It is commendable of Modi 2.0 to have allocated more funds to the Northeast, as compared to earlier governments.
However, with corruption being cancerous in the region, the Centre would be wise to hold the states to strict account.
The bane of the region is the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus, which licks its lips every time the region gets monies.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget proposals contain a substantial hike of nearly 25 per cent in allocations to the Northeast region. As per the Expenditure Profile of the Budget Proposals for financial year 2019-2020, the total allocation to the region has been hiked by Rs 12,282 crore. While this hike is welcome, given the fact that the Northeast is one of the most under-developed parts of the country, what should be more important is to ensure that the money allocated to the region is properly utilised and not siphoned.
Corruption in Northeast India is endemic and has become the region’s bane. Politicians and a large section of the bureaucracy in league with businessmen and contractors pocket a large share of the funds allocated to the region. In insurgency-affected states like Manipur and Nagaland, even the militants extort a large share of the funds meant for development and welfare projects.
As a result, the region has remained poor and under-developed. The Northeast has become a bottomless pit into which large sums of money poured in by the Union government go into the pockets of politicians, bureaucrats, business and contractors while the poor continue to remain steeped in poverty.
The challenge for the Modi government is to end this endemic corruption and ensure that the huge quantum of funds it has allocated to the region gets utilised properly. “Ensuring that funds meant for development and welfare are not siphoned is of crucial importance and critical to the development of the region. The Modi government should extend its ‘zero-tolerance towards corruption’ credo to the Northeast. There is an urgent need to closely monitor the utilisation of funds,” said Meghalaya RTI activist Michael Syiem.
Mizoram anti-corruption watchdog PRISM (People’s Right to Information & Development Implementing Society of Mizoram) maintains that corruption is the biggest stumbling block for development of the Northeast and the prime reason for the ills, including militancy, afflicting the region. PRISM president Vanlalruata says that all states of the region should immediately appoint Lokayuktas and legislate measures to enable social audit of all schemes and projects.
“Citizens have to be allowed to oversee implementation of projects and governments have to ensure transparency,” said Assam RTI activist Binod Sarma.
Transparency NE, a body set up very recently by some social and anti-corruption activists as well as retired bureaucrats, estimates that about 50 to 60 per cent of the funds meant for infrastructure and other development and welfare schemes in the region are siphoned. In states like Manipur and Nagaland, the amount goes up to even 70 per cent.
“Thus, no matter how much additional funds are allocated to the Northeast, it will make little difference on the ground because most of it will go to politicians and others. The hike in the budgetary allocation to the region will make no difference to the region and it will only be the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus that salivates at the prospect of making more money,” said a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre who is associated with the body.
Another retired IAS officer who had served in the region said that if the money allocated to the region by successive Union governments was totalled, it will add to lakhs of crores of rupees.
“If a comprehensive audit of all development projects in the region is carried out, it will be revealed that just about a quarter of the funds allocated to the region have been actually utilised. It is all there for everyone to see: potholed roads, dilapidated government buildings, crumbling bridges, eroded embankments, non-functional public healthcare, fallen school buildings and more. In many states, roads, bridges and public infrastructure exist only on paper. If more money is poured into the region without ensuring proper utilisation, it will benefit only a corrupt few while the region will continue to remain underdeveloped and its people poor and without access to health and education,” he said.
Transparency NE is formulating a set of guidelines it will submit to the PMO soon on ensuring transparency in governance in the region.
“There should be strict monitoring of all government schemes and projects and, just as projects implemented by gram panchayats have to be audited and endorsed by local citizens, so should all development and welfare projects at the state level. Prominent citizens have to be involved in such supervision and a mechanism has to be created for it. Lokayuktas have to be appointed in all states and adequate manpower and resources should be made available to them. The anti-corruption and vigilance mechanism, along with auditing of all projects and schemes, has to be strengthened,” said Niloy Barua, the secretary of Transparency NE.
“All states have to compulsorily implement the RTI Act in letter and spirit and all districts should have a nodal office to receive complaints from the public. All states should also have a toll-free number where citizens can lodge complaints and transparency should be cornerstone of governance. Since all states in the region are now governed by the BJP or its allies, the NDA government at the Centre should not find it difficult to ensure clean and transparent government and to root out corruption,” Barua added.
The Union budget has provided Rs 59,369.90 crore for the region in the current financial year (2019-2020). The revised estimates for the last fiscal (2018-2019) was Rs 47,087.95 crore. The then finance minister, Piyush Goyal, in the interim budget presented on 1 February 2019, had proposed a 21 per cent hike in the budgetary allocation to the region. The interim budget presented by Goyal had pledged Rs 58,165 crore for the region, and Nirmala Sitharaman has improved the allocation now.
A focus area in this year’s budgetary allocation to the Northeast is infrastructure development and agriculture, including farmers’ welfare. The outlay to the Ministry of Development of NE Region (DoNER) has been hiked to Rs 3,000 crore. Apart from all this, the railways have earmarked a whopping Rs 50,000 crore to provide rail connectivity to the capitals of all the Northeastern states within the next two years.
Flood control and water resources management is another key area where a lot of funds have been allocated. The allocations to the North East Special Infrastructure Development Scheme and the North East Road Sector Development Scheme have also been hiked substantially.
Since the focus is on infrastructure development and huge sums have been allocated for many such projects, the possibility of leakage is also very high. “It is the Union government’s responsibility to ensure that the funds are properly utilised. Corruption has to be dealt with a heavy hand and honesty has to be rewarded. There should be strict monitoring by Central agencies so that corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and contractors do not siphon off funds,” said a former chief secretary of Assam who is now an anti-corruption crusader.