If the NDA government is to fast-track development in the Northeast, it is high time to revamp the North Eastern Council (NEC). Envisaged as the nodal planning and development body for the region, the NEC has over the years been reduced to a mere fund distributing agency. But after Prime Minister rendra Modi abolished the Planning Commission one-and-half years back, bodies like the NEC are existing on borrowed time. The Prime Minister gave ample indication of what he thinks about the NEC when he called for its ‘re-orientation and upgradation’ while speaking at its plery session in Shillong on Friday. “To meet the growing aspirations of the people, it is important that the NEC introspects and assesses the extent to which it has been able to achieve its objectives,” the PM said pointedly. He then suggested that the NEC may consider positioning itself as ‘a state-of-the-art resource centre’ equipped with the necessary resources, knowledge and skills; it can then help out NE states in properly planning and executing projects, promoting research and innovations and providing strategic policy vision for the region. Underlining the fact that the Centre has earmarked over Rs 30,000 crore for the Northeast, the PM commented that this money has to be ‘spent well’. The implications are clear — with a demanding Central government asking states to justify expenditure proposals and holding them to account, the NEC simply cannot continue with its ineffectual ways and allow Central funds to be frittered away. Modi’s clarification about continuing 90 percent funding for core central schemes and 80 percent for non-core schemes in the Northeast will also be received with relief in NE state capitals, as the matter has been generating much political heat. The BJP’s success in forming its first government in Assam and its eyes on Manipur and Meghalaya next, appears to have forced a re-think in New Delhi.
Focusing on the twin responsibilities of development planning and job creation, the Prime Minister also asked the NEC to look into developing specialized domain expertise either by itself or through an agency. After all, new thinking is the need of the hour when it comes to the slew of entrepreneurship, venture funds, start-ups and skill development programmes the Modi government is pushing. And this new thinking does not appear to come easy even at the Central level. Beginning 2015, the Planning Commission was wound up for good, with the Prime Minister insisting that ‘one size fits all’ approach towards development has no relevance in changing times. But the NITI (tiol Institution for Transforming India) Aayog is yet to effectively slip into its desigted ‘think tank’ role to provide strategic and technical advice to the Centre and the states. So a revamped NEC will have its task cut out in meeting new expectations. Considering the strategic importance of NE region, the Prime Minister’s claim of attempts to reduce its isolation by improving all-round connectivity rings true. Railways minister Suresh Prabhu and Road Transport and Highways minister Nitin Gadkari have already been acclaimed as super achievers in Team Modi, with the Northeast benefiting from their efforts. A mega block last year was followed by broad-gauge rail link to Barak valley after a two-decade long wait, along with Aruchal, galand and Tripura coming on to the country’s rail map. Meanwhile, there has been visible expansion of road network in the region, with the specialized highways construction agency for NE ‘tiol Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation’ alone implementing 34 projects worth over Rs 10,000 crore. Improved internet connectivity in NE through broadband gateway in collaboration with Bangladesh and planned heavy investments in power projects in all eight NE states are welcome initiatives. But the key will be encouraging skill development and entrepreneurship in a region hitherto lagging behind in these attributes. Only then can the NDA government deliver towards creating more jobs in the Northeast; this will be particularly critical in Assam where the BJP had promised to create employment for 25 lakh youths if elected to power.