How serious are we about the outcomes of MPLAD Scheme

Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) was initiated in 1993.  Such involvement in grassroots projects is a policy intervention which commits public money to benefit each parliamentary constituency through allocation and spending decisions mooted by their representatives in Parliament.  The elected Members of Lok Sabha can propose developmental works in their constituencies to the respective District Collectors.  The elected Members of Rajya Sabha can recommend works in any district of their State.  A nominated Member of Rajya Sabha can suggest works in any one State of his choice.

Parliamentary involvement in grassroots projects has been accepted in both developed and developing countries, like Kenya, Pakistan, US, Bhutan, Jamaica etc.  Such schemes are popular vehicle for politically centered development that seeks to build relationships between the elected representative stake holders and ground level Government institutions, civil society etc.  It is argued as a political response to gaps in fulfilling local need which does not get picked up through top down approach of planning process.   However, it does throw a significant challenge for policy makers and administrators to devise norms, guidelines and procedures for the effective utilization of the huge funds placed at the disposal of the local legislators.  There are issues of accountability, determining development priorities, sustainability of assets and above all passing the litmus test of level playing field amongst competing political candidates.

The Scheme is currently administered by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.  In 1993, Rs. 5 lakh was allocated to each MP which has now grown to Rs. 5 crore per Member of Parliament (MP) per annum since 2011.  There are guidelines which provide an elaborate inventory of project selection criterion, accounting procedures, selection for implementing agencies, reporting system and monitoring mechanism.  It lays a special emphasis on the creation of durable community assets based on locally felt needs within the framework of national priorities, such as drinking water, education roads, sanitation and earmarked allocation for areas inhabited by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.  The District Magistrate and local bodies are the focal authorities for implementation.  There is a distinct role for Panchayati Raj institutions and urban local bodies to carry out the implementation.  The total release of funds since inception is approximately Rs. 29000 crore up to April, 2013 with an outgo of approximately Rs. 4500 crore annually earmarked for the MPs.

The Scheme was challenged before the Hon’ble Supreme Court on grounds of constitutional validity and misuse of funds.  It was argued that the powers given to Member of Parliament for incurring expenditure is in violation of Article 282 of the Constitution of India.  Further, it was termed as contrary to the 73rd and 74thAmendments to the Constitution which entrust the local self governance to Panchayats and Municipalities.  It was stated that the said amendments do not envisage a special role for the MP in determining the projects and related expenditure.    However, 5-Member Bench of the Hon’ble Court dismissed the petition and described MPLAD Scheme as valid and intra-vires of the Constitution.

The Scheme was also examined by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission.  The recommendation of the Commission in 2007 under its 4th Report on Ethics on Governance was to abolish both MPLAD and MLALAD Schemes.  The Commission had observed that any scheme at the disposal of Legislator to select projects, or authorize expenditure, should invite disqualification on grounds of Office of Profit.

Public Interest Foundation, a NGO, commissioned a pilot study in nine districts in the four States of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.  The selection of the districts was made in the background of implementation status, both physical and financial for the year 2009-10.  A special criterion was made for the districts having a sizeable SC population in order to provide an insight on the impact of the Scheme on the weaker sections.  The main objective of the field level study was to identify the substantive aspects about the efficacy of the scheme in achieving its stated goal of community development through creation of durable assets and also to make a qualitative assessment regarding compliance of the guidelines.  We present below the salient findings with a view to revamping the Scheme.

Fulfilling of locally felt needs forms the backbone of this scheme.  The startling fact that came to the fore through the research study was that the guidelines do not provide an elaborate process for selection of works.  There is no prescribed platform or any mechanism where the stakeholders can express the needs of the area.  Presently, MPs recommend works based on informal information channel of local supporters and party members.  It was noted that the guidelines do not envisage adoption of works from the district plan of development and the prioritization is often narrowed to selected places preferred by interest group totally overlooking the urgency and dovetailing with the works identified in the district plan. Discussion with individual MPs in the concerned states revealed that the proposals are entertained from the local prominent personalities like the Pradhan, local agents of the MP and key opinion makers in the area.  No efforts were made to examine if the proposal formed part of the district plan.  Also, the consideration of maintenance, proper upkeep was not the criterion at the time of selection.

