PM Modi’s pet project to transform backward districts hits federalism roadblock

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to transform 115 backward districts has suffered a setback, as Odisha, West Bengal and Kerala have opted out of the scheme for not being consulted early enough.

india Updated: Jan 14, 2018 23:08 IST
Jatin Gandhi
Jatin Gandhi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Narendra Modi,Transforming India by 2022,NITI Aayog
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Kerala chief minister P Vijayan. Kerala is one of the states that have opted out of the Transforming India by 2022 scheme for not being consulted early enough.(PTI file photo)

Even before it has fully taken off, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious initiative to transform the country’s 115 backward districts has suffered a setback. Odisha, West Bengal and Kerala have opted out of the scheme for not being consulted early enough and dubbing it as an attempt to “undermine the spirit of federalism” by the BJP-led central government.

At least two senior officials at the NITI Aayog – the federal think tank led by Modi as its chairman that is steering the programme – confirmed that the three states have refused to join the initiative, which was dubbed as an example of “cooperative federalism”. The officials said the Centre was making efforts to get them on board.

The scheme, called Transforming India by 2022, aspires to rapidly transform backward districts that are lacking on key development indices in health, nutrition, education, agriculture, skill development, financial inclusion and basic infrastructure.

The BJP is seen as an emerging political rival to the ruling parties in all three states – the CPI(M) in Kerala, BJD in Odisha and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

A senior official in Kerala, one of the first states to object to the initiative, said, “In a cooperative federal structure, the state should have been asked first rather than told (about the scheme). The manner in which it was done was pretty obtrusive.”

“Even West Bengal and Odisha see it as an attempt to undermine the spirit of federalism. There are several political parties involved…There should have been consultation first before appointing prabhari officers,” the official added. The states have objected to the choice of districts and officials being appointed without consulting them.

To steer the initiative, the government has appointed 115 senior officials at the centre in charge of each of the districts as “prabhari officers”. Most of these officers are from the cadre of the state in which the districts lie and have worked there as young officers.

“The three states refused to sign the MoU (memorandum of understanding). As of now, we are down to 102 districts,” one of the officials associated with the project said. “At least four states asked for change in the districts and we agreed. These (three) states could have done the same,” the second NITI official said.

The project requires the state to sign an MoU saying it will form a committee under the chief secretary and appoint secretary-level officers to coordinate with the appointees of the Centre.

The CPI(M)-led Kerala wanted the project discussed in the Zonal council or the National Development Council – both bodies which comprise of ministers from the states and the Centre – first.

Odisha chief secretary Ajit Padhi refused to comment on why his state pulled out, responding through a text message.

“This is a sensitive matter and I wouldn’t like to talk about it to the media,” he wrote. BJD leader and party’s chief whip in the Lok Sabha, Tathagata Satpathy said the Centre acted “unilaterally”. “Very soon a time might come when the BJP will not be in power at the Centre and they should realise this can happen to them,” the senior leader said.

First Published: Jan 14, 2018 23:08 IST