The Prime Minister's maiden address to the nation has been a distinct departure from the usual political rhetoric, as has been his first official engagement outside the capital. Being the first to be amidst the families of those farmers who had committed suicides in Andhra Pradesh, Dr Manmohan Singh has made his intentions of bringing the poor to the centre of policy clear. Not only did he announce immediate relief to the distressed families, he promised continuous monitoring of the situation by his office as well.

But hardly had the Prime Minister reached his South Block office, that seven more farmers ended their lives in different parts of the state. Since the new government took charge, at the centre and at Hyderabad, hundreds of farmers have committed suicides in Andhra Pradesh alone. While the state government is seeking a financial package of Rs. 660 crores from the centre to implement various exigency measures, the critical question is whether the impending problem been properly diagnosed.

The Prime Minister's stress on the role of panchayats for improving service delivery for the poor hasn't been received very well by the Chief Ministers.
Ironically, the prescription isn't any different, nor is there any change in the service delivery system. Whatever be the problem, the palliatives offered remain the same. Far from addressing the problem, each introduction of a new scheme gives government agencies a finger in the pie. It was not without reason that Rajiv Gandhi lamented that a mere 16 paisa of every rupee spent on rural development programmes reaches those for whom it is primarily intended.

Seized with the problem, Dr Manmohan Singh rightly advocated merger of Rs 17,000 crore of funds spent annually on various rural development programmes into one single scheme to bring about a semblance of efficiency in service delivery. However, the suggestion didn't go well at the Chief Ministers' Conference wherein it was construed as being a violation of the federal structure. The Prime Minister's stress on the role of panchayats for improving service delivery for the poor hasn't been taken easily either.

While Dr Singh may have dispensed the six expensive BMWs that his self-indulging predecessor had enjoyed, he faces apparent challenge from the elected representatives in moving ahead with his reform agenda - of improving service delivery and of curtailing wasteful schemes. The political forces demand a more active role in managing funds that flow from the centre, but do woefully little to improve upon the existing inefficiency in managing government schemes. No surprise, therefore, the 9th Report of the Lok Sabha Committee on MP Local Area Development Scheme has recommended increase in MP's discretionary annual allocation from the present Rs 2 crore to 'at least Rs. 5 crore'.

In a decade since MPLADS was started in 1993, Rs. 12,140 crores have been spent by the Members of Parliament towards small capital works of their choice in their constituencies. The Planning Commission has found serious flaws in the manner in which these funds have been spent. Not only are there obvious overlaps in certain constituencies, there has been overemphasis on physical structures that one can put a foundation stone on and hold a ceremony. Expectedly, a great deal of MPLADS money has been spent on roads, bridges and buildings, and none to promote sustainable development amongst the poor.

If MPLADS hasn't made any significant impact on the lives of the poor, should such a scheme continue? While most MP's will favour doubling of current allocation, there are compelling reasons that argue the contrary. Not only does the scheme contravene the spirit of the constitution by extending undue favours to MP's for strengthening their electoral base, it contradicts the decentralisation process of empowering the panchayats by leaving (diverted) funds in the hands of the MPs as well. In any event, can funds meant for the poor be left at the discretion of people's representatives who do not even consult the beneficiaries in its actual utilization? Can the government sponsor parallel power centers to function in the states?

Before the PM can bring a piece of the pie to the poor, he first needs to take it away from those who for too long have appropriated this for themselves.
 •  Second generation reforms
 •  Lad-ders of indiscretion
MPLADS is the sort of government program that Manmohan Singh could scrap, to clearly send a message that his 'reforms' aren't more of the old politically motivated but economically unjustifiable spending, but something different. The Prime Minister's reformist agenda hinges around fiscal discipline. Fiscal deficit, both at the centre and at the states, are a serious concern. Yet, the shrinking resource basket needs to be juggled to direct money to long-neglected areas like farmers, agriculture, rural infrastructure, health and education. But at the heart of this reformist shift is efficient service delivery - the least addressed area in the past.

Dr Singh has already hinted at promoting massive decentralisation, something which his colleagues in the Parliament are not necessarily comfortable with, as their wings (privileges) are likely to be clipped in the process. A push through panchayati raj will ensure reform in governance - a tilt in favour of local governance. And, for that to happen the challenge before Dr Singh is to dilute the role of the legislature and the bureaucracy as much. Before he can bring a piece of the pie to the poor, he first needs to take it away from those who for too long have appropriated this for themselves.