MPLADS guidelines have few missing links.  Detailed specifications on maintenance and transfer aspects of the projects are necessary to ensure the qualitative benchmarking of the assets created under MPLADS.   In the course of field survey it was found that after the completion of MPLADS work, the assets created are transferred to the users’ agencies and they become liable for its maintenance. But due to poor quality of asset created under the scheme, its maintenance becomes very costly and difficult. System needs to be in place to ensure sustainable management of assets created under MPLADS at the District and sub district level. An annual allocation of 10% of MPLADS fund for maintenance and repair of assets may be introduced. Another important drawback in MPLADS guidelines regarding project packaging was brought to the fore while examining the issue of work ceiling in Maharashtra.  The MPLAD scheme guidelines merely specify maximum size of projects, without outlining other equally important aspects of project bundling which optimize the project outcome such as specifications in terms of project size, coverage, spread, and appropriate technical specifications to ensure durability. The present guidelines leave room for creation of inferior, non-durable asset without any claims for long-term durability.

Regarding allocation of funds to the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe population, as is detailed in clause 2.5 of the revised MPLAD guidelines of 2005, the very basis for allocating funds with reference to under-served group was missing.  It was found that in districts of Jalna and Latur in Maharashtra, projects were chosen without any reference to the demographic features of the community.  In all the four States, there was no conscious effort for identifying projects which would address the inclusivity of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.  There is a  strong case to revise the MPLAD guidelines to make mandatory the proportionate provision and planned spending of funds for SC/ST areas.  The earmarked endowment should be used on  projects specifically for the development of habitation concentrated by SC/ST populace only.

One of the weakest links found in this MPLADS implementation evaluation study  was  ensuring proactive disclosure for greater public awareness about the MPLADS projects. The broader experience in the sampled district of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal has been that DAs do not accord due importance to public proactive disclosure.  The study reveals that in most of the cases IAs are not even aware of the rule of mandatory disclosure of information to the community at large. The study teams of all researched district uniformly informed that they did not find display of completed and ongoing works in the office of District Authorities. The MPLADS website does provide the scheme details, and sometimes irregular updating leads to misinformation. For example some schemes in the Web Portal display “not started” although in reality it has already been commissioned and nearing completion. Many of the schemes have not even been posted on the website.  To strengthen the transparency and accountability aspect of the MPLADS execution, public disclosure aspect of this scheme needs to be especially strengthened. All important information like name of the MP, total expenditure incurred, time taken in completion, department/agency responsible for upkeep should form a part of this mandatory public disclosure at the physical site of the project; and this information should also be regularly updated on the website at the district, state as well as the ministry level.

It was felt that the preference of elected representative in choosing implementing agencies largely determines the job allocation.  As per the norms, the district authority is empowered for the selection of implementing agencies (IAs).   There are basically two types of mechanisms for selection of executing agencies.  In general, after getting recommendations of the MP, beneficiary organization selects executing agencies of their choice and get the estimation done.  In certain cases, especially if the project is in the same vicinity as that of the MP’s, the choice of MP in the selection prevails, though the MPs justify that selection of IAs is based on efficiency considerations.   In the case of Maharashtra too, the majority of the works were recommended below 15 lakh so as to favour the labour societies.  And these labour societies, as per field survey, are run by sub-segments of the community or party workers connected to the MPs, thus ensuring that the vested interests are served.

The field study also highlighted serious operational inadequacies.  It emerged that the selection and implementation time table were mostly not observed.  The guidelines provide for selection within 90 days of the commencement of the financial year.  However, the proposals from the elected representatives are received throughout the year under the pretext that release of funds is also skewed resulting in piecemeal recommendations of the projects.  The institutional set up at the district level is inadequate to handle the MPLAD Scheme.  The checking of eligibility, technical feasibility of the projects, financial estimates and in-depth physical verification is very perfunctory and there are no uniform standards for cost calculation and financial vetting.

It is important that the guidelines of the scheme are strengthened so as to create a feasible alternative for integration of MPLADS with the District Planning, without jeopardizing the flexibility built-into the scheme. Mandatory inspection of schemes by state and Centre level officials must be adhered to ensure qualitative third party check. Moreover there is a felt need for proper appraisal of MPLADS spending and their out comes on the lines of Mid-term Appraisal of Five Year Plans. This will help make MPs more accountable towards responsibly recommending different MPLADS projects in their constituencies. Finally the scheme should get subsumed in the district and state plan after five years.

By Nripendra Misra, Director, PIF & Tannu Singh, Research Associate, PIF