The Politics of Special Category

We do not have only military Special Powers acts but also enjoy the privilege of being in the special-category state under financial commissions of the union government.

Special status is guaranteed by the Constitution of India through an Act passed by the two-third majority in both houses of the Parliament, as in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, whereas Special Category Status is granted by the National Development Council, an administrative body of the government. While Special Status empowers legislative and political rights, Special Category Status deals only with economic, administrative and financial aspects. At present there are 11 states that enjoy Special Status and Special Category Status: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttarakhand.
—Sumit Bhattacharjee, ‘Special Category Status’ is the new catch phrase, The Hindu, Feb 2014

ON THE SURFACE

In everyday life, you are called special if you are unique, talented or loved; but it is totally different in a larger context. For instance, Manipur is called special because it is socioeconomically backward. It all started in the fourth five-year plan (1969–1974) of the Indian union government. Then the concerns of the mainstream were on the Green Revolution, the Bangladesh/East Pakistan war, the nationalisation of several banks, Indira Gandhi and so on. But India is a land of multiple nationhoods.

Assam, Nagaland and Jammu and Kashmir were the first to be categorised as special in 1969 with inputs from the National Development Council, which comprised the Prime Minister, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers and members of the former Planning Commission. Officially, the Gadgil Formula is used as the parameter for labelling the states as general or special as well as for measuring the division of revenues and providing grants in special cases. This formula has been revised in every plan period and now it has been modified as Gadgil–Mukherjee Formula (Imagine how much different is it from Look East Policy that has been renamed as Act East Policy). Check the PDF on A Background Note on Gadgil Formula for Distribution of Central Assistance for State Plans at www.pbplanning.gov.in/pdf/gadgil.pdf.

A special status is given to a state based on the following parameters -

•    Hilly and difficult terrain
•    Low population density
•    Strategic locations along the borders of the country
•    Economic and infra backwardness
•    Non-viable nature for state finances.

In 1972, Manipur was granted statehood and it was also grouped as ‘special’ in the fifth five-year plan (1974–1979). Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and all the other Northeastern states were also added in the special class during this period. In brief, as of the latest estimation again according to the Gadgil Formula, these states enjoy 30% of the total funding with 90% of it as grants. In other areas, these states are also provided with special plan assistance for projects with 90% of it as grants. Lastly, these states have the special privilege of untied special central assistance, cent percent as grants.

The  Planning  Commission  allocates  funds  to  states  through  central  assistance  for  state  plans. Central  assistance  can  be  broadly  split  into  three  components:  Normal  Central  Assistance (NCA),  Additional  Central  Assistance  (ACA)  and  Special  Central  Assistance.  Normal  Central Assistance  favours  special  category  states  and  they  get  30% of  the  total  assistance  while  the other states share the  remaining 70%.   NCA is in the form of 90% as grants and 10% loans for special category states, while the ratio between grants and loans is 30:70 for other states. There is no  fixed  formula  for  Special  Central  Assistance  and  it  depends  on  the  basis  of  the  state’s  plan size  and  previous  plan  expenditures.  Besides  this,  special  category  states  enjoy  concessions  in excise  and  customs  duties,  income  tax  rates  and  corporate  tax  rates  as  determined  by  the government.
—Virendra Singh Thakur, States with Special Category Status in India: Concept and Benefits, Gujarat National Law University

Many of the states are as backward as before, but things have changed in the centre. For starters, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog has replaced the Planning Commission from the present regime onward. At least on paper, it has been made promising and incidentally the finance commission had got rid of several New Delhi-funded schemes while lambasting the retired bureaucrats and policy makers after terming the former commission as a roosting spot for the inefficient over-aged members.

The Prime Minister’s Office requested the erstwhile Planning Commission to undertake an exercise to prepare a roadmap for development of eastern and northeastern states of the country. An exercise has been initiated by the NITI Aayog in this regard and comments and suggestions from the concerned ministries and state governments have been sought.
— A written reply in the Rajya Sabha by Inderjit Singh, the Minister of State for Planning, The New Indian Express, July 2015

UNDER THE SURFACE

In early August, 2015 the Assam state assembly unanimously passed a resolution asking the Centre not to revoke the ‘Special Category Status’. A month earlier the Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar had urged the Indian Prime Minister to reconsider the decision of scrapping the special-state category. In the most depressing way as always, Manipur is not only backward but it does not even have the space for discourse on development, leave alone the informed decision for the welfare of the people. Presently it is occupied with a tardy approach on civil society’s demand for the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) System and in the recently concluded framework agreement of the Naga Accord between the NSCN IM faction and the union government. ‘Occupied’ does not necessarily mean the government is putting up an effort but it also implies it is lethargic, incapable and hopelessly involved in all the issues.    

Bogged down by the ILP protests, in July 2015, Chief Minister Ibobi had to skip the NITI Aayog summit in New Delhi. Let’s leave the BJP–Congress mass orgy to the party members and the reason for missing the show was indeed announced officially—besides the five Congress chief ministers had skipped the grand Indian political show. Now, to ask if Ibobi had succeeded in his plans of government intervention is evident from how his partners committed a blunder by passing the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers’ (MRVTMW) Bill and sheer inability to contain the issue for the last three months.

Unusually he did speak up in another summit that was held in February 2015. He mentioned he supports the setting up of the Regional Council of Chief Ministers for Northeastern/eastern states with representation of all states in the region and with the Prime Minister as the chairman.

