LAST fortnight a fire at a religious gathering in eastern Orissa left almost 200 people dead. The state government paid a compensation of Rs 50,000 to each victim's kin, costing the exchequer Rs 1 crore. Ironically, this same sum is at the disposal of each member of Parliament every year for development work in his constituency.
In November, an estimated 7 million people in Andhra Pradesh were hit by a severe cyclone, leaving about 1,000 dead. While Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, the powerful convener of the ruling United Front, demanded Rs 2,100 crore as compensation, the Centre sanctioned only Rs 644 crore. Of which only Rs 80 crore was a grant. But almost around the same time, about Rs 400 crore—a second instalment of the annual Members of Parliament Local Developmental Scheme (MPLADS)—was released to MPs.
In both cases, the money came from the Contingency Fund. But while the Andhra Pradesh chief minister had to go to the extent of publicly criticising the Centre to pressurise it into releasing the funds, the MPs did not have to do much to get what was due to them. It was a clear victory of privilege (of an MP's office) over the victims' rights (through grants from the Contingency Fund). Nevertheless, there was no orchestrated cry from the victims against this scheme of things, namely the MPLADS. But constitutional experts seem to have taken note of the disparity between the voters and their representatives' respective access to government funds and the first rumblings of a debate are already audible.
On February 26, Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma made a brief announcement that henceforth Members of Parliament would no longer have a discretionary quota for out-of-turn allotments of cooking gas and telephones. This was in response to a Supreme Court ruling against ministers having discretionary quotas.
But that was hardly a solution to a much larger demand to review the MPLADS, under which Rs 1 crore is earmarked each year to be spent at the discretion of individual MPs, both of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. In all, it costs the state exchequer about Rs 800 crore annually. Constitutional experts feel that the Scheme makes a mockery of the basic feature of the Constitution and creates serious imbalances in the federal character of the State as well as the principle of separation of powers.
A revised guideline issued by the Lok Sabha Secretariat in January has provided more teeth to the Scheme—first announced in December 1993—that wilful delay in its implementation would amount to a "contempt of Parliament" on the part of officials concerned. Up to 75 per cent of the cost of the MPs' proposed projects would be released in the first instalment and the balance after an assessment of the progress. And the Speaker himself will periodically monitor the progress.
As per the guidelines, the Scheme is to be funded from the Contingency Fund of the Union Government. This amount will subsequently be transferred to and debited from the Consolidated Fund through supplementary grants from various ministries. The January guideline suggested that at least one nodal department be designated by each state government or Union territory to monitor the scheme through field inspection as well as effective coordination with the Department of Programme Implementation at the Centre. A senior officer is also to hold review meetings regarding the progress of the scheme, thereby involving heads of district administration and concerned MPs. But as faras selecting schemes is concerned, an MP's decision is final.
Besides, the MP determines the cost of the project. And this is what has created a major controversy. "Under the present scheme, the sum of Rs 800 crore spent as constituency development amount is beyond the scrutiny of Parliament. No question can be put to any individual MP who has authorised such expenditure. A member is not required to justify his expenditure to the House, unless he is a minister," pointed out former chief justice E.S. Venkataramiah in a recent article.
Moreover, the Contingency Fund is meant to cover unforeseen expenditure and the allotment of a huge sum for a planned scheme could be interpreted as unconstitutional. "In a way, individual MPs have collectively taken away the power of Parliament as an institution to question the grant of such a huge fund," says a sitting MP. However, he admits: "I also take this fund. Because, if I don't, I will be castigated by my voters for not having done anything for my constituency's development."
Criticism does not end there. The guidelines for the Scheme contain more or less the same subjects which figure in the state list, or those which have been placed under the jurisdiction of the panchayati raj institutions after the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments. "This situation could be particularly explosive because every MP would have at his disposal a sum of Rs 1 crore each year which would be many times more than the total budget of any panchayat," notes Subhash C. Kashyap, a former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha. In effect, this would undermine the panchayats' role and effectivity in the public eye. "The Government should at least show a minimum moral sense by scrapping the Scheme as it is a fraud on the economy as well as the Constitution," says Kashyap. "And MPs have no executive power under the Constitution, but the MPLADS overrules the Constitution."
FOR their part, MPs are keen on continuing the MPLADS though some political parties like the CPI(M) are in principle opposed to such generous disbursement of public money. But no party has issued a directive to its MPs not to accept the fund under the Scheme.
The current controversy also begs the question whether MPs getting Rs 1 crore each year makes them the holder of an office of profit—a valid ground for disqualification. Opinions vary, but the debate continues. "It may not be unconstitutional per se, as MPs only recommend schemes and do not execute them themselves," says former Lok Sabha Speaker Rabi Ray. But he adds that it might give MPs an impression that bureaucrats are accountable to them, which is not the case. Others feel that though an MP does not receive a salary as such, the very fact that he has a major say in deciding and executing schemes "makes him the holder of an office of profit".
Moreover, according to the anti-MPLADS school of thought, a sitting MP will have at least Rs 5 crore of state funds in his kitty by the time he faces the electorate after his normal tenure. That gives him a natural, and perhaps unfair, advantage over his rivals. But Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill does not agree. "I do not see anything wrong there," he says. "After all, these funds come to him irrespective of political or party affiliation. The collective commitment is for development." He adds that the Election Commission would come into picture only if there is violation of the code of conduct for holding elections.
But, at a time when politicians have lost much credibility and respect, any distrust or doubt vis-a-vis their integrity is bound to attract public attention and, to a large extent, support. The current debate also entails constitutional questions as well as issues like MPs versus Parliament, Parliament versus states and Union territories, and MPs versus panchayati raj institutions. But strangely, Parliament has not yet debated the issue.