On Thursday, the Supreme Court Bench passed an order upholding the disastrous MPLAD Scheme – claiming it was meant for public purpose. The MPLAD is a disaster not because, as newspapers often report, of the extent of corruption in MPLAD expenditures and the extent to which these schemes are used to dispense patronage – these are problems faced by most public sector programs. It’s a disaster because it encourages MP’s to overstep their domain, performing a function that is not officially their and weakening the constitutional separation of roles and responsibilities across jurisdictions. All this has serious consequences on strengthening accountability. Let’s consider the arguments.
The first issue is that MPLADs assigns executive functions to legislators and thereby confuses the separation of powers – after all should MP’s be administering funds and determining their specific resource allocation? This creates a conflict of interest between the legislator and the executive and seriously compromises the oversight function that legislators ought to play. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission used this critique to recommend that the scheme be abolished.
Another argument, made by the 2002 National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC), is that the MPLADS scheme violates the distribution of powers between the union, states and local governments as defined in the constitution. Therefore, it is inconsistent with the spirit of federalism. The NCRWC report points out that all the activities on which MP’s can spend their funds are already on state lists. Furthermore, the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments mandated that many of these become activities to be undertaken by Panchayats and Municipal governments. Thus the scheme seriously undermines local bodies by creating incentives for MPs to provide basic civic services such as roads, bridges and street-lights that are constitutionally the responsibility of local governments.
In the present system, individual MPs decide how to spend the money and funds are disbursed through the district administration. Local bodies are neither consulted nor involved in the details of execution despite the fact that articles 243G and 243W of the constitution entrust local bodies with the powers to prepare and implement plans for economic development and social justice. In recognition of this problem, the National Advisory Council in a report to the government in 2005, recommended that the scheme guidelines be changed to require that the funds be spent through local bodies. These criticisms point to two much deeper, unresolved questions confronting our democracy. First, what is the role of the MP, the MLA and the local body representative? Second, what do we, as voters, hold them accountable for?
From an MP’s perspective, the MPLAD scheme is important because it allows them to tangibly and quickly respond to their constituents’ needs. At election time, these achievements can be drawn upon to highlight the MP’s performance. After all, what happens in Parliament is so far removed from the typical voter, that this becomes an easy way for an MP to demonstrate five years of work. Nevertheless, this presents a dilemma. Since the constitution already demands that these functions be performed by local governments, not the MP, who should be held accountable by the voter? This dilemma has significantly obfuscated accountabilities and confused voter expectation.
However, the bigger question we need to ask is: should this be the role of the MP? India decentralized because it recognized that local governments are best suited to assess local needs and are better placed to respond to them than State or Center. Local governments were created and entrusted with this responsibility by virtue of their ‘localness’ - an MP typically represents 10-15 lakh voters, while a Gram Panchayat represents on average 3000 voters - and because they can be held directly accountable for fulfilling these needs. Ironically, Panchayats and Municipalities are starved for funds to perform their constitutionally assigned roles, while MPs, thanks to the MPL LADS enjoy the privilege of an uninterrupted yearly flow of funds to do the job of Panchayats and Municipalities. Given that local bodies are better placed to deliver civic services then it may be wiser to devolve funds directly to them rather than to the MPs.
This is not to suggest that the MP is not responsible or accountable for the development of his or her constituency. Rather, it suggests that the MP should do what he or she is best equipped to do. Instead of directly spending money on civic services an MP ought to be lobbying for funds from the central government to reach local bodies and pushing for appropriate policy decisions. To ensure that services reach their constituents, the MP should monitor the functioning of the local bodies and leave them to do what they are best equipped to do: provide the civic services demanded by their constituents.
The MPLAD scheme has been dogged by controversy since its inception. By putting its weight behind the scheme, the Supreme Court has simply given legitimacy to a scheme that is fundamentally unconstitutional and this is a real blow to democracy.
Yamini Aiyar is the Director, Accountability Initiative.