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COVID-19: 'My job is to save and help people'

By PRASANNA D ZORE
April 08, 2020 08:16 IST
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'This is a long haul, god knows where it will end.'
'So it is best to conserve all the funds right now for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.'

IMAGE: A municipal corporation worker sprays disinfectant at a hospital in Srinagar. Photograph: S Irfan/PTI Photo

The Union Cabinet decided to cut the salary of all Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs for one year and diverted the Rs 5 crore allocated to each of India's 788 MPs under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development scheme to garner resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore speaks to six MPs from different political parties to assess their reaction to this decision. This is what they said:

Naresh Gujral, Shiromani Akali Dal, Rajya Sabha, Punjab

I am in support of the government's move to divert funds from MPLADs to the Consolidated Fund of India for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

I believe there is not enough fiscal headspace for the government right now. And the greatest enemy of the poor is inflation. And given the requirements of the day, the government will have to spend willy-nilly a lot of money on relief.

If for two years the MPLADs is suspended, I am okay with that because I don't want fiscal discipline to be breached, which I think we will. I am sure about that. But it has to be within limits, or we have seen the kind of havoc that was created in economies in South America when they breached fiscal discipline, and the kind of inflation that then got unleashed.

My development work will suffer to an extent, but this is not the appropriate time to discuss it. It is like the choice between two things. And I think right now the government also is going to utilise these funds for giving healthcare, which our poor desperately require, and at the same time for feeding them.

These two things are far more important than any development work for the time being.

There is no other way the government could have done this. I am a chartered accountant by training and I can tell you that the government has taken a right decision.

You know I am not a blind supporter of the government. At the same time, I do feel that our government is being disciplined right now. This is a long haul, god knows where it will end. So it is best to be fiscally prudent and conserve all the funds right now for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

To maintain fiscal discipline I would also urge the government to relook at the Rs 20,000 or 25,000 crore that it plans to spend on the Central Vista makeover. It (the decision) honestly needs to be revisited. They need to revisit that.

You know my style. I would not be making a petition to the government to relook at that decision. You know my style is to speak bluntly through the media and the message gets home. I have made my views very clear time and again.

Bulk of my MPLAD funds -- almost 80 to 90 per cent -- has gone for hospitals, medicare and education. Now, I have zero money in my MPLAD account. Whatever was lying there, I have given full discretion to the deputy commissioner (of health services) to spend in Jalandhar, Kapurthala and Sultanpur Lodi for spending against the COVID-19 epidemic, anything that government hospitals there require.

I had Rs 2.21 crore lying in my MPLAD account. Although bulk of it had been already allocated for development work, I took it back. I said I'll give this money for development work later, but right now all the resources must be used for fighting this menace.

***

C Lalrosanga, Mizo National Front, Lok Sabha, Mizoram (ST), Mizoram

The Union government's decision to divert MPLAD funds will quite adversely affect development work in my constituency. My constituency is quite underdeveloped and Mizoram is an undeveloped part of the country which requires development.

Even though the MPLADs scheme is not such a big scheme, we do have beneficiaries all over the state.

Now those beneficiaries will be deprived of development due to this diversion. We are doing community work in so many villages and towns in the state through the MPLAD funds that we will not be able to continue since these funds will now be diverted.

Even though it is for a good cause of fighting the COVID-19, ultimately at least for two years development work in the villages of my parliamentary constituency will suffer.

The second instalment is yet to be released, because last year, Parliament started late because of the late election to the Lok Sabha and so the second instalment for financial year 2019-20 (which ended on March 31, 2020) is yet to come. I expect it will come soon.

The first instalment of Rs 2.5 crore was used for community purposes like construction of roads, footpaths, improvement of parts of graveyards, village roads. We also gave one ambulance to the needy.

Unfortunately, now that these funds will be diverted, we will not be able to continue with our development work in Mizoram.

