When the tabling of State annual budget in Assam Assembly was advanced to February this year, the government explained that the move would ensure proper use of funds and timely execution of projects. The madness that turns Dispur upside down every March ending would become a thing of the past, so we were told. After all, the NDA government at the Centre had last year decided to end the British Raj era practice of presenting the general budget on the last working day of February, and instead fixed February 1 as D-day from this year onwards. Taking the Central government’s cue, the BJP-led government in Assam too decided to bring forward the budget presentation from second week of March to before February 10 this year. State Fince Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma went so far as to say that in the following years, budget presentation will be advanced to January and then to December, so as to make the fincial year coincide with the calendar year. The Centre’s argument was that advancing the budget to February 1 will help getting funds authorised for various sectors by the start of the fincial year on April 1. This was in line with Prime Minister rendra Modi’s contention that if the budget cycle is brought forward, it would ensure authorisation of expenditure and some productive work by government ministries/departments/agencies would get done before the onset of monsoons. This was of particular significance for a State like Assam, where very few scheme work get done during the long rainy season. By the time government departments filise proposals and seek funds, the March ending deadline chaos descends on the State capital. While contractors scurry about to clear bills, a section of officials in Dispur make merry.
And by all indications, this state of affairs will be witnessed in coming March 2018 too, with sundry government departments yet to submit proposals to Fince department to avail of funds. Reportedly, the status of fund utilization by government departments during April, May and June this year was very poor. So much so, that Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal on Sunday had to chair a crucial meeting to get the true picture and pull up laggard departments. After he sought the expenditure status from departments, the CM sternly directed them to ensure utilization of budget allotted funds within March 31 next year, adopt proper action plans to expeditiously use funds in proper manner, and carry out all these responsibilities ‘with utmost professiolism’. Sonowal also urged top departmental officials to meet regularly with subordites to review implementation of works, adopt the latest technology and employ local youths wherever possible. So it appears the laid-back attitude of departments is to blame, addicted as they are to a somnolent work culture of a bygone age, sleeping on various stages of scheme preparation & execution process, then waking up with a frenzy come March ending. However, a blame game seems to be on in right earnest with several departments pointing accusing fingers at the Fince department itself. Aggrieved departments are learnt to have complained that the Fince department has not released major part of budget-allotted funds, sending back proposals under various nit-picking pretexts. The reality is such that most government schemes presently running in the State are Centrally sponsored, but most departments are said to be failing to access Central funds. So what could be the reason — that the State departments are not furnishing proper and timely utilisation certificates (UCs), or that the State Fince department is not sending these UCs expeditiously to the Centre and get subsequent instalments released quickly, or that the Centre itself is being miserly? In one State department after another, the grouse is the same — no funds! Even big-ticket Central schemes like MGNREGS are stuttering in the State with Central funds not forthcoming, but that is hardly surprising considering how badly these schemes have been leaking over the years, riddled with irregularities, and having little to show in terms of helping targeted beneficiaries. During the earlier Congress regime in the State, the Agriculture department got to implement mega Central schemes like Rashtriya Krishi Vikash Yoja (RKVY) and Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India (BGREI). And what happened? Corrupt officials and politicians are now suspected to have skimmed off Rs 3,000 crore from these two schemes alone. Small wonder then that only the Public Works Department (which too does not have a particularly good record to boast of) is currently getting some Central funds for building roads in the State under the Prime Minister’s rural roads scheme. This may have more to do with the priority accorded to road infrastructure in Northeast States by the NDA government. It is high time for other State government departments to get their act together in implementing schemes cleanly and effectively to improve their record, as well as being proactive in putting up acceptable proposals and getting funds released.