By the members, for the members

Print edition : September 22, 2006

LOK SABHA SPEAKER Somnath Chatterjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with other MPs at Parliament House in New Delhi. A file photograph. - V. SUDERSHAN

It is high time that a high-level national commission was set up to consider the changes in the remuneration and facilities of MPs.

THE exuberant voices of Members of Parliament (MPs) in unison helped the easy passage of the Bill to hike their salaries and allowances recently. For a change, there was admirable cooperation between the Members of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and those of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and others in the Opposition, except the Left party Members who struck a discordant note to oppose the manner in which Members voted for their own financial interests.

In the early period of the House of Commons in England, payment of maintenance charges of a Member was the responsibility of the constituency he represented. Very rarely did a Member get anything from his constituency and there was a tendency on the part of many constituencies to apply for exemption from sending their representatives to the House. Until the 19th century, Members of the Commons were largely drawn from the rich and feudal families. Only in 1906, when a significant number of Labour Party representatives entered Parliament, was there a need to provide some payment for full-time Members. In making an annual remuneration of 400 to an MP in need, Lloyd George, Chancellor of Treasury, apologetically said: "It is not a remuneration, it is not a salary, it is only a minimum allowance to enable men to come here to render incalculable service to the state." Although Members' salaries were raised after that, well-to-do Members did not take any payment from Parliament for their public service, as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin stated: "I am fortunately well off. I need not draw upon the salary provided."

In India, the members of the Central Assembly received Rs.20 per diem in 1921. In May 1945, they were paid a daily allowance of Rs.30 and a conveyance allowance of Rs.15, which were consolidated to Rs.45 and continued to be paid to the members of the Constituent Assembly from December 1946 onwards.

Mahatma Gandhi insisted that persons in public life should take a minimum salary, just enough to maintain a simple life. Some members of the Constituent Assembly chose to draw only Rs.30 and several others surrendered their allowances to the local Congress committees and took lesser amounts fixed by the party.

When the Draft Constitution provision on the salaries and allowances of the MPs came up for discussion on May 20, 1949, a suggestion was made to pay between Rs.750 and Rs.1,000 as monthly salary. There was strong objection to this high amount and the Assembly retained the daily allowance of Rs. 45. Even this was considered too much in the context of the extent of poverty prevailing in India. On October 17, 1949, V.I. Muniswami Pillai (Madras) moved a resolution to reduce the daily allowance to Rs.40. He said: "I know as a matter of fact that this is a small sacrifice. This august body has to give a lead to the country to improve the economic conditions that prevail today... I contacted many members of this august Assembly and found that they are all unanimously of the opinion that a five-rupee cut in the daily allowance will not be a hardship." The amendment was accepted unanimously and the daily allowance of Rs. 40 was in force from that date in the Constituent Assembly, the Provisional Parliament and the First Lok Sabha until 1954.

Article 102 of the Constitution provides that members shall be entitled "to receive such salaries and allowances as may from time to time be determined by Parliament law". Accordingly, Speaker G.V. Mavlankar appointed a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), which recommended a daily allowance of Rs.35 without any salary or other remuneration. This meant a reduction of Rs.5 in daily allowance, which was not acceptable to the post-Independence MPs. After some animated discussion, the Members returned the proposal to the JPC for reconsideration. In its second report, the Committee recommended either a monthly salary of Rs.300 plus a daily allowance of Rs.20 or Rs.40 per diem.

DR. S. RADHAKRISHNAN addressing the Constituent Assembly session on the midnight of August 14-15, 1947.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The Members were not satisfied with this recommendation also. In the end, they managed to pass the Salaries and Allowances of Members of Parliament Act 1954, which proposed Rs.400 as monthly salary and Rs.21 as daily allowance. Pension was included in 1976 and the short title was changed to Salaries and Allowances and Pension of the Members Parliament Act, 1954.

The salary was increased to Rs.500 in 1964, Rs.750 in 1983, Rs.1,000 in 1985, Rs.1,500 in 1988, Rs.4,000 in 1998, Rs.12,000 in 2001 and to the recent scale of Rs.16,000 in 2006.

The daily allowance was increased to Rs.31 in 1964, Rs.51 in 1969, Rs.75 in 1983, Rs.150 in 1988, Rs.200 in 1993 (subject to the members signing the Attendance Register), Rs.400 in 1998, Rs.500 in 2001 and then to the present rate of Rs.1,000.

