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Ashok K Lahiri: Coping with regional disparities

Lessons from Asia's experience on how to deal with economically laggard Indian states

Ashok Lahiri 

Ashok Lahiri

Eleven states in India have 'special category' status. This extra-Constitutional status, introduced for the first time in 1969, was granted by the National Development Council, composed of the prime minister, Union ministers, chief ministers and members of the erstwhile Planning Commission. These 11 have hilly and difficult terrain, low population density, a sizeable share of the population as tribals, strategic location along the borders, economic and infrastructural backwardness, and a non-viable nature of state finances.

Bihar does not satisfy all the criteria. Yet, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been demanding the status for a while. The story is similar to "reservation", introduced constitutionally, initially for 10 years, and only for Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Castes (SC). The demand for the extension of special category status to other states is similar to the demands for the extension of reservation to groups other than SC and ST.

Special category states enjoy a number of benefits such as excise and income tax concessions, an earmarked 30 per cent of the normal central Plan assistance and 90 per cent of such assistance as grants (compared to only 30 per cent for other states). Given that 11 per cent of normal central plan assistance was allocated to Bihar during the Eleventh Plan according to the Gadgil-Mukherjee formula, it is difficult to see how Bihar can be declared to be special category without augmenting the earmarked 30 per cent of normal central Plan assistance.

At a public rally in Arrah on August 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a Rs 1.25-lakh-crore special package for Bihar for building infrastructure. Bihar badly needs such infrastructure as roads, railways, airport, refinery and power plants. Bihar Vidhan Sabha elections are due before year-end, and the opposition ascribes electoral motives behind the announcement. Leaving the politics aside, it brings the question of regional disparities in India into sharp relief.

In terms of regional disparities, India in a way is a mini-Asia, but with less accentuated differences. In Asia, in 2012, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), smaller countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Brunei Darussalam, South Korea and Taiwan had per capita gross national income between $21,620 and $54,040. These high-flyers had per capita income more than 20-50 times that of the Asian countries at the bottom of the ladder. At the bottom were Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Tajikistan and Bangladesh with per capita income between $690 and $1,010. Furthermore, economic performance of conflict-affected countries, such as Afghanistan, was poor. Though Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Manipur, for example, are not Afghanistan, the law and order problems in these states nevertheless appear to be taking its toll on economic performance.

In India, among all the states or Union territories, smaller ones like Goa, Delhi, Sikkim, Chandigarh and Puducherry are at the top, with per capita net state domestic product (NSDP) at factor cost at current prices between Rs 1,43,677 and Rs 2,24,138 in 2013-14, more than 1.9 times the all-India per capita net domestic product (NDP) of Rs 75,420. In the same year, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Assam and Jharkhand, at the bottom of the ladder, had per capita NSDP between Rs 31,199 and Rs 46,131, less than 61 per cent of the all-India NDP.

Of course, disparities across countries can be expected to be more than across regions within a country. Within a country, generally, with free mobility across regions, people can be expected to migrate from poorer to richer areas and reduce disparities in the process. Furthermore, countries in a continent may emulate each other's policies to some extent, but unlike states within a country, do not operate under the same central policy regime. Yet, there are lessons to be learnt from the regional disparities across countries in Asia.

Since 1973, ADB has been focusing on its relatively backward member countries with the Asian Development Fund (ADF). To the poorest of ADB member countries, to "bridge the development gap", the ADF provides grants, as well as loans for 32 years with a grace period of eight years and interest of 1 per cent and 1.5 per cent during the grace and amortisation period, respectively. ADF-recipient status in Asia and special category status in India appear to be somewhat similar.

Prima facie, there is no overwhelming evidence that grant of the special category status has delivered accelerated development in these 11 states. Similarly, the relatively poorer ADF countries are growing slower than the rest in Asia and falling further behind the non-ADF countries. Seven economies - China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Thailand and Malaysia - continue to lead Asia's march to prosperity.

There are three lessons from the ADF that appear relevant for addressing regional disparities in India. First, law and order and conflict resolution constitute priority number one for growth. The extremely low project success rate in Afghanistan has been a frustrating experience for development practitioners. Peace-building and state-building are preconditions for better development outcomes. Little can be expected in a state where the government is unable to perform its basic functions effectively.

Second, interventions for promoting regional integration often provide very high returns. A case in point is the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Cooperation Program. Increasing connectivity through physical infrastructure and the transforming of transport corridors into economic corridors across borders; and improving competitiveness through efficient facilitation of cross-border movement of people and goods and the integration of markets, production processes, and value chains provide rich returns for poor countries. Lao PDR and Cambodia in GMS are good examples. It appears that often moving people to jobs in a planned way is easier than moving jobs to people.

Third, successful implementation requires the local authority's buy-in into policies and ownership of projects. Throwing money without a home-grown conviction about the need, for example, for a road, school or hospital, does not deliver the appropriate outcomes. There is need to help the relatively backward states or countries, but only in the appropriate way.

The writer is an economist

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First Published: Tue, September 01 2015. 21:50 IST