|Mitra in New Delhi.
Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha
New Delhi, June 11: The Union finance ministry is believed to have offered Bengal a grant-in-aid of Rs 16,000 crore to be paid in three to four tranches over three years instead of a debt servicing moratorium the state has sought.
The offer was apparently made when Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra met Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee in Delhi today.
Mitra, who flew back to Calcutta after the meeting, was tight-lipped on the offer. “Discussions are going on... we will speak to chief minister Mamata Banerjee,” he said.
“Discussions are going on…. Discussions will continue…” Mitra added.
Political sources said the talks remained “inconclusive”. “The issue of Bengal is more important for us than who becomes the next President. The Centre unfortunately has kept us waiting,” said a Trinamul MP, adding that a clear picture on the package would remove the uncertainty over the presidential elections.
In Calcutta, asked about the Delhi talks, Mamata said: “Routine meeting. Nothing is there. They called to discuss. No… no, I haven’t received anything. Without receiving anything, how can I give the details. If I am satisfied, I will tell you. If I am not satisfied, I am not going to say…. I don’t think there will be a big jump. Every time we are raising the point and we are coming empty-handed.”
Bengal has run up over Rs 2.03 lakh crore in debt and bears an annual interest burden of Rs 22,000 crore.
Sources in Delhi said the Bengal representatives were not too enthused about today’s offer. Finance ministry officials, who have been working on the proposal for several months now, said this “was the best we can do”.
However, the final decision will be political as Mamata’s response to several key issues in the immediate future is expected to hinge on how much assistance the Centre can marshal for Bengal. Other than the presidential polls, the pension bill and the notification on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail are also at stake.
If the grant-in-aid offer is accepted by the Bengal government, it will mean that the state will get cash that doesn’t need to be repaid. Neither does it carry interest. Besides, the state is expected to have more or less a free hand in spending the money, though some of the cash can be tied to specific projects.
Similar packages will be worked out for the other two debt-stressed states — Punjab and Kerala.
Such an option has been mooted as officials insist only a finance commission set up under constitutional provisions can announce a debt write-off or moratorium for states.
Besides, the huge amounts being sought by the three states in moratoria — totalling around Rs 40,000 crore — will be a huge drain on the Centre’s resources which are already under pressure.
The officials in Delhi have sought to delink today’s talks from the presidential polls. “The package was in the works many months before Mukherjee’s name started doing the rounds as a presidential candidate and it could never have been what Bengal wanted as that would have violated well laid down constitutional principles,” an official said.
A panel headed by expenditure secretary Sumit Bose is believed to have worked out the deal offered to the state. The panel was set up last year but had hit a roadblock when Bengal insisted on a full debt recast. However, a Bengal Congress leader close to Mukherjee rekindled the efforts in April.