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Miser Bengal sleeps on welfare money
- Funds for job scheme remain unspent

New Delhi, Feb. 6: Delhi has done a Santa in February but Bengal is bent on playing an all-season Uncle Scrooge.

The Planning Commission today humoured visiting chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee by finalising a record Rs 11,602-crore plan for Bengal for the coming financial year.

Don’t bother counting how many zeroes the figure has, how much of a hike it is (27 per cent, if you must know) and what amount the Centre will contribute.

All that doesn’t matter, actually. Because Bengal doesn’t believe in spending cash on what it is meant for.

Like the miserly Dickensian character Ebenezer Scrooge, the communist government has been sitting on piles of money meant to implement a welfare scheme the Left has championed.

The state has spent only 7.54 per cent of the funds available for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme — the welfare trophy of the UPA government — till November 2007. (See chart)

Careful not to push too hard lest it upset the temperamental ally, the plan panel headed by Montek Singh Ahluwalia had gently reminded officials from Bengal that most of the seven districts added to the scheme this financial year have reported “nil” expenditure. This in a state whose chief minister has declared “jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs” were his priority.

“All the districts have sufficient funds available with them,” says a note prepared by the panel for Ahluwalia. In all, “4,208 households in the state have completed 100 days of employment” — the annual duration guaranteed by the scheme.

The note is dated February 1, 2008, and includes data till November 2007. The figures suggest that most families did not manage to get work for 100 days, though 240 days of the year were over by then.

If the duration is below 100 days, the picture is less dismal. Some 34.07 lakh families demanded work and 32.44 lakh families managed to get some work.

The note was prepared in the run-up to the meeting between Ahluwalia and Bhattacharjee — both good friends of Manmohan Singh.

Last year, too, Bengal managed to spend only 59.76 per cent of the money given for the scheme, resulting in a spillover into the next year.

“It seems that Bengal is unable to spend the money we make available for such schemes. The state always had a not-so enviable record in such expenditure,” said a plan panel adviser involved in today’s discussions where the 2008-09 plan size was fixed.

The plan amount looks impressive but the Centre will stump up only 23 per cent of the Rs 11,602 crore. The state will have to raise the balance.

Not that Bengal is discriminating against the job scheme. The food for work programme, too, did not fare well in the state that boasts 8.1 per cent growth rate.

In 2004-05, the state government spent just 12.68 per cent of the funds, and in 2006-07, 28.57 per cent.

Plan panel officials pointed that against an outlay of Rs 1,438.78 crore for the state’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Centre could release only 31 per cent till December. “The state has not been able to come up with matching funds to obtain the full central allocation,” an official said.

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