March 28, 2011
"I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it breaks my heart." – Jerome K Jerome, English novelist and humorist (1803-1857).
The budget session of Parliament which concluded on March 25, 2011, once again confirmed that many of our law-makers, whether in the national Parliament or State legislatures, are self-serving, unruly and work-shirkers (Kaam Chors).There are work-shirkers galore all over the world. But a body of responsible persons, having volunteered to do a certain work, shirking their responsibility is a matter of grave concern. The culprits happen to be our parliamentarians and state legislators. But, first the facts.
Though the 2011-12 budget session was less acrimonious than the previous winter sitting, it still was far from meeting its legislative goals, with only three of 34 legislations passed and the government’s proposed expenditure of Rs.12.58 lakh crores not even scrutinized by the MPs. The session that started on February 21 saw animated debates and raucous scenes over allegations of corruption against the government on the 2G spectrum allotments to mobiles operators, Devas-IRSO deal and the WikiLeaks cables but at the cost of the ever increasing list of pending legislations. The session witnessed uproar over many issues and the Lok Sabha lost over 25 hours due to interruptions followed by adjournments. In Rajya Sabha, 20 hours were lost due to interruptions. That these were partly made up by sitting late is not an exemplary situation. Over the decades there has been a drastic decrease in the number of days parliament works in a year is another sad commentary on the work ethics and commitment of our MPs and MLAs.
PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based research initiative, describes the legislative performance of the budget session as dismal. In addition to the finance bill, the legislations passed during the session included merger of State Bank of Indore with State Bank of India and one to extend moratorium on sealing of unauthorized buildings in Delhi.
The government had also planned to introduce 37 bills in the session, including the controversial women’s reservation bill, the bill suggesting comprehensive measures against communal violence and the land acquisition amendment bill. Only a few could be introduced - amongst them the pension regulatory authority bill (more about it later). In the economic segment, the government had proposed to introduce a constitutional amendment bill to pave the way for introduction of the long-awaited Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime. But none of them were introduced because the session had to be curtailed due to upcoming assembly elections in five states.
Creating history of sorts, a Parliament session (winter) in India has for the first time ended without transacting any substantial business due to stand off between the government and the opposition over the G2 issue. The winter session functioned barely for a few hours during the 23 sittings that began on November 9, 2010 as the united Opposition forced adjournments almost every day, within minutes of assembling. Opposition members trooped into the well and shouting slogans demanding Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the 2G spectrum allocation became a daily routine in both the Houses. This session earned the dubious distinction of being virtually washed out.
If Parliament is leading by (bad?) example, can state legislatures be far behind? According to a PTI report, none of the assemblies in five poll-bound states has met more than 240 days during the last five years. Kerala assembly, which will go to polls on April 13, met for 240 days during the last five years, with an average of 48 days per year. The figure was 219 days for West Bengal, 214 days for Tamil Nadu and 123 days for Puducherry – for the five-year period.
If this is the macro, collective picture of our MPs and MLAs, the micro picture is reflected in what happened in Parliament on March 24 when BJP came to the rescue of the government by supporting the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill 2011. The Left opposed its introduction and sought BJP’s support to oppose it. Senior ministers were absent from the House and treasury benches had very thin attendance. When the Speaker ordered division on the subject, there was panic as there were only a handful MPs in the treasury benches while Opposition benches were nearly full, indicating that the government was clearly in the minority. However, BJP and its friendly parties in NDA supported the government. The Bill was introduced with 115 supporting it, 43 opposing it and one abstaining among 159 members present in the 543-member House. It is a typical case signing (to collect daily allowance) and scooting – a syndrome in which babus are past-masters.
