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March ending angst

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  1 April 2016 12:00 AM GMT

Come election time and all sorts of allegations surface about government business. With assembly elections in Assam scheduled in two phases during the first half of April, there are dark mutterings as harried contractors chase after dues in Dispur with the fincial year closing on March 31. On Wednesday, things got out of hand inside the assembly secretariat complex as a large group of contractors tried to lay siege to the Fince department. They were incensed at thousands of ceiling proposal files remaining stuck in the Fince department, which in effect meant that with just a single day remaining for the fincial year to end, their dues would carry over to the end of next year. After all, the State is going to the polls with the new government likely to table a full-fledged budget only in July-August, followed by the process of budget communication extending up to December. Various government departments have been in a fix — whether to send fresh demands to the Fince department or wait till the pending ones are cleared. So with hardly any chances of getting paid for executing government works, contractors have been looking suspiciously at some lucky ones among them who maged to get their ceilings released. Quite unsurprisingly, allegations have been flying thick and fast that only some of the big-time contractors with close links to ministers, legislators and bureaucrats have got their dues worth several crores by paying out hefty bribes. With elections nigh, politicians are tapping money from all sources, including their favourite contractors — so the allegations go. Thus a commonplace scene during March ending in Dispur every year has gotten more complicated this time due to the election factor. The long holiday during Holi too did not help matters.

Official sources have however been citing the empty government coffers as reasons for the crisis, with the Fince department releasing ceilings only for some Central schemes and schemes under State plan funded by the Centre. Having directed various departments no to send ceiling proposals, the Fince department is then said to have carried on in its bad old ways, and is now all set to bounce back over 70 percent of such ceiling files back to concerned departments. All this heartburn could have been avoided had the powers-be in Dispur streamlined fincial procedures and made these transparent and effective. But that is like asking for the moon when it is delays and archaic, illogical procedures that help funnel money into politicians’ pockets. Another such strangely opaque procedure highlighted by the NGO Assam Election Watch recently deals with cash transactions made by heads of government departments in the all-important month of March. The NGO’s RTI findings from March 1 to April 30 last year showed up a pattern of heads of government departments withdrawing money from treasuries through cheques made to ‘self’. Out of 60 treasuries, only 18 have so far bothered to respond to RTI queries by the NGO. But even this small number of responses has revealed a disturbing picture of ‘self’ cheque withdrawals far in excess of the Rs 10 lakh upper limit. If this was how matters stood in 2015, chances are that the same pattern will be repeated more intensively this election year. Suspecting that government funds withdrawn by pressurized or compromised officials through ‘self’ cheques will end up in the hands of politicians for their election campaigns, Assam Election Watch has decided to monitor such transactions more closely this year. Such initiatives to keep tabs on likely electoral malpractices is surely welcome, what with elections getting bigger and badder.

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