The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Austerity axe on phones, cars

Calcutta, Sept. 30: Seeking to lift Bengal out of a financial black hole, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government today unveiled a slew of measures to check profligacy in the state.

Finance minister Asim Dasgupta, who will oversee operations to tide over one of the gravest economic crises in post-independence Bengal, announced that the measures would be effective from tomorrow. He said better housekeeping would mop up an additional Rs 750 crore in six months.

“We are confident (we will be able) to mop up the additional Rs 750 crore in the remaining part of the current fiscal if we are able to economise or curb revenue expenditure on certain heads as planned,” he said.

Soon after, chief secretary S.N. Roy issued a circular, intimating scores of departments, local and civic bodies, state-run or autonomous corporations and undertakings as well as institutions receiving financial aid of the state’s latest policy initiative to curb wasteful expenditure.

The government will start by targeting areas (see chart) where expenditure has ballooned to unimaginable levels thanks to unbridled misuse of facilities, lack of monitoring and accountability.

At one level, the government initiative is a wide one as it covers establishments spread across Bengal. But at another, it is narrow because it has only the bureaucracy in its gunsight and leaves ministers — no less wasteful — outside its purview.

“That is one issue, which will have to be addressed by the chief minister and none else,” said Dasgupta, aware that several ministers were heavyweight politicians of non-CPM parties, capable of taking him on.

“But compared to other states, our ministers do not indulge in wasteful expenditure. They travel by air or rail in the economy class, without attendants. I have no doubt they will rise up to the occasion,” he said.

The cost-cutting initiative comes a day after chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee travelled to Malda on Sunday in an ordinary air-conditioned chair car. The usual practice is to reserve an entire compartment.

Dasgupta, however, appears to be coming under pressure from a section of the CPM which feels that the government’s measures — the bonus cut, for instance — will cost it in terms of goodwill and popular support.

Going by indications from the Alimuddin Street headquarters, this section feels the party could have managed popular sentiment better had Dasgupta hinted at the crisis in the state budget a few months ago.

“The budget, which reflects the health of state finances, did not offer any clue,” a senior CPM official said. A section of the leadership is also questioning why the government did not initiate early measures to control wasteful expenditure by top government officials.

“Instead of halving the puja bonus without notice, the government could have asked the departmental secretaries not to spend lakhs of rupees without prior approval,” he said.

There is a strong possibility of Dasgupta facing a hostile audience when he meets the Left Front on October 7 to explain the need for harsh measures. CPI leaders have already begun to criticise the finance department’s handling of matters.

Dasgupta’s supporters are hoping that the chief minister’s presence at the meeting will shield him from possible attacks. Indications are that the front partners will seek an explanation why the decision to cut bonus was not discussed with the core committee of the Cabinet.

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