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Note of conciliation

Print edition : Dec 17, 2004 T+T-

Manmohan Singh does not offer any fresh package for the northeastern States, but his approach is characterised by an understanding of the people's sentiments.

in Guwahati

THE three-day visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Assam and Manipur from November 20 to 22, coinciding with the India-ASEAN car rally from Guwahati to Batam in Indonesia, left the Chief Ministers of the two northeastern States in an unenviable position. Faced with criticism from Opposition parties that the Prime Minister had not announced any special packages for Assam and Manipur, the Chief Ministers had to project the assurances made by the Prime Minister as his package for the two States. In fact, during his visit, Manmohan Singh had candidly stated when queried by mediapersons: "I am not here to give money or announce packages but would definitely respond to the demands for projects submitted to us by the State governments."

While Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi claimed that the Prime Minister's package for the State amounted to Rs.9,210 crores, his Manipur counterpart Okram Ibobi Singh claimed that Manmohan Singh had agreed to provide his State a gift of Rs.2,800 crores. The political compulsions that forced Gogoi and Okram Ibobi Singh to hardsell the Prime Minister's general assurances of the Centre's support for certain development projects in the States as an "economic gift package" stem from the notion that the northeastern region needs substantial Central financial assistance to catch up with the rest of the country.

Such a notion heightens the expectations of getting a new package every time the Prime Minister visits the region, irrespective of how much money had actually flowed in to finance the schemes and projects announced as part of earlier packages. The specified financial assistance to Assam included Rs.240 crores for repairing the damage caused by floods and for infrastructure development during the current financial year, Rs.45 crores for flood relief and the supply of drinking water, and Rs.41 crores for the protection of the State's cultural capital Majuli from floods and erosion.

A number of other developmental schemes and projects, such as conversion to broad gauge of the Lumding-Silchar-Jiribam railway line by 2009-10 and the four-laning and the double-laning of national highways, were mentioned in the statement issued at the Prime Minister's media conference in Guwahati on November 22. However, there was no mention of funding for the projects except some general assurances that they would be taken up on a priority basis.

Clearly, with Assembly elections scheduled for 2006, Gogoi's aim was to extract several assurances from the Prime Minister so that he could showcase them as major achievements of the Congress government in the State. In order to win over the four major sections of people in the State, the tea tribes, the minorities, the Scheduled Tribes and the Scheduled Castes, the Gogoi government placed three major demands in the memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister in Guwahati on November 21. The State government demanded a special package for the welfare of the tea tribes, a development package exclusively for the Other Backward Classes, and financial support for the three tribal autonomous councils of the Rabhas, the Tiwas and the Misings.

The Gogoi government also demanded a special Central assistance of Rs.241 crores for providing drinking water facilities, constructing raised earthen platforms, and supplying power tillers for 2.95 lakh families of the Chars (large sandbars in the heart of the Brahmaputra), immigrant settlers who have been a major vote bank of the ruling Congress.

IN 1996 Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, after a week-long visit to the region, announced a Rs.6,100-crore package to boost the region's development. While his successor I.K. Gujral reaffirmed the Centre's commitment to the 1996 package, a new package of Rs.10,217 crores was announced by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998. These packages have now become a tool in the hands of political parties in Assam such as the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) to attack each other, with the party in the Opposition being vocal about the actual flow of funds to the States and about work not commencing on projects included in the packages.

Planning and Development Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sharma, however, claimed that the schemes and projects promised by Manmohan Singh were independent of the earlier packages. He pointed out that Deve Gowda had committed and Vajpayee had reaffirmed that all funding for flood control schemes in the State would be treated as 100 per cent grant. The current practice is to treat it as a loan. But this commitment was not honoured by the United Front or the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance governments. Sharma said: "However, the United Progressive Alliance government, by releasing Rs.150 crores as flood assistance, committed by previous governments but not honoured, has shown that it is committed not only to its own assurances but also to those made by earlier governments."

Hemen Das, secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Assam, said that it was meaningless to talk about packages without specific schemes. He pointed out that barring the additional amount released from the Calamity Relief Fund, until the State governments submitted specific schemes against funds earmarked in the Central Budget, money cannot be expected to flow in. Despite the fact that the per-capita plan outlays of the northeastern States have, over a period of time, exceeded the national average, they still rank significantly below the national average as far as the development of infrastructure is concerned. Development indices such as per capita State Domestic Product, power generation and supply, length of roads, and hospital beds for the region are well below the national average. Although the literacy levels are higher than the national average, vocational training and entrepreneurial skills remain weak.

Various supportive measures were initiated in the recent past to ensure that the benefits of economic development reached the region. In October 1996, Deve Gowda said that at least 10 per cent of the budgets of the Central Ministries and Departments would be earmarked for the development of the northeastern States. Later, a preliminary exercise undertaken by the Planning Commission in consultation with the various Ministries and Departments revealed that the expenditure on the region by some Union Ministries during 1997-98 fell short of the stipulated 10 per cent. Following this the Planning Commission explored the possibility of creating a Central Pool of Resources for the northeastern region out of the unspent amount to support infrastructure development projects in the region.

Following the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, the creation of the Central Pool of Resources was pursued in consultation with the Ministry of Finance. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee convened a meeting of the Chief Ministers of the northeastern States on May 8, 1998, where it was indicated that a Non-lapsable Central Pool of Resources (NLCPR) for the funding of specific projects in the States would be created.

As on August 1, 2004, Rs.283.64 crores had been released from the NLCPR to Manipur since 1998-99 against 38 approved projects. During the same period Rs.593.44 crores was released from the NLCPR to Assam against 156 projects with an approved cost of Rs.810.16 crores. The total amount released from the NLCPR to the entire region during this period was Rs.2,633.65 crores against a total approved cost of Rs.3,625.68 crores for 605 sanctioned projects. Manmohan Singh's assurance to revamp and reduce delays in the project approval and fund release processes for the NLCPR and the North Eastern Council (NEC) has raised hopes of an increased fund flow to the region.

Several development projects, promised by former Prime Ministers, in the two States are yet to become a reality. The Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project in Manipur, for instance, was included in Deve Gowda's 1996 package. It is yet to be completed, though Deve Gowda had stated that the Rs.426-crore project would be sanctioned in the same year. Similarly, upgradation of the Guwahati Medical College, which was assured in the package announced by Deve Gowda, never materialised. Both projects figure among the assurances made by Manmohan Singh.

Going by Deve Gowda's package, the road-cum-rail bridge at Bogibeel, the fourth bridge over the Brahmaputra, should have been completed by the Ninth Plan. However, the work is not over even as two years of the Tenth Plan have already elapsed. Such delays contradicted Deve Gowda's categorical assurances that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) would ensure and monitor regularly the implementation of all commitments.

In January 2000, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said that one of the reasons why the northeastern States lagged behind was that several of them became a part of the planning process much after the other States. Vajpayee was addressing the "Conference of Governors and Chief Ministers of Northeastern States and Sikkim on Regional Development and Security Issues" held in Shillong. Bearing this in mind, the outlay for these States under the Ninth Plan was increased to Rs.25,283.52 crores. It was nearly Rs.10,000 crores more than the Eighth Plan outlay of Rs.15,439 crores. Vajpayee, however, said that increased funding alone could not solve the economic and social problems of the northeastern States and Sikkim. The government needed to address other issues that sapped these States of resources and diverted the attention of the administration, he said.