Coronavirus & Cruelty: Can Our Democracy Survive a Virus Attack?

MPLAD is not just a fund, it is a connecting point between people’s representatives and the people.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
MPLAD is not just a fund: it is a connecting point between people’s representatives and the people.
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Bombay se aya mera dost
Dost ko salaam karo

This old Hindi movie song depicted the old-world truths for people moving out of villages and going to big cities to strike it rich. The onslaught of SARS Cov2 (COVID-19) has smashed the get rich dreams of many. In these changed times, this song could well be worded as “Bombay se aya mera dost, Dost ko jootey maro”.

Coming to think again, most Indian films presented a glitzy image of the village bum dancing with sleek women once he strikes it rich after moving to a big city. Even foreign locales were part of this big dream. Now in the AD (After Disease) era, all those dreams may change drastically.

Snapshot
  • Cruelty overtakes every other human characteristic whenever groups of people perceive threat to their very existence.
  • Take the idea to scrap Members of Parliament Local Area Development Fund (MPLAD) as a point to ponder.
  • However good or crooked MLAs/MPs may be, they are the only pillars on which our democratic edifice stands.
  • MPLAD fund comes in use in small, disconnected works’ execution.
  • Rural and most smaller urban clusters which get neglected under larger schemes require discretionary funds to help out in distress.
  • MPLAD is not just a fund, it is a connecting point between people’s representatives and the people.

COVID-19 and Changed Rural Realities

Most villages in my state of Orissa, and I guess in other parts of the country too, have become extremely protective towards their own safety. In many of them, goons that were disliked by the people earlier have suddenly emerged as saviors. They have taken upon themselves the onerous task of ensuring no resident goes out or no non-resident sneaks in.

For this idea to be implemented, the stick and baton policy has suddenly become totally acceptable. Resident villagers who used to dislike these goons now come out in numbers to support and display solidarity with their acts of violence.

A penniless villager, working as a plumber or factory worker in a distant city suddenly finds himself helpless, friendless, and is even beaten up if he tries to go home to his village. The stories of these people who have walked back to their villages are spine chilling. The inhuman torture and misbehavior meted out to them on their way back are disturbing. Women and young girls were subjected to extreme hardships that mainstream media has not bothered to report.

The reason is simple. Outsiders are supposed to bring in coronavirus that would kill all other villagers.

The taunt is also simple : ‘When you were earning you were paying for a good life (whatever!) for your family, now when diseased, you want to kill us all. So get lost.’

Cruelty in the Time of Coronavirus

While clapping, burning candles and bursting crackers in mirth, we subconsciously, probably, wanted to forget the pain and torture of those millions of our people who were compelled to walk back home, sometimes hundreds of kilometers, without food and shelter. Now after reaching home, these same so called ‘migrants’ find they are barred from entering the vicinity of their villages.

It is not only the invaluable maid who is being treated as vermin now and not allowed to enter the high-walled gated colonies, it is also the electrician, plumber, mason, parking attendant, office peon, elevator operator, and factory workers who suddenly discovered they have been, all along, equivalent to toilet waste. They can be dispensed with at any time.

When they lost their sources of income, the landlords promptly threw them out of their homes. Those living in groups had no means to get food because of lockdown and therefore such people became the first victims of a surprise act that need not have been so very dramatic.

No doubt, history tells us many times over how cruelty overtakes every other human characteristic whenever groups of people perceive threat to their very existence.

Unfortunately, we in India have set our ‘system’ up as an unfeeling and callous apparatus that is being used to suppress the very citizen it is created to protect and support.

This sudden birth of hatred for those who had migrated may change the pattern of migrations from rural to urban in the not so distant future. This may not be the only major change our society will see.

Elected Representatives and Local Issues

Take the idea to scrap Members of Parliament Local Area Development Fund (MPLAD) as also a point to ponder. Let me elaborate on this with my state in focus. It may not be appropriate to generalise and speak about the scheme on a national canvas.

With seven MLA segments per MP seat in Orissa, there has always and invariably been a clash of interests of those political elements. Different groups and sets of people are aligned with each one of them. No MLA would be comfortable with a parallel political entity to have a free run in his fiefdom and thus the resistance to the MP.

However good or crooked/bad these 1+7 may be, there is no doubt they are the only pillars on which our democratic edifice stands.

