Dr A Surya Prakash

One does not know whether our MPs are aware of it, but there is widespread public resentment over the humongous salary hike that they have merrily given themselves during the recent Monsoon Session of Parliament. Public anger over this issue is occasioned not only by the unabashed manner in which our representatives have raised their emoluments but also because it was done without even a semblance of consultation with the people who voted them into office. There are also other reasons why people have taken umbrage at this development, which was orchestrated in the two Houses of Parliament by some of the richest politicians in the country. Two of these are the complete absence of any corresponding guarantees in regard to the functioning of parliament and the ethical conduct of members.

With the latest revision, the monthly emoluments of an MP stand revised as follows:

Salary - from Rs 16,000 a month to Rs 50,000, Constituency Allowance – from Rs 20,000 to Rs 45,000, and Office Allowance – from Rs 20,000 to Rs 45,000, all adding up to Rs 1,40,000 a month as against Rs 56,000 which they earned prior to the hike.

This constitutes a whopping 150 per cent hike, the biggest that our MPs have got since the two Houses were constituted in 1952. The Daily Allowance for marking attendance (signing the register and not necessarily for presence in the House) has been raised 100 percent from Rs 1000 to Rs 2000. In addition every MP is entitled to a slew of perks which include a rent-free apartment or bungalow, 1.50 lakh free telephone calls, 50,000 units of electricity and 4000 kilo litres of water per annum; 34 `J’ Class air tickets per year plus Traveling Allowance to cover cost of travel from airport to residence; one railway air conditioned first class pass and one second class pass which can be used any time on any journey and a provision to defray cost of journeys undertaken by road. Eight air tickets per year and a free air conditioned first class railway pass for the spouse. In addition, every MP is entitled to Furniture Allowance of Rs 75,000 per term. While there is no change in these perks, the interest free loan provided to an MP to buy a car has been increased from Rs one lakh to Rs 4 lakhs.

This package of cash and perks appears to be rather vulgar in comparison to the frugal pay and allowances of members of the Constituent Assembly over 60 years ago. That assembly had many members who felt that it was against the dharma of public service to accept a wage. But, even that assembly had its share of pragmatists, who were not weighed down by such a moral dilemma in regard to taking a salary. Mr. Biswanath Das, spoke for many members when he told the Assembly on May 20, 1949 that there should be no fixed salary for members because they ought to be satisfied with the allowances they receive while serving the country. In those days, MPs were paid a Daily Allowance of Rs 45. Mr.Das however drew only Rs 30 per sitting because he considered Rs 45 to be “too much”. But, even then there were other points of view. For example Mr.P.S.Deshmukh, another member of the Constituent Assembly, disagreed with Mr.Das. He felt that it was better to give MPs a proper wage because the thought of many “needy” MPs made him very apprehensive. He said if MPs were given a proper salary, they would not fall to temptation and they would not deviate “from the path of strictest duty and honesty”. He said it would be better for the government to face bitter criticism from the public if needed but pay MPs well so that they do not seek benefit “from any other source whatsoever”.

The two Houses of Parliament were constituted in 1952 and the Salary, Allowances and Pension of Members of Parliament Act entered the statute books in 1954. Since some MPs were allergic to the idea of taking a “salary”, the Act said that those who did not want a salary ( fixed at Rs 300 a month) would be entitled to an allowance of Rs 40 a day – double that received by other members. These contradictory trends persisted till a few years ago. Many MPs felt that they were underpaid but were afraid to speak up lest they offend their constituents. They always felt guilty about enhancing their salaries and allowances. So much so that even as late of 1993, when the salary of an MP was just Rs 1500 and his total emoluments was just Rs 5500 a month, the Salary and Allowances Bill gave MPs the option to accept salaries and allowances at a lower rate. This clause was however rejected by the Lok Sabha after veteran parliamentarians like Mr.Indrajit Gupta objected to the creation of two classes of MPs. Mr.Gupta was also one of the first to say that it was improper for MPs to periodically enhance their salaries and perquisites. “O do not understand why I should submit myself to this indignity every three or four years” he told the Lok Sabha in May, 1993 and said parliament must be guided by an impartial commission on the issue of MPs’ salaries and allowances.

There can be no doubt that MPs were paid a pittance in the first 40 years after independence. This was because the spirit of the independence movement, symbolized mainly by sacrifice, persisted in the initial decades and MPs felt it demeaning to seek a proper wage for their labours. The people also made no distinction between freedom fighters and Members of Parliament. They went on the strange assumption that MPs could survive on just fresh air and the goodwill of voters because theirs was a profession that was above all else and therefore unaffected by such petty considerations like salaries and allowances. Meanwhile, it suited everybody to give MPs a whole range of perks from official houses to free telephone calls, water, electricity and free travel. The logic appeared to be that cash payment was immoral but perks were okay. MPs too preferred to live in the false notion that they got nothing and therefore never spoke about the perks but often said that their salaries were less than that of government clerks.

It now appears as if MPs have come back with a vengeance to claim with compound interest all that their predecessors had voluntarily foregone! However, while there is certainly a case for upward revision of MPs’ emoluments, there is an even stronger case for slashing some of their perks and for a commitment from their side that they will ensure a more purposeful and efficient parliament.

The opposition to the recent pay hike is also occasioned by the disappointment over the manner in which parliament functions these days. Absenteeism is a recurring problem because MPs sign the register to collect their Daily Allowance and spend more time outside the two chambers than inside. If the presiding officers allow television cameras to pan the treasury and opposition benches when the two Houses are “at work” and making law for 1.2 billion people in the second half of the day, voters would be shocked to note that the average attendance is less than 30 in the Lok Sabha (total strength 545) and 20 or less in the Rajya Sabha (total strength 245 members). This is after they create a ruckus and shut down proceedings in the pre-lunch session. The two Houses lose hundreds of hours of work every year due to disruptions and the total sittings per year has crashed from around 130 a year to less than 70. The attendance level in parliamentary committees is pathetic (a 50 percent turnout is considered excellent). Therefore, this is a classic case of working less and earning more! Does this happen in any other profession? There are other reasons for the prevailing bitterness on this issue and these include the brazenness with which MPs give themselves a hike without consulting their real masters and the contempt many of them display for the code of conduct that was written many years ago.

Though the hefty raise has created much resentment across the country, MPs can ensure that the pill is far less bitter for their voters and tax payers if they agree to the following: (a) That henceforth they will ask an independent pay commission to determine their salaries and allowances and abide by its recommendations; (b) that they will accept a cut in their salaries and allowances corresponding to the time lost to disruptions in the two Houses; that they will abide by the letter and spirit of Article 100 (3) and 100(4) of the Constitution which stipulate that no business shall be transacted in the two Houses without quorum and assure the people that henceforth no law will be passed without quorum; and finally, that the Ethics Committees of the two Houses will work in a credible and transparent manner and punish members for unethical conduct. Are our MPs ready to pick up the gauntlet or will they continue to work less and earn more?

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