I recently came across a booklet released by one of the candidates contesting the Karnataka Assembly elections about his achievements over the past 5 years as an MLA. Over many colorfully described pages, he was mentioning about the roads that he had got laid, the clogged drains that had been cleaned, the street lights that he had got erected, the numerous other small tasks that he had done for the city, the different schemes for which he had selected beneficiaries, etc. I spoke to a few people from his constituency only to find that most of them could easily relate to the everyday issues that affected their lives and none of them were cognizant of what he was supposed to have done as an MLA or a Minister. I then spoke to many candidates who were contesting for the first time and also to those who were MLAs earlier and were trying to get re-elected, and I was disturbed that most of them were not aware of the exact responsibilities of an MLA. Many of them mentioned that limited roles of allotting houses as Chairman of the Ashraya committee or approving the list of beneficiaries for different Government schemes. How does one evaluate a public servant if we do not even know what he is supposed to be doing? How do we measure his performance if we are not able to understand what is his exact role?
How can one become an MLA and how does one qualify to stand for MLA elections?
A Member of Legislative Assembly, or MLA, is a representative elected by the voters of an electoral district to the Legislature of a State in the Indian system of Government. The Legislative Assembly consists of not more than 500 members and not less than 60. The biggest state like Uttar Pradesh has 403 members in its Assembly. States that have small population and are small in size have a provision for having even lesser number of members in the Legislative Assembly. Puducherry, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh have only 30 members each. Sikkim has 32 members. All members of the Legislative Assembly are elected on the basis of adult franchise, and one member is elected from one constituency. Just as the President of India has the power to nominate two Anglo-Indians to the Lok Sabha, the Governor of the State can also nominate one member from the Anglo-Indian community to the Legislative Assembly if he feels that they are not adequately represented.
The qualifications to be a member of the State Legislature are largely similar to the qualifications to be the Members of Parliament and should fulfill the following criteria.
- He must be a citizen of India.
- He must have completed the age of 25 years.
- He must not hold an office of profit.
- He must possess qualifications laid down by the Parliament of India.
- He must not be of unsound mind and should not have been disqualified by a competent court.
No person can become a member of the Legislative Assembly or the Legislative Council of any State, unless he himself is a voter from any constituency of the State. The normal term of the Legislative Assembly is five years.
What are the powers of our MLAs?
Legislative powers: The most important function of the Legislature is law making. As defined by the Constitution of India – Seventh Schedule (Article 246), the MLAs have the powers to make law on all items in the List II (State list) and List III (Concurrent list). Some of these items are police, prisons, irrigation, agriculture, local governments, public health, pilgrimages, burial grounds, etc. Some items on which both Parliament and States can make laws are education, marriage and divorce, forests, protection of wild animals and birds.
Financial powers: The next important role of the Assembly and of the MLAs is fiscal responsibility. The Legislative Assembly exercises control over the finances of State and has to approve the budget presented by the Government in power and ensure that money is allocated adequately and appropriately for the business of Governance.
Executive power: The Legislature also has oversight over the Executive. They are expected to oversee and monitor all the programs and schemes that the executive implements. This does not mean that they merely sit on committees approving beneficiary lists and houses and determining how local area development funds are spent. They are expected to ensure that the executive branch of the Government does its job responsibly, responsively, transparently, impartially and in line with the decisions taken by the political executive.
Electoral power: The State Legislature plays a role in electing the President of India. Elected members of the Legislative Assembly along with the elected members of Parliament are involved in this process.
Constitutional powers: Some parts of the Indian Constitution can be amended by Parliament with the approval of half of State Legislatures. Thus the State legislatures take part in the process of amendment of our Constitution too.
Salary and other privileges for our MLAs:
We need to understand that our MLAs are also paid quite well for these services that they are expected to do. They are very quick in approving high salaries and special perks and privileges for themselves. In fact, the Karnataka Assembly, which included MLAs from the entire political spectrum, gave themselves a 73% hike in 2011 without even a discussion. After the customary question hour and zero hour, the then Minister for Law Mr Suresh Kumar presented two bills – Karnataka Ministers Salaries and Allowances (Amendment) Bill, 2011 and Karnataka Legislature Salaries, Pensions and Allowances (Second Amendment) Bill, 2011. As the opposition benches were vacant, the bills were passed without any discussion. The passing of these two bills raised the salaries of MLAs by an average of 73 per cent to over Rs 95,000 per month. In addition to this, the members will be entitled to travel and dearness allowances, constituency maintenance allowance and wages for their personal staff among others. Till then, the MLAs were paid a salary of Rs 51,000 per month approximately and the ministers in the cabinet drew Rs 54,000 per month. With the increase in salaries of both ministers and MLAs, the total financial burden on the state exchequer would be Rs 26 crore per annum. According to officials in the legislature, Karnataka ranks fifth in the country in terms of salaries and allowances to the members of legislative assembly. This is all the more reason for citizens to demand performance, accountability and transparency from the elected members who are paid out of the taxes that we pay.
Apart from the salary and other related perks, our MLAs also enjoy immunity. Like the members of Parliament, the members of the Legislature also enjoy freedom of speech on the floor of the House. They cannot be prosecuted for having said anything on the floor of the House. During session the members cannot be arrested in any civil cases.
Measuring the performance of our MLAs:
Only when we understand and appreciate what our MLAs are expected to do, can we, as common citizens, understand how to measure their performance and assess how well they are playing their roles. It is extremely important for us to know and appreciate what they will be doing for the next 5 years when they are expected to be our elected representatives. Let us try to understand how well they performed over the last 5 years. The Karnataka Assembly had only 16 sessions and met for a total of 164 days over these 5 years. The annual average was a mere 33 days in comparison to 71 days that the Lok Sabha met during this time. This shows how serious our members were in discussing matters related to the people of Karnataka and their development and performing the duties expected of them.
We the citizens must come together and demand that our MLAs bring out an annual report card clearly outlining their performance. They need to inform the people of their constituency how well they performed against indicators like their attendance in the assembly, the number of questions that they asked, their understanding and appreciation of the different policies and laws that they make, the amount of time that they spend consulting their constituents, how well they oversaw the executive and a statement disclosing their income and assets. As per Karnataka Election Watch that analyzed the affidavits of re-contesting candidates, each MLA’s assets grew by an average of 79%. Without casting any aspersions on the sources, we the citizens of Karnataka have a right to know how our public servants are able to generate this kind of income. Only when we the common people continue to engage with our elected representatives even after the elections are over and continue to monitor and evaluate their performance will we be able to demand good governance from them. It is in our own interest that we do not relax but continue to demand both accountability and performance from our MLAs for the next 5 years.