Sunday, September 1, 2013

MPs, a pampered lot

Ever since the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) was launched in 1993, the exclusive privilege to the members for using an annual discretionary allocation to spend for public utility works in their respective constituencies has rarely been without its share of controversies. However, there has been no let up in members’ privilege as the annual allocation per member has been enhanced from the initial Rs 1 crore to Rs 5 crore now. 

This has been so despite three reviews by the Comptroller and Auditor General which found consistent violation of guidelines in executing the scheme. Independent surveys, on the other hand, found gross misuse of funds and siphoning off public money by organisations with dubious credentials entrusted with the task of implementing the works. If that wasn't enough, four MPs were suspended in 2005 for seeking commission to award works under the scheme. 

Despite a poor track record and a growing opposition to the scheme, the Supreme Court had pronounced a unanimous judgment in May 2010 whereby it had held the scheme valid within the framework of the Constitution. But it didn’t stop the recently published first-ever comprehensive book on the scheme titled ‘Public Money, Private Agenda’ by A Surya Prakash to conclude that ‘if MPs lack the discipline to conform to the guidelines, the MPLADS must be scrapped’.

As Members of Parliament in other democracies do not have funds at their disposal to spend on local area development and please their constituents, it is often questioned if such a scheme isn’t antithetical to the principle of separation of powers? Instead, Indian MPs continue to remain a pampered lot. The need for an enforceable code of conduct for MPs was felt decades ago but Parliament never got down to laying an ethical framework for the conduct of our Parliamentarians.

In the absence of a code of conduct, lawmakers have indulged in flaunting rules governing the scheme. Sample this: In Sikkim, funds from this scheme were used to construct anti-erosion bunds to protect the private property of the MP. In Bihar, funds from the scheme were used to build roads which were already constructed. In Himachal Pradesh, a multipurpose complex was constructed under the scheme but was handed over to private business. The list goes on!

Far from taking cognisance of such irregularities, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation has recently suggested that MPLADS’ funds can henceforth be used for works on 'private lands'. Furthermore, the privileged members can now assign works without calling tenders and are at liberty to engage any agency, only clause being that the assigned party should fit into the subjective interpretation of having  'national reputation' . With an estimated Rs 21,300 crore riding on members for each five-year tenure of Parliament under the scheme, the chance that public money will be squandered for private purposes is tough to dispute!

A Surya Prakash, leading commentator on public issues, has painstakingly gone through voluminous annual reports of Lok Sabha Committee on MPLADS before concluding: ‘the chairman and members of the committee seem to get all worked up about what they perceive to be a downgrading of their role by the government. However, they bec­­ome tongue-tied when presented with data which shows their colleagues in poor light.’ 

No wonder, MPLADS continues to be popular with MPs  but it also can be misused as there is scope for corruption. While a majority of MPs utilise the scheme to choose projects that would help their constituents, there are many who see MPLADS as a milch cow. What is more worrisome is the absence of an administrative infrastructure at the district level to keep a watchful eye on the scheme, which can result in the misuse of funds under the scheme. And, it already has!

While transparency in awarding contracts and accountability of works in public interest is one part of the story, the other part relates to whether lawmakers with a national responsibility  get bogged down in village-level development in their constituencies. But if the trend of increase in MPLADS’ corpus is any indication, a further hike in allocation will force MPs to spend more time in their constituencies at the cost of their primary Parliamentary duties. Already, quality of debates in Parliament has suffered on account of a large number of members being absent from the sessions. But if the trend is allowed to persist, with MPLADS making a significant contribution, it will have negative impact on the quality of debates, the quality of questions to be raised during the ‘question hour’, and the contribution of members to various Parliamentary committees. There is more at stake than MPLADS.

Since the Supreme Court has declared the scheme to be constitutionally valid, it is now for the members and Parliament to examine the implications of the scheme in the light of the democratic practices. Parliamentarians need to realise that the credibility of citadel of democracy remains intact only when privileges and ethics are seen as two sides of the same coin. While they clamor for more privileges, they cannot escape being held accountable vis-à-vis their primary obligation to Parliament and the functioning of an effective democracy....Link

Public Money, Private Agenda
by A Surya Prakash
Rupa, New Delhi
Pages: 296, Price: Rs 395

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