By Sumarbin Umdor
The visit of Prime Shri. Minister Narendra Modi to Shillong to attend the North Eastern Council (NEC) meeting scheduled today (May 27, 2016) is part of the special focus that the present central government is giving to the overall development of the region. Since the BJP government has come to power, the region has seen a steady and regular visit of Union Ministers to review works related to their departments and also participate in important events taking place in the region. Mr. Modi’s keen interest in the development of the region is something that he expressed even when he had not assumed the office of Prime Minister. In my meeting with him as part of the northeast delegation to the Vibrant Gujarat Summit of 2013, Mr. Modi the then Chief Minister of Gujarat had expressed concern on the lack of development of the northeastern states and his eagerness to see a faster and accelerated growth of the region.
Since the Prime Minister is coming to attend a meeting of the NEC, it is important that we critically review the achievements of this body. The NEC came into being with the enactment of the North Eastern Council Act in 1971. The north eastern region was then economically backward, lacking basic infrastructure and much behind the rest of the country on most socio-economic indicators. It was under this situation that NEC was constituted as a body with a twin mandate of planning and facilitating development and also to serve as a forum to address common security challenges of the region.
The NEC draws its mandates from the North Eastern Council Act of 1971 and its subsequent amendment in 2002. In the initial Act the functions of NEC were to (i) advise Central and states government on common development issues concerning states (ii) formulation of regional plan for the states to address the development priority of the region (iii) review and recommend expenditure for financing of schemes and projects under regional plans including feasibility study of new projects (iv) review and recommend measures for addressing security issues.
In the 2002 amendment of the Act the role of the NEC has been upgraded from advisory body to that of regional planning body to formulate regional plans including identification, preparation and review of projects and schemes which benefits more than one states and coordinate the implementations of such schemes and projects (with the exception for schemes for Sikkim). With the creation of Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) in 2004 administration of NEC came under the new Ministry.
Since its inception, NEC has put much focus and made substantial contribution on development of transport and communication and power sectors in the region. As on 2013, NEC had sanctioned and completed construction of about 9800 kms of roads, 77 bridges, 12 Inter State Bus Terminals / Truck Terminals in the Region. It has also been involved in improvement of airports in all the states in the region besides providing viability gap funding to Alliance Air for operating air services in the region. Harnessing of hydroelectric potential is another major achievement of the Council as out of a total installed capacity of 1030 MW of hydroelectric power in the region, NEC’s contribution is around 60 percent. NEC has also funded projects in many priority areas such as in health, tourism, agriculture and allied activities, industries, irrigation and flood control, human resources development, etc.
However despite these efforts, the north eastern region has failed to harness the huge hydro power capacity and continues to depend on power supply from outside the region. At present the region is utilizing only about seven percent of the identified hydro power potential in the region. The transport and communication network in the region is also still very poor and inadequate. The poor transportation network in the form of low density of road and scanty rail transportation have affected industrial growth and also affected tourism and development of markets and trade.
In recent years, the role of NEC in accelerating economic development has been severely affected by the limited funds allocated to it. In the 11th FYP the actual allocation was only 44 percent of approved outlays of Rs. 7394 crore. The funds earmarked for the Council during the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17) at Rs. 6108 crore is even less that that allotted in the earlier plan period. The meagre and dwindling financial resources along with huge committed liability have curtailed ability of NEC to fund new projects thereby seriously eroding the importance of the Council.
The functioning of the Council has come for criticism from state governments in the region. These have centered on the delay in sanctioning of funds as the Council does not have adequate powers to sanction projects above certain amount (approval for projects of above Rs. 15 crore has to come from DoNER) and the lack expertise in many areas needed to assess projects. Another important issue raised by the states is the absence of mechanism of funding of maintenance of assets such as roads created through support from the Council resulting in these assets being under- utilized.
CAG reports on NEC funded projects implemented by the state governments have also pointed to recurring delays in completion of the projects due to flaws in the planning process, delay and non-release of funds to the implementing agencies and inadequate monitoring and absence of impact assessments. It is also true that NEC is plagued by bureaucratic lethargy like all government agencies and there has been no study thus far to assess the performance of this institution which if it is sincere in its commitment can go a long way to uplift the eight North-eastern states. In the past the NEC was also bogged down by corruption and granting of schemes to certain groups and individuals in an arbitrary manner. This has disillusioned genuine grantees with viable projects!
An important mandated function of NEC is its role as a regional security forum to address common inter-state security issue like border disputes and militancy problems that cut across states in the region. In a region like the North East, issues of security cannot be separated from the issues of development. Security related issue has however not got the deserving attention from the Council despite it being a common problem in all states in the region and the possibility of a coordinated approach in tackling security and border issues.
It is expected that these and other issues would be deliberated in the meeting to be Chaired by the Prime Minister and that the government of India would extend all possible support to the NEC to enable it to fulfill the expectations of the people of the region.
(The author teaches Economics at North Eastern Hill University)