Delhi can take the lead

Its assembly is in the spotlight. It must use the moment.

The electoral upset achieved by the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi elections was clouded by the uncertainty of government formation. The winning of the trust vote by the Arvind Kejriwal-led government has put an end to that uncertainty. The general public is now looking forward to debate and discussions in the legislative assembly on the government's policy decisions on water, electricity and the Jan Lokpal Bill.

So far, the Delhi assembly has not exactly been a model legislature. Over the last 10 years, it has met, on average, for 21 days in a year. The Tamil Nadu and the Kerala assemblies have both met for an average of 40 days during the same period. The duration for which a legislative assembly sits is important because it is on the floor of the House that MLAs get the opportunity to hold government accountable, debate legislation, pass the state's budget and represent their constituency. For example, in 2012, the assembly met for 22 days for a total of 64 hours, averaging three hours a day. In that period, it discussed and passed the budget, introduced, discussed and passed 12 bills, in addition to numerous other matters.

The current focus on the Delhi assembly is a unique opportunity for it to embrace a method of working that makes it a standard bearer for other state assemblies in India. Its newly elected MLAs can also learn and implement best practices followed in other legislatures in the country. The process started with the live webcast of assembly proceedings on the day of the confidence vote. The problem of a low number of working days can be addressed by following the example of assemblies like Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. While the power to convene the assembly lies with the government, both these assemblies have rules of procedure that specify a minimum number of sitting days in a year.

In most assemblies, including Delhi, the state's budget is discussed and passed on the floor of the House without being referred to a departmentally related standing committee. State assemblies also do not have permanent committees which examine bills being introduced by the government. In Parliament, there are 24 such committees, which examine the budgets of ministries and bills being introduced by them. Last year, the Andhra Pradesh assembly changed its rules and constituted such committees to examine the budgets of ministries. The Delhi assembly could improve on this and pioneer the standing committee system, where all budgetary and legislative proposals are sent to these committees for greater scrutiny. This would also allow citizens and other stakeholders to give feedback on bills, which would strengthen the legislative process at the state level.

Another aspect where the Delhi assembly can take the lead is in providing the required infrastructure for its members to discharge their responsibilities. For example, in light of the recent policy decisions by the new government on the provision of free water and subsidised electricity, would it not be pertinent for the MLAs to be well-informed about policy concepts such as transmission and distribution losses in power supply, the budgetary impact of subsidies, groundwater replenishment and sewage treatment technologies? Currently, no legislative assembly provides its MLAs with an allowance for running their office and hiring research and other staff. The lack of support staff restricts an MLA from being an effective legislator. The Delhi assembly could champion the cause of informed law- and policy-making by ensuring that MLAs have adequate resources to enable them to participate effectively in the proceedings of the assembly.

Another aspect of a legislature's functioning that the Delhi assembly should change is that of voting by MLAs in the House. In all assemblies and in Parliament, the default voting method is the voice vote. Recorded voting is only resorted to if a member asks for it, which does not happen very often. The Delhi assembly could change its rules and make recorded voting the default method for voting on bills and budgetary proposals. Even with the constraints of the anti-defection law, this would give people an insight into the voting record of their MLAs on different issues.

The issue of probity in public life has been debated extensively. Currently, the Delhi assembly does not have an ethics committee to examine complaints of unethical behaviour by its MLAs. Some state assemblies have a committee on ethics and so does Parliament. The Tamil Nadu assembly requires its MLAs to declare their assets and liabilities every year. Parliament also requires MPs to do the same. A permanent ethics committee and a system of regular asset declarations are two more best practices that could be adopted by the Delhi assembly.

All the changes suggested here can be made by simply amending the assembly's rules of procedure. It is an opportunity for the Delhi legislative assembly to herald a new beginning, overhaul the traditional ways and set a new standard for how well-functioning legislatures should conduct their business.