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A catalyst for development

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005 T+T-

The North Eastern Council takes a fresh look at its mandate in order to foster the region's economic development by taking advantage of its natural resources and geographical location.

WHEN the Governors and Chief Ministers of the eight States of the northeastern region attend the 50th meeting of the North Eastern Council (NEC) sometime this year, it will be a unique opportunity for them to take stock of the Council's activities in terms of its mandate to foster the region's economic development.

Established by an Act of Parliament in 1971, the NEC began functioning in 1972, covering the States of Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland.

In December 2002, the NEC Act was amended in order to bring Sikkim under its purview. Under the amendment, the President of India would nominate a Chairman and three members to the Council and it would function as a "Regional Planning Body" for its constituent States. Initially intended as an advisory body, the NEC's role became more meaningful when it started receiving funds from the Planning Commission for the implementation of the regional plan. Making it mandatory for the Council to meet at least twice a year, the amendment stated that schemes and projects benefiting two or more constituent States were to be given priority.

The Council plays an advisory role in areas of interest that are common to all its constituent States such as economic and social planning, transport and communications and power and flood control. It formulates, implements and reviews a unified and coordinated regional plan for these areas, besides ensuring effective coordination. It is also mandated to secure balanced development of the region and to forward proposals for developmental schemes and projects submitted by the States to the Centre. In addition, the NEC provides financial assistance to member States and maintains security and public order. Where necessary it makes recommendations to the Centre for further measures.

However, NEC Secretary Dr. Kamal Taori feels that even though the Council is ideally suited to play the role of a catalyst of development in the region, it has not been able to make much progress.

"Procedural and system related bottlenecks have only exacerbated the situation and there has been neglect of focussed investment, employment, organic areas and other programmes, which can generate massive rural vitalisation. Nor too have [problems in] pockets of backwardness been appropriately addressed. There was less-than-optimal utilisation of funds released for projects and necessary follow-up action and monitoring was either neglected or not carried out at all," Dr. Taori told Frontline.

Between 1972 and March 2004, a total of Rs.6,151.62 crores has been invested for the development of infrastructure in the region, of which 45.42 per cent was spent on water and power development projects and 40.92 per cent on transport and communications. A critical examination of the investment in other sectors revealed that investment in other equally important sectors such as agriculture and allied programmes was nominal .

ONE of the major assets of the northeastern region is its massive potential of hydro-power. An energy surplus region, it is estimated to have a capacity for 34,000 MW of hydro-power, which is 38 per cent of the nation's Peak Load Factor (PLF). Its large and perennial water bodies too have immense potential, but this has not been adequately tapped. The allocation for the NEC's power sector was Rs.1,685.28 crores; of this Rs.1,280.66 crores is for capacity addition and the rest for laying new transmission lines and improving the transmission and distribution network.

With over 1,200 species, bamboo is an important forest resource that plays a vital role in the rural economy. Bamboo shoots are used as food, its stems, when mature, are used as building material and also to make handicrafts. The NEC, in its roadmap for development of the northeastern region, identified bamboo cultivation as a priority sector at the 48th meeting of the council at Gangtok.

The 10th Plan of the NEC, prepared in consultation with the Department for the Development of the North Eastern Region (DONER) (later upgraded to a Ministry) and the Planning Commission, envisages implementation of schemes without time and cost overruns. The areas of priority include initiating fewer large projects rather than a large number of small projects, operationalising the existing airports, ensuring that investment already made on existing infrastructure is fully utilised, improving the transmission and distribution of power and mini and micro hydro-electric projects, tapping local resources and improving value to check the flight of capital from the region. Another priority is attracting investment from outside the region in vital sectors such as industry, tourism and information technology.

THE National Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre envisages the revitalisation of the NEC as a priority area and promises that the Council will be strengthened with adequate professional support. It also promises special assistance to upgrade and expand the infrastructure of the region.

The Council, in order to take its development agenda forward in the light of the opportunities promised by the CMP, is working out a strategy to achieve its broad objectives. It will adopt a collective approach in cases where individual member-States do not appear to be attractive to the market in areas such as tourism; involve communities in formulating, implementing and monitoring projects to bring about a greater sense of belonging among the beneficiaries; link the NEC's schemes with other funding agencies to maximise returns on investment; and optimise resource utilisation. Economic activities may be encouraged on a cluster basis for easy servicing and marketing.

The upgradation of the NEC as a regional planning body has heightened the expectations of all the stakeholders who want the council to chart out a path of development that would pull the region out of backwardness. Taori feels that the road map for development must focus on the villages, where 80 per cent of the region's people live.

The Northeastern Region Community Resource Management project, a joint initiative of the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) implemented through the NEC, covers marginal farmers of tribal communities of 862 villages in the region. The aim is to develop and promote sustainable livelihood pursuits and ensure that natural resource management is optimal.

The region's close proximity to the South-East Asian nations and the "Look East" policy pursued by the Centre are advantages that the Council has in pursuit of its objectives.