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Feudal Patronage in New Garb

A detailed analysis of MPLADS, the scheme which disburses funds to MPs for public use.
Sanjiv Shankaran        Print Edition: Sep 15, 2013

Public Money Private Agenda The Use and Abuse of MPLADS
By A. Surya Prakash
Rupa
Pages:
287
Price: Rs 395

On November 4, 1948, B.R. Ambedkar introduced the draft constitution in the constituent assembly with an insightful speech. Among other things, he discussed the idea of 'constitutional morality' and explained how he and his core drafting team had tried to uphold it in their draft. "It is perfectly possible to pervert the constitution, without changing its form, by merely changing the form of administration, and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the constitution," he said. It was to prevent this that the draft constitution had often gone into administrative detail, he maintained. Ambedkar pessimistically added: "In these circumstances, it is wiser not to trust the legislature to prescribe forms of administration."

Ambedkar's farsightedness comes to mind while reading A. Surya Prakash's study of the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS), a controversial programme that pushes the envelope on the constitutional legitimacy of a specific kind of public spending. A former journalist, Surya Prakash, has, in painstaking detail, traced the origin and functioning of MPLADS.

Under the scheme, each parliamentarian gets Rs5 crore annually for his or her constituency to create durable community assets based on local requirements. (When the scheme began in 1993, the amount was Rs 1 crore.) In the 2012/13 budget estimates, the Union government allocated Rs3,955 crore for MPLADS, a little over 10 per cent of the amount set aside for the rural employment guarantee scheme. Even if the money allocated is relatively moderate, it remains a controversial scheme.

Surya Prakash explains how MPLADS severely tests a foundational principle of the constitution: separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. In addition, it exploits a deep faultline in the system - the fact that India's administration remains ineffective in large parts of the country, making such interventions by parliamentarians relevant.

A constitution bench of the Supreme Court upheld the validity of MPLADS, but as the book shows, a sense of disquiet remains. The idea behind separating the powers of the executive and the legislature was to put in place a system of checks and balances and, thereby, prevent conflicts of interest. MPLADS wades right into that area in controversial fashion by giving the parliamentarians the power to decide where to spend the MPLADS money even if the district administration implements the scheme.
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Unsurprisingly, the scheme has attracted two custodians of probity, one self-appointed and the other mandated by the constitution. The electronic media has carried out sting operations on the functioning of MPLADS in select areas and the results were unflattering for parliamentarians. The Comptroller and Auditor General, through three reports, has shown the scheme's implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

Though the underlying message of book is negative, Surya Prakash doesn't condemn the scheme entirely. "MPLADS deserves only a qualified thumbs-up," he says, asking for its guidelines to be tightened. It is difficult to disagree with him. Step away from the constitutional aspects and look around you. MPLADS exists because of the crisis in India's provision of public services. The crisis allows politicians to dispense patronage in a feudal manner and portray MPLADS as a way to deal with the crisis. MPLADS is a symptom of  failure, and the book shows Ambedkar understood his society very well indeed.

MPLADS exists because of the crisis in the provision of public services. The crisis allows politicians to dispense patronage in a feudal manner and portray MPLADS as a way to deal with the crisis

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