Should MPs decide their own salaries?

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The Hindu, August 11, 2016

The decision to increase the salaries of Members of Parliament in India is always met by a public furore and adverse reactions in the media. The recent recommendation of the Parliamentary Committee on Salaries and Allowances led by Bharatiya Janata Party MP Yogi Adityanath to double the salaries of MPs has also raised eyebrows and drawn criticism from various corners. Yes, there are worries about the unreasonably high salary hike proposed by the committee, but more than that, it is the decision-making process that has added to the criticism ? the salary of the MPs is proposed to be increased by those who would be its beneficiaries. This, when it is done as per laid-down norms and a worked-out criteria for all other professions committed to public service: teachers, government officials, diplomats, judges and even for the highest offices of the President and the Vice-President.

Lack of a fixed criteria

Judging by comparative standards, the remuneration of a member of Indian Parliament is not very high compared to what is paid to a member of the national legislature in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. even going by purchasing power or similar indices. But what angers the people at large is that these hikes in salaries are proposed without any justification, without any timelines, without any formula or rationale, while there is a strict timeline regarding when the salary of a government official will be revised, justification about why such a revision is taking place and a formula laid down about how much the revised salary is going to be. One should also remember this is only for government employees, who constitute less than 2-3 per cent of the total workforce in India. A huge majority of people engaged in other kinds of gainful employment is left out of this process. The private sector employees are at the mercy of their employer for such revision while those self-employed, either in business, agriculture or in professional work, have neither of the two options available.

The issues related to salaries and perks for MPs is decided by a Joint Parliamentary Committee consisting of members of both Houses of Parliament. Any decision to raise the salary or perks of MPs is passed as an amendment Bill as per the recommendations of this parliamentary panel. Such amendment proposals are usually approved, without any delay, by an all-party consensus.

The global practices

India is not an exception to this practice where MPs decide their own salaries. In Canada, a multiparty parliamentary committee called the Board of Internal Economy enjoys the right to revise salaries of MPs. However, other comparative examples run contrary to this practice. In other advanced democracies such as the U.K. and Australia, the salaries of MPs are decided by an autonomous body called the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Remuneration Tribunal (set up by the Remuneration Tribunal Act, 1973), respectively. In a young democracy such as South Africa, salaries of lawmakers are decided by an autonomous body called the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers whose recommendations are subject to the final approval of the President. A newborn democracy like Bhutan also follows a similar practice according to which salaries are determined by an independent body.

In terms of how salaries are determined, Singapore provides a good case: salaries of lawmakers are decided by the Public Service Division located in the Prime Minister?s Office; the salaries are determined by a benchmark which is pegged to 60 per cent of the median income of the top 1,000 Singapore citizen earners. Adhering to this formula, salaries of the MPs are pegged at 17.5 per cent of the above-mentioned benchmark. Many other countries follow this practice. In both France and Japan, salaries of parliamentarians are decided in relation to the salaries of the highest-paid bureaucrats. Even in the U.S. Congress, salaries of senators are usually revised on an annual basis as part of an automatic adjustment process which reflects increase in living cost.

Thus it is imperative that in the larger interests of India?s democratic polity, it may be useful to create a mechanism of determining salaries, perks and allowances addressing the two concerns of legitimacy and accountability. This would foster higher levels of trust in our political institutions such as parties, which have over the years witnessed dwindling levels of trust. The result of a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicates that the level of trust in political parties has declined from 43 per cent to 37 per cent during the last one decade.

Interestingly, the Prime Minister had remarked a few months ago that lawmakers should not decide their own salaries; rather it should be linked to the salaries of some important offices in the country like the President or the Vice-President. It seems to be a good proposal worth considering and implementing.

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