Cease the distractions, seize the moment-THE HINDU -16-04-2020


Cosmetic cuts:

The 30% cut in the Rs.1 lakh per month salary and the Rs.27,000 cut in office and constituency allowances amount to savings of less than Rs.5 crore per month. These amounts are immaterial for the Central government with an average monthly budget of Rs.2.5-lakh crore. Interestingly, the United Kingdom has increased the allowance for Members of Parliament by USD10,000 to help them manage extra costs of working from home. During the crisis, Members of Parliament should be deliberating on the actions and policies to be taken to manage the epidemic, and the costs and consequences of various alternatives.

They should also be trying to figure out ways to have committee meetings and even the meetings of the full House through alternate mechanisms such as video-conferencing. The British Parliament has created a page on its website tracking all government orders related to the pandemic, and its Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee is scrutinising the orders.

Parliament absent:

The Indian Parliament adjourned on March 23, the day after the janata curfew, in view of the pandemic. In the previous week, even as the crisis was unfolding, Parliament was debating the establishment of a Sanskrit University and an Ayurveda institute, and that of regulatory boards for aircraft, Indian Systems of Medicine and Homoeopathy. Instead, we get the symbolic gesture of reductions in pay and allowances. The cancellation of MPLADS for two years, on the other hand, is a welcome move.

While this is not insignificant, the larger benefit is that this will help Members of Parliament focus on their roles as national legislators. MPLADS creates several issues of accountability and jurisdiction. Other than making laws, Members of Parliament have two key duties. They sanction the size and allocation of the government budget.

They also hold the government accountable for its work, including that of spending funds appropriately. MPLADS brings in a conflict in both these roles. It asks them to identify and get specific projects executed rather than to focus on policy measures to achieve the same results and ensure that the government is implementing those policies. MPLADS is typically spent on capital works at the local level such as a bus stop, hand pumps, school rooms, etc. These fall within the domain of the panchayats and municipalities.

Members of these bodies are elected to perform an executive role. MPLADS transforms the Member of Parliament from a legislator looking at national issues to an executive solving hyper-local problems. After all, if Members of Parliament spend a large part of their time on work that should be done by local-level government, how would they have time to inform themselves while making national laws and checking the work of the Central government?.

Scope for reform:

The current crisis provides several opportunities for reform. For example, Parliament should explore how technology can be used to improve its efficiency. Much of the daily paper work such as filing questions and other interventions have been digitised while protocols and infrastructure may be needed if meetings have to be held through secure video-conferencing. Other issues such as pay and allowances for Members of Parliament need to be discussed.

The Members of Parliament should be provided with office space and research staff. They should be compensated in line with their duties as national legislators. For example, the pay and allowances pale in comparison to that of U.S , the positions they took on various issues and how they ensured the government remained accountable for its actions. Distractions such as MPLADS must be done away with.

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