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December 3, 2016

Paying for democracy


December 3, 2016

On November 23, 2016, the federal cabinet approved a proposal for giving members of parliament a pay raise. The total salary of parliamentarians currently stands at around Rs61,000 per month. After the raise, which would be the first such raise in 14 years, the salary would go up to Rs150,000 per month.

Ever since the cabinet announced this decision, it has attracted a barrage of criticism. An editorial run by this newspaper said: “the least we can expect of our representatives is to temporarily put aside their hunger to make more for themselves and serve the public”. Speaking in a similar vein, Dawn’s editorial on the subject said: “the government should have used its time to tend to more important matters that are genuinely in the public interest.”

This criticism is, in my view, both unfair and untimely. Our parliamentarians richly deserved the pay raise. In fact, as chosen representatives of the people of Pakistan, they deserve a lot.

I feel compelled to respond to the unsympathetic criticism at this proposal because it is not a one-off incident. It is symptomatic of our elite’s continuing disdain of the idea of popularly elected officials holding non-elected state officials publically accountable – an idea also known as democracy. We would not be spending so little on parliament if we, as a polity, took this revolutionary idea seriously A few facts and figures will help illustrate this point.

Despite all the hue and cry being made in the media, less than Rs1 billion per year is what we pay our 436 elected officials – even after the present 146 percent increase in their salary. On the other hand, in the year 2016 alone, non-elected officials, people like federal bureaucrats and generals, have spent over Rs4,500 billion in our name. More than Rs860 billion of this was spent on defense – ie on buying fighter planes and tanks and the like.

To give some more context, think of a fighter plane, something like that P-3C Orion which was destroyed by terrorists while still parked at the Mehran Base. Many such planes are bought in our name. A single one of these costs us Rs4.5 billion, which is more that the salary of all our MNAs and senators for their entire five-year terms. With these figures in mind, it should be easy to see why having a well-funded parliament, which provides the public an opportunity to vicariously scrutinise public spending, is well worth the price. And scrutinising the budget is only one small part of parliament’s job. There is a lot more that a well-funded, well-functioning legislature can do for us.

Critics do not seem to have read the report of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Procedure and Privileges which furnishes the background for the federal cabinet’s decision. This 71-pages-long report presents compelling arguments for the pay raise.

Drawing heavily on a comparative study of 104 different parliaments conducted by the International Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Standing Committee’s report informs us that the average salary of parliamentarians across the world is over Rs6 lakh per month. The Standing Committee demanded only half of that. And the cabinet, in turn, approved only half of what the Standing Committee had demanded. For the critics, even this is too much.

Let’s not forget that even after the 146 percent increase, the pay of parliamentarians is less than that of many unelected officials serving in the public sector. Judges of superior courts take home anything between Rs4 lakh and Rs6 lakh per month. The heads of public-sector companies draw many times more. Members of regulatory bodies like the SECP and CCP and others, enjoying what is known as MP-1 scale, also make more than Rs3 lakh per month.

Finally, let us also acknowledge that if there was ever a time that our parliamentarians deserved a pat on the back, it is now. Parliamentarians should be given due credit for having outlived the three-year tenure of an unusually charismatic and aggressive army chief and for having survived two assassination attempts by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri as well as sustained neglect by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his cabinet.

The credit for this institutional resilience goes primarily to parliamentarians from across the treasury and opposition benches – men of honour like Syed Khursheed Shah, Main Raza Rabbani, Mahmood Khan Achakzai, and Asfandyar Wali – who stood together in times of trouble and refused numerous opportunities to topple the elected government through unconstitutional means.

To sum up, if we want democracy in this country, we should be willing to pay for it. We cannot possibly build a more effective parliament without spending more money on parliamentarians. It’s really that simple.

(The op-ed pages welcome debate on this subject).

The writer is a partner at The Law and
Policy Chamber.

Email:[email protected]


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