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Sanjeev Kumar Patro

Bhubaneswar: Is the appointment of the senior IAS officer and outgoing Chief Secretary Asit Tripathy, who in bureaucratic circles is known as the beater of the clock with a penchant for wrapping up any assignment on or before time, to the post of Chairman in the western Odisha's top planning and development body – the WODC (Western Odisha Development Council) – a game-changer decision or only a high political optics?

A cursory glance at the WODC constitution gives the clue. The function of Chairman of the WODC is restricted only to supervising and ensuring the smooth functioning of the planning body. In sum, the role of WODC chairman is purely administrative.

The grim fact here is the council of the planning body is non-existent. Not only the 14 nominated (2 MPs and 11 MLAs) members but the posts of 10 experts are also lying vacant in the WODC. In simple terms, the peculiar position of WODC is very much similar to having a State Secretariat without the State Assembly. The peculiarity here is the State Secretariat is only the implementing authority, whereas State Assembly is the body for policymaking.

As per observers, the full-term appointment of a proactive IAS officer to the post of WODC Chairman, therefore, will not result into any tangible outcome, unless the State Government at the least restores the full-fledged council of the planning body immediately.

However, senior IAS officer Asit Tripathy can walk into history books, if during his tenure the administrative headquarters of the Council gets shifted to western Odisha from the State Capital of Bhubaneswar.

As per the buzz in BJD circles, Odisha Government will soon transfer the WODC headquarters to a place in western Odisha in the next financial year (2021-22). Observers feel as the Naveen Patnaik led BJD government gives much emphasis on optics in politics, the appointment of Asit Tripathi as WODC chairman signals the very next move of the State government.

However, experts feel WODC needs holistic not piecemeal approach, says former Dean of OUAT Bhawanipatna. The reason is not far to seek. The WODC is in shambles now, he added.

WODC In Shambles?

It seems the planning and development agency for the districts of western Odisha is in complete limbo. Since the last two years, the council of the planning body has not been constituted. The State government has not taken any initiative to nominate 26 members (2 MPs, 11 MLAs and 10 experts) to make it a full-fledged body. The management of the body is in a complete abyss.

The observations of CAG report tabled in State Assembly recently stand testimony to the prevalent sorry state of affairs in WODC.

“A Performance Audit on the functioning of  WODC  was included in the  CAG’s  Audit  Report(Civil) for the year ended  March  2005.  In response to the audit observations, the State Government had assured  (November  2005)  to assess the developmental imbalances and carry out impact studies and evaluation of completed projects. But the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is yet to discuss the audit report,” rued the CAG.

Moreover, the CAG report had further added that contrary to the decision of WODC in August 2013 to give the highest priority to Irrigation sector, the sector is yet to get the priority status.  Furthermore, the CAG finds that the fund allocation to all other sectors was not as per the norm.  ‘Other projects’ which  were  not  critical  to  the  development  of  the  region,  were  given  highest priority  and  funds  to  the  tune  of`159.41  crore  (39per  cent)

A big observation by CAG that sheds light on the ineffectiveness of WODC:

“As per Section 11 of WODC Act, the council was to prepare long term/short-term plans and conduct impact assessment studies of various developmental programmes. The Planning and Convergence (P&C) Department selected (in November 2013) Poverty and Human Development  Management  Agency(PHDMA)  to assess critical gaps and suggest remedial measures for socio-economic, cultural and educational development of western  Odisha,” the CAG report mentioned.

However, the report lamented over the fact that despite WODC authorising (in December 2013) the CEO to coordinate and execute an agreement with PHDMA for the purpose, the CEO neither took up the matter with PHDMA nor did the P&C Department.

The CAG report, therefore, concluded that as a result no annual/ perspective plan could be prepared and no projects recommended by MPs, MLAs, and other members were approved. Besides, no impact study/ evaluation was conducted by  WODC  in respect of  26,690projects  completed as of  March  2018.

Who Will Then Be The Game changer?

Only an autonomous WODC on the pattern of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council or on the lines of Vidharbha Development Board could prove game-changer, feel both BJP and Congress, a rare unanimity seen where both consider autonomous councils as the panacea for WODC ills.

Speaking exclusively to odishatv.in, veteran Congress leader, former Leader of Opposition and first Chairman of WODC Narasingha Mishra said, “The WODC has become a mere signboard body. Naveen Patnaik led BJD government lacks the intention to bridge the imbalance in western Odisha.”

He further added that I had urged the State Government in Odisha Assembly to constitute the WODC on the lines of Vidharbha Development Board, which has been constituted under Article 371 of the Indian constitution. But the BJD government replied in State Assembly, “The Council is functioning smoothly.”

Bargarh MP and senior BJP leader Suresh Pujari charged, “Naveen Patnaik government has made the WODC a redundant body. Unless the government grants financial autonomy and the body has elected members, WODC will remain a toothless body and a rehab centre for defeated politicians and retired bureaucrats.” He further added that WODC has not given approval to the plan of action submitted by the MPs in the region.

However, BJD rubbished the charges of opposition leaders.

“Odisha government has increased the budgetary support every year. The total grant in aid released till date by the State Government stood at Rs 1,562 crore. The cumulative fund for development projects now amounted to over Rs 1500 crore. The council will soon be constituted and a big decision may come any time soon, asserted State labour minister Sushant Singh.

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