On 23 December 2014, the Government of Maharashtra tabled in the state Assembly the much awaited report of the “High Level Committee on Balanced Regional Development Issues in Maharashtra”, headed by the Chairperson of the 13th Finance Commission, and former Finance Secretary to the Government of India, Vijay Kelkar.  

The Kelkar Committee report, as it is popularly called, was actually submitted to the Government in October 2013, but for reasons best known to itself, the then Congress-NCP government had not made it public.

The imbalance in the development of different regions in Maharashtra has been a vexed issue ever since the formation of the state, with the regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada feeling aggrieved over their underdevelopment vis-à-vis western Maharashtra. In 1984, the Government of Maharashtra had constituted a similar committee headed by the well-known economist V.M. Dandekar. The constitution of the Kelkar Committee in 2011 was a reminder that the issue remained unresolved.

Thus, the report of the committee has been eagerly awaited. The fact that one of the regions, Vidarbha, has been affected by a severe crisis in agriculture and has witnessed large scale suicides of farmers during the last decade has made the issues dealt with in the report even more urgent.

Since imbalance in development of different parts is not an issue limited to Maharashtra, the report of the committee could be relevant  for many other parts of the country too.

Important recommendations

The Kelkar committee has made several important recommendations, which constitute a fresh approach to understanding and addressing the issue of developmental imbalance.

Till now, the imbalance was seen mainly in terms of imbalance in allocation of financial resources, and hence the means to address it was also seen as allocation of higher resources to the aggrieved regions. This approach has had limited impact.

The Kelkar committee emphasises that it makes important departures from the past, recognising the “importance of physical inputs and financial provisions as relevant policy instruments without making a fetish of them.”

It notes that “The approach so far was excessively focused on physical inputs and financial allocations alone. This approach has proved to be ineffective and inadequate…Several aspects and sources of growth, issues of Governance, supportive policies distinguished by regions were not sufficiently considered. We have emphasized greater focus on outcomes, and advocated monitoring of outcomes as the principle focus.”

The Committee also recognises that even as one talks of balanced development, each region has different natural endowments, different cultures, history, administration, and hence it’s not possible to have the same kind of developmental trajectories everywhere. Yet, there are certain parameters of human development that are necessary constituents of fundamental well-being, common to all regions.

A farmer and his daughter in the fields in Tambhol Village, Maharashtra. Photo by Dan Tunstall. Courtesy: Wikimedia

The committee therefore recommends that one part of balanced development has to be the achievement of these parameters to a certain norm for every person in each region. This is what they call the “first strand” of their approach, which consists of “equal availability of and access to specified public goods on 'norm’.”

These public services include education for all up to the tenth standard, basic public health care for all, water at the rate of 140 litres per capita per day for all, all-weather road connectivity for all villages, household electrification and justice, law and order and social security.

What is equally important is the recommendation that “these would be based on prescribed norm and ensured as 'Right'.” Thus, the report effectively makes basic public services a part of a rights-based regime.

This first strand is complemented by the second strand, that is, “acceleration of regional economic growth through equitable allocation of public resources for developing relevant infrastructure.”

There is recognition of the fact that to remove the imbalance, regions that have faced a developmental backlog till now will have to grow faster, even as the developed regions maintain their growth. There is also recognition of the fact that “relevant components of infrastructural stimulus would also differ between regions”. For the second strand it presents detailed elements for each region.

An interesting device as a part of this second strand is that for each of the public services listed above as a part of citizens’ rights, there is a track II, which is seen as something that will create “a supportive infrastructure that would accelerate growth in the backward regions.”

Thus, the track II for drinking water is access to water as a productive resource, and the track II component for household electricity for all is electricity for productive use. While agreeing with this broad approach, one wishes that water for livelihoods would also have been considered a part of the “rights” framework.

Another important innovation by the Committee is in terms of re-envisioning the “region”. So far, regional imbalance was seen mainly amongst three broad “regions” into which the state was divided, namely, Vidarbha, Marathwada and the rest of Maharashtra.

The Committee has first of all chosen to have the district as its unit of analysis. This is in recognition of the fact that even the best developed regions have pockets with developmental deficit, and hence a smaller unit of analysis would be more reflective of such ground realities. The district, being the basic unit of administration, has been seen as the optimal balance by the Committee.

This approach has also led the Committee to recognise several areas with a developmental backlog or deficit, other than the conventional “regions” known to suffer the same. They call these the “virtual regions”, and these include tribal areas and water-stressed talukas, which have “special and pressing development challenges” and are “are scattered in all the three regions”.

