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On October 14 of this year, Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) MLA from the Kharaitabad constituency in Hyderabad, Danam Nagender, addressing a small group of his party’s cadre, said that those who go against the ruling BRS will not be given double bedroom houses. “We have the names. Even if they were given houses, we will demolish them. Only those who work for us, clutch our flag and work for our party, will be aided,” he said amid rousing applause.
Set in the backdrop of the Telangana Assembly elections and in keeping with allegations that legislators of the BRS behave ‘unjustly’, it is worth considering if the post of an MLA has in practice, changed in India’s youngest state, formed a mere nine years ago.
In fact, the public clamour forced CM K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) to concede in public that there has been corruption in the Dalit Bandhu scheme’s implementation. Speaking to party delegates at the BRS foundation day programme at the Telangana Bhavan in April 2023, KCR said that some MLAs were taking up to Rs 3 lakh from the beneficiaries of the Dalit Bandhu scheme. “Dalit Bandhu is a prestigious scheme of the state government and there should be no room for corruption in its implementation,” he had reportedly said.
TNM investigated the delivery of some of the state’s flagship schemes to find that Nagender’s statement captures a defining feature of the BRS regime in Telangana. The MLA has today emerged as the epicentre of power at the expense of other democratic institutions such as the Opposition, bureaucracy and civil society.
The behaviour of the BRS MLA begs the question: is an elected representative a custodian of public resources, or an ultimate authority with arbitrary power to decide how resources are distributed? Whatever might be the case in other parts of the country, the BRS in the last decade has taken a conscious decision to remove all democratic checks and balances in the functioning of its MLAs in the 99 constituencies where the party holds power following the 2018 Telangana elections.
In these 99 constituencies, MLAs have been put in charge of deciding how funds for various welfare schemes are disbursed, and in multiple cases also get to decide who the beneficiaries should be. The decision has sparked several protests across Telangana with allegations that only BRS supporters benefit from state government-sponsored schemes.
The opportunity to hold the government to account has also been eroded by its poor performance on the legislative front. The Telangana Legislative Assembly has met for less than 20 days in 2023 on average, with only four sittings in its most recent session. Telangana had its highest sittings in 2017, three years into state formation when it met for 37 days.
When contacted in August 2023, Congress MLA from Manthani Sridhar Babu told TNM that the opposition had neither the space to table a Private Members’ Bill owing to the Speaker’s bias, nor did the BRS follow precedents set by Assemblies of previous governments or the rules of the Business Advisory Committee. “The BRS party has ensured that no proper legislative work takes place,” he had said.
"An MLA is supposed to be involved in law-making, passing the budget, representing people and importantly, holding the government accountable for their work on the ground. Whenever you divert the attention of a legislator to a government scheme, it takes away from their primary duties. If the MLA is co-opted into the executive role, they lose any locus standi to question the government,” said Chakshu Roy, head of civic and legislative engagement initiatives at PRS Legislative Research.
TNM explored three of the BRS’ much-touted welfare schemes – the Dignity Housing scheme, the Dalit Bandhu scheme and the Gruhalakshmi scheme – to assess if the MLA has been empowered beyond their mandate; be it by administrative sanction or in common practice.
Dignity Housing Scheme
The Dignity Housing scheme, a scheme to distribute two-bedroom (2BHK) houses to people below the poverty line was introduced by CM KCR in October 2015, a year into the formation of Telangana. Popularly known as the 2BHK scheme, it promised to construct 2.93 lakh houses by 2023 “with a view to provide dignity to the poor by giving 100% subsidised housing.”
Since its launch, the scheme has been mired in controversies. One of the main issues of contention is the empowerment of MLAs in disbursing funds. A closer look at a series of government orders (GO) issued by the Telangana government regarding the scheme explains how it happens.
In GO 10 issued by the state in October 2015, it was decided that the beneficiaries would be selected on a 50:50 basis by the District Collector and the MLA of a constituency, along with gram panchayats and urban local bodies in rural and urban areas respectively, in keeping with the reservation policy. Following uproar that beneficiaries were selected in keeping with the ruling party’s interests, a new order, GO 12, was brought in a month later with amendments. It was decided that a District Level Committee comprising the MLAs of a district, headed by a District Minister as chairperson with the Collector as the convenor, would implement the housing scheme.
“In practice, a District Minister has come to mean somebody in the state Cabinet. For the erstwhile Nalgonda district which now comprises Nalgonda, Suryapet and Yadadri Bhuvanagiri districts, Energy Minister Jagadish Reddy is in charge. Education Minister Sabitha Indra Reddy is the District Minister for Rangareddy. The erstwhile Adilabad district is handled by Endowments Minister Indrakaran Reddy,” an official from the Suryapet Collectorate told TNM.
