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Politics Over Aspiration

Bhubaneswar: Is there any politics behind implementation of the Aspirational Districts (ADs) Programme of Niti Aayog launched by the Union Government in 2018? The issue was debated widely in Odisha when 10 Union Ministers visited separate ADs this month. The ruling BJD described the Union Ministers’ visit as just ‘Politics’ and the opposition Congress criticized the Union Government for introducing the ADs program by stopping the KBK plan. The BJP, however, defended the Centre and justified visits of Union Ministers.

It’s all right that the Centre has shown interest in development of backward and tribal dominated districts. But, can this be possible without making adequate funds provision for the backward region? As many as 10 districts of Odisha like Nuapada, Rayagada, Nabarangpur, Kandhamal, Kalahandi, Malkangiri, Bolangir, Dhenkanal, Koraput and Gajapati come under the ADs. Most of these districts were earlier covered under the KBK plan with good funding support through BRGF.

Though the ADs program was implemented in 2018, surprisingly sources said that the Centre has so far allocated less than Rs 100 crore in four years to transform the backward region. Each district approximately gets around Rs 7 crore in four years therefore, less than Rs 2 crore every year. Apart from aiming to improve the living standard of the people in 10 ADs, the Centre said states are the main drivers. This program focuses on the core strength of each district.

About 25 percent of Odisha’s 4.5 crore people are covered under ADs. But the Central allocation for development of more than one crore population remains less than Rs 100 crore in four years. Therefore, the Centre allocates around Rs 25 crore for 1 crore people per annum in ADs. What would be per head spending for the people living in 10 ADs of Odisha?

The ranking is based on the incremental progress made across 49 Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) under 5 broad socio-economic themes – Health & Nutrition, Education, Agriculture & Water Resources, Financial Inclusion & Skill Development and Infrastructure. When the ADs provision is to bring improvement in 49 KPIs, how much an individual aspect gets out of less than Rs 2 crore a year?

This apart, the Centre has slashed nearly Rs 18,000 crore in the Central Grants for Odisha for the 2021-22 fiscal. While Odisha was expecting Rs. 38,000 crore from Central kitty as grants, it received Rs.20,465 crore. Central Transfer was expected to be Rs.68,100 crore and by 31 March, 2022, Odisha received only Rs.58,610 crore, thus slashed by nearly Rs.10,000 crore. While central funds have shrunk. Odisha has generated more revenue from its own sources.

Under such circumstances, can anybody expect change in the living standard of people in ADs of Odisha? Everybody knows that no program can be implemented unless they are adequately funded by the government. Therefore, the very objective of the ADs appears to be a non-starter. Unless the centre pumps money for the schemes, no one can expect much positive change in these ADs.

BJD MP Amar Pattnaik was naturally critical to the visit of Union Ministers to the Aspirational Districts. He pointed out that “Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had demanded special focus status for Odisha. Given that one-third of districts of Odisha are underdeveloped, our demand is genuine. Had the Centre allocated funds, development would have been possible,” he said.

Chief Spokesperson of Congress Ganeswar Behera said the review by Union Ministers is fine, but it should not be politicized. “If one Minister can review 10 districts, what is the need for the visit of ten Union ministers?” he asked.

The State Government’s impression towards the Union Ministers’ visit to Odisha, was evident when some of the District Collectors abstained in the review meeting. Union Minister Sanjeev Kumar Balyan expressed his displeasure when he did not find the Koraput District Collector in the review meeting. Some other District Collectors also preferred not to attend the Union Ministers’ visit because they were mostly political in nature rather than review of developmental works. What the Union Ministers want to review when the Centre has not been funding especially for Aspirational Districts, asked a former Minister Planning & Convergence.

However, Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Shobha Karandlaje was critical of the state’s BJD Government during her tour to Nabarangpur district, one of the 10 ADs. She saw politics behind the AD’s development. Developmental projects were going at a snail’s pace in the state,” she said.

Not mentioning the figure and the Centre’s contribution to the AD’s development, she said: “Even though the projects under Aspirational Districts are funded by the central government, the state government did not complete them properly. Funds worth crores of rupees are not properly utilized for which people suffer,” Ms.Karandlaje told reporters after a review meeting.

Asserting that politics affects progress of development projects, Ms.Karandlaje said: “Yes, we hail from different political parties. But the fight between the BJP, BJD or Congress should be confined to two to three months during election time. In the rest of the days, we should work for the people who have elected us as their representatives.”

Therefore, the question that comes to the fore is who is doing politics over the ADs? The state government is of the opinion that the Centre has not been making the required funding available for ADs, but the BJP was eager to take credit by sending its Ministers to review the welfare and developmental schemes.

This is high time that both the BJD and the BJP must shun politics if they really wanted to develop the backward regions, mostly tribal dominated regions of the state. The state government must reiterate its demand for re-introduction of KBK plan and Backward Region Grant Funds (BRGF), which may be under the cover of Aspirational Districts.

On the other hand, the state’s BJD government, which has developed an attitude to remain silent on Centre’s negligence, may be due to political compulsions, only to raise issues during elections time. The ruling BJD must review its strategy of calling ‘a spade a spade’ over the development issues hitting the State’s interest