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WRONG CHOICE

Why exactly does a state assembly need an Upper House? The answer has never been clear. Even those who defend the idea of a bicameral legislature cannot claim that it improves governance or even the quality of democratic debate. The old debate about the uses of an Upper House of a state legislature has been revived by the Union cabinetís decision to create an Upper House for the Assam assembly. Earlier this year, both the Union cabinet and a parliamentary committee approved a similar proposal from the Rajasthan assembly. Both states now await a two-thirds majority in Parliament in favour of the proposals to get their Houses of elders. Soon after coming to power, West Bengalís chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, too planned to revive the Upper House in the state. The costs involved in running the Upper House apparently prompted her to drop the idea. In Rajasthan, the creation of a legislative council is estimated to cost the state exchequer Rs 600 crore. In the case of a smaller state such as Assam, the costs may not be as high. But the financial burden is only a minor argument against creating or maintaining Upper Houses of state assemblies.

Fundamental arguments against an Upper House in a democracy go beyond the financial. The running of a democratic government should be left to elected representatives of the people. Assam and Rajasthan have offered different arguments in favour of their proposals for creating their Upper Houses. Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthanís outgoing chief minister, argued that an Upper House would improve the quality of debates in the assembly because it would consist of so-called educationists and experts from different fields. One wonders why the members of the assembly themselves could not do that. Tarun Gogoi, Assamís chief minister, wants the Upper House primarily to accommodate representatives from the stateís many tribal and indigenous communities. Assamís ethnic diversity is unique among the states. But the state also has several autonomous councils meant to give the smaller ethnic communities a fair degree of self-rule. It is rather uncertain how the Upper House can really help the cause of these communities. The unpleasant reality is that Upper Houses become the ruling groupsí tools for distributing favours and patronage. These end up serving, not the state, but the party in power.