Amongst the Central Assistance, Block Grants such as Normal Central Assistance (NCA), Special Plan Assistance (SPA) and Special Central Assistance (SCA) have played a pivotal role. Most major infrastructure projects in the State, across all sectors are SPA/SCA funded which together accounts for more than 33% of Central assistance. Besides, SCA/NCA has been helping to meet the State’s matching share of central-sponsored schemes. The current method of allocation of Normal Central Assistance (NCA) to the Special Category States, on the basis of Gadgil-Mukherjee formula for non-statutory central transfers may be continued. We would like to be re-assured that even in the absence of Planning Commission, SPA/SCA funds which were available for maintaining the financial stability and equilibrium of the NE States would not only remain protected but would be provided substantive annual incremental increases.
—Chief Minister Okram Ibobi, PM chairs first meeting of NITI Aayog; Ibobi stresses on essentiality of planning, The Sangai Express, Feb 2015

It is not a coincidence that a section of Manipur is also demanding for another privilege: for an inclusion into the scheduled tribe category. Under the constitution, the groups in this class enjoy protective arrangements, affirmative action or widely known as reservation and extra development benefits. Apparently the mighty spirit of freeloaders runs in our blood. We are even ready to take poison if it is given for free. Realists might argue that it will be a foolhardy act because Manipur is impossible without the central assistance. That’s the main problem: the slave mentality.

If you go by the literal meaning of being special as in being unique, talented or loved: well, Manipur is uniquely in a mess with Marx-, Smith- and Mao-defying problems; talented because of sexual-innuendo-filled art forms and third-division sports; and loved, because the Indian nationalism is just not enough with hating Pakistan; also because it has the blessings of big-hearted mainlanders and conforming natives of the underdeveloped and backward-going region.  

ABOVE THE SURFACE

We know from day one how the Indian government, from our merger into the union, has been infested with lies and coercion. Most probably a nation-building process is as trade-markedly cunning as its ideas on the conception of statecraft though we would never admit it, because politically we are under the Indian constitution now. Only retired government officials can reliably claim how we have existed, in the veil of lies and deception. Yes, it’s not a conspiracy but the reality per se. There are reports, literature and news information to prove it accurately.

It’s not only the forlorn Northeast states which are facing the brunt.

These states fear with the Centre having accepted the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendations, it is possible their special category status could be taken away. A state is given this status so that it gets a higher share of Central resources to bring it at par with developed states.
—Animesh Singh, Eight Northeast states plan to tell PM Modi: Retain our special status, The Asian Age, July 2015

The major contention of the Northeast states is that due to geography they suffer from economic-infrastructural deficiencies. This makes it difficult for them to cull out even their share of funds to meet the expenses of New-Delhi-sponsored schemes. Elected representatives are of the view that there will be a new and better policy will be in place to take control of the situation (read the price to pay for a nation-building process). In March 2015, NITI Aayog Advisor BK Pandey visited Imphal to review the implication of 14th Finance Commission and left with a detailed report on plans and schemes. Apparently, this was economics and nothing was related to army deployment in the region.

BEYOND THE SURFACE

Despite the national-marketing hype and spending the tax-payers’ money on a ruling government’s advertisement, the only clear reply from the government is that the special category status will be taken away from them. As elucidated in the Gadgil–Mukherjee Formula, the only problem that the Northeastern state faced is in their transportation and communication problems. Or in the chief ministers’ word, due to geography, they suffer from economic-infrastructural deficiencies.
  
However, the post-independent India history has shown that the nation, in our perspective, has been built on sheer ignorance and arrogance. The only best result from such assistance is visible only in the deepening federal relationship with the state and the union. All along the political class is the sole beneficiary and if it is not enough, just picture the vicious cycles of violence and destruction on any Manipuri street, regardless of the hills or the valley.

In any development talk, there might be genuine economic concerns regarding a state like Manipur, no doubt but the problem is our leaders whose motive is led by the desire to loot as much as possible from the public exchequer. After all we live in a world where daylight robbery, percentage cuts, construction delay, unplanned urbanisation and so on are just ordinary terms. New Delhi can easily wash its hand of this madness, citing it is providing funds wherever necessary—though we know exactly the number of lies it has been telling us in the name of the nation. Other expressions like restructuring the economic system, transforming the outdated methods, developing institutional mechanisms, and others too, are as empty as my bank account.

First, we have the political crisis of an armed movement against the union; second, the power players are hooked to snorting easy money; third, the social systems are surviving to wait for their death; and fourth, we are clueless about what is happening or what future holds for us. In this context, how are the erstwhile Planning Commission and NITI Aayog going to help us? Trimming down the process of militarisation might definitely help. Seeing the people of the land as real people and not just the land as a geopolitical tool will definitely help as well. Developing the plans like Act East Policy, as promised by the political representatives, needs further engagement with the people. Telling honestly that the present-day crisis is political and not some law-and-order-and-unemployment problem will also win the confidence of the people.

The funds and scheme are a one-way method of running the oils of a society but those are utterly lacking to lubricate the other social and political engine sub-parts. What else would explain the rising cases of poverty and militancy? Experts have delved into the issues of peace and development in the region, only to conclude with the story of whether the egg, peace, or the hen came first. What we need is a special category of approaches that would take us out of the prevailing insanity. Personally, it is not possible in the existing system. The answer, perhaps, lies in turning the land upside down; but in any case, we have to get rid of the contemporary special political class and bureaucrats. This is not extremism and it is mentioned clearly in the objectives of NITI Aayog that the new system will do away with the bureaucratic hurdles. Finally, the politics of special category, well, never say never!

—Concluded




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