The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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CMs’ meet key to state

New Delhi, Dec. 20: Twenty-nine chief ministers will be flying in tomorrow for a power-packed meeting of the National Development Council, the country’s highest economic decision-making body where the country’s economic action plan for the next five years will be finalised.

Only three chief ministers will be absent: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee of West Bengal, Narendra Modi of Gujarat, and Babulal Marandi of Jharkhand.

Marandi dropped out at the eleventh hour with a valid excuse — Maoist rebels had gunned down several policemen in his state and he had to be there to tackle the situation. Modi is not coming as the programme was set before the Gujarat elections and there was uncertainty whether he would return to power.

Modi will be sending a team of bureaucrats for the meeting, which will be presided over by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Besides the 29 chief ministers, virtually the entire Union Cabinet will be present to decide the fate of Rs 7,06,000 crore Tenth Five-Year Plan.

But Bhattacharjee is scheduled to send his virtual Number Two in the Cabinet — industry and planning minister Nirupam Sen — as West Bengal’s representative.

This year, Bengal’s expenditure on three heads —salary, pensions and interest payouts on past loans — alone will amount to nearly 110 per cent of its total revenue for the current fiscal year (2002-03).

This means the government will be borrowing not only to fund any development work, but also pay its wage and pension bills. The state government will pay out around Rs 7,500 crore as interest payment alone this year, which implies it has already run up a debt of about Rs 70,000 crore. Its salary payments will be nearly Rs 2,100 crore and its pension bill is just about 10 per cent less than the pay bill.

The lifeline that could save Bengal from this bankrupt situation — a controversial debt relief package for states that could call upon it to forego certain fiscal rights and force them to accept some expenditure strings — will be among issues fought out at New Delhi’s meeting tomorrow.

Changes will also be proposed in the Gadgil formula, the hallowed but complex money-sharing formula by which development assistance is doled out to states. A change in any variable in the formula could mean more or less money for Bengal.

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