April 01, 2020
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Stock-taking Time

Members of the North-eastern Council say it needs more teeth

Stock-taking Time

IN its silver jubilee year, the North-eastern Council (NEC) is at the crossroads. While one school of thought believes it should be rehauled and given a fresh mandate, another theory claims that all it needs is more power and funds to be effective.

All the seven states have always taken the NEC to be something like a development bank. In practice, the NEC sanctions schemes suggested by the states and leaves the implementation to the respective governments. It is here that the fault lies, feel many NEC officials. Several state governments are known to have diverted funds meant for specific projects into non-plan sectors. For example, nearly Rs 45.05 crore meant for road construction in various states in 1995-96 was ‘unspent’—in other words, used elsewhere—out of a total NEC budget of over Rs 300 crore. Assam is the biggest culprit: it has diverted over Rs 20 crore from the NEC fund to spend elsewhere.

The reason why some members clamour for more executive powers for the NEC. They want it to be allowed to take up state-specific projects by amending the original Act which prevented such a possibility. Another significant decision was to earmark a separate fund for maintenance of roads—by doing this the state governments can no longer wriggle out of repairing the thoroughfares, which are mostly in a shambles.

Set up at the initiative of Indira Gandhi at the height of the North-east reorganisation programme in 1972, the NEC came into being through an Act of Parliament. With a mandate to coordinate and accelerate the economic development of the North-east.

At its 40th stock-taking meet held in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, recently, its topmost priority was to approve the draft of the NEC’s Ninth Plan outlay to be forwarded to the Planning Commission for sanction. Presided over by Arunachal Pradesh Governor Mata Prasad, the meet was attended by three other governors and four chief ministers, who discussed the schemes to be included in the proposed outlay of Rs 4,818 crore the NEC seeks during the Ninth Plan. The rest of the six hour meeting was taken up by a discussion on its overhaul.

Most members agree that the NEC should be updated in keeping with the times. Says Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir: "The NEC was conceived in the ’70s. In view of the country’s liberalisation programme, it should also change its outlook." Adds his Meghalaya counterpart S.C. Marak: "The NEC needs to have more powers." Both of them want the Centre to take a more active part in its functioning. One of the suggestions is to request the Union home minister to take over as ex-officio chairman of the NEC since it is already controlled by the Union Home Ministry.

The lone dissenting voice, however, comes from Arunanchal Pradesh Chief Minister Gegong Apang. He feels the NEC’s mandate is perfect: "All that it needs is more powers and funds." Apang, the second longest-serving chief minister and perhaps one who has attended the most number of NEC meetings over the last 16 years, does not see any reason to shift the chairmanship of the NEC. "I have opposed the idea of restructuring just for the sake of change. What is the point of letting the control of the NEC slip out of our hands? If others are unhappy with one governor chairing all meetings, the chairmanship could be rotated among all the members."

 Apang, who left the Congress last September to form his own regional party, was supported by Assam’s transport minister Pradeep Hazarika, standing in for Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.

The modalities apart, most of the members agree the NEC needs a change of direction if it wants to fulfil its role: that of acting as a catalyst for the region’s economic development. Mizoram Chief Minister Lalthanhawla, often a bitter critic of the NEC for being discriminatory to his state, wants more funds. A criticism which peeves NEC officials. Says a senior adviser: "This whole question of one state getting less share than the other is misunderstood. The NEC’s original mandate was to act as an advisory body. We don’t distribute funds." That a change is round the corner is evident. Whatever the NEC’s new avatar, by spending 85 per cent of its budget on the key transport, communication and power sectors, it has proved that it has been doing its bit for the region. n

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