The Bombay High Court recently dismissed a PIL challenging an April 2020 circular that had effectively suspended the release of funds from the Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) Scheme for two years as part of the Centre’s efforts to focus the diversion of funds for COVID-19 relief efforts.
Refusing to interfere with the suspension circular, the Bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice GS Kulkarni held, “The decision to suspend the MPLAD Scheme has been consciously taken to promote a specific purpose, i.e., to provide measures for the nation to combat COVID-19 and to ensure that all citizens, to the extent possible, receive proper health and Medicare during the time the pandemic poses a risk to the nation’s health. In the given situation, the fight against COVID-19 must take centre-stage over all other developmental works which are sought to be secured by utilizing the MPLAD Scheme funds. The decision contained in the impugned circular is, thus, unexceptionable.”
The Court added that the petitioner had failed to show how any developmental work proposed to be carried out with the MPLAD funds had been affected by the April circular.
The Bench opined that to prompt the Court’s interference, the petitioner ought to have indicated that there were pending works that were more essential than COVID-19 relief work and which could have been implemented with the MPLAD funds.
In the given situation, the fight against COVID-19 must take centre-stage over all other developmental works which are sought to be secured by utilizing the MPLAD Scheme funds.
The Court further remarked that the ‘Public Interest Litigation’ appeared to be misconceived because “it seeks to impeach justifiable executive action and has no element of public interest in it, far less a genuine public interest.”
The petitioner, Neelima Vartak, had challenged a circular which suspended the release of instalments under the MPLAD scheme for the financial years 2020-21 and 2021-22 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The circular permitted the parliament members to re-prioritize or cancelled earlier recommended work to manage the COVID-19 pandemic by diverting funds for procuring necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) ventilators, masks, etc., for medical personnel.
Vartak sought directions to the Government of India to resume the MPLAD Scheme so that the funds could be used for the purposes intended, which may also include measures against COVID-19.
Advocate Shekhar Jagtap, appearing for Vartak, submitted that the MPLAD Scheme was created to decentralize funds for developing local areas directly through district nodal officers. As such, the scheme’s suspension was not in the electorate’s best interest, he submitted.
The Court rejected this argument opining that if there was any grievance due to the suspension of the funds by any MP or electorate, they could have approached the Court.
However, no MP has come forward to say that there has been an injury to the interests of the electorate he/she represents because of the suspension. No member of the electorate has come forward either, demanding that the MPLADS funds should not be utilized for combating COVID-19, the Court observed.
“It is only the petitioner who has come forward to question the suspension, for reasons best known to her,” the Court opined.
The Court added that if Vartak had proved a cause of genuine public interest, the Court would not have hesitated to interfere in the issue. However, it observed, “In an unprecedented situation such as the pandemic, when the Central Government and the State Governments are exploring all avenues to secure the best of health conditions for the citizens of the country and to make both ends meet, the endeavour of the petitioner to have the initiative taken to utilize the MPLAD Scheme funds to sponsor health and medical care related projects scuttled has to be nipped in the bud.”
As such, the Court dismissed the PIL and ordered that the Rs 1 lakh deposit that Vartak had deposited in Court as a pre-condition for hearing the case would stand forfeited. The Court directed the registry to transmit the deposited amount to the Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority.