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The wasteful scandal called MPLADS

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
March 31, 2011 14:15 IST
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Since the time it was thought up, and the idea spread like an epidemic, there has been no significant changes in the way MPLADs and its imitations that have devolved to the states and local bodies. There is a vested interest not to change this wasteful scandal, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

It is time once again to scream in anguish at the announcement in mid-March that each of the members of parliament would have Rs 5 crore per year at their disposal to spend on any project they deem fit.

The hike by Rs 3 crore to what was the largesse to the politicos has now added substantially to the bill; the total for 2011-12 set aside would be Rs 2,370 crore -- quite substantial for a country where resources are scarce and leakages high. But the MPs cannot be stopped for they can enact anything they deem fit for themselves and give it unto themselves -- from higher pay and perks to cheaper canteen food.

The MPs are aware that there is anger at their being allocated the funds for developing their respective constituencies and in 2008 had even suggested that the MP from the MP Local Area Development Fund be dropped. My guess is that they had wanted to make it more hush-hush instead of changing the system. This increase has been pending for sometime, which is a surprise, because they can get things for themselves unanimously. In October 2010 the Planning Commission had frowned at the fund apparently because of distrust of its working and also the plea that there were resource constraints. But who can stop the MPs?

There are several reasons why this was started in the first place by P V Narasimha Rao.

It is believed that with a minority government, he wanted to create a vested interest in the MPs for the continuation of the Lok Sabha so dispensed this largesse which has now become institutionalised.  It amounts to a bribe.

It is also believed that this helps MPs nurse their constituencies though I believe proper representation, securing long term benefits to people on a sustained basis is the best way to nurse a seat. It is an excuse because leakages are possible, patronage being a fact of Indian political system where not rule but proximity matters.

One silly explanation offered once was that opposition members are left behind in the development journey so the funds help cover the gaps. You can laugh out aloud till you fall off the chair but such is the rationalisation one finds in the public domain. An entire parliament and the administration cannot ensure evenness of the development process? Focus has to be on the entire region, not seat-specific.

Fortunately, there are dissenters among the MPs who even go to the extent of terming the MPLAD a fraud but such voices are few though loud. These naysayers have not managed to overcome the demand of the protagonists which is why the country is being burdened with another way of wasting money. The curious aspect is that right from the beginning the Comptroller & Auditor General has been unfavourably disposed towards the MPLAD and with good reasons. CAG has pointed out time and again that these funds are misused, are not monitored and in most cases, even unspent. If they are to be unspent, then why corner it?

Even a parliamentary committee on finance had said in 1998-99 report that it had 'doubts' about the scheme because the minister for programme implementation and monitoring provides the money but does not monitor it. It was after that did the CAG say in 2001 that the programme needed re-evaluation to deal with the need, manner and modalities of resource transfers; the scheme was being poorly administered. The pro-MPLAD lobby seems strong enough to overcome all objections.

What is mystifying is that the MPLAD and its other younger siblings in the states and even some local bodies continue despite facts being dished out by the CAG. In one report it had listed 8,764 cases of misuse of funds. It has said that locals are not involved and in some states, spent on unnecessary stuff: a school building where a school was never sanctioned; it is now a cowshed for someone influential, a community hall where people do not leave and turned into a godown for a contractor.  Between 2004-05 and 2008-09, funds equal to 37.43 percent and 52.44 percent was unspent. The closing balance at the end of 2008-09 was Rs 1,788 crore plus, mysteriously, Rs 2,137 crore in banks.

Now each MP would have Rs 25 crore per term to lord it over the constituency, dispensing favours, not distributing development. More contractors would besiege his office and home for contracts and more harassment would befall the officialdom, who unless they are part of any mischief, would only groan. Bar a few politicians, I am not inclined to believe that all are honest and would give the constituencies the right bang for the buck.

It is laughable that each of the MPs who managed to spend the MPLAD cash also managed all these years to nurse his constituency with a mere Rs 2 crore per year on works. Pray enlighten me as to what kind of work can really be done with that little to make a difference to a constituency that spans huge areas and large populations?

If it is a mere token, then what is its worth? But when you add up all the funds assigned to each of the MPs, and MLAs, and MLCs and civic councillors, it amounts to a whole lot. Likewise, do the math with Rs 5 crore per MP. If the pretext is nursing a seat, then even Rs 5 crore does not go far. Not enough to make a difference unless it is drained elsewhere.

These funds are supposed to be spent on doing things which are not planned for in the normal development plans, the scheme prepared and executed by the district magistrate/collector at the behest of the MP. Similar schemes, it so happens, are available through funds assigned to MLAs and MLCs and in some cities, the city councillors which all adds up to a huge figure; Maharashtra is set to double it to Rs 3 crore per annum per legislator. Quite untenable, don't you think, that such funds should be spent recklessly? Yes, recklessly, because even the best-monitored schemes are full of over-estimation of costs, under-execution and poor quality. So what happens to the schemes which are not monitored and discretionary?

MPs and MLAs are lawmakers and the people's representatives in the bodies they are elected to ensure that development is ensured and that every penny spent provides the appropriate returns, not to the politicians and bureaucrats but the people. Yet, it transpires that there are gaps which need to be immediately filled in the development of local areas that an MP or an MLA has to use his discretion.  Poppycock! If they do their work as per the book and people's expectations, such need would not arise at all. As plain and simple as that.

Since the time Narasimha Rao thought this up, and the idea spread like an epidemic, there has been no significant changes in the way this MPLADs and its imitations that have devolved to the states and local bodies. There is a vested interest not to change this wasteful scandal. It seems even the CAG's views do not count.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.

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