The timing of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget announcement on the Vibrant Villages programme was apt. It came sooner than expected—to be precise, exactly a month after China brought to effect a controversial law through which it seeks to assert its territorial claim on areas near its borders. Also, this law covers China’s ‘xiaokang’ (model) border defence villages, many of them progressing rapidly next to India’s periphery alongside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), opposite eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.
Both had given way to fresh concerns for India in the backdrop of an ongoing military standoff with China in eastern Ladakh.
Not much is known right now of the Vibrant Villages programme, with the government still in the process of paving its exact roadmap.
What is known is that it will cover villages at the northern borders, primarily those India shares with TAR, and will aim at boosting infrastructure, connectivity and economy in them.
What isn’t clear is the final shape it will eventually take.
While it is likely to be an updated and a better version of the existing border area development programme (BADP) piloted by the ministry of home affairs—with other border development plans converged into it—the overall quantum of funds earmarked towards this exercise, the implementing agencies and their accountability await a decision or perhaps, clarity.
While the Centre will work towards designing the finer details of this new programme, it is essential that the government takes a closer look at a few key aspects alongside, to ensure its success.
The story so far
In her Budget speech, Sitharaman said the activities under the programme will include “construction of village infrastructure, housing, tourist centres, road connectivity, provisioning of decentralised renewable energy, direct to home access for Doordarshan and educational channels, and support for livelihood generation”.
The existing BADP, which covers all border areas and is implemented by the MHA through state governments, has a similar mandate.
However, Budget documents show that the funds allocated towards the scheme have nearly halved from Rs 1,100 crore in financial year 2017-18 to Rs Rs 565.72 crore for 2022-23.
What is also worrying is a drastic dip in the utilisation of the funds by the states. In 2020-21, the actual expenditure under this head was just Rs 63.97 crore, of an initial budgetary allocation of Rs 783.71 crore in that year.
The actual expenditure for the subsequent financial year 2021-22 is yet to be made public, but the revised estimates for the year provide a grim picture with it slashed to Rs 221.61 crore from Rs 565.71 crore initially allocated.
The reasons for the poor spending by the states could be several, such as a small working window of a few months in many border states, involvement of multiple agencies employed at the spread-out borders, and also a pandemic in the last two years.
But only a thorough internal assessment of the scheme could throw light on the intricate reasons for this. This was also suggested by a parliamentary standing committee on home affairs in 2018 after it found widespread illiteracy, backwardness, poverty, lack of amenities such as poor infrastructure, connectivity and transportation in border areas and noted that the BADP’s objective was not met.
The learning from the assessment should be included in the Vibrant Villages programme.
Bolster border radio network, bring all stakeholders on board
Efforts should be made towards establishing a solid radio network in the border areas, either community-based or through private initiatives. In these far-flung areas, no other media can play a bigger role to educate and entertain the vulnerable border population.
Under the erstwhile 11th five-year plan, India’s border areas were to be dotted with radio stations, with at least one FM transmitter every 100 km, which couldn’t be implemented within the specified timeline.
Once this is done, the content to be aired should also be made hyperlocal and exclusive to the specific population. Also, FM transmitters powered by solar energy could be installed to ensure continuity of transmission in uncertain weather conditions.
The government had given the Border Roads Organisation, controlled by the ministry of defence, a budgetary hike of 40 per cent to Rs 3,500 crore for creating border infrastructure.
Additionally, under the new programme, the government can look to incentivise private players so that they can invest in businesses—from tourism to fisheries or agriculture—that would flourish in certain border areas. Many of the projects can also be developed in a public-private partnership (PPP) mode.
For overall development, the new programme should ensure better coordination among all stakeholders—such as the BRO, armed forces and paramilitary forces, the state government and the local population—by bringing them all on a common platform.
The Centre can also take a cue from the Arunachal Pradesh government that has already planned and is in the process of executing three model villages with modern amenities at Kibithoo, Kaho and Musai as reported earlier by this correspondent during a visit to the state last year.
No one-size-fits-all approach
At present, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and even Arunachal Pradesh continue to see their border populations migrate to the hinterland in search of a better life and employment opportunities.
Their absence has also been a major reason why China continues making repeated attempts to transgress the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in many border areas, such as in Ladakh’s Chumar.
The first line of border defence is the population there, which lays physical claims on the land. Thus, improving living conditions to arrest this trend should be a top priority for the government.
Lastly, instead of a one-size-fits-all planning approach for all border areas, there is a need for separate micro-level planning for each area, and a bottoms-up approach.
This means putting special emphasis on making the programme inclusive of the affected local population’s say, to make them part of the decision-making process, which in turn will ensure every aspect of border development is tailored to their specific needs and aspirations.
The bottom line here is to mainstream India’s border population without mainstreaming their issues.