There has been a series of public protests across Himachal Pradesh, triggered by the outrage over a bill passed by the state assembly to increase the limit of the annual personal travel expenditure for MLAs, present and former. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur finds himself in a spot, especially after former CM and top BJP leader Prem Kumar Dhumal cautioned him about such expenditure when the state’s fiscal situation was grim.
The travel expenses for MLAs have now been raised to Rs 4 lakh from Rs 2.50 lakh per annum for one-time domestic of foreign travel. Former legislators, meanwhile, will be able to avail up to Rs 2 lakh, increased from Rs 1.25 lakh earlier.
In Shimla, Solan, Mandi and Kangra districts, activists have taken to the streets with begging bowls asking for alms on behalf of the “poor“ MLAs. There were some protests even outside the state Assembly complex. There is a lot of chatter on social media too, highlighting how this has become a topic of discussion among the people. All this is rare in Himachal, where people rarely take to the streets in protest.
The only opposing voice as the bill was tabled in the Assembly was of lone CPM MLA Rakesh Singha. “When the country’s economy is in a shambles and facing a down slide with the state’s internal debt exceeding Rs 50,000 crore, we are seeking luxuries to fund our travels. This is not expected from the public representatives, he pleaded, appealing to the CM to withdraw the bill.
Singha said it would send a wrong signal as the House has already told various sections that it cannot afford to provide them allowances or help because we are passing through a very critical financial crisis.
However MLAs, mainly those from the opposition Congress, chose to ridicule Singha for opposing the Bill and tried to reason why the hike was needed. “Our expenditures are shooting up every day. We have to spent on the public. There is need to ensure that MLAs don’t have to run out of money. It is also an issue of dignity and transparency in public life,” former PCC president Sukhwinder Sukhu said. He also sought official vehicles for MLAs and direct transfer of money to their accounts. Sukhu also wanted the “cumbersome” process of providing proof for the reimbursements done away with.
Under flak from all sides, the Chief Minister has offered to reverse the decision if the MLAs take an unanimous decision though he maintains that the money will not be paid directly to the MLAs. “We have not done anything new or unusual. This is just a hike in the limit of traveling expenditures for the members of the House, and former MLAs. Payment upto Rs 4 lakh will accrue to them only if they travel within the country or outside and submit the bills for reimbursements. No monetary hike has been done in their salaries or perks,“ he told the indianexpress.com.
MLAs in Himachal Pradesh get a monthly salary and allowance adding up to Rs 2.10 lakh. Of this, Rs 55,000 is salary and Rs 90,000 constituency allowance. Other benefits include Rs 30,000 per month as office expenditure and Rs 15,000 for a data entry operator.
Congress MLA Ram Lal Thakur drew a parallel with the salaries of Chief Secretaries. “As per protocol, MLAs are one step higher than the Chief Secretary who draws Rs 2.50 lakh per month as salary. In comparison, our salary is just Rs 55,000. It will be most appropriate to fix our salary a minimum of Rs 1 above that of the Chief Secretary,” he said, adding that the name MLAs Salaries and Allowances 2019 also sends a bad impression.
Speaker Dr Rajeev Bindal, meanwhile, asked the Chief Minister to get details from the Delhi government where salary was raised recently to Rs 3 lakh. The MLAs are also provided well furnished offices and facility of research assistants, one each for two MLAs, he said.
Dhumal has called for a credible and independent mechanism to look into MLAs salaries and perks to bring in transparency.
The chief minster now admits that this was an avoidable controversy, which is now threatening to overshadow the good work of his government. “Because the recommendation has come from the House committee on MLAs amenities, the government had no option. Some former MLAs also met me and raised the demand. The only way out now is to ask if someone voluntarily wants to give-up the facility.”
Along with CPM’s Singha, two BJP MLAs have also decided not to avail the travel facilities.