Does your vote get you accountability, representation in state assemblies? - The New Indian Express

Does your vote get you accountability, representation in state assemblies?

Published: 27th October 2013 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 21st January 2014 01:11 PM

This year the state of Mizoram created a record of sorts. The government of Mizoram called the Assembly to session. The session started on Tuesday and ended on Wednesday. In five years, the 40-member house has met for barely 106 days or 20 days in a year. Indeed it has been so since 2000—the Assembly of Mizoram has met for an average of 20 days in a year.

It is not just Mizoram. In a few weeks Mizoram, along with Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan head for polls. How are these states faring? Over the past decade, PRS Legislative data shows, the outgoing Assembly of Delhi met for an average of 21 days. Rajasthan met for 97 days or an average of 24 days/year between 2009 and 2012. Is 24 days a year adequate for 200 MLAs to represent 5.6 crore people?

It is an issue the political class visits once in two decades in a rare idealistic moment. The problem of representation was last discussed in November 2001.  Former Lok Sabha Speaker late GMC Balayogi organised a conference titled ‘Discipline and Decorum in Parliament and State Legislatures’ which was attended by 59 presiding officers, 16 chief ministers, 159 leaders and whips of various states and parties and of course the Prime Minister, President and Vice-President. And a resolution stipulating a minimum of 110 days of sittings for Parliament, 90 days for large states Assemblies and 50 days for smaller states was unanimously passed.

A decade later, nothing much has changed. Big or small, urban or rural, the story is very familiar. In state after state, the Assembly is called for a session almost as a ritual. And over a period of time, it has worsened. In 2012, the Haryana Legislative Assembly sat for a total of 11 days and passed 29 bills. Through the past decade, the state which is home to big-tag investments and serious socio-economic problems has seen its Assembly meet for an average of 13 days in a year. 

Since 2000, Kerala does better than other states at 50 sittings/year followed by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka averaging around 40 days, and Gujarat at 31 days. Himachal Pradesh averaged 26 days while most states—including Punjab, Goa, Tripura—averaged well under 20 days in a year. Take Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Between 2007 and 2012, it met for an average of 22 days in a year. The state with a population of over 200 million is represented by 404 MLAs. Do the math, by population or by MLA or by voters. Except the budget session which stretches beyond a week, in most states other sessions are convened as a ritual for a few days. Bills are introduced and passed on the same day or within two days with scarcely any discussion.

The moot question is whether the vote is being represented. By definition, the vote is entitled to answers, action and accountability. An elected government is obliged to ensure that the people are represented, that members translate aspiration into legislation and ensure delivery of services through oversight. Of course, the Constitution of India only stipulates that the state legislature meets within six months does not mandate the number of days an Assembly must be in session. And that is because the founding fathers truly believed in free will and choice and left it to the elected representatives.

To appreciate why addressing this political dyslexia is critical, one must look at the structure of governance. As N T Rama Rao thundered in his poll campaign in 1983, every inch of India is ruled by states (well, virtually, if you blink at the union territories). While the Centre may devise new schemes and programmes, the implementation is left to the administrative machinery of the state governments. To get a perspective, consider this: In 2012-13, the Centre and states together had an expenditure budget of over Rs 25 lakh crore. The implementation of the spending though is mostly done by the states.

The question is who or, more appropriately, whether there is a credible system of oversight and accountability in place for all the money pouring through the funnel at the Centre into the states. Yes, there is some scrutiny in Parliament but mostly on allocations and utilisation not on outcomes. And yes, there is some audit done by the CAG. But remember, a large number of programmes fall between the cracks of shared responsibilities.

To get a sense of the magnitude of failure, consider this: every year, the Centre and states allocate over Rs 5 lakh crore for education, family welfare, medical and public heath, water supply and sanitation. Yet its human development index—which is what the spending is expected to deliver on—is stuck at the bottom of nations. On every count, India does worse than even its poorer neighbours and historically disadvantaged economies.

And, this failure is not surprising at all. State governments tasked with the deployment of crores of outlays for desirable outcomes scarcely face scrutiny as MLAs barely get any opportunity. Assemblies meet only to adjourn, bills are not discussed but pushed through on a conveyor belt of politics and budgets passed blindly. The bells and whistles are all ringing. The outrage on the streets, the anger that ousts 40 per cent of sitting MLAs and the collapse of governance represent a serious crisis. If political parties do not recognise the need for and value of negotiation afforded by representative democracy, they will only usher in the grammar of anarchy.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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