The committee, headed by the District Minister, is in charge of a major chunk of the process: from finalising the gram panchayats/urban local bodies and the number of houses for each constituency to addressing any complaints regarding the selection process. “If any complaints are received during the selection process, a district-level officer will be nominated by the Collector and findings will be placed before the committee. Orders passed by the Committee shall be final,” reads the GO.
While the tehsildar (revenue official) preliminarily scrutinises the applications, followed by a second scrutiny by the gram panchayat or urban local body, the scheme has come under heavy fire.
Activists and opposition leaders have alleged that even when it comes to the last step, lots are drawn at random to select beneficiaries, and that mismanagement is rampant. In August 2023, Animal Husbandry Minister Talasani Srinivas Yadav said that a software designed by the National Informatics Centre to select beneficiaries through a randomisation method was used to select beneficiaries through the draw of lots. While Srinivas Yadav assured that “this method ensured transparency,” there are no clear details on what the software employed is.
“If the final stamp of approval of the District Minister wasn’t required, then the process would have sped up and several people would be comfortably housed by now,” adds another official at the Suryapet Collectorate. “I think for the most part, the ones really in need, the poorest of the poor, get housing. However, with just the Collector, the disbursal would happen quicker and such allegations wouldn’t arise. Small protests alleging that BRS workers and supporters are being favoured broke out because of the District Ministers’ involvement,” she remarks.
Simply put, the district-level committee, in charge of making decisions for the scheme’s disbursal, is heavily tilted in favour of the legislators’ decision. The MLAs also get to decide on the transfer of funds elsewhere, thus rendering the Collector a mere figurehead in the entire process.
SK Akbar, a resident of Qila, an area populated mainly by Muslims in Khammam town, said that despite applying several times for the double-bedroom scheme, he hasn’t received housing yet. “I have two teenage daughters. Unless you are a vocal supporter of the ruling government, you don’t become a beneficiary,” he said, adding that he suffered the same fate when he applied for the Congress’ Indiramma Housing scheme when YS Rajasekhara Reddy was CM of undivided Andhra Pradesh in the mid-2000s.
In Alair village’s Bharat Nagar locality of Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district, Devasena Madhavi (30) remarked that she had applied for a double-bedroom house when it was announced but like her several in Alair only benefited from the scheme if they belonged to BRS. “The day the names were being announced in the gram sabha, we weren’t there. Someone remarked that we already had a house but we didn't. We live with my mother,” she told TNM.
The phrase ‘Car gurthu vaallu’ (People who vote for ‘car’, BRS’ election symbol) recurred each time we asked who benefitted from the double bedroom scheme. Names of local BRS karyakarthas were also mentioned to explain how some people benefitted over others. Sireesha, a resident of Division 40 in Khammam, said that she had applied four years ago for a double-bedroom house. “They visited us once but we weren’t in town then. They never checked with us again,” she said. Padmavati, a local shop owner in Khammam attests to how the scheme hasn’t benefited anyone in Division 40 unless they were BRS supporters.
While a senior official from the Khammam collectorate told TNM that “everything was being done according to the GO, there is proof to the contrary. In September 2023, the Telangana High Court suspended the allotment of 2BHK flats at Mankhal to non-residents, on a writ petition filed by residents of the village in Maheshwaram mandal of Rangareddy district. The petitioners said that the allotment of 2BHK units was done contrary to the procedure, and was allotted to residents of Charminar, Malakpet and Chandrayangutta instead of local residents.
Dalit Bandhu Scheme
The Dalit Bandhu scheme launched by the Telangana government ahead of the Huzurabad bye-poll in August 2021 assured a one-time direct cash transfer of Rs 10 lakh to each Dalit family to set up units of their choice for self-employment. MLAs were initially tasked with selecting 100 beneficiaries in their respective constituencies in 2021-22. Despite protests and allegations of misuse of power, the Telangana government gave MLAs the authority to select 1,500 beneficiaries across their constituencies in three phases (500 in each phase).
Narasimhulu, a resident of Alair’s Scheduled Caste (SC) colony, said that while several people filled up the forms, barely any were shortlisted as beneficiaries. Dalit residents of Khammam district’s Wyra constituency protested outside BRS MLA Ramulu Nayak’s camp office in October 2023. Similarly, protests were held in Nerella, Jagadevepeta, and Ramaiah Pillai gram panchayats in Dharmapuri mandal demanding the implementation of the Dalit Bandhu scheme for all eligible SC families instead of sanctioning the scheme exclusively for families recommended by the BRS.
