In a country like India where inequality is so prominent, a development scheme can come a cropper if it lacks inclusivity.
The Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) was launched in 1993 to enable parliamentarians to directly contribute towards meeting the development demands of their constituency or state. Despite many deficiencies plaguing the scheme, it stood out mainly on account of the principles of social justice and its outreach to areas which were away from the conventional footprints of planned development.
Like any other scheme, it has undergone many significant changes since then – for better or for worse. One such change enacted recently can definitely be said to belong in the latter category. As per a fresh modification made to the extant guidelines by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), which will come into effect on April 1 this year, the clause for mandatory allocation of 15% and 7.5% funds for Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) populated areas respectively has been watered down. Through the revisions of 2014 and 2016, during the first term of the Narendra Modi government, the enabling nature of the provision had remained. But now the guidelines state that “it shall be advisable” for MPs to set aside a designated proportion of their Rs 5 crore a year entitlement for projects in areas predominantly inhabited by backward classes, which essentially means that it is no longer binding and thus jeopardises the welfare of those who need it most.
Since 2005, parliamentarians were bound to recommend works amounting to nearly Rs 1.12 crore each year for development in SC/ST areas. This figure would translate to a staggering sum of Rs 5.62 crore over the course of five years. This money has often been pumped into drinking water facilities, road construction and street lights, etc. Add to this the massive public sentiment and accountability factors that drive MPs to actually utilise the fund, and we have before us a recipe for disaster. The opportunity cost of diverting this massive piece of the cake to another’s plate will be borne by the ones who are indeed starving. It is a regressive decision made by a government that claims to be pro-poor and pro-downtrodden but secretly harbours what we think is an antagonistic attitude toward those very people.
But this is not all. To add to the frenzy, government-aided educational institutions have now been excluded from the ambit of MPLADS. The provision for “creation of immovable public assets on government owned land and movable public assets for government-owned and government-controlled institutions only” excludes those aided by the government, which will presumably have far-reaching consequences in states like Kerala where they have proved to be monumental in delivering quality education to the masses. The irony is that private trusts, on the other hand, are still eligible to be considered.
Further, by an order of the finance ministry relayed in March 2022, the interest accrued on MPLADS funds is no longer available to be used by the concerned MP. It goes into the Consolidated Fund of India. A rough estimate would suggest a sizeable loss to the tune of nearly Rs 1,000 crore in the form of interest accumulated over a period of five years that could have well been spent on welfare projects under the scope of MPLADS. There is an absurd concentration of power in the hands of the Centre, which becomes a source of friction between a paternalistic government and individual MPs working on the ground – but also with other authorities.
As of now, for instance, the funds are managed and their utilisation supervised by a district-level authority. But the new guidelines seek to alter this balance and place them under the control of a Central nodal agency, thereby bypassing the intermediary in the process. The amount will now be disbursed directly to vendors and the subsidiary zero balance accounts of state and district nodal authorities, implementing district authorities and other implementing agencies will only function as pass-through accounts. This Centralised chain of action is likely to cause inordinate delays.
A comprehensive review of a scheme is welcome, but it should be based on a factual study and the principles of inclusivity. At a time when inequality is growing, the overriding philosophy should have been ushering in more progressive measures. A study done by CII Foundation a decade ago had shed light on both the brighter and darker sides of the scheme. The report covered initiatives from 12 states and eight different verticals – health, education, sports, rural and urban infrastructure, renewable energy, research and development, livelihood generation and social empowerment.
The study found that many initiatives were pathbreaking. It specifically talked about how municipal schools transformed with improved attendance, fostering interest amongst students, and making schools a sought after place. Piped water supply in socially discriminated hamlets, water conservation and many other impactful initiatives were given a thumbs up in the study.
Any revision should have been to enrich the scheme rather than diluting the essence of inclusivity. It’s an irony that many of the changes brought in are insensitive to the needs of the very people who are meant to be its beneficiaries. The Union government would do well to keep the interests of the most vulnerable sections in mind when drafting not just new guidelines for old schemes, but also laws and policies at large.
John Brittas is a Rajya Sabha MP and represents the CPI(M).