State legislatures have an abysmal record in terms of number of sittings per year

The Kerala governor and the government of the state are at loggerheads again. This is the second major conflict between the two this year. The first, at the beginning of this year, was concerning the governor’s address to the state legislature. The governor’s address is written by the government. Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, while delivering the address in the legislative assembly, stopped before reading out a paragraph of the address. The paragraph related to the Kerala government’s opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Interrupting the address, Governor Khan said that he was of the opinion that the paragraph did not relate to policy or programmes. But he went on to read the paragraph to honour the wish of the chief minister despite his disagreement.

The current conflict is with regards to the summoning of the state legislature. The Kerala government made a recommendation to the governor for summoning the state’s legislature for a one-day session. The government wanted to discuss the situation arising out of the farmers’ protest in the legislative assembly. Media reports suggest that the governor turned down the government on the grounds that there is no emergent situation for which the state assembly should be called to meet at short notice. Earlier this year, the Rajasthan governor had rejected the recommendation of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s government to call a session. The chief minister wanted a session of the legislature called so that he could prove his majority on the floor of the house.

The Constitution is clear: The government has the power to convene a session of the legislature. The council of ministers decides the dates and the duration of the session. Their decision is communicated to the governor, who is constitutionally bound to act on most matters on the aid and advice of the government. The governor then summons the state legislature to meet for a session. The refusal of a governor to do so is a matter of concern. Such events require careful deliberation to prevent them from snowballing into a constitutional crisis. But the events in Kerala and Rajasthan are an aberration. They should not distract us from the dismal record of the sittings of state legislatures in the country.

In the last 20 years, state assemblies across the country, on average, met for less than 30 days in a year. But states like Kerala, Odisha, Karnataka are an exception. The Kerala Vidhan Sabha, for example, has on an average met for 50 days every year for the last 10 years. The trend across the country is that legislatures meet for longer budget sessions at the beginning of the year. Then for the rest of the year, they meet in fits and spurts and pay lip service to the constitutional requirement that there should not be a gap of six months between two sessions of a legislature. The blame for the decline in the sitting days of the state legislatures rests with the government.

Legislatures are arenas for debate and giving voice to public opinion. As accountability institutions, they are responsible for asking tough questions of the government and highlighting uncomfortable truths. So, it is in the interest of a state government to convene lesser sittings of the legislature and bypass their scrutiny. Lesser number of sitting days also means that state governments are free to make laws through ordinances. And when they convene legislatures, there is little time for MLAs to scrutinise laws brought before them.

Continuous and close scrutiny by legislatures is central to improving governance in the country. Increasing the number of working days for state legislatures is a first step in increasing their effectiveness. One way to do that is by convening legislatures to meet all around the year. In many mature democracies, a fixed calendar of sittings of legislatures, with breaks in between, is announced at the beginning of the year. It allows the government to plan its calendar for bringing in new laws. It also has the advantage of increasing the time for debate and discussion in the legislative assembly. And with the legislature sitting throughout the year, it gets rid of the politics surrounding the convening of sessions of a legislature.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 25, 2020 under the title ‘The lawmakers must work’. The writer is head of outreach PRS Legislative Research.