The Committee has also worked out in detail the finances likely to be needed for its recommendations. It has estimated the resources likely to be available to the state for the next 12 years (till the end of the 14th Five Year Plan) and has shown that there are in fact ample resources available to implement their recommendations.

Then, based on their analysis of the development deficit (calculated on the basis of a broad range of indicators) they also recommend an allocation of funds for each sector. They suggest floor levels of resources for each sector or component of the sector, thus ensuring allocation to cover backlog, yet leaving flexibility for the elected representatives to allocate resources.

With the former Finance Secretary and Chair of Finance Commission heading the Committee, such meticulous analysis of financial resources was to be expected.

The allocation of resources reflects the fact that the Committee sees water as central to the entire imbalanced development discourse. They recommend that after deducting resources that need to be mandatorily set aside for the SC and ST sub-plans from all the available resources, 30 percent should be allocated for water.

The Committee’s recommendations also reflect this role seen for water. Among the key recommendations are to ensure protective irrigation for every farmer and extensive watershed management and soil water conservation in all the regions on a priority basis.

Repeating history?

In spite of these very important innovative recommendations, there are some serious problems with the recommendations that could derail the achievements of its objectives. The most important problem is that the Committee has not been able to break out of the conventional paradigm of thinking about development, particularly in the most important sector of water.

Its vision of development still appears to be dominated by large dams and storage projects, extraction of every drop of water from the river, inter-basin transfers or river linking, looking to the private sector as the major provider of investments, and seeing environmental regulations as obstacles to development.

This approach is seen most clearly in its fixation with storage – which is a synonym for large dam-based reservoirs. While storage of water is important, the committee harps on the points of storage for the sake of storage.  First of all, it calls for ‘storage created’ as one of the two indicators of irrigation development, the other being actual area irrigated. It says that “social and economic development is critically dependant on water storage capacity.”.

It compares Maharashtra with other countries such as Australia, Spain, South Africa and points out that  the per capita storage capacities created in these countries stand at 4733 cubic meters, 1410 cubic meters and 743 cubic meters respectively – much higher than Maharashtra’s, which is around 300.

This is the same argument that the World Bank had tried to push in the 2000s, attempting to show that countries with high per capita storage had higher incomes. This was, and remains a specious comparison, not really borne out by any statistical or causal correlation. While the World Bank had a clear agenda then to push large dams, it’s disappointing that the Kelkar committee has chosen to adopt this uncritically. 

In fact, the allocations are also based on this. The committee notes that “a significant part of the development deficit of the lagging regions is gauged in terms of the deficit in storage. Hence, we have suggested allocation of a very large portion of the investible resources which are based on the criterion of the storage capacities to be created.”

Pic: http://wrmin.nic.in

Using the criteria of ‘cubic meters of storage per hectare of cultivated area’, the Committee allocates resources to bridge the storage deficit. This assumed linear co-relation between the amount of storage and agricultural development transforms one factor into virtually the sole determinant, ignores the fact that each river basin has its own distinct characteristics and that the same figure of storage per hectare cannot be relevant for all basins. Thus, it paints a simplistic picture and spoils the nuanced understanding displayed by the Committee itself at other places of what contributes to agricultural development.

Taking this further, the Committee recommends that heights of old dams should be increased further to create more storage. Ironically, this recommendation comes even after it has noted at several places that there are years when many of the existing dams do not get filled up.

In fact, such emphasis on large storage and big irrigation projects has been one of the main reasons for the huge developmental imbalances in the first place, both across and within regions. It is these kinds of projects that have led to large scale inequities (for example the allocation of an overwhelming proportion of water to sugarcane, a fact noted by the Committee), long gestation periods and incomplete projects, and serious environmental degradation.

The Committee also continues the conventional line of thinking by viewing many of the measures taken for environmental protection as obstacles to development. While it does acknowledge at a few places that  environmental problems are assuming serious proportions and  need to be  addressed, it actually recommends the dilution of most norms in place including the Forest Conservation Act, environmental clearance procedures and even the Coastal Zone Regulations (to allow more hotels on the coast).

Given all this, the emphasis on more of the same – increase in large storage, removal of environmental protection measures – flies in the face of some of the important and valuable approaches taken by the Committee. Unfortunately, such dilution has the potential to derail the achievement of its goal, perpetuating imbalance within the state.

The Government of Maharashtra has not yet announced its position on the report. It is hoped that while considering the adoption and implementation of the report, it will recognise the dangers of this “more-of-the-same” approach and focus on taking up the more innovative and significant recommendations of the committee, which will indeed help in achieving the goals of balanced and equitable development of the state.