Dialogue  April - June, 2004 , Volume 5  No. 4


Governance and Public Welfare in the North East


Dr. Jayanta Madhab



Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then President of the Constituent Assembly, moving the Resolution for adoption of the Constitution of India, said “ Whatever the Constitution may or may not provide, the welfare of the country will depend upon the way in which the country is administered. That will depend upon the men who administer it ”. The First Five year Plan of India (1951-56) document devoted four chapters on Administration and Public Cooperation. It says “ The principal objectives to be achieved in public administration are integrity, efficiency, economy and public cooperation. Without a high level of integrity, an organization cannot be efficient or render satisfactory service to the community. (P 54). If Dr. Rajendra Prasad or Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru were to be alive today, they would have been shocked to death when they were to witness fast deterioration in governance and increase in corruption. Outlook (June 21,04) cover page story is about 100 MPs in the 14th Lok Sabha with criminal charges against them. Law breakers have come to make laws for the country. The Global corruption Report 2003 makes a strong case for good governance. It states that “per capita income and the quality of governance is strongly positively correlated across the countries”. On the basis of Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International in the Global Corruption Report 2003. India ranks 73rd amongst 102 countries. If Comptroller and Auditor Generals’ (CAG) annual report on Centre and State Governments are seen, poor quality of governance and misuse of public money and trust become quite evident. Almost every year a new scam surfaces, latest being Telgi scam variously estimated at Rs.30,000 crores. North East is not very for off. The Lottery scam in Nagaland, LOC Scam and the latest Oil Scam in Assam are some of the examples. Deterioration in governance and emergence of high level of corruption really started from mid seventies somewhat slowly but assumed high proportion in later years. Two Senior Civil Servants ( Dr. Madhav Godbole, former Union Home Secretary and Dr. E A S Sarma former Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs) filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court “Public Interest Litigation on the State of Civil Service in the Country” (69 of 2004). It prayed for, inter-alia declaring good governance as a part of the basic structure of the Constitution; and, apolitical and independent Civil Service are integral part of scheme of the Constitution. The PIL was however, not admitted. The World Banks’ India: Reducing Poverty, Accelerating Development (2000) Report states “Good governance is a necessity for development and poverty reduction, not a luxury. Various studies suggest that good governance is a major contributor to development, while people living in ineffective or venal states suffer from lack of economic and social development”. (P –40).

The Planning Commission, in the Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-07) document clearly states “Past experience in the country has shown that availability of resources is no panacea for tackling poverty, disparities and backwardness. It is necessary, but not a sufficient condition. The determining factor, it turns out, is the institutional capacity to formulate viable need based schemes / projects with efficient delivery systems to utilize optimally the available resources” (P-179). The document further acknowledges “Corruption is the most endemic and entrenched manifestation of poor governance in Indian Society so much so that it has almost become on accepted reality and way of life” (P-180-81).

Per capita income of North Eastern States, once above the all India average, now all are below the average. Assam is the worst case. Once, in 1950-51, the per capita income was fifth from the top in India, but in 2002-03, it is just last but one from the bottom. The growth rate of state domestic product speaks for itself. During the 8th Plan period (1992-97) while India’s GDP grew at on average rate of 6.7 percent, Assam’s corresponding GSDP growth rate was 2.8 percent. Same is the case in the 9th Plan Period (1997-2002), 5.4 percent India against 2.1 percent in Assam. No wonder, therefore, the per capita income in 2002-03 is only 55 percent of that of India. Over 40 percent of rural population live below the poverty line and over 36 percent of total population do so in Assam, as compared to India’s 26 percent (1999-00). The Human Development Index ranking for Assam was 26 amongst 32 states and Union Territories in 1981, remain so in 1991, but deteriorated further to 14 amongst 15 states. Amongst the States of India,             remarkable progress was made by Tamil Nadu, Maharasthra, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Haryana, Panjab, but not Assam, in improving the HDI.