Another characteristic of our law-makers is self-serving – literally. While the pay and perks of babus are guided by periodic pay commissions, law makers serve up such pay and perks to themselves with unpredictable regularity. Continuing self-gratification unabashedly, the MPs, on August 27, 2010, upheld the hike in their salary and perks as the Lok Sabha adopted Salary, Allowances and Pensions of Members of Parliament (Amendment} Bill, 2010. The Bill, approved on August 31 by Rajya Sabha, provides for hike of more than 300% in salary from Rs. 16,000 per month to 50,000 and doubling constituency allowance to 45,000 per month and daily allowance from Rs 1,000 to Rs. 2,000. The increase in salaries of MPs and pension to former MPs would cost the exchequer an additional Rs. 103.76 crores every year. Besides, there will be one-time expenditure of Rs. 118 crores on payment of arrears of salary and pension. The pension for former MPs will go up from Rs. 8,000 per month to Rs 20,000. The increase in daily constituency and office expenditure allowance will cost Rs. 35.8 crores every year.
While voting the fat hikes for themselves, the MPs made hypocritical noises about the lack of morality in voting the excesses for themselves and called for a fig leaf of an independent mechanism for the future. Over the last many months leading up to the dizzy rises, the MPs, especially from the Opposition, have been beating their breasts – and observed a Bharat Bandh – in the name of poor janata hurt by inflation. Incidentally, MPs now also get to spend at their discretion Rs.5 crores each per year (Increased from Rs. 2 crores just before the budget session ended) under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme. Apart from the massive amount Rs.25 crores over five years available to each MP to dole out at the cost of public exchequer, it deprives a level playing field to those who challenge the incumbent MP with the largesse he bestows on the constituency.
Apart from what MPs get from the Central exchequer, they also get, without much fanfare or publicity, collateral benefits from State governments as, for instance, Karnataka MPs do. Sample this:
Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa announced on August 19, 2010, additional benefits for Parliamentarians from Karnataka. Inaugurating the newly constructed Karnataka Bhavan annex building in Delhi, the Chief Minister said the State government would provide 500 litres of petrol per month Rs. 30,000 at current price) for each MP as against then existing 300 litres. Now, each MP is entitled to have a car, an office in the district headquarters, a driver and first and second division clerks at the cost of the State government. Besides, the State government also provides cars for them to travel in and around Delhi.
The grabbing syndrome percolates from Parliamentarians to state legislators, as noted in the following:
In a move at odds with the bitter and sectarian atmosphere in the Assembly, S R Vishwanath of the ruling party handed over, in the first week of March 2011, to the Leader of the Opposition Siddaramaiah a memorandum on the issue of rise in salaries, allowances and perks, asking him to raise the issue in the Assembly.
Many MLAs belonging to all political parties had signed the memorandum. Siddaramaiah assured the MLAs that he would support their demand and press the government to increase the emoluments.
The MLAs have tried to justify their demand for a hike in salary and allowance, underlining the recent price rise. The wish list noted below has since been realized almost in its entirety.
Existing Demanded (in Rs)
Monthly salary 10,000 25,000
Telephone allowance 10,000 15,000
Petrol/diesel allowance 15,000 25,000 or 500 litre petrol per month
Constituency allowance 7,500 15,000
Staff salary 5,000 15,000
Postal expenditure 4,000 5,000
Medical expenditure No 10,000
Sitting charge (per day) 600-700 2,000 - 3,000
Travel expense Rs 10 per km Rs 20 per km
Vehicle loan (interest free) 5,00,000 10,00,000
House loan No 25,00,000
Flight travel No 12 times in a year
Travel by train allowance (per year) 50,000 2,00,000
So, whether MPs or MLAs, the money meter runs for them relentlessly even if they sign and scoot, misbehave in Parliament and legislatures, walk out and stay out from Parliament, crowd in the well of the House or turn the house into a dormitory, as happened in Karnataka in 2010.
Sir Robert Walpole, English statesman and parliamentarian (1676-1745), with reference to his fellow MPs, said: "All those men have their price". Many of our law-makers have their reserve price under for, for instance, Operation Lotus in Karnataka and in Parliament as reflected in earlier sting operations and more recently through WikiLeaks.
John B Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).
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