Amid citizenship bill anger, govt clears N-E sops
The Union Cabinet on Wednesday cleared Constitutional amendments to give more resources and administrative powers to the autonomous councils of the northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, amid an ongoing controversy over the citizenship bill that seeks to allow minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to become Indian citizens.
Announcing the Cabinet decision, law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the Finance Commission will be asked to recommend devolution of financial resources to the 10 autonomous district councils as well as village and municipal councils in the so-called sixth schedule areas of the north-east. This move to amend Article 280 and the sixth schedule to the Constitution, the government maintained, will fulfil the “long standing aspirations” of tribespeople in the region. The sixth schedule of the Constitution makes special provisions for the management of areas dominated by tribals in the region. It lists 10 autonomous district councils across the four states with specific judicial and administrative powers.
“This will be a game changer, as it will substantially enhance the funds available to these local government institutions for undertaking development works in these tribal areas,” Prasad said after the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Cabinet finished its meeting.
The Cabinet also cleared 30% reservation for women in these councils.
“The amendment provides for transfer of an additional 30 subjects, including the Public Works Department, Forests, Public Health Engineering, Health and Family Welfare; Urban Development, Food and Civil Supply department to Karbi Anglong Autonomous Territorial Council (KAATC) and Dima Hasao Autonomous Territorial Council (DHATC) in Assam, thus greatly strengthening the autonomous councils and giving them a major role in the day to day governance and developmental activities,” a government statement said.
“The village councils will be empowered for preparation of plans for economic development and social justice including those in relation to agriculture, land improvement, implementation of land reforms, minor irrigation, water management, animal husbandry, rural electrification, small scale industries and social forestry,” it added.
Many leaders from the northeast, however, refused to give any credit to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the changes. Congress president in Assam Ripun Bora claimed it was his party “which initiated these changes to empower tribal people of Assam and northeast. By taking unilateral decision on a subject relating to concurrent list, Centre has violated federal structure and encroached upon powers of state government. This is nothing but an election gimmick.”
The BJP spokesperson in Tripura, Ashok Sinha, maintained that the proposed amendment to Article 280 will give greater financial resources to the autonomous district council to undertake developmental work.
Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council chief executive officer Radhacharan Debbarma claimed that “in reality, there will be no power”.
Regarding reservation, “the former Left government introduced 50% women reservation in panchayats and (Wednesday’s) decision is just an eye wash,” Debbarma added.
Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga said he can comment on the matter only after he sees the decision in writing. Congress spokesperson in Mizoram, Lallianchhunga, said, “In the long run it is good for the areas. People will no longer blame the state for lack of development.” He added that while the timing of the BJP-led central government’s announcement could be driven by the coming parliamentary elections, it isn’t clear how this could benefit the party.
Meghalaya CM Conrad K Sangma tweeted his thanks to Modi and Union home minister Rajnath Singh “for the historic decision to approve constitutional amendment to substantially increase financial resources and other powers of autonomous council in the Sixth Schedule areas of northeast.”
The amendments are expected to fulfil the commitments made under tripartite memorandum of settlements signed by the Centre, relevant state governments and some ethnic groups.
The amendments, which have to be ratified by Parliament, come amid controversy over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that has laid bare differences among state units of the BJP in the northeast. Some BJP units are openly opposing the Bill that seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The region is concerned that the bill, if it becomes law, could lead to large-scale migration and affect indigenous populations.