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Purse opens for pet projects

- Focus on doles, not assets

Calcutta, Feb. 17: Budget allotments for departments that run pet projects of Mamata Banerjee have shot up while those where higher spending can result in long-term benefits have come down.

Finance minister Amit Mitra repeatedly said “what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow”, suggesting that the welfare schemes initiated by Mamata were being replicated elsewhere in the country. The allotment for at least one department had to be raised because the Centre had hiked its contribution that has to be matched.

According the budget proposals, the allocations for departments such as minority affairs, child development, labour, women development and sports have increased (see chart). These departments are associated with Mamata’s pet schemes, some of which offer financial assistance.

“Spending on doles is not bad as the government has a social responsibility. But a government has to strike a balance between creation of assets and giving out doles,” said a senior government official.

The child development department has undertaken the Kanyashree project, under which over 7 lakh schoolgirls aged between 13 and 18 are getting Rs 500 every year. The department’s allocation has been increased by nearly 236 per cent.

“The allotment has been increased because the state government wants to bring another 10 lakh beneficiaries under the scheme in the 2014-15 financial year…. The scheme is a hit in the rural areas. So, the government wants to extend its ambit,” said a senior government official.

The allotment for minority affairs department that gives allowance to imams and muezzins through the Wakf Board has been increased by 192 per cent.

Another department, the panchayat and rural development, has witnessed a rise of around 170 per cent in allotment. But officials said the additional allotment of this department would be spent in providing pension to nearly 20 lakh beneficiaries of the old age and widow pension scheme.

The allotment of the department had to be hiked as the amount of pension under these schemes — which is shared equally by the state and the Centre — have been hiked by the Union government.

“The state would have to pay Rs 300 for a beneficiary every month as the pension has gone up to Rs 600 a month a few months back,” said a panchayat department official.

The official pointed out that the additional allotment to the department would not help create rural infrastructure.

Senior government officials said that by allotting lesser amount to the departments that create assets, the government may unwittingly be sending a message that it was giving more priority to doles than infrastructure projects.

“It is unfortunate that expenditure under such projects which give out doles are considered as plan expenditure. Actual development projects will suffer,” said an official.