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Monday, 3 February 2020

AAP reimagines role of legislative within Indian democracy by holding executive to greater public scrutiny, pushing for transparency

Editor's Note: This is a three-part series on Aam Aadmi Party's impact on the state of democracy, development and rule of law in Delhi that remains undocumented by the press. An insider’s look at National Capital's transforming legislative, executive and judiciary through public participation, co-creation and citizen-centric decision-making.

The Valentine’s Day of 2015 is etched in Delhi’s memory as the day when the Aam Aadmi Party formed its first government with a full majority. Ten days later, on 23 February, 2015, MLAs were sworn into the youngest Delhi Assembly and the first with no MLAs having serious criminal cases against them, as per Election Commission Data compiled by the Association of Democratic Reforms.

If the professional background of the chief minister was a sign of things to come, the Assembly would be the battleground for many legislative battles for democracy and development.

File image of Arvind Kejriwal. PTI

Since the core business of the legislature is law making, the Delhi Assembly wasted no time and swung into action in the first year. In 2015, the Delhi Assembly showed industry and effectiveness, introducing 23 bills as legislative business.

This included critical legislation around private school fees, public education operations and the Delhi Jan Lokpal Bill, the ombudsman bill at the heart of the India against corruption movement as well as amendments to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board Act to deliver affordable housing.

While many financial bills were passed, none of these aforementioned bills have become Acts. The illegal usurpation of Delhi government’s powers by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Government of India, the then LG’s obstacles to governance through the Shunglu Committee and the lack of constitutional follow-up by the Supreme Court and the President of India for three-and-a-half years brought the aspirations and efforts of the Delhi Assembly to a grinding halt.

This trend continued with 26 bills introduced in the Assembly over the next few years with most revenue/tax related bills finding no obstacles and bills concerning the legal profession and media profession finding drastic delays but no denial.

However, critical city legislation around skills, entrepreneurship and regularisation of guest teachers have not seen the light of day. The minimum wages bill, which envisioned minimum wage macroeconomics ahead of its necessity in a consumption-driven unequal economy, was stalled by the Government of India.

In the absence of legislative business, the AAP pivoted to utilize the Assembly for three major purposes: utilizing constitutional measures to improve city governance and push for Delhi’s statehood, opening and operating Assembly committees with transparency for public good and increasing the number and type of problem solvers within the Delhi Assembly.

Constitutional measures to improve governance and democracy

The MLAs in a state Assembly are dealing with a plethora of local issues of implementation and intense citizen engagement and require insight on the workings of state bodies apart from their legislative affairs. There are committees to oversee the executive, the floor of the House to propagate issues and problems of Delhi and its constituencies and various legislative tools like Commission of Enquiry and amendments to Acts in the State and Concurrent list.

As a researcher for AAP MLAs in the Assembly and an advisor in the Delhi government, I used to research and write pointers on issues concerning Delhi Police, Delhi Development Authority and Municipal Corporation of Delhi, three agencies not under the jurisdiction of the Delhi government. MLAs raised these issues repeatedly across the years which put pressure on them to smoothen implementation of government schemes.

For example, in Delhi, where over a dozen road-owning agencies make implementation of policies such as CCTV cameras, street lights and WiFi challenging tasks, the need to explore possibilities within governance structures required time and effort as well as inter-stakeholder coordination.

The roll out of these programs without significant obstacles is in some part due to the constitutional and moral pressure exercised by the Delhi Assembly that softened the pressure on the DDA and MCD by their political overlords.

Another example would be the setting up of Commission of Enquiry on Women’s Safety by the Delhi Assembly to look into crimes against women. In the absence of an effective and accountable Delhi Police, this commission added an option and ally to the quasi-judicial Delhi Commission for Women, even though its operation was hampered significantly by the LG and GoI-GNCTD case in Supreme Court.

A similar fate awaited the State Police Complaints Authority set up by the Government of NCT of Delhi.

These steps helped deconstruct and explain the need for ‘statehood’. This is a primer I authored to elucidate the governance challenges from the lack of statehood that was utilized by MLAs and political executive.

Delhi Assembly, through its actions and works, became the battleground of Delhiites for the right to a full state and complete democracy. This led to the drafting and passing of the State of Delhi Bill 2016 that aimed to make Delhi Police, Delhi Development Authority and Municipal Corporations of Delhi fully accountable to the people of Delhi.

In February 2019, the Assembly passed a resolution demanding that the Centre bring a constitutional amendment bill to turn Delhi into a state. The reneging of BJP and Congress on full statehood, the absence of the Opposition BJP while passing progressive and Delhi-centric bills, whose members walk out before debate, and the death of the Jan Lokpal and the statehood bill will live on as examples of politics overshadowing policy in infamy.

Open and Efficient Assembly Committees

The doctrine of separation of powers is an integral part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution and state governments often find it difficult managing the executive due to the presence of All India Services recruited and trained by Centre but are allocated state cadres. Being a Union Territory with a legislature, Delhi accordingly has two power centres in the centrally nominated lieutenant governor and the democratically elected Council of Ministers headed by the chief minister.

In August 2016, the Delhi High Court upheld the Ministry of Home Affairs 2015 notification that brought services and Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB) under LG’s jurisdiction. Although a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court in its July 2018 judgment placed all subjects under AAP government except land, police, and public order and made it clear that the LG is bound by the aid and advise of elected government, a division bench of SC earlier this year gave a split verdict and referred the matter of services to a larger bench while giving the control of ACB to the Centre. Confused much? We all are still!

