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The North Eastern Council and PM-DevINE

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • February 16, 2024

    The Prime Minister's Development Initiative for North Eastern Region (PM-DevINE) scheme was initiated by the Government of India in 2022 with an expenditure outlay of Rs 6,600 crore for a four-year period (2022–23 to 2025–26), as a major developmental omnibus scheme for the North East Region (NER) of the country. The PM-DevINE is quite holistic and covers infrastructure, social development, enhancing of livelihood activities for youth and women as well as filling up of developmental gaps in various sectors.

    While this major initiative is not substantially different from the schemes and projects of the North Eastern Council (NEC), the administrative process for conceiving the schemes and projects, sanctioning and funding them as well as monitoring have only been made different under PM-DevINE with direct involvement and control of the Department for Development of North Eastern Region (DONER).

    For the holistic development of NER, the NEC already exists. The mandate of the NEC as derived from the letter of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, addressed to the then Union Home, Defence, Finance and Planning Ministers on 16 August 1973 under intimation to the Cabinet Secretary, the NEC Act of 1971 and subsequent Amendments to it, and the plans and schemes of this body formulated over the years since the setting up of this statutory body, already encompass the functional areas which are presently within the ambit of PM-DevINE.

    However, the procedure for working out an NEC scheme is different and more within the domain of this statutory body and less protracted as compared to that of PM-DevINE, though the administrative and financial powers of Secretary, NEC to execute an NEC scheme or project is only Rs 15 crores with approval of the Ministry (DONER) at present. Now, Secretary, DONER will be primarily responsible for administering, sanctioning and funding the schematic and project-wise components under the overall PM-DevINE scheme.

    Secretary, NEC and his financial and planning advisers will only be a part of the Empowered Inter-Ministerial Committee (EIMC), which will however include representatives at senior level from Union Home and External Affairs Ministries, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, Senior Economic Adviser of DONER concerned with PM-DevINE and NITI Aayog to consider, approve, review, etc., this mega scheme in a collegiate manner.

    When DONER was set up in September 2001, it was neither a ministry nor a department of the Union with responsibility to decide on policies or execute and sanction schemes and projects in subject areas within the ambit of List-I and List-II of the Constitution, i.e., on subjects within the purview of the Union exclusively or jointly with the States of the NER. Though a Union ministry, DONER was conceived basically as a facilitator for implementation of NER schemes and projects.

    As against the above-stated position of DONER, the scope and responsibility for NER schemes and projects of inter-state benefit or of economic importance to more than one north eastern state, had been entrusted to the NEC since 1971, as per the NEC Statute of 1971 (Act No. 8 of 1971). At the inception, all the NER states willingly became constituents of the NEC in 1971 with their Chief Ministers and Governors as part of its apex board approving NEC’s five-year Plan outlays as well as the inclusion of schemes thereunder.

    Therefore, there was a case for the NEC to be empowered and placed in a role similar to that recently bestowed to DONER vis-à-vis PM-DevINE, with Secretary, NEC heading the empowered committee (EIMC) for conceiving, sanctioning, funding and monitoring PM-DevINE, with the NEC’s planning and financial advisers as members (the posts of Secretary, Planning Adviser and Financial Advisers are statutory—mentioned in the Statute of 1971) and part of the said committee or institution.

    There are certain conditionalities attached with the PM-DevINE scheme. The scheme should be within the overall spirit and harmonious with the ‘Gatishakti’ (the overarching Rs 1 lakh crore mega Central infrastructural scheme of the Union government), the individual schemes or projects under PM-DevINE should not be less than Rs 20 crores and not exceeding Rs 200 crores in financial outlay, be accommodated within the overall outlay of Rs 6,600 crore for the years (2022–23 to 2025–26), approved by the expenditure finance committee (as per statutory rules of delegation) under the aegis of the Union finance ministry as required, and accommodated within the funds provided in the budget.

    These controls are essential for proper financial evaluation, management and discipline. However, DONER will find it difficult to operate the control measures in respect of schemes and projects initiated by the NER States which are to be implemented within these States’ purview. A top-down oversight thrust from DONER may invite criticism from the implementing States also. Oversight and accommodation within the domain of NEC, would have been more expedient. Associating the DONER as a facilitator would have still been feasible.

    Another pertinent factor which perforce has to be factored in the development of the NER is the ameliorating of the socio-economic and ethnic tensions within the region and the security imperatives. To ensure positive outcomes in regard to these aspects, involvement of the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Union, is essential. The functioning of the PM-DevINE under the NEC—whose apex board, i.e., of the Council, is headed by the Union Home Minister, is relevant in this respect. It is of essence that such a linkage with the Union Home Ministry be maintained. The schemes and programmes which cater to manifest development needs of the NER States and also ensure appropriate internal security outcomes, should be suitably factored in the PM-DevINE schemes and projects in specific consultation with the NER State governments.

    A phenomenon observed in regard to the NEC schemes and projects over the years since the Fourth Plan period (i.e., 1976–1981 when NEC came into existence), is that, the capital projects such as roads and bridges and manpower developing institutions, etc., were not being maintained properly by many of the NER state governments after they were set up by NEC and transferred to them. The apparent reason was paucity of funds with these state governments. To overcome this fund crunch problem with the NER States, the Centre had established a Non-Lapsable Pool of funds from unspent resources of Central ministries within the threshold of 10 per cent which they were mandated to spend on the NER.

    Now, under PM-DevINE, it has been stipulated that the cost estimates of a scheme or project should include the operation and maintenance cost for four years. The authority proposing a scheme or project under PM-DevINE has perforce to indicate as to how the same will be maintained beyond the initial four years of its completion. Thus, the same situation may arise pertaining to inadequate financial resources for maintenance, which had been a constraint before the State governments vis-à-vis NEC schemes and projects.

    The problem could have been overcome to a major extent by the Centre assuming the responsibility for transferring funds to the NER state governments through the NEC, for maintenance of the PM-DevINE scheme and projects on a life-cycle basis. The proximity and familiarity of the NEC with the region and its overall development scenario should help in ensuring maintenance fund-flow on a realistic and timely basis.

    The NER states may also consider submitting to the just-constituted Sixteenth Finance Commission (SFC) demanding such transfers as an additionality over and above their dues from the divisible pool of Central resources as assessed by the SFC based on normative parameters to be decided by the latter. Channelising such maintenance funds by the Centre to the NER State governments through the NEC, where the NER states would have a larger say, would also be a positive measure in the spirit of cooperative federalism.  

    The author has held senior appointments in the Government of India concerned with NE development and internal security and also served the State Governments of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The views are personal.