Opinion | Does Odisha need a legislative council?
Intense and detailed study of legislative councils and their role in enriching the process of legislation needs to be undertaken and analysed
Over a cup of coffee during breakfast, one of the US’ founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was protesting strongly against the idea of a second chamber, the US Senate, to George Washington. Suddenly Washington asked: “Why, Mr Jefferson, why are you pouring the coffee into your saucer?” Jefferson replied: “To cool it!”
The Odisha government’s decision to create a legislative council, slated to have 49 members and an annual budget of ₹35 crore, raises questions regarding the need for a bicameral legislature in states where the function of the rather toothless Upper House has been envisaged largely as checking haste in passing of Bills, acting as a saucer for the hot coffee poured by the Lower House.
India’s transition from unicameral to bicameral legislature started under the Government of India Act, 1919, which established the council of state—now the Rajya Sabha—in 1921. The Montague-Chelmsford report, which envisaged formation of the Upper House at the Centre also proposed Upper Houses in provinces, not for legislative purposes but to pass legislation delayed or thwarted by the Lower House.
Apprehensions about the Upper House in provinces go well back to the reforms of 1919. It was feared to be represented mainly by landed and moneyed interests and cause delay in passing legislation. The Simon Commission in 1927, citing complexity and expenditure, was divided about its feasibility. Its role, according to the commission, was of reviewing Bills and endorsing the governor’s exercise of special powers. By a white paper, a joint select committee and later the Government of India Bill, 1935, the British Raj established Upper Houses in Bengal, the United Provinces, Bihar, Bombay, Madras and Assam in the middle of 1937.
The Constituent Assembly debate on Article 148 (now Article 169), which dealt with bicameral legislatures on 6 January 1949, sheds light on what the makers of the Constitution thought about legislative councils and also on the case of Odisha. K.T. Shah, representing Bihar, was firmly against a bicameral legislature, at least for states, calling it a “reactionary and non-elected body” which ends up deflecting the legislative machinery. He called those who want a second chamber as “champions of vested interests”. Shah added that Upper Houses only aid “party bosses in distributing patronage” and are a costly affair.
Laxminarayan Sahu, representing Odisha, argued while moving an amendment for establishing the Upper House in his state that there is no harm in wealthy persons muscling their way to such Houses and given the probability that minorities might fail to find representation in legislatures, a second chamber would provide an avenue.
Biswanath Das, also representing Odisha, said that it was in the fitness of things that the decision was left to the provinces and that Odisha and the 25 states that merged into it rejected the idea of an “ornamental” Upper House. He concluded by saying that ornaments have some value but appendages like the Upper House must be thrown out.
Members like Kuladhar Chaliha elaborated how a second house is mostly established by a “force of tradition”. K. Hanumanthaiya stated that in a party system, any number of houses will not prevent hasty passing of Bills once the party having the majority has decided on it. Renuka Ray suggested that since there already is a governor in the state who can send back Bills for reconsideration, there is no reason for haste being a criterion to establish a bicameral legislature. The only member arguing for a second house for Madras, L. Krishnaswami Bharati, stressed that the experience of the Constituent Assembly has shown that some time “elapse” in legislation may after all be warranted.
Informing that the provincial constitution committee of Odisha, the Central Province & Berar and Assam had decided not to have a second chamber, B.R. Ambedkar compared it to a “curate’s egg—good only in parts”. He stated that the Constitution was going ahead with Upper House for states purely on an experimental basis and thus it was not given a permanent place and there was a provision to get rid of it. At the end of this debate, which lasted nearly 2wo hours, Sahu’s amendment to add Odisha was rejected.
The arguments cited in favour of Legislative Councils range from their track record of sincere work, relevant amendments brought, non-confrontational attitude vis-à-vis legislative assembly, decorum and restraint in proceedings and drawing attention of both government and public to matters of public interest. However, their merit must be gauged with respect to their objectives. On the question of haste, we should ask what stops legislative assemblies from adopting ways and means for deeper analysis and vetting of Bills. Gradual reduction in time for which assemblies sit is incongruent with their plea for establishing a “revising chamber”. History shows us that the arguments against an Upper House for states have remained the same for the last 100 years. An intense and detailed study of Legislative Councils and their role in enriching the process of legislation needs to be undertaken and analysed.
Commenting on the limited role of Upper Houses during the Constituent Assembly debate, Hanumanthaiya remarked on the Jefferson incident that the temperature of the coffee was neither determined by the cup nor by the saucer but by the pot holding it. The pot being the ruling party. Odisha and other states need to think whether the saucer is really required.
Sambit Dash, teaches at the Melaka-Manipal Medical College, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.