The Narendra Modi government recently suspended the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme or MPLADS for two years in light of the coronavirus crisis and India-wide lockdown. This fund was launched to enable Members of Parliament aid developmental work in their respective constituencies and create durable community assets based on local needs.
In situations of natural calamities or emergencies, each Member of Parliament (MP) can sanction up to Rs 1 crore from MPLADS anywhere in India. To ensure that any exigencies emerging from the coronavirus pandemic were covered, a special circular was issued by the Modi government to enable MPs to “purchase…medical equipment costing not less than Rs 5 lakh…for Government Hospitals/Dispensaries”. This is how many MPs (including former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who allocated Rs 2.66 crore for hospitals in his Wayanad constituency) were able to sanction ventilators, Protective Personal Equipment or PPE and other essential material to better arm frontline services. Juxtapose this to the Modi government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, which has been episodic and lacklustre. Given this, it’s shocking that the NDA has curtailed MPLADS, which has been a vital lifeline to India’s frontline pandemic soldiers.
In suspending MPLADS, the Modi government has further centralised all powers to itself, which has grave implications for India’s democracy. This move has the effect of appropriating all welfare functions to the Executive, which undermines the particularist nature of our democracy.
India needs MPLADS
For decades, an MP’s job has been not just to legislate, but also to help their constituents navigate the state/administrative apparatus better and to deliver on essential public infrastructure. The latter is especially important because the last connection between the State and the people is the Block Development Officer (BDO), who on average has to cater to the needs of about 100 villages (with upwards of 65,000 people). Can one impersonal office (which villagers and even townsfolk avoid because of the officious manner in which they function) effectively cater to the minute needs of so many people? It is precisely because they cannot that the MPLADS became an alternative means to address localised concerns.
Experts-for-hire close to the ruling dispensation have cited a 2010 CAG report to show how district officials sanctioned work without recommendations from MPs, or did not maintain asset registers in 90 per cent of audited works, or MPs directly recommended an implementation agency, which is against the norms. Most of these highlight weaknesses in the State machinery. After all, MPs only have the power to recommend work and it is the district administration that sanctions and executes work. If robust mechanisms for monitoring and auditing were instituted by the Executive, such problems could have been nipped in the bud.
This is not to deny that there was corruption in MPLADS. However, every government scheme in India is plagued by rent-seeking behaviour and leakages.
MPLADS has built community assets
Singling out MPLADS makes no sense during the coronavirus crisis, especially given these facts:
— Despite its lacunae, the MPLADS had bipartisan support. When Prime Minister Narasimha Rao started it in 1993, only Rs 5 lakh were allocated per year to each MP. This was increased to Rs 1 crore later by the same government. It was NDA-I under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee that increased it to Rs 2 crore. The UPA government under Manmohan Singh increased it to Rs 5 crore, while NDA-II under PM Modi continued it. Obviously, the feedback all these governments were consistently getting is that this scheme was working and needed enhancement. Given this, it makes no sense to curtail MPLADS, which functioned as a safety net that ordinary Indians had recourse to, especially when the State machinery was either absent or lethargic.
— To make sense of how important this scheme was in creating community assets, in the last five years (2015-20), Rs 2.69 lakh crore were allocated under MPLADS. Only 10.8 per cent of this were unspent (Source: Lok Sabha Unstarred Q.No.: 2808; 11.03.2020). This was clearly a powerful tool for enhancing local capabilities. Millions of community assets, from wells, roads, bore-wells, water pumps, bridges etc., have been created across India. These undoubtedly also helped MPs gain political capital, but what’s key is that they helped ordinary Indians. That’s what we need to remember. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [or woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]…Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away”.
Parliament a rubber stamp
It is especially unfortunate that the Modi government decided to unilaterally suspend MPLADS without consulting MPs or opposition parties. This step was also undertaken without any objective assessment of the scheme. The last survey to gauge the performance of the projects undertaken under MPLADs was carried out in 2012-13 by the Manmohan Singh government (Source: Lok Sabha Unstarred Q. No. 3970; 18.03.2020). Clearly, the Modi government arbitrarily decided to put this scheme in cold storage without any empirical evidence. The ham-handed manner in which this has been effected is just another in a long list of litanies against democratic traditions.
There are those who’ve argued that the primary job of an MP is to legislate, and not to recommend public works. However, considering how the Modi government has undermined Parliament, this is moot. Bills are ramrodded through as money bills. Ordinances are brought in to bypass Parliament scrutiny. Critical bills are introduced, considered and passed on the same day. Select committees consisting of all parties are ignored. Opposition MPs have been suspended for raising important issues. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never answered a question in Parliament, while debates have been reduced to shouting matches. This government has left no recourse for legislators to hold the Executive accountable since Parliament has been reduced to a rubber stamp.
One leader, one party
The net effect of suspending MPLADS is that opposition MPs have been deliberately circumscribed. While MPs in the ruling dispensation will continue to get work in their constituencies sanctioned, by virtue of their proximity to the Executive, opposition MPs will not. They would be either forced to defect to the ruling dispensation or face defeat in the next round of elections.
Finally, if the NDA genuinely wanted to channelise all resources to combat the Covid-19 crisis, it wouldn’t have just suspended the MPLADS. It would also have suspended the Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista project, the Rs 25,000 crore Parliament project, or the thousands of crores used for PM Modi publicity. It would also have used the Rs 3,800 crore lying un-utilised in the PM-National Relief Fund.
The suspension of MPLADS is clearly designed to further the Bharatiya Janata Party at the cost of opposition parties. That the BJP is focused on political gains when India is suffering a pandemic is deplorable. But more worryingly, it is also another nail in India’s democracy. After destabilising elected governments, interfering in the functioning of opposition-governed states through governors, undermining the Election Commission among other things, the suspension of MPLADS marks the acceleration of India’s slide into a dictatorship. This was the Modi government’s bugle — no longer will it allow any political opposition. Instead, all of us will be forced to march to one tune, singing praises for One Leader, One Ideology and One Party.
Prof. Manoj Jha is Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and Pushparaj Deshpande is Director, Samruddha Bharat Foundation. Views are personal.