Union Home Minister Amit Shah's scheduled meeting with the Chief Ministers of North-eastern States later this week is expected to bring the core agenda of the region's development to the centre stage of development discourse. The region still grappling with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and issues like vaccination, healthcare infrastructure is bound to get special attention. Addressing the issue of underutilization of funds earmarked for schemes and projects under various plan schemes is critical to putting the pandemic-devastated region's economy back on the rails. Late receipt of project proposals and utilization certificates are stated to be the reasons for underutilization. The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) apprised the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in February that concerning 10% Gross Budget Support (GBS) by 54 Central Ministries and Departments for schemes and projects in the region, BudgUnion Home Minister Amit Shah's scheduled meeting with the Chief Ministers of North-eastern States later this week is expected to bring the core agenda of the region's development to the centre stage of development discourse. The region still grappling with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and issues like vaccination, healthcare infrastructure is bound to get special attention. Addressing the issue of underutilization of funds earmarked for schemes and projects undet Estimate for the year 2021-21 fixed at Rs.60,112 crore was reduced during Revised Estimate (RE) stage to Rs 51,270 crore. Against this reduced amount, as of December 31, 2020, several Rs 32,719 crore has been spent which comes to 63.8 %. The DoNER Ministry is the nodal ministry for development and welfare activities in the region in respect of mandatory expenditure of the 10% GBS by various central ministries and development. For the Financial Year 2021-22, the total budgetary allocation for the region by 54 non-exempted Ministries/Departments is Rs 68020.24 crore which is more than double the amount that could be spent in 2020-21. Even though the unutilized portion of 10% GBS gets transferred to a Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resources, underutilization speaks volumes of poor absorptive capacities of various ministries and central departments when it comes to utilization of funds for the development-deficit region. The NLCPR was created in 1998 when the Central government found that the actual expenditure of various ministries/departments for the northeast region was less than the mandatory ceiling of 10% of their annual budgets. The same story repeating every year even after two decades of the creation of NLCPR is a reflection of serious shortcomings in the prevailing mechanism of reviewing the progress of fund utilization. The parliamentary panel in its report flagged the concerns that the developmental process has become "very compartmentalized" in the region and the departments of the ministries are "working in silos", leading to major funds remaining unutilized. Shah's meeting with Northeast chief ministers has brought an opportunity to deliberate on the Committee's recommendation to the DoNER Ministry for strengthening the mechanism for better coordination with other ministries and departments. The Committee also recommended that the Ministry should strengthen the project management system and all pending projects should be completed by the Ministry in a Special Mission mode drive. While increasing allocations for the region in Union Budgets are pointers towards the Central government prioritizing the development of north-eastern states, underutilization of funds, when the region needs more funds to accelerate the pace of development, has resulted in the prevailing paradoxical situation. Bilateral meetings of the Chief Ministers on the sidelines of their meeting with the Union Home Minister are expected to dwell on the issue of inter-state boundary disputes in the region. Peace along the inter-state boundaries in the region is critical to ensuring seamless transport of consignments for key development projects. Assam sharing boundaries with six states in the region, settling the state's boundary disputes with neighbouring states of Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Mizoram is also important to boost the confidence of private players to invest in the region without worries of disruption in project execution, operation, and maintenance. Skirmishes along the disputed often reach the flashpoint as the one prevailing currently along the Assam-Mizoram boundary disrupts the inter-state movement of goods and people. Peace along disputed stretches of inter-state boundaries in the region will continue to be fragile until the boundary is settled permanently through mutual consultations. The Central government playing an active role can help the states put in place a robust mechanism. While the movement of people continues to be regulated due to COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the states, smooth movement of goods is vital to keep the expedite the development projects and delivery of services and implementation of various central sector schemes besides the projects and schemes of the states in the region. The region is expected to gradually come out of the prevailing pandemic situation once the vaccination covers the majority of the population. Expediting key infrastructure projects such as the construction of roads and bridges is not just vital to the revival of the tourism industry in the region, an improved communication network has the potential to attract more investments to the region once it starts unlocking post the COVID-19. Putting development high on the agenda of this regional high table is crucial for the states to leverage the Act East Policy and Neighbourhood policy for ensuring and maintaining the growth momentum in the region.
Development discourse at the regional high table
Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s scheduled meeting with the Chief Ministers of North-eastern States