June 06, 2020
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Living On Hot Air

It was absurd to give MPs a salary of Rs 400 per month in 1954. Were they expected to live on air?

Living On Hot Air
illustration by Saurabh Singh UNDER the Indian Constitution, Parliament is authorised to determine the salaries and allowances of key functionaries such as the President, the Vice-President, judges, Union ministers, and the members of Parliament themselves. Whenever these are increased, there is invariably a howl of protest. This is particularly so as the press and the middle-class are very critical of MPs. Their perception is based on the number of disruptions in Parliament and the consequent loss of expensive national legislative time.

A few day back, Parliament increased the salaries, allowances and other benefits for its members. There has been the expected strong critical reaction. Some MPs have tried to explain and justify the increase. Mani Shankar Aiyer points to the numerous committees he slogs through in a long day's work. Pawan Bansal has made a telling and detailed refutation of the unwarranted criticism.

As an outsider—and one involved in the working of our electoral democracy—I wish to defend the current rise. I personally have felt for long years that Indian MPs are inadequately paid and poorly supported in their national work. First the current situation. Is it anybody's case that a salary of Rs 12,000 per month is too much? In fact, it was absurd in 1954 to give them a salary of Rs 400 per month. In my view, it stemmed from the utterly impractical decisions taken after independence. All people in public service were expected to serve the nation with blood and sweat, and live on fresh air. We have gone on maintaining this fiction, causing ourselves untold difficulties. Surely an MP who represents on average some 15 lakh people in an arduous endeavour for their welfare should be given a salary no less than that of the highest civil servants, judges, etc. The principle in fact has to be that the salary be reasonable for him and his family. There should never be an assumption that MPs might have private riches to supplement their salary. It should never be forgotten that MPs too represent the varying economic travails of different sections of Indians.

The constituency allowance has been raised from Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 and office expenses from Rs 9,500 to Rs 14,000 per month. This includes a meagre salary of Rs 6,000 to be paid to one solitary assistant. Is it anybody's case that this is reasonable and enough to maintain any kind of office? Or should the poor MP spread a tapad on the pavement, like your neighbourhood jyotshi, and sit waiting for constituency clients? People even seem to scoff at free rail passes and telephones, etc. These are seen to be some kind of goodies which the MP enjoys but does not deserve. Never forget that this is a subcontinental country. Each constituency is hundreds of kilometres long, and includes numerous small towns and villages. Does anyone realise the difficulties an MP has trying to keep in touch over vast areas and numbers? No assistance is given at present in terms of vehicles or cost of fuel, though many states are beginning to realise it. What about the minimum hospitality of tea and dal-roti to people coming from distant villages? No decent Indian can deny this to guests. Even our shastras do not allow such conduct. Spare a thought for the onerous burdens of an MP. Not all of them are lucky enough to be rich, own fine buildings or vehicles. If a few have these and more, it should not be taken as the norm. In order to promote probity, whether in the civil services or in our representatives, and to give an opportunity to the average Indian to sit in Parliament, it is essential that they are paid reasonably and given adequate facilities.

In the US Congress, every member is given a set of offices to cater adequately to his needs, in a fine building, close to the House. They are given enough personal staff to assist them in the discharging of their national work. They don't have assistants on meagre salaries. I remember a Cambridge friend who was with a Senator. Garry Hart too was a senatorial assistant once. Members of Congress have free postal facilities to mail material to their constituents, besides other facilities. I visited Ted Kennedy's office. Since he was so popular, and had so much mail, he was given more staff and space. The library of Congress is expected to assist members. Even the best of them cannot speak on every subject with knowledge and authority at short notice. I checked and saw how a senator's assistant can go to the library, and ask for immediate material on any subject under the sun. Within a day, the library produces a boxful of valuable material. The young assistant produces a brilliant draft, and the senator wins the admiration of the House and the world. Our poor MPs, I have always felt, cannot speak on bills with authority, because they lack such assistants. No wonder our legislation is poorly drafted and debated. Learning from the Americans, recently the British too have built fine offices for their MPs. We need immediately to put next to Parliament two elegant office blocks, one for each House. Every MP should have a proper office, qualified staff and all facilities such as computers, faxes and photocopiers. The building should be named after Dr Rajendra Prasad, the President of our Constituent Assembly, and G.V. Mavalankar, our first speaker.

I know the cocktail circuit class will laugh and say that our MPs are not like us. They do not deserve all this, nor can they use it. But the 750 people who are, no matter what you say, the voice of the people out there must be given the necessities for their work. This is their right, and not a gift, nor a waste. This is the only route which will make us do better. Certainly, more needs to be done to make Parliament a productive and calmer place. But I do take the point made by an MP in this controversy that the back-benchers need some opportunity to put the grievances of their people before the House. The time allocation is controlled far too much by the top echelons of parties, and the whip mechanism keeps MPs far too much in check, and silent obscurity. This needs correction.
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