The north-eastern states, barring Assam, has nothing much to cheer in the Union Budget presented by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for the financial year 2021-22. Even for Assam, the devil is in the details. The Union Finance Minister has announced allocations for augmenting the road sectors in four poll-bound states- Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. The budget proposals state that while Rs 19,000 crore is currently in progress in the State of Assam, further works of more than Rs 34,000 crore covering more than 1,300 km of National Highways will be undertaken in the State in the coming three years. For Tamil Nadu, allocation will be Rs. 103 lakh crore for works of 3,500 km, Rs 65,000 crore for 1,100 km in Kerala and Rs 25,000 crore for 675 km in West Bengal. The Finance MinisteThe north-eastern states, barring Assam, has nothing much to cheer in the Union Budget presented by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for the financial year 2021-2 also announced allocation of Rs 1,000 crore for the welfare of tea garden workers in Assam and West Bengal. Allocated fund, when released for such infrastructure projects brings more liquidity in the market and creates more jobs. Road projects are also critical for connectivity-deficit region like the Northeast. While announcements of increased allocations trigger hope of accelerated development, actual implementation of road and infrastructure projects in the region tell a different story of actual pace of road projects. Union Road Transport, Highways and MSME Minister Nitin Gadkari went on record that in 2020, work of altogether 270 km of roads were completed at a cost of Rs 1,102 crore. He also said that Detailed Project Report for the 6.75-km-long bridge connecting Majuli river island is ready and tender has been floated. The Union Budget for 2021 does not mention any specific announcement on allocation of the estimated Rs 900 crore for the Majuli connectivity project of which the proposed bridge is a part.
The foundation stone for the bridge to the river-island was laid before 2016 Assembly polls and the project has been hanging fire since then. This speaks volume about the poor progress of infrastructure projects announced in the region and foundation stones of which are laid with much fanfare. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in a report expressed concern over the delay in projects under the North Eastern Road Sector Development Scheme (NERDS). The delay is to such an extent that when the projects should have been completed, has now commenced, as the 5 projects which have been sanctioned during February and March 2020 and is still at tendering process, the report states. The parliamentary committee observed that projects under NERDs were approved during 2017-20 for three years with allocation of Rs. 1,000 crore. However, only 14 (fourteen) projects costing Rs. 981.27 crore were sanctioned that too during 2019-20 after a complete loss of two financial years. Out of these 14 projects, five projects have been sanctioned during February and March 2020. The rest nine projects were sanctioned during July-August 2019 and the construction commenced in last quarter of 2020-21. The parliamentary panel recommends that the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region must examine and evaluate the reasons for such inordinate delay in implementation of the projects under NERSDS. Earmarking allocations for welfare of tea garden workers targeting to benefit the women and children in the Union Budget is an encouraging announcement even though details are still awaited.
However, the budget speech did not mention anything on the demand raised by various organizations representing garden workers as well as by the opposition parties on increasing the daily wage of tea garden workers to Rs 351. Increasing the wage of garden workers is a poll promise by the ruling party which has remained unfulfilled. The daily wage of garden workers of the Brahmaputra valley is Rs 167 and it is Rs 145 for the garden workers in the Barak Valley which is too meagre and makes it difficult for them to make their both ends meet. Requirement of hike in daily wage of tea garden workers cannot be replaced by welfare schemes and projects taken up with budgetary support by the State and the Central governments. Rather, the wage increment of the garden workers is needed to complement various welfare projects aimed at improving their socio-economic and better access to health, education, and infrastructure. The announcement in the budget on road projects is expected to get a boost during the scheduled visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi later on February 7 to launch the 42 road corridor projects estimated to cost Rs 5000 crore under Assam Mala projects. So far tenders of 12 projects have been floated. However, the campaign around the budget allocation for welfare measures for women and children of tea garden is more likely to bring the demand for increasing the wages of the workers to the centre stage of the electioneering for the upcoming Assembly election in Assam.