The Salaries and Allowances Act has been amended 27 times since 1954. The Joint Committee on Salaries and Allowances for MPs was constituted in September 1954 to frame the rules under the Act. The Committee consists of 10 members nominated by the Lok Sabha Speaker and five nominated by the Rajya Sabha Chairman.

The Committee determines its own rules of procedure and is empowered to make, after consulting the government, rules on matters specified in Sub section (3) of Section 9 of the Act.

Its reports are not presented to Parliament. The rules do not take effect until they are approved and confirmed by the Rajya Sabha Chairman and the Lok Sabha Speaker, and are published in the Gazette. Such publication, under the Act, is the conclusive proof that rules have been duly made.

As the report is not submitted to Parliament, the Members will not know the details of the recommendations, the background material collected, the rationale of the norms applied by the Committee and the extent of the government's acceptance of the recommendations.

Normally, when a Bill is referred to a Select Committee or to a departmentally related Standing Committee, there is scope for the Committee to invite evidence from prominent members, citizens and experts. The Committee will submit to Parliament its reports, and give the minutes of its deliberations and the basis of its recommendations to Members and the public.

It is not known why the deliberations, the report and the full text of recommendations of the Joint Committee on salaries should be kept a secret, and why the government should adopt a selective approach in choosing the recommendations to be included in the Bill and considered by Parliament.

While introducing the Bill in the Lok Sabha on August 23, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi quoted from the report that the Members "have brought out a table which would show that Members of Parliament of India are the lowest paid parliamentarians in the world".

The Rules of Procedure of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha contain a provision that if a Minister or a Member quotes in the House a document, he may be required to place the relevant document on the table of the House unless the Speaker or the Chairman considers that its tabling will be inconsistent with the public interest.

It cannot be said that production of the report on MPs' salaries and allowances will be inconsistent with the public interest. On the contrary, its non-presentation will be against the public interest.

It is said that an expert in management affairs suggested the linking of the salaries of the Members with the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which induced the Committee to increase the salary to Rs.16,000.

However, it is understood that the Committee did not apply CPI when it revised the daily allowance and many other items. The Committee appears to have fixed the daily allowance at Rs.1,000 on the grounds that a similar quantum is already being allowed in a State legislature.

It seems to have applied different norms and yardsticks and adopted the practices of various legislatures in India and abroad without any rhyme or reason.

Regarding the Minister's reference to the report that Indian MPs are the lowest paid parliamentarians in the world, let us see how the remunerations of legislators are fixed in some of the advanced countries.

In the United States, the Bill of Rights as drafted in 1789 contained 12 amendments. The States ratified only 10, which formed part of the Constitution. One of the rejected amendments related to the salaries and allowances of the members. It stated: "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened."

As this amendment was not ratified by the States, the Congress fixed the daily allowance of members at $6. In practice, payment to a member came to about $1,000 a year. Even this was considered to be higher than the annual income of an average citizen. There were accusations that Congressmen were dragging out the business of the legislature just to collect more remuneration. The Congress voted for an annual salary of $1,500 in 1816. This steep increase infuriated the voters so much that they defeated many sitting members just on this issue. The next Congress reverted to the payment of per diem allowances.

However, the salaries of the U.S. Congressmen had been raised regularly. As there was public protest against frequent increases based on votes by members to benefit themselves, the second amendment of the Bill of Rights, which was left un-ratified in 1879, was revived in 1992 and ratified by the States to become a constitutional mandate. Accordingly, any increase in the salaries and allowances, even if passed unanimously by the U.S. Congress, will come into force only after an election of the Representatives, which is held once in two years. However, under the system of Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), the remunerations of the Congressmen are adjusted automatically to offset the rising cost of living.

In deference to public criticism against Members voting for their own salaries and perks, the British Parliament constituted in 1971 a Review Body on Top Salaries, which was renamed in 1993 as Review Body on Senior Salaries. This is an independent authority consisting of non-members who have distinguished themselves in high offices in judicial and managerial positions. It advises the Prime Minister from time to time on the pay and pensions of MPs, Ministers, defence personnel, judicial officers, senior civil officers and persons holding other such high posts of public appointment. The body takes into account the evidence given by the public and the beneficiaries on wider economic factors and the affordability of its recommendations. The recommendations are presented to Parliament in the form of an amending Bill, which is passed after a full debate in the House.

