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An Interview With Mani Shankar Aiyar


"We look forward to an era of emotional integration of Northeast region with the rest of India."
-Mani Shankar Aiyar

Mani Shankar Aiyar, Union Minister for Panchayati Raj, Sports and Youth Affairs and the Development of North Eastern Region (DONER) calls himself an honorary member of northeast. For him the crux of development lies in the participatory form of government. Unlike the general populace, he is overwhelmed at the overall effort going on to develop the region – the Seven Sisters and the eighth brother Sikkim, the description of which is generally put forward by two words, 'alienation' and 'neglect'. He was quite open and confident in sharing his views with Headlines India about the ongoing drives in the North East, which is aimed to bring the effect of the economic boom in the region at the earliest.

You visited Assam recently and spoke on the need that there has to be a 'full northeast component' in the Look East Policy. Can you illuminate on the issue and the development in that regard ?

Mani: I visited Assam in October (2007). Since then, lots of development have taken place on this issue. The general idea with respect to of 'Look East Policy' have received far more concrete content. On 31st October, Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee convened a meeting of all the eight chief ministers of the region along with the principal union ministers concerned. The discussions held, for the first time gave real content on what needs to be done. Some of the decisions would take some time before getting executed, but atleast there has been identification by consensus on what steps is required to be taken and in which areas. Therefore, the process of implementing those can commence. Based on those discussions, we are now introducing a Vision 2020 document with an appropriate chapter on the Look East Policy.

Second major achievement in that regard is that 'National Institute of Public Financing Policy', who were asked to draft the a Vision 2020 document have competed their exercise. The steering committee met at the beginning of October, where the members expressed their views. The draft was taken to a twelve different public hearings in different parts of north-east. The observation in the public hearings were incorporated in the final version of the document. We have held an internal discussion in the North East Council (NEC) plenary, which took place on 17th and 18th December. There the state representatives suggested that the vision should include state component to ensure correspondence in vision of states and the nation for 2020.

On my personal behalf, I have asked that a group of well known personalities led by Sanjoy Hazarika should look at the document. Their participation is must not only in bringing up its standard to the desired, but also to give a sense of participation to northeast intellectuals. I have persuaded my colleagues in the NEC that we will have a special session in April (2008), where we will give final shape to the vision document so that we are able to perhaps present it to Parliament in the second half of the upcoming budget session.

Apart from the Look East Policy, what are the other developments going on in the region ?

Mani: Another major development in the region has come through the initiatives of NIRD's (National Institute of Rural Development), north eastern branch (Guwahati). They have come out with a 'paper' on poverty eradication. It is also being discussed in the NEC plenary and we hope to incorporate that as a chapter in the vision 2020 document. We have reviewed all the eight sectoral summits at the NEC level and have decided that each state should submit 'action taken report'. We have three more important summits scheduled in early part of 2008. In March, we are holding a meeting on agriculture where all the forward and backward linkages would be explored. The meet would also look up on horticulture, floriculture,forestry etc. Similarly the meet on industries and all related aspects is scheduled in May. We would also have a deep look on the question of flood control and irrigation at a meet in June. So agriculture, industries and flood control remains the three broad areas, which would be looked upon.

What is the proposed budgetary allocation during the Eleventh Five Year (2007-2012) plan for the north east region ?

Mani: I have not added up the number. At this stage what I can say is, that it would be much larger than ever before. Government of India has decide that 10 per cent of the gross budgetary support (GBS) of all, except the excluded ministries would be spent in the region.

During your visit (Assam) you also mentioned about the need of revamping both North East Council (NEC) and DONER, Can you elaborate on this ?

Mani: The concept papers of both DONER and NEC would be merged into a single paper in a meeting in January (2008). In the mean time, Phalguni Raj Kumar, Secretary of NEC is working on how these paper could be merged. Basic point to understand is that the existing Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resources (NLCPR) and NEC funds become too small in proportion to the proposed 10 per cent GBS. The role of DONER must be to go beyond NLCPR. It should be a ministry for development of the region. we propose that our ministry at Delhi should have a much more active role in bringing to the attention of the union ministries, the priorities that the states have in respect of the 10 per cent GBS spending. Secondly, there is a need to have more technical expertise in our ministry, so that we don't have to refer everything and anything to the lined ministries. To the extent possible we ourselves are able to effect clearances. Thirdly, we should be in a position to advise the state government on technical matters .

As far as NEC is concerned, the act itself will modify as how NEC would act as the regional advisory planning body. The concept paper deals as how the NEC can actually function as regional advisory planning body, what would be its relation to Planning Commission as well as with the states. We need to conceive in such a way that DONER ministry act as an envoy to the eight northeastern states and NEC at Shillong act as eyes, ears, voice of the central government vis a vis northeast states.

Being specific to the power sector, we would like to know your views on the estimates, which profess that sixty per cent of the power need of the North- East can be addressed, if hydro electricity potential of the region is fully tapped.

