Opposition Leaders Say ‘Unilateral’ Suspension of MPLADS Funds is Undemocratic
New Delhi: A day after the Centre passed an ordinance suspending all MPLADS (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) funds until 2022, opposition members have hit back, saying that such centralisation of power will prove to be detrimental for parliamentary democracy. Most believe that instead of taking such unilateral decisions, the Centre should pool in state governments to aid the country’s fight against the coronavirus.
The Narendra Modi government on Monday suspended the MPLADS funds and decided to divert the funds towards the Consolidated Fund of India, a term used for the total revenue collected by the government. Prakash Javadekar informed the press that the unprecedented move was taken to address the challenges in the government’s fight against COVID-19. He said the funds, around Rs 7,900 crore, will be used to purchase equipment for medical facilities, testing and screening of patients and development of medical infrastructure.
The government also amended the MPLADS guidelines which stipulates the MPs to use the existing corpus only on purchasing infra-red thermometers, personal protection equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers, thermal imaging scanners and cameras, ventilators, testing kits, and other medical equipment.
However, this did not go down well with many MPs who have already been diverting substantial sums of MPLADS towards the treatment and identification of COVID-19 patients in their respective constituencies.
While the opposition MPs did not raise an issue with another decision by the Union government’s to cut their salaries by 30% for a year, they believed that limiting the MPs’ role in a state of possible financial emergency would prevent them from addressing varied constituency-specific issues that may surface from time to time.
Congress legislature party leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the government could cut down more on salaries of MPs but it should “rethink” its decision on suspending MPLADS.
“Suspension of MPLAD fund is a gross injustice towards the representatives of people as well as the voters, as the MPs enjoy the autonomy of spending the fund for development… according to the demands of the common voters,” the Berhampore MP said, adding that the Centre’s decisions “amply proves that the country is heading towards a financial emergency”.
Tamil Nadu-based Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader and Lok Sabha MP Thol. Thirumavalavan, too, opposed the Centre’s unilateral decision. He said that the MPs were not consulted before such unprecedented decisions were taken.
“It would have been acceptable if MPs were told to give away one or two months of their salaries towards fighting COVID-19. The Centre also has suspended the MPLADS MP fund which is used to develop the constituency. It would have been acceptable if we were asked to spend the funds for COVID-19 related issues but to suspend it completely is unacceptable,” he said, adding that MPs have already allocated funds in their constituencies to buy PPE and other medical equipment.
“If these funds go to a consolidated fund, there is no way to know where the Centre is using these funds. The ordinance should be withdrawn,” the Dalit leader said.
In a long Twitter thread, Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor said that the Centre’s moves will take away MPs’ direct responsibility towards people of their constituencies. “With the (MPLADS) money going into the Central pool, it now depended on the Centre’s priorities and preferences on how to spent it,” he said.
Many opposition MPs likened the Centre’s decision to a clear attack on India’s federal system.
Congress spokesperson and Lok Sabha MP Manish Tewari said it was “a knee-jerk reaction much like the lockdown at a four-hour notice”. He said that he and his party fully supported the 30% cut in the MPs’ salaries but the suspension of MPLADS was an “overstretch”.
“MPLADS is a targeted and nimble instrument to customise micro level interventions to alleviate distress,” he said.
Karti Chidambaram of the Congress attacked the Centre, calling its decision a “sinister move” to make MPs redundant and enforce a presidential form of government. He said that the government could scrap ‘vanity projects’ like the redevelopment of Central Vista with an allocation of around Rs 20,000 crores first before centralising the ‘meagre MPLADS funds’. “If the government wants to garner funds, why doesn’t it scrap all its vanity projects like the central vista project?” he questioned.
Tamil Nadu MP Manickam Tagore said that by withdrawing MPLADS, the Union government had decided to “punish my constituents”.
The Trinamool Congress, too, called the decision “whimsical” and “undemocratic”, saying it snatches the freedom away from MPs to carry out developmental work in their areas. “We all have contributed to tide over this pandemic but to use it as an excuse to stymie local area development will not solve the problem. Much like the demonetisation, this is a unilateral decision which will hamper the democracy in the country,” TMC Lok Sabha MP Saugata Roy said.
Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s general secretary Sitaram Yechury said that the move would weaken the fight against COVID-19, and there was a need for the Centre to bring all stakeholders into confidence rather than this poor attempt to consolidate power in its own hands. He said that there was enough evidence to show that the pandemic is being best fought at the State and the local level. He also emphasised that health was a state subject, and that the Centre should empower them instead of weakening them.
Similarly, parties like the Shiv Sena and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) also opposed the move.
“No one is standing against the government in this hour of crisis. But they could have at least consulted all political parties before unilaterally taking this decision,” Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut said.
TDP leader K. Rammohan Naidu, while welcoming the decision, said he hoped the Centre keeps the parliamentarians in the loop about how they were spending the money.
“It would have been better if they had consulted us before taking this step. But even now they can consult us and listen to us in case some urgent need arises in our constituencies,” he said.
Former Congress leader from Tripura Pradyut Bordoloi also tweeted to say that the government should think of asking the Bharatiya Janata Party to donate all “opaque” electoral bonds if the situation is so dire.
Communist Party of India’s parliamentary party leader Binoy Viswam wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to register his opposition. He said that MPs would have voluntarily contributed to the Centre’s funds to fight COVID-19, but the imposition goes against the grain of parliamentary democracy.
“It is completely inexplicable how the Union Cabinet took the decision today when a democratic method to achieve the same results was already in existence,” he said.
Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, citing the Rajasthan government’s successful tackling of the Bhilwara hotspot, said that the Centre should have constituted a task force under the leadership of the prime minister and the chief ministers. Modi had declared that a task force would be formed while announcing a lockdown but since no information has come regarding it.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Rajya Sabha member Manoj Kumar Jha, while supporting the Centre’s decision to cut MPs’ salaries, opposed the suspension of MPLADS funds. In a letter that he shot off to the prime minister, he said, ” …the public officials who may have put up the proposal for this need to be informed that MPLADS funds are not allowances given to the members of parliament for their personal use, but are meant for Local Area Development schemes. Diversion of these funds to the Consolidated Fund of India would only centralise the administration of these funds which will only decrease the efficiency of their disbursal.”
He suggested that since the lockdown has had tremendous fallouts on the poor and informal sector workers, the Rajya Sabha MPs could be “directed to adopt a district or two each in the states that they represent in the parliament and then spend the funds for the capacity building of public health infrastructure beginning with the PHCs.”
“A flexibility to put this fund to use in making a small contribution through MPLADS shall help our collective fight against this pandemic as well as the potential outcome,” he said.