In keeping with the principle of separation of powers that underpins the Indian Constitution, the primary mandate of elected state and national representatives is legislative. Naturally, this distinction is less salient in the minds of constituents who associate their vote with the promise of basic amenities. Indeed, votes are almost always solicited against a party or candidate’s track record on governance, i.e. bijli, sadak, paani. Further, decades of weak administration and service delivery have led to increased pressure on legislators to prioritize basic developmental needs of their constituencies over legislative responsibilities.
Even without direct executive power, members of Parliament (MPs) and members of legislative assembly (MLAs) can exercise legitimate political authority on the district administration to focus on relevant public works projects. They can help catalyse certain state and Union government initiatives through engagement with public officials, interaction with constituents to understand their needs and concerns, as well as by pursuing investments.
For instance, as an MP, I have diligently conducted regular reviews of all infrastructure works in my constituency. Foremost among these has been the proposed Haridaspur-Paradip railway line, the first ever railway line in Kendrapara. The project had been proposed decades ago and was “cleared" by the Union government in 1995-96 but had remained on paper. Relentless follow-up with both state and Union governments resulted in getting the project started, the first phase of which is scheduled for completion this year. Needless to say, once completed, it will have a transformative impact on industry and economic activity in the area.
Similarly, MLAs exert substantial political clout to influence development work in their constituencies, particularly where they represent the party in government. In addition to the informal power that legislators can exercise, there are some institutional mechanisms that enable them to respond to the needs of constituents.
Though a deviation from the separation principle, the MP Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS), launched in 1993, and its MLA counterpart, are practical workarounds for legislators to more directly address pressing infrastructure demands from constituents. Similar to MPLADS, several states have enacted schemes where funds are given to MLAs (MLALADS). The amount of money and the specific guidelines for the scheme vary across states.
Under MPLADS, the MP may recommend capital works projects for infrastructure development, such as in public health, sanitation, and water. The MP can recommend eligible projects of up to Rs5 crore per year and unspent balances can be utilized in the following year. However, after recommending projects, the MP does not have a direct administrative role. The projects must go through the same government procedures and machinery like all other government expenditure.
While the amount allocated to the scheme seems relatively small, it can have a far-reaching impact on the lives of constituents if used effectively. To help abate the acute shortage of drinking water in Kendrapara, I have devoted the majority of my MPLAD funds towards 57 drinking water projects, each with a capacity of 100,000 litres. Unfortunately, there also remain cases where MPs and MLAs are under pressure from party workers to sanction projects that may not be as relevant to a district’s development needs. Allocations made for earthwork, for example, lend themselves to inefficiency and leakage as they are hard to measure and prone to double billing under road construction as well as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
A common criticism of MPLADS is that a large proportion of the fund remains underutilized. While MPs can recommend projects under the scheme, they do not have formal authority to expedite or implement them and it is ultimately up to the district administration. There have been suggestions to increase the executive power of MPs under the scheme to circumvent administrative sloth. That, however, would mean even more deviation from legislative functions. Instead, it would be advisable to institute dedicated resources for the implementation of MPLADS-funded projects, such as dedicating a junior engineer in every district for this purpose.
Another avenue available to MPs and MLAs is to conduct formal reviews of Union government schemes at the district level, through the so-called Disha committee. The senior-most Lok Sabha MP from the district chairs the committee that comprises all MPs, MLAs, mayors/chairpersons of municipalities, heads of zila and gram panchayats. As chairperson, the MP can look into irregularities in implementation, misappropriation of funds or wrongful identification of beneficiaries, and take follow-up action like alerting the vigilance department. The effectiveness of an MP in this role is determined by the moral authority she/he is able to establish and call out irregularities.
At the outset, I argued that the pressure on lawmakers to undertake development work on the ground is a consequence of inadequate governance delivery. The lack of devolution of administrative and financial decision-making to panchayats is a major impediment to last-mile service delivery. The average parliamentary constituency in India is the size of a small European country, yet most fiscal and administrative authority resides either at the state capital or district headquarters.
For development of basic infrastructure, panchayats need reasonable budgets and the administrative authority and capacity to execute. Until recently, the average annual outlay for panchayats in most states was meagre, barely enough to erect a single street light. But there have been dramatic increases with the 14th Finance Commission recommendations and greater allocations from various governmental schemes. While that is progress in the right direction, it is not full devolution, as much decision-making power is still vested in the district collector or the block development officer.
Increased devolution will need to be supplemented with building the financial management capacity of panchayats. In the long run, true devolution will shift the burden of routine expectations from legislators to local governing bodies, but legislators will continue to be accountable for large infrastructure, the kind which needs funding approvals from assemblies and Parliament.
Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda is a member of Parliament, Lok Sabha. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.