum of funds flow from the Centre to the state and local governments, the 13th Finance Commission, etc. The final day was devoted to doing an inter-state comparison of states on important budget parameters, and gleaning lessons from them. The idea for this budget workshop germinated at a previous workshop held at IIM Bangalore. The participating MLAs requested PRS to organise a special session on 'Mastering the Budget'. So this workshop was being organised as a result of their feedback. The choice of location was easy -- this was held at the National Institute for Public Finance and Policy in Delhi, which is amongst India's foremost institutions working on state budgets and public finance issues. Invitations were sent out to MLAs in several states. Responses started coming in within a few days, with about 70 confirmations. But there is always an uncertainty on the participation until the very last minute because elected politicians have immense demands on their time, at least some of which are unpredictable. So it was heartening to see that more than 50 MLAs came to the workshop representing 15 states -- Bihar, Rajasthan, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Manipur. The participants ranged from first time MLAs (about 50%), to a sitting Minister, a sitting Speaker, former Ministers, and senior leaders of political parties from some states. But the best part about the interaction in this workshop was that even on seemingly complex issues being discussed in the classroom, the MLAs were not mere recipients of 'gyan' that was being dished out. They had important questions to raise, and well articulated points of disagreement with the faculty, and brought in practical perspectives that might not have otherwise come up in the discussions. They went beyond the scope of the workshop to engage the economists on discussions on subjects like FDI in retail, state of India’s economy… Based on our experience of several workshops with MLAs, we want to share some observations about the participating MLAs: - There are MLAs in every state who want to understand substantive policy issues, and are willing to invest time and energy to do so. - When the MLAs participate in these workshops, they choose to do so on their own, and are not compelled by anyone to do so. - The sessions almost always begin and end on time, even in the freezing cold mornings in the Delhi winter. - The MLAs are very engaged in the discussions, ask questions, and bring in their experiences into the classroom discussions. - They keep partylines completely out of the substantive classroom discussions, and in the rare event that some new participant mentions anything partisan, other participants quickly ask him to avoid making any such mentions. In 2011, we have engaged with over 250 MLAs through these workshops and more. These workshops are just a starting point of what we hope will develop into a sustained, longer term engagement with MLAs on policy issues coming up in their states. In an important partnership with the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, PRS has already conducted two workshops at the world class facilities at the ISB campus, and is planning to hold more in 2012. Just as PRS engages with about 300 MPs in Parliament, the hope is that more MLAs will be able to derive value from the work of PRS in the years to come, thereby making their decisions better informed. Some feedback from MLAs from our earlier workshops can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XlgKCp2bvs or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01kLLTVtJOU&feature=related or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WA4NZqCj2xk&feature=related
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.