By Florine Roche
Apr 1: From April 2018 onwards our elected lawmakers (MPs) will get bonanza in terms of hike in salaries and perks as the Joint Committee on Salaries approved all the proposals made by the Parliamentary Affairs Ministry in this regard. During the presentation of the Union Budget Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitely had announced to the members of Parliament that they would get a decent increase in remuneration acquiescing to the long stand demand of parliamentarians for a hike. Now that the basic salaries of MPs is doubled from Rs 50,000 per month to Rs 1 lac per month it can certainly called a ‘decent’ hike. There is also a commensurate increase in the perks such as increase in office furniture allowance, enhancement of constituency allowance, meeting allowance and office allowance expenses. Minimum pension is also being revised from Rs 20,000 per month to Rs 25, 000 per month. MPs also getting other benefits like travelling allowance, free house, electricity, telephone, water bills and laundry expenses and medical reimbursements.
Finance Minister has also proposed automatic revision of salaries of parliamentarians every five years which are indexed to inflation. This will put an end to the public outcry and media criticism for allowing parliamentarians to fix their on salaries because automatic revision would l escape public attention or media scrutiny. In the last six years MPs' salaries were increased four times and every time these hikes were quite substantial.
A Hike for Self
Till recently the hike in salaries and emoluments of MPs was decided by the Joint Committee on Salaries and Allowances of Members of Parliament. In the past few years Mp’s have given themselves a fat hike without any convincing rationale to do so. Naturally their act drew severe criticism from the public and the media. The public outcry is certainly justified not because of the behaviour of our elected lawmakers in the parliament in the recent past. These parliamentarians seem to be under the impression that disrupting parliamentary proceedings is a norm than aberration and they behave as if they are not accountable to anyone including the people who elected them as their representatives.
Let us not go too far. In the ongoing budget session the parliament hardly functioned as the session could devote only 12.5 hours to discuss on budget related issues. The parliament was disrupted continuously for 10 consecutive days and more and ruling and opposition MPs could hardly come to a consensus on any single issue. But there was consensus among the ruling and opposition parliamentarians on the bill pertaining to hiking their salaries. High profile MP Shashi Tharoor justified the proposed hike saying the salary paid to MPs was "ridiculously inadequate" and not sufficient to make both ends. However, Trinamool Congress MPs opposed the proposal saying MPs were being paid enough.
Despite criticism the parliamentarians are bent upon giving a hike for themselves. They even chastised the Supreme Court which had remarked that perks and allowances given to former MPs and MLAs seem unreasonable. In March 2017 the Supreme Court based on a petition filed by Lok Prahari, a NGO, had passed an order directing the government to do away with unnecessary allowances and given to former lawmakers which is paid from the tax payer’s money. Supreme Court had reportedly commented "pension is given for the purpose of providing financial assistance to a retired person. But 80% of the MPs are crorepatis and don’t require pension". The Supreme Court bench headed by Justice J Chelameshwar had issued notices to the Secretary General of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on the plea made by the NGO.
Advocate Kamini Jaiswal who represented the NGO argued that pension to government officials is paid out of the fund contributed by the employee and the government but for the law makers the same is paid out of the consolidated fund for which they don’t contribute anything.
Selective Comparison not justified
It must be noted that the MPs salaries were hiked in commensurate with that of the Cabinet Secretary’s who is paid Rs 2.5 lac per month. The comparison with government servants therefore is obvious and justifiable. But comparisons cannot be selective. A government servant is entitled for pension only after rendering 20 years of continuous service whereas a MP is eligible for pension on completion of 5 years as MP and his pension goes on increasing for every additional year as MP after that. For government servants pay hike is done once in 10 years as per the recommendations of the Pay Commission. Moreover, unlike government servants who cannot do any private business MPs do not give up their business after getting elected. On the contrary, their business expands exponentially once they become parliamentarians or ministers.
In some states MLAs get pension irrespective of the days they serve. For example in Kerala disburses pension based on the number of years of service upto a maximum of Rs 35, 000 per month. For less than two years an MLA gets Rs 6,000 per month and Rs 7,000 per month for a term up to 2 years and so on.
The government took a strong exception to the Supreme Court’s observation saying only the parliament has the sacred right to decide on the issue. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar even went to the extent of saying, "I think every member of the house agrees that the right of the House is sacrosanct. Parliament has every right to decide about salaries and perks of MPs." The minister was categorical in ascertaining the supremacy of parliament and even insinuated that the Supreme Court was transgressing the rights of the Parliament.
The Supreme Court was right in its observation because in the 2014 elections 442 crorepatis got elected to the Lok Sabha. Of this BJP had 237 members, Congress 35 (out of 44), AIADMK 29 and Trinamool Congress 21. (The 2014 elections also saw another low as 186 members who got elected to Lok Sabha had criminal cases against them out of which 112 had serious criminal cases).
While most MPs were pitching for a hike a sane argument came from MP Varun Gandhi who argued that the authority to determine one’s own salary is undemocratic against the morals of democracy. He also pointed out that an external body should be set up to advice the government on emoluments and pensions of lawmakers.
Accountability - A Must
He even questioned whether the MPs really deserve or earned such a huge increment. There is logic in Varun’s argument as our elected representative’s function without accountability. In the ongoing Budget session too, the Parliamentary disruptions are continuing on a daily basis. As a result, the crucial Finance Bill 2018 was passed without any discussion along with a Rs 89.25 lac crore spending plan for the next fiscal year in just 25 minutes in Lok Sabha. What we have seen is only adjournments and disruptions of parliamentary proceedings. There hasn’t been a proper discussion even on a single bill in the parliament. Naturally, questions arebeing asked why tax payer’s hard earned money is being wasted on these parliamentarians.
According to MP Jai Panda of Biju Janata Dal, least amount of work is being done in this budget session of parliament. Each minute of the parliament in session costs Rs 29,000 and nothing concrete has been achieved in the winter or budget sessions. There is no accountability either for the work they do or how they spend the Local Area Development Fund, the money they spend on their constituency or on travelling. It is time we ask questions and make them accountable for their actions rather than allow them to become arrogant and irresponsible. We have to tell our parliamentarians in no uncertain terms not to make mockery of our democratic institution at the cost of tax payer’s money. They must realise that enhanced salary and perks come with additional responsibilities and accountability.