Time to merge 'flawed' MPLADS with employment scheme

 Raising the annual allocation under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) from Rs 2 crore to Rs 5 crore can only please the members, ideological differences can wait. The fact that the proposal has been pushed ahead of the Supreme Court’s judgement on a petition challenging the scheme is somewhat disturbing.

Ever since it was launched by the Narasimha Rao government in 1993, the scheme has remained controversial on account of charges of corruption and inefficiency. Aimed at discouraging defections, the scheme has been widely believed to be a political incentive funded out of the exchequer. If the sting operation that had caught seven MP’s seeking bribes for doling out contracts under the scheme on Dec 20, 2005, has been any indication, the scheme has lived up to its dubious origin.

Nothing seems to have changed since. Conversely, it may have worsened as the ongoing review of the scheme in several states by the Comptroller and Auditor General reflects. From delayed commissioning of works to diversion of funds and from irregular payments to siphoning of resources, the scheme is a veritable menu on corrupt practices. MPs in Andhra Pradesh have gone a step further, parking as much as Rs 64 crore in fixed deposits to earn interest. The list of violations seems endless!
Can a scheme that has been full of flaws, both in design as well as in its execution, be effectively regulated? Minister of Statistics and Programme Implementation Shriprakash Jaiswal has gone on record to argue that corruption in most public transactions is inevitable. This clearly means that neither is corruption a crime nor a sin that cannot be accepted as a social reality. It must therefore be doubted if Parliament can frame effective regulations to keep corruption by its fraternity under check.

The flip side of the story is that strict regulation will only bring further decline in fund utilisation. Already, some 60 per cent of the provisionary amount never gets spent indicating that the scheme has not been seriously pursued by most members. Over the past 15 years since the scheme was launched, less than one-fifth of the total allocation has actually been spent. What purpose does the scheme serve when its beneficiaries are unwilling on its effective execution?

The UPA government’s resolve to enhance allocation under MPLADS seems to be a throwback to the days of the benevolent feudal landlord who would dole out favours to please the selected few. And it contravenes the ruling alliance’s much appreciated recent decision to bar its elected members from using their erstwhile feudal titles like ‘Raja’. It doesn’t make sense to refrain the members from using feudal titles while vesting public funds with them to further discretionary powers contained therein.
It goes without saying that within the constitutional framework the role of legislature is to frame pro-people policies and to ensure effective utilisation of public resources for generating public good, and not indulge in actual execution of works. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution had found design flaws in suggesting that MPLADS be discontinued as it isn’t consistent with the spirit of federalism and encroaches on areas under Panchayat Raj institutions.

Far from legitimising a flawed scheme, the government should honour its constitutional obligation of strengthening the three tiers of democracy. Building a community centre or a bus shelter by an MP only weakens the foundation of elected democracy and erodes peoples’ faith in it. And, continued persistence with a flawed scheme only exposes the hidden intentions of the government at the cost of its much acclaimed ‘aam aadmi’ image.

It will be erroneous to assume that public memory is short-lived on matters of corruption in high offices of the government. On the contrary, public perception of the scheme remains undeterred as a vast majority firmly believes that the discretionary annual fund has perpetuated corruption ever since MPLADS was launched in 1993. Ironically, the members haven’t let them down either!

However, there is one way in which a semblance of order can be brought about in a widely rubbished scheme — divert allocation under MPLADS to NREGA with an added obligation for each of the MPs to play supervisory role in monitoring its effective utilisation within their respective constituencies. Over Rs 7,500 crore of public money is currently at stake every year, which is slated to increase to a whopping Rs 20,000 crore should the present proposal get through.

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