Ramesh’s prescription of social audit is no-brainer
Prasanna Mohanty | September 26, 2011
Jairam Ramesh loves to hog the headlines and play to the gallery. This he did through his tenure as the environment and forests minister admirably and frequently without making an iota of difference to the pathetic watchdog’s job that the ministry has been doing. He is at it again, this time as the rural development minister. First he introduced a poorly drafted and self-defeating Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill of 2011 in the last parliamentary session and then called a press conference to give credit to Rahul Gandhi for it. Now he has hit the headlines saying that the MPs are “not ready for the social audit of the MPLADS”. As it turns out, this was in retaliation to increasing criticism of his ministry’s flagship project, NREGS.
Now, it is common knowledge that NREGS suffers from various irregularities and has created little assets. Until June 30, 2011, the “social audit” of NREGS was a self-certifying work which helped only in keeping the irregularities under the carpet. If the outsiders like the civil society can today participate in any meaningful way in the social audit it has nothing to do with Ramesh. The change happened when he was still the minister for environment and forests. Given his previous track record, it is difficult to foresee him making any meaningful change to the functioning of his new ministry that squanders a huge amount of budget contributing precious little to improve life in rural India.
As for the MPLADS, social audit may be what is needed because, like NREGS, this scheme also has done little to justify its existence. In fact, a recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India struck at the very roots of the scheme saying that 18 years after the scheme was introduced there was just “no mechanism” yet to ascertain the “locally felt needs” that it is supposed to cater to. All the government-appointed bodies that examined it from time to time – National Commission to Review the Working of Constitution, the second Administrative Reforms Commission and National Advisory Council – have asked for dismantling it immediately because running a development scheme is not only not the job of the legislators, it undermines local self-government bodies that the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments tried to empower. Coming as it did soon after the economic reforms of 1991 that dismantled the license-permit raj and took away much of the discretionary powers of the MPs, the MPLADS was seen as partial restoration of their clientelist politics. As a former Rajya Sabha MP, Nilotpal Basu, said at a seminar recently, it was meant to bribe the MPs. When it was launched, the Narasimha Rao government was in a minority and had to survive by engineering the JMM bribery. And the recent hike in the fund made available to the MPs under this scheme, from Rs 2 crore to Rs 5 crore, came in the wake of a series of scams – IPL, Adarsh, 2G, CWG, Isro spectrum sale and others.
More than needing a social audit, MPLADS deserves to be scrapped altogether. That would have several advantages. Nearly Rs 20,000 crore that is put at the disposal of the MPs over a period of five years can then be put to better use. Without a fund to splurge, the MPs will be motivated to attend the district level planning, which they are supposed to but don’t because they have their own development scheme to run. It would also allow empowerment of the local self-government bodies that 73rd and 74th amendments intended. Dismantling the MPLADS will also mean putting to better use the official machinery needlessly engaged to monitor the scheme. Ramesh would be well advised to clean up his own stable and engage constructively with MPs, rather than indulging in petty nitpicking that serves no purpose.
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