In December 2022, the Telangana High Court directed the state to appoint a committee to pick beneficiaries instead of MLAs. “Having regard to the rival contentions and the material on record, this Court finds that the Dalita Bandhu Scheme has been formulated for assisting the unemployed youth and other financially backward SC candidates, and for selecting the beneficiaries, a Committee has been constituted by the Government of Telangana and the latest Guidelines are dated 01.10.2021 and therefore without any recommendation of an MLA, the Committee has to consider the applications in accordance with the said Guidelines,” the court had said.
In September, residents from the Madiga (Scheduled Caste) community in the Thungathurthi (an SC reserved) constituency alleged that they were arrested by the police for protesting discrimination and corruption in the implementation of the scheme. During the protest, they alleged that BRS MLA Gadari Kishore, who is from the Mala SC community, helped people of his own community more. They saw it as yet another instance of political parties sidelining Madigas.
“At this point, there is no real difference between an MLA and a Corporator. The entire process of granting MLAs undue power started under YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s chief ministership in 2004 and strengthened under the BRS. While old age pensions were untouched, the MLA got undue power when it came to welfare schemes. The same is happening even under the BRS government,” said a former member of the Lok Satta party on the condition of anonymity.
However, the failings of a Telangana legislator aren’t removed from how law-makers have operated historically. In a study conducted by Vir K Chopra between 1990-92 titled Marginal Players in Marginal Assemblies: The Indian MLA, the author explained how an MLA privileges party loyalties over legislative responsibilities.
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“Our interview data suggests that most MLAs give priority to their party and constituency roles. The latter is further qualified to lean towards ‘errand running’ rather than constituency development activities,” Chopra noted.
The Gruhalaxmi scheme first figured in the BRS (then TRS) manifesto ahead of the 2018 Assembly polls. It offered Rs 3 lakh, disbursed in three stages to women whose families are below the poverty line and who own a housing site, to aid in construction.
“While continuing the construction of 2BHK houses as per existing norms, those who have their own plot and plan to build a house on their own will be provided financial assistance ranging from Rs 5 to 6 lakh,” the manifesto read. The BRS government finally issued detailed guidelines according to which 4 lakh houses had been sanctioned for 2023. However, as a district official on the condition of anonymity remarked, “the scheme was purely political with only the MLA deciding everything.”
Like the Dignity Housing scheme, Gruhalakshmi is implemented by District Collectors, and by the Commissioner of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) for areas in Greater Hyderabad. According to GO 25 issued in June 2023, the Collector scrutinises and prepares the list of eligible beneficiaries. The District Minister will then sanction houses in a phased manner, and accusations of favoritism have come up here too.
Women residents of Medchal-Malkajgiri district’s Keshavaram, a village adopted by CM KCR, accused Telangana Labour and Employment Minister Malla Reddy of disbursing Gruhalakshmi funds to whomsoever he preferred.
Slogans of ‘Malla Reddy, down down’ echoed across the village on September 25, 2023. “What has [KCR] done after adopting Keshavaram? Has he given housing or land to those who need? What will people with nothing do?” a woman asked while speaking to local media. Another woman said that no inquiry was done and remarked that if Malla Reddy visited Keshavaram, the residents would teach him a humiliating lesson.
Similarly in Gannavaram village of Karimnagar district, women led protests against Manakonduru BRS MLA Rasamayi Balakishan asking for the Gruhalakshmi process to be restarted. They alleged that those with existing houses were benefitting from the scheme and asked for the final list to be scrapped. “Are they conducting inquiries in the ward or via the gram sabha? We are unable to understand. Let them just ask for votes from the people they have favoured unceremoniously,” said a female resident of Gannavaram.
Shankar, an SC Madiga resident of Yadadri Bhuvanagiri’s Alair, told TNM that though his wife applied for the Gruhalakshmi scheme, the family didn’t receive the money at all. “BRS’ cadre got it though,” he added with a wry smile.
While the MLA has been empowered significantly in Telangana, it is difficult to gauge the legislative involvement of any of the parties in the state as attendance data isn’t available. However, the shift in an MLA’s power is there to see.
“The role of the MLA has been completely distorted in recent times. The legislative role all but disappeared due to dilution of the state Assembly in terms of debates and lack of action in sub-committees to draft new laws and amend existing ones. The lines between MPs, MLAs and Municipal Corporators have been blurred. MLAs are being elected based on parameters that are not even in their job description,” remarked civic activist Srinivas Alavilli.
“The constitutional price of ensuring an MLA is involved in handling a government scheme is that their questioning of the government gets diluted. Ideally, the Constitution wants an MLA to hold the government accountable," concluded Chakshu Roy.