MPs: Whither public money productivity

On Friday, the members of the Rajya Sabha defected from Benthamian utilitarianism to Kantian deontology, and devoted time to a troubling question, on how to improve the productivity of Parliament. 

Published: 05th August 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th August 2018 08:10 AM   |  A+A-

It is not the years in your life, but the life in your years that count – Adlai Ewing Stevenson

It was a rare occasion in Parliament, of political piety, of consciousness, conscientiousness and consensus across the political divide, among MPs from the left, right and centre. 

On Friday, the members of the Rajya Sabha defected from Benthamian utilitarianism to Kantian deontology, and devoted time to a troubling question, on how to improve the productivity of Parliament. The moment presented itself when Akali Dal MP Naresh Gujral moved a private members bill, ‘The Parliament (Enhancement of Productivity) Bill, 2017’. The bill moots that Parliament meet for a fixed number of days, at least for over 100 days, as it was in the first decade of the Republic.

Gujral observed that European parliaments meet for 200 days. Jairam Ramesh proposed 120 days. There were also suggestions for the house to start at 10 am instead of 11 am, and an annual special session for national issues. The two-hour-forty-minute discussion, which will be continued, and the transcript of which is nearly 80 pages long, saw references to the French Revolution, the Constituent Assembly, economist Albert Hirschman being quoted, and recitation of poetry.

So far so good and much of what was said is welcome. What is problematic is the approach. To paraphrase Adlai Stevenson, the count of number of days in session is important, but what is critical is to make the days count. For sure the quantity of time available matters, but what matters much more for ensuring public accountability is the quality of discussions and debate, the audit of both the intent and implementation of government programmes.    

This year, as per the budget, Government of India will spend `24.42 lakh crore through departmental allocations, and the public sector enterprises would be spending `4.78 lakh crore. In total, the government of India will be spending `29.20 lakh crore—that is `8,001 crore per day or `333 crore per hour. How well was the budget scrutinized? On March 13, the Lok Sabha, the other house for the Rajya Sabha MPs, passed the budget of over 90 departments with over 200 amendments, including a bill to hike MPs’ salaries, in 30 minutes, without any discussion——in effect the cost of abdication or price of non-scrutiny was `97,300 crore per minute. The Rajya Sabha, which discussed productivity of Parliament, simply did not discuss the budget. 

The Rajya Sabha is the house of states, meant to represent the interests of the states as also raise issues relating to people in different states. Ten years ago, the total expenditure of the Centre and by all the states was nearly the same, `8.99 lakh crore and `8.82 lakh crore. This has undergone a paradigm shift. In 2018, the budgetary spending by the Centre is `24.42 lakh crore and the expenditure of all states is estimated at `35.59 lakh crore—that is over `9,750 crore a day or over `400 crore per hour. It is no secret that the level of scrutiny in some states in the legislatures is pathetically poor as sessions are held for barely a week and sometimes just two days. Shouldn’t that lack of productivity be a concern? 

The government of India spends around `7.08 lakh crore or over `7 trillion on what is defined as Central Sector Schemes. The money is spent by the Centre towards interventions across ministries—Budget 2019 had 99 demands spread across 704 items. These include `20 crore for National Young Leaders Programme, `5 crore for National Discipline Scheme, `770 crore for river conservation (besides `2,300 crore for Ganga clean-up), `454 crore for ‘Overseas Promotion and Publicity, including Market Development Assistance’, `11.45 crore for Integrated Wool Development Programme, `500 crore in scholarships to SC, ST and OBC students, `20 crore for Mission Mode Project for E-Panchayats, `50 crore for Solar Charkha Mission and so on, `100 crore for Special Industry Initiative for Jammu and Kashmir and so on. Shouldn’t the MPs be asking how or why or why not of these allocations—for instance, `20 crore for e-panchayats?

Piety in politics is all very good and necessary, but it is only words unless followed by outcomes. Last year, the government spent `4.94 lakh crore on creation of infrastructure. This year, “to create employment and aid growth” the government will spend an estimated `5.97 lakh crore on infrastructure. This begs the question, how many jobs did the `4.94 lakh crore spend create and how many will `5.97 lakh crore deliver? It is true that departmental committees do flag issues, but their reports are only tabled—why shouldn’t these be discussed/debated? The establishment cost for the year for the Central government is estimated at `5.03 lakh crore. Is the taxpayer getting a bang for the buck?

In 1996, a large corporate made a bid to build the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. The price quoted was `1,800 crore and land rights. Nitin Gadkari, then the public works  minister in the Maharashtra government,  drafted RC Sinha, set up a corporation, trashed antiquated government rules, issued contracts and built the road at around Rs 1,300 crore. This government claims to have built more roads, renewed more rail kilometres, constructed more ports and airports, electrified more areas and produced more power than before. The question is, has the trillion crore spend power been leveraged and how well—has it delivered savings, for instance, is the government building roads faster and cheaper than before?  

The fact that the MPs are elected to represent the people and not just parties is frequently obfuscated in the noise of democracy. The abiding concern is ‘How India is doing’. The aspiration is will s/he do better this year than in the last. Seeking the answers, dear MPs, would qualify as enhancement of productivity. 
shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com

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