TN govt passes Bill to monitor SC/ST sub plan funds, activists point out gaps

Called the ‘Development Action Plan for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes’, it is awaiting Governor RN Ravi’s assent after being passed in the Assembly.
TN govt passes Bill to monitor SC/ST sub plan funds, activists point out gaps
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The Tamil Nadu government on February 22, passed a new Bill that will govern how the special funds meant for Dalit and Adivasi welfare—the  Scheduled Caste Sub Plan (SCSP) and Scheduled Tribe Sub Plan (TSP) funds—are spent in the state. Such a Bill has been a long-standing demand of activists and while it is being seen as a first step, they say the Bill does not address the persistent issue of unspent funds or the diversion of funds for other purposes. On the contrary, they point out that it legitimises the diversion of funds rather than explicitly forbidding the use of the SCSP and TSP funds for general welfare schemes. Further, they also say that the Bill lacks any means to place accountability on government authorities in case they fail to utilise the funds correctly. 

Called the ‘Development Action Plan for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes’, it is awaiting Governor RN Ravi’s assent after being passed in the Assembly. During the financial year 2022-23, the spending of allocated funds saw a steep decline in DMK-ruled Tamil Nadu.

Read: Spend on Scheduled Caste Sub Plan in TN has fallen since DMK came to power 

In 2023, the DMK’s ally, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) pledged its support to a draft bill brought out by the National Coalition on SCP-TSP Legislation (NCSTL), an important stakeholder. At the time, MP and party president Thol Thirumavalavan had emphasised that such legislation was the “need of the hour.” Last March, the state government announced it would introduce a Bill to govern the SCSP and TSP funds in the next Assembly session.

Activists were disappointed that, unlike the draft bill, the Bill passed in the Assembly did not address problems of diversion of funds to other programmes.

No protection from diversion of funds

Speaking to TNM, Dalit feminist activist and former IAS officer P Sivakami asked why no provision in the Bill explicitly warned against diversion of funds. Section 11 (b) and (c) of the Bill allow for the diversion of funds towards general schemes instead of maintaining them exclusively for Dalit and Adivasi welfare. This section of the Bill governs what the earmarked funds can be spent on. The sections state that if some schemes involve “non-divisible infrastructure works,” a portion of the cost as it is “deemed fit” can be spent from the SCSP and TSP funds. 

“What does the government mean by ‘non-divisible infrastructure works’? Let’s take electricity for example, does the government not monitor power use based on individual metres in each house? Is it not possible to identify who is using how much power? Again, look at farming where expenses for irrigation projects – a general welfare scheme – are also taken from the SCSP and TSP funds. But Dalits and Adivasis have far smaller portions of land that they do not benefit from to the same extent that non-SC/ST communities with larger tracts of land do. This has been pointed out repeatedly in relation to the diversion of SCSP and TSP funds—Dalit and Adivasi communities benefit only marginally from general schemes,” Sivakami said.

There is a second concern about this same section as a source in the state government tells TNM. “The section says that the portion of the money that can be taken for these ‘non-divisible infrastructure works’ from the sub-plan funds can be determined by two means. It can either be based on the total SC/ST population in the state. Or it can be based on the number of SC/ST beneficiaries of a general welfare scheme whichever is higher. This is not ideal, because as per the latest available caste census in TN records, the SC/ST population is only 19%. But if there is a welfare scheme in which 35% of the beneficiaries are SC/ST, then 35% of that scheme’s total budget can come from the sub-plan funds. That is a substantial amount towards a single general welfare scheme. 

Meanwhile, Ramesh Nath, state convenor for NCSTL, told TNM that while the organisation welcomed “the historical legislature, there are some gaps.” The NCSTL is formed by various organisations such as Adivasi Solidarity Council (ASC), the Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan (DAAA), and the Social Awareness Society for Youth (SASY).  

Section 10(2) of the Bill, Ramesh points out, says that unspent funds earmarked in a financial year shall be carried forward to the next financial year, but it shall not be carried forward beyond that. “While it is a good step to allow the carry forward of funds, the one-year limit needs to be removed. Primarily, the demand of activists has always been to spend the entire allocated funds within the same financial year.” 

What have the other states done?

The Karnataka Scheduled Castes Sub-Allocation and Tribal Sub-Allocation Act also has a provision of carrying forward funds to the next year, but it has additional provisions to prevent underspending. Apart from laying out how unspent funds can be reallocated it plainly states, “Since the unspent amount cannot be carried forward beyond that year, it must be utilised fully on priority in the current financial year itself.” This emphasis is missing from the TN government’s Bill. 

C Lakshmanan, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), flags the same concern, adding that the primary reasons for bringing in such a Bill have not been met. “In 2010, allegations surfaced that the then Delhi state government had diverted SCSP and TSP funds towards projects for the Commonwealth Games. It became clear that the policy needed legal validity if the diversion of funds was to be challenged in court. After that, several states such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana brought in special legislature that gives legal validity. These Acts also ensure that proper accountability and oversight is established, which is also lacking in the TN Bill.”

The Telangana State Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Special Development Fund establishes that disciplinary action will be taken for “proven negligence and lack of due diligence, in discharge of responsibilities under this Act.” Further, Telangana’s Act also provides incentives for “commendable performances” in implementing the Act. In comparison, all that the TN Bill presently says is that statistical data on the status of the implementation of the Bill will be published. It neither mentions the intervals at which this data will be published nor does it say who is directly culpable for poor performance.

Similarly, Karnataka’s Act also lays out precise punishments for negligence of duty. In addition to disciplinary action, depending on the intensity of the official’s negligence, the offence can attract up to six months of imprisonment. 

NCSTL co-convenor Richard Devadoss says that the way to establish a chain of accountability would be to “bring in a system of rewards and punishments at the district level.” He adds, “District-level monitoring needs to be done by the respective Collectors and the Chief Minister has to be the monitoring authority at the state level. Districts that carry out effective implementation should be honoured and those that don't need to be punished.”

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