This article was published in Dawn News on March 29, 2019. It is available here:
A STORM of protest led by no less a person than the prime minister had engulfed the country after Punjab’s provincial assembly passed a bill on March 13 for increasing the salaries, allowances and benefits of its members and seven categories of other elected officials, including the chief minister, provincial ministers, the speaker, deputy speaker, advisers, special assistants and parliamentary secretaries.
The raise in legislators’ emoluments is almost always perceived negatively by the public. This time was no exception but two things made the raises hugely controversial. First, the quantum of raise in some categories was abnormally high as in the case of the chief minister where the salary and allowances were raised by almost 500 per cent or six times.
In addition, some extraordinary post-retirement benefits were approved for chief ministers including two SUVs of not less than 2500 cc capacity with five security personnel and a driver for each, one personal secretary and two junior clerks, a 1300 cc car maintained at state expense and a telephone allowance. Ministers’ salaries and allowances were also raised by more than 300pc or four times. Relatively, the most reasonable raise was allowed in the case of Punjab MPAs whose monthly salary and allowances amounting to Rs83,000 were almost doubled to Rs180,000.
The original rationale of the raise appears to be the ridiculously low emoluments of the Punjab MPAs especially in comparison with the salaries and allowances in the other provincial assemblies. Punjab MPAs’ monthly salary before the intended increase was Rs18,000, the total sum being Rs83,000 per month if allowances are added. The controversial Punjab Assembly bill sought to increase the total monthly salary and allowances of the MPAs to Rs180,000 compared to Rs153,800 for KP, Rs145,000 for Sindh and Rs440,000 for Balochistan.
A raise in the MPAs’ salaries should be allowed.
Interestingly, the KP Assembly had approved exactly the same raise in its MPAs’ gross monthly salary from Rs18,000 to Rs80,000 in January 2017 during the first PTI rule, showing that there was nothing extraordinary in the raise in Punjab MPAs’ salary especially in comparison to the other provinces.
While the public representatives’ salary raise in Punjab was being criticised in the media, the prime minister’s tweet expressing disappointment over the raise sealed the bill’s fate. Some confusion, however, seems to prevail regarding the current status of the bill but it seems almost certain that the bill, in its current form, will not be allowed to become the law.
The whole episode of increase in legislators’ salary and allowances, the subsequent media criticism and the prime minister’s ‘disappointment’ needs to be considered in a wider perspective. While the salaries, allowances and benefits of the chief minister, the ministers and some other officials may need to be reviewed, the MPAs’ salaries raise should be allowed.
Apparently, a large number of people are still stuck in the past when only those ventured into assemblies who had a steady and large income from ancestral lands, family business or custodianship of a shrine — and plenty of time to spare without having to earn a living. Not that this brand of politicians has totally vanished, but the world of politics and membership of legislatures have seen key changes over the past few decades which have directly impacted the question of monetary compensation for legislators.
The membership of a legislature is no more part-time work. The scope of work and demands on an elected member have increased tremendously in the recent past. Legislatures, their committees and parliamentary parties remain in session for extended periods. On top of this, constituency activities and attending to individual constituents’ issues consume the bulk of a legislator’s time. All these activities demand full-time attention.
An increasing number of persons from the middle class and professionals are now entering legislatures; they need a source of income to support themselves and their families while they devote all their time to their assembly membership. If we don’t want the legislatures’ membership to become the sole preserve of the rich, we need to provide a decent salary and allowances to elected representatives.
Politics is a public service but so is being a physician, a firefighter or a soldier. If we don’t mind paying salaries to these professionals, we should not shy away from paying adequate emoluments to legislators commensurate with their duties. We should not only give them salaries and allowances but research staff and office space too, so that they can perform their duties well as is the norm in established democracies. India, for example, pays not only salaries and allowances but post-retirement pension as well to its parliamentarians.