Mamata Banerjee speaks to Amit Mitra just before he began his budget speech on Monday as industries minister Partha Chatterjee looks on. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Calcutta, March 11: The budget was presented by finance minister Amit Mitra and publicly defended by industries minister Partha Chatterjee, but it had Mamata Banerjee’s populist stamp all over it with a rural and pro-poor focus ahead of the panchayat polls.
“I am an impartial person. But I am basically for the downtrodden. Just see, I haven’t imposed any taxes on the poor. Why? Because I am with them. They need to be spared at any cost. So, the budget doesn’t have any step that could adversely affect the poor,” the chief minister said during an informal chat with reporters in her Assembly chamber after the budget was tabled, munching on muri and chanachur in between.
A minister present in Mamata’s chamber said the chief minister’s “pro-poor stance” was reflected in the budget document. “She had to address the rural constituency with the panchayat polls round the corner,” the minister said.
After the budget presentation last year, Mamata had addressed a news conference with Mitra by her side. Today, she didn’t allow the finance minister to meet the media. Instead, she told the industries minister to speak on the budget, “hinting that the budget was her’s, not Mitra’s”, a source said.
Asked for an official comment on the budget, Mamata said in her chamber: “What’s there to say for me or Amitda? The budget has spelt out everything clearly. It’s a reflection of good governance and the performance of the Ma Mati Manush government.”
In her trademark style, the chief minister added: “Morubhoomir dhangshostuper opor dariye sabujer abhijan — etai amar budget. Ager sarkar deulia kore gechhe (Standing on the ruins of a desert, this is a drive for greenery — that’s my budget. The last government had made the state bankrupt).”
This year’s budget talks about the state government’s “determination” to vigorously pursue development in the rural sector. Time and again in the past two years, the chief minister has fallen back on the Centre’s flagship 100-day job scheme (MNREGA) while speaking on her government’s “pro-poor” stance. Today was no different.
Mamata said that during the Left government’s tenure, the number of days of work provided to the rural poor a year was as low as 11. “But our government has raised it to nearly 40 days. We have become the frontrunner in the country in implementing REGA (MNREGA). Our budget talks about that. The poor people will be happy, I believe,’’ she said.
The sources said that in his budget speech, Mitra “judiciously avoided” mentioning that the Centre provided funds under the 100-day job scheme and the state government could not claim credit for the money allotted. Mitra said Rs 3,000 crore had been spent under MNREGA in the last fiscal and “we expect to make expenditure of Rs 4,000 crore in the current year”.
“We also stand committed for providing employment beyond (the) 100-day stipulation of the central government,” the finance minister said to the thumping of desks.
In the past few months, Mamata had been insisting at party meetings that organisational efforts should be made to win all the zilla parishads and the majority of the gram panchayats and panchayat samitis in the coming rural polls. The Left Front controls 13 of the 17 zilla parishads and half of the gram panchayats and panchayat samities.
“It (rural polls) has now become a prestige issue for Didi. Her pro-poor announcements in today’s budget is to win over a big chunk of the rural votes to Trinamul’s side,” food minister Jyotipriya Mallick said.
The huge hike in the outlays for panchayats and rural development betray Mamata’s efforts to woo the rural folk ahead of the panchayat polls.
From a budgetary provision of around Rs 2,716 crore in 2012-13, the government revised the figure by increasing the outlay for panchayats by Rs 1,229 crore. And in today’s budget, it has been raised to Rs 2,990 crore for the next fiscal.
“That explains how our chief minister has been focusing on rural development over the past one year,” a finance department official said in the Assembly.
Mamata highlighted the “praise” her government had received from the World Bank for its performance on the panchayat front. “Whatever we are saying, leave it. World Bank is saying Bengal’s performance in panchayats is the best,” she said.
Construction of houses for the rural poor under the Gitanjali and Amar Thikana schemes found mention in the budget speech. The promise of spending Rs 3,168 crore for rural road connectivity also feature in what the sources termed Mamata’s “panchayat budget”.
“We will achieve 3,000km of road connectivity in the villages in the next financial year,” the chief minister said.