Rethinking spending norms

RECENT REPORTS CONCERNING the non-utilisation of budgetary allocations in the newly created Ministry of Tribal Welfare and subsequently the announcement by the Minister for Rural Development, Mr. M. Venkaiah Naidu, of a move to slash a percentage of allotted funds for State Governments failing to take advantage of grant-in-aid schemes represent a worrisome trend. If the former is a clear reflection of the extent of apathy and lack of initiative to conceive meaningful projects and issue timely clearances, the latter typifies an increasing propensity to view the carrot and stick approach as potentially a universal problem-solver. Paradoxically, when the problem of under- utilisation has been endemic to a country like India and where a number of States have already been ravaged by large-scale natural calamities in the past few years, neither raising an alarm on under-spending nor trying to shape a response in a like manner would seem warranted. The February 2002 deadline issued by the Minister would appear especially unreasonable to the States considering how poorly equipped the newly constituted Ministry of Tribal Welfare has been in terms of the requisite staff and basic paraphernalia to handle the demand.

The under-utilisation of available funds could be attributed largely to systemic flaws where spending norms are not directly linked to end-results, either projected or achieved. Conversely, State Governments are also sometimes penalised for efficiency, leading to an undue thrust on spending. Additionally, the under-utilisation of Central disbursements is often a result of the inability of States to honour their proportion of the overall financial commitment. In this general scenario, it is important to recognise before seeking to penalise some States that the country as a whole may not have set an example vis-a-vis Overseas Development Assistance funding. The last thing which less developed States can afford is a denial of their due and legitimate share of resources merely on technical grounds. On the contrary, it would be of critical importance to closely monitor the viability of the different schemes conceived, the disbursement of requisite resources and their impact on target groups. It is through such measures that some degree of accountability could be injected into the working of different Government-sponsored schemes and ensure that the real benefits of development reach the needy.

Despite all the politically correct rhetoric that has been infused from time to time into the debate on development and empowerment in the country and notwithstanding the extremely sluggish progress registered by many States over the decades, India's steady journey through the rough and rocky terrain of modernity was never held in doubt. The political will even at the exalted heights of power and influence to redeem the millions from illiteracy and poverty and a modicum of basic commitment at the lower levels of the political hierarchy suffused with a sense of accountability to the electorate were unmistakable. This overall environment must be guarded against further encroachment.

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