In theory, the country’s highest decision-making body on development matters, the National Development Council (NDC), is today not even a sounding chamber on these issues. For all practical purposes, meetings of the NDC are now grievance-airing sessions on the part of chief ministers.

So it was at the 56th meeting of the NDC last week, when one chief minister after another accused the centre of causing some problem or the other for states. Many of the complaints are now, quite stale. One chief minister said the centre had reduced the states to the level of “municipal government", a lament that has been heard since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. Another one accused the Union government of selectively disbursing funds to states from its discretionary funds, favouring some states while neglecting others. This, again, has an ancient echo, dating back to the days of Indira Gandhi as prime minister.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives for the 56th National Development Council meeting in New Delhi on Saturday in this file photo. Atul Yadav/PTI

This demand is hollow. A cursory look at how state governments spend their money is enough to nail the lie that they’re concerned about the welfare of citizens living under their jurisdictions. In 2010-11, the average wage bill of states— on salaries and wages of government employees—consumed 31.3% of their revenue. In contrast, in 2010-11, they expended 4.3% of their expenditure (as a percentage of revenue expenditure and capital outlay) on health and family welfare. Spending on education amounted to 16% of their aggregate expenditure in 2010-11. The latter figure looks promising but is not: The bulk of this spending is again on the salaries and administrative costs pertaining to teachers. Given the scale of corruption in the country, a reduction in spending on government employees—for example by reducing their numbers—may enhance the welfare of citizens.

If state governments are concerned about the welfare of citizens, they should eschew populism and wasteful expenditure. A careful reprioritizing of their expenditure will lend more credibility to their demands at the NDC.

Do state governments spend their money wisely? Tell us at