The Home Ministry is probing the role of the Ford Foundation in trying to influence the Indian legislative process by funding Research Assistants who help MPs improve their parliamentary skills. About 300 MPs are part of various programmes of PRS Legislative Research—an NGO that is sponsored by the Ford foundation and other domestic agencies and comes under the ambit of the Centre of Policy Research Studies (CPRS).
Congress MP Meenakshi Natarajan firmly denies knowledge of foreign funding. “I was not aware of the Ford foundation hand and does not know the developments in the Home Ministry. So I can’t comment any more.”
When asked about the importance of providing technical and legal support to MPs, Mullappilli said, “I feel, we should have some alternate mechanism for making research available to legislators, and this process should exclusively be funded from public money,’’ the Minister said.
However, Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMM) feels differently. “I knew that Ford Foundation was funding the PRS. But how does it matter? I am not concerned whether it is Ford or any XYZ who is funding the scheme as long as it was helping us in doing better legislative work. I have benefitted a lot”, he said.
PRS, which has been running the programme since 2010, insists that there is nothing secretive and said that all the allegations are biased.
“We support the work of MPs by providing them with research support on legislative proposals before Parliament. We only provide data and analysis, and do not recommend or advocate any particular position or policy action. We also try to build a higher engagement between citizens and legislators by publishing data on the activity of Parliament,’’ M R Madhavan, Head-of-Research at PRS told The Sunday Standard.
PRS also denied any kind of lobbying and insisted that all that they do is help MPs whose names have been forwarded by the Constitutional Club, an official body of legislators which helps them to “discharge Parliamentary and allied social obligations.’’
“Our Parliament does not have a mechanism to provide research inputs to legislators, other than photocopies of recent newspaper articles on the subject. MPs are not provided with qualified research staff. This makes it very difficult for them to prepare adequately to discharge their role as lawmakers,’’ is the official response to queries from The Sunday Standard.
PRS says its core task is analysing pending legislation and preparing short Legislative Briefs.
“These briefs are sent to all MPs by post. Individual MPs and leadership groups of political parties then call PRS for briefings or to seek more clarifications. When Parliament is in session, PRS conducts Wednesday morning briefing sessions for MPs at the Constitution Club of India,’’ PRS stated.
According to PRS, MPs are badly in need of assistance as most of them come from a “very normal’’ background.
“Who will believe that MPs like Rajeev Shukla, Jay Panda, Derek O’Brien or Manish Tiwari need the support of Ford Foundation to understand policy matters?” asks a Home Ministry official.
PRS insists that it is wrong to say that every beneficiary of the Ford Foundation fund is furthering US interests. “What LAMPs does is only assist MPs in collecting details which are already in the public domain and put them into perspective,’’ a PRS official said.
But the Home Ministry insists that having foreign funded aides calling the shots in an MPs office is wrong.
“It may look nice on paper that our MPs are getting professional assistance. But it should not be forgotten that MPs have access to a whole lot of official documents, which need not be in the public domain, and these so-called assistants will naturally access them. Moreover, they may also seek any document from the Government on behalf of the MPs,” sources with the FCRA division of the Home Ministry said.
Interestingly, the Bills on which PRS has given inputs to MPs include sensitive bills like the Land Acquisition Bill. The official also argues that the research assistants can very well influence the MPs by giving valuable inputs on any matter. “Take the case of allowing FDI in retail. The researchers who are paid by the Ford Foundation which in turn is funded by retail giants like Walmart can very well influence MPs in forming an opinion on the matter,” said the source.
We get a number of requests from MPs expressing their interest to be part of the programme sensing the effectiveness of the LAMP scheme. This time we had around 80 applications. We would be launching the programme in the coming monsoon session as Home Ministry clearance is required only for foreign funding,’’ said an office bearer of the PRS. She also insisted that PRS received little funding from Ford Foundation last year. ‘The whole controversy is around Ford Foundation funding. So we would like to state on record that our funds were mostly from domestic donors,” she said.
A LAMP member insists that MPs who have applied but have not been selected for the programme are raking up a controversy. “It is mere jealousy on the part of other MPs and also the bureaucracy who may have felt slighted because of the empowered presence of LAMPs within the system. It is obvious that no bureaucrat would like to have an empowered MP who knows everything about legislation and need not require his support,” he said.
A LAMP assistant is paid `20,000. “Our salary is a pittance as most of us are eligible for any MNC job. But there is no denying the fact that close proximity with an MP adds to our resume,” said a former LAMP assistant.