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Dissecting lawmakers’ perks and privileges
Abdullah A Dewan and Ghulam Rahman

          They did it again, a salary hike, first in 2003 and now a second sumptuous increase of perk and privileges unheard of ever before. Yes, we are talking about our toiling lawmakers who, on September 18 and 19, made several bills into law increasing their salaries, perks and privileges (SPPs) making them retrospective from January 1, 2005. May be they should unleash their ego and raise their salary one more time before the 2007 election scoring a "hat trick" during just one term in office. They are so stogy that they do things without being circumspect.
These 300 behave-a-like and live-a-like elected members of the Jatiya Sangsad lead a life of extravagance and profusion reminiscent of the pomp and grandeur of the top Comrades of the former USSR until glasnost and perestroika flushed them into the black hole of oblivion?
The PM and the cabinet enjoy other privileges which include a block fund equivalent to the real expenditure, free government vehicles, telephone usage, travels etc. etc.
Bangabandhu as PM used to live in his own house and never claimed rent for it. PM Khaleda Zia lives in a house given by the BNP government after the assassination of President Zia as living quarter for his family free, and the PM now pockets Tk. 50,000.00 as rent per month for that very house. The government also awarded her a mansion to own in Gulshan for rental income for maintenance of her family at that time. There is also an official residence of the PM, in addition to her big office compound on the old airport road and another in the secretariat. Does the PM of a poor country, where beggars are crawling on all four needs so many exquisite facilities with expensive high-tech and elaborate security apparatus around all of them?
Salaries of public servants were raised six times since independence; the Prime Minister received seven raises and nine were enacted for the ministers. Who are they kidding if they think that the rest of the country believes that they make a living on government salaries alone and contest elections by spending millions to get this salary? It is the future stream of perks, privileges, and perquisites, not the salary, not the power of lawmaking that drives their inertia to get elected by all available means including, in many cases, vote rigging and intimidation of the rival candidate's voters, if necessary.
The per capita real GDP of the country expressed annually is about Tk 24,500. The average monthly salary of the lawmakers including the President, the PM and all ministers is about Tk 24500 (revised scale). Most conservatively, add to this an amount of Tk 75,000 per month on average towards accommodations, allowances, transportations, medical benefits, telephones etc., for each. The sum of the salary and benefits totals approximately Tk 1.2 million annually.
This Tk 1.2 million (excluding all perquisites) is the per capita income of the 350 lawmakers (which is 48 times more than the per capita GDP of a citizen) as opposed to Tk 24,500 per capita income of the population. One wonders if we could raise the per capita income of all the people in the country by electing them to become MPs and ministers sequentially year after year. Doesn't it seem like a grand idea?
Salary increases must be guided by economic rational not political expediency. The economic rational includes: * Adjustment for cost of living increases to keep pace with inflation thus maintaining the purchasing power of income, * Productivity growth, * Population growth.
If the real GDP growth is 5.0 per cent and the population growth is 2.0 per cent, then a salary increase of 3.0 per cent will be considered non-inflationary and reasonable. Alternatively, if productivity increases at 3.0 per cent, then a 3.0 per cent increase in wages will be considered non-inflationary. Although the ministers and the MPs do not get annual raises, we recommend they should but only at the growth rate of real GDP but no more. They should not have the power to give them outrageous raises like 45 per cent without two third majority votes in the parliament.
Our lawmakers' who are so much obsessed with high life that their attendance records in parliament are one of very low life. The ruling party's MPs, however, never missed sessions when called for to enact self-serving bills into laws. They love riding high on gas guzzlers such as Pajeros, Toyota Land Cruisers etc. They voted themselves entitled to a second import tax free vehicle depriving the already beleaguered exchequer of the much needed revenue. Many live in rent-free and furnished apartments constructed for foreign quests of 2002 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference. The BNP majority after coming to power converted this NAM guest house into one of MPs city "Dacha" and cancelled the rare opportunity of hosting the NAM conference in Dhaka in 2002 and along with it lost the much desired pride and image for Bangladesh. They simply spared the country's interest to serve party's interest.
The politicians are elected to work for public interest instead they show up everywhere to claim and own public goods ahead of all others, and imposes the right of precedence over those of helpless citizens. They always come ahead in line light and day light to claim goodies in every distribution of benefits developed or designed for public servants and common citizens.
These lawmakers forget that they are peoples' representatives for making and upholding the laws. But they often act like they are the untouchables and have the license to perpetrate larceny and the latitude to evade the law. One glaring example, the communication minister allotted prime railway land in the heart of Dhaka city for a nominal charge to an organisation headed by his wife. Influence peddling by their offsprings and family members (example, the recent arrests of Chief Whip's two sons) have become a nightmarish conditions for real estate developers, shopping malls owners, and opening new businesses and running the old ones. Could these happen without the tacit acquiescence of the powerful people? These are acts of shameless self-service, instead of honourable public service.
As shown in the Table-1, the Group II elites are the all powerful people who decides what to take, how much to take and how much to give to others. Doesn't it look indecent that they vote for their own perks and benefits (a 45 per cent raise) as often as they please? They allow themselves to be treated differently than public servants. For example, if a government employee remains absent from work for a prolonged period of time, he/she is subjected to disciplinary action and often losses job.
Since 1996 opposition MPs made it a legacy and a fashion for boycotting parliament sessions in genuine protests or flimsy pretexts but enjoy all the benefits accorded to them. Just to save their membership and the generous SPPs they show up in the JS sessions once in every 90 days. They have been boycotting parliament but enjoying the tax payers' money without working for them. Conscious and commonsense dictate them to report to their constituencies, explain their predicaments in the parliament and resign, and set an example of decency by refusing salaries and privileges they no longer work for.
To be a lawyer one must have a law degree but to be called a lawmaker all you need is get yourself elected. Politics is the only "free for all profession" which do not require a professional degree or any degree. If 75 per cent or so the MPs are some kind of businessmen having no knowledge of the constitution and basic knowledge of government operations what kind of lawmaking one can expect from them. Shouldn't they be given an orientation about the basic elements of the constitution, and what constitutes lawmaking and law evading before attempting lawmaking and lawbreaking?
In many countries, people sarcastically, call MPs as Member of Prosperities or Member of Perquisites (tips, gratuities, and under the table deals). Many of the pecuniary deals these people make are not necessarily driven by needs, rather by greed, family pressures, and for higher level of consumption.
In economics, one of the theories of consumption deals with "habit theory". Widely acclaimed economist James Duesenberry who incorporated the habit hypothesis in consumption theory showed that once consumption habits are formed, it is not that easy to break away from them. Of the two forms of habits, 'Internal habits' which refer to the influence of our own past choices on our current behaviour, while 'external habits' arise when the consumption level of an individual is affected by the consumption choices of his/her social environment. (Duesemberry, James. S., (1952), Income Saving and the Theory of consumer Behaviour, Harvard University Press).
Although habit hypothesis was developed to describe people's consumption behaviour, nonetheless the theories' basic tenets are more in conformity with our MPs, and ministers' consumption profiles and social attributes than most common citizens. Their external habit is formed by the influences of their types, and internal habit is already ingrained from up-bringing and family pressures. These two habits guide them to pursue activities that are perceived by outside world as being self-service rather than public service.
The authors are, respectively, Professor of Economics, Eastern Michigan University and former Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh


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