Unending ‘privileges’ of our rulers in this democracy

Every time a Member of Parliament (MP) travels by air on official work, including for scheduled Parliament or its committees’ meetings, he is ‘entitled’ to an allowance of 25 per cent in addition to t
Unending ‘privileges’ of our rulers in this democracy

TSR  subramanian  Former Cabinet Secretary of India

Every time a Member of Parliament (MP) travels by air on official work, including for scheduled Parliament or its committees’ meetings, he is ‘entitled’ to an allowance of 25 per cent in addition to the airfare, presumably to cover his travel ‘expenses’, as per a recent TV channel ‘expose’. The story also revealed travel claims of `50 lakh per month, or more, by many MPs, as reimbursement of airfare and ‘travel allowances’. Instances of ‘surge-priced’ tickets costing `80,000 or more (often 10 times the normal fare) for travel say Mumbai-Kolkata, Chennai-Delhi were frequently the norm.

Apparently, the MPs, with their very busy schedule of ‘public service’, could not find time to book tickets in time to obtain normal rates, and would usually prefer to wait till the last moment, and buy the same at the highest tariff, or even travel unnecessarily—no matter if this added to the tax-free allowance that they receive, which they presumably ‘reluctantly’ pocket! Any child would understand, but not our lawmakers, that travel allowance is ‘reimbursement’ and not a source of income; that this provision is ‘regressive’, and would encourage purchase at the highest price at public expense. No other civil servant or other category is entitled to such bonanza. Note that a car ferries the VVIP to and fro airport, and his food and drinks are free—these privileges have been voted to themselves by our rulers.

Why hasn’t our finance ministry or the officials in the Rajya Sabha/Lok Sabha released information on this mode of ‘reimbursement’ by our MPs to the public? Surely, past secretaries general and financial controllers in both the Houses have known this for decades. Why has the CAG or any expenditure department official not commented on this? Is the ‘gift’ of this kind of remuneration justified by any logic? Isn’t this dereliction of duty by successive senior officials, as sworn guardians of public interest, that they did not highlight this issue? Why should travel reimbursement have different principles of applicability between the elected public servant and the permanent variety? It will be heart-warming to hear that at least one senior official in the past brought up this issue on record, and was ‘overruled’. Were these senior officials ‘accessories after the fact’ in the US legal parlance—in other words ‘complicit’

One recalls a senior official of the now-defunct Directorate General of Technical Development, who as secretary to an export promotion council was authorised to verify payments for travel bills of non-official members, recounting a story about the travel of an MP, who was a member of the council, for a meeting in Bombay (as it was called then). As it happened, the secretary (call him RT) travelled in the same first class compartment both ways with the MP, who flaunted his Gold free travel pass (now thankfully abolished) to the ticket inspector. In due course, RT received the travel bill, by air both ways, Delhi-Bombay, for the same dates! RT was fully aware that the bill was false, yet he promptly approved the payment. I asked him why he did this, and his answer was: “Who wants to cross the path of a politician!” I told him on his face that he was untrue to his salt. In a microcosm, we see the collapse of the civil service, that turns the other way when it sees a wrongdoing—indeed, on occasions, become a collaborator or even a partner! The new emperors and nawabs are now firmly in place in this democracy—the public servant has now turned into a private servant.

Surely, the MPs who presumably knowingly purchased tickets at surged rates are intellectually dishonest. Sadly, the story does not end there. Ironically, in a manner of speaking, they may be the most honest of our MPs, if such a sub-set exists. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many MPs declare say `18 lakh to the Election Commission for their campaign, and often spend `20-30 crore to get re-elected—enormous unaccounted sums are spent in the election process. For most, a few lakhs are less than chicken-feed—they would consider it infra dig to look at anything less than crores! This desperately poor country is ruled by millionaires and billionaires. The recent Piketty report on income distribution in India has reported that the top 0.1 per cent of Indians had the same overall growth in income as the total of the bottom 50 per cent—surely our MPs are the ‘chosen’ lot.

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