The first budget of the BJP-led alliance is primarily an exercise to try cleaning up the fincial mess Assam has been stuck in, consolidate and generate resources interlly, and push for growth in carefully selected sectors. In an agrarian state where farm income has grown at a pitiable 0.88% rate in the past decade, this budget has got it right in aiming to double farm income in the next five years. Though budgeting for only eight months in current 2016-17 fiscal, there can be no meaningful progress without a five year vision. Thus it is that the budget centerpiece ‘Chief Minister Samagra Gramya Unyan Yoja (CMSGUY)’ is being planned to run to 2021-22 in mega mission mode. It will push simultaneously in nine sectors including fishery, dairy, organic farming, sericulture and khadi, cottage industry, agro-processing, land magement, rural roads and market linkages. This scheme along with other initiatives envisage organizing farmers through I-card linked database, setting up godowns, installing shallow tube-wells, incentivizing cooperatives and developing village knowledge centers. All this is planned through a mass movement in 25,425 revenue villages, with each receiving Rs 1.2 crores to total Rs 30,000 crores in five years. The move to raise tax limit to Rs 2.5 lakh annual income and other incentives for small tea growers will keep these agro-entrepreneurs in the welfare loop.
If the proposal to start e-tendering in the scam-ridden Agriculture department comes to pass, surely it will ensure some transparency in procurement. After all, it is the department where over 340 top officials sought anticipatory bail last year in connection with just one scam in procuring and supplying lime to farmers. It will also be interesting to see how the Irrigation department is put to work to revive 54 moribund projects and take up 21 minor projects, for the department’s irrigation coverage has remained stuck within single digit in over six decades of functioning. This budget has made no big bang announcements on key sectors like infrastructure, power and energy, which the opposition Congress has criticized. It seems though that the Fince minister has opted to ride piggyback on some Central schemes and get their benefit for the State. No wonder Central schemes like ‘Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yoja (PMUY)’ to provide free LPG connections for BPL women and ‘Atal Mission for Rejuvetion and Urban Transformation’ find mention in Sarma’s budget, the latter scheme to benefit Guwahati, Silchar, gaon and Dibrugarh this fiscal. With Assam to get ‘special treatment’ from the Centre rather than the earlier special category status, it makes sense to utilize Central schemes for concrete development on the ground. As Sarma informed the Assembly recently, there are 112 such schemes running in Assam, with 48 schemes getting 100 percent and 58 schemes getting 90 percent Central funding.
The multiplicity of schemes which has long made a mockery of the budgeting exercise is not something a poor state like Assam can afford any longer. The Fince minister has sounded a clear warning not to bear their liabilities — that schemes announced on New Year, Independence Day, Republic Day and so on will be put under scanner. These mostly ‘individual benefit-oriented schemes do not stimulate growth, do not inspire equity, do not cater to development, nor do they contribute to employment’ — so lamented Sarma in his budget speech. Hopefully, the Centre’s refusal now to keep throwing good money without seeking accounts will instill some fincial discipline in Assam, so that welfare schemes are no longer tolerated as cash cows for politicians and bureaucrats. The proposals for cash reward to whistleblowers and put up CCTVs in treasuries ought to be significant. Happily, there is much focused intervention in this budget to benefit health, education and law enforcement machinery in a big way. This government can reap much public goodwill if it can deliver on some budget proposals — like a health assurance scheme with Rs 2 lakh coverage to be free for BPL people, distributing textbooks free of cost for students of classes IX and X, exempting poor students from higher secondary fees, providing funds to development councils and make them actually work, settling pensions in time-bound manner, giving a big push to solar power, and bringing medical colleges, hospitals and police stations up to shape. If it can do all this and more besides but still limit fiscal deficit at 2.97 percent, so much the better. In line with measures already initiated under ‘ReSTART Assam’ to generate interl revenue and plug holes in mission mode, the Fince minister has stressed upon consolidation and proper housekeeping. His proposal to get a public expenditure law ected, to hold officials accountable for time and cost overruns as well as shoddy quality in implementing schemes, needs be welcomed. The underlying message of the new budget’s governce model should strike home clearly — the days of easy money are gone, waste not want not, and learn to do more with less.