North Eastern Council: A ritual or eye-wash?

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The two-day 67th Plenary Session of the North Eastern Council (NEC) that concluded in Shillong on Tuesday looks more like a ritual, if not an eye-wash, for the region, especially with news that the supposedly crucial meeting did not even for once discuss the issue of the Centre doing away with six sectors (departments) of the NEC in December last year itself, including infrastructure development, sports, irrigation, power and roads. What the Centre has instead reportedly done is that it has offered a lump sum package of Rs 4,500 crore for the North Eastern Council for a three-year period from 2017-18 to 2019-20. While the chief ministers belonging to states that have BJP-led governments or governments with BJP as a partner reportedly remained mum on the issue, it was only Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla, who has raised serious objections to it. Mizoram incidentally is the only Congress-ruled state in the region.

One must note that while Rajnath Singh became the first Union Home Minister to chair a plenary of the NEC, he could bring nothing new on the table, except a stern message that the Council must not approach the Union Finance Ministry for additional funds unless the states utilized the sanctioned funds. While Singh directed the member states to effectively implement the recently approved financial package of Rs 4,500 crore for three years (2017-18 to 2019-20), he reportedly also directed the states to focus on specific areas and better convergence of government-sponsored schemes.

Lal Thanhawla has, on his part, shot off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi complaining that the various new schemes approved by the Union Cabinet on March 28, 2018 had apparently bypassed the Plenary Session, thus turning the Session itself to be meaningless. “The Plenary Session is considered to be the highest decision making authority of the NEC. However, I am very sorry to learn that the decision on the new NEC schemes approved by the Union Cabinet on 28th March, 2018 bypassed the plenary council,” Lal Thanhawla reportedly said in his letter to the Prime Minister on Sunday, two days ahead of the NEC meeting. It has been said that while the Centre has earmarked Rs 4,500 crore for the NEC to spend for various developmental schemes from 2017-18 to 2019-20, it actually includes a sum of Rs 2,357 crore for committed liabilities of ongoing projects. The remainder includes Rs 1,000 crore for North East Road Sector Development Scheme and Rs 640 for liabilities related to the Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resources.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who spent two days in Shillong attending the NEC Plenary Session, however has claimed that a ‘New India’ would emerge only when there was development and peace in a ‘New Northeast.’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a dream of a ‘New India by 2022’, which would be “realised with the vision of a New Northeast”, the Union Home Minister has said. It may be recalled that Prime Minister Modi had four years ago described the Northeast as “asta-lakshmi”, with a subsequent description that the North-East was the “New Engine” for India’s growth. The Union Home Minister’s primary focus during the NEC Plenary Session was on better road connectivity and information technology. He is on record saying that the region needed better road connectivity and that the economic potential of the region would be realised only with better connectivity, be it national highways or I-ways (information technology).

While Singh has also asked the state governments of the region to take advantage of the “improving security” scenario of the region to give a boost to development and growth, the ground reality is that while big insurgent groups which are currently engaged in peace talks with the government have remained relatively dormant, extortion – which is a major deterrent for investments – continues to plague the region. Moreover, what was not discussed in the NEC session was the inordinate delay that various centrally-sponsored developmental projects and schemes have been suffering from in the north-eastern region.

The Union Home Minister’s reported announcement that the Centre wants the Northeast to emerge as the “most credible organisation” for the entire region has also generated whispers as to why the BJP-led government at the Centre has come to such a realisation only at the fag-end of its tenure. What people across the region should ask for is a detailed progress report, if any, of various projects and schemes taken up under the NEC, by the Ministry for Development of the North-Eastern Region (DoNER), and also by various other Central Government ministries during the last four years, including explanations about what have been the causes of delayed completion and non-completion of these projects and schemes. The people should also be informed about what steps the Centre had taken to “sort out the obstacles emerging in the growth of the region” as mentioned by the Union Home Minister. After all, the people have the right to know.