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EC revives an old question: Do states really need Upper Houses?

Charu Kartikeya | Updated on: 22 October 2016, 11:19 IST

The Election Commission has dusted an old proposal and sent it to the government again. The issue concerns the utility of state legislative councils and the question raised is should they be abolished once and for all. These councils - Vidhan Parishads - do not mean much for most states in any case but they get their mandate from the Constitution. Doing away with their very existence will require a Constitutional amendment and that is a task easier said than done.

However, the EC has made out an interesting case, citing several arguments from the entire history of legislative councils in India. The commission\'s latest communication to the government on the issue has come because of a letter by RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal. The letter is about the need to abolish Legislative Councils, especially in light of the latest elections for the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Parishad, in which the ruling Samajwadi Party won 31 out of 35 seats.

According to Agrawal, these councils are "white elephants" running on public money who do not serve any "fruitful public purpose". He has cited a few examples to substantiate his arguments and his demand that the "constitutional provision of having Legislative Councils in states should altogether be abolished". The Commission has forwarded this letter to the Union Law Ministry for \'appropriate action\' and in connection with it, has cited the Commission\'s old proposal on the issue.

The then Chief Election Commissioner MS Gill had written in detail to the Law Ministry in 1999, mentioning the pros and cons of the issue and urging the government to initiate discussions on the issue with political parties. Here is a look at some key questions on the issue:

What is a Legislative Council?

It is the second chamber of a state legislature, an Upper House in states akin to the Rajya Sabha. Its members are not directly elected by the people of the state but by a combination of constituencies defined in the Constitution.

Who are its members?

Five categories of membership are explained under Article 171 of the Constitution:

(a) One third - persons from local authorities like municipalities, district boards etc

(b) One twelfth - persons who have been graduates for at least three years

(c) One twelfth - persons who have been engaged in teaching at at least secondary school level for at least three years

(d) One third - shall be elected by the members of the Legislative Assembly of the State, from amongst persons who are not members of the Assembly;

(e) The remainder shall be nominated by the Governor

Do all states in India have one?

Far from it. As of now, only 7 states have such councils - Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Many states have never had a second chamber while some others have created and abolished them at various points in history.

Interestingly, the country appears to have moved back to the initial position on the issue after Independence, when there were only 8 Legislative Councils - in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Jammu & Kashmir.

What purpose do these councils serve?

One, they add one more level of scrutiny to the legislative process in states and two, they enable a few people to directly contribute to law-making without going through the rigmarole of contesting elections.

What shortcomings did the EC see in them?

Gill said the fact that many states abolished the councils indicates that they hardly contributed to make debates on legislative and other matters "more mature and considered".

Secondly, most of these were not properly constituted as envisaged in the Constitution. For example, the Bihar Vidhan Parishad was functioning as a truncated house for 17 straight years at that time, with one-third seats lying vacant.

Third, a constituency exclusively for teachers may have been desirable after Independence when well-read and well-informed people were not too many in number. The situation has drastically changed and the rationale needs a re-look.

What do experts say now?

Anomalies do exist in the concept. Even the category of members nominated by the Governor has come under judicial scrutiny, with the Patna High Court serving a landmark notice to all 12 nominated members of the Bihar Legislative Council. The notice requires the MLCs to prove their expertise in the field for which they have been nominated to the council.

Political analysts say even the graduates' constituency is an archaic concept, just like the teachers' constituency, and should be scrapped.

Constitutional experts have examined the debate in detail and say that the issue requires deep examination. Former Secretary General of Lok Sabha, Subhash Kashyap, told Catch that there was much to say to present both sides of the debate, but this was not the most pressing issue facing the country right now. He said the EC's observations notwithstanding, the fact remains that conceptually, Legislative Councils do have a function to fulfill.

However, he ventured to say that if the utility of Councils was questioned, it might lead to questions on the utility of the Rajya Sabha, too, since their roles and problems are identical in many aspects. He cited, for example, that some people have already said that the Rajya Sabha is a nuisance if it impedes the government's decisions and a meaningless entity if it merely rubber-stamps them. So, if this debate begins right now, inference may be drawn by various political quarters that will suit their interests, Kashyap added.

First published: 22 October 2016, 11:19 IST
Charu Kartikeya @CharuKeya

Assistant Editor at Catch, Charu enjoys covering politics and uncovering politicians. Of nine years in journalism, he spent six happily covering Parliament and parliamentarians at Lok Sabha TV and the other three as news anchor at Doordarshan News. A Royal Enfield enthusiast, he dreams of having enough time to roar away towards Ladakh, but for the moment the only miles he's covering are the 20-km stretch between home and work.