One of the key topics of discussion and debate at the first edition of the annual ‘Dakshin Dialogues’ — a thought platform for political, legal and civil society voices from South India, hosted by the South First on 17 September, was the centrally-sponsored schemes and their role in a federal polity.
Telangana IT minister KT Rama Rao (KTR), Tamil Nadu finance minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan (PTR), Andhra Pradesh finance minister Buggana Rajendranath Reddy, and former under-secretary-general of the United Nations and Congress MP from Kerala Shashi Tharoor talked extensively about the subject during one of the sessions moderated by Yamini Aiyar, president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research.
PTR: Why have centrally-sponsored schemes?
“I’m not even clear why we should have centrally-sponsored schemes as opposed to giving the money to the people,” Tamil Nadu Finance Minister PTR said when Aiyar asked the political bigwigs about their views on the schemes funded by the Centre.
PTR opposed the schemes predominantly on the grounds that the Union Government dictated to the states on how to implement them while turning a blind eye to the ground realities.
“Why should there be a standardised model coming from Delhi on the last-mile delivery of these schemes? Different people have different preferences. That’s what the state exists for. That’s what the local bodies exist for,” he said.
PTR cited various examples to underline his point. For instance, in the case of Union government’s “Swachh Bharat Mission”, which is also a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he quoted the reports of the Comptroller Auditor General as saying that, in several places, toilets were built without water because the Union government cannot supply water, only the local bodies can.
On the “Jal Jeevan” scheme — to provide safe and adequate drinking water through individual household tap connections by 2024 to all households in rural India — he pointed out: “The Union government incentivises you to take a tap into every household in every village. In a lot of cases, the villagers don’t want a tap inside their house. They have their own psychology about it. They want a public tap on their street. In my constituency, when I offered them taps inside their house, they asked me to leave it outside their house. But the scheme says you will get funding only if you take the taps inside the house.”
These instances, according to PTR, proved that there is no reason for a one-size-fits-all aggregated model coming from the Centre.
While pointing out that there is no Constitutional carve-out that there should be centrally sponsored schemes, he termed the Centre’s attitude on these schemes as “dictatorial to suit their political needs, as opposed to the needs of the people”.
KTR: ‘Don’t thrust schemes, allow flexibility’
While stating that he didn’t have a problem with the schemes funded by the Centre, KTR said that the problem arises when it is thrust upon states without allowing any room for flexibility.
Using the example of the MNREGA scheme — that guarantees the right to work for citizens in rural areas — the IT minister of Telangana said that each state would have a different priority in terms of the work that needs to be undertaken.
“The Centre wants to deposit funds directly from the NREGA kitty into the accounts of the workers in a village. Now, do the states not get to decide what kind of work needs to be taken up? Kerala may have done some things; Telangana may have done some things; Tamil Nadu would want to do something else, and Andhra might want to do something else. We are all on different stages of the learning curve,” he said.
Emphasising on the need for flexibility, KTR added: “When we are operating with a focus, when we are trying to up our game, all the Union government needs to do is encourage performance and leave it to us to decide what centrally-sponsored scheme we should participate in and what we can opt out of. That sort of flexibility must be given as opposed to thrusting things down our throat.”
Another concerning aspect of these schemes sponsored by the Centre either fully or partially, according to KTR, is the “attitude of those who run Delhi” who think they are the givers and the states are the takers when “southern states, with a population of 19 percent, contribute about 35 percent of the country’s GDP”.
Centrally-sponsored schemes promoting a cult?
Both PTR and KTR converged on the view that under the BJP-led Union government, centrally-sponsored schemes have become means to promote “the cult” of one individual: Prime Minister Modi.
Recalling the recent incident where Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman pulled up a district collector for not putting up photos of Modi at a ration shop in Beerkur in Kamareddy district of Telangana, KTR wondered why fights are erupting over putting up pictures of one individual in the institutions that are built at the grassroot level if we are a truly federal country?
According to him, the Union finance minister “created a scene like a street-level BJP worker”, which was “funny, embarrassing and upsetting”.
“If the Union finance minister has her way, the new currency notes would also have the Prime Minister’s image, possibly they will even replace Mahatma Gandhi’s image,” he quipped while talking about the controversy.
He also countered the incident by asking if Prime Minister Modi, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, put up pictures of then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in fair price shops in the state.
Echoing similar views, PTR wondered about the intent behind the Centre is dictating terms to states with respect to implementing centrally-sponsored schemes. “Is it to create a kind of a cult?” he asked.
Taking the example of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister’s Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme, he said: “We have an insurance programme. For that matter, even the public distribution system. In all of these things, Tamil Nadu was certainly ahead of the Indian average or the design of the Union scheme. Then they design a scheme and ask us to change the name if some share of the scheme has to be funded by the Union. In the insurance scheme, they want to partly fund it. But they want us to put the prime minister’s image on the ID card.”
Reddy: States must be given more autonomy under CSDS
Andhra Pradesh Finance Minister Buganna Rajendranath Reddy opined that the states must be given “little more autonomy in the case of Centralised State Development Scheme” which is partly funded by the Centre, with contributions from states.
“There are state-specific needs. So, states must be given little more autonomy in designing the schemes under CSDS so that they are more suitable for their requirements,” he said.
“In a democracy, I believe, it is the elected representative who should have the supreme power… Anybody who is elected by the public has a far better understanding of the needs of the public than anyone else in the system,” Reddy also noted.
However, on the topic of the centrally-sponsored schemes being used as a platform to promote the Centre or the prime minister, he opined: “When the Centre is spending money for public, if state wants to have its own emblem or their own mark, so also we should allow the Centre do it.”