Some feel panchayati institutions and people's representatives have been excluded from planning process

Last month, the Chhattisgarh Vidhan Sabha debated the efficacy of inducting baby weighing machines in battling India's greatest internal security threat. “Please tell me how a baby weighing machine is related to the Maoist issue,” said Mohammed Akbar, a Congress MLA from Pandariya.

“In Maoist areas babies and ordinary people do not have usually access to such machines, so they were purchased,” replied Home Minister Nankiram Kanwar, “Work is being done according to Union government guidelines.”

Kabirdham, the district in question, had bought the machines using money from the Integrated Action Plan (IAP) for areas affected by ‘Left Wing Extremism' (LWE). According to the Home Ministry, Rs. 3,300 crore shall be divided equally amongst 60 LWE districts over two years (Rs. 55 crore per district). The districts are to spend the money on schemes that show results in the short term. Kabirdham's baby weighing machines, it appears, are part of a strategy to win hearts and minds in Maoist bases across central India.

The IAP was first announced in Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's 2010-2011 budget speech, and has since been mired in controversy — particularly after a private dissenting note, written by a member of the Planning Commission to the Prime Minister, was leaked to the press.

In mid-2010, 35 LWE districts submitted development plans worth Rs. 13,400 crore to the Planning Commission. Privately, Commission members admitted to concerns that money meant for development could be hijacked by security considerations, and that public grievances against the government went beyond the delivery of essential services.

Officials from Dantewada for instance, asked for Rs. 521.6 crore, 70 per cent of which was intended for road construction; health and education cumulatively accounted for Rs. 3.25 crore or 0.006 per cent of the plan, rural electrification accounted for the remainder.

Despite news reports that the absence of doctors, medicines and hospitals led to at least 140 deaths from suspected cholera in Dantewada and Bijapur in 2010, Dantewada's entire health plan consisted of purchasing 10 ambulances for a total of Rs. 1 crore or 0.001 per cent of the total fund.

In the first two quarters of 2010-2011, Chhattisgarh utilised only 11 per cent of mission flexible funds provided by the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), suggesting a malaise that runs deeper than a simple shortage of money.

The district administration's justification for the plan was road construction “will not only improve…transportation but would also provide easy access to security forces and administration in the Naxalite area, creating pressure on the Naxalites.”

Focus faulted

In an internal note, Commission Member Syeda Hamid wrote: “While the discussions in the report include a list of topics and possible interventions, and health infrastructure is generally described to be rather dismal, the proposed outlay focusses inexplicably on roads and electrification.”

Some noted that while the IAP sought to alleviate the alienation felt by central India's tribal population, panchayati institutions and people's representatives were excluded from the planning process.

“Some members feel that the proposed expenditure pattern [which reflects priority of administrators and also security concerns] may be quite different from what would have emerged from a more bottom-up process of determining the felt-needs of common residents in LWE-affected areas,” wrote Commission member Abhijit Sen.

The plan that emerged from the discussion addressed these concerns by broadening the plan to cover 60 to 65 districts and focussing on governance improvement and the implement the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act to empower forest dwellers and villagers.

Funding staggered

The plan also staggered funding so that money would be released only after visible improvements in governance. An amount of Rs. 13,000 crore would be released over five years, starting with Rs. 1,000 crore for 2010-2011 and rising to Rs. 5,000 crore in 2013-2014. Once the funding started, the Commission would work with districts to make their development plans more consultative and inclusive.

In November last year, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved a plan that bore no resemblance to the draft prepared by the Planning Commission.

The plan currently in operation gives a fixed amount of Rs. 55 crore over two years to 60 districts irrespective of district size, intensity of the Maoist conflict, or needs of the populace.

In a dissenting note sent to the Prime Minister, Planning Commission member for Chhattisgarh Mihir Shah wrote, he was “not sure if in the entire development history of India any plan has been placed exclusively ‘at the disposal' of a committee comprising District Collector, SP and DFO…people in these areas are experiencing a deep sense of exclusion. Giving exclusive powers to these kinds of Committees is likely to only reinforce such a feeling.”

“The Naxal issue is not a development issue. It is a rights issue and should be treated like one. The problem is the denial of rights to the people and not the absence of roads,” said Ramesh Sharma of the Ekta Parishad, a social organisation, pointing out that the government must address fundamental questions of land and people's control over their future, rather than simply building infrastructure.

District Collectors in Chhattisgarh say they are sanctioning projects after consulting panchayat representatives.

“We are constructing 30 ration shops and 25 anganwadi buildings with the money,” said Bijapur Collector Rajat Kumar. Mr. Kumar says he has also sanctioned four livelihood programmes and a project to supplement Bijapur town's electricity infrastructure.

Greater freedom

Mr. Kumar said existing programmes such as the NRHM had restrictive guidelines that curtailed spending and meant Central funds were under-utilised. The IAP, he said, gave the district administration greater freedom.

“We hope to use the IAP to complement and supplement existing schemes.”

Back at the Vidhan Sabha, the debate on baby weighing machines ended in stalemate.