One of the perquisites of becoming a member of Parliament is getting 150,000 free telephone calls every year from state-owned firms including Mahanagar Telephones Nigam (MTNL) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL).
And one of the unwritten perks is getting unlimited 'credit' for calls made by MPs, their relatives and friends and lackeys, with MTNL and BSNL never considering disconnecting the lines, as they do for ordinary subscribers.
Responding to an RTI query by Subhas Chandra Agrawal, an activist, MTNL and BSNL have revealed that over 400 MPs (both former and sitting) from various parties (including the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) owe it Rs9 crore in dues.
A large chunk of the dues are from 399 former MPs, who owe the companies Rs7.1 crore, while six sitting members owe them Rs1.97 crore. Topping the list of defaulters is former Rajya Sabha member Janardhan Yadav of the BJP, whose pending bill is a whopping Rs22.29 lakh.
Other top defaulters among former MPs include Basavaraj Patil (Congress) who owes the company Rs17.2 lakh and the late K Mohammad Khan (Congress) with dues of Rs15.28 lakh.
Among the half a dozen sitting MPs who have not cleared their phones bills, five are from the ruling Congress and one from the Janata Dal (U). Topping the list of Congress MPs is Bhakta Charan Das with dues of Rs3.31 lakh, followed by M. Krishna Swamy (Rs3.19 lakh) G.V. Harsha Kumar (Rs2.06 lakh), Narender Budhania (Rs1.33 lakh) and Harsh Vardhan (Rs36,744). The JDU defaulter is Ram Sunder Das (Rs9.49 lakh).
Agrawal wonders why the state-owned companies have not started recoveries from the sitting and former MP. ''Rules should allow auto-deduction of all government bills from salaries and pensions of present and former parliamentarians,'' he says.
Not surprisingly, moves to divest the government's stake in public sector undertakings, including airlines, telecom companies and other 'mammaries of the welfare state' – the delightful title of IAS officer-cum-author, Upamanyu Chatterjee's novel – are vehemently opposed by MPs from virtually all the parties.