IT is a nonsensical practice that ought to have ended years ago. Instead, in an election year and in the midst of a deeply polarising and politicised ouster of a prime minister, the PML-N government has already disbursed the entirety of so-called parliamentarian development funds. It is not just that the sum is significant, Rs30bn, but also what it suggests regarding the government’s priorities. In almost all cases, there is little point in delving into the details — the amounts are explicitly allocated by the government as patronage. Vague attempts to try and align the parliamentarians’ priorities on so-called development schemes with the overall developmental spending plans of the government make no difference when MPs are first in the disbursement queue and most large-scale developmental projects remain underfunded.
The problem of wasteful expenditure is all the more acute when the entire democratic process itself is under pressure because of alleged corruption by the country’s elected representatives. Successive governments and prime ministers have discovered that it is politically easier to disburse relatively small amounts to individual MPs, which they use for small-scale, so-called development schemes that hardly last, than to resist the unjust demands of their parliamentary base. But the willingness to fiscally indulge MPs has a cost beyond the constituencies where some of the spending eventually materialises. Tens of millions of rupees allocated to individual parliamentarians is the very symbol of a wasteful government with distorted, patronage-driven spending priorities. If governments assume that is the cost of doing business, necessary expenditures to keep the wheels of politics oiled, they ought to consider the impact outside the narrow constituency- and patronage-driven models they cling to. Rs30bn spent on parliamentarians’ whims may bring fleeting loyalty and winning vote counts in legislative battles, but that money also undermines the overall public support for the democratic project.
From a governance perspective, too, the egregious public spending on MPs’ demands is deeply troubling. Routinely, year after year, government after government, the annual development spending budgeted for is wildly unrealistic. So too are budgeted expenditures, with the numbers often artificially and deliberately suppressed. The net result is that by the end of the first quarter of the fiscal year, the unrealistic projections force the government to scale back developmental spending. In the current financial year, important long-term projects are already being ignored, as highlighted in a report in this newspaper yesterday, while MPs’ annual allocations have already been disbursed before the end of the first quarter of the fiscal year. The PML-N, like all governments before it, routinely pledges to put core development spending at the centre of its of budgetary priorities, but invariably fails to do so. If some of the Rs30bn released to MPs can be clawed back, it should be. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi should also pledge to make no further allocations to ridiculous and wasteful parliamentarian schemes.
Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2017