Why Centre must talk to states

Three weeks back, the National Development Council (NDC) met in Delhi to approve the XIth Five Year Plan, for the period 2007-2012. The council was constituted in 1952 under the chairmanship of the prime minister, and with chief ministers and key cabinet members on board, with the broad mandate of effecting a coordinated approach between the Centre and states. In recent times, it has met to approve a mid-term appraisal, a draft proposal, or the final version of a Five Year Plan.

Chief ministers, and more so representatives from states under President's rule or Union territories, routinely read out extracts from well-prepared but boring speeches. This is interspersed by interventions from the finance minister, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and a closing statement by the prime minister. At the end of the deliberations, the document under consideration is invariably adopted. These meetings have become increasingly ceremonial if not mechanical. The council was designed to foster dialogue between the Centre and the states, more so at a time when a heterogeneity of governments in office reflect varied perceptions. Would it not be more meaningful if, assuming that the documents under circulation have been read, the prime minister can foster a dialogue on some key concern? If dissenting views emerge these could be taken in stride as part of an on-going review process, particularly for a mid-term appraisal. This can encourage dialogue on some of the contemporary issues in public domain.

Illustratively, what could these issues be?

First, the issue of poverty. True, an expert body is looking into this matter. While considering its recommendations and decision thereon will take time, what happens in the interim? How are states expected to meet entitlement obligations for a much larger number of identified poor than the CSSO data would suggest? The transitional burden in many cases may not be small. Besides, seeking the views of chief ministers on the core issue of poverty can be more meaningful than relegating this exercise to an expert committee.

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