Legislature is gradually becoming an expensive institution as lawmakers, cutting across party lines, use their position to dictate their costs for the system they run and overrun. R S Gull details the evolution of systems that make J&K lawmakers akin to corporate honchos taking suitcases of money as wages, allowances, fees and huge pensions
August 29, 2014 was not the day listed for the private members bills. But that did not stop lawmakers in J&K assembly to manage the passage of The Jammu and Kashmir State Legislative Members Pension (Amendment) Bill, 2014. Nobody from any political parties having any presence in the legislative assembly talked against it. Within a few minutes the house managed its passage as there was no opposition. Law Minister Mir Saifullah said it does not incur any major expenditure.
It was the same bill that governor N N Vohra had returned thrice since National Conference’s Nasir Aslam Wani and PDP’s A R Veeri jointly piloted it in the budget session. Raj Bhawan response to the mandatory pre-introduction clearance was indicating that the state government might ill-afford the bill given the precarious financial condition of the state. But barely six months ahead of the next assembly election, the parties managed an informal alliance and made it a law. The only difference was that earlier they wanted the hike in pensions and medical allowance retrospective from January 2009. The bill they made law made the benefits prospective.
Benefitting 327 former lawmakers, 127 of them dead already (their families will get benefitted), the new law will cost the state exchequer Rs 3.53 crore a year more. This law appreciated the monthly pension of lawmakers from Rs 23000 to Rs 28000 as their monthly medical allowance jumped from Rs 1000 to Rs 5000. The bill was dubbed as “parting gift” that lawmakers literally snatched from the system.
J&K has a bicameral legislature with the overall membership of 123 (89 in assembly and 36 in council) members (two are vacant). Earlier, when politics was considered a social service, lawmaking was not pensionable here. Later, a nominal pension was initiated for members once they completed the six year term.
Gradually the lawmakers started building on this facility. Soon after, it was changed entitling a member to get pension even if (s)he remains a member of either of the two houses for not less than two years. More recently, this pre-requisite was also waived off.
In less than eight years, the basic pension jumped from Rs 5000 a month to Rs 13000 and then nearly doubled to Rs 24000. From August 2014, it is Rs 29000. But that is the basic for getting elected to assembly or the council. To this is added Rs 1000 per year (it started with Rs 300 a year) of the membership. A former lawmaker who was in house for 30 years will have additional Rs 30000 added to the pension. Interestingly, if the lawmaker dies, his family will still get 75% of it!
Regardless of the contributions they have been making to the statute book of the state, J&K’s lawmakers have not been economic on issues pertaining to them directly. Take, for instance, their salaries.
Lawmakers were promised a hike in salary by Dr Farooq and Mufti Sayeed. But it was Ghulam Nabi Azad in whose government their salaries were hiked from Rs 10000 a month to Rs 17000. In 2011, Omar Abdullah government increased it to Rs 85000 retrospectively from 2009. “I remember every member took home not less than a million rupees one single day,” said a middle-rung officer serving the assembly secretariat. “It was a windfall.”
Interestingly, the package is devised in such a way that there is no income tax liability. The basic pay is around Rs 20,000 and rest of the package is allowances for specific requirements. This is in addition to the doubling of daily allowance to Rs 1000 when they are in house or in a meeting of a legislative committee. Every lawmaker has a right to appoint a personal assistant.
If a lawmaker is required in Jammu and he has to fly from Srinagar or vice versa, they get full ticket costs plus 50% of it for movement in addition to the per day DA entitled under law. “This has become a sort of crisis because they always try to purchase the most costly ticket available so that they make best of the 50% plus which is linked to ticket costs,” an official in the assembly secretariat said. “Everybody in the government is so keen to get this rule changed because the public kitty books loss on two fronts – a costly ticket plus half of it, but lawmakers would not permit anybody to fiddle with it.”
Lawmakers yearly claim to family travel was also doubled to one lakh rupees only last year. Every one of them is claiming it regardless of the requirements and actual expenditure.
