Monday, March 21, 2011

In defence of MPLAD Scheme -

In defense of MP-LAD Scheme

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced recently that the corpus available to Members of Parliament (“MPs”) under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (“the MPLAD Scheme”) would be increased to Rupees Five crores a year from the existing Rupees Two crore limit. The hike, effective from April 1, 2011, will result in an additional expenditure of Rupees 2,370 crores a year. This decision overruled the Planning Commission’s, which was not in favour of an increase in the corpus amount; even the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (“the CAG”) had described the MPLAD Scheme as one of the most irregular and corrupt practices in our democracy as the money is misused by MPs to receive patronage and achieve vested political interests. Various bodies, such as the Second Administrative Reforms Commission and the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, had also recommended the abolition of the MPLAD Scheme.

Professor Bhim Singh, the Chairman of the National Panthers Party has been relentless in his opposition to the MPLAD Scheme. A Division Bench of the Supreme Court of India headed by the then Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan had dismissed Professor Singh’s writ petition - where Senior Advocate K.K.Venugopal had argued for Professor Singh - challenging the MPLAD scheme as a fraud on the Constitution. Professor Singh described the recent hike of the corpus amount as “highway robbery” from the state exchequer by lawmakers and has decided to file a curative writ petition in the Supreme Court.

The legal and technical opposition to the MPLAD Scheme and the Member of Legislative Assembly Local Area Development Scheme arises from the perceived violation of two fundamental provisions of constitutionalism. First, it violates the principle of separation of powers between the legislature and the executive. Second, it is considered a direct interference with the ideology and spirit of federalism as it bypasses state and local bodies in executing schemes and projects.

The necessity, however, of such a scheme in a multi-party democracy like India needs to be understood. Firstly, the original intent of the scheme - as the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao described it - was to usher in development in constituencies of MPs elected from Opposition parties. It was the recognition of the reality that in an emerging parliamentary democracy like India, the ruling government usually implements schemes only in constituencies represented by the parties in power. There appears to be a general feeling among ruling parties that they can afford to neglect the needs of areas where they have been defeated. The MPLAD Scheme emerged as a practical solution to this problem of neglect and underdevelopment in areas ruled by the Opposition MPs. Secondly, it provides a pragmatic answer to the question of how an independent MP, not affiliated to any political party, can contribute directly to the welfare of his constituency. The success or failure of an MP (or a Member of Legislative Assembly) in an election largely tends to depend on how he directly nurtures his Constituency, and hence, he should be given due opportunity to do so.

Moreover, as the Supreme Court has rightly pointed out, the constitutional principles of federalism and separation of powers do not require rigid adherence. There are numerous provisions in the Constitution that showcase its unitary character such as a unified Judiciary, the procedure for creation or abolition of states (Article 3), and the provisions for declaration of an Emergency. The Indian Constitution has been described as unitary in spirit and federal in character. Even separation of powers is not followed rigidly and judicial activism stands as an example par excellence. When the judiciary finds that both the legislature and the executive are insensitive to the needs of the people, it intervenes. The MPLAD Scheme should be seen as the result of the government’s similar insensitivity to provide balanced regional development.

Furthermore, it would be incorrect to say that local bodies have been subordinated merely because the elected MPs too have the authority to recommend works of a developmental nature. Authority is given only to recommend works and it does not defy the ‘unity of command’ principle with respect to district administration. Nor does it, in any way, deprive the local bodies from providing ‘development’ to its citizens either. In fact, the MPLAD Scheme provides the much-needed advantages of ‘public choice’ without entering into the private domain. For instance, if the elected local body is not functioning properly and not fulfilling an immediate requirement of the community, such as building a waste treatment plant for an urban area, then people can persuade the MP to provide finance from the MPLAD Scheme and build a plant for them. This also has the possibility of eliminating monopoly in public service delivery, and therefore, will bring in the much needed efficiency and effectiveness in local governance.

However, accountability for MPLAD Scheme should be guaranteed. The fourth report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, titled “Ethics in Governance”, recommends the abolition of the MPLAD Scheme owing to the inability to maintain accountability. It is indeed true that in some areas it has become a source of corruption and a system of patronage. However, reported misuse of a scheme does not mean that the scheme itself needs to be abolished. Proper accountability for the use of public money has to be ensured through a system of checks and balances; separate institutional machinery can be put in place for this.

Indian democracy is still evolving and ‘universal’ principles such as separation of powers cannot be applied without taking the context and consequences of implementation of these principles into account. Upholding laws and principles should not be treated as an end in itself. They constitute the necessary means to provide justice and fairness in society. If they do not pave the way for provision of the expected ends, they will appear meaningless. The Constitution inherently provides a minimal degree of flexibility in the application of such principles, which has been appropriately interpreted by the Supreme Court in the MPLAD Scheme case.

Administrative Reforms Commissions' Chairman, Mr. Veerappa Moily, presenting its Fourth Report on 'Ethics in Governance' to the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, in New Delhi, on February 12, 2007. The Report recommends the abolition of the MPLAD Scheme owing to the inability to maintain accountability.
Image above and on article thumbnail from the Press Information Bureau.
The Report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution is available here.

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission’s report, titled 'Ethics in Governance', is available here.

You can read the Supreme Court’s decision in Bhim Singh v. Union of India on here.

The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation’s Guidelines on Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme is available here.

Sabareesh Gopala Pillai is a Research Scholar with the University of Kerala.