In the last one year of COVID raging through, states have taken the ordinance route to strictly enforce rules, showing the enormity of the problems faced. Data from 19 states show that, on average, the states issued 14 ordinances over the last year, according to not-for-profit research organization PRS Legislative, with Kerala topping the list with 81 ordinances.
The data said nearly half of these 81 ordinances were ones that were re-promulgated, i.e., the same ordinance was issued again after an intervening session, said the research group in its Annual Review of State Laws.
In passing ordinances, it said, Kerala was followed by Karnataka (24), Uttar Pradesh (23), Maharashtra (21) and Andhra Pradesh (16) during the previous year hit by COVID. It was during this period that state Assemblies sat for fewer days compared to their average sittings in 2016-19.
The Constitution allows the executive to enact a law under exceptional circumstances. When the legislature is not in session and immediate action is required, the government can make law via ordinance. Ordinances are in force until six weeks after the next meeting of the legislature (unless they are repealed), after which they lapse.
In 2020, apart from the budget (14%) and taxation (15%), majority of the laws enacted by states were in the areas of education (12%), local government (10%), and agriculture and allied activities (6%), the research group said.
Within education, 82% of the laws were related to higher education (setting up of universities or amending existing laws regulating universities). The remaining were largely related to establishing higher education councils and regulation of school fees. Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh (seven each), and Andhra Pradesh (six) have enacted the highest number of laws related to education.
In the area of health, the biggest challenge in 2020 was the containment of COVID pandemic. A few states enacted laws to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Some other states notified temporary regulations under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, or promulgated ordinances to tackle the pandemic.
The impact of COVID-19 extended to other areas of legislation as well. “For example, some states enacted laws to bring changes in elections to local governments. Maharashtra enacted a law to postpone the elections to the offices of the mayor and deputy mayor of some municipal corporations. Kerala amended its panchayat and municipal laws to facilitate postal and direct voting for persons affected by COVID-19 or those in quarantine,” it said.
Other legislative actions triggered by the pandemic included reducing salaries of legislators to conserve financial resources and amendments to labour laws to enable longer (and hence, fewer) shifts in factories.
In terms of time taken to make laws, in 2020, 19 states (for which data was available) met for an average of 18 days in the year. Meetings were affected due to COVID-19, it said. Between 2016 and 2019, these 19 states met for an average of 29 days a year.
In 2020, Karnataka (31 days) met for the highest number of days, followed by Rajasthan (29 days), and Himachal Pradesh (25 days). “Kerala dropped from an average of 53 days in the previous four years to meeting for just 20 days in 2020,” said the PRS Legislative analysis.