In 1969 the Fifth Finance Commission recommended the creation of ‘special status’ for three states: The then undivided state of Assam, Nagaland and Jammu and Kashmir. The recommendation was to economically help states that are faced by disadvantages of geography, international borders, low population density and other factors.
Over the years, as Assam fragmented with Meghalaya being carved out of it as a state and Mizoram as a Union Territory (which later became a state), and new states emerged from the former kingdoms of Manipur and Tripura, political and economic demands grew for parity in places of turmoil. During these difficult decades, Arunachal Pradesh moved peacefully from being a Tract under the Assam governor’s jurisdiction to the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA), and finally became a state in 1987. Sikkim merged with India in 1975, and in 2002, it became a part of the North Eastern Council.
All the northeastern states along with Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh got the ‘special’ tag. As a result of this, a large amount of money began to flow into these states.
The Centre would grant 90% of the funds the ‘special status’ states needed, while 10% were given as loans. In addition to this, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister and Arun Shourie was the planning minister, the first to hold charge of a new Northeast portfolio (then a department, and not a ministry), a special offer was designed, according to which every ministry would contribute 10% of its annual budget to the Northeast department.
The money was to go to the non-lapsable central pool of resources in the department, which was to become the ministry of DoNER (department of the north-east region). It was the 14th Finance Commission that recommended the ending of the ‘special status’ category and took out provisions under Normal Central Assistance (NCA) and Special Central Assistance (SCA). The chief ministers of the eight northeast states have opposed this, saying that it would ‘drastically affect the finances in the northeast states’ and objected to the fact that the Centre would no longer make good the gap in non-plan revenue expenditure such as local development projects and programmes.
A big worry of the states was that the large central subsidies that were going into medium-term and long-term infrastructure programmes and projects in these states (and quite likely into the pockets of the contractors, officials, politicians and ‘militants’) would no longer come for specific projects, but will be a part of a larger transfer. We cannot forget that these states have a history of 30-50 years of conflict. As a result of the violence, they have lost out on opportunities for growth as well as innumerable lives and livelihoods.
The calculations of the Centre and the finance commission suffer from a fundamental flaw when it comes to Mizoram.
It’s simple: The ’special category’ issue is one of the key provisions of the 1986 landmark peace accord between the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Government of India as well as the local government. The agreement has made Mizoram one of the most peaceful states in the country. In Clause 6 of the Mizoram Accord’s Memorandum of Understanding, the status is spelt out: (a) The Centre will transfer resources to the new government … and this will include resources to cover the revenue gap for the year, (b) Central assistance for Plan will be fixed taking note of any residuary gap in resources …
The MNF, it may be recalled, revolted against India in 1966, and received arms, funds and training from, and in China and Pakistan. The Government of India’s response was nothing less than brutal, uprooting two-thirds of the civilian population from their homes, burning villages and settling them in new fenced-in protected villages or regrouping centres. This remains one of the most undocumented and unresearched parts of the Centre’s campaign in Mizoram. That both sides showed courage and statesmanship to rise above the bitterness and bloodshed to sign a peace treaty 20 years after the first shots were fired needs to be recognised regularly. That the peace has been sustained for the overall part for nearly 30 years is no mean achievement and has happened because of the determination shown by a highly knowledgeable and educated public, the church, the governments of different parties and civil society.
This is to be underlined, especially when conditions in parts of Manipur, Nagaland and Assam remain unsettled and unresolved. The latter represents a different set of issues and stories, which we shall not dwell upon here.
Anything that vitiates or dilutes the Mizoram Accord, the only peace agreement to have held in more than a half century of conflict in the northeast and which has been passed by Parliament, is unacceptable.
It is, therefore, heartening to note that the sub-committee of chief ministers set up by the Niti Aayog has tabled a draft report saying that for this category of states, the old formula should continue.
Changing the status would create new problems: The question will surely be asked — what is the value of a peace accord if there isn’t an economic dividend, let alone a political one? The Government of India needs to firmly assert that the interests of Mizoram and its special status compatriots will not be harmed.
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Centre for Northeast studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University. The views expressed are personal.