Questions have been raised as to whether it was legal for Mylliem MLA and Urban Affairs Minister Hamletson Dohling to hand out cash to constituents as a form of Covid-19 relief.
According to an RTI, Dohling had distributed Rs 5,000 in cash to 140 beneficiaries in June from the Covid-19 relief fund, apart from distributing rice and other essential food items.
It has been claimed that hard cash distribution was allowed by a government order, but critics have expressed doubt that a mere office memorandum signed by the Commissioner and Secretary of the Community and Rural Development (C&RD) Department is the equivalent of a government order.
When Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma announced in April that each MLA would be allotted Rs 25 lakh in Covid relief funding to ensure that the poor in their constituencies would not go hungry MLAs were meant to submit a detailed list of essential commodities to Deputy Commissioners who were authorized to sanction payment. The MLAs were asked to make their list of commodities and hand them over to the respective DCs. At this time the CM did not mention anything about permission to distribute cash.
Critics and observers have pointed out that Dohling did not have any particular criteria on the basis of which he had selected the beneficiaries for receiving the handout. Sources have alleged that some of the beneficiaries could hardly be placed in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category.
There is a strict rule laid down in the Special Rural Works Programme (SRWP) guidelines called the Comprehensive Guidelines for the formulations, approval, sanction and implementation of SRWP initiatives which draws its powers from a 1991 statutory order on the same subject that underscores that the scheme is to be rendered in kind and never in cash.
These orders have the title “Orders by The Governor” with ‘Office Memorandum’ written just below it. Among the 10 clauses (with many sub-clauses) is clause 5.3 with sub clause iv which says that “assistance should be in the form of work and not cash”. Clause 5 lays down the procedure for implementation of individual schemes under SRWP.
Dohling’s claims to have the required permission to give cash directly to his constituency beneficiaries hinges on another office memorandum, dated March 30 this year, which says that this particular clause (mentioned above) stands deleted and that the amendment is made for the Covid-19 period to assist distressed communities and individuals. It is signed by Sampath Kumar, the C&RD Commissioner and Secretary. The words “Orders by The Governor” do not appear in this amendment.
This order is said to be an “Order of the Government of Meghalaya”, which allows distribution of cash under the MLA scheme.
This raises the question whether an office memorandum signed by a bureaucrat has the power to override Governor’s orders?
Kumar’s amendment only says that that clause is deleted; there is no follow-up order to make it possible for hard cash to be distributed by an MLA.
Additionally, every Covid-related grant that has been doled out to needy people by the state government, whether it be construction workers, migrant workers or anyone else, has been done through direct benefit transfers to their bank accounts or even by cheque. Handing out cash physically has never been done. There are standing orders that giving money directly to beneficiaries is forbidden, as it encourages corruption.
Even more relevantly, if this order had already been passed on March 30, why was it not shared with other MLAs? Some MLAs spoken to said they were not told of the existence of such an order.