By Rahul Karmakar
No decade after India’s independence has perhaps impacted the eight-state Northeast as much as the 1970s. The Emergency of 1975 was but a minor factor.
The decade saw Meghalaya being carved out of Assam in 1972, the signing of the Shillong Accord in 1975 that went on to intensify armed struggle for a Naga homeland, and the launch of the Assam Agitation in 1979 that spilt over into Shillong in the form of ethnic violence.
But these historical happenings have not been as far-reaching as the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 and the resultant paranoia about the region’s indigenous communities being outnumbered by illegal immigrants.
That year also saw the seeds of today’s Look East policy, albeit nebulous, being sown. It was in 1971 that the North Eastern Council (NEC) was constituted by an Act of Parliament, marking the beginning of a planned approach to the development of a region whose per capita income – if undivided Assam is considered – was higher than the national average until the early 1950s.
The partition of India and lack of access to the seaports of erstwhile East Pakistan slackened the pace of growth in the region. The Council came into existence on November 7, 1972, in Shillong. During its inauguration, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assured that the suggestions made by the NEC and the projects drawn up by it “will be considered with particular attention by the Planning Commission and also by the Union ministries. Any worthwhile idea that the Council might propose as being of tangible benefit to the region will not suffer for want of funds, she said.
Over the last 47 years, the NEC claims to have been “instrumental in setting in motion a new economic endeavour aimed at removing the basic handicaps that stood in the way of normal development of the region” besides ushering in a new era of hope in this backward area full of great potentialities”.
That the NEC flags the Northeast as a “backward area” on its website after close to five decades of pushing development is probably a self-assessment of its role. But even the worst of critics would agree that the Council’s is not a blank slate.
The Northeast, a prisoner of geography, is one of the country’s toughest regions to operate in. It’s ethnic conflicts too have made implementation of projects that much difficult. And the initial years of the Shillong-headquartered NEC almost coincided with the peak of insurgency in the region, which was why it started functioning under the Ministry of Home Affairs with the Assam Rifles director-general as its security advisor.
One of the first projects that NEC assisted and promoted was Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Manipur’s capital Imphal in 1972. This has, despite recurrent controversies, stood Manipur and medical students of other north-eastern states in good stead.
The Bhubaneswar Borooah Cancer Institute in Guwahati, established in 1974, is considered one of the leading specialised centres in the country today.
Other major institutes that NEC facilitates include the North Eastern Electrical Power Corporation Ltd headquartered in Shillong, now a major power developer, the North East Police Academy, the North Eastern Region Agriculture Marketing Corporation in Guwahati, The North Eastern Regional Institute of Science & Technology in Itanagar, the Regional Institute of Paramedical & Nursing Sciences in Aizawl, and the North Eastern Regional Institute of Water and Land Management in central Assam’s Tezpur.
Among the Council’s other stated achievements are the completion of power projects representing a 125 per cent increase in electricity generation compared to the installed capacity of 200 MW in 1971, initiating 19 hydroelectric projects with a power potential of 3836.15 MW, two bridges across the Brahmaputra in Assam and 10,500 km of roads across seven contiguous states and Sikkim, which was added to the Northeast in 2002.
The NEC has also initiated a community resource management project in the hill areas with the International Fund for Agriculture Development involving USD 33.2 million.
In 1997, a study group headed by Planning Commission member SP Shukla toured the different states of the Northeast to assess infrastructure and development backlogs in the region and to suggest how these can be fast-tracked. The committee recommended redesignating the council as North East Development Council with the region’s chief ministers as members and delinking it from the Ministry of Home Affairs and from security-related matters. It also suggested the inclusion of Sikkim in the group.
Sikkim became a part of the Northeast as well as the NEC in 2002, around the same time the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-headed National Democratic Alliance government created the Department of North Eastern Region (DoNER). This was perhaps an indication that the NEC, then three decades old, was falling short of expectations in delivering development for the region. It became apparent when DoNER took charge of NEC from the Ministry of Home Affairs. One of the reasons for the handover was the waning of insurgency in the region. Another was political; periodic meetings of the council chaired by the region’s governors by rotation would virtually turn into battlefields with the chief minister of one state complaining about higher fund allocation to another. Their squabbles undermined the very reason why NEC was formed – dealing with matters of common economic interests between two or more states in the region.
DoNER, created primarily to liaise with all Central ministries and park 10 per cent fund from the budget of each ministry under the Non-Lapsable Pool of Central Resources (NLPCR), ended the grumbling.
But perched on a higher pedestal, it more or less made the states come to it with begging bowls for projects and funds.
As the top-heavy NEC, allegedly run by bureaucrats without fresh ideas, became subservient to DoNER, it began funding only small projects of up to Rs. 4 crore. This was not what the Shukla Committee had envisaged for a planning-and-advisory body that “should have a robust evaluation and monitoring cell” to assess how the beneficiary states spend their Plan and Centrally-funded projects.
Post-DoNER, the funds for NEC gradually began drying up. In November 2016, NEC Secretary Ram Muivah said that the Council found it difficult to take up any important new projects in any of the nine focus sectors due to lack of funds.
Fund allocation to NEC substantially decreased after the 9th Five Year Plan from 5.12 per cent of the total outlays for the Northeast to 0.03 per cent in the 2016-17 fiscal, he said.
He also complained that the fund allocation for NEC never really factored inflation in. For instance, the Council received Rs 950 crore in 2016-17 – a pittance compared to Rs 500 crore in 1972, its year of establishment.
The last couple of years have not been any better for the NEC. Presenting the Union Budget estimates for 2019-20, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced NEC schemes of Rs 580 crore for the current fiscal, down from Rs 607 crore in 2018-19.
The schemes for NLPCR were slashed as well. This was expected since December 2017 when the North East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme was created.
The NEC avowedly utilises more than 99 per cent of whatever little it receives. Critics say this claim is hardly visible on the ground and that NEC has often funded dubious or politically-connected organisations. Administrative and financial experts say a shift from macro to micro-level schemes for beneficiaries made the Council veer from the path it had embarked upon.
Over the years, experts have advocated the reorganisation of the NEC after analysing its performance in the Northeast which they say needs innovative ideas for sustainable development in view of the region’s fragile canvas.
The NEC has been found beset with issues such as heavy expenditure on administration, doubling or repetition of schemes, working on doubtful or scanty data, underutilisation of funds, lack of accountability and transparency, long gestation periods for projects, and multiple prioritisations and ineffective project implementation.
Other factors include indifference to people’s participation and pushing pigeonhole projects that often do not serve the purpose.
The way ahead could be addressing the above, coming up with fresh ideas in keeping with the demands of the digital world and climate change, and tapping the right kind of entrepreneurs capable enough to sustain and build on projects. There is also a call for creating a regional authority for fixing responsibilities and transforming the region.
(The writer, formerly with The Shillong Times, is Senior Assistant Editor of The Hindu based in Guwahati)