With a brusque proclamation on April 6, the government decided to suspend operation of the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) for the next two financial years, and divert Rs 7,900 crore to the fight against COVID-19. The decision is both misconceived and mischievous. It would subvert the fight against COVID-19 rather than strengthen it.
It is important to understand the MPLADS, and why these resources are needed now more than ever. In the classical constitutional construct premised upon the principle of separation of powers, the legislature is not supposed to play an executive role. It is charged with the remit of enacting legislation and exercising sharp oversight over government functioning.
However, in any developing nation, the aspiration for better quality public goods and an enhanced standard of living is a legitimate desire. The expectation, therefore, from public representatives to contribute to this paradigm is strong.
That is why on December 23, 1993, the government announced the MPLAD Scheme. It was formulated to enable the members of Parliament to identify small works based on locally felt needs in their constituencies. The objective being to recommend works of developmental nature with emphasis on the creation of durable community assets.
These are customised solutions unique to the situations that they address. However, the broad focus is on clean drinking water, primary education, public health, sanitation and roads. Each Lok Sabha MP gets Rs five crore per year for his/her constituency; Rajya Sabha MPs have the flexibility to spend it across the state from where they have been elected. This money is allocated through a parliamentary appropriation.
MPLADS was challenged in the Supreme Court as being violative of Articles 275, 282, the 73rd and 74th Amendment, and the constitutional design itself. In 2010, a five-judge bench of the SC held the scheme to be intra vires of the Constitution and declared “Indian Constitution does not recognise strict separation of powers. Even though MPs have been given a seemingly executive function, their role is limited to ‘recommending’ works and actual implementation is done by the local authorities. Therefore, the scheme does not violate separation of powers. Panchayat raj institutions, municipal as well as local bodies have also not been denuded of their role or jurisdiction…”
Contrary to popular perception, MPLAD funds cannot be spent at the discretion of an MP in any manner he/she wants. There is a set of guidelines mandating the utilisation of the monies. These diktats are updated regularly and are available on the website of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. A complete breakdown of how the money is utilised is also available under the Right to Information (RTI). The funds spent are subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Moreover, the MPs can only recommend development works and the money is electronically transferred to the concerned executing agency directly by the district administration.
Most MPs use their MPLAD funds judiciously and guard them zealously. For us, it is a constant battle between great hopes and scarce resources. A perpetual effort is, therefore, always afoot to extract the maximum advantage from every paisa spent. Coming to COVID-19, it is in fact the MPs who acted even before the government got its act together, for they have their ear to the ground always. Individually and collectively, they represented to the presiding officers of both the Houses to relax the guidelines in order to enable them to procure the necessary wherewithal to fight this pandemic.
On March 24, the government came out with a notification that permitted MPs to utilise their funds for the purchase of infra-red thermometers, personal protection equipments, thermal imaging scanners, corona testing kits, ICU ventilators, face masks, gloves and sanitisers and other necessary medical equipment. Mysteriously, 11 days later, the scheme was scrapped. What changed in those 12 days? Were there any reports of malfeasance? The answer is no.
What did change was that, on March 28, another letter was received requesting MPs to give their consent for the release of Rs 1 crore from their next MPLAD instalment for the fiscal 2020-21 “to such central government pool or head of account as may be decided by the Government of India for prevention and control of COVID-19 in the country”. Not many MPs responded. Not because they are insensitive, but primarily because most of us were dealing with the human fallout of the ill-conceived and badly implemented lockdown. Did someone’s “ego” get hurt at this lack of response? The jury still remains out on that.
Turning to the bigger picture, just a fortnight ago, the Parliament passed the Union Budget of Rs 30,42,230 crore. The receipts, other than net borrowings, are projected at Rs 22,45,893. The fiscal deficit is targeted at 3.5 per cent of the GDP lower than the Revised Estimate of 3.8 per cent in 2019-20. The new financial year has just commenced. The government can easily find Rs 2 lakh crore to fight COVID-19 just by rationalising and re-targeting government expenditure. The appointment of an expenditure rationalisation commission is, in fact, the need of the hour. As an estimate pointed out, Rs 93,562 crore can come from 15 central public sector enterprises alone without much effort. Taking away Rs 3,950 crore for 788 MPs is not even a drop in the ocean.
MPLADS is a very nimble and effective scalpel of targeted micro-level intervention. In the months and days ahead, when distress — medical and economic — will haunt the countryside, these discretionary interventions will help save lives. The MPs should be trusted. What is required is cooperative federalism and not unrestrained authoritarianism.
This article first appeared in the print edition of March 11 under the name ‘Trust your MP’. The writer is an MP, national spokesperson, INC, and former Union minister
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