Monday, August 17, 2015

Accommodating parliamentarians

Indian parliamentarians receive free accommodation in Delhi as a perc of office. The accommodation is allocated by parliamentary committee, chaired for example by the chief party whip, on the basis of seniority.

The more senior residences are grandiose mansions with sweeping gardens in ideal Delhi locations, close to the parliament and surrounded by other similar constructs, far from the overcrowding and pollution for which Delhi is famous.

Others are more modest bungalows, still in plum positions. Others still are mere apartments.

Some residences are in good shape, others are run-down, even decrepit.

All are allocated by committee, on the basis of seniority.

As a consequence, parliamentarians are constantly relocating from one residence to another, as they shift portfolios, as their fortunes and governments change, as they become second or third termers in the parliament.

Some wit has even suggested it’s one of the Indian government’s most successful and long-standing employment generating programs, keeping hordes of removalists on the road.

Why does India do this, and what might be the consequences?

The tradition is a hangover from the late colonial period, after Delhi was belatedly made capital of the Imperial jewel in 1911, and from the early Nehruvian period, after the properties fell into the hands of a regime not overly fond of disposing of its assets.

Why continue with it today though, in this era of liberal and capital ideology? Surely it makes more sense to instead allocate to parliamentarians a housing allowance, to do with as they wish, and make the properties available, in the first case to parliamentarians who want to rent them, and then to the open market if they do not.

When I put this suggestion to a relatively senior parliamentarian, he replied this cannot happen, because the market rental for even a modest parliamentary bungalow, he insisted, is about four times his income as a parliamentarian.

Before I was able to respond to this reply, his attention was dragged elsewhere. But you don’t need to think too hard to realise that releasing the property to market, and providing parliamentarians with an allowance for accommodation that matches the prices achieved by the properties in the market costs the Indian government exactly nothing.

And it reduces by one the number of parliamentary committees, and the associated costs (not least of which is the potential for abuse of process that simply having the committee creates). And it removes the game of musical chairs that parliamentarians play, and instead gives them the opportunity to find for themselves a residence that suits best their needs, one they can be surer of holding on to for as long as they might need it.

And it creates the potential for using market funds to renovate, rebuild, even sub-divide some of the monstrously large properties in the most valuable and prized part of Delhi’s residential property market.

And it greatly diminishes the potential for the kind of embarrassment revealed by the current corruption scandal that has embroiled one former senior minister. The minister’s approved and allocated accommodation, it seems, was spacious enough that he had permitted a call centre to set up and operate from his residence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that under the current system – it’s only because he allegedly used public funds to install 300 phone lines to the residence that his activities have drawn the public eye and ire.

One more for the to do list, mother India.

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