True, that all the N.E. States have to spend relatively more in maintaining security and peace, therefore, the states are under severe fiscal stress. Very little fund is available for development. The Central Government, recognizing the unique problems, created a special fund (non-lapsable pool), a special department (Department of North Eastern Region) and strengthened the North East Council (NEC). Lack of growth in state domestic product which in turn effects the growth of state resource , and also the reluctance on the part of the Sixth Schedule Hill states to tax income ( Central income tax is not levied) and on sales hinders growth of revenue, and all these have led to increase in dependence on Central Government for budgetary support for these states. Be that as it may, states do get a large amount under centrally sponsored schemes, totally central funded schemes, foreign assistance which comes as 90 percent grant and 10 percent loan from the central, Finance Commission grants and plan allocation. The question is are these funds being used properly.

Undoubtedly, progress has been made. There is, however, a general feeling that much more could have been achieved with the same amount of money if, only, governance had improved. CAG Annual Reports on that States and post- evaluation of projects reports speak volumes of cost overruns, defective planning, misuse, time overruns, and various other reasons, all of which contribute towards making the project/scheme uneconomic.

The 75 MW Doyang Hydropower project (Nagaland) had so much of time and cost overruns that power now cost Rs. 7.50 per unit, at which price no body can afford. Sanjoy Hazarika laments “ The total failure of the state Government

( Nagaland) to develop and complete the Referral Hospital in Dimapur, at the foot of the Naga Hills, which had been approved 21 years ago by New Delhi at a projected cost of Rs. 34.30 crores. New Delhi has spent over Rs. 60 crores in that project and the hospital is still not ready. This is where regulatory mechanisms that enforce standards of transparency and implementation must be installed.”(Statesman 24 April 04). Same is the story with Dimapur and Aizwal water supply schemes and many others. Baring a couple of states, most NE states’ administration is characterized by high volume of employment in comparison to the task to be performed, lack of discipline, absenteeism, lack of professional qualifications., low productivity and high level of corruption. Over the years, quality of administration has not improved, if at all, deteriorated. Unless, some amount of discipline is enforced, monopoly and discretionary powers are curtailed transparent and accountability, mechanism is installed public administration is unlikely to be improved.

There are some new initiatives on Good Governance in Assam, particularly at the district level. The Government of Assam had approved the recommendations of Administrative Reform Commission in mid 2003 but implementation had yet to take place. A Fiscal Responsibility Bill is being drafted. The Asian Development bank is considering an Assam Governance and Public Resource Management Project, under which a number of improvement are likely to take place. The Government of Assam “ Raijor Podulit Raijor Sarkar”               (Government at the doorsteps of people) had not proved to be a success due to the inadequate delivery mechanism. At the district level a number of initiatives such as ‘E-Setu’ and the ‘Tezpur Initiative’ are noteworthy. E- Setu at Jorhat provides citizen’s number of facilities to documentations without coming to the district headquarter.

 Tezpur Initiative is more elaborate. The district administration in partnership with various national, state and local level organization took up a number of innovative and sustainable good governance initiative through convergence and synergy.

The avowed objectives of the initiative taken up are to institutionalize the Good Governance features viz. Transparency, Peoples Participation, Social Auditing, Community Ownership, Easy Access of Public Services, Capacity Building. In public service delivery process towards poverty alleviation and sustainability. An illustrative list of Major initiatives includes: Sonitpur Vision 2003-05; People Estimate- innovative Transparency initiative in Government Development works; User Groups : innovative Peoples participatory community development; Public distribution system vigilance Committees- participatory food Security initiative; Empowerment of Women and Farmers through Thrift and Credit Self Help Groups (SHGs); Health and Family Welfare Institutional Management Committees; Community ownership initiative; Veterinary Institutional Management committees : Community ownership initiative; Land use planning committees : community ownership initiative; Convergence Meetings- people Government partnership; Mukoli Manch- Interaction of General Public with district heads on a fixed date ; Agri- Veterinary, Fisheries and allied Sector Development; Universalisation of Elementary Education campaign towards the non- reach; Equal opportunities for the Disabled; Better services at district Jail, Tezpur; E- governance initiatives; Destination Tezpur- Ethnic Tourism; Disaster preparation and Mitigation.

