MPs are a pampered lot
While the author does not take a position on whether the MPLAD be scrapped or not, choosing instead to lay bare the facts as they exist, he provides many evidences to prove that the scheme has been misused more as a rule than in breach, writes RAJESH SINGH
Public Money Private Agenda
Author : A Surya Prakash
Publisher : Rupa, Rs 395
The Local Area Development Scheme fund for parliamentarians and legislators has been a bone of contention between those who believe it has been a game-changer for the better and those who maintain that the project has served no purpose other than to further the parochial political interests of the MPs and MLAs. The matter even reached the doors of the Supreme Court, which upheld the legality of the scheme. But that has not quelled the controversy, with many eminent personalities still maintaining that the MPLADS (and the MLALADS) should be scrapped. As a journalist and political commentator, A Surya Prakash has been following the issue since its inception. This book is a product of his deep interest in the subject.
While the author does not take a position either way, choosing instead to lay bare the facts as they exist, his inclination to believe that the scheme has been misused more as a rule than in breach is evident on several occasions in the narrative. He has an interesting take on the origins of the scheme which kicked off the early 1990s. Surya Prakash, who is Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, says that MPs believed they had nothing to show to their voters on what they were doing for them. The local MLA was the hands-on politicians in the region, and local governance representatives from the panchayat and the municipalities were seen to be the driving force in civic administration. The MPs believed that their voters would not be content with the explanation that they had been elected to Parliament to enact laws and formulate policies for the country’s governance. The people wanted ‘something’ from their parliamentarians. Thus, a bunch of MPs took the lead to petition the Government that they must have a certain amount of funds at their disposal for public work for which they can then take legitimate credit.
The idea soon caught on as more and more MPs warmed up to it. The Union Government moved on the matter quickly and MPLADS soon came to be established. The MP constituency fund for a single financial year began with Rs 1 crore, went up to Rs 2 crore and finally to Rs 5 crore. Now there is demand that even this amount in insufficient and should be hiked. Interestingly, almost without exception, the demand for an increase in the allocation had been met with opposition from the Government, especially from the Finance and Programme Implementation Ministries — the two arms of the Government that are directly engaged in the scheme. But the combined might of the committees on MPLADS of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, which pushed for the enhancement, always prevailed.
The author points out how the parameters that had been initially established for the disbursal of the funds kept getting stretched to accommodate the demands of the MPs for investing in projects that did not meet the criteria established. While it had been made clear that the funds would be available for projects that were in the larger public interest and available and accessible to the people at large, MPs began presenting demands for schemes that were confined to a particular group. For instance, an MP, who had been a distinguished member of a Bar Association, demanded that he be allowed to use funds under the MPLAD scheme for the construction of halls and auditoria for Bar Associations, and that too in constituencies he did not represent. Encouraged by this novel demand, another MP asked for the guidelines to be amended so that he could use his constituency funds for the construction of buildings for Rotary Club and Lions Club, both of which, he claimed, were engaged in social service. While Governments by and large have unenthusiastic to such demands, knowing well that they will open up the floodgates for more such concessions, they have had to relent under pressure from the panels of the two Houses that handle the affairs of the MPLADS.
The floodgates did open, with some MPs demanding that they be allowed to spend the constituency fund for the construction of memorials, of all things. An MP wanted to construct no less than three memorials from the MPLADS fund for GMC Balayogi, who died in a plane crash while in office as Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The Government made an exception to the rule that memorials could not be funded under the scheme, and sanctioned, against the rules, one memorial for the former Speaker.
In a section titled, ‘How the Rules Bend Before Ministers’, the author cites instances where MP demanded and got to use funds for the purchase of items that did not fall within the guidelines. The purchase of vehicles and other forms of inventory is one such example. The guidelines did not permit it, yet some MPs sought and got permission to use the money for acquiring buses and computers and software for purposes other than laid down in the rules. Again, the rules were amended to suit the demands.
Surya Prakash maintains, without explicitly saying so, that frequent relaxations in the rules have taken the scheme into direction unforeseen by the authors of the scheme, and have contributed vastly to the rising opposition to the project. Clearly, what began as a scheme to empower the MPs at least in the eyes of the electorate has degenerated into something of a farce, with MPs not just using the money to fund sectarian projects but also demanding that they have control over decisions such as the choice of the bank where the funds are parked and the contractor(s) who will implement the scheme. Not just that, the MPs must be the ones to distribute the cheques to the agencies that will implement the project! In other words, the MPs want to convert the scheme for their aggrandisement. This has turned out to be problematic, as the author has pointed out. The implementing agency is the District Collector concerned and he (or she) is accountable for the project. But with the local MP wanting to play a bigger role in the process, one would naturally wonder who is to be held responsible for any irregularity that may happen. The MP will surely wash his hands of and leave the poor bureaucrat, whose decision-making powers had been usurped by the MP, to face the music.
We are back, therefore, to the larger question: Should MPLADS be scrapped? No other functioning parliamentary democracy has such a scheme, and democracy or development is no worse off as a result of that. As Surya Prakash points out, while criticism has come from various quarters within the Government and outside, including the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the stoutest defence has come from the panels of the two Houses of Parliament that overlook the project. But one would go by the author’s contention, “If the MPs lack the discipline to conform to the guidelines, MPLADS must be scrapped.”
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