Comment

Delhi’s lame duck Assembly

The Delhi Assembly in session. File   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD)(Amendment) Act, 2021 has been extensively criticised as a retrograde law that turns the clock back on representative democracy. The bulk of criticism has been focused on the reduced autonomy of the elected government and the consequent vesting of several crucial powers in the unelected Lieutenant Governor, who is the representative of the Union government. This is largely attributable to public consciousness of the regular skirmishes between the elected government and the Lieutenant Governor. However, what deserves equal condemnation is the Act’s assault on the functioning of Delhi’s Legislative Assembly, which has been sought to be reduced to a lame duck.

A delicate balance

When the GNCTD Act was enacted in 1992, the Legislative Assembly was given the power to regulate its own procedure, as well as the conduct of its business. This was subject to very limited exceptions concerning financial matters and scrutiny over the Lieutenant Governor’s discretionary role. This sought to realise a delicate balance reflecting Delhi’s unique constitutional position: neither full state nor a centrally governed Union Territory. However, the Amendment Act drives a coach and horses through this scheme. Now, Delhi’s Assembly has no more functional independence worth its name. Its standards of procedure and conduct of business have been firmly tethered to that of the Lok Sabha, depriving Delhi’s elected MLAs of an effective say in how their Assembly should be run. Even more insidiously, the Amending Act prohibits the Assembly from making any rule enabling either itself or its committees to consider any issue concerned with “the day-to-day administration of the capital” or “conduct inquiries in relation to administrative decisions”. This is rounded off by providing that any rule made before the Amendment Act came into effect that runs counter to this formulation shall be void.

 

The most insidious impact of this shall be to the exercise of free speech in the Assembly and its committees. A situation where an elected Assembly is prohibited by law from discussing matters concerning the day-to-day administration of its own territory is one where it is dead on arrival. How can the Assembly be expected to perform its most basic legislative function — that of holding the executive to account — if it cannot guarantee itself the ability to freely discuss the goings on in the capital? What is the use of electing MLAs and endowing them with legislative privilege if they are unable to discuss the governance of the very constituents who elected them?

Impact on committees

A note of alarm must also be sounded for the effect on the functioning of the Assembly’s committees. These committees are usually inured from the sound and fury of political theatre that pervade sittings of the whole Assembly. Away from the glare of cameras, cooler heads usually prevail and important work gets done. Inquiries are conducted, witnesses and documents are examined, and reports on relevant issues are written. The deliberations and inputs of committees often pave the way for intelligent legislative action. In a way, they act as the eyes and ears for the whole House, which has neither the time nor the expertise to scrutinise issues in depth. It would be impossible for committees to perform this function without the power to conduct inquiries. It is true that many of these inquiries are bound to be broad-based and roving in nature, and may even lead to legislative dead ends. But to pre-emptively injunct a committee from conducting an inquiry “in relation to the administrative decisions” (an extremely broad exception) completely negates the ability of committees to function effectively as the Assembly’s advisors and agents. The quality of legislative work emanating from the Assembly is thus ultimately bound to suffer.

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This clinical purge of its critical legislative functions has rendered the Delhi Assembly a ‘legislature’ in name only, unable both to articulate the concerns of the electorate and hold the political executive to account. Surely, Delhi’s voters deserve better than that.

Shourya Dasgupta is an advocate practising in Delhi


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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 3:55:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/delhis-lame-duck-assembly/article35088142.ece

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