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Mamata’s skewed economic priorities
By Ashis Biswas
For a Chief Minister who always reminds the world of the financial problems of West Bengal, Ms Mamata Banerjee’s priorities in official spending are intriguing, to say the least.
Thanks to the populist ways of the erstwhile Left front Government ,which bequeathed a bloated, overpaid, under-worked army of surplus “employees” as its parting gift to the nation, Bengal’s overall debt to the centre is over Rs 200,000 crore. The state government must pay back to the centre at least Rs 22,000 crore every month by way of loan and interest. The only problem is that its average monthly revenues do not exceed Rs 21,000 crore, according to Ms Banerjee, which leaves it in hock despite making regular repayments!
Ms Banerjee’s stand on the matter, as on some other issues, is unorthodox. “Why should we (Trinamool Congress) be made to pay for the sins of the Left Front?” she says. The centre, which co-operated with the outgoing Left front in providing financial help,( at least to the extent of allowing it to incur such a crippling debt) should extend similar consideration to the TMC, too. This can be done by declaring a three year moratorium on debt repayment, along with a restructuring of the burden. The centre had earlier allowed similar relief for Punjab, some years ago.
So far, so good. But what Ms Banerjee says next becomes hard to comprehend, She threatens that her government will not take the responsibility of debts incurred by the previous government. And if the centre does not see reason (that is, accepting her proposal in toto) she would launch a “movement” in the state!
As Chief Minister Ms Banerjee knows that this is nonsense. The government is a continuing entity and incumbent governments cannot escape the liabilities of their predecessors. She knew about this prior to the Assembly elections, too where she referred to the fiscal mess left by the Left Front.
Given this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that the administration finds it hard to make ends meet. Many retired teachers and public transport employees are not getting salaries and pension payments in time. At least 45 poor peasants have committed suicides during the past year. The government has not announced any compensation at all, refusing to acknowledge the very fact of suicide! The Kolkata High Court has on some occasions instructed a reluctant state government to pay transport employees and teachers on time! Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that just before the polls, the Front government DID appoint scores of class IV employees in public transport corporations and some other departments as well! The idea was, the new appointees would support the CPI(M) affiliated trade union CITU. The move, which can only be described as criminal in the context of the state’s finances, added to the revenue deficit, did NOT help the left in winning the polls and worse still, most of these “employees” whose job descriptions are not readily available, have crossed over to the TMC, to save their skins. Such instances of opportunism have not endeared the Left to the new generation of West Bengal voters. When she accuses the left of “destroying the economy”, Ms Banerjee cannot be faulted entirely. On the other hand, her priorities make little sense. Most of Kolkata’s major roads and streets are well lighted. Yet, in her harebrained haste to “turn Kolkata into London”, the Chief Minister pressured the City Corporation into buying old style trident lights which are being installed along already well lit thoroughfares! The cost? Rs 14 crore so far and expected to reach over Rs 70 crore when all are covered according to an existing plan! The City mayor Sobhan Chatterjee , who has just collected Rs 305 crore from the taxpaying citizenry through a special ”waiver” scheme to settle old tax dues, says that the money will be spent on “beautification projects”! This at a time when many areas are running short of water in summer and conservancy services under great strain. But some suppliers are making money, say her critics.
From flyovers to buildings (including some heritage ones) everything is being painted shades of white and blue, because Ms Banerjee “likes” these colours! The catch is that official departments which go along with the repainting procedure are required to buy the requisite colours in bulk from a particular wholesaler on Hazra Road, South Kolkata, sans any tender formalities. This person has strong TMC links. Is such expenditure on such lights and painting, absolutely vital for the development of the state? But the chief minister has held out even tax concessions for people who repaint their houses in white and blue! From civic society spokesmen to her political opponents, most people have questioned such priorities. While the state government cannot pay families of farmers where a suicide has occurred, the Chief Minister wasted no time in announcing a compensation of Rs 200,000 each for 70-odd victims if an illicit liquor tragedy in south 24 Parganas. It is another matter that the High court has ordered a stay, following a writ petition. This seemed to be nothing short of encouraging people to drink illicit liquor. Ms Banerjee’s opponents said that Ms Banerjee reacted sympathetically only because the bulk of the victims were Muslims.
There seems to be some truth in this. She has just announced a Rs 2500 monthly allowance for the Imams of Masjids and Rs 1000 for their helpers, in West Bengal. No other community has been so favoured. Naturally this has been challenged in the High court. Total cost to the state: Rs 70 crore annually.
BJP leader Rahul Sinha points out that her 12 month tenure will be remembered only for her appeasement of the Muslim community.
Interestingly, the young generation of Muslims, eager for jobs and education, are not impressed by such gimmicks of the government. Recently, boys and girls of the newly set up Alia University gheraoed their principal and other staff for over 12b hors at the Salt lake University campus. Their grouse: there had been no campus recruitment in the University this year, with the first batch ready to join the market. There is no placement cell, either. “Where shall we get jobs? The University enjoys no official recognition. We cannot compete with people in other states for work. In Bengal, the Tatas we re driven out, and the Infosys group seems to be following them. What will happen to us and the money we have spent on our useless degrees, if there is no investment?”, they asked.
Is Ms Banerjee listening and more importantly, will she re-examine her priorities? (IPA Service)