The Centre the other day came out with certain steps as part of the effort to face the Covid pandemic that has been wreaking havoc globally and the huge economic slowdown as its aftermath. While the country by and large welcomes some of them, the Opposition noticeably disagree with certain others. The generally accepted proposals are about cutting down the salary of the President, prime minister and members of parliament by 30 per cent. Regardless of whether this includes or excludes allowances, the concept that once those at the top set an example for spending cuts it would be easy to bring others in line, makes sense.
State governors, members of state assemblies and similar others may either follow this example voluntarily or separate rules may be required to force them to accept. But this is also an opportunity to seriously consider reducing the size of jumbo cabinets in states and the private staff allowed for each minister. Ideally Kerala, which faces acute financial crisis, will be the best candidate to give a lead in this. It is unethical that even ministers who do not have tasks worth the name are seen to pack their establishment with a paraphernalia of their own men and party workers and ensure life-long pension for all of them through short cuts. Similarly, it is high time that the huge burden to the exchequer on account of the chief whip, administrative reforms commission, advisors to chief minister, backward/forward community development corporations beside hundreds of other corporations and boards, are all ended on urgent basis. It is because such excess growths on the establlishment are not cut off that the Opposition andn some employee organizations have come out in resistance when the government asks government employees by order to pay one month's salary to the chief minister's distress relief fund. As a matter of fact, much of the cash crunch can be solved by strictly checking extravagance and excess spending.
At the same time, the context in which Opposition MPs have come out against the Modi government's proposal to freeze MPLADS funds (Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) for two years demands closer examination from a different angle. This scheme was introduced 26 years ago on the realisation that all areas and sections were not receiving their due share. It also helped end the situation, to a certain extent, in which the people's representatives who come to legislative houses, lose all contact with the voters who elected them. If each MP uses his allocated funds in a planned and efficient manner, MP funds would be instrumental in development rural India in an equitable manner in areas of disaster relief, rehabilitation of the destitute, drinking water, transport and education, as proven by experience hitherto. It is also true that complaints have often been raised about the very purpose of MP funds beingn defeated by apathy of MPs, misappropriation of funds and corruption.
There are also cases of parliamentarians who never find time to come back to their constituencies once they win the polls. And when utilisation of funds is thus entrusted to the party followers, nepotism and misappropriations tend to become the norm. But if in the name of such maladies, the very mechanism of development fund is dispensed with, that would be tantamount to burning a house to smoke out a rat. The right solution would be to prevent misuse and irregularities through regular and robust auditing and surveillance by vigilance agencies. It is also a democratic imperative for enlightened electorates to course-correct their representatives through popular interventions. But Modi government's freezing of MP funds is not based on any such rationale. It was introduced ostensibly to meet the cost of Covid prevention. But if that were the case, wouldn't it have been achieved by stipulating that MPs would spend their allocations exclusively for Covid prevention? If so, that would have become a way of making funds available in an equitable manner. There can be no guarantee that the amount of Rs 79,000 Cr which the Centre will net under this head, will be spent in a fair manner. A fact cited by Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor in this connection is quite in place. When the Centre allocated Rs 157 Crore for distress relief in Kerala, a state with 314 Covid-affected cases, Gujarat, with just 122 Covid cases, was allocated Rs 662 Cr! Tharoor's reasonable question is whether such imbalances would not happen when MP funds are garnered into the pool and spent. And the prospect of non-BJP ruled states being denied equal justice cannot be ruled out either. It is estimated that through the fund freeze, Kerala will stand to lost at least Rs 300 cr. Factor in also the impermissible apathy of Modi government for Kerala, which is still struggling to recover from the impact of two great floods in succession, the Centre's decision is sure to cause a setback for the development of the state.