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Between the line
 

Are MPs trustees of people?
July, 2015

 

Over the years, I have found the Supreme Court in Pakistan, a country under constant influence of military, is far more progressive than ours, although India has been functioning in a free, democratic environment. Not long ago, lawyers in Pakistan have fought and won the battle for supremacy of the Chief Justice who was sequestered and suppressed by the army chiefs like Zia-ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf.

Once again, the Pakistan Supreme Court has made us see our face in the mirror. In an epoch-making judgment, the apex court has held that the “massive expenses” incurred on the palatial President’s house, Prime Minister’s house or the various governors’ houses, as well as the extravagant lifestyles of their occupants and the perks enjoyed by government functionaries at public expense were “a matter of government policy” involving “political questions.”

How radical is the judgment as compared to our functioning? The Pakistan’s Supreme Court said: “In a country burdened by foreign debt, where a substantial percentage of the populous lived under the poverty line with a lack of access to basic healthcare and education, such extravagant expenditure was not only against the traditions of simplicity of the Holy Prophet, but also violates the fundamental rights of the citizens.”

This echoes the advice of Mahatma Gandhi to those elected to different offices in independent India. He said that they should behave like the trustees, not masters. He wanted them to draw salaries so that their emoluments are not very divergent from the average income of a person. MPs, MLAs and those elected to top positions in municipalities seldom recognize that. There is no escaping the fact, as the Pakistan Supreme Court’s judgment says, that public property is “a public trust in the hands of public functionaries.”

I wish the court had commented on the perennial demand of the elected members for increasing emoluments and perks. But it refrained from doing so on the ground that they involved political questioning. Technically, the court was correct. But the judges’ obiter dicta would have helped because the judiciary, still respected, would have initiated a debate on lavish spending by political leaders and their assistants.

Their style of living is not matched by politicians even in the advanced, rich countries in the West. Who would point out to them that they are already in a higher income bracket? The media once used to do so. But today the owners, the individuals and those in the corporate sector supervise and even dictate the headlines given to a story, apart from what the paper would print. Their personal prejudice or preference has played havoc with the media. This is, indeed, a sorry state of affairs. But no other better method has been found, not even in the West, where the press is more developed than in our part of the world.

The Press Council of India which was constituted to set higher standards in journalism has got lost in its assertion to be the No. 1 in telling journalists and newspapers what to do or what not to do. I recall as a member of the council how during the days of press censorship the then chairman, a retired Supreme Court judge, curried favour with the government by writing to the then Information Minister, V.C. Shukla, that he, as the Press Council chairman, has been able to manage the Council members not to pass any resolution to criticize censorship.

The Janata government brought out a white paper to highlight this attitude even at the highest level during the emergency. But when Mrs Indira Gandhi repeated the same thing after coming back to power in 1980, there was none in the media or at the Council to point a finger at her. Even today, when the Press Council has been reconstituted to give representation to editors and working journalists, it has hardly made any difference.

Probably, the Press Council of India has to be replaced by some other representative body as it has happened in the United Kingdom. There, too, it was found that the Press Council had run out of steam. In the eighties, the Press Council in the UK was replaced by the Press Complaints Council (PCC). The experience of media there has not been too happy, but none in the government or in the media has thought of anything innovative. The matter rests there. In India, I concede, there is no possibility of the re-imposition of censorship. Yet, the role of Press Council needs to be redefined to be more purposeful. Otherwise, it will be just an office on paper.

In the same way, I agree with former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee’s suggestion that an independent pay commission should be constituted to look into the emoluments of parliament members. There is no doubt that they need to be paid more to meet the rising cost of living.  But there should be a proper study undertaken to assess how much increase would be in order. There is merit in what Chatterjee has said. MPs themselves cannot decide about the hike.

Similarly, there has to be a parity on salaries and perks drawn by the elected members in different states. At present, the Kerala legislators who are not ministers are said to be drawing a salary of Rs. 21,300 every month while his counterpart in Delhi gets Rs. 50,000 and in Punjab Rs. 54,500. The break-up of the Kerala MLA’s reported pay packet is Rs. 300 as salary, Rs. 3,500 as constituency allowance, Rs. 4,000 for telephone charges, Rs. 6,000 by way of fuel and railway coupons and a permanent travel allowance of Rs. 7,500.

Those elected should get one consolidated sum which should include all expenditures, including accommodation, transport, electricity, water, telephone, etc. This will enable the people to know how much an elected member cost the exchequer. Picture gets blurred and adds to confusion when emoluments are given under different heads. It would be better to have one yardstick for states and the centre. Only then will the nation know how far Gandhiji’s advice on trusteeship has been followed. 

 
 
 
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