India is unique. It is the only democracy where judges can appoint judges and MPs can decide their own salaries” was the lament of Somnath Chatterjee, then speaker of the Lok Sabha. On the appointment of judges, Parliament did try to “correct” the interpretation that had brought in the collegium system. But the apex court’s verdict on the constitutional validity of the new system is awaited.
Parliament has not been as forthcoming in giving up its powers to determine the salary and allowances of MPs. Since the matter was in the exclusive domain of the legislature, as prescribed by Articles 106 and 195, Chatterjee took the initiative to rectify this “uniqueness”. He held a meeting with leaders of political parties on March 23, 2005 that witnessed rare unanimity. It was agreed that the practice of MPs deciding their own salary and allowances would be done away with, and that a statutory mechanism to create an independent salaries commission for automatic revision of salary and allowances would be put in place. Yet, even after a decade, the proposed commission has not come into existence. Instead, governments have secured pay hikes for MPs through the old procedure in 2006 and 2010.
An attempt was made to revive this debate at last week’s 17th All India Conference of Whips at Visakhapatnam. It was resolved that an independent mechanism for deciding salaries and allowances of legislators would be created. The question now is, how soon will Parliament debate and approve a bill that reflects this resolve?
The misplaced impression that people disapprove per se of pay hikes for legislators thrives primarily because of the method of securing the hike. The first ever joint committee on payment of salaries and allowances to members was formed in 1952 and led to the enactment of the Salaries and Allowances of Members of Parliament Act, 1954. A salary of Rs 400 per month for MPs was approved. The latest amendment in 2010 brought this up to Rs 50,000 per month. The law has been amended 28 times in the intervening years — members granted themselves salary hikes, but rather cautiously, in small increments. In fact, MPs have ended up depriving themselves of a much-deserved decent salary. As P.S. Deshmukh said in the Constituent Assembly: “… members’ salaries must be adequate … although certain people are nervous about talking of their own allowances etc … I would ask any government to face the bitterest criticism from an understanding public, but pay adequate salaries and allowances to the members”.
When the first joint committee was constituted in 1952, then Speaker G.V. Mavalankar assured that its report would be submitted to the House and that there would be a chance to discuss it in detail. From parliamentary records, it appears that this remained an empty assurance. In subsequent deliberations on the subject in the House, the predominant tendency was to shy away from discussing pay and perks in the public glare.
Report after report of successive joint committees has remained out of reach for MPs and the public alike. A majority of amendments are rushed through without much debate, mostly as the last item on the agenda at the last sitting of a session.
But the Delhi legislative assembly has made a bold move: On August 21, the speaker, acting on the request of the committee on salary and allowances, constituted a committee of experts to recommend revisions in the salary and allowances for MLAs. This is the first instance in independent India of members voluntarily giving up this constitutional and statutory privilege. The three-member committee consisting of a former secretary-general of Lok Sabha, a journalist and a jurist is likely to submit its report soon. This baby step is a ray of hope in the process of revamping the image of elected representatives as a class.
By not taking Chatterjee’s proposal to its logical conclusion, India missed an opportunity to be a role model for Commonwealth countries. The UK effected this reform in 2012 and created the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa). Ipsa has evolved a formula through which it revises salaries from time to time on the basis of average public-sector earnings. A few lines from its latest report are reproduced here: “No one can be in any doubt that consideration of MPs’ pay is a toxic issue. A thousand and one reasons can be advanced for putting it off. There is never a right time to do anything… MPs are an indispensable part of our parliamentary democracy. Our duty is to provide a package of remuneration which, while still modest by professional standards, does not deter people from entering political life, nor confine it to the independently wealthy.” There is a clear message to legislators in India in these lines.
The writer is secretary, legislative assembly, NCT of Delhi. Views are personal.