These initiatives illustrate how a strong sense of inclusion and consensus building with partnership and networking with various National, State and local level institutions of change can offer a new strategic approach to the long standing issues of governance across cultures and strata of the society. The initiatives are based on grassroots level feedback and realities with strong analytical skill and is a successful demonstration of administrative ability to manage and co-ordinate both the diverse team of people and resources from wide variety of sources and synthesizing these into a well constructed client/ citizen centric initiative with convergence and synergy. Another innovative feature of the initiatives is the use of Information and Communication Technology in public service delivery.

While the Tezpur Initiative was introduced the man behind the initiative was transferred under political compulsions and the initiative lacked the driving force. There are innumerable instances where change is resisted both by politicians as well as by the bureaucrats. The political will to usher in good governance is missing. That is where the problem lies.

Governance: approach issues innovatively,

with pro-people emphasis

Sanjoy Hazarika*

In a recent conversation, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling spoke of the criticality of governance in our states and the need to deliver basic services to people in need. He talked about sustainable development and the need to protect the environment and ensure the public interest.

Sounds familiar – but tough. Few states in the country, let alone the North-east, have been able to implement such a simple charter. Yet, it is a platform with which no political party could possibly argue with: who is opposed to conserving natural resources and using them competently and in an environmentally-friendly manner? Who is opposed to ensuring that the public are the main beneficiaries of government programming? Can anyone object to the delivery of basic services to the vulnerable and poor?

But, across India and especially in the North-east, this has failed to happen. There are many factors responsible for this failure and this issue will be packed with learned articles, imposing essays, critical facts and statistics by well-informed people which will analyse them at length, discuss them threadbare and propose specific changes. I will not seek to do that for I do not have that competence. But I will try and develop this brief essay, based on personal experience and understanding of the region, on a few different parameters. It is also my view that one need not take too much space writing about such questions: the problems are not new and are well-known – we need to clearly and briefly assess how to deal with them.

One is the need to think innovatively on many issues, especially the way in which we address well-known problems in a predictable manner – the knee-jerk approach needs to be jettisoned. Second, we need to ally natural resources to locational advantages and human resource skills – especially by upgrading the latter. A third is to enforce a system of review, a mechanism to ensure transparency, accountability and to monitor funds which are being spent in the name of the people or the government.

One wishes to illustrate the problems and potential answers with specific examples to these questions of governance and delivery. At the very outset, as one has argued elsewhere, one would assert that Indians (and I am including all North-eastern groups here) – and fellow South Asians for that matter – are good at dreaming and designing projects, programmes and policies (the three Ps). But we are abysmal failures,


*Sanjoy Hazarika is Managing Trustee, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research; Consulting Editor, The Statesman; Research Professor at the Centre for Policy Research. He writes books on the North-east and makes documentary films about the region, where he travels extensively including to the neighbourhood of Tibet, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. He is an award-winning former correspondent of The New York Times, was a member of the National Security Advisory Board, of an advisory panel for the NE in the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution and has held fellowships at Harvard University and the University of Kentucky. He is acknowledged as a specialist on migration flows and his books include Bhopal, the lessons of a tragedy; Strangers of the Mist, tales of war and peace from India’s North East; Rites of Passage: border crossings, imagined homelands – India’s East and Bangladesh.

on the whole, when it comes to the question of delivery of services, programme completion and policy implementation. This is true barring some honourable exceptions, in and outside the government sectors. There are many factors for this and a range of problems can be blamed for underperformance or failure: insurgency, natural calamities, obdurate politicians and bureaucracy, corruption. The list goes on.

Thinking Innovatively:

Let us take the example of floods in Assam. Every year, hundreds of crores of rupees of government and private property is devastated, livestock swept away, people are hit by water-borne disease without access to basic health services, education systems collapse with high water entering schools and colleges. Every year, the state and central governments spend more money in building embankments of sand and rock which do not work and vanish at the first surge of floods; there are other protection devices which also do nothing but are also constructed including planting bamboo trunks along eroded banks and triangular bamboo structures with sandbags (some are empty) to stop erosion and divert currents: these, also needless to say, do not work, especially with a vast river like the Brahmaputra and its equally fierce tributaries which wash away human interventions to control with relentless ease.