Madhya Pradesh recently demonstrated how MLAs are vital for a Chief Minister’s survival. With this background, MPs are considered lower in the rung in most states, even in those states governed by a party that may be wielding power at the Union level.

With this in perspective, MPLAD money acts as a carrot for the people. Many large projects, whether under Central or State umbrella, have tiny loopholes. Even a much touted Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana road project may veer off 100 meters away from a populated hamlet or non-Revenue village with a drain that gets flooded during monsoons. Or a small settlement that is deprived of coverage under Deen Dayal Upadhyay-Gram Vidyutikaran Yojana simply because of shortage of poles that were not covered under the specified allotment.

Such examples are one too many and someone who has never dealt with them will be incapable of comprehending the ground level mess.

MPLAD Funds: Use and Misuse

It is in such small, disconnected works’ execution that MPLAD fund comes in use. Yes, I know, five crores sound huge for most uninitiated. But when an MP constituency comprising 16-17 Blocks, each Block with 35-40 Gram Panchayats (GP)—each of them having more than four thousand population—and at least two-three Municipalities with 25-35 Wards—each Ward usually much bigger than 4 GPs—that money apportioned equally, barely achieves anything visible.

If an MP’s name plate is not stuck prominently in each and every populated cluster, the representative is questioned about his absence at the end of the term. Funny as it may seem, many constituents living outside of their villages come back to vote and start haranguing the incumbent. When pointed to a plaque, they tend to shut up. Those name plates act as standing proofs of prior visits and involvement in development works of the representative. Yes, ridiculous but then that is how these things work.

No doubt, there could be certain MPs who might have had allegations of misusing their LAD funds.

However, the space, not questioning their abilities, to commit mischief is extremely limited, especially for Lok Sabha members, due to the high level of transparency maintained in putting up details of every single suggested project of each MP on the publicly accessible website of the Ministry of Program Implementation, GoI. MPLAD money lies with the nodal District Magistrate and unless projects are promptly put up on the central website, the fund does not come from Delhi.

Scrapping MPLAD Funds Harms Democracy

I am not sure how the South Bombay or Bangalore Central or New Delhi MPs spend their funds and what kind of projects they adopt. However, rural and most smaller urban clusters which get neglected under larger schemes require discretionary funds to help out in distress. Important projects vital for basic survival such as drinking water projects, culverts that connect roads, classrooms for higher secondary schools/colleges, toilets with water taps functioning in public health centers (PHCs), work rooms for women of Self Help Groups and such are not covered under any regular central schemes.

MPLAD or CSR funds are the only options. Now, when that Fund is scrapped, it harms the democratic system in a poor country like India.

When an MP travels across her/his constituency, people flock not so much to see their MP but more to get their local grievances addressed. If the usual bureaucratic system could solve such hitches, maybe elected representatives would be able to concentrate more on their core job of legislating.

Unfortunately, that is not the case in most parts of the country. When people flock their representative during visits, it also has a side effect. The MP gets to hear all kinds of problems. A few may get solved by random sanction of MPLAD fund but most deal with much bigger issues that relate to revenue, forest, pollution, industrialization, post offices, loans from banks, irrigation, agriculture, electricity and even village feuds that take place related to these topics.

What About Other Discretionary Funds Available to All and Sundry?

Therefore, in my opinion, MPLAD is not just a fund. It is a connecting point between people’s representatives and the people. It is a medium to communicate and dig deeper into the issues that most concern constituents and what infrastructure they prioritize over the others. It is a huge democratic assistant that enables representatives to gain first-hand knowledge on public matters and speak about them in the House, whenever the Party Whip allots time.

On the other hand, the number of discretionary funds and the huge amounts available to select few in this country is mind boggling. Every Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Ministers, IG Police (Crime), IG Intelligence and their Officers, PSU CMDs and you-name-‘em have thousands of crores in unaccounted funds that are not under any scanner. No CAG or RTI or any other statutory body supervises these expenditures. These funds are freely doled out at their sweet will. The public is completely unaware of the sums and the usage.

My concern is, what about life after COVID-19 fear passes. People will survive. Like many non COVID 19 patients are being turned away from hospitals, are we observing a phenomena where people are permanently being turned away from the gates of democracy?

(Tathagata Satpathy is a former Member of the Lok Sabha from the BJD and a veteran journalist. He tweets at @SatpathyLive. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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