The Centre-state mindset

It is patronising to the states. It reflects in inadequate media coverage of state matters.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published:December 10, 2015 12:06 am


Recently, I had a chat with a correspondent who covers the Northeast for a national newspaper. I asked him for the name of the state that has the highest literacy rate in India. He thought for a while and said Kerala, before adding Mizoram as an afterthought. He was somewhat surprised when I told him that both of them had been overtaken and the answer was Tripura. There is an obvious point about general ignorance and indifference towards the Northeast. But there is more to it than that.

Journalist T.N. Ninan once told me, “national media” is what is watched and read between Noida and Gurgaon. Depending on the year and the Indian Railways’ performance, 95 per cent of national income is produced in the states. How often do you find coverage of states in the English-language media? How often do you find state-related coverage in the English-language business press (the so-called pink papers), as opposed to the general media? Compared to the hype and hysteria over Union budgets, how often are state budgets discussed and dissected?

With product market (except in agriculture) reforms being addressed in the post-1991 flush and with financial sector liberalisation being more incremental in nature, most of the reforms still pending concern the factor markets. The factor markets are largely in the states’ domain, featuring either in the Concurrent or the State List. How often are those reported?

In fairness, there is some coverage when labour laws are changed, or when a major investment project gets the nod. Moreover, policy changes are often relatively mundane. But to me, it’s a big development that the Rajasthan government repealed around 12 per cent of its statutes, having identified them as old and dysfunctional. Was it reported? You may recall one particular column, but may forget that the chief minister herself authored it.

Even if policy is somewhat covered by the media, there is rarely any reportage on public expenditure. The 14th Finance Commission (FC) recommended 42 per cent of the divisible tax pool to be devolved to states as untied funds. But how do we know that states are responsible enough to make judicious use of the additional funds?

Part of the answer lies in further fiscal and non-fiscal devolution to the local bodies. But how many states have state-level FCs? Moreover, as an issue, how often is this concern for further devolution covered?

I try not to use the expression “Centre-state” unless I am quoting someone.

The word “Centre” doesn’t figure in the Constitution. More importantly, it smacks of a centre-periphery kind of relationship and is vaguely patronising towards the states. Metaphorically, “Centre-state” probably conjures up more centrifugal forces than centripetal. The right expression should be “Union-state”. The point I wish to make is that the kind of reportage I underlined also suffers from this Centre-state mindset. After untied devolution, after deficit reduction commitments and after addressing items of expenditure in the Union list, the leftover revenue is to be used for what can loosely be called the Central-sector (financed fully with the Union government’s funding) and the Centrally sponsored (partial Union funding, with a higher Union contribution for northeastern and Himalayan states) schemes. In an earlier era, the now defunct Planning Commission would have devised these public expenditure schemes. However, in March 2015, a sub-group of chief ministers was set up for this purpose, with parallel sub-groups for the Swachh Bharat mission and skill development.

The report of the sub-group on the rationalisation of Centrally sponsored schemes was submitted in October 2015 and has been reported in the media. It divided schemes into a national development agenda (mandatory for all states) and an optional basket. From 2016-17, states will presumably realign their schemes, with or without Union funding.

I personally don’t think any state should have more than 30 departments, although there is a state where the number of departments is as high as 56. Isn’t it, therefore, news that Jharkhand has rationalised the number of departments and reduced it from 43 to 31? For instance, a standard problem is that state departments looking after rural development, rural works and panchayati raj work in silos. Jharkhand has combined them.

Similarly, it has combined the planning and finance departments. Part of NITI Aayog’s job is the collation of such best practices and their dissemination. And there are plenty of interesting examples
of innovative public service delivery across different states. We will certainly do that, but I wished to draw attention towards the inadequate media coverage received by the states.

If untied funding to states has increased to 42 per cent, surely states warrant greater coverage. Let’s stop debating how much the Union government spends on health and focus on state-level expenditure.

Let us also debate capital expenditure in the states, not just by the Union government. Let us recognise that the Indian polity is a union of states.

The writer is member, NITI  Aayog. Views are personal

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  1. K
    Dec 10, 2015 at 12:19 pm
    The educaton poicy of some states is more effective than other states. But, the scale of unemployment is almost the same. States have to chalk out programmes to use the educaed effectively.
    1. A
      Dec 10, 2015 at 2:26 pm
      The States must be allowed to collect all the taxes and 25% of it should be given to the Union Government to take care of defence forces and external affairs. All other subjects can be handled by the State governments, including the education policy.
      1. J
        Dec 10, 2015 at 12:45 pm
        Sensible. But sensation prevails!!
        1. B
          Dec 10, 2015 at 7:42 am
          Who become journalists in India? One who could not found any other jobs because of poor education background. Since they are weak in their education, how could they have broad knowledge of INdia and isses. Show us one journalist, who have really good education background and have thorough knowledge about India. In the field of science and technology, there are not even ONE journalist.
          1. R
            Rishi Raj
            Dec 10, 2015 at 11:56 am
            India is not a union of States. States are there for administrative convenience only. With time states will become redundant.
            1. R
              Rishi Raj
              Dec 10, 2015 at 11:58 am
              You exaggerate a bit.
              1. P
                Dec 11, 2015 at 11:45 am
                The concept of union state or capitalism and socialism are much more adhoc than that of democracy. So these are not goals or objectives, the goal is to make a better India.. You do it like china (center only and no states) or like USA or whatever way.. It doesn't matter. Right now we should move towards a strong center because the potion is poor and state level democracy is much less evolved and too constrained in its objectives..
                1. P
                  Dec 10, 2015 at 6:54 am
                  Well, our brown angrej media... And our pseudo intellectuals do not have time or intellect to discuss such things... They can only do drama against modi... That is their service to nation.. Or they can write clerical books (apologies to actual clerks.. Do not want to demean your job but those who claim to be intellectuals and do not even do a responsible clerical...) ..... Writing books give them money, game and prizes... But contribution wise a good for nothing sensational type work same what our media does... So all our pseudos are doing same thing.. Making money and creating sensational content... Any use of real intellect to analyze anything useful is asking too much.... These pseudos can tell you history, sociology of 1000 years based on what some missionary clerk cooked earlier.. Without checking the primary data, its sufficiency... The most scientific possibility or feasibility...
                  1. S
                    Dec 10, 2015 at 9:54 am
                    State Govt looks at central funds as freebies and again distributes freebies to people for the sake of votes. In the early years after independence, many states had surplus budget including Karnataka - today most of them are fiscally irresponsible and are involved with some mafia or scam. Things like procurement should happen as a trade between states than through center. If we boost trade within India, with all its potion and potential, we don't need to go begging for FDI.
                    1. P
                      Puneet sharma
                      Dec 10, 2015 at 6:52 am
                      Sir I agree to your views about inadequate media coverage on important issues specially on states. But question is why media seems to be humdrum regarding this, may be because viewers choice or TRP's factor. so need to address them to overcome this problem. Looking for your next article regarding this.
                      1. P
                        Partha GOpalan
                        Dec 10, 2015 at 9:40 pm
                        I think its slowly heading in that direction, and NDA II is definitely helping it that way. Some say india is a unitary state with some federal powers. For me its always ambiguous on where the rekha/line is. Because states cant have military, or print money, they cannot establish external policy.
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