Politicians of different hues never miss an opportunity to assail one another. And the only time they seem to bury their differences and rise above party politics is when they want to give themselves a salary hike.
While the number of sittings of the House in Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh assemblies has seen a perceptible decline in the last few years, the lawmakers never bat an eyelid when it comes to taking care of their own monetary interests. The oft-repeated rationale cited for the hikes is the escalation in the cost of living.
The recent recommendation made by a committee of the Punjab assembly recommending a 60% hike in the salary and allowances of legislators is not the only case in point. Two months ago, in the neighbouring Haryana, the MLAs showered themselves with similar benevolence as the state assembly unequivocally passed a legislation to effect a 50% hike in the salaries of MLAs. The hill state of Himachal Pradesh is also not far behind. The HP assembly in August increased the salaries of the MLAs by 50% from Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 per month.
Buck does not stop at salary
Political analysts feel the MLAs in these states are a pampered lot. The buck does not stop only at the salary hike. The MLAs in the three states being endowed with several allowances and perks - constituency allowance, telephone allowance, sumptuary allowance, etc - also get an increase in these add-ons every time there is a salary hike.
For instance in Haryana, while the salary of MLAs has been enhanced from Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 per month, the constituency allowance has been hiked from Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 per month. The office allowance has been hiked from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 per month and telephone allowance has been fixed at Rs 15,000 instead of the Rs 10,000 per month.
In Himachal Pradesh, telephone allowance for MLAs was increased from Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 per month, constituency allowance was hiked from Rs 35,000 to Rs 60,000 per month and office allowance was increased from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 per month.
The recommended hike for Punjab legislators entail substantial increase -- salary and constituency allowance each from Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000, office allowance from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000, telephone allowance from Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000, and secretariat allowance from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000. A hike in the annual air travel allowance has also been proposed from the existing Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh.
Sampat Singh, Congress MLA from Nalwa in Haryana, said an MLA could function effectively only if he got adequate facilities, including salary and allowances. "To empower the legislators and ensure that they are well endowed, there is a need to have sufficiency in terms of salaries and allowances.
Salaries and emoluments are necessary for upright and effective functioning. After all, money does matter. At every workshop of MLAs, this issue is discussed. I have even suggested that a commission should be set up for fixing our salaries. This will ensure fairness and we will not be subjected to undue criticism. I don't believe in hypocrisy. There might be MLAs who don't need a hike. If they don't want it, they can give it in charity," said Singh, former finance minister.
Regarding the proposed hike in Punjab despite a fiscal crisis, Congress MLA from Punjab Sunil Jakhar, who is also the leader of the opposition in the assembly, said he wanted uniformity in the salary structure of MLAs across the country. Jakhar also justified the proposed free air travel allowance from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh, citing hike in air travel expenses. "Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have also hiked the salaries. We also want an MLA discretionary fund for the development of constituencies on the pattern of the MP local area development fund (MPLAD)."
Himachal Vidhan Sabha speaker BBL Butail said, "The cost of living has gone up manifold. There has been a steep rise in the prices of essential commodities. A legislator meets around 2,000 to 3,000 people per day and has to bear expenses like food. Besides, tours have become expensive due to rise in petrol prices. The legislators were finding it hard to meet the daily expenses. Both the ruling party and the opposition were united on the issue, so the bill was passed in the assembly.
Former Punjab deputy speaker Bir Devinder Singh termed the hike unjustified in the absence of timely payment of salaries to the employees. "Taking the steep price rise into consideration, the lawmakers should first take care of the state employees by timely paying them salaries and allowances before raising their own salaries," he said.