September 11, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Wretched state of our states

Just one single fact provided by the attorney general of India enraged the Supreme Court last week though the few who look beyond Delhi for diagnosing the country's many ills have long known the truth: the utter indifference of our states to good grass-root governance.

Reacting to a public interest litigation on the recently reported starvation deaths despite overfull stocks of rice and wheat in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India, the apex court issued a notice to the Union government, probably hoping to rap its knuckles. However, the reply to the notice compelled the judicial bench to divert its anguish and anger. It expressed shock when told by the AG that 16 states and Union territories had not prepared a list of families which fall below the poverty line; the court thereupon issued them notices telling them to prepare that list within two weeks so as to ensure that those families could be quickly distributed food from the public distribution system under a highly subsidised scheme initiated by the government in New Delhi.

The callous 16

Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Goa, Manipur, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Tripura, Uttaranchal, Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi, Pondicherry, Chandigarh, and Lakshadweep.

Conspicuous among the 16 is Andhra Pradesh. Hogging front-page limelight these last couple of years for being passionate about information technology and economic development through modern management mantras, the state's chief minister has now proved to be laggard in the basics of identifying those who may be so poor as to seriously consider tendu leaves as a meal.

Another notable entity found out to be insensitive to indigence is West Bengal. Uninterrupted for a quarter of a century in its ride to power on the pro-poor, proletariat symbol, Tagore's state has been exposed for its failure in not knowing the number of those families who should have been its CM's primary concern, much higher than relabelling Calcutta or recording an uncle's poetry in Rabindrasangeet.

If Andhra and Bengal as well as the other 14 were merely incompetent, it would not be so bad. What makes one disgusted is their forays of arrogance in areas beyond the nitty gritty of fundamental administration of their own territory.

Consider the attitude of Chandrababu Naidu who's been lording over Andhra. He's been blackmailing the NDA government at the Centre for this or that, albeit covertly, including for the post of Cabinet secretary and chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation. He's the one who confronted the prime minister last year by demanding a liberal revision in the 11th Finance Commission's formulae for devolution of financial resources to the states. He's the one who used his trump card to force the Gujarat government to withdraw its orders permitting its employees to take part in RSS activities. He's the one who strongly supported Farooq Abdullah's call for greater autonomy to the states. And the other day, he said he would not allow the 'saffronisation' of education -- whatever that means in his computer vision. And yet, he's also the one who had no answer to Andhra cotton growers committing suicide last year. He's the one who has used one ruse or another to go on delaying elections to panchayati institutions in his state beyond the expiry of their last constitutionally stipulated five-year period in March 2000.

The utter hypocrisy of our state bosses as a whole was best seen last May when a meeting convened by the Union food minister to discuss the nation's agricultural and food management strategy for the ensuing WTO round was converted by the states into a veritable grievance forum. In unison they protested against the Centre's budgetary proposal that the annual food grains procurement and distribution should be henceforth done by the states rather than by the Centre as hitherto; this innovative idea was intended to bring about the much needed decentralisation and simplicity into a complex exercise, besides helping the Government of India to save Rs 20 billion a year. The chief ministers shouted the idea down on one pretext or another. The truth lay in the fact that they don't have the spine to take on a tough administrative challenge. And to think that these CMs want greater autonomy -- for playing the supreme satrap in their bailiwicks, what else?

The fact of the matter is that in this country everyone concerned expects New Delhi alone to do everything for one and all -- from providing succour to the drowning and the starving to educating and giving jobs to all and sundry. The media and the public have hardly paid attention to the role of the federal states in the nation's socio-economic advancement.

The latest example was the front-page publicity accorded to the Bengal chief minister's much-hyped conference with his counterparts from various states to protest against the alleged 'saffronisation' of the education policy by the NDA government. None of the media that has demonised the Centre on this score cared to note that, in Bengal itself, the school text-books for English prescribed by the state government were so outlandish in their resort to Bengali phrases that private schools there have continued with 'Baba black sheep' to teach the alphabet of Macaulay's language to children.

Every national columnist worth his or her byline has often moaned that drinking water in our villages is so hopelessly inadequate as to be a national shame. Figures are quoted in support of this indictment. And, consciously or otherwise, it is Delhi that is painted as the villain of the piece. But just how many know or care to know how rural water supply schemes are meant to become a reality in our land?

Learn it from the disgraceful case of Bihar. In 2000-2001, it used only 0.80 per cent of funds allocated to it by Delhi for the purpose. Again, of the Rs 25 billion earmarked to it for road development, Bihar hadn't spent even 10 per cent. And columnists bemoan the lack of roads in the country's villages! And yet, moreover, Laloo Yadav or his missus or both are front pager stuff when they condemn the NDA or BJP or CBI apropos nothing. Their own terrible governance of their state is rarely pilloried as it should be, week after week, even at the threat of blacking him out altogether from the media unless he improves the governance of Bihar.

Every mainline newspaper and television channel spreads alarm when the national exchequer's fiscal deficit goes up or Standard & Poor's rating of India goes down. And the annual Budget of the Union finance minister is dissected for at least one full week. But how many of these alarmists ever publicise the Reserve Bank of India's exhaustive annual study of state finances?

A mere perusal of that document on the state budgets of 2000-2001 raises serious danger signals. The following excerpts from it speak for themselves:

There is, of course, that nightmare revelation about Kerala when the Congress wrested power from the Communists in the election last May. The amount of unpaid bills left over by the Communist regime was so big that Indian Airlines refused to give a ticket on credit even to the new CM.

Then there is that vital statistic revealed in the RBI study. Among the 17 major states from whom supplementary information was available, the proportion of states' own revenue to aggregate expenditure was lowest at 12.3 per cent, while in others it ranged from 23 per cent for Himachal Pradesh to 62.4 per cent for Haryana. That miniscule, teeniest proportion was for Jammu & Kashmir whose CM is crying hoarse once again for autonomy short of azadi. Autonomy, Indian style, zindabad!

Despite the above chilling facts, what do you think our CMs did at the WTO strategy meet last May? They demanded greater aid from the Centre. When asked what they themselves were doing to ensure proper collection of irrigation charges in their states, none explained. How could they when their politics begins and ends with vote banks?

Arvind Lavakare

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