After 15 years of fiscal indiscipline and lack of accountability under Tarun Gogoi’s watch, the chill winds of austerity have now brought Dispur to near standstill. Departmental babus are scurrying to submit utilization certificates (UCs) of Central funds received, with the State Fince minister setting yet another deadline on October 31. It is a difficult task indeed, because how can funds so egregiously mis-utilized be now shown to have been put to good use? The present State government is paying for the sins of its predecessor, at a time when the thinking behind Central funding for States has changed fundamentally. And Assam had a poor record even during Planning Commission days, when it kept seeking Central funds without bothering to make any matching contributions on its own. Now that the Centre has done away with special category status for backward States, the powers-be in Dispur are being forced to think hard about raising resources while cutting costs and plugging leakages. Wasteful practices are being done away with in the desperate effort to clean up and streamline the entire apparatus. It is highly likely that the plethora of development councils, which the previous Congress government used to announce at the drop of a hat, will also come under the scanner next. By the latest count, the number of such development councils stood at 32 — of which 21 have now been dissolved, while 11 have obtained stay orders from the Gauhati High Court. According to Welfare of Plain Tribes and Backward Classes minister Pramila Rani Brahma, the councils have been dissolved because their heads, appointed politically by the previous government, had not put in their papers with the political change of guard in Dispur. After the bypolls for Lakhimpur parliamentary and Baithlangso assembly seats on November 19, these councils will be reconstituted, the minister has assured. That is likely, or else the Congress will try making capital out of it, like it is doing over the abolished South East Kamrup district.
But one thing is clear — development councils, even if reconstituted, simply cannot continue with their merry old ways. The major problem with these councils is that no one knows what they did with the funds received, since these were never audited properly in the first place. There have been allegations galore that funds were diverted or blown up to buy SUVs and other luxuries. There is no way Dispur can account for such wasteful if not immoral expenditure, and submit their UCs. In effect, these councils became a conduit for the ruling party to distribute political patroge with an eye to electoral gain. The system may have been touted as a model to uplift specific social groups, but what it primarily did was to keep the vocal elite of these groups happy with government money. As these councils degenerated into sinkholes of corruption and power politics, the targeted social groups saw hardly any improvement in their overall conditions. The councils in turn whined loudly that they were getting ‘only a few crores from Dispur, with which it was simply impossible to start developmental work’. As finces got tighter, budgetary allocations grandiosely made for various development councils were never released. Most councils still operate from rented premises, lacking money even for routine official work and buying fuel for their cars. Since development councils are set up by cabinet decisions, lack territorial jurisdiction, and their funds can be cut any time — they stand on a weak base anyway. Observers have pointed out that by constituting councils for the welfare of each and every group, the then State government virtually admitted its failure to bring about overall development, while setting off divisive competition among various social groups hankering for their own councils. Things have changed much in the decade since the Prithibi Majhi-led cabinet sub-committee recommended setting up development councils and the then Congress government could envisage setting aside sums like Rs 100 crore for them. That kind of money from the Centre is now hard to come by even for autonomous councils, so the Sarbanda Sonowal government may well be pressing the ‘Undo’ button on development councils, or at least straightening out their working and making them accountable in the coming days.