An Emoluments Commission for members of Parliament is under consideration. Our lawmakers, both at the Union and state levels, are the only group of people who determine their own salaries, allowances and other perks while being paid from the public exchequer. As such, they are judges in their own case. This clearly violates the basic dictum that any outgo from the public funds must be with the approval of an authority other than the one likely to be the beneficiary. The idea of setting up an autonomous salaries commission for MPs was, in principle, accepted by the government during the 14th Lok Sabha, but nothing came of it.
The members of the Constituent Assembly, some of the most distinguished men and women of their time, received only Rs 45 per sitting to cover daily (including conveyance allowance) expenditure. As a token gesture, in the context of the hard economic situation of the country, the members even voted for a cut in this paltry sum. As such, only Rs 40 per day was paid to MPs till the Parliament passed the Salaries and Allowances of Members of Parliament Act, 1954, providing a salary of Rs 400 per month plus a daily allowance of Rs 21 per day. Since then, the MPs have repeatedly revised their emoluments upwards. The 1954 act has been amended 28 times. The last major revision was in 2010.
At present, every MP is entitled to a basic salary of Rs 50,000 per month, as well as Constituency and Office Allowances of Rs 90,000 per month. For days of parliamentary sittings, MPs receive a further Rs 2,000 as a daily allowance. In addition, every member is entitled to many other perks, cash immunities and subsidies. The variety of payments and perks are difficult to document in terms of what these actually cost. Also, former MPs receive pension for life, without any requirement of a minimum period of service, which, in effect, means that if one has been a member even for a day, she will be entitled to pension for life.
The late Nanaji Deshmukh, a distinguished member, wrote “with a feeling of deep anguish and sorrow but out of a sense of responsibility” that while fellow countrymen were toiling under extreme poverty and unemployment, our “so-called representatives” were “getting richer and richer” and “shamelessly piling up more burden on the country by increasing their own perquisites”. This brought our democracy “to disrepute and shame”. Based on Nanaji’s estimates, the present monthly cost of an MP must work out close to some Rs 10 lakh per month or more, which would be much higher than the per capita income of an average Indian. Any increase in the emoluments of MPs immediately impacts the states, and if the expenditure incurred on the state legislators is also taken into account, the cost of Indian legislators would be colossal.
In the context of the recent non-functioning of our legislatures, the poor conduct of MPs, the number of multi-millionaires, and increasing number of persons with a criminal background in Parliament, it is not surprising that a proposal to further increase the pay and perks of MPs is met with public disapproval. As for appropriate payment to members for the services they render, if they are paid a salary of Rs 3 lakh per month, with all special perks and free or highly subsidised facilities withdrawn, the public exchequer would gain. The frequent revisions in the salaries and perks of the members have contributed to the decline of Parliament in public esteem.
There may be differences on whether members are underpaid or overpaid but it is a legitimate public expectation that membership of Parliament should not be converted into an office of lucrative gain. It must remain an office of service. Also, if payments are really low, why the terrible scramble for tickets and their alleged sale and purchase for crores of rupees?
In a democratic polity, nothing can be sadder than public representatives losing the respect of the people by frequently seeking to increase their emoluments and perks. Something has to be done to restore public faith in the MPs’ worth to society at large. Every politician has to ask herself and honestly answer the question: Why is she in politics? With the new government claiming to be wedded to principles of good, clean, corruption-free, citizen-friendly governance, the timing is ideal to make sacrifices and make a new start in public life. One way of tackling the menace of corruption would be to make political offices and memberships of legislatures less lucrative. Let these positions attract only those who are dedicated to the nation, committed to sacrifice and service and with no personal axe to grind. Simultaneously, being in politics has to be made less expensive. Let us all agree to give up the competition in demanding and trying to extract the maximum from the nation and, instead, take a vow to give our best. All this may seem idealistic, but nothing less will do today.
It is to be hoped that the proposed emoluments commission will not be merely a ruse for justifying further increases in emoluments in cash and kind. If the report of a similar body for Delhi MLAs is any guide, there is genuine cause for apprehension. Voluntary cuts in salaries, allowances, travels, seen and unseen perks and subsidies need to be announced. It is all very well to ask ordinary citizens to sacrifice for the poor by surrendering gas subsidies, but a beginning ought to be made by the people’s representatives by surrendering many of the extraordinary perks and subsidies enjoyed by them. Sacrifice must begin, and must be seen to begin, at the top, with our honourable MPs. Their leadership is bound to impact legislators at the state level. Moreover, this will win tremendous goodwill and acclaim from the people. As the first step, a national debate is in order.
The writer is honorary research professor at the Centre for Policy Research and former secretary general of the Lok Sabha