MPs Don't Need Cheap Food. Give It Up

Today, we have another opportunity to re-examine our own stance on special privileges. An excellent example is an incident that happened some years ago. Former President Dr. Kalam was once frisked by an airline, thereby creating a major furore. The impressive part of this episode is that the former President did not even object to being frisked. This says a lot about the person, and my respect for him only went up higher. And I am sure I can say the same for most people in this country. Is it possible that shunning VVIP culture in small but significant ways may be a strong reason for the respect he commands by us citizens?

Special privileges that have become so ubiquitous range from substantive to the frivolous. Politicians and bureaucrats do not have to stand in line for anything, live in heritage buildings, move around in cars with red beacons, and of recent relevance, enjoy subsidized food in canteens starting from the Parliament to government offices around the capital.

The issue of food subsidy offered to Members of Parliaments reeks of privilege. We talk about abolishing subsidies with regard to government policy, except we completely miss the point when we ignore the food subsidy extended to MPs. Without discussing the specifics with regard to the cost incurred to offer the food subsidy, there are certain fundamentals that I feel must be followed with regard to subsidies in general. They are 1) targeting the poorest of the poor and 2) to effect minimal leakages and avenues for corruption.

No organization enjoys the absolute trust of its members. No government enjoys the absolute trust of its citizens. And no elected representative enjoys the absolute trust of his or her constituents. Indeed they may aspire to achieve it, but it is a given that such a position is impossible if not untenable. Keeping this in mind, one finds that the privileged of this country, wittingly or unwittingly, participate in actions that are detrimental to this effect.

This brings me to what we all know as "VVIP culture". Such a culture has become pervasive and an inescapable part of an Indian citizen. It has practically touched everybody in this country. There are some who are more equal than the others. And they seem to make it very clear to the rest.

In an equivalent of name-dropping, we 'drop' the kind of access one has with the state. Interestingly, we are also a country wherein we decry and boast the privilege in equal measure, depending on which side of the fence we are. This deep-seated, still-fragile post-colonial mindset that 'they' are better than us and thereby 'deserve' such privileges is an unfortunate scenario after over 60 years of independence.

The feudal relic of special privileges makes a mockery of democracy. Democracy does not simply mean that citizens provide consent and approval by way of the ballot every five years, but also means that they have access to the same individuals they have elected to office. The latter argument is lost on the elected representatives. Citizens are alienated from their representatives courtesy privileges that should be done away with. This alienation feeds into a cycle that is counter-productive, it promotes rent-seeking from the 'winners' and servile attitudes among the rest.

In recent months, the government campaign to encourage those citizens who can afford to voluntarily give up subsidized LPG cylinders has been very successful. If a million Indian citizens can give up subsidized cylinders, then certainly a few hundred MPs can give up subsidized food. I personally had given up my gas subsidy some years ago. I also have been advocating the dismantling of the well-entrenched VVIP culture in India over the years ranging from topics relating to red light beacons, security frisking and toll exemption on national highways.

Many have argued that the recipients of the subsidized Parliament canteen facilities are not only MPs, but also staff working in the Parliament. It is one thing to stereotype MPs to be privileged, for they already get a lot, but another thing to take away subsidy from a government employee for another person's disrepute. Unfortunately, this logic does not stand up to the fundamental role of a subsidy, besides the failure of categorizing government employees as the poorest of the poor. Government employees have also been surrendering their subsidized LPG connections - so the affordability argument is lost immediately.

However, should there be any measure of apprehension, and a strong case is present to continue the food subsidy for them, the Direct Benefits Transfer for LPG (DBTL) would be a suitable mechanism. DBTL is a process whereby the subsidy is directly affected through cash transfers into bank accounts that virtually eliminate any scope for leakage or corruption. The same model can be emulated for the Parliament canteen food subsidy. Like the DBTL programme, the intended/identified beneficiaries could receive a direct cash transfer as a perk or subsidy.

The point what I am emphasizing is that such an action recognizes that subsidies should be reserved only for the poorest of the poor. It makes available funds to help those who need it the most. This issue has been gaining traction in both mainstream as well as social media, with many citizens also expressing similar views. Ending subsidized food in Parliament would mirror the growing public sentiment.  It is time we elected representatives demonstrate that we too support that ethos.

Baijayant Jay Panda is MP (Lok Sabha), BJD.

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