The recent judgement of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court regarding the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme,or MPLADS,will evoke mixed reactions. To the votaries of decentralisation and multi-level governance,the judgment is yet another nail in the panchayati rajs coffin. To those concerned about accountability,the governments claim that the scheme has a built-in accountability arrangement will cause some amazement. The courts finding that the MPs role in the scheme is only seemingly executive is also baffling.
According to the 2008-09 annual report of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation,which handles this scheme,Rs 18,327 crore have been spent on it since its inception in 1993-94. Initially Rs 1 crore per year,the allocation per MP is now Rs 2 crore. There are strident demands already that this provision be increased. Now that a certification on the legality of the scheme is available,are the flood gates of discretionary funds likely to be thrown open?
The MPLADs case has gone on for well over a decade.
(In 2006,a three-judge bench referred it to a Constitution Bench.) While some issues,like the separation of powers and whether an appropriation bill forming part of the budget process is an adequate substitute for a separate enactment,might not interest everyone,the factual matrix on which the Constitution Bench relied which raises some important questions.
One is the courts view that though MPs have been given a seemingly executive function,their role is limited only to recommending works. The responsibilities for scrutiny,as well as technical,financial and administrative sanction rest with the district authority. It is respectfully submitted that this is a distinction without difference. The choice of the scheme,its location and priority are decided by the MP as part of the recommendation. The district authority is responsible only for its implementation. Though the ministrys guidelines of November 2005 provides that a district authority should inform an MP within 45 days in case it is found that the scheme is not implementable,there is no information as to how many such cases were returned,if at all.
The second finding is that the panchayati raj and municipal institutions have not been denuded of their jurisdiction. The bench held that according to the guidelines,these bodies have been given their due role in the implementation of the schemes; and therefore,it cant be said that the MPLADS undermines the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. The guidelines suggest that MPs may choose works for creation of durable assets for drinking water,sanitation,roads,education and public health. The first three items,at least,clearly fall within the domain of panchayats and municipalities but they are not the ones who are choosing the location of the work recommended by the MP. Taking away a part of the functional domain of the local bodies,whether on the recommendation of an MP or at the instance of a district authority is bad enough; but treating local bodies,constitutionally recognised,as institutions of self government and offering them a role in implementation is an affront.
The Court has also held that a regime of accountability does exist within the MPLADS. A study of the guidelines shows that the accountability procedures described do not relate to the MP but to the district authority. It is the district authority which is responsible for maintenance and audit of accounts,utilisation certificates and various other requirements. The procedures are essentially the same as the enormous compendium of accounting instructions pervading every government-sponsored scheme.
If indeed,it is a district authority which is responsible for sanctioning of the scheme and also be accountable for its implementation and performance then what is the point in calling this MPLADS? If,as according to the court,the MPs entire responsibility is only recommendation,there are ample platforms for making such recommendations at the district and the municipal level. In most states,the MPs and MLAs are honoured members and invitees to these platforms. What sets the MPLADS apart is the strong element of personal choice and discretion.
Toilets and tube wells,bus stands or community halls,animal shelters or libraries are not discoveries of the present generation but long regarded as part of local body activities. Previously,citizens needing such facilities would approach the local bodies or seek the generosity of a local raja or a zamindar. Today,the citizen is expected to run to the MP or the MLA,rather than the panchayats or the municipalities which he has elected. In the process,a peoples representative,elected by them,becomes a baron of patronage.
Notwithstanding its legalities,the real effect of the verdict will be to further undermine a self-government system heralded until recently as a decentralisation dream come true.
The writer is chairman of the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi