By K R Sudhaman
Come every budget, there is always questions raised if the union government is doing enough for the poorer states and particularly the hilly and bordering states in north-east India. This is a valid question and right from independence every government had claimed that its focus is to develop the backward regions but the growth and development has remained uneven. The concerns are genuine but the blame has to be certainly shared by central government, state governments, polity and to some extent people for not taking the initiatives to developing skills and wherewithal.
It is certainly a combination of factors. Be that as it may, even the skeptics cannot deny the fact that ever since Narendra Modi government came in 2014, there has been some push to develop the north-east. Efforts have also been made to step up infrastructure development in the form of road, rail and air connectivity, besides development of border infrastructure, particularly after the Sino-India stand-off in Dokhlam in 2017-18. Border infrastructure development has become more pronounced since the Galwan Valley stand-off in Ladakh in 2020 and more recently in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.
The over Rs 45 lakh crore expenditure in union budget 2023-24, presented by the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on February one, is widely expected to have a positive impact on the Northeastern region. There is certainly increased investment in infrastructure development besides measures to promoting entrepreneurship and job creation. It has made a honest attempt to tackle unique economic developmental challenges faced by the region. There is also what is known as absorptive capacity. The government may make big expenditure announcement but the economy as a whole should have the capacity to absorb that kind of investment.
Already economists like Pronab Sen and former finance minister P Chidambaram have questioned whether the government will be able to spend Rs 10 lakh crore public expenditure announced in the budget this year. Sen had gone to extent of saying that Indian Railways at the moment do not have enough projects to spend capital expenditure of Rs 2.4 lakh crore and it may end the year spending just half of what has been budgeted.
On the face of it, the north-east region has certainly received sufficient attention in this year’s budget as the region is characterized by hilly terrain and rich natural resources. But it has several economic and developmental challenges, which included poor infrastructure, inadequate financial services and skilled labour. The announcements in the budget provides an opportunity to address the challenges faced by the region and promote its growth and development. Northeast India is a region that has historically been neglected in terms of development. It faced several challenges including limited access to quality education and healthcare, and underdeveloped agriculture. Lately the government has been spending money to Improve transportation and communication networks, which can attract more investment to the region, leading to the creation of new jobs and a better standard of living for the people
Lately, Itanagar in Arunuchal Pradesh got air connectivity with the setting up of an airport. These measures can lead to the creation of new jobs, increased investment, and a better standard of living for the people of the region. By investing in the region, the government can help to improve the standard of living of the people, promote economic growth, and foster inclusiveness. But one critical factor is that people in the region should also become more enterprising as in Southern and Western India in particular to equip themselves to cash-in on the opportunity that come their way. Lately, several nurses from northeastern region besides some skilled workers do take up jobs even in far off cities like Chennai and Bengaluru in hospitals and IT industry, which in course of time certainly help in the development of the region as well through demonstration effect.
More specifically, the union budget 2023-24 has increased allocation five times under the Prime Minister’s Development Initiative for North-East, (PM-DevINE). This will be implemented by the North-Eastern Council (NEC). The region has long been plagued by lack of proper roads, bridges, airports, and other infrastructure, making it difficult for people to access essential services and opportunities.
The budget also aims to Improve Access to Education: With improved access to quality schools, colleges, and universities. The 2023 Union Budget also includes funds for healthcare, which will improve access to medical care and health services in the region. This is particularly important for the rural areas of Northeast India, where access to healthcare facilities is limited. With the allocation of funds, the government can build new hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities, which will help to improve the health and well-being of the people.
The 2023 Union Budget also includes funds for agriculture, which will help to support the farmers and improve food security in the region. The region is home to a large number of farmers, who face challenges such as a lack of water, poor soil quality, and limited access to markets. With the allocation of funds, the government can address these issues and help to improve the agriculture sector, which will have a positive impact on the local economy and the standard of living of the people.
According to North East Council Chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Pradeep Bagla the northeastern region was set to “gain substantially” from the presented Budget. Also, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has made it clear that PM-Devine schemes are meanth to address developmental gaps in the northeastern region and “It will not be a substitute for existing central or state schemes. The scheme aims to support social development projects and livelihood activities for youth and women, and fund infrastructure in collaboration with the PM Gati Shakti National Master Plan (NMP).
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had allocated Rs 20,000 crore as total outlay for the infra-focused NMP in the 2022-2023 Union Budget with an aim of providing India improved connectivity and faster, more efficient transportation. As of September 2022, all states had on-boarded the NMP’s comprehensive database.
Sitharaman however did not renew the much-anticipated North Eastern Investment Development Scheme. Overall, there was nothing specific for the bottle-necked region. Industry captains of the Northeast, who were keenly anticipating the launch of a new industrial policy for the region to attract investments and tourists, both domestic as well as foreign, were left waiting.
Chairman of Assam State Council, Indian Chambers of Commerce, Sarat Kumar Jain, thought positive with the budget in general, felt expectations specifically for the Northeast have not been met. The long-awaited industrial policy was absent. Investments from outside the region have become lean for the want of a pragmatic industrial policy.
Former Chairman of the Federation of Industry & Commerce of North Eastern Region (FINER) and budget analyst R S Joshi said, “Northeast may not have usual mention but that’s fine so long it’s very liberal in funding our infrastructure and socio-economic projects aimed at providing a better living to people of NER.”
PK Bhattacharjee, secretary general of Tea Association of India (TAI), Kolkata, said, although there is no specific “Tea” centric proposal in the Budget, it is observed that support for social infrastructure projects has been further consolidated. These include increased allocation under PM-Awas Yojana (from Rs 77,130 crore to Rs 79,590 crore), and Jal Jeevan Mission (increase in allocation from Rs 55,000 crore to Rs 70,000 crore).” It also proposed to strengthen human resources in 740 Eklavya Model Residential Schools, Northeast India expected to be hugely benefited.
There is a huge tribal population in Northeast India and three states where there is a sizable tribal population Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland are going to assembly polls.
Ashwini Vaishnaw, Union Minister of Railways said that the Gross Budget Allocation for Northeast Frontier Railway for the 2023-24 is Rs. 10,988.80 crores. The Minister informed that adequate fund has been allotted for overall development of railway infrastructure in all North Eastern states. For the first time, an amount of Rs. 1.20 lakh crore has been earmarked for connecting hilly and border areas.
Overall the budget has been good for Northeastern region with marked increase in many of the sectors of interest to the region. But one only hopes that the north eastern states develop adequate absorptive capacity so that the entire money provided for the region is spend and development activities take-off to keep abreast with other regions in the country. (IPA Service)