The Constitution has a Seventh Schedule, with separate Lists for Union and State Governments, and there is a Concurrent List. Compared to public attention devoted to executive arm, relatively limited attention is paid to legislature and judiciary. As citizens, we should be concerned with productivity of legislatures too.
Today, if we have metrics and information to gauge efficiency of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, a large part of the credit goes to PRS Legislative Research. In discussions on reforms, or debates about public expenditure, there is excessive focus on Union government, reflecting perhaps our mindset that there is a “Centre”, though constitutionally, there is no “Centre”. There is the Union government. Witness interest in Union Finance Commission recommendations and amnesia about State Finance Commissions and their recommendations. Alternatively, there is limited scrutiny of state-level expenditure, or fiscal devolution and decentralisation of decision-making within states, or tracking functioning of state legislatures. (There are, of course, reports on the state of state finances.) Most factor markets we seek to reform are in the Concurrent List or the State List. Now that PRS has ventured into monitoring state legislatures, we will probably start to have better information, with a caveat.
“This report focuses on the legislative work performed by states in the calendar year 2020. It is based on data compiled from state legislature websites and state gazettes. It covers 19 state legislatures, including the union territory of Delhi, which together account for 90% of the population of the country. Information and data on state legislatures is not easily available. While some state legislatures publish data on a regular basis, many do not have a systematic way of reporting legislative proceedings and business.” The report in question, just published (June 2021), is an annual review of state laws, for 2020. Notice that bit about information and data not being available. Typically, information becomes available when countervailing pressure is generated. Reports like this help to do that. If we cast our minds back, it was no different with Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, once upon a time. In passing, what is a state legislature? Most states are unicameral, with legislative assemblies. Some (Andhra, Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana, UP) have a legislative council. There were historical and colonial reasons behind legislative councils. Since then, most states scrapped legislative councils, with valid reason. They delayed passing of legislation and required additional expenditure, funded indirectly by citizens. Unless one wants to accommodate individuals who lost in Assembly elections, or did not wish to stand, there is no need for a legislative council. That debate assumes an added significance because West Bengal abolished legislative council in 1969, but the newly-elected government wants to bring it back. In principle, a similar argument exists about Rajya Sabha, especially with the domicile requirement removed. But there is a Supreme Court judgement (Kuldip Nayar versus Union of India and others, 2006) on that.
To return to PRS, the annual review has not been done in the best of times. After all, 2020 was in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic, though, in principle, meetings can also be virtual. As a benchmark, Parliament met for 33 days in 2020. Pre-2020, these 19 states met for an average of 29 days a year. In 2020, they met for an average of 18 days. Before the pandemic, 29 days in a year? Had it not been for this report, I would have expected the number to be much more. There is of course a difference between a Bill being passed by a state Legislature and it becoming an Act, with assent of the Governor, and time-lags in that process. When they met in 2020, what did State Legislatures do? “States passed an average of 22 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). Karnataka passed 61 Bills, the highest in the country. The lowest was Delhi, which passed one Bill, followed by West Bengal and Kerala, which passed two and three Bills, respectively.”
Pandemic certainly affected productivity. But the following problem is probably systemic and has nothing to do with Covid. “State legislatures pass most Bills without detailed scrutiny. In 2020, 59% of the Bills were passed on the same day that they were introduced in the legislature. A further 14% were passed within a day of being introduced…In Parliament, Bills are often referred to Parliamentary Standing Committees for detailed examination. …In most states, such committees are non-existent. In the absence of a robust committee system and fewer working days, state legislatures barely spend any time scrutinising legislative proposals brought before them.” What subjects featured in state legislation? As expected, agriculture, land, labour, law and order, trade, commerce and industry. I will skip those details. But since this was in the middle of the epidemic, there was also legislation linked to Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 and Disaster Management Act of 2005. Given the pandemic, I found a nugget interesting. “In 2020, several states decided to reduce the salaries and allowances of their respective MLAs, MLCs, Ministers, Speakers, and Whips. …While the states of Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Uttar Pradesh decided to reduce the emoluments by 30%, the Bihar government amended the Rules (that provide for salaries and allowances) to reduce salaries by 15%. Several other states such as Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Telangana issued orders deferring the salaries of their MLAs, MLCs, and Ministers.” The nugget is interesting because several states did no such thing.
The author is Chairman, EAC to the prime minister
Views are personal