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Asim rises to present... questions

Calcutta, Feb. 18: Former finance minister Asim Dasgupta today performed the annual ritual of holding a post-budget news conference to question several of Amit Mitra’s plans.

As Dasgupta highlighted “misleading and non-transparent” entries in this year’s budget documents, some old-timers saw a “role reversal”. They recounted how Dasgupta, whose zero-deficit budgets were criticised by the Opposition, was now raising questions on his successor’s budget.

“The role reversal is interesting. Asimda was always under attack from the Opposition during his days as the finance minister. Now, he is leading the attack,” said a former CPM MLA who did not wish to be named.

Dasgupta, the longest-serving finance minister of the state, today challenged the veracity of Mitra’s forecast that Bengal would achieve 9.58 per cent growth in industry in 2013-14.

The industrial growth estimate is a part of the economic growth forecast — pegged at 7.7 per cent — as the overall performance of the economy comprises expansions of the agriculture, industry and service sectors.

When he was the finance minister, Dasgupta had to field frequent questions on growth estimates as the benefits of high growth were not always visible in the real economy.

“At times, those debates were ill-informed. But now with Asimda in the Opposition, the debates will be informed and it’s a healthy sign as people will get to know the reality,” the CPM leader said.

In a throwback to his days as the finance minister, Dasgupta — in a beige bandh-gala — reached Alimuddin Street with a leather bag containing budget documents and his notes. But this time, instead of presenting a budget, he was drilling holes into claims made in another person’s budget.

Dasgupta said the trigger behind his suspicion of the growth numbers was the manner in which the Economic Review, 2013-14, presented data on industrial projects implemented in the state in the current fiscal.

“Deviating from convention, the finance minister has clubbed industrial projects that have been implemented with those being implemented. This cannot be done as industrial growth can only be estimated by comparing projects implemented this year with last year’s performance,” Dasgupta said.

According to Table 6.2 of the Economic Review, 2013-14, 150 industrial projects valued at Rs 17,732.01 crore were “implemented/under implementation” in the financial year.

The Economic Review, 2012-13, had a table showing year-wise industrial projects implemented and investment catalysed between 2001 and 2012.

When Mitra was asked about the different format of data representation after the budget yesterday, he had refused comment, asserting that he had said whatever he had to in his budget speech.

“This year, they have not even distributed the Statistical Appendix, a key budget document where the break-up of important details such as employment generation is given. The Statistical Appendix is an integral part of the budget documents of the Centre and all major states,” said Dasgupta, who had tabled 25 budgets and votes-on-account.

Dasgupta said such data representation would also come in the way of research on the Bengal economy as continuity of figures would be lost.

Dasgupta, a PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drew attention to the difference between the budget estimate of total salaries (including salary grant and wages) for 2013-14 and its revised figure.

“The budget estimate of total salaries was Rs 32,772.67 crore while the revised estimate for the year stood at Rs 30,321.81 crore. This contradicts the claim that the government has created jobs as the outgo on salaries cannot go down after creation of jobs,” the former finance minister said.

According to Mitra’s budget speech, 43,472 primary and secondary teachers, nearly 400 sub-inspectors, 40,000 constables and 1,30,000 civic volunteers had been recruited.

“During the Left Front rule, we used to provide estimates of job creation in both the organised and the unorganised sectors. But as the Statistical Appendix is missing this time, it is difficult to ascertain the veracity of the employment numbers. The finance minister should table the Statistical Appendix,” Dasgupta said.

In his budget speech, Mitra said 13,22,000 new employment opportunities had been created in the state in 2013-14 and set a target of creating another 16 lakh in the next fiscal.

Dasgupta referred to how the revised estimate of revenue deficit had overshot the target by around 300 per cent. He wondered why the budget documents did not contain revenue deficit forecast for the next year. “What was the need for such obfuscation? Why couldn’t the government be more transparent?” the former finance minister asked.

Congress jab

Congress MLA Manas Bhuniya today raised questions on the loans raised by the Mamata Banerjee government, the comments made during the discussion on the budget proposals. The former minister criticised the government for denying the role of central funds in implementing several ongoing welfare schemes in Bengal.

“The chief minister is taking credit for Kisan Credit Cards. But why is it not being mentioned that the Centre had introduced the KCC seven years ago? The Centre had allocated special Backward Regions Grant Fund of Rs 8,750 crore for Bengal. Is this money coming from Mars?” he asked.