Mani: We had summit at Pashighat (Arunachal Pradesh) on power. Power is the first and highest requirement for any kind of development. However, mega projects have huge gestation period. On the top of it such projects invite lots of local resistance from locals, especially on the issue of resettlement. At present the focus is on three modes : first is mini hydel projects, second is exploitation of non- conventional sources like solar power, biomass. Next in the league is strengthening distribution, transmission and sub transmission systems.

Tourism is another potential sector, which can contribute significantly to the development of northeast. Shillong is termed as the Scotland of the East. Similarly each state have their own scenic beauty, which are still virgin. Your views.

Mani: We had a meeting in Gangtok last April and we are sincerely following it. The first and foremost issue which must be addressed is removal of the general perception that the region is unsafe as a tourist destination. To make a beginning, the best would be with government servants who get leave travel concession. On 16th January we are organising a major conference of 2000 government employees, to show them, educate them, about the real security situation as how safe it is to be in most of the region apart from acquainting them with the tourist facilities.

By early February we would be holding an exhibition on lawns of India gate to explore on the possibilities. After that we will be bringing together all aspects related to promotion of tourism. For example, awareness creation through publicity, promotion of specific destinations. Its not enough to have beautiful place that the northeast is. There are also question of connectivity and accommodation, which is crucial for a place to become a hot spot of tourism. The whole northeast is required to be looked upon integrally.

If we attempt to decode the militancy factor prevalent in the region, youth unemployment is cited as one of the most important reason. What is your ministry doing in that respect.

Mani: Solution to unemployment lies in generalised economic development that needs to take place largely at the grass root level. We are trying to address the issue in the “poverty eradication programme” ( mentioned earlier) and also in vision 2020. Here I would like to single out sports as a major avenue for employment. However, talking about unemployment, there is also a need to combat drug abuse, as also HIV/AIDS which is more acute among the youth as against the older people. We need to mobilise the totality of the resources in terms of human power as well as in terms of money. We also need to ensure that 10 per cent of the GBS is spend in consultation with local state governments so as to give them a sense of involvement and participation.

You singled out sports as one area where the youth can be engaged. Manipur is one state that has contributed significantly to athletics. A number of athletes from the state have represented the country, both at the national and international level. What is the government doing to upgrade the sports facility in the state?

Mani: Well, we already have a major Sports Authority Centre in Imphal. We are very conscious of Manipur's role and within the limitation of security in the state a great deal is being done to promote sports. The funds allocated to sports in Manipur are more on per capita basis than anywhere else in the northeast.

Being a Minister for DONER as well as for Ministry for Panchayati raj, what do you think of the ongoing agitation in view of the upcoming Panchayat elections in Assam?

Mani: I am not the minister in charge of law and order. I can only say that it would be in the interest of everybody to participate in a critical democratic exercise which will affect the lives of millions of people in their immediate neighbourhood. However, under our constitution election can't be made compulsory, so one can only hope that the people will participate in building their own future.

How is Pachayati Raj system going to aid in development of the region?

Mani: Panchayati raj is the crux of development measures in north east. is participatory governance. The majority of the population is covered by Panchayati raj. Sikkim is amongst the best states for Panchayati raj as a whole. I also commend the government of Assam for having one of the best activity maps, which is the essence of Panchayati raj. The progress of Arunachal Pradesh is not as satisfactory on paper but they have assured me of prompt and efficient implementation of plans. Furthermore, Tripura has made enormous strides in Panchayati raj in areas it is applicable. Moving towards Manipur, on paper the system is excellent, though it is confined to the valley. Unfortunately in the hilly areas the autonomous district council mandated by state law has not yet been set up. Other form of local government that has been prescribed for different parts in Bodoland includes Bodoland territorial council. Meghalaya is completely exempt from having a local government but is declared as a sixth schedule area. We have to work through those models while (they) need to recognise the village councils, brought into existence for increasing role in developmental planning and implementation.

Mizoram is entirely covered by the sixth schedule. I am particularly inspired by the Naga example of setting up village councils. Nagaland under its system of communitisation , has the best system of participatory government than any other state in India, even though it is not a part of the Panchayati raj system. Summing it up, the institution of local government is well established in the northeast, the question is one of empowering them and mobilising them. Here the record is uneven but the V Ramachandran committee has just reported to me on grass root planning in sixth schedule and other areas that are not covered by Part 9 and part 9 (A) of the constitution. On that basis, we can make a considerable progress.

Any message for the people of northeast and Indian populace in general on the northeast region as such.

Mani: Yes, I would like to say that the two words 'alienation' and 'neglect' often used for north east have become completely obsolete. The government has pledged to spend 10 per cent of GBS in a region that comprises only 4 per cent of the population. Genuine affirmative actions are being undertaken. How can one talk about alienation when the Delhi University is flooded with students from NE. Infact, 20 per cent of the total workforce in the Bangalore IT sector are from north east. I fail to see any alienation. The old days of negligence are completely behind us and it's time we look forward to an era of emotional integration of NE with the rest of India.

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Submitted by:

Premshila Singh

Premshila Singh is a reporter working with http://www.headlinesindia.com/ an upcoming news portal and media house based out of New Delhi, India.





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