Funds which are supposed to go to building bundhs, embankments and other protection systems are a farce and failure because of the high scale of corruption at every level and the low quality of inputs such as basic building materials. Can an embankment of sand in Majuli island, the large island in the heart of the Brahmaputra, resist the fast-flowing currents of the river, which resemble the assaults of a furious army? A single visit to this and other vulnerable sites is enough to clarify issues. People are fed up and despairing; they are cynical to government and as a result, the young become potential recruits to those groups which promise liberation from oppression through violent means. The story and the cycle is as old as human society but we still do not learn.

The point here is not just the impact of the floods in terms of displacement and that too is considerable. An estimated 10 percent of the population of Assam is displaced by flooding every year, or about 25 lakh (2.5 million). In a bad year, it can be as high as 30 lakh and over. These figures may be small compared to the scale of flooding in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh but no less significant because the Brahmaputra and its tributaries flow into and drain a narrow valley and flood plain, almost shaped like a open pipe, which is flanked by hills on either side.

Displacement brings with it many miseries, among the worst being ill-health and lack of services. The response of governments and administrations to such emergencies is the usual knee-jerk approach: take a few boats, pack them with relief supplies, send out doctors and medicines and hope for the best.

But why has no one thought of dedicated and designed ships/country boats which ca be used just to reach basic medical services at times of flood? These can be part of the district administration’s emergency responses as well as that of the state government. At the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, having thought about the issue of floods and vulnerability especially to disease, we developed a model for a “Ship of Hope” which could deliver basic services during floods and be used as a documentation and health campaign vehicle during the lean season. The idea was simple: why not use local knowledge, technology and abilities in terms of boat building, improve them with technical upgrades which would ensure safety and stability as well as speed that could make a large country boat or middle-sized ferry capable of delivering these services throughout the year. It would be sustainable since it would directly benefit boat builders and river communities as well as vulnerable groups in floods and other times; it could be “owned” by panchayats and district administrations as well as the state government and it could bring better health, if not save lives, to tens of thousands of people. The concept is that this would be a prototype that would be built locally but with more powerful engines and capable of accommodating health personnel and professionals as well as medical stores and have space for on-board treatment of basic health problems and even take a few emergency cases back to the nearest referral or district hospital. It would not be an evacuation or rescue ship, which would have to be designed completely differently. But it could take basic services to those in need. There is a need for a fleet of such boats: each boat could serve a cluster of villages and thus reach tens of thousands; the fleet could reach lakhs.

We heard about a competition for innovative ideas which if implemented could transform rural communities. This was organized by the World Bank for India at a national level. Despite some reservations about the Bank and its programs, we decided to enter the competition. “The Ship of Hope in a Valley of Flood” was finally selected as one of 20 winners after a rigorous process involving two juries and a selection committee. We consider this as an opportunity to put a unique idea into reality and test its potential for change and, along with the other winners, will get some modest funding in building, designing and seeking to deliver our dream.

It always is a source of amazement to me why no one has thought of such a simple intervention when the river teaches us every year, every day that it is important to listen to it and its people, instead of imposing half-baked solutions like river linking (which is one of the most undemocratic and technically obtuse approaches to tackling the problem of floods and water shortages). The answers to most of the problems created by the river lie within it; all we have to do is to observe well, listen closely and work with dedication.

Different kinds of boats can be used on the river for many applications instead of just being a bunch of poorly designed and catered floating restaurants in Guwahati. They can, for example, take tourists at low cost to national parks and places of interest, promoting eco-tourism. They can be used for cultural documentation and education campaigns. The list is endless, the opportunities limitless – what holds us back is our inability to think innovatively and clearly, to plan with vision and realistically.

Allying resources, locations and skills

Each part of each district of the North-east has unique features. Most parts are exceptionally beautiful. Let us look here at one area which can marry natural resources to location advantages and local skills while generating incomes and improving knowledge as well as conserving the environment. Despite the beauty of the region, few tourists especially foreign visitors come apart from the beaten track to places like Shillong, Kaziranga and Guwahati. Few venture into Shillong’s neighbourhood, beyond Cherrapunji and Elephant Falls or the picturesque Umiam Dam. There is a problem with image, of concerns about safety. Few realize that despite the media and government created image – and there is a basis to such concerns – the situation in most parts of the region is far better than Bihar or the badlands of Uttar Pradesh where village feuds, killings in rural areas and oppression of the poor by the landed and rich is a “normal” way of life. In fact, I remember with outrage and incredulity that a senior journalist from Bihar spoke nonchalantly in a television discussion about how occurrences as the rape and beating of North-easterners in Bihar who were traveling by train was a normal occurrence. I objected vehemently saying that such an attitude showed that people there had begun to tolerate the intolerable but that this could not be expected of other parts of the country.

