Budget making for a ‘progressive, aspiratiol’ Assam has become a fraught exercise considering the tight interl revenue position and limited scope for indirect taxation post GST. Nevertheless, the BJP-led government in the State has to keep an eye on the upcoming panchayat elections as well as building up for the all-important general elections next year. Thus it is that resource mobilisation and expenditure magement in the State budget for 2018-19 is accompanied by carefully directed sops to various categories. Complete exemption of cess on green tea leaves which will benefit small tea growers, enhanced salaries for Anganwadi-ASHA workers and daily wages for home guards, stipend for girls of 12-20 year age group and up to middle class families — are but a few examples. The tea community remains very much in the government’s radar, with a gesture towards retired workers of Assam Tea Corporation gardens — Rs 99 crore has been allocated for payment of their outstanding PF dues, gratuity, arrear wages, salary and bonus. A pragmatic view has been taken of the difficulties of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in securing bank loans due to ibility to furnish collateral, along with the banks themselves under rising NPA burden. The budget proposes a Credit Guarantee Fund of Rs 100 crore, which will act as guarantee in case a project fails, covering up to half the loan amount (taken up to Rs 50 lakh). A similar benefit is sought to be provided to stressed farmers requiring an allocation of Rs 500 crore, with the State government to deposit 25% of outstanding dues (to a maximum limit of Rs 25,000) of a farmer for his bank loan. Fince Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma has also mentioned that farmers have not been able to take full benefit of subsidized, short term crop loans through Kisan Credit Cards (KCCs), the major reason being that most of these accounts have outstanding dues, thereby ‘clogging up credit flow from banks’. To free up such ictive accounts, he has now announced a one-time cash incentive of Rs 3,000 to farmers renewing their cards.
With Prime Minister rendra Modi’s skilling push showing little results in Assam so far, it is hardly surprising that Dr Sarma has to keep his foot on the gas pedal here. He has set a target of covering 1.5 lakh youths under skills training programme in the next 3 years, requiring per head investment of Rs 14,800. This will be further linked to the SVAYEM scheme to ensure employability and encourage entrepreneurship. As for making Engineering and Commerce graduates employable, the Fince Minister has pointed out that it takes Rs 2-4 lakh for such graduates to go for training in futuristic software and courses like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). It remains to be seen if top ERP groups like SAP carry out their commitment to set up 10 Centres of Excellence in the State over the next 3 years, as hoped for in the budget with an allocation of Rs 10 crore for the coming fiscal. However, when it comes to detecting foreigners, earmarking just Rs 10 lakh for upgrading the infrastructure of each of the 100 Foreigners Tribul (FT) offices is hardly adequate, considering the security threat to FT judges and members. The Fince Minister has also rightly praised the various vigilance and anti- corruption units for the ongoing campaign against graft. One can only hope his proposal to provide a fincial incentive to the concerned officers and staff by an additiol 15% of basic salary over and above their regular salaries, will be taken in the proper spirit and raise morale. Taking a swipe at the previous Congress government (of which he was a prominent minister), Dr Sarma has pointed out that under the present ruling dispensation, the Gross State Domestic product (GSDP) has increased from Rs 1,83,798 crore in 2014-15 to estimated Rs 2,58,337 crore in 2017-18. He has also taken pride in an improved atmosphere of investor friendliness and ease of doing business, mentioning in particular the 200 MoUs worth nearly Rs 1 lakh crore signed during the Advantage Assam summit last month. However, the proposals need to be followed up, which shows why the new government agency christened ‘Invest Assam’ will have its hands full. The most sobering note struck in Dr Sarma’s budget speech is the necessity for the State to keep within its means, the importance of streamlining and generating resources. Apart from a 5% electricity duty on ad-valorem basis, no new direct taxes have been levied, while the scope for raising indirect taxes has been curtailed by GST. The government has hiked fees, fines and user charges of various services to mop up more non-tax revenue, but the collections are hardly impressive. Overall, sales tax revenues and non-tax revenues make up less than Rs 26,000 crore, which is not even one-third of the estimated Rs 90,673.42 total inflow into the State’s consolidated fund for 2018-19 fiscal. Of the remaining over two-third fund, Dispur will look eagerly to the State’s share of Central taxes (amounting to a little above Rs 26,000 crore), apart from monies provided to implement Central developmental schemes.