Akshay Agrawal [MA 2013-15]
At a broad level, legislative assemblies and legislative councils together form the legislative body at the state level. As a representational body, it has the mandate to make laws, hold the state executive accountable and sanction public expenditure, just as the Parliament at the central level.
As opposed to the Parliament of India, some states comprise of the lower house only (called the legislative assembly whose members are directly elected by the people), while few others also have the upper house (called the legislative council whose members are elected through a select electorate comprising of members of municipalities, teachers, MLAs and the Governor). Karnataka falls in the latter category.
During election time, it is common to associate MLAs’ performance with micro-level civic issues such as road, water and sewage infrastructure, and garbage management. This is because most people don’t know what an MLA is supposed to do. And perhaps, many MLAs don’t either!
But why is there no clarity on the roles and responsibilities of an MLA? How can we understand this better? That is what this article explains.
Why ask the MLA to fix your road?
As in the case of Members of Parliament (MP), the Constitution of India doesn’t explain the roles and responsibilities of a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA). Over time, this ambiguity has come to mean different things for different people.
For instance, until the 1990s when the third tier of government was formed, an MLA was associated with the smallest of issues in the constituency she was elected from. However, with the third tier of government (municipalities in urban areas and panchayats in rural areas) in place, MLAs should ideally be responsible for state-level issues. Devolution of power should empower municipalities and panchayats to deal with micro issues.
However, this is not so for a number of reasons. First, devolution of power to the third tier of government remains on paper in many cases. Then there are issues such as incapacity, lack of accountability and fund crunch. All this lead the citizen to believe that MLAs are the ones who can use their influence and wield power in their constituencies to ‘get things done.’
In the face of a systemic collapse on the ground, therefore, citizens turn to the next higher authority, i.e., MLAs (and sometimes even MPs) to get micro issues resolved. The MLAs in turn have to respond positively for fear of losing votes in the following election.
Over time, citizens have almost made it a norm to take the easy way of approaching MLAs to solve local issues, without even trying to reach out to the local government and its officials. This increases the burden on MLAs, distracting them from state-level issues which should be their focus.
What does the MLA do then?
This brings us to the role to be played by MLAs and the parameters on which they should be assessed by citizens. The primary responsibility of an MLA is closely tied to the smooth and efficient functioning of the state assembly. Therefore, it is crucial to keep in mind the three main functions of the assembly mentioned earlier in the article: to make laws, to hold the state executive accountable and sanction public expenditure.
As opposed to parliament, there is a serious problem with availability of data on the functioning of state assemblies. Karnataka is no exception. The website of the state assembly is user-unfriendly and is poorly maintained. This glaring on the business conducted inside the assembly makes it very difficult for organisations and citizens who would like to use it for research and educational purposes.
Despite this hurdle, there are a few basic functions of an MLA, including those from the ruling party/coalition. These are summarised below –
- Questions: MLAs are allowed to submit questions they wish the government to respond to; these are answered in the first hour of every sitting which is called Question Hour. Questions selected at random are answered by the respective minister orally on the floor of the house (starred questions) while others are answered in writing (unstarred questions) to the concerned member who filed the question. This is an effective way for MLAs to get information and data from the government which is not available publicly. Members of the ruling party/coalition also use questions to raise issues in the house.
- Private Members’ Business: The Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of Karnataka Assembly allot time for private members (members outside the Council of Ministers, including those from the ruling party/coalition) to introduce bills and resolutions to be discussed in the assembly. These are usually on issues that are not being addressed by the government and is an effective method to draw the attention of the responsible minister to take note of the matter.
- Matters of Urgent Public Importance: Under Rule 69 of the Rules of Procedure, members are allowed to submit motions to raise discussions on matters of urgent public importance.
- Calling Attention: Under Rule 73 of the Rules of Procedure, members are allowed to call the attention of the concerned minister to any matter of public importance and the minister is obligated to reply to the motion on the floor of the house.
Apart from these, all private members can share their views on debates on legislative business. The minister in charge of the bill replies to the statements made by members during these discussions.
A watchdog of public spending
Possibly the most important bill passed by the Legislative Assembly is the Finance Bill, which is essentially the state budget that lays out public expenditure for the following year. MLAs must scrutinise budget documents and make their views heard by the state finance minister.
While it is widely believed that MLAs play a role in how state funds are spent, this is not true in theory. They do informally play a role in the administration of their constituencies, but they don’t have a say in public expenditure. Therefore, they must use their role in the assembly to scrutinise the annual budget, participate in budget consultations, raise issues in the house using reports of the CAG and the Accountant General to ensure that public money is spent wisely.
Another key role played by MLAs is their membership on various committees formed in the state legislature. These committees scrutinise particular issues as well as finances of the state. They may also be set up to examine specific legislation as was recently done for the Karnataka Private Medical Establishment (Amendment) Bill 2018. Committees are intended to be non-partisan forums where members scrutinise the issue and make recommendations to the government.
The only formal non-legislative role played by MLAs is through the MLA-LAD programme, whereby they may sanction funds allotted to them to particular projects of their choice in their respective constituencies. This is possibly the only function of MLAs where information and data exists in the public domain. Thus, citizens can check this data to verify whether projects in their constituencies have been completed or whether they exist only on paper.
Assessing your MLA’s performance
As mentioned earlier, all these functions are routinely performed by MLAs but due to the lack of information and data, it is difficult to look at or assess the performance of individual members. Even macro level data on the functioning of the assembly as a whole – such as functioning days, productivity, total bills passed, time spent on budget discussion etc – is not readily available.
Until the secretariat builds capacity to effect the required changes, the government must take steps to simplify access to relevant documents to organisations and citizens. They will then be able to analyse such data to assess the performance of MLAs.