Returning to the issue of tourism: instead of building new expensive complexes in different parts of the region, one should look at how the local young people and communities can be involved in developing tourism, especially cultural and eco-tourism. A clear example is the sacred groves of Meghalaya, where communities have tended special forests without government intervention for centuries, nurturing and taking care of them, developing large pockets of rich habitat with floral species which are wiped out elsewhere in the state. When one official suggested bringing tourists to view the forests, he was asked where the visitors would stay. The circuit house or forest lodge, he responded. The condition of both was dilapidated. Why not, suggested an entrepreneur with experience in tourism in the North-east, enable the local village to give out land near the grove as a camp site where different kinds of tents could be pitched for visitors: the high-end with attached bathrooms, the middle for middle income groups and a third for budget travelers. Officials can rarely think of such ideas. Babus are not trained, for the most, to think innovatively.

The food for the camping site can be cooked by villagers; in the process, they would have to learn new skills (of food beyond the local), ensure good quality sanitation and linen and speak different languages. How many translators or real tour guides exist in the North-east? Apart from speaking German or Italian or English, how many are there who can speak good Hindi or Tamil. Even Bengali is not spoken among the hill groups, although it can be understood and people can communicate with Bengali-speakers in Assam. Tripura, of course, is a different situation where Bengali is the main language. We have to think of skill upgradation, not just in terms of languages but also by developing good connectivity to such sites – both in terms of roads as well as small internet kiosks, as are being developed by ITC in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, which can be placed in villages. Such facilities would largely be for local farmers and residents but can also cater to the tourists in distant places.

The examples of the Wild Grass Resort at Kaziranga, Purvi Discovery in Dibrugarh and Ozing and Yanne Dai’s trekking tours from Naharlagam in Aruanachal Pradesh come readily to mind as examples which can be emulated. Khonoma village in Nagaland now has home stays for visitors and a group of motivated young men and women who want to create self-help groups, connected also to tourism. The Assam government says there are 80,000 self-help groups in the state employing eight lakh people. Why not train at least one tenth of them in basic tourist systems and approaches?

These are how things change and can change.

Review and Monitoring

There are varying estimates for the amount of money which has been invested or spent in the North-east by various Central government departments over the past 50 years, and especially in the last decade. This is estimated to run into tens of thousands of crores; one credible figure says Rs. 40,000 crores.

Where has this money gone? Who has spent it and how? Who has benefited and where? There are no markers for transparency or accountability in government projects. Some states like Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram are cited for their lack of accountability and poor financial management. This is not my view – it is to be found in the detailed statement of the office of the Comptroller-General of Audit and Accounts in its annual report which tears the veil off the cover-ups by the state governments and the wholesale loot of funds. Not one state comes out looking good.

There needs to be a review mechanism built into every project sanctioned by the Centre and implemented by different states. Such a mechanism was recommended by a Colloquium of independent groups at Guwahati this January when a review was conducted of the functioning of the North Eastern Council and its non-performance, to put it mildly. Such a review must be multi-sectoral and cover different states and should include representatives of civil society as well as specialists and government.

It is time that people knew where the vast amounts of money have gone – and into whose pockets. A review mechanism would function like a transparency commission and every project, large or small, should have one. Without accountability, there can be no responsibility; and without responsibility, there cannot be any proper implementation of projects and policies.

A beginning should be made by ensuring such transparency in the functioning of the NEC, which has been headless for over two years, and a detailed audit of its work and programmes.

In conclusion, one asserts that these three factors go together: innovation and initiatives; combining resources and skills; review, monitoring and transparency. They are the heart of governance – and the beauty is that in such an approach the role of government is marginal, essentially as a support system and policy framer, while that of the people is maximized, through involvement and implementation.


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati