Funding folly compounded

The government has succumbed to collective pressure from Members of Parliament — barring those from the Left — and agreed to a generous increase in the annual allocation under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme. In place of Rs.2 crore, each MP will now get Rs.5 crore. This marks a tenfold increase of the sum allocated when the scheme was launched in 1993. The annual bill will now be Rs.3,950 crore. This decision flies in the face of criticism expressed over time by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the National Advisory Council, the Administrative Reforms Commission, and the Planning Commission as well as public-spirited individuals, among them Bhim Singh, Era Sezhiyan, and J.M. Lyngdoh. Allegations of diversion of funds came to the fore first in 2003, and again in 2005 through a sting operation by a television channel.

Last year, a constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India dismissed a batch of petitions against MPLADS. Upholding its constitutional validity, the judgment noted that there were “sufficient checks and balances” to prevent misuse. But it added that “this court does not sit in judgment of the veracity of a scheme, but only its legality … The court can strike down a law or scheme only on the basis of its vires or unconstitutionality but not on the basis of its viability.” The court also called for “efforts…to make the [accountability] regime more robust.” It is clear then that the judgment fell short of an unconditional endorsement of the wisdom and practical logic behind MPLADS. Moreover, at least a couple of points the judgment held in favour of the scheme have been modified by the government. Under the revised guidelines, up to 75 per cent (instead of 50 per cent) of the project cost can be released as the first instalment, and a Lok Sabha member can spend up to Rs.10 lakh a year anywhere in India — this, it is claimed, is to “promote national unity and fraternity among the people.” The basket of works that can be taken up has been widened. If anything, the new guidelines have only loosened the purse-strings. The changes seem tailor-made to speed up the outflow of funds and expand outflow routes. The government ought to appoint a high-level national commission to examine this inherently wasteful and conceptually flawed scheme. What concerned citizens can do here and now is this: they can use the provisions of the Right to Information Act to seek data on money drawn and spent under the scheme in every parliamentary constituency, identify the purposes it serves, and see whom it reaches.

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