Now that these funds have been used for a good cause, even though the people of my Parliamentary constituency will be deprived of development funds, we will have to convince the people that this is for fighting the pandemic of COVID-19, and we have to contribute whatever way we can, for the good of the nation.

Having said that, we, the northeastern states of India, are quite underdeveloped, mostly small hill states that are economically quite underdeveloped, such funds matter very much.

Now that we won't have any financial support from the central government we will have to convince the villagers to do community work, to contribute on their own and to get to whatever little fund they can get from the state government for development purposes.

***

Dr Farooq Abdullah, National Conference, Lok Sabha, Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir

I am very sad about it (diversion of MPLADS fund to the Consolidated Fund of India to fight COVID-19) because we are also using these funds for the same thing (fighting COVID-19).

Because I was locked up (Dr Abdullah was detained for over seven months after Article 370 was annulled on August 5, 2019), I could not use my funds. Soon after my release, I gave Rs 3 crore to the hospitals that could use these funds for getting machines or equipment, and clothing for the doctors, and masks for paramedical staff.

I took the money to the district collector, made this committee comprising the district collector, director of health services and the principal of the Government Medical College. They are the people who made the decision on how to use my funds. Our district hospitals are completely without anything (equipment).

I would have rather had the government say that MPs should use these MPLAD funds for hospitals in their Parliamentary constituencies because that would have led to better allocation of resources than taking these funds first into the central government's kitty and then spending them on the same things that all the MPs could have efficiently done for their constituencies at the local level.

I did not use it (my MPLAD funds) for anything other than just the hospitals. After I was released from my incarceration, I immediately gave these funds to the hospitals in Srinagar for ventilators, for purchasing equipment, for masks, for clothes, for everything that they need.

My job is to save and help my people.

Now, from the current financial year (beginning April 1, 2020 and ending March 31, 2021), they have banned all this. This is wrong and unacceptable. I object to it.

MPs are better informed about how best to use these funds in their areas. Also, I don't know when, if at all, I will get the second instalment of Rs 2 crore for the financial year 2019-20 that ended on March 31, 2020.

I have no idea, but I am going to ask the DC (district collector about it) tomorrow morning (April 8) because these hospitals still need money.

Through your media, I would request all MPs to approach the Government of India and say this is the way we want to spend it for the betterment (of Jammu & Kashmir) which you will not know sitting in Delhi.

It has to be the MPs to decide (what needs to be done) in their areas like making the teams with these people (health officials and DCs), they are the ones who will decide the best thing for their areas.

How can Delhi decide?

There is a shortage of protective clothing (personal protective equipment). These are the most important things for these doctors to survive. Let's not forget that the nurses, paramedics and doctors are the ones at the greatest risk of getting infected.

I am writing a letter to the prime minister tomorrow (April 8) about the need to let MPs use their MPLAD funds for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was released when the coronavirus started. The minute coronavirus started I knew that the best thing was to help these (medical and healthcare) institutions. There is no other way.

Rather than making culverts and things like that, today we have to save lives.

I don't want to talk about my prison days and divert attention. Our primary task is to save the lives of people by providing the healthcare staff with all the money they need to fight the pandemic.

***

Vinayak Raut, Shiv Sena, Lok Sabha, Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg, Maharashtra

We will have to close all the developmental activities we have taken in my constituency. My Parliamentary constituency is quite mountainous and have huge inaccessible areas and shortage of drinking water is a year-long problem in these areas.

These developmental works -- digging wells, building borewells, constructing causeways to facilitate walking through the hilly terrain -- which we funded using MPLAD funds will all come to a grinding halt and that is a matter of grave concern for the people in my area.

The government has erred in stopping the MPLAD scheme for two years. It is not a good decision at all.

We understand that the government's financial condition would be under strain for this financial year, but to halt it for two years would lead to lot of hardship for the people in Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg constituency.

I would sincerely request the Modi government to rethink the two-year stoppage of this scheme. As a party too, the Shiv Sena will be putting forth this request.

We would have been okay if the government had deducted 30 per cent of our salaries and allowances that each member and minister gets.

