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India’s MLAs not asking enough questions, Bills rushed. But all our focus is on the Centre

According to a report, 92 per cent of Bills in Karnataka’s previous assembly were passed within a week of their introduction, a trend seen commonly across India.

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Most Indian states are run solely by their chief ministers along with a few trusted aides. Minister portfolios are not made very clear to the public, assembly debates seldom take place and Bills are passed without adequate discussion. This may create an illusion of efficiency, but it overlooks due democratic processes. Very few MLAs productively engage in issues beyond common civic concerns. Little rigour is applied to laws and policymaking at the state level and voters hardly care beyond elections. 

To a large extent, political and administrative analysis is disproportionately focused on the Centre and legislatures are often ignored.

In a parliamentary democracy, the very role of a legislature is to hold the executive accountable, and this expectation permeates through every level of India’s federal structure. One of the most valuable devices available to members is the right to interrogate the cabinet. A brief analysis of questions asked in different state assemblies gives us an insight into MLA appetites to raise long-term policy issues. Starred questions are asked during the Question Hour and merit an oral response, while unstarred questions are to be answered in writing by the relevant department.

Also read: India’s democracy crumbling? Constitution shows how to create democracy in unlikely settings

Attributes of state legislative assemblies

 There is significant disparity in the number of questions asked in the 17 major state* (as per  NITI Aayog’s definition) assemblies. Total starred questions vary between 11,200 in Rajasthan to 65 in West Bengal in the last two years. However, only 21 per cent of starred questions admitted in the 14th Rajasthan Assembly were answered on the floor of the House. Most of these were related to education, health and public construction departments, and the least concerned urban development and housing.

*The term major states as defined in the India Innovation Index 2019 is used to refer to all states excluding North Eastern states, Hill states and Union Territories which are separately classified in the report.
Graphics: Soham Sen | ThePrint

Karnataka, which is ranked highest in India’s Innovation Index, has had approximately 1,000 starred questions raised in its Vidhan Sabha between June 2017 and June 2020. Each MLA asked 58 questions on average and a video repository of all assembly proceedings, including Question Hour, is available online. This suggests that the Karnataka Assembly cares about transparency and public accessibility. Their concern, however, does not automatically translate into legislative performance. According to a report by PRS, 92 per cent of Bills in the state’s previous assembly were passed within a week of their introduction, a trend seen commonly across India, suggesting these legislations were not discussed at length.

A win for digitisation came in 2015 when the Maharashtra government became the first in the country to launch an online platform for legislators to send questions and move motions in the House. Between June 2017 and June 2020, 22,820 questions were asked, out of which 5,570 were starred questions. This implies a staggering average of 79.2 questions per member. In the previous assembly though only 7 per cent of starred questions received an oral answer. Whether or not Maharashtra’s ‘Digital MLAs’ initiative leads to a qualitative improvement in legislation remains to be seen.

Also read: Covid must put an end to local govts’ long wait for power and self-rule. Kerala tells us why

Impact on innovation

The newest state of Telangana ranks among the top 5 in innovation, owing a majority of its success to Hyderabad. The current state assembly is still in its nascent stage with the previous House being dissolved just 9 months short of completing its full term. About 21 per cent of session time in Telangana’s first legislative assembly was spent on Question Hour, for which 10 starred questions were selected per day. Only 38 per cent of these were answered orally. A key point to note here is that while the state thrives in innovation performance, it ranks only mid-level in terms of its ability to enable innovation, lower than Andhra Pradesh.

Chhattisgarh, another relatively new state, ranks among the lowest in innovation. Only 78 MLAs have asked questions in its 4th assembly between 2014 and 2018, during which it witnessed three no-confidence motions. A meagre 5 per cent of time was spent on legislation. Despite this, the House managed to pass 104 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills) and 94 per cent of these were passed within a week of introduction. Additionally, on average, only 9 of the 25 starred questions selected for Question Hour were answered orally. An investigation of the most important issues raised in the February-March 2020 session reveals that funding for education and health are popular subjects in the House. This could perhaps be an indirect response to the two biggest issues plaguing the state — poverty and Naxal violence. Questions relating to the latter generally inquire about deaths and killed personnel. About six questions in the summary published by the Chhattisgarh Vidhan Sabha ask about the Smart Cities Mission. The state has nominated three cities for the national Urban Development Programme and queries have been raised regarding funds and planned construction in Raipur and Bilaspur.

Graphics: Soham Sen | ThePrint
Graphics: Soham Sen | ThePrint

Commonly misunderstood, the role of an MLA is not limited to resolving micro-civic concerns like waste management, sewage treatment, construction of roads and supply of basic utilities. In fact, the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution empowered municipalities and village panchayats for this very reason. However, poor devolution of power in many states means that citizens often seek MLA intervention for civic grievances. Fear of voter dissatisfaction shifts their attention from a minister’s real responsibilities (not defined in the Constitution) which are (i) enacting laws on subjects under the State list such as land, education and health; (ii) sanctioning public expenditure; (iii) discussing matters of public importance; and (iv) holding the government accountable through policy-relevant questions. Governance plays a major role in enabling innovation. It is also one of the biggest obstacles that holds India back from truly realising its growth potential.

Nidhi Arun is a Master of Public Affairs candidate at Indiana University Bloomington. Views are personal.

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  1. Most of the people, whom we call politicians are in politics, just to earn ill-gotten wealth. They have no knowledge of any issue. They cannot enter into debate. You will find that most of MLAs are those who were back benchers in school. And most are associated with antisocial elements. How can you think of them joining healthy debate by asking questions. And if someone asks, it is only embrasse the ruling junta.

  2. The reported study reveals that lawmakers tend to be resigned to what Orwell called “group-think”. An important outcome has been the decision taken in 2009 by the Empowered Committee of State Finance Ministers to rely on a new legal instrument designated “Integrated Goods and Services Tax” )IGST) as the PIVOT of the reform of levy and collection of central and state indirect taxes. This was followed by the members of the GST Council representing the States (with the Finance Minister of BADE SARKAR presiding) swiftly agreeing to a scheme of extra-constitutional “compensation” without seriously considering the repercussions which have nothing to do with the current pandemic.

  3. The continuing distance between India’s serfs and India’s ruling class rooted firmly in the fraudulent Constitution. “Law Makers” are quiet content with their power, pelf, pomp, pleasure, perversiona dn perpetuation. The welfare, prosperity and power of India is irrelevant to them

  4. Very well researched and in-depth insights, Nidhi. Look forward to more and hope you inspire many more from generation Z to bring about some welcome changes!

  5. Most people enter politics in India not for asking relevant questions and scrutinising proposed bills but for something else altogether.

  6. In our kind of parliamentary democracy, we do a lot of things in 30- 40 years others do in 2 , such is the pathetic nature of our legislature and judiciary

  7. The major fault lies with the media. They are more interested in what is happening in Delhi than in States. The politicians care more about what’s in the news then in the bill. So media has to play it’s role

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