Paid for no work?

PARLIAMENT session is going to start this month.

Paid for no work?

A disruption is embarrassing and simply unacceptable.

Rajindar Sachar

PARLIAMENT session is going to start this month. There is much speculation, rather it seems to be accepted across the board that it is going to be a propaganda tamasha with walkouts and the disruption of the House, leading to no legislation. The anguished cry of Vice-President Ansari on the conclusion of the last session, ending December 2015, requesting MPs “to desist from demeaning the status of the House”, is going to be shamelessly defied in the coming session. The Rajya Sabha lost 47 hours due to disruption by the Congress, in 20-day sittings. In the earlier session, 25 of 44 Congress members had to be suspended. 

There is still no shame felt by the Congress which has announced openly that it will not let the Rajya Sabha work, where the Opposition is in majority. Finance Minister Jaitley has had to climb down from his false elevated status to make a public request for cooperation and was even willing to give parentage credit to the Congress for the GST Bill, which, with some modification, the government wants to pass. But I still have no hope for an improvement of the situation.

This situation had also reached a height as far back as 2007 when Speaker Somnath Chatterjee considered it so atrocious that he was inclined to apply the principle of “no work, no pay” to those legislators who disrupted proceedings in the House, as was suggested by a small meeting called by him consisting of journalists and civil rights activists and important public persons.

The Supreme Court has upheld the rule “no work, no pay” in the case of labour. The legislators may, cheek in tongue, term it as an abridgement of  their parliamentary privileges, but the masses find this self-glorification laughable. The conduct of such legislators is a standing shame to the nation and calls for immediate action. A study by a civil society organisation in 2007 found that in the 13th Lok Sabha, the time lost due to disruptions was 22.4 per cent while in the 14th Lok Sabha, which commenced in June 2004, it went up to 26 per cent. Each minute of Parliament costs about Rs 26.03 lakh (now, of course, this is far more). A legislator is paid a daily attendance honorarium, irrespective of the fact that he may just attend it for five minutes, out of the normal five-hour daily sitting. 

Dealing with delinquent individual legislators is manageable under the rule of procedure. The more serious problem is when gross disorderly conduct by a large number of legislators makes the sittings of the legislatures impossible. In such a situation, the Speaker, perforce and against his inclination, is forced to adjourn the House. The damage to the dignity of the House and the nation  is  for everyone to see. But the legislators still draw their daily allowances, suffering no monetary loss as there is no rule permitting allowances not to be paid to members even if the House is adjourned because of disorderly conduct of the other members. I believe, the absence of rule does not matter because the House Speaker has the inherent power to so direct the deduction of the allowances. According to May’s Parliamentary Practice, “The Speaker of the House of Commons (UK) has power to suspend for conduct falling below the standard House was entitled to expect and in certain cases, the practice is including withholding the member salary for the period of suspension.” Admittedly, the precedents of the Speaker of House of Commons are applicable in India.  

The Speaker has the power to suspend the erring member and order him not to attend the Lok Sabha, and this will automatically mean that he will not be paid for those days as per the existing rules.

The principle of “no work, no pay” cannot be doubted because of the law laid down by the Supreme Court (1990). In that case, the Bank of India employees went on four-hour strike but joined the duty for the rest of the day. But the bank ordered the deduction of the salary for the whole day, which was upheld by the court. Similarly, legislators who are paid daily allowance for attending the session, but because of their own disorderly conduct, force the Speaker to adjourn the House against his own volition, cannot, in all fairness, be asked to be paid the  daily allowance which would mean rewarding a member for his own misconduct. The Supreme Court has held that: “It is permissible to deduct wages for the whole day even if the absence is for a few hours.” The legislators thus cannot complain that why everyone should suffer because of disorderly conduct of a few delinquents. But a sobering reflection will remind them that legislators have passed laws imposing collective fine in a locality because of a few unsocial elements, when admittedly, a majority of residents are law abiding. 

Courts have upheld such legislation in the interest of general public good. Surely, legislators  should  not  cavil  at  applying  the  same yardstick to themselves as they seek to apply to the work man and ordinary people.

A somewhat unusual Gandhian procedure can also be followed — if the government party, or the ministers, were to announce that they would forego the daily allowance for the days that the House is suspended even because of the disorderly conduct by the Opposition, it would set a very high principled precedent and would shame the Opposition into following their example, or to suffer ignominy before the public — resulting that whatever the provocation, the House would never be adjourned.

There is one other alternative. The Speaker may refuse to adjourn the House even if there is disorderly conduct, and though no work may be done, yet automatically, the government party will have to remain in the House. If the Opposition in those circumstances chooses to walk out, it would invite the ridicule and the anger of the electorate. Apart from financial  benefit, this moral force may then shame the legislators, both in the government and the Opposition to calm down. These suggestions look unreal, but what is happening in our legislatures is so embarrassingly unacceptable, that it calls for a different and innovative methodology.

— The writer is a former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court

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