On the sidelines of his high-profile meeting with state chief ministers on Sunday to discuss the restructuring of the Planning Commission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted an “agenda-less” retreat. Here, six chief ministers, cutting across party lines, were invited to make presentations on their successful development programmes. While the process to chisel and sculpt the new plan panel is now formally underway, the retreat has pointed to another project that must also be taken forward — the enlarging and deepening of inter-state sharing and exchange. Increasingly, states are becoming the primary locale of development schemes, initiatives, and models. Overall, they spend 40 per cent more than the Union government, and three, five and six times as much on rural infrastructure, education and healthcare, respectively. While states’ spending has been growing at 17 per cent a year for the last four fiscals, the Centre’s has been increasing by only 8 per cent. In this context, a regular and institutionalised inter-state idea exchange could be said to be long overdue.
As a party, the BJP was quick to see the benefits of such exchange between chief ministers of BJP-ruled states, encouraging, for instance, the sharing of best practices between them at at its national executive meetings. Elsewhere, too, beneath the radar, inter-state learning has, hearteningly, been an ongoing process, in many cases defying political cleavages. Bihar’s ambitious Right to Public Services Act, 2011, drew heavily from Madhya Pradesh’s Public Services Guarantee Act, 2010. Rajasthan’s service-delivery guarantee borrowed from the Bihar bill. The Centre has also taken inspiration from the states — Tamil Nadu’s mid-day meal scheme, launched in 1982, was picked up by the Union government. Maharashtra’s employment guarantee scheme, 1977, preceded and contributed to the MGNREGA. Lessons can also be learnt from the fact that different states have shown different degrees of success in the implementation of Central schemes. Tamil Nadu stands out for its administration of the MGNREGA and Jharkhand has made significant headway in improving health indicators by its implementation of the National Rural Health Mission. On Sunday, while Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah reportedly spoke of the application of technology in governance (the “Bangalore One” citizen-services portal is hugely successful), Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik dwelt on his experiences with disaster management.
The process that was begun at the Sunday retreat in the capital must spread out beyond it. It could find a formal forum, perhaps, in the National Development Council or the Inter-State Council — though that would mean reviving these sleepy institutions first. Or it could be hosted by the revamped plan panel. Giving inter-state exchanges momentum and regularity would be the best way to lend meaning to the Modi government’s slogan of “cooperative federalism”.