Letter to the Ethics Committees of Parliament on the issue of conflict of interest by MPs

The Public Interest Foundation sent letters on 6 June 2013 to then Chairmen of Committee on Ethics of both Houses of Parliament, Mr. Sis Ram Ola and Prof. Ram Gopal Yadav, requesting their thoughtful attention toward compelling grounds to dissuade Members of Parliament from employing members of their immediate family and relatives in their personal staff.

The Foundation’s research initiatives on systemic reforms in the country to obviate the incidence of governance deficit has observed the ethical quagmire in India’s parliamentary democracy with print media reporting on Members of Parliament (MPs) employing immediate family members and relatives as personal assistants. Indubitably and evidently, the question of ethics and propriety in public office has emerged as an upshot of the report stating that 104 members of Lok Sabha and 42 members from Rajya Sabha have appointed at least 191 relatives in their personal staff.

Although a law does not exist in India preventing these appointments by MPs, but there cannot be any reasonable justification bereft of explicit conflict of interest on the part of MPs in generating income to one’s own family members at taxpayers’ expense. This should be considered as exploitation violative of rights, privileges and probity of common citizens.

An elected representative of the people is expected to maintain the highest moral and ethical standards in office. Entertaining matters raising conflict of interest by an MP is reflective of the profanation of the elected representative to the oath or affirmation made when entering the House of Parliament. The public contempt at the deterioration of the Parliament has reached the volatile juncture where immediate actions have become necessary to ameliorate and instil ethics and probity to the office of an MP.

In this regard, an understanding of House of Commons Rule in Canada would prove a benignant force in formulating any law in India to curb actions of conflict of interest by MPs. The Rule in Canada clearly states that MPs in the House of Commons are not allowed to “hire or enter into a contract for consulting and professional services with members of immediate family (spouses and their children and their spouses and children)”. The Conflict of Interest Code for Members in the Canadian House of Commons under section (8) of Rules of Conduct states that “Members shall not act in any way to further his or her private interests or those of a member of the Member’s family, or to improperly further another person’s entity or private interests”.

The good authority of Ethics Committees of both Houses are trusted in taking suo motu cognizance of this critical issue toward initiating measures to stringently rein in appointing of family members and relatives by MPs in their personal staff. Any law directive of this intention should potentially define “family members” and “relatives” along with disciplinary actions against MPs contravening any such law. The Foundation solicited their kind attention toward the exigency to curb any misconduct in the office of an MP expending public exchequer.

Letter drafted by Nripendra Misra, Director, PIF and Annapoorna Karthika, Research Associate, PIF

The jewel under wraps: Impact assessment of the 2nd ARC reports

What is the relevance of Government appointed Commissions and Committees? The perception is that it is a strategy for keeping the long pending governance issues under folds.  The Government justification is that it is a sincere effort to garner specific expertise recommendation for chartering a feasible way forward on a significant challenge at hand.  Assuming that the Government claim is genuine, then it should be mandatory and specifically mentioned in the terms of reference a concrete time line both for receiving the recommendation and also for public record on substantial actions taken by the Legislature and executive towards implementation of the relevant accepted recommendations of the Commission/Committee.

There is plethora of recommendations received from various Commissions/Committees which for want of any effective action become irrelevant with the passage of time.  The specific case under the scanner here is that of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2nd ARC) which was set up in August, 2005 as a Commission of Inquiry for preparing a detailed blueprint to revamp the public administrative system under the chairmanship of Shri M. Veerappa Moily.  The Commission was set up with a clear mandate to suggest measures to achieve a pro-active, responsive, accountable, sustainable and efficient administration for the country at all levels of the Government.  The first Report of this Commission on the Right to Information was submitted in 2006.  14 more Reports have been submitted since, the last being the 15th Report submitted in the year 2009.

Starting with a bang on Right to Information (RTI) with laudable promises of addressing the major deficit in “good governance’, it is close to eight years since its commencement and exactly four years since the last Report submitted in April, 2009, still there is no ‘Action Taken Report’ in public domain as regards the major recommendations of the 2nd ARC.  As per the reply to an application under RTI moved by Public Interest Foundation (PIF), the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances, has disclosed that the total expenditure incurred in the working of the Commission till January 2013 amounts to approximately Rs. 11.90 crore.