The government must keep a tab on unwanted expenditure it indulges in like publicity advertisements; the government could have also dipped into funds lying unused in so many government schemes.

It can still stop absolutely unwanted schemes and instead use those funds for absolutely necessary programmes like fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government needs to re-prioritise all its unwanted schemes and spend that amount for fighting coronavirus.

Not just in my constituency, but people of all constituencies (across India) will be in a quandary about how to get their development issues solved by using their MP's funds.

In the times that we are now, nobody will take to the streets to express their displeasure, but people will definitely suffer because of this diversion.

I have been an MP since 2014 and for every single year I have been using 100 per cent of my MPLAD fund for the development of my constituency.

In the first place, the annual allocation of Rs 5 crore just isn't enough especially for areas like my constituency that stretches across six legislative assembly constituencies (Rs 83 lakh per annum for one assembly constituency) and is spread across 9,000 sq km, 5,525 sq km of which falls in Sindhudurg district and about 4,000 sq km in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra.

Still, these Rs 5 crore is like a blade of grass for the person who is drowning.

Given the huge geographical expanse of my Parliamentary constituency, Rs 5 crore is just not enough. To manage this shortage of funds, I take help from our Rajya Sabha MPs Sanjay Raut and Anil Desai's funds.

The top-most development priority in my constituency is making provision of drinking water. The next priority is development of health infrastructure in my area.

A large part of my MPLAD fund also goes toward providing funding to educational institutions that already work under financial strain. Then the next portion of this fund is used for constructing roads connecting small villages, crematoria, etc.

While Rs 5 crore is itself very meagre to solve the development needs of such a huge expanse, now that the government has stopped the MPLAD scheme for two years is like making provisions for the 13th day when faced with a drought.

Development of drinking water facilities will be hugely neglected because of this diversion of funds.

***

Indra Hang Subba, Sikkim Kratikari Morcha, Lok Sabha, Sikkim, Sikkim

While the development of my constituency will surely suffer, right now the priority is to fight the COVID-19 epidemic. So, I agree with the government's decision to stop the MPLAD funds for two years and cut our salaries by 30 per cent.

However, I would rather have the government make some guidelines to give the discretion to MPs to spend Rs 5 crore in their constituency to fight the pandemic. That would have been a better way to tackle the issue.

The money should be spent at the local level by people and health officials who have a better grasp of what is needed to win this fight.

The Sikkim government enforced a lockdown of the state even before the central government did so and till today we don't have a single COVID-19 positive case. The state government has also made all the arrangements to satisfy people's needs of essential goods and services.

I have already made an announcement that out of the first instalment of Rs 2.5 crore for the previous financial year, Rs 1 crore will be spent for fighting COVID-19.

***

Sunil Soren, Bharatiya Janata Party, Lok Sabha, Dumka (ST), Jharkhand

Prime Minister Narendra (Damodardas) Modi's government has taken the best decision in the interest and welfare of the people of India.

The money diversion is to fight for the lives of people of India, to defeat the curse of coronavirus. It is indeed a laudable and praiseworthy decision.

Everybody -- MPs, MLAs, ministers, governors, the President, farmers, corporates, traders and even India's ordinary people -- is contributing towards this effort and that is how it must be.

The people of this country know that the PM's decision has been taken for their own good and that, after all, it is people's money that is going back to save people's lives.

All the MPs and MLAs should understand one thing -- that if people survive, then the nation will survive and only then will we be again elected as their representatives.

In my constituency I have used these funds to build roads, construct bridges, develop irrigation infrastructure.

Come to Dumka and people will vouch for my work and development efforts.

It will be very easy for me to convince the people of Dumka that their money will be well-spent for fighting the COVID-19 disease. I will assure them that there will be no stoppage of development work in my constituency.

I will make arrangement for funds for development from state government funds. It is my right to ask the state government for funds.

Development can happen even without MPLAD funds.

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PRASANNA D ZORE / Rediff.com
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