The issue of salaries for members of parliament (MPs) and members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) has been a matter of public discussion in recent weeks as several state assemblies have voted to increase the salaries of their MLAs. The views have been mixed. An advertisement in most national dailies by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat provides an opportunity to put this issue in perspective.
Usually the debate is confined to three aspects: what the salary of an MP and MLA should be, who decides this and how. During some TV debates on the issues, an almost radical view has come up, which says that discussing the salary, and only the salary, of MPs and MLAs misses the point entirely. MPs and MLAs should be given a generous salary but this should be a consolidated lump sum and nothing should be paid to them over and above that – no allowances nor any reimbursement of expenses.
According to this view, instead of the current salary levels (50,000 to one lakh rupees or so), the lump sum salary could be in the range of five to 15 lakh rupees per month. With this consolidated salary, there will no additional subsidies, and each MP and MLA will need to pay for their needs themselves, including housing, transport, phone bills, electricity, medical facilities and so on.
The logic behind this suggestion is similar to what is followed by the corporate sector in determining the ‘salary package’ offered to the people they hire. Corporate entities follow the principle of ‘cost to company,’ the sum total of what it will cost the company to employ a particular person or the total expenditure that the company will have to undertake to keep the employee on its payrolls.
Applying a similar logic to MPs and MLAs will help us understand the relevant ‘cost to country’ to keep them in office.
Does this proposal have any advantages over the current system of salary plus allowances plus reimbursement of expenses? Plenty.
Persons joining the government of India, even at higher levels, used to be taught a principle for spending public money – ‘a public servant spends public money as a man of ordinary prudence spends his own money’.
How do our MPs and MLAs spend public money? This is where the advertisement in national dailies from a few days ago comes in as a revealing example. In this advertisement, the “Rajya Sabha Secretariat House Committee” invites suggestions on the “management of monkeys and dogs in MPs’ residential areas in Delhi”. The committee “solicits views/suggestions in the management of monkeys and dogs from the various stakeholders and those possessing expertise in the relevant field. Those desirous of submitting written or/and oral suggestion (sic) in the matter may send two copies of their memoranda, neatly typed (either in English or Hindi)…”
The advertisement raises two question: first, how much does it cost to place such an advertisement in most national dailies? Second, if residents of a colony have a monkey and/or a dog problem in their neighbourhood, would they put such an advertisement in major national dailies?
Given that the answer to the second question is most definitely no, we are forced to ask – why do our MPs and MLAs spend public money in such a manner?
The answer is simple and straightforward. They do not consider it to be ‘their’ money.
If they were paid a lump sum salary and had to tackle a monkey and/or dog problem in their neighbourhood, it is extremely doubtful that such an advertisement would have been issued.
It may appear to be a trivial issue on the surface but it is a symptom of a far deeper malaise. Our ‘public’ representatives and the so-called ‘public’ servants (about whom Verghese Kurian famously once said that they are neither ‘public’ nor ‘servants’) do not consider public money to be their own. ‘Public’ money seems to be no one’s money as our public is perhaps not enlightened or concerned enough, possibly because the proportion of tax payers is low. That is why there is always talk of ‘state’ funding of elections and not of ‘public’ funding of elections, lest the public comes to realise that it is their money that is proposed to be spent on elections.
Thus, it isn’t too difficult to realise that the mind-set of public representatives, public officials and even of the public needs a change.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former professor, dean, and director in-charge of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.