Special category status (SCS) for weak states as a development fince concept is dead, but parties are still flogging it to make political capital. Before the assembly elections in Assam, the ruling Congress here raised a hue and cry over the rendra Modi government cutting off SCS for the State. The Assam assembly passed a resolution for ‘restoration’ of this status, while the then chief minister threatened to go to court over the issue. Forced onto the defensive, the BJP in Assam obfuscated the matter. Now in dibs and dabs, the truth is slowly beginning to come out, when it should have been apparent last year itself. Union Fince minister Arun Jaitley recently spoke in Rajya Sabha how the funding pattern and methodology for assisting states, including those from the Northeast, has changed for good. This came after Congress MP Ripun Bora raised the matter during Zero Hour, protesting that discontinuation of SCS for NE states has caused widespread resentment in the region. Jaitley however made it clear that under the 14th Fince Commission’s award, states are getting a much higher share of taxes, so there is no scope for 90:10 funding under the changed system. This triggered an outcry in Assam assembly on Wednesday, with the Congress demanding a White Paper whether the State enjoys special category status or not. The Opposition took particular issue with State Fince minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s claim in the House that Assam is still receiving funding from the Centre in 90:10 SCS ratio. So who is speaking the truth, Jaitley or Sarma? If Sarma is prevaricating, then it is a matter of breach of privilege of the House, the Opposition thundered. Filly, Sarma came clear on Thursday in the House when he said that there is ‘nothing called special status in the books of the Central government, but only special treatment’ to provide special facilities to states like Assam.
Clearly the special status issue will remain on boil in the coming days, both in Assam and elsewhere. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar raised the SCS demand for his state as recently as the Inter-State Council meet of CMs in New Delhi, pleading for a hefty package to lift Bihar out of backwardness. So did Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu idu, pointing out that his state is bearing the costs of the Andhra-Telenga bifurcation. Despite being an NDA constituent, the Telugu Desam is not amused at BJP leaders’ wordplay like ‘Andhra may not be special category, but the Centre thinks it is special’! Meanwhile in Odisha, a slanging match has broken out between ruling Biju Jata Dal and the BJP over the Centre twice rejecting SCS for the state, despite promising the status in its 2014 election manifesto. The issue thus continues to offer much scope for political posturing. It is high time the NDA government clarifies as to how it plans to go about giving ‘special treatment’ to weak states, having thoroughly junked the system of the earlier Planning Commission era. Eleven states including Assam benefited from the ‘special category’ label, with the erstwhile tiol Development Council (NDC) factoring in points like hilly and difficult terrain, strategic location along borders, low population density and/or sizeable share of tribal population, economic and infrastructural backwardness and non-viable ture of state finces. Those days are gone now, with the NITI Aayog, which has replaced the Planning Commission, having no power to dole out sops and funds. There is a new yardstick to measure backwardness with the Raghuram Rajan Committee in 2013 creating a multi-dimensiol development index to categorize states as least developed, less developed and relatively developed. Assam has little to show for all those years of 90 percent Central funding for Centrally sponsored schemes (CSS), generous block grants, extra Plan funds and tax concessions, particularly in terms of industrialization or overall growth. Whether the higher share of central taxes at 42 per cent will be enough for weak states to stand on their own is something their governments must negotiate individually with the Centre. If the Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill does get passed by the Rajya Sabha this session, it may significantly alter the funding pattern for states in the long run. But playing politics over the dead and buried SCS system will only hamper coming to grips with changed economic reality.