As with parliamentary proceedings, access, accountability and open legislatures can help revive public confidence

The Constitution mandates legislatures to meet, at least, once every six months. Over the next month, most legislatures, including the Parliament, will be convening their sessions, as the six-month interval comes to an end. However, the continuing threat of the pandemic presents a problem of going about business as usual, particularly with regards to physical access to legislatures. While the legislators and legislative staff will still manage to overcome this problem, physical access to legislatures will be restricted, more than usual, for citizens. Technology, particularly, TV broadcasting presents a viable solution.

Legislatures, being elected bodies, are the most representative of institutions in a democracy. They are constitutionally entrusted with the responsibilities to enact legislation, scrutinise executive action, and reflect and represent citizen interests. To effectively essay their representative role, legislatures are therefore required to inform and educate the citizens about their roles, functions, and work, and constantly engage in discussions with them on policies and laws.

The first Global Parliamentary Report, jointly published by the Inter Parliamentary Union and United Nations Development Programme in 2012, examined the evolving relationship between citizens and parliament. The report identified two broad ways in which legislatures could improve their engagement with the public. First, to provide more information and improve public understanding of legislatures, and second, to consult and involve the public more in the work of legislatures.

Since 2006, the Lok Sabha (LS) and later in 2011, Rajya Sabha (RS), have been broadcasting live proceedings through dedicated TV channels. This has contributed to a discernible increase in public interest in parliamentary proceedings, further aided by the parallel rise in the use of smartphones and social media. Very often, we come across video snippets, on YouTube, or through WhatsApp, of a passionate speech made by an MP or an important policy announcement made in the Parliament. The same then sparks an animated debate among people and garners significant attention on social media as well. These channels also air discussions and shows on wide-ranging topics such aspParliamentary affairs, foreign relations, legal issues, history, literature, the environment and culture, among others.

However, despite the successful precedent of LSTV and RSTV, state legislatures have not followed suit. An exception comes in the form of the Kerala Assembly, which this week, launched a dedicated TV channel called Sabha TV. The channel aims to telecast the Assembly proceedings and other programmes on the history of the legislature. Sabha TV will initially air through other existing TV channels and will later progress to a full-fledged channel.

Elsewhere, the legislatures of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh broadcast their proceedings through different TV channels, while a few others such as Bihar, and Delhi (Kerala too) webcast their proceedings over the internet. There have also been instances where state legislatures have either introduced limitations (like Karnataka) on or have completely stopped the broadcast of proceedings (like Gujarat).

People's access to legislatures (and information on legislatures) can also take place through media reportage and digital means (through the use of dedicated websites). Most legislatures provide gallery access to journalists when the House is in session. This enables them to report on and inform the public about (i) the proceedings of the House, (ii) the performance of legislators, and (iii) documents, such as, government budgets, questions asked, other reports etc.

However, this gallery access is currently limited to only print and TV journalists. New media (digital/internet news entities) journalists do not enjoy similar levels of access, except in theLok Sabha. Considering the increasing consumption of news and information via the internet, this lack of physical access to journalists from news portals/websites is a significant barrier to publicising information on the work of legislatures. However, notwithstanding this gap, the current COVID-19 threat limits the viability of this option.

Proactive publication of legislative information and records, particularly through dedicated websites, is yet another way to access legislatures.

While the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha websites are incredible repositories of information, the websites of state Assemblies like Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan among others, are also very well maintained and updated. They publish a wide range of information, such as texts of debates, bills introduced and passed, questions and answers, legislative agenda, and session resume, etc. Many of them, as mentioned before, also offer the option to view proceedings via webcast. On the other hand, websites of assemblies, such as Gujarat or Tamil Nadu, provide only limited information and are often not updated, while those of most North East states are poorly maintained or don’t even exist. This is now being addressed through a national programme — National e-Vidhan Application (NeVA) Project — that aims to bridge the gap between legislatures across the country and bring all the legislatures together on one web-based platform.

However, as the National Sample Survey of 2018 reports, only 4.4 percent rural households have a computer, as against 14.4 percent in urban areas, while only 14.9 percent rural households have access to the internet as against 42 percent in urban areas. With such a digital divide, in addition to the literacy divide, access to legislative information via websites will be limited to only a small, educated population. Further, with the general rise in India's TV viewership and smartphone usage, and in particular, a 40 percent rise in TV viewership over pre-COVID-19 times, there is no time like the present for state legislatures to open up their proceedings for viewing to the public.

While the Parliament is often the cynosure of all eyes, state legislatures, unfortunately, seem to gain attention only when a particular state government’s survival is in question. A case in point being the disproportionate publicity around the floor tests in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh this year, and in Karnataka (in 2019). This public "apathy" towards state legislatures is in part, due to the transparency of information available on the Parliament and the lack thereof on state legislatures.

It is therefore time for state legislatures to embrace openness and further engage with the people. The current COVID-19 crisis, in particular, presents an opportunity for state Assemblies to consider broadcasting its proceedings. While setting up a dedicated TV channel may not be feasible at short notice, legislatures can explore partnerships with other TV networks or proceed with webcasting.

Accessible, accountable and open legislatures allow citizens to meaningfully participate in the legislative process. It can reinforce public confidence in their representative institutions and thus, ensure a robust decision-making process.

The authors are programme officers at PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based research organisation. Views expressed are personal