This is likely to trigger yet another round of confrontation between the executive and judiciary. The government has decided to abolish the monthly sumptuary allowance of Supreme Court and High Court judges. The proposal is part of the draft cabinet note that the Union Cabinet may approve soon, highly-placed sources in the government said.
Sumptuary allowance is out of the purview of income tax and is granted to judges in addition to their salary. It is given for the expenditure incurred on entertaining visitors. The existing allowance for the Chief Justice of India is Rs 20,000, for chief justices of the 24 High Courts and judges of the SC, it is Rs15,000, and the amount is Rs12,000 for judges of the High Courts.
The judiciary and executive are already at loggerheads over the memorandum of procedure (MoP) for the appointment of judges to higher judiciary. The latest development is important considering that a three-judge panel, headed by former Chief Justice of India TS Thakur, had sought the sumptuary allowance for CJI to be raised to Rs 60,000. The panel, which had written to the government almost a year ago, had sought that this allowance be raised to Rs 45,000 for chief justices of HCs and the Supreme Court judges. For HC judges, the panel had sought Rs 35,000 sumptuary allowance.
A senior official in the finance ministry said the decision to scrap the allowance has been taken by an expert inter-ministerial committee comprising representatives from the finance ministry, law ministry and ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions. The official added that the decision has been taken keeping in mind the recommendation of the Seventh Pay Commission. It had said that the structure of these allowances is quite haphazard, and the rates vary widely.
Notably, recommendations of the pay commissions are not binding when it comes to salaries of judges, especially in the higher judiciary. The salary and allowance of High Court and Supreme Court judges are governed by the High Court Judges (Salaries and Conditions of Service) Act, 1954, and the Supreme Court Judges (Salaries and Conditions of Service) Act, 1958. Whenever any changes are to made in their salaries, bills related to amendment in the two acts are tabled before Parliament. The parliament can make changes in the salary and service conditions of judges by passing the bills with amendments in the two acts. Bureaucrats are governed as per the recommendations of the pay commissions and sumptuary allowances are granted to various grades of personnel in the Central Government too.
A few sitting and retired judges of the higher judiciary seemed quite displeased with the idea. A Delhi High Court judge, who did not wish to be named, said, “The Pay Commission is not binding on the salary and allowances of judges. Then why is the government doing this? MPs get a million allowances. Those are never curtailed then why are they scraping our allowances?” A senior official in the law ministry confirmed the development about scrapping of the sumptuary allowance but added that the government is considering introducing another allowance of “office expenses” for the same purpose. He, however, added that the modalities of the new allowance are yet to be finalised. When asked if the new allowance would also be exempted from tax and will be in addition to the salary, the official said, “These things are not decided yet. We are considering introducing a new allowance for the same purpose.”
The salaries of judges of higher judiciary are revised every 10 years, almost on the lines of the hikes given to senior government functionaries. The issue of hike of judges’ salary has been pending with the government for almost a year. The salary of the chief justices of HCs and SC judges are kept at the level of the cabinet secretary, the service chiefs and some constitutional functionaries such as the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Chief Election Commissioner.
The salaries and allowances of HC judges are kept at par with secretaries of the Central government.