The Lok Sabha has passed the bill to revise the salary of members of parliament. Much of the debate in the media has been on the wealth of current MPs and the lack of accountability. It is important to focus as well on structural issues related to remunerating legislators. Under the bill, the base salary of MPs is being raised to Rs.50,000 from Rs.16,000 per month. The daily allowance paid to MPs when they attend parliament is being hiked to Rs.2,000 from Rs.1,000. The constituency allowance is being increased to Rs.45,000 per month from Rs.20,000 and office expenses (for staff, stationery and postage) to Rs.45,000 per month from Rs.20,000. Pension for former MPs will be Rs.20,000 per month instead of the present Rs.8,000. Other than these, MPs get accommodation in Delhi, which varies from a hostel in Vitthalbhai Patel House to two-bedroom flats and bungalows, all in central Delhi. MPs get reimbursement of electricity, water, telephone and internet charges. They (and their family) are also reimbursed for 34 one-way air tickets from their constituency to Delhi. In a parliamentary democracy, compensation for legislators should be sufficient to ensure their independence and autonomy. It should attract professionals who can devote their full time to legislative work. There should be a sufficient support system to enable legislators perform their duties effectively. There are mainly three issues that need to be resolved while fixing the compensation package for legislators. First, MPs fix their own salaries and allowances, which results in a conflict of interest. Second, every time the salary is revised upwards, there is an adverse media and public reaction. The outcome is that MPs' salaries are significantly lower than that for any other position of similar responsibility in the public or private sector. The low salaries may deter honest persons, without other income sources, from contesting elections. Third, reimbursements of office expenses are classified as 'allowances'. Thus, expenses for office staff, telephone charges, etc. are often seen as part of their compensation. Contrast this with the treatment for government or private sector employees. The costs of office support staff, rental, communication and travel costs are not counted as their salary or perks. The process in India is similar to that in some countries. The US Congress and the German Bundestag determine their own salaries. There are two alternative approaches seen in some other democracies. Some countries appoint an independent authority to determine salaries. Some others peg the salary to that of public officials. For example, New Zealand has a remuneration tribunal which is tasked to fix salaries based on being (a) fair relative to levels of remuneration elsewhere; (b) fair to person being remunerated and the taxpayer; (c) adequate to recruit and retain competent persons. In Canada, a commission is appointed after every general election and salaries are then indexed to the federal government's annual wage rate index. Australia has a remuneration authority that links the salary to that in the Principal Executive Office. In the UK, the Senior Salaries Review Board determines salaries, which are then voted upon by parliament. The Scottish parliament indexes its salaries to that of British MPs. In France, the salary of the legislator is the average of the highest and lowest paid official in the seniormost level of the government. There were two distinct themes during last week's Lok Sabha debate. Several MPs discussed structural issues. Some MPs - L.K. Advani, Ramachandra Dome, Sanjay Nirupam, Shailendra Singh and Pinaki Misra - suggested that the government establish an independent commission for determining salaries. Advani pointed out that a decision to that effect had been taken in an all-party meeting held by the Speaker in may 2005 and demanded that the government announce the formation of such a commission before the end of the current session of parliament. Some MPs - Dhananjay Singh, Sanjay Nirupam and Shailendra Kumar -- focussed on the need for support structures such as office space, research staff and assistants in the constituency. They felt that these would help MPs examine proposed laws and rules and monitor the work of the government. Nirupam and Misra suggested that MPs' salaries be linked to performance; salaries should be cut for any time lost due to disruption. Some MPs highlighted the need for pension and accommodation for former MPs. Sharad Yadav, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary requested that the pension be raised to Rs 25,000 per month. Yadav and Bwiswmuthiary also said that former MPs be allocated residential accommodation in Delhi. The bill will next be discussed in the Rajya Sabha. The government agreed that there is merit in forming an independent commission. It is however uncertain whether the government will accede to Advani's demand that the commission be announced in the next couple of days. - M.R. Madhavan This column has been published by IANS today.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.