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Renaissance revolution, thanks to Bengal budget

The discussions on the state budget for 2014-15 in the Assembly ended on Thursday with the address of finance minister Amit Mitra to 60-odd speakers who laboured for over 15 hours, spanning three days. Although the discussions were on the budget — a statement of annual accounts of the government — most speakers from the treasury benches livened up their speeches with poems, political forecasts and praises — for Mamata Banerjee — and punches for the Left and the Congress. Mitra and his numbers were the target of the Opposition attack, but at times he also had to face jabs for his leader — the chief minister — who was not present in the House for most part of the discussion. The takeaways from the budget discussion follow:

What we got to know...

A mammoth supplementary budget can be passed:

The Assembly on Thursday passed the government’s demands for supplementary grants for 2013-14, which stood at Rs 19,352 crore. “Supplementary grants have been asked for projects and schemes like supplying drinking water, Kanyashree scheme, development of north Bengal and others. Will anybody object to this?” Mitra asked.

No murmurs from the Opposition, but why the government did not foresee it, was the question. The convention of keeping the supplementary within 5 per cent of the budget was breached. This supplementary was around 17 per cent of the budget, a record in recent history

Different interpretations of industrial revolution:

Leader of the Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra asked what prompted Mitra to claim there were “signs of a renaissance” in Bengal. “The idea of renaissance was based on industrial revolution. A revolution in agriculture preceded that and there was also capital accumulation. Has anything like that happened in Bengal?” he asked.

Mitra, a PhD in economics, said: “Sir, I spoke of renaissance because of the revolution of thoughts and outlook that Bengal is witnessing under the Ma-Mati-Manush government.”

An age-old quote can be tweaked:

Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s observation — “what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” — got a twist. Treasury members repeated what Mitra had said several times in his budget — “What Bengal has done today, India will do tomorrow”.

Apples can be compared with oranges:

Mitra crowed that the growth rate of the Bengal economy was higher than the national average by comparing the GDP figures of the state and the country. He also rolled out index of industrial production figures — that capture the manufacturing sector scenario — to claim Bengal was ahead of India.

“How can you do this?” asked Sukhbilas Barma, a Congress MLA from Jalpaiguri. “The national growth is an average of all states and there are so many small states which don’t have any industry.” A Trinamul minister agreed in private, saying Mitra should have compared Bengal with Gujarat or Maharashtra.

Money in deposit account is an old practice:

Barma accused the government of parking around Rs 9,000 crore in its deposit account — otherwise shown as spent — to pay wages. Mitra said the practice was to take care of contingencies, but he was reducing the percentage of money in the account.

Project Delhi a matter of time:

Although the discussion was for the budget, most treasury bench speakers trained their eyes on Delhi. Partha Bhowmik, the Naihati MLA, said the general election will pave a bigger role for Trinamul and Mamata in Delhi. Others shook his hand, though he said little on the budget.

... and What we did not

Frequent references to horses:

Several times during the discussions, Opposition members tried to draw the attention of the Speaker on horses by screaming — Sir, ghora katha bolchhe (horse is talking), Sir, ghora ghumochhe (horse is sleeping). The mystery could not be resolved, but both Opposition and treasury members were in splits.

Statistical appendix query:

Mishra had asked Mitra to explain why the statistical appendix — which carries details on employment,industry etc — was missing fromthis year’s budget documents. No explanation given.

Details of revenue projections:

Mishra wanted to know the revenue implications of some exemptions Mitra had made. He also sought the status of entry tax, declared unconstitutional by a single-judge high court bench. No response again.

Status of government’s savings scheme:

The questions on the success of the government’s safe-savings scheme, rolled out to prevent a repeat of Saradha, remained unanswered.

Overshooting of cost estimates for Uttarkanya:

Barma alleged the initial estimate of Rs 13.75 crore in 2012-13 for Uttarkanya rose to Rs 51 crore in 2013-14 and the money was released without government orders. Mitra did not answer.

Obsession with reciting poems:

Mishra, known for his stoicism, was heard reciting a poem while summing up. Several MLAs said that a poem or a couplet has become a ritual. Some said it was the influence of the chief minister. Others said it was reinforcement of culture. The last word was yet to be heard.

Devadeep Purohit and Arnab Ganguly