Two big reforms in the Narendra Modi government—Good and Service Tax (GST) and abrogation of Article 370 ( that provided special status to Jammu and Kashmir) was meant to ensure ‘one nation, one tax ‘ and ‘one nation, one law’ respectively.
The idea was creating a unified system of financial and legal governance. While the two reforms in great measures pushed India towards achieving its goal of ‘unified system of law and governance’ certain privileges available to the lawmakers and those responsible for governance tends to create visible cracks in it.
According to a Times of India report a law passed in 1981 by then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and former prime minister VP Singh mandates the state exchequer to pay the income tax of the state’s chief minister and his council of minister. The reason for this law is straight and simple, as highlighted by the report: the lawmakers are ‘deemed; to be poor and “cannot pay income tax from their own meager earnings”.
Uttar Pradesh, like any other northern Indian state, has some clichéd attributes attached to its MLA and netas. Apart from white kurta-pyjama that they don, it is the swanky SUV’s that announce their arrival. Austerity is the last thing that is respected in the hinterlands and even the little metropolis of the state. Open display of wealth and privileges is common and one can hardly find an instance where an MLA is deemed poor.
According to the affidavits filed by the candidates in the Legislative Assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, more than 80 percent of MLAs were multi-millionaire. The richest MLA from BSP had a wealth of more than Rs 118 crore and the close second was another BSP MLA with a wealth of Rs 67 crore.
If one ignores the wealth of the MLA and just look at the salaries and perks they are entitled to, then also there is no justification for such concessions. According to a Times of India report in 2016, the Uttar Pradesh government tabled a bill to increase the salary of its legislators to Rs 1.87 lakh, an increase of around Rs 70,000 over then existing Rs 1.17 lakh. And now the monthly salary of an MLA in Uttar Pradesh is close to Rs 1.90 lakh.
Apart from this salary, the MLAs are also entitled to a rail coupon of Rs 4.25 lakh and there are several other perks that they enjoy.
An MLA in Uttar Pradesh is among the highest-paid legislator after the states of Telangana and Delhi.
The law named Uttar Pradesh Ministers’ Salaries, Allowances, and Miscellaneous Act, 1981 clearly states, “The salary referred to in sub-sections (1) and (2) shall be exclusive of the tax payable in respect of such salary (including perquisites) under any the law relating to income tax for the time being in force and such tax shall be borne by the state government.”
Uttar Pradesh is known for extending such privileges to its lawmakers some of which has come under the scanner of the judiciary. In May 2018 in a landmark judgment the bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi (he was not CJI then) quashed the law that allowed former chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh to retain their official bungalows even after demitting the office, for a lifetime. The apex court held that a former chief minister is only a “commoner” and not a “special class of citizen” who can enjoy privileges, perks, and official bungalows at taxpayers’ expense for his entire lifetime. The judgment came in a petition filed by an NGO named Lok Prahari that challenged the legality of the rule that extended this lifetime benefit.
While the apex court termed former chief ministers as a commoner, the Yogi Adityanath government in its written submission had contended that they were ‘a class in itself’. However, the court categorically held that the Constitution recognises only “single class of citizens with one singular voice (vote) and “a special class of citizens is abhorrent to the constitutional ethos”.
The judgment also held that “the Doctrine of equality which emerges from the concepts of justice, fairness must guide the State in the distribution/allocation of the same”.
Given these facts the privileges of the kind that manifests into state paying for the financial liabilities of its lawmakers only mocks the fundamentals of equality.
In April 2017, a decision taken by the Modi government was hailed as a big blow to the VVIP culture prevalent in the country. The Modi government ordered a ban on red beacons. Only five-category of officials including the president, vice-president, prime minister, Chief Justice of India and the Lok Sabha speaker were allowed to use red beacons on their vehicles.
While the decision was lauded and celebrated the fact remains that the privileges that manifesting into VVIP culture thrives on much more than this. The red beacons are just the symbols of these privileges sitting on the top. Whereas the real ones rest much deeper in the hidden pages of nondescript acts like the one passed in 1981. Unravelling them and challenging them would be necessary to actually ensure the unified system of law and governance that is must for ensuring one ‘nation one law’ in truest sense.
Updated Date: Sep 13, 2019 14:38:30 IST