The Bengal government is expecting to receive about Rs 200 crore under the 15th Finance Commission soon for the development of rural roads, rural livelihood mission and sanitation in Darjeeling and Kalimpong.
Officials said the funds would give a huge boost to rural infrastructure in the hills as no work could be undertaken on roads and sanitation in the hills for years.
A senior bureaucrat explained that funds under the 15th Finance Commission were held back by Delhi as elections to the two tiers of the panchayat system had not been held since 2000. However, rural polls were held this year.
Recently, the Centre released a sum of Rs 83 crore held back since 2021-22 for the GTA area. It was released from an untied fund. The GTA can utilise the money as per the requirements of the local areas.
“However, the fresh funds (to come) are tied funds. A sum of Rs 160 crore is expected to be released for rural roads, Rs 35 crore under Anandadhara (rural livelihood mission) and Rs 25 crore for sanitation programmes in rural areas of Darjeeling and Kalimpong,” said a senior state government official.
The panchayat department is gearing up to use the funds properly. It started a two-day training programme for newly elected representatives of the two tiers of panchayats — gram panchayat and panchayat samitis — of Darjeeling and Kalimpong in Darjeeling on Thursday.
“The elected representatives are being trained on the administration of rural bodies, planning, fund management, sanitation, rural housing, rural roads and issues related to 15th Finance Commission,” said a source.
A senior bureaucrat said that such a training programme for the elected representatives was required before the funds reached the rural bodies since the rural bodies remained non-functional since 2005, when their term expired and no new elections were held.
Most importantly, the state government wants to ensure that no allegation of misappropriation of funds is levelled against the hill rural bodies.
Bengal is already bearing the brunt of central funds freeze in the 100 days' job scheme, rural roads and rural housing over alleged financial irregularities.
“The state does not want a repetition of the situation in the hills as the area needs funds for development. Development had taken a backseat in the area for years. The state is eager to change the situation,” said an official.
Anit Thapa, the chief executive of GTA, welcomed the funds and cited it as another benefit of implementing the panchayat system this year after 2005.
“We welcome the decision. Owing to the absence of elected panchayats, we didn’t get these funds for development. We thank the state government for taking up the issue with the Centre,” said Thapa.
Sources said that in the absence of elected panchayats across the GTA for nearly two decades, the region has lost around Rs 400 crore in the past few years.
Additional reporting by Vivek Chhetri in Darjeeling