The sting camera that caught seven Members of Parliament seeking bribes for doling out contracts under MP Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) has taken the lid off the controversial development scheme yet again. Although all political parties displayed moral outrage over the misuse of MPLADS funds, the decision (unfortunately) has been to retain the scheme with some safeguards. These safeguards have yet to be developed.
Whatever might be the fate of this ambitious scheme, the fact that the discretionary annual fund of Rs 2 crore to each of the members has perpetuated corruption ever since MPLADS was launched in 1993 can hardly be doubted. It is only now that it has been caught on camera! Barring exceptions, it is no secret that MPs have neither implemented projects in right earnest nor have they invested it in addressing core problems. Instead, MPs have had a free hand in doling out contracts that help build and sustain patronage networks in their constituencies. Leader of the opposition L K Advani's suggestion that these funds be used for funding elections not only acknowledges its purported use but seeks to legitimise the same.
While the Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee has been in favour of scrapping the scheme that sucks up over Rs 1600 crores each year, there are any number of MPs who argue that this discretionary allocation may not be withdrawn on account of few rotten apples amongst them. Furthermore, little do the members realize that besides facilitating corruption the scheme has been full of flaws, both in design as well as in its execution.
Local development is the prerogative of the local governments (municipalities and panchayats), not national legislators. Against democratic norms, the MPLADS vests public funds for local development at the discretion of the elected legislators and seems a throwback to the days of the benevolent feudal landlord who would dole out favours to please the selected few. Many state governments have followed suit by making similar allocations, ranging from Rs 50 Lakhs to Rs 1 crore for its MLAs.
The fact that about 60 per cent of the provisioned amount never gets spent at all indicates that indeed the scheme has not been seriously pursued by most members. During the decade following the launch of MPLADS in 1993, Rs 13,000 crores or less than one-fifth of the total allocation was actually spent. Much of the balance has been allegedly used for developing some very individual wallets anyway. It is time these funds are relocated to the Zilla Parishads in each of the 543 districts! Furthermore, unlike mandatory annual audit for all schemes, unspent balance from MPLADS annual allocation is allowed to accumulate till the members decide to spend it.
Within the framework of the constitution, the role of legislature is to frame pro-people laws and regulations and to ensure effective utilization of public resources for generating public goods. Instead, the MPs have usurped a portion of the Centres allocation meant for the States for this scheme. What is even more surprising is that the 9th Report of the Lok Sabha Committee on the MP Local Area Development Scheme has recommended increase in MP's discretionary annual allocation from the present Rs 2 crore to 'at least Rs. 5 crore'. When it comes to taking such decisions, legislators set aside their differences in favour of a consensus.
Why are the members given the liberty to flout rules when the onus of framing the law rests on them? Operational flaws in fund utilisation undoubtedly breed corruption. What the sting report on a private news channel has uncovered may indeed be at the tip of the iceberg only. Since the money is spent by MPs using discretion, but in consultation with district officials, the nexus may well extend beyond the four walls of Parliament. It will be criminal neglect if Parliament fails to unfold the nexus!
Despite all of this, and several MPs having been caught on camera haggling for commissions on projects under MPLADS scheme, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi continues to be in favour of the scheme, and merely seeks better regulations for its implementation.
It is a moral obligation on the part of Parliament to come clean from the current abyss. Whether or not the scheme gets scrapped, the public deserves a white paper on the entire scheme - how it has been (mis)used all these years and what is being planned to correct it. It must however be understood that the MPLADS not only contravenes the spirit of the constitution by extending undue favours to MP's for strengthening their electoral base but contradicts the decentralisation process of empowering the panchayats by leaving funds in the hands of the MPs as well.