On Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi were able to squeeze out just half an hour from their busy schedules to accompany Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi on an aerial survey of some of the flood-affected areas. The Prime Minister was kind enough to announce a grant of Rs 500 crore to the State even though States like Maharashtra, where the damage due to floods was far less than in Assam, have been allocated grants in excess of Rs 1,000 crore. Obviously, there was justification for the Chief Minister of Assam to request the Prime Minister for a flood relief grant of even Rs 2,000 crore considering the extent of damage done to the State by the floods. However, there ought to be a decent limit to what a State like Assam can ask the Centre by way of grants-in-aid considering the reckless way in which such grants have been misspent, misappropriated and even siphoned out over the years. In fact, some of the grants received from the Centre have also had to be returned because they remained unutilized. In other words, every time Assam has to ask the Centre for any kind of additional grants, it has the duty of remembering its track record in utilizing Central grants. To that extent, the status of our State differs from that of other States of the Union. As far as Central grants are concerned, Assam has created an ignoble record that may take years to wipe out. In fact, the situation has got progressively worse from year to year.
It is for this complete lack of fiscal discipline in the State that the Assam Government has, to a large extent, forfeited the right to ask for huge grants. And since the Chief Minister of Assam has submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister asking for Central assistance the State to the tune of Rs 11,316 crore, there is every reason for the media to take a closer look at the justification provided for seeking such assistance. Obviously, the administration cannot afford to convey the impression that it endorses the kind of fiscal indiscipline, misappropriation and downright loot of development funds. Of the Rs 11,316 crore asked for, Rs 1,100 crore is for rehabilitation of the flood- and erosion-affected families as a part of the total amount of Rs 2,526 crore as immediate support. The memorandum also asks for a medium-term assistance of Rs 8,790 crore, which includes Rs 2,460 crore for strengthening and raising of embankments, Rs 4,630 crore for national highway projects and Rs 700 crore for mitigating flood-related water logging in Guwahati. The people of Assam have seen for years how Central funds meant for flood relief have been misused in the construction and repair of embankments. In fact, unscrupulous contractors who have been building weak and poorly designed embankments year after year on purpose have never been punished for the tragedies that they are responsible for. In fact, it is a matter of abiding astonishment that they keep getting rewarded every year with fresh contracts. The Chief Minister’s demand for the constitution of the Northeast Water Resources Authority makes little sense considering that we already have the Brahmaputra Board. The creation of new organizations to replace old ones that have ceased to function for the greatest interest of the people is a futile exercise since it merely perpetuates the old practice of misusing a system and then giving it a bad name. No one can guarantee that the organization that will replace the Brahmaputra Board will turn out to be any different from the one that it replaces.
There is very much that is wrong about the way we have used grants and development funds of the Centre in the past. What is imperative is that the State should first put its house in order, enforce fiscal discipline in the administration and become worthy of the huge Central grants that are being asked for. It is worthwhile bearing in mind that the sum of Rs 100 crore spent in the name of protecting Majuli over the last eight years should have gone down the drain and failed to produce any results. A State with this kind of a track record forfeits the right to ask for huge Central grants. Obviously not many people will relish the idea of being seen as perpetual beggars and looters of Central funds for personal gains. This is the kind of attitude to grants that ensures that future generations will look upon work as entirely superfluous for a livelihood.