The role of a state elected representative — Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) – is not always clearly understood. The common misconception is that an MLA is responsible for resolving basic civic concerns like waste management, sewage treatment, construction of roads and the supply of basic utilities like water.
Actually, this doesn’t fall within the ambit of an MLA’s responsibilities. Surprised? Think again.
Akin to what the Parliament does at the Central level, a State’s Legislature is responsible for enacting laws, ratify public expenditure and holding the government accountable.
Nowhere in the Constitution are the roles and responsibilities of an MLA clearly laid out. Moreover, when Parliament enacted the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India in the early 1990s, it gave rise to the formation of municipalities (urban local bodies) and Panchayats (village councils).
These bodies were empowered to address micro-civic concerns, bringing about “greater decentralisation and involvement of the community in planning and implementing schemes and, thus, increase accountability,” says this erstwhile Planning Commission report.
Unfortunately, the laws passed to encourage such governance and devolve power to a third tier of government has not even come close to realising its true potential thanks to concerns like a lack of funds, capacity, and accountability.
The inability to devolve real powers to municipalities and panchayats has left citizens seeking the intervention of MLAs or MPs in local issues, bypassing the very arms of government that were created to address them.
MLAs and MPs, meanwhile, respond to these demands out of fear of blowback from voters. However, what this has done is to shift their attention from the real responsibilities laid out above — enact laws, ratify public expenditure and to hold the government accountable.
In other words, an MLA is responsible for the even and efficient functioning of the State Assembly – and not the various other civic concerns that routinely reach their desk. Here’s what they should actually do –
Asking questions, introducing bills and raising matters of public importance
Both MLAs from the ruling party/coalition and the opposition are expected to submit questions that the government is obliged to answer. During Question Hour (the first hour of every Assembly sitting), MLAs pose questions to the government about any aspect of the administrative activity.
There are two types of questions MLAs ask — starred (where ministers offer an oral answer on the floor of the house) and unstarred (where ministers can issue a written response). While an MLA can, with permission from the Speaker, ask a supplementary query following a minister’s response to a starred question, the same cannot happen for unstarred questions.
For some MLAs, this becomes an efficient way to acquire necessary data and information from the government, while others use this opportunity to address their issues.
For example, under Rule 69 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of Karnataka Assembly, that state’s MLAs can submit motions seeking a discussion on a matter of urgent public importance on the floor of the house. Meanwhile, under Rule 73 MLAs can raise any issue that is deemed to be of public importance, and the responsible minister must respond.
Besides these responsibilities, MLAs can articulate their views on various bills passed by the government, and it’s incumbent on the concerned ministers to respond and answer other queries.
Check how the government is spending your taxpayer money
In any State Assembly, the Finance Bill holds a significant place since it lays out how the government plans on spending your taxes for the following year. When the government tables the Finance Bill on the floor of the house, MLAs must use the opportunity to carefully vet pages of budget documents and issue their concerns to the State finance minister.
“While it is widely believed that MLAs play a role in how state funds are spent, this is not true in theory. They do informally play a role in the administration of their constituencies, but they don’t have a say in public expenditure. Therefore, they must use their role in the assembly to scrutinise the annual budget, participate in budget consultations, raise issues in the house using reports of the CAG and the Accountant General to ensure that public money is spent wisely,” says this exhaustive explainer by Citizen Matters, an urban newsmagazine.
MLA Local Area Development (LAD)
Each state has their own MLA Local Area Development Scheme Fund. In Karnataka, each constituency is allotted Rs 2 crore. MLAs can choose to spend these funds on any project or scheme of their choice in their constituency. Unlike other functions of the MLA, this is one aspect which citizens can monitor since definitive data is available in the public domain.
Citizens must constantly monitor whether their MLA is spending the money in their constituency and also monitor whether the projects sanctioned under this fund is completed or not.
In a shocking announcement last December (2017), former Minister for Planning MR Seetharam stated that since 2002 an incredible Rs 1,009 crore of the Karnataka Legislators Local Area Development Scheme’s (KLLADS) fund has remained unutilised. Spending this money is probably the only formal non-legislative work that the MLA is required to perform, in theory.
Sitting on committees to scrutinise issues, state finances and legislation
Akin to Parliament, where MPs sit on various committees (meant to be non-partisan) to dispassionately examine various arms of the government, legislation, hot-button issues, and finances, the same set of forums exist in State Legislative assemblies. Not only do these committees carefully examine a particular issue or a specific bill, but also offer their recommendations.
Despite listing out all these parameters, it is really difficult to ascertain raw data on how your MLA is performing, since many states don’t have a requisite system in place to offer citizens real numbers.
This needs to change, and if MLAs are to perform their actual duties, greater powers, funds, and capacity must be injected into panchayats and municipalities.
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)