PUNE, INDIA // The decision by Indian legislators to vote themselves a fivefold salary hike in the monsoon session of parliament this month has elicited scathing criticism from various citizens' groups around the country. This self-serving decision, many of them assert, is symptomatic of rapidly eroding Gandhian values of public service that were once the hallmark of India's multiparty political system.
India's 795 MPs, from the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, the upper and lower houses of parliament, currently make 16,000 rupees (Dh1,260) per month. If the proposal is approved - which it most likely will as the proposal has generated scant opposition from MPs - their salary would rise to 80,000 rupees. Along with the salary hike, there is also a proposal to double the parliamentarians' daily allowance of 1,000 rupees while parliament is in session, and to grant them at least 34 yearly plane tickets at state expense so that they can "remain in touch with their electorate".
PK Bansal, India's parliamentary affairs minister, says there is "nothing wrong" with the proposed pay hike to offset soaring inflation. The increased salary, he contends, will enable MPs to discharge their duties in parliament "more effectively". Indian MPs, who enjoyed their last pay rise in 2006, say they are the lowest paid in the world. Their current salary pales in comparison to US senators who take home US$174,000 (Dh639,000) annually.
"MPs are engaged in constituency and parliamentary work on a full-time basis and often have no other independent source of income," said Sanjay Nirupam, a Congress MP from Mumbai, who views himself as a "professional politician". "An MP is required to maintain at least two offices and houses, one in his constituency and the other in New Delhi. On average, he attends to around 200 residents of his constituency in a day and at least 20 at his Delhi office. How is he to pay for all this?"
But citizens groups scoff at this argument. Besides the basic salaries, MPs accrue a slew of perks of privileges - free rent, free electricity, free phone calls, handsome travel allowances, office allowances - that add up to 3.8 million rupees per year. Vivek Velankar, the president of the Pune-based Sajag Nagrik Manch, a citizens' rights group, says the decision is unethical given how common citizens in this country of 1.1 billion have been enduring crippling hardships over the past year owing to rising inflation. Barring a privileged five per cent of Indians employed in the country's organised sector, he contends, the majority of Indians have zero scope of increasing their earnings in these difficult times.
"It is like Nero playing the fiddle when Rome was burning," he said, arguing that politicians ought to offer solidarity to India's poor. Mr Velankar launched an online petition this week to gather public support against the proposed pay hike. The petition, currently signed by hundreds, will be active for about a week, before Mr Velankar sends it to the prime minister and leaders of the main political parties.
But public anger, beyond the proposed salary increase, is also about the discredited image of politicians, derided widely as criminal and corrupt. During India's freedom movement, Mahatma Gandhi memorably advocated a Spartan lifestyle for elected government representatives, insisting that they were peoples' servants, not their masters. Delegates from the Congress party, which was involved with Gandhi in the freedom struggle, travelled third class in crowded trains, surviving on a paltry daily allowance of 40 rupees. Indian MPs had to wait until 1954 - seven years after independence - to draw on a monthly salary.
But Gandhi's prinicples have long been forgotten in a rapidly modernising India. Today's MPs travel in luxury cars, fly in chartered planes, and live in mansions, adding to their self-serving image. A study conducted last year by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a New Delhi-based electoral monitor, revealed that 300 MPs elected to the Lok Sabha were multimillionaires and 150 MPs had criminal cases pending against them, 73 of them involved in serious crimes like murder.
"Our MPs clearly don't deserve a salary hike," The Times of India, the highest selling national daily newspaper, said in a recent editorial. Any pay rise, the newspaper said, must be linked to performance. "The MPs - well known for shouting slogans and creating mayhem in parliament - have neglected one of their basic duties of crafting and debating legislation," it said. The average number of sittings of the Lok Sabha has declined to 81 between 1992 and 2001 from a yearly average of 124 in the first decade of independence, a sharp decline of 34 per cent. The annual average of the number of pieces of legislation voted on and passed has fallen to 50 from 68 in the same period.
Even more absurd, the newspaper noted, is that MPs get to decide their own salaries and the quantum of their pay raise. In 2006, Somnath Chatterjee, the speaker of the Lok Sabha at the time, suggested to his fellow MPs that it was unethical to vote on their personal pay packet and recommended the setting up of an independent commission to decide on the matter. His suggestion was dismissed outright by a majority of MPs.