In India also, whenever the question of revision of the salaries and allowances of the Members came up for consideration, there had been suggestions from several MPs that the remuneration should be decided by an independent commission and not by the Members themselves.

In May 2006, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee urged the Prime Minister to consider, as a priority, setting up an independent commission to revise the pay scales of MPs. During the consideration of the Salaries and Allowances Amendment Bill, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister assured Parliament that a `permanent institutional mechanism' would be established to ensure changes in the remuneration of MPs. Such assurances have been given several times in the past.

One of the terms of reference for the JPC of 1993, constituted by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, was: "To suggest a mechanism by which the remuneration and the facilities of the Members of Parliament could be fixed without the need for the Members of Parliament to vote such facilities and remuneration for themselves." However, the interim report submitted by the Committee on December 22, 1993, did not make any recommendation on this aspect. Instead, the Committee introduced the Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) scheme to make annual grants to implement small projects, at the discretion of MPs, in their constituencies. Such a scheme has been undertaken nowhere else in the world. In its working, the scheme has become immune to audit objections and none of the parliamentary committees has so far made any serious examination of the irregularities pointed out.

In defence of the present procedure of deciding MPs' salaries, it has been stated that as Parliament is the supreme authority in enacting laws and sanctioning grants, it has no other option but to use the same authority to decide on this issue. Regarding the legislative sovereignty of Parliament, it is known that the Mother of Parliaments is more powerful in its unquestionable legislative primacy.

In his classical work The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot said: "A Parliament, like every other sort of sovereign, has peculiar feelings, peculiar prejudices, peculiar interests; and it may pursue these in opposition to the desires, and even in opposition to the well-being of the nation. It has its selfishness as well as its caprice and its parties" (Oxford University Press, 1968; page 204).

To prevent Members of Parliament from taking selfish decisions, he recommended: "The intervention of an extrinsic impartial and capable authority - if such can be found - will undoubtedly restrain the covetousness as well as the fastidiousness of a choosing assembly" (page 207).

Walter Bagehot wrote thus in 1867; a century later, the British Parliament came forward to establish an outside authority, as described above, to advise the Prime Minister on revision of the salaries of the Members.

It is high time a high-level national commission was set up in India to consider the changes in the remuneration and facilities, not only of MPs, but of persons holding top posts in all constitutional authorities. The commission may hold a public inquiry and submit its report for the consideration of the legislature concerned.

Secondly, leaders like Lalu Prasad propound that unless the salaries of the Members are increased adequately, they will become corrupt. We have to find out the quantum of total remuneration that may be taken as `adequate' to prevent corruption. The limit may vary from person to person, from time to time.

In this regard, Mahatma Gandhi once observed: "Giving high salaries for fear of spread of corruption would be, as the saying goes, killing the buffalo for its skin. In other words, it means that for preventing a man from taking a bribe occasionally, he should be paid a permanent bribe in the form of a big salary" (Navajeevan, July 26, 1931) What Gandhiji said three-quarters of a century ago is still valid.

Under the Rules of Procedure of Parliament and the Freedom of Information Act, the public is entitled to knowledge of the full text of the Joint Committee' report, its consultations with the government and the norms adopted in fixing the salaries and allowances. Parliament should come forward to make public these details.

I for one firmly believe that legislators in India should be given adequate facilities to fulfil their responsibilities as representatives of the people. Having been myself a Member of Parliament for some time, I am aware of the poor conditions of services and I convey my deep sympathies to the `poorest parliamentarians of the world' in India. But their needs should be assessed by an extrinsic body, through an open inquiry and public participation. Many Members of Parliament may be poor as they represent a large section of the poor in the country, if not in the world; but slowly they are becoming poor in the esteem of the people, who watch on television the deliberations in Parliament.

In his introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution by A.V. Dicey, E.C.S. Wade cautioned: "It must not be forgotten that the inevitable consequence of the supremacy of Parliament in the legislative field is that there can be no check upon the unscrupulous use of power by a government which finds itself in command of a majority in the House of Commons."

This should serve as a warning to the Members who succeeded in establishing a temporary majority in Parliament in order to effect a steep hike in their pay and perks.

A political decision should be backed by political morality. Without morality, no decision lasts long in a functioning democracy.

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