Is Prime Minister’s Rs. 2 Lakh Salary Insufficient?
Earlier this week, Senator Faisal Javed Khan, while chairing a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting, highlighted the curious fact that while some senior officials in PTV were getting salaries of around Rs 10 lakhs a month, the Prime Minister of Pakistan is paid about Rs. 2 lakh a month only. Similarly, in January this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan disclosed in an interaction with the business community, “My [official] salary is not enough to cover the expenses of my own household”. The situation is startling enough to deserve an explanation, which is set out below.
The explanation consists of three parts. Firstly, we observe how pay is determined in the Federal Government and what the main features of the resulting pay structure are (pension is not discussed here because it only follows from the pay structure). Secondly, we need to look at the pays from an economic point of view, that is, in comparison with the pays in the private sector as well as in relation to the GDP per capita. And thirdly, we need to look at the pay structure from a political point of view, that is, to determine the philosophical motivations and objectives behind the existing pay structure.
The Existing Pay Structure
Presently, pays of Federal Government employees (both civil and military) are determined by a Pay and Pension Commission constituted by the Finance Division every few years. According to a 2006 study by Faiz Bilquees for Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Pay and Pension Commissions were constituted in 1948-49, 1970, 1972, 1977, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1994, 2001 and 2005. The latest Pay and Pension Commission was constituted in April this year, whose recommendation of an increase in pays was famously rejected by the Federal Cabinet.
Bilquees notes that while the Commission’s reports are considered “confidential”, it appears committed to maintain the ratio of the lowest to the highest pay at 1:9, with the lowest pay grade being 1 and the highest being 22. Prime Minister’s salary falls in this category, that is, it is quite close to the standard pay of a 22-grade civil servant or a lieutenant general in Pakistan army. Salaries of ministers and member of parliaments also fall in this category.
However, the salary structure of public sector corporations, of which there are a total of 206 including PTV, is quite close to that of the private sector. Over the last 11 years, salaries of judges of the Supreme Court and five High Courts have also been brought at par with those of the private sector executives, ranging from Rs. 10 lakhs to Rs. 15 lakhs.
It is important to note that different provincial governments have their own salary structures and it is not possible to make a generalization about them. However, it is important to note that the PTI governments in Punjab and KP have given a 150% “executive allowance” to their elite administrative officers from Pakistan Administrative Service (formerly, DMG) and the Provincial Management Service. Similarly, PTI government has also given special allowance to FIA and NAB officials.
It makes ample sense to make salaries in the public sector competitive with the private sector as has been the case with public sector corporations in Pakistan. This is done to acknowledge that public sector requires no less talent than the private sector and to ensure that public servants do their job at least as efficiently and transparently as their counterparts in the private sector.
It also makes good sense to link the salaries of public sector employees to GDP per capita. For example, the current salary of the Prime Minister is about 10 times the GDP per capita of Pakistan (hovering around $1,500 over the last five years). For heads of governments in other countries, this ratio varies from 5 times to 30 times or more. For example, according to a report in USA Today dated 21 April 2019, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the highest paid head of government in the world drawing an annual salary of $1,610,000, which was 12 times the GDP per capita of Singapore ($86,811). Similarly, the multiple was seven times for US President Donald Trump, five times for French President Emmanuel Macron, 20 times for Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Adern and 30 times for Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales.
However, it makes no sense at all to use one measure for the public sector corporations and another for regular, and essential, government departments. Do we not need the best available talent in regular government departments? Do we not need the employees of regular government departments to be efficient and transparent?
Moreover, it also makes absolutely no sense to refuse to give adequate pay to public servants only because they happen to be living in a poor country. No matter how poor the country is, if the public servants and representatives are not free from the worries of basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter, they can hardly be expected to focus on providing the same to others! Similarly, one shudders to think about the “morale” and defence capabilities of the armed forces under the existing pay structure.
In other words, economics fails to explain the existing pay structure in the regular divisions of the Federal Government, including the elected representatives and the armed forces.
