India will ban red beacons on all non-emergency vehicles from May 1. Photo: AFP

Indian politicians and bureaucrats are rather proud of the red beacons atop their vehicles. For them, it is a colorful status symbol.

They will, however, have to forgo their sirens from May 1, when the federal government enforces a ban on their use on non-emergency vehicles.

The new rule will apply to all citizens including the president, prime minister and chief justice. Police vans, fire engines and ambulances are exempted.

The ban is seen as a leveller, a small step toward reducing the barrier between rulers and ruled and ending India’s so-called VIP culture.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put it, “every Indian is special, every Indian is a VIP.” For him, feudal symbols such as red beacons are “out of touch with the spirit of new India.”

Seeking a ban on red beacons, the Supreme Court described them as a “menace to society” in 2013.

For ordinary people, these “lal bhattis” (red beacons) have long been a nuisance as they are often made to wait on roads for VIP convoys to pass. In 2010, a 40-year-old patient died in an ambulance stuck on a Delhi road as traffic police were busy creating a “green channel” for VIPs.

Most politicians and bureaucrats, as well as their relatives, are known to abuse their red beacons to escape traffic jams or to get a parking space in crowded streets. Some criminals have used fake beacons to escape police.

Although the exact number of VIPs in India is unquantified, over 450 were protected by central security guards in 2016.

However, while the ban on sirens may be a welcome relief to the common man, it does not mean the end of VIP culture.

Perks and privileges

Lawmakers and officials enjoy several perks and privileges in-keeping with their demand for special treatment. A review of these privileges is long overdue.

For instance, several categories of VIPs are exempted from airport security checks for commercial flights. They have separate lounges and get special treatment in airplanes.

MPs can fly business class and travel in first class train cars for free. Their spouses are also eligible for free air travel to Delhi eight times a year, when parliament is in session.

MPs enjoy highly subsidized food in parliament canteens and are given free, furnished accommodation in well-to-do areas. They enjoy tax exemptions on 50% of their income. MPs draw a salary of US$1,600 per month plus other allowances. They are also eligible for a pension.

Taxpayers have questioned MPs’ different tax structure and pensions. They want lawmakers to perform better for the salaries they earn and the other benefits they enjoy.

MPs are in power thanks to the people who voted for them. They should serve them, not flaunt their own egos or flout rules

MPs receive a daily allowance of 2,000 rupees (US$31) for attending parliament during its three annual sessions. However, sessions are often deferred for want of a quorum. Some elected MPs, such as Bollywood actress Rekha and former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar have hardly attended parliament. To many, this is a mockery of democracy.

Rubbing salt in the wounds is the unseemly behavior of some MPs and their kin. Recently, a lawmaker from Maharashtra, Ravindra Gaikwad, slapped a senior Air India officer for asking him to disembark at Delhi. Gaikwad later expressed “regret” but never tendered an apology to the victim.

In another incident, two sons of lawmaker Nimmala Krishnappa, from Andhra Pradesh, were arrested on April 24 for attacking road toll plaza staff who asked them to pay the required toll like other citizens.

Men in high positions are supposed to be public servants. MPs are in power thanks to the people who voted for them. They should serve them, not flaunt their own egos or flout rules.

India’s prime minister keeps reminding people of how he moved from a tea-seller at a nondescript railway station to becoming the people’s servant (“jan sevak”). It remains to be seen whether the country’s VIPs will listen to him.

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