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Navneet Sharma, Hindustan Times
CHANDIGARH, August 24, 2013
They can easily be called non-performing assets or a drain on the exchequer. It is an open secret from the time Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, after inducting the permissible number of ministers, accommodated several other legislators as chief parliamentary secretaries (CPS) to circumvent the constitutional cap on the ministry's size and bestowed the perks of power on them.

These chosen ones have "all perks and no work", but none seemed to care about the financial strain on the resource-starved state exchequer till Amritsar (east) MLA Dr Navjot Kaur Sidhu, spoke out against the futility of the post she holds in the government. The first-time BJP legislator's outburst, in which she aired her exasperation, has brought into sharp focus the office of the CPS, which, in simple terms and popular perception, has become a parking slot for status-seeking legislators.

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The strength of a state council of ministers, as per the 2003 constitutional amendment, cannot exceed 15% of the total number of members in the assembly. Accordingly, the number of ministers, including the chief minister, in Punjab, which has a 117-strong state assembly, cannot be more than 18. Though the constitutional amendment was brought with the intention of putting an end to resource-guzzling jumbo cabinets and the post of CPS does not exist in the Constitution, Badal has 20 CPS in his team in addition to 15 ministers.

Of the 69 MLAs of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the CM has accommodated half of them as ministers or CPS, cocking a snook at the constitutional cap.

 The CPS, 17 from the SAD and three from the BJP, have the rank of minister of state and are costing taxpayers crores of rupees a year. They have been allotted different departments to assist the ministers, but have no governmental powers.

While Dr Sidhu has spoken up, several others, though equally discontented, do not want to take the risk of upsetting their party bosses. "We neither have any say on files routed through us nor are we invited by the ministers for meetings," said an Akali CPS from Doaba. Another rued: "The CM had issued standing orders to the ministers to send the files through us, but who cares? We are considered untouchables by the ministers." One also keeps hearing stories about turf wars between the CPS and the ministers once in a while.

The malaise is not limited to Punjab alone. In neighbouring Haryana, Congress chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda has 11 CPS in his team. While he had several party MLAs as CPS in his first term, Hooda, who did not get a majority in 2009, accommodated three Independents and two other 'defector' MLAs as CPS to win their loyalty by sharing the spoils of power with them, besides inducting some of them as ministers. One of them had resigned in June 2011.

Similarly, his Himachal Pradesh counterpart Virbhadra Singh has 10 ministers and eight CPS in his team. Senior advocate Satya Pal Jain says, "The appointment of parliamentary secretary or CPS is outside the spirit of the Constitution as there is no mention of these appointments in it. There is only provision for MP, MLA, cabinet minister, state minister and deputy minister. If a CPS were to be appointed in such a manner, there was no need to carry out the 91st amendment in the Constitution."

The appointments in Punjab were challenged before the Punjab and Haryana high court on the same ground in April 2007 and later the appointments in Haryana were also challenged. Advocate Jagmohan Singh Bhatti, who filed the petition, had informed the court that the appointment of CPS was a violation of the 91st amendment. Till now, the case has been heard by six chief justices of the high court, but is still pending. The matter is listed for hearing on September 24. In this case, the petitioner had also submitted that the Himachal Pradesh high court had in 2005 set aside the appointment of parliamentary secretaries, terming it "unconstitutional" and similar orders were passed by the Goa bench of the Bombay high court in 2007 in case of a Goa CPS. "The Himachal assembly had later passed an illegal Act to appoint the CPS, which has not been challenged yet," Jain, who had contested the HP case in 2005, adds.

(With inputs from Pawan Sharma, Rajesh Moudgil and Sanjeev Verma)