State legislatures had fewer sittings than Parliament in 2021

The Hindu, January 16, 2022

After a low of 33 days in 2020, the Parliament saw only a small improvement in 2021 by functioning for 58 days, keeping the Opposition outcry alive on the reduced number of working days.

In this backdrop, an analysis by The Hindu on the functioning of nine State Assemblies, revealed that the situation was not very different from the working of Parliament.

In 2021, the State Assemblies of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, worked for 11 to 43 days with Punjab lowest in the tally and Odisha at the top. These States have been randomly picked to have a judicious mix of States ruled by the BJP and various Opposition parties.

Both the Parliament and the State Assemblies cited restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the primary reason for cutting back on scheduled sittings.

The Constitution does not prescribe a minimum number of sittings, said Chakshu Roy, head of outreach, PRS Legislative Research. Article 174 of the Constitution only says that the State legislature has to meet within six months of the last session. Within this period, it is up to the State governments to call for the session.

“One would expect that with the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislature would sit for longer providing guidance and proposing solutions. But in fact, the very opposite happened. It was used as an excuse to further shorten the legislative sessions,” Mr. Roy told The Hindu.

All of last year, the Punjab Assembly sat only for 11 days, this included eight days of the Budget session. This was lower than its 2020 record of 15 days. Other than carrying out its mandatory legislative duty, the Punjab Assembly passed Bills to negate the three farm laws passed in September 2020 by the Parliament.

All the data of 2020 was sourced from PRS Legislative Research’s report “Annual Review of State Laws 2020”.

Uttar Pradesh — where a heated contest is on between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party — was no better. The Assembly, over four sessions, met only for 17 days, fulfilling the bare minimum. This was a minor improvement from its 2020 record of 13 days. The slow decline in the working days began from the 1960s onwards, Mr. Roy said. “In the initial 10 years, the U.P. Vidhan Sabha used to meet, on an average, for 60 days in a year,” he added.

BJP-ruled States

The Opposition often cites Gujarat to criticise the Narendra Modi government’s alleged disinterest in running the Parliament. Making the criticism valid, the Gujarat Assembly sat only for 25 days in 2021 (In 2020, it was in session for 23 days). The 25 days were spread across two sessions: the Budget session from March 1 to April 1 and a four-day session in September. On the last day of the Budget session, the Assembly passed the controversial “Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2021” which has stringent provisions against forcible religious conversion through marriages. In the two-day September session, four Bills were hurriedly passed, without much of debate.

In Haryana, where the Manohar Lal Khattar government survived a no-confidence motion, the indifference towards the assembly’s functioning continues. In the year 2021, the Haryana State Assembly held 18 sittings, which included 11 during Budget session, three during Monsoon session and four in the winter session. In 2020, it was in session for 13-days. In its limited time, the assembly passed the controversial legislation that allows authorities to recover compensation from violent protesters for damage to property. Besides, the Haryana Parivar Pehchan Bill, 2021, aimed at creating a unique identification number for each family and preparing a database to allow easy access to government services was also passed.

The hill State of Himachal Pradesh has a relatively better track record. In 2021, it had 32 sittings, an improvement from 25 days in 2020. The key Bills passed in the Assembly included The Himachal Pradesh Lokayukta (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which provides for appointment of a High Court judge as Lokayukta. The Himachal Pradesh Abadi Deh (record of rights) Bill 2021 was also passed, which aims at giving ownership rights of land to people living in “Abadi Deh or Lal Dora” areas of villages as per the scheme notified by the Union government. No ordinance was passed during the year.

Opposition-ruled States

In 2021, the Maharashtra Assembly was in session for 15 days, three fewer than 18 days in 2020.

The pandemic not only shortened the legislative sessions in Maharashtra but also forced the State government to shift the venue of 2021’s winter session to Mumbai from its usual destination of Nagpur. While the pandemic was one of the reasons to shorten the winter session, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s spinal surgery was also reportedly one of the reasons cited by legislature sources for the shorter duration. In Maharashtra’s Budget (March 1-10, 2021) and monsoon session (July 5-6, 2021), the question hour was suspended. After sustained protests from the Opposition, it was restored in the winter session (December 22-28, 2021). The Opposition had complained that the ruling coalition was rushing through the legislation, not allowing them the space to ask questions or seek accountability.

Rajasthan had 26 sittings last year, while in 2020 they had 29 sittings. Out of the 26 sittings in 2021, 20 were in the Budget session, which saw Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who is also the Finance Minister for the State, present a universal health care scheme worth ₹3,500 crore. A total of 20 Bills were passed, including the contentious legislation amending the Rajasthan Compulsory Registration of Marriages Act, 2009. The government was forced to re-examine the law, after protests from the BJP-led Opposition, which pointed out that the Bill would validate child marriages as it provided for registration of marriage of minors.

The West Bengal Assembly met for 19 days in 2021, a slight increase from 14 sittings in 2020. The 19 days were spread across Chief Minister’s Mamata Banerjee’s second term and re-election for a third term. In what was probably a first for the State Assembly, West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar had to cut short his address due to chaos in the House on July 2, 2021.

The Odisha Assembly was the best performer in terms of the number of sittings in 2021. It met for 43 days last year. But the State is seeing a decline in the number of sittings. Since 2005, it has functioned for over 60 days in a year only twice: in 2006 and in 2010. Though, it may have trumped quantitatively, qualitatively it is on the same page as the others. The last session of 2021, held between December 1 to December 31, was a complete washout. The session ran only nine days and no fruitful discussion could be held as a stalemate continued over the Mamita Meher murder case. As against 3,576 starred questions received, Ministers could respond to ony 60 questions. That means only 1.6% of questions were answered. .

(With inputs from Sobhana K. Nair, Omar Rashid, Mahesh Langa, Alok Deshpande, Mohammed Iqbal, Satyasundar Barik, Vikas Vasudeva and Shiv Sahay)

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