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Spend limit goes for a toss

Bhubaneswar, Jan. 6: With the poll day approaching, candidates are loosening their purse strings to woo voters. Consequently, there is a big gap between their real expenses and the expenditure limit set by the state election commission.

A conservative assessment of the campaign expenses by The Telegraph shows that each candidate will spend more than five times the prescribed limit of Rs 50,000 for the corporation polls. Campaigning began on December 27 and ended on Monday evening.

The assessment shows that even at their conservative best, each candidate will end up spending around 2.5 lakh for their 11-day campaign. Keeping real-time economics in mind, hiring a microphone along with a diesel-run generator for 11 days and a four-wheeler or three-wheeler for this period would cost the candidate Rs 52,500, which is Rs 2,500 more than the expenditure limit. There are also lots of other necessary expenditures.

Irrespective of their political affiliation, candidates said they spend more than Rs 5 lakh on advertisement material including posters, banners, hoardings, leaflets, push cards, graffiti and audio-visual cassettes.

“The total expense comes to around Rs 8 lakh,” said a candidate who did not want to be named.

A conservative estimate by The Telegraph showed that the cost on advertisement alone would be around Rs 1.25 lakh, which is around two-and-a-half times above the prescribed expenditure limit.

“If we strictly follow the election commission guidelines, we will not be able to campaign properly. This limit is very impractical,” said a candidate from Ekamra area.

Officials in the election commission said Section 82 of the Orissa Municipal Corporation Act, 2003, and Section 17-A of the Orissa Municipal Act, 1950, stipulate the permissible limit of expenditure for a candidate at different urban local bodies.

For NACs and municipalities with a population of up to 50,000, a candidate can spend a maximum of Rs 30,000. In case of municipalities with a population between 50,000 and one lakh, the maximum expenditure is Rs 40,000, while in urban bodies with more than one lakh people, a candidate can spend up to Rs 50,000.

R.N. Sahu, special secretary to the state election commission said that in order to keep a watch on expenditure by candidates in the corporation polls, the commission has appointed three expenditure observers.

“These observers are senior Odisha Finance Service officers. They hold their camps at different places to check expenses of the candidates,” said Sahu.

In an expenditure inspection camp organised by observer Ramesh Chandra Patra in Satya Nagar, he advised the candidates to stick to the norms and gave them tips on how to maintain their daily accounts. “We have not received any complaint yet. Whenever we come across allegations, we look into it and report to the election commission for action,” said Patra.

Interestingly, no one has been found violating the expenditure norms till date.

The guidelines allow a candidate to use two four-wheelers or three-wheelers for campaigning. The vehicle-hiring charge as well as fuel expenditure has to be mentioned in the audit report.

However there is no bar on the use of number of motorcycles. But the expense on the fuel must be mentioned in the report.

Sources said that the candidates show many of their expenses as donations by friends or supporters. Patra said there is no limit on such donations, but the donor has to present a written proof of donation to the expenditure observer within 10 days or else, it would be counted as the candidate’s own spending. Many candidates show the audio-visual cassettes they play during campaigning as gifts from their friends.

The election observer said that if a political party spends from its funds for campaigning in the corporation area, the total expenditure would be divided into the number of candidates it has fielded. But this must not exceed the prescribed ceiling of Rs 50,000 for each one.

Given the way candidates are splurging, the impression among the people is that there is no limit on spending. “One does not have to be an economist to know this. We are astonished to see the election commission ignoring all this,” said Rudra Pratap Mohanty, an engineer.

Former law minister and senior Congress leader Narasingh Mishra said there was no need to increase the present limit of expenditure. But he felt the election commission should take strict action against violators. “The election commission only cautions a violator and this does not have much impact,” said Mishra.

BJP spokesperson Suresh Pujari said that the current expenditure limit was impractical and cash-rich parties are making a mockery of it. “Most of these parties exceed the limit by more than 20 times per candidate,” said Pujari referring to the BJD.

However BJD general secretary Narendra Swain felt this was not the right time to discuss the expenditure limit. “As the polling day is only two days away, we should not discuss this now,” said Swain.

Chartered accountant Bijay Das said that the maximum limit of Rs 50,000 appeared impractical in today’s context. He said candidates consult chartered accountants to plan their expenditure.

Sahu, however, said that candidates have to submit their day-to-day account report within 30 days of the declaration of results. “If a candidate is found to have violated the expenditure limit, his election will be declared null and void,” said Sahu.