A House of their own

The recent resolution passed by the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly to re-establish a legislative council in the state has opened up an important debate. Tamil Nadu was one of the states that had a legislative council for a number of years, until the state legislature passed a resolution in 1986 to abolish it. Since then the legislative assembly under the leadership of K. Karunanidhi has tried to re-establish the council, while J. Jayalalithaa as chief minister has opposed it.

But beyond the politics of these decisions, it would be useful to look at how the idea of legislative councils came up when the Constitution was being drafted. The Constituent Assembly debates indicate that legislative councils were seen as necessary to ensure wider representation of all sections of society in large states. While the basic idea of having legislative councils was borrowed from British rule, it was also seen as a transitional provision in the Constitution. Subsequently, after states were divided into smaller administrative units, some state legislatures such as West Bengal and Punjab moved to abolish their legislative councils. Andhra Pradesh also abolished its legislative council in 1985, which was originally created in 1957. This was, however, re-established in 2006.

In defending the re-establishment of the legislative council in Andhra, the government presented several arguments to the parliamentary standing committee that was called to examine this legislation in detail. First, there are some under-represented sections of society, and the council would provide a mechanism to ensure wider representation. Second, the council could act as a “revising” chamber. Third, sending legislation to the other house would involve some delay in the passing of a bill, and would ensure that there will be adequate time to scrutinise legislation before it is passed. In addition, it was felt that the second chamber would ease the pressure of time on the state assembly.

Those opposed to the idea of creating legislative councils have vehemently argued on various grounds. If there was inadequate time available for the assembly to consider matters concerning public welfare, then the number of its sitting days should be increased. Instead, the past several years have seen a steady decline in the number of days that state assemblies meet. This is despite repeated efforts in the whips conference to persuade state legislatures to increase the number of sitting days.

It is a fact that many bills in state legislatures are introduced and passed with almost no time for effective scrutiny, often reducing such legislatures to mere rubber stamps expected to carry forward the will of the government of the day. But the way to address this shortcoming is by instituting a watertight process in state legislatures and, if necessary, mandating that there be adequate time allowed for scrutiny of legislation before it is passed. It would indeed be very sad if we were to depend on the physical delays caused by debating bills in two houses as the way to improve the effectiveness of the legislative process.

For Tamil Nadu, the case for or against re-establishing a legislative council may not be too different from those advanced in the case of Andhra. There are several issues that need to be freshly examined if the decision is to indeed re-establish a legislative council in Tamil Nadu. For instance, legislative councils have a reservation for graduates and teachers. These categories might have had relevance at a time after independence when they were a small minority. But in today’s India, there appears to be no obvious justification for such reservation for graduates and teachers as much as there can be for other groups such as veterinarians or software engineers.

In any decision of this nature, there is only one prism — that of public interest — that needs to be used to view the issue. This would mean asking the following types of questions: how much of a difference have legislative councils made in the widening of representation in large states? Is there any evidence that having a legislative council positively impacts the quality of governance and law-making in any state? Unfortunately, there is little research or evidence that can answer any of these questions satisfactorily.

In the absence of a clearly defined set of roles for our legislators, it is a fact the citizens often look upon MLAs and MPs as glorified corporators, expecting them to fix street lights, ensure clean drains, etc. We would be better off as a nation if the debate were not about creating a legislative council in any single state, but instead focused on a thorough re-examination of the institution of legislatures, how well they have served the purposes for which they were created, and what needs to be done to make them more effective and responsive to the rapidly changing needs of India.