Sucheta Dalal :When everybody else takes pay-cuts our netas get a hike
Sucheta Dalal

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When everybody else takes pay-cuts, our netas get a hike  

August 29, 2001

Did you think India was grappling with a tough economic situation? Bankrupt state and municipal treasuries, a fiscal deficit careening out of control, slowdown in demand and slump in prices of basic commodities, divestment of public sector undertakings, slashing of subsidies, domestic industry reeling under the impact of international competition and frequent financial scandals and failures - these account for the majority of media headlines in the last few months.

To combat their bankruptcy several states and municipal corporations are asking employees to accept a cut in salaries; bonuses and leave travel perks. The private sector is faring no better. Many companies have blotches of red on their balance sheets. Instead of focusing on production and sales, they are busy with retrenchment, handing out pink slips, downsizing and voluntarily retiring off thousands of employees. The information technology sector, which was to power India's economic prosperity, has shed 10,000 jobs in the last year.

Ordinary investors, pensioner, charities, non-government organisations and trusts have seen their incomes dwindle as interest rates on their savings have suffered a substantial drop. The decline in the inflation rate seems to do nothing for their budgets and at the same time the failure of Unit Trust of India and the precarious nature of our public financial institutions have left them with few safe investment avenues.

If all these problems have a common factor, it is the role of politicians. Rampant corruption, populist bonanzas and ill-conceived projects have wiped-out state treasuries and sloth and inefficiency compound the problems. Political meddling with loans and appointments at banks and institutions are the main cause for their losses - the prime minister admitted as much recently in connection with the failure of co-operative banks.

Decision-making remains paralysed by the continuous disruption of Parliament and important legislation remain pending for months on end. For all the demonstration of lung power and frequent walk-outs, the Parliament has been bereft of any meaningful debate or opposition on any major issue including the Union Budget - and the one issue of which all parties remain conspicuously silent is the several billion rupees that the government has been giving away as bail-outs to the financial sector. So, what do our politicians think they deserve for all the havoc that they collectively cause? Believe it or not a hefty raise. Last week the Lok Sabha - minus the left parties who admitted that they do not deserve a raise - cleared the trebling of basic salaries for members of Parliament and a huge increase in their already eye-popping perks.

What have they got?

Following the recommendations of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Salaries and Allowances headed by K P Singh Deo the MPs' salaries have been trebled from Rs 4000 to Rs 12,000. As for the perks - they have become even more mind-boggling.

For starters there is the sprawling bungalow or flats at the best addresses in New Delhi (those with bungalows are charged a nominal Rs 2000 a month and the ones with flats even less), near free electricity (50,000 units per MP), free water consumption, unlimited free railway travel (first class with companion), almost unlimited air travel (they can travel anywhere in the country with a spouse or companion 32 times and another eight times from their constituency to Delhi), three free telephones (one in the constituency, one in Delhi and a third for the internet connection) plus 100,000 free calls a year on any other. They have now come up with a new gimmick. The unutilised free phone calls are now being transferred to their cell phones.

Apart from these, MPs are given Rs 6,000 a month as a secretarial salary, Rs 3,500 per month for stationery and franking allowance and Rs 400 per day for attending Parliament. They are also given up to 80 vouchers for the antiquated practice of bagging out-of-turn gas connections per quarter. It that were not enough, each MP gets Rs 20 million each from the Members of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) fund - for being spent on pet local project in their constituencies. This continues even though the Comptroller and Auditor General's office has alleged that norms have been violated in its usage in several cases.

Further, immediately after an MP completes a term in his office, he is entitled to a pension.

This raise to 790 super-privileged persons is resented by most of India's billion-strong population.

However, such is the nature of the democratic process that there is nothing that anyone can do about it. Are our MPs satisfied? Not a chance. Except for the left parties who refused to vote on the decision hiking politician's pay, the others feel that they deserve better.

Indian legislators, they say are the lowest paid in the world they say - but hey, so are all classes of Indian employees. Salaries have not been hiked for nine years, they say - but in the same period their level of corruption and venality of this class has multiplied. Some like Mani Shankar Aiyer are angry that the media refuses to recognise or report their hard work and is only focused on gimmicks. That may be true, but the proof of how many MPs do their homework or are serious about national issues can only be measured by the actual work that takes place in Parliament and the number of times the opposition has effectively intervened to improve the lot of the people. By that yardstick, the netas would have to take a hefty pay cut.

Instead, they have already given themselves an undeserved hike and even the left parties who opposed it will be richer. (Left front MPs hand over almost their entire pay packets to their parties).

Resentment against pay hikes for politicians and suspicion about their motives is a worldwide phenomenon whether it is Canada or Zimbabwe sparking off a debate on certain key issue. For example: should MPs be deciding and ruling on their own salaries and perks or should the task be assigned to an independent body whose decisions are binding on government? Should these salaries be more transparently calculated so that the people know what their representatives are making? Third, shouldn't the salaries be linked to performance and increased accountability? (In India, the big concern is the damage caused by the frequent disruption of parliament and innumerable adjournments). Fourth, shouldn't such disruption be at a cost to the MP who stalls Parliament? Finally, shouldn't a true and honest declaration of assets be the least that one can demand from politicians?

Yes, all of the above ought to happen, but the voice and the resentment of the people will only be heard if the trickle of letters and newspaper reports get converted into a massive people's campaign to demand accountability. It is already happening in countries, which are less beset with poverty.

For instance, the Canadians have implemented two measures. First, the politicians themselves have called the bluff of the righteous objectors (invariably in the opposition) who still benefited from a majority vote to increase their pay cheques. They have introduced the "opting-out clause" which forces politicians to leave their moolah where their mouth is. If they vote against the loot, they are supposed to stand up and say so. Were such a rule to exist, our left parties would have to do the same.

People's groups in Canada are also letting politicians know the extent of their disapproval of fatter pension pay-outs by asking citizens to take their protests directly to the prime minister. Citzens' groups have asked the people to flood their MPs offices with calls, faxes and e-mails to stop them enriching themselves.

In India, massive illiteracy and poverty combine to shield the venal political class. People are resigned to the corruption of their political representatives and are frustrated by the lack of choice - one set of venal netas is only replaced by another. Only a peoples' movement and a mass education campaign would make a difference - but that too would need a strong and charismatic national leader - something that India seems to have stopped producing altogether.

-- Sucheta Dalal