This hullabaloo, while affecting the executive deeply, also posed a question before the elected representatives: How are they to fulfil the ‘will of the people’ if the government is controlled by an unelected L-G and the bureaucrats are not accountable to them? The Assembly Committees were another pivot.

Committees within the Delhi Assembly took an active interest and followed up on Delhi issues. For example, in 2017, a co-operative bank that had a massive fake membership of around 67,000 and was fraudulently giving out loans of crores of rupees was forced to take corrective measures after the intervention of the House Committee of the Delhi Assembly. This is a perfect example of a responsible legislature holding the executive accountable.

Another good example of this is the Petitions Committee of Delhi Assembly. Be it painstakingly spending days inspecting storm-water drains to lay bare that de-silting claimed on files by government departments had not actually happened, or pointing out irregularities on the part of three senior officials of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) regarding management of a park in the GK I area, the Saurabh Bhardwaj (AAP MLA)-led committee did its every bit to ensure the officials are performing their duty toward the people of Delhi.

The Delhi Assembly went one step further in 2016 and opened up these committees with permission granted to the chairpersons of House committees to allow the media to be witness to the proceedings. The proceedings of the committees and their deliberations now could be monitored by the media, which in turn will keep the public informed on a regular basis.

Freedom of information combined with diligent and persevering MLAs helped bring scale to this transparency initiative. This has also given individual representatives the opportunity to shine as a servant of the city.

Increasing number and quality of problem solvers

With the executive dominating Indian governance, it was clear to AAP that increasing the number of high quality stakeholders in the Delhi Assembly ecosystem was critical for it to fulfil its mandate. It did three interesting things in this direction.

First, instead of increasing or approving their powers or salaries, the Delhi Assembly constituted an expert committee in 2015 under the chairmanship of the former secretary general of Lok Sabha Shri PDT Achary to recommend revision of salary and allowances of the Members. This was a welcome change with legislators transferring their powers to an independent body and its efforts and actions helped establishing proper baselines on salaries and emoluments that an MLA would need for public service.

Second, the Delhi Assembly Research Centre was inaugurated with 150 professionals hired to provide skills related to organisational management, communication, problem-solving, people management and resourcefulness. This has been the first national initiative to bolster capacity and increase the participation of young professionals in democracy.

Third, the Assembly passed two bills that oversee the government, the Assembly and its legislators from the perspective of service delivery and anti-corruption, two critical aspects of local governance. In November 2015, amendments to the Delhi Right of Citizen to Time Bound Delivery of Services Act placed the onus of proof and of demanding compensation for the delayed delivery of services upon the “competent officer” rather than the citizen were passed by the Delhi Assembly.

In December 2015, the Jan Lokpal Bill, incorporating suggestions of Anna Hazare, was passed that created an ombudsman with powers to act against any government functionary including those of the Centre. It also laid clear timelines of governance through citizen charters. Owing to resistance by the Centre, which cited lack of approvals, the bill was returned in 2016 along with many other bills.

By starting Delhi and India down the road of public scrutiny, ensuring timely service delivery with timelines and penalties on public servants, involvement of young professionals in legislative research and local governance and separation of proposer/disposer in the salary process, the Delhi Assembly has been impacted tremendously by AAP.

The road ahead

While the direction of the Delhi Assembly under AAP has been welcome, it has not been able to pick up speed or scale on some issues which I hope will find place in the next. There are critically three things in my mind that can help the Delhi Assembly reach greater heights that will be beneficial to good legislators, regardless of their party affiliation, and more importantly benefit Delhi citizens.

First, a decision that any bill introduced in a session will be voted on only in the next session, thereby ensuring that a minimum period of time is always available for the public, interest groups and others to give their inputs on the proposed law, would be a welcome move. This has already been done with numerous policies of AAP such as the solar policy, EV policy and start-up policy but the Assembly replicating the same will surely and demonstrably deepen commitment to participatory democracy, and can be used a springboard to demand that other states and Parliament also follow this example.

Second, to empower legislator-led legislation, it could be proposed that any group of 14 or more lawmakers (amounting to 20 percent of the strength of the House) will have the right to introduce legislation, and seek the House vote. Such a step will allow a legislative-led initiation of the laws that are passed, alongside government-led initiation which is the practice today. This, in turn, would make legislation more inclusive and comprehensive, and less majoritarian and authoritarian.

Third, in order to fully step in to the future, one needs to first step out of the vestigial shadow of the past. There is an urgent requirement of large-scale changes in laws. In some areas, there is a need for ground-up rewriting of laws and repealing all existing laws. In many other areas, patient and thorough cleaning can yield substantial impact.

Apart from the pending bills, bills on women’s safety, ending private discrimination and a city-version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with specific commitments would benefit the city immensely. Research done by Center for Civil Society, iJustice, NIPFP Macro/Finance Group and Vidhi Legal can be utilized to clean up existing laws. Such a process of weeding out antiquated and obsolete laws would help de-clog and streamline India’s legal system.

The legislative is the most alive aspect of any democracy. For higher citizen engagement and drafting of practical and progressive bills and ensuring that they are passed by the powers that be, AAP reimagined the role of the legislative within this great democracy. There are miles to go before we sleep but we are satisfied that the first unforgiving minute has been filled with sixty seconds of sprinting.

The author has been a volunteer with Aam Aadmi Party and advisor in the Delhi Government since 2014. He holds two graduate degrees in public policy and engineering from Stanford University and was formerly an RA with MIT JPAL.



February 03, 2020 at 04:09PM

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