When times are bad, consider

Robert L Dkhar

A recent announcement by the State Government of a revenue downfall of 80% on account of the ongoing pandemic highlights the precarious state the local economy is in. No wonder the resultant salary deferments of government employees across the board for what may be for an indefinite time frame alongside other austerity measures within government. That an economic standstill of a brief period of a month (now two months) is enough to stifle government spending speaks of empty reserves to back up in a time of crisis. Apparently we are spending more than we earn and that too on non-profit yielding items bulk of it on salaries of government employees.

‘Blame it on the complexities of coal extraction in the state’ some would say ‘otherwise we are fine’. But are we really? Even regular proceeds from coal trade might not be able to sustain the bloated salary budget of the state. Lean and Mean is the order of the day worldwide be it in government or the private sector. Look a little closer and it is not too difficult to find out why we crumble at the first sight of a pandemic.

Little kids are often taught the maxim “save for a rainy day”. It amazes one that the State has absolutely no cushion to fall back on in times of a crisis. We know too well that we exist devoid of major industries or other revenue yielding enterprises. Meaning we have very little tax incomes. So when the sharing of revenue takes place our State gets a pittance. That should have been enough reason to tailor our spending accordingly. But alas! All we have goes up in smoke time and again. Here are some thoughts on a time such as this.

An inspiration may be drawn from the Biblical account of the life of Joseph the most unlikely candidate for the position of Prime Minister of Egypt. His master stroke was the amazing economic measure he launched when Egypt was at its prosperous best. Rather than flaunt the nation’s wealth when all seemed well and a famine not even visible in the horizon, he institutionalized community savings for the hard times. I suspect he might have been subjected to mocking and sneering albeit from behind the scenes at this seemingly absurd initiative. But wisdom prevails and seven years later Egypt was spared from the hardship of the most severe famine that plagued the land. These are leaders of substance who would not budge for the sake of political or personal expediency.

Firstly, the State of Meghalaya boasts of three Directorates in the Health & Family Welfare Deptt, four Directorates in the Education Deptt including MBoSE, we have the Directorate of Irrigation and also a Directorate of  Water Resources and the list goes on and all this for a State with just a little over 3 million population. Is the existence of multiple Directorates under one Department justified when the State’s economy is gasping for breath for want of adequate resources? Can we afford such luxury? There is that phrase “keeping up with the joneses” and on this note let us ask ourselves “Were we financially capable to implement the latest pay revision?”. No doubt the employees of the State Government deserved to be compensated at par with other State Governments or even the Centre what with inflation et al. Additional generation of resources was a pre-requisite to its implementation but we went ahead anyway hoping manna will fall from the sky. There is indeed no free lunch. Now two years down the line we still owe our employees 30% of their arrears. Ah! but for the complexities of coal extraction in the state.

We read of the Power Corporation’s venture into fisheries. While the last of it is yet to be heard, it is feared that so much of a scarce resource might have gone down the drain. There may be other such stories in the maze of government departments all around us.

Secondly, having served at a revenue collecting department for a good two and a half decades, one thing that is so pertinent to note is the lack of financial discipline amongst our brethren compared to fellow citizens who are not members of sixth schedule areas. To be exempted from payment of income tax is such a huge financial advantage for us that we apparently have not realized. Others are mandatorily required to save to lessen the burden of income tax which means doing away with acquiring unnecessary merchandise and gadgets that we are so impulsively drawn to. Ask any state government employee and he or she will relate of how much EMIs goes out every month because of that car loan, that TV loan, that Fridge loan, that Personal loan and so on. We even do not hesitate to use our PF money to buy something as frivolous as a microwave oven. The import of the phrase ‘A rupee saved is a rupee earned’ has to be ingrained in the minds of our people. We must gear up for the road ahead.

Two scenarios emerge. One to cut expenses and the other to encourage savings. The total financial impact of the ongoing pandemic is going to be hard and relentless. Who knows for how long. The last rupee will then have been given away. The time to reinvent our financial strategy is now. The time to trim the flab is now.

Thirdly, of course government employment has reached a saturation point. ‘Please do not knock at the doors of government for employment’ we are told. ‘Do something on your own’ is the oft’ repeated phrase. ‘Be a job giver not a job seeker’ runs another. Here is a story of a young graduate with the intention of starting out on his own. For that initial push he applied for a small assistance through the KVIC who after due process recommended a loan under an ongoing scheme. It so happens that the little project of this young lad is at a place that is not within the territories of his home District and on that note Bank flatly turned down the request. Indeed we want our young ones to venture out on their own and not look to government for everything. And in so doing we can also remove such illogical hurdles. This is one illustration but there are many more stories of the frustration of our young ones stemming from such experiences.

The times call for a paradigm shift on the part of the government, a behavioral change on the part of the people and a transparent and fair dispensation of government assistance. Rightly so, When times are bad, consider.

(The writer is a member of the IRS (Retd) and former Director NIFT Shillong. He presently serves in full time Christian ministry)

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