It does appear that, post-Musharraf, efforts has been made to gradually bring the pay structure of public servants at par with the private sector. This is evident from the increase in the pays of judges, doctors and recently, of PAS, PMS, NAB and FIA officers. However, this still does not explain why the pays of other public officials have historically remained so low and inadequate, which brings us to Part III and the main contribution of this article: political analysis.
Remarkably, the only plausible explanation for the evidently inadequate government salaries is to be found in an ancient Greek epic. In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus – returning from Troy to his home in Ithaca by sea – is confronted with the Island of Sirens: mythical bird-women “who spellbind any man alive, whoever comes their way… The high, shrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him, lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses, rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones” (Fagles, 12.45-52). However, the sorceress Circe had already warned Odysseus about the Sirens and had also told him a cunning strategy to avoid their trap: “Soften some beeswax and stop your shipmates’ ears so none can hear… but… have them tie you hand and foot in the swift ship, erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast… But if you plead, commanding your men to set you free, then they must lash you faster, rope on rope” (Fagles, 12.53-60). Odysseus followed this strategy to successfully bypass the bewitching songs of the deadly Sirens.
This strategy has come to be known as “pre-commitment” or “tying yourself to the mast”: adopting a course of action that prevents you from changing your initial preferences even if you wanted to. In a way, all rule-based thinking that seeks to avoid the trap of convenience can be traced back to this strategy. For example:
- In Pakistan, many women are denied the right of inheritance thereby forcing to live with their husbands without any reasonable possibility of returning to their parents’ home or legacy.
- Christianity ensures the sanctity of monogamous marriage by prohibiting divorce in general.
- In the West, especially USA, most middle class parents force their children – as soon as they reach adulthood – to leave their home and live on their own to ensure that the children completely forgo the idea of remaining dependent on their parents.
- Most Constitutions in the world ensure that elections are always held on time by simply ignoring the possibility of any delay: come hell or high water, there is no way an election can be delayed except through a constitutional amendment.
- A self-righteous batch-mate solemnly told us during the Common Training that he would like to be ridiculed and punished rather than supported and encouraged if he was ever found involved in corrupt practices at any time in his upcoming career as a federal civil servant.
It is clear from the examples above that the pre-commitment strategy can only be adopted from a position of power. Only someone who is not beholden to another’s command can successfully implement this strategy, whether on himself or someone else. This means that it can be used not only to permanently settle difficult questions like drinking alcohol, prohibited sexual relations, divorce, inter-generational dependency and delaying elections, but it can also be used to set interminable traps for the weaklings so that they never rise up against the powerful. For example, the longevity of the colonial rule was and is ensured by the principle of divide and rule so that the colonized nations are always fighting among themselves rather than the colonial power. It is after all no coincidence that the British though it fit to divide Ireland, India, Palestine and Cyprus among mutually hostile groups.
And now we come to the question, how does the pre-commitment strategy of Odysseus apply to the issue of inadequate government salaries? Just bear in mind this historical fact: during the British Raj in India, British officers were paid so much that there was no doubt left about their loyalty, honesty and commitment to the Crown. PM Khan himself noted, while addressing a function organized by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry in December 2018, “In 1935 commissioners and brigadiers could buy 70 tolas of gold with their monthly salary.” This was also an application of the pre-commitment strategy.
Now consider: what could be the pre-commitment strategy behind giving government officials ample authority over millions and billions of rupees in the public exchequer but not enough salary, even at the highest levels, to let them pay for their children’s education, or save for a car, much less a home?
As Bob Dylan said, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”
In light of the above discussion, it is humbly submitted that the salaries of all government officials – elected, civil and military – should be brought at par with the private sector in the earliest. The IMF and other naysayers urging otherwise should rest assured that the additional burden of salaries would be offset many times over by the elimination of the prevailing systemic incentive for bribery and misuse of authority. As Allama Iqbal had said:
Nahi hai na-umeed Iqbal apni kisht-e-veeran se
Zara nam ho tu yeh matti bohat zarkhaiz hai saqi.
[Iqbal is not hopeless about his deserted fields
This soil only needs some moisture to become very fertile.]
The author is a lawyer and a civil servant based in Lahore.