The suspension of Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) for two years - one of the many measures that the central government has taken in preparation for a fight against coronavirus and its adverse impact on the economy - has evoked sharp criticism from many quarters, especially from opposition's Members of Parliament (MP).
The suspension of the MPLADS would help government save a total of around Rs 8,000 crore in two years. The government has allocated Rs 3,960 crore, or Rs 5 crore to each MP (in both houses of Parliament), for 2020-21.
Critics have termed the move as anti-federal and an attempt by the government to centralise the power, rendering MPs powerless. Most opposition MPs have flayed the government for hijacking the resources they had for local level intervention in times of such a health crisis.
In a video posted on Twitter, Congress MP Manish Tewari calleed it an ill-thought and knee jerk reaction. "MPLADS is a nimble instrument which is available with public representatives for customised micro-level interventions in order to alleviate distress in this time of need. It is something that is required to help the most vulnerable, poor and the needy," he says.
Why is the government's move to suspend MPLADS evoking such criticism? Why is it so important for both the MPs and their constituencies, especially when the whole country is battling a pandemic?
What is MPLAD Scheme?
Under the MP Local Area Development Scheme, each MP is allotted by the Central government Rs 5 crore every year (in two installments of Rs 2.5 crore) with which he/she can recommend the district authority (of the constituency the MP belongs to) to do certain developmental works. The role of the MP is limited only to recommendation of works. The fund is directly released to the district authority, which has the responsibility to sanction, execute and complete the works.
The scheme was launched in 1993. Initially, each MP was allotted Rs 1 crore. The amount was raised to Rs 5 crore in 2011-12.
Since 1993, the government has released over Rs 54,000 crore under MPLADS, out of which Rs 51,500 crore has been spent by district authorities. Around Rs 5,500 crore (including interest accrued on the amount lying in bank) unspent amount is still with the district authorities.
Where and how is the fund spent
The fund under MPLADS can be spent across a large number of developmental works mentioned in the guidelines issued by the government, including creation of infrastructure like railway halts, roads and bridges, building basic amenities like toilets, schools, etc.
If we look at the spending pattern since beginning, a majority of the fund has been spent on building roads, pathways, bridges and railway amenities. A substantial amount has also been spent on education, creation of drinking water facilities, and electric facilities. Health and sanitation score lower compared to expenditures in areas like roads, electricity and education.
MPLADS fund is also used in areas affected by natural or man-made calamities. Ideally, fund allotted to MPs should be used only in their respective constituencies, but MPs from non-affected areas can give up to Rs 25 lakh to areas affected by such calamities. During the floods in Kerala in 2018, MPs from Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha contributed close to Rs 46 core towards the relief work in Kerala.
Given the kind of health crisis the country is facing, with some states and districts more impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, many believe that MPLADS fund could have filled the gaps in relief work left by the central and state governments.
Reetika Khera, an economist, social scientist and currently professor at IIM Ahmedabad, says: "What we have seen in the past two weeks (on the background of coronavirus pandemic) is inaction and apathy at the central level, and proactive and creative policy initiatives at the state level, but the states do not have enough resources. To facilitate more decentralised and rapid responses, funds such as MPLADS could have played a crucial role."
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said in one of his tweets that MPLADS preserved the sense of direct responsibility for the well-being of constituents that is the hallmark of an Indian MP's work. Now the money will be allocated by the Centre and will follow the priorities and preferences of New Delhi, rather than reflect 543 sets of local needs.