The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Asim faces fire for empty coffers

Calcutta, Jan. 30: In an act redolent of his predecessor Ashok Mitra, the original author of the CPM’s Delhi-bashing line, beleaguered finance minister Asim Dasgupta today blamed the Centre for Bengal’s near-bankruptcy.

As chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee looked on, Left Front partners — the CPI, the RSP and the Forward Bloc in particular — tore into Dasgupta for over three hours at a meeting at the CPM headquarters, charging him with keeping them in the dark about the financial crisis that started creeping up on Bengal more than a year ago.

“The Front government is a collective responsibility, yet you chose to keep us in the dark and handle the state finances as your sole charge,” said the RSP.

Dasgupta went into the meeting with Bhattacharjee, who told the Left partners that the government was facing a crisis and that the finance minister would explain why. “I hope you will find his explanation satisfactory,” he said, staying on for an hour-and-a-half.

To be fair, Dasgupta confessed that the communists’ penchant for populism was among several factors that were as much to blame as the Centre’s apathy. The factors he listed were:

n The sharp rise in salaries and allowances of 10 lakh government employees since 1997-98. At present, expenditure on salary is Rs 12,239 crore a year, against the Rs 6177 crore in 1997.

n Central loans worth around Rs 70,000 crore.

n Poor collection of sales tax.

n Fall in the state’s share of Central tax.

n Restrictions imposed by the RBI on borrowings as well as wage and means advance.

But Dasgupta’s references to Centre-state relations did not satisfy the allies, who asked for a detailed report documenting the instances of the Centre’s indifference to Bengal’s needs.

“Such a document will enable us to understand the issue and to go and explain to the people why things went wrong,” said front chairman and CPM politburo member Biman Bose.

Dasgupta said no major crisis was expected till March but triggered speculation about more taxes in the next budget when he said: “We have to develop and inculcate among the people a habit to pay taxes so that we can expect to generate more revenue.”

Dasgupta distributed copies of a confidential note at the meeting, which he himself collected at the end to avert a leak.

At Writers’ Buildings, he released a 32-page document on the crisis. Copies will be made available to parties, academics and organisations for initiating an “open debate” on the near-bankruptcy of Bengal.

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