20/07/2015 8:32 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Give It Up: MPs Don't Need Subsidised Snacks To Do Their Job

PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images
To go with ' India-Politics-Modi' FOCUS by Bhuvan BAGGA In this photograph taken on May 7, 2015, vehicles depart after dropping off Indian Members of Parliament at Parliament House in New Delhi. Narendra Modi marks the first anniversary of his landslide election win in a bullish mood about his mission to transform India into a great power, despite doubts about the delivery of economic reforms. After winning the first outright majority by any leader in three decades on May 16, 2014, Modi vowed 'to make the 21st century India's century' and turn it into a driver of the global economy. AFP PHOTO/PRAKASH SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

About a million Indians have relinquished their LPG subsidies in less than four months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged them to "Give it Up" voluntarily for the benefit of the more disadvantaged sections of society. Many middle-class households have let go of the subsidy which should ideally prioritise the poorest of the poor (BPL households) as well as those rural households that are currently using inefficient and harmful cooking fuels. As of now, the benefits of the LPG subsidy are skewed in favour of a few large industrialised states (Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka corner 50% of this subsidy) and that too in wealthy households in urban areas primarily (about 60%). Less than 15% of rural households use LPG as their primary cooking fuel and instead rely largely on firewood.

If a million Indian citizens can give up subsidised LPG cooking fuel connections, then surely a few hundred MPs can give up subsidised cooked food. Government subsidies are meant for those who cannot afford to pay the full price of a service or product. Surely, we MPs can offer to give up this subsidy (or a VVIP privilege if you will) to set right this anomaly. Not just that, if we do the right thing -- by targeting subsidies appropriately in this case and not carrying on with a sense of VVIP entitlement -- it will be a step towards effecting greater public trust and confidence in our role as law makers.

"[I]f we do the right thing -- by targeting subsidies appropriately in this case and not carrying on with a sense of VVIP entitlement -- it will be a step towards effecting greater public trust..."

I personally gave up my gas subsidy some years ago. Over the years, I have also been advocating the dismantling of the well-entrenched VVIP culture in India, ranging from topics relating to red light beacons, security frisking, toll collection on highways etc.

While the quantum of the Parliament canteen food subsidy might not be huge, the central principles that need consideration are that of:

1) Targeting of subsidies to those that need it the most.

2) Implementing the subsidy transfer efficiently by eliminating leakages and scope for corruption.

In the case of LPG, the Give it Up campaign relates to the former point by nudging the citizenry to give up the gas subsidy so as to enable it to be more widely accessible to the poorest of the poor. The Direct Benefits Transfer for LPG (DBTL) programme is an attempt at operationalising the latter point, whereby the subsidy is directly effected through cash transfers into bank accounts that virtually eliminate any scope for leakage and corruption. (Though it needs to be noted that as yet the DBTL programme is not a targeted cash transfer scheme.) Ideally, the net impact of the above two principles is that the subsidy net gets cast widely as well as efficiently to those that really need it, thus ensuring bigger impacts of government spending on social sector schemes.

Some people have pointed out that the beneficiaries of the subsidised canteen food are not only MPs but also the staff working in the Parliament. However, government employees are most likely not to fall in the category of the poorest of the poor for whom government subsidies are usually intended, and can most probably afford to forego the subsidised food. As a response to the Give it Up campaign, government employees have also been surrendering their subsidised LPG connections. However, if there is indeed a strong case for them to keep availing of the subsidised food facility, the model that needs to be emulated is the DBTL programme that ensures a transparent and direct transfer of benefits. Like in the case of the DBTL programme, the government employees who use this Parliament canteen can get a direct cash transfer as a perk or subsidy.

MPs can certainly afford to go without subsidised food and continue to conduct legislative business in the Parliament. But where they do need support is by way of provision of an office, trained staff and other resources which will help them to go about their work efficiently.

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