If a lawmaker or any member of his / her family is entitled to full reimbursement of expenditure booked on any kind of treatment within or outside J&K. There is no sealing on the amount. “Even for a headache, they go to outside hospitals and we do not have any right to question it because the rules have been made like that,” a middle rung officer in the state legislative council said. “Last year, we spent nearly Rs 15 lakh on health claims alone and in assembly it could be more.”
The officer said the hospital administrators in GMC, SKIMS and even in the Directorate of Health Services permit the lawmakers to fly out even for petty health issues which could be managed at local level.
In order to keep the lawmakers happy, Omar gave every one of them a laptop, a Balero jeep that they own (which will not be withdrawn if they are not re-elected) in addition to two to three vehicles that usually come to them from police for personal and family security requirements.
In every term, a lawmaker is entitled to a loan of five lakh rupees for housing or purchasing a car on a simple interest of 4%. The same loan is accessible to the state government employees at 10%. Almost everybody avails this facility but there is no record of any default. “It must shock people that the lawmakers are the only species who have the drawing and disbursing powers so they draw their salaries themselves,” said one middle rung officer in the finance ministry. “Interesting part is that they draw their salaries in the treasuries of their constituencies so we do not know who returned the loan and who is not a defaulter because there is no check on this.”
And now, the twin developing agencies of twin capitals – the Srinagar Development Authority and Jammu Development Authority, are in the process of purchasing and developing two housing colonies in Srinagar and Jammu for lawmakers. Cabinet has approved it and the process for framing rules is yet to start.
Sources in the government suggest that JDA has identified nearly 350 kanals of land in Jammu outskirts. While every lawmaker will get a plot of one kanal, the rest of it will go for the construction of a hospital, a park, a recreation centre and other community infrastructure.
But the last experience to house the lawmakers was not so illustrious. During the halcyon days of Dr Farooq Abdullah, a huge housing colony for lawmakers was laid in Jammu’s Roop Nagar. It cost lawmakers only Rs 24000 for a kanal length plot (eight kanals make an acre). Initially the government had allotted 74 plots to ministers and legislators.
After Jagmohan took over as the governor in 1990 when militancy was at its peak and Dr Farooq had resigned, the allotments were reexamined. Finally, the Raj Bhawan cancelled all the allotments through an order issued on February 23, 1990. He even directed the refunding of the money in case of lawmakers who had paid the costs.
After Jagmohan was recalled in May 1990, implementation of the order was delayed permitting legislators and ministers to raise soft loans and construct new house. After Dr Farooq returned to power, the order was eventually reversed in 1998 and the plots were re-allotted.
Interesting part of the story is that quite a few lawmakers, mostly from Kashmir, live in Roopnagar. All others have sold the plot as it fetched them 100-200 times more!
Since developmental activities are increasingly centralized as central sponsored schemes and tied grant make the bulk of public spending in states, the idea of constituency development fund (CDF) emerged the only way out for lawmakers and parliamentarians to address the pressing developmental demands for their vote banks. This money is controlled and prioritized by the lawmakers directly to the extent that they choose the job and invariably the executing agency. CDF witnessed a massive hike in last few years.
CDF was hiked last time by PDP in 2004 from Rs 25 lakh to Rs 35 lakh a year which was later increased to Rs 50 lakh. Then Omar changed it to Rs 1.50 crore a year.
With the rise of panchayat’s, the lawmakers are getting increasingly restive. They were the main problem behind Omar government’s delayed transfer of powers to the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRI) because lot of resource is being directly transferred to them. As Panchayat’s are becoming new power centres at ground zero, there is a thought-process going on in the political class that instead of district, it should be the constituency that must become the basic developmental space. The argument is that there are constituencies that fall in two districts and they are unable to manage adequate resources fairly from the two development boards. This might lead to the rise of constituencies as the new growth centres with the lawmakers as the boss.
Officials said the yearly expenditure of the twin legislative bodies must be around Rs 20 core, mostly for the legislative assembly because its members are nearly two third more than the council.