Subjects dealt by the 2nd ARC are key agendas of contemporary relevance like ethics in governance, steps to ensure effective administration at the state level, district administration, local self government/Panchayati Raj institutions, participative and transparent delivery of public services, citizen-centric administration, promoting e-governance, crisis management, public order and police reforms, judicial accountability, ombudsman/Lokpal etc.  It is no body’s case that these important issues of governance should be addressed through a single reformative step forward.  Given the federal character and also accountability to the Legislature, the initiatives of course correction would emanate from multiple points leading to upgradation of the present system of governance which is the widely recognized as incapable of meeting the nation’s expectations.  The present polity is facing multiple challenges and ineffective redressal is causing the threat of multiple organ failure.  Sincere adoption of relevant recommendations of the 2nd ARC would have certainly guided in the positive direction leading to resolution of the various important deadlocks that our nation is grappling with on a day to day basis, it only points to the sorry state of affairs that the recommendations of the 2nd ARC are still wanting effective actions in terms of ground level execution.

Thanks to Right of Information Act, which certainly draws its strength from 2nd ARC itself, efforts to probe deeper by PIF on the fate of relatively more important reports on the 2nd ARC from the perspective of advocacy towards good governance, was rendered futile.  The specific reports explored for outcomes were the 4th Report on Ethics in Governance and the 5th Report on Public Order.

The careful reading of the 4Th Report on the Ethics in Governance shows the pivotal impact that could have been made through the serious consideration and adoption of its recommendations. Commission gave wide-ranging recommendations on electoral reforms which included partial state funding for elections, amendment to section 8 of RPA, 1951 to disqualify persons facing charges of grave and heinous offences, collegiums of bipartisan nature for the appointment of Chief Election Commissioner etc.  As per the information, the recommendations relating to electoral reforms have been forwarded to the Ministry of Law & Justice.  Also, recommendations on integrity of public servants, seizure of illegally acquired assets and measures to curb black money are now with the respective Ministries.  The Commission had also highlighted the delay in trials under the Prevention of Corruption Act.  It had recommended a time limit for various stages of trial and the Apex Court was to lay down guidelines to preclude unwarranted adjournments and avoidable delays.  The vital recommendations to cleanse the system and introduce integrity and efficiency has been put on a snail pace action.

On the first RTI application filed in December 2012, to know the status of adoption of all recommendations under the Fourth Report on 2nd ARC, the Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances (DoARPG) informed that out of a total of 134 recommendations 79 recommendations were accepted by the Government and 21 were referred to other fora, remaining 34 were not accepted by the Government. Out of the 79 accepted recommendations actions on 53 have been completed and 26 accepted recommendations are pending for implementation by the Government. Not completely satisfied with the nature of the answer which seemed to be concealing more than revealing by refusing to divulge any details on subject matters towards which recommendations got accepted or rejected, PIF again filed another RTI application. This time the RTI application inquired to know the status of acceptance of specific recommendations on issues of grave importance like institution of Lokpal and Lokayukta, Political Funding, Anti-Defection Law, Disqualification of the MPs under Section 8 of the RPA, Coalition & Ethics, Fate of MPLADS & MLALADS, Ethical Framework for Judiciary, Speedy trial under Prevention of Corruption Act, Confiscation of Illegally acquired property through corrupt means. But the answer again was evasive in terms of the fact that rather than giving concrete actions on the status of the action taken on these specific agendas, PIF was redirected to various Government Departments. This only shows that there is no concrete movement on the central issues as per various Reports submitted on the 2nd ARC.

Similar fate was met out to PIF’s inquiry on the Fifth Report on 2nd ARC which deals in the area of Public Order. This particular Report deals with recommendations on the much-debated grey areas of present day Governance like Police Reforms and Repealing of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.  Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances (DoARPG) simply informed PIF that this Fifth Report which was submitted in 2007, is still under the consideration of the Government.

Given the fact that the issues covered under the purview of the 2nd ARC are critical to extricate from the morass of governance paralysis that India faces today, it is indefensible that the recommendations are being subjected to routine procedures and formalities and no attempt has been made to fast track the execution.  The term of the present Parliament would be over by May, 2014 and perhaps there may be yet another proposal to constitute a 3rd Commission for administrative reforms to placate various position seekers.  It is necessary that the Action Taken Report in a time bound manner is placed in the public domain so that the accountability increases and the propensity towards using Committees/Commissions as a procrastination strategy is effectively checked.

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

(This article was published in the Dainik Jagran on 16th June, 2013)

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