This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on June 29, 2015.
A heap of cash comes to every member of Parliament (MP) every year, under a government scheme to develop constituencies. At the end of the year, the money—which could be used to create valuable digital infrastructure in our remote villages—returns to where it came from, unspent. The consequence: Our villages continue to remain cut off from the information highway, even as we dream about the dawn of a Digital India.
Why don’t our MPs establish a place in their constituency for villagers to access the Internet? What about spending to digitize public libraries and documents in panchayat and block offices? Why don’t they think of rural business process outsourcing firms or broadband Internet in village schools? How come there is not a single rural digital literacy centre? Why do MPs not create a constituency website to showcase their work? Why don’t they have digital roadmaps for their constituencies?
We have all heard of the MPs’ local area development scheme (MPLADS), which allows MPs to spend Rs.5 crore a year in their constituencies. In five years, an MP is eligible to get Rs.25 crore. All 790 MPs—545 in the Lok Sabha and 245 in the Rajya Sabha—can collectively get Rs.3,950 crore a year, and Rs.19,750 crore in five years through MPLADS.
Not a small sum of money.
However, according to an analysis I read recently, 52% of all MPs have not spent even a single paisa in their constituency. Of all the funds allocated, only 16% of the MPLADS funds are used. Considering the poor development levels in our villages, I am baffled why MPs do not use MPLADS funds for various developmental needs. Surely they want to be re-elected, and showcasing some works would boost their popularity?
I became curious and spent some time reading the MPLAD scheme document and what expenses are allowed. The fund is meant “to enable works of developmental nature with emphasis on the creation of durable community assets based on locally felt needs in their constituency”. For example: “drinking water, primary education, public health, sanitation and roads, etc.”
It stresses on special attention for tribal areas. According to clause No. 2.5 of the MPLADS guidelines, “There is a greater need to develop areas inhabited by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in order to give special attention for the infrastructure development of such areas.”
Considering that most of the MPLADS funds have traditionally been spent in creating real estate-driven brick-and-mortar assets such as wells, hand pumps, school buildings, meeting halls, village roads, bridges and lamp posts, and for providing help to families affected by natural calamities, I hunted for any clause that could enable spending to create digital infrastructure, Internet access, information highways, and digital literacy and vocational skills centres.
I hit upon a clause—No. 3.21. Under this clause, “Community infrastructure and public utility building works are also permissible…” Using this clause, I believe each MP can easily build community centres equipped with broadband and computers, which could be used for digital literacy and access to information. Incidentally, as per clause 3.30 of the guidelines, “Purchase of computers is permissible for Government and Government-aided educational institutions.”
Another clause, No. 3.24, elaborates, “List of all completed and ongoing works with MPLADS funds should also be displayed at the District Authority Office and posted in the website for information of the general public.”
So, each MP can easily build a constituency website, providing information about the constituency and becoming a platform to showcase the MP’s work, including details of the utilization of allocated MPLADS funds.
Moreover, under clause 3.24, “As per the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005 and the Rules framed there under, all citizens have the right to information on any aspect of the MPLAD Scheme and the works recommended/sanctioned/executed under it.” Clearly, our MPs are liable to not only spend the MPLADS funds diligently but also ensure that each and every citizen knows about it.
For this, there could be no better way than creating website as a universally accessible medium to proactively disclose all information and build a transparent and direct rapport with the citizen.
While there are several clauses that empower MPs to invest their MPLADS funds in digital infrastructure, it is imperative that MPs, as soon as they are elected, should develop a five-year roadmap to utilize these funds. Then, they could be spent meticulously, in line with the national development agenda and in creating long-term impact on the development of those citizens who are poor, vulnerable and live in remote and inaccessible areas. And the roadmap of the constituency must include digital tools and infrastructure as one of its most essential pillars.