Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Getting legislators to legislate

An oft-repeated complaint among bureaucrats is that legislators interfere too much in operational issues like transfers of field functionaries and procurement of goods and services. It is common knowledge that the MP or MLA have strong vested interest in the postings of officials deputed to work in their constituency and the contractors awarded local works or supply orders. Legislators put pressure on officials to violate rules to accommodate these vested interests. It forms a major source of patronage and a channel to keep their loyal followers satisfied. But this interference in routine administrative activities contributes to the politicization of grass-roots administration as well as the erosion of state capability.
Why do law-makers end up becoming rule-breakers? The simple answer is that of patronage, corruption, and self-aggrandizement. A more sophisticated answer is that it is a reflection of responsibilities and incentives within the system.

The unfortunate reality is that legislators, or law-makers, spend very little time on their primary responsibility of making laws. Though Parliament and Assemblies discuss and legislate laws, much of that work is notional. The major part of the work of preparing legislations is done by the concerned Ministry, at the instance of the ruling coalition. The individual legislators have a very limited role in this process. Apart from their occasional intervention, if any, in the discussions that take place in the legislature when the bill is tabled, the legislator could be nominated to a Parliamentary or Assembly Standing Committee that are sometimes constituted to scrutinize the Bill. Their other statutory responsibility is participation in the activities of the regular legislative committees. A legislator is typically a member of one such committee and his time commitment for this is minimal.

Here, the nature of India’s parliamentary democracy differs from that in countries like the US. In the US, legislations are brought forth as private member bills, where a handful of legislators, often cutting across party lines, come together and formulate bills which are then brought before the legislature. While the provision of private members bills exists in India too, it is rarely used as parties front legislations. 

Accordingly, legislators in US have large office establishment to facilitate the process of preparing legislations. A typical Congressman has an official establishment with 40-60 staff members, the MP in India has to rely on just 1-2 official assistants. The situation is even more perilous with MLAs. In the absence of any support staff, it is extremely difficult for even well-meaning and committed legislators to contribute meaningfully to making laws or even plan for the long-term development of their constituencies.

Deprived off any substantial role in their primary role of law making, legislators expend their energies on activities within their constituency. This generates two negative externalities. One is the proclivity to interfere in administrative matters at the district and constituency levels. The other involves competition and conflict with their counterparts in the district, block, and village panchayats. The latter becomes especially pronounced in cases where they belong to different political parties. The turf battles in turn ends up exacerbating the politicization of administration and weakening of public systems.

So how do we get Indian legislators to become meaningful participants in the process of development?   


Anonymous said...

Hard to see how the inability to participate in law making due to administrative constraints has led the legislators to explore criminal opportunities in their constituencies.

At least one legislator in AP, Mr. JP, a former bureaucrat, had 96% attendance in the state assembly, independently worked on several laws such as Lokpal, judicial appointments commission bill, services guarantee act, actively contributed in terms of data and modalities in support of amicable division of the state. How did the administrative constraints not affect him to act otherwise?

Gulzar Natarajan said...

Anon, thanks for the comment.

You point to the exceptional legislator. JP is exceptional by some distance. And there are a handful like him. However, I am referring to the median legislator's capacity to legislate. Try doing all that which you wrote about with little knowledge and expertise about all those areas...