Politician salaries and corruption

Recently, Vijay Nair, CEO of OML Entertainment, which organises the popular NH7 Weekender music festivals, tweeted that the Weekender in Delhi last month was the first where he didn’t have to pay a single paisa of bribe.

Just before the event, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal gave a speech in which he stated that he had bought passes for the event by paying for them, and urged his ministers and other government officials to do the same rather than asking for freebies.

Yesterday the Delhi government increased salaries of its legislators and ministers by a factor of four (which the Economic Times incorrectly reported as a “400% increase” – it’s a 300% increase).

The basic monthly salary of Delhi MLAs and ministers is all set to go up by a whopping 400 per cent besides significant hike in a slew of allowances with the assembly today approving a bill to effect the increase considering rising cost of living.

The Delhi government will now send the bill to the Centre and if it is approved, then basic salaries of legislators will rise from current Rs 12,000 to Rs 50,000 …

The move to increase Delhi legislator salaries has been expectedly panned by opposition parties, but it is an important step in reducing corruption, the main plank on which the Delhi government came to power last year.

In order to better understand this, go back to Kejriwal’s statement before the Weekender urging officials to purchase their tickets and not ask for freebies. The on-ground price of a ticket for the Delhi Weekender was Rs. 3500.

As per existing salary structures, a Delhi MLA would have had to spend a quarter of his monthly basic salary for the event. If he were to buy tickets for his family of four, he would have to spend his entire monthly basic salary (I understand there are other components of compensation, too)! And this would have been good enough justification for him to ask for free tickets.

While a higher salary might still not prevent an MLA from demanding free tickets, his earlier moral justification for the demand doesn’t exist any more – since the new salary structure now makes the tickets affordable. This removal of moral justification is certain to have an impact on corruption at the margin.

More importantly, official salary levels have a massive impact on the kind of people the profession attracts. When you get paid a pittance as a politician, it repels people who are loathe to be corrupt – for it is next to impossible to make a decent living on such salaries. People will be loathe to leave well-paying jobs for politics, and the only people politics will attract are those that hope to make money on the side.

I hope the Centre approves the Delhi government’s proposal to increase salaries, and other states match this. Given the small number of legislators and ministers, fiscal impact will be marginal. But the impact it can have on corruption, in terms of removing the moral justification, and on the kind of people it will attract to politics will more than pay for this.

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