Heads without tails

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 13 December 2010

Planning Commission task force unlikely to ensure mandatory spending on backward community

It’s a battle more than 30 years old. Between memory and forgetfulness. The Central government makes it mandatory for its 68 ministries and departments to earmark funds for the development of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The funds have to be under the SC and ST sub-plans in proportion to their population. But the government’s own assessment is that hardly any ministry or department has done so. Either they have diverted money meant for tribal and Scheduled Caste people for other purposes—remember how the Delhi government used the sub-plan budget for Commonwealth Games?—or they have rendered programmes under the sub-plans redundant by ignoring the spirit behind the provision.

Most of the ministries and departments have not even shown these sub-plans as separate budget heads, mandatory for monitoring implementation. So nobody knows how much money has been earmarked and how much has been spent. This helps ministries to divert money to other uses without scrutiny. For example, in case of rural drinking water programmes about 40 per cent of the funds earmarked for the SC sub-plan between 2004 and 2008 was not spent. Occasional reminders from the Planning Commission on the sub-plans to ministries and departments have not made much difference.

Recently came an occasion when the battle should have ended in favour of the SC and ST community. On November 25 this year, a task force, set up by the Planning Commission to revise the guidelines for implementation of the sub-plans, submitted its recommendations. It recommended introducing “substantial reforms” in the sub-plan system for the Central ministries and departments in 2011-12 and then refining the system in the Twelfth Five Year Plan period commencing the next year to ensure the money trickles down. But the reforms suggested are cosmetic not substantial. At best the task force reshuffles the current guidelines.

Consider two such guidelines. First, the task force claims suggesting different criteria for inclusion of programmes and schemes under the sub-plans. It allows expenditure under two kinds of schemes. One, poverty alleviation and individual beneficiary schemes, like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Indira Awas Yojana. Two, schemes directed to areas where the SC and ST population is more than 40 per cent or where programme beneficiaries are substantially SC or ST.

Now look at what the existing guidelines say: “Only those schemes should be included under SCSP/TSP (SC sub-plan and tribal sub-plan) which ensure direct benefits to individuals or families belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes ... area-oriented schemes directly benefiting Scheduled Caste hamlets/villages having more than 40 per cent Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe population shall be included in SCSP and TSP.” How are the new criteria any different?

Second, the task force has recommended a “new” formula for percentage of funds each ministry and department has to earmark for the sub-plans. The formula builds on the principle that the total money spent on sub-plans should not be less than the current mandatory provisions (16.2 per cent for the SC sub-plan and 8.2 per cent for the ST sub-plan). It has divided ministries and departments into four categories depending on how much they have to earmark for the sub-plans. Under this formula, 43 ministries and departments do not need to earmark anything for the SC/ST sub-plans, 10 need to earmark less than 15 per cent of their budget and only six need to earmark more than 16.2 per cent. The last category includes the rural drinking water department, rural development ministry and the department of social justice.

If you compare the current rate of spending with the recommended, you will find the new formula has nothing new to offer. It has just endorsed the current rate. As such the 43 ministries and departments the new formula places under no obligation to spend, earmark the least for the SC and ST community. The six ministries and departments that are recommended to spend maximum anyway spend more on SC/ST.

The task force’s recommendations were eagerly awaited. In departments dealing with drinking water, land resource, forest and the environment, the sub-plans could play a major role but it never happened because of non-implementation. What the task force has suggested is more of the same. It failed to put in place a mechanism that will ensure implementation of the sub-plans. It did not talk about violation of the norms and possible deterrence.

Does not look like the task force will end the old battle. It will, however, change the look of the accounts books. From the coming budget one would see more clarity in the accounts of the Central ministries. At least they will put the sub-plans under separate heads. But will that clarity mean effective implementation? Given the past experience, it is uncertain.

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