Not adrift, but in control
Sir — By speaking out on the disinvestment issue, the prime minister has reasserted his authority over his cabinet (“Atal stamps his authority”, Oct 3). He has also silenced critics who were beginning to think that he was no longer in control of the coalition he heads. Above all, he has emerged from the shadow of his deputy, L.K. Advani. But will Atal Bihari Vajpayee be able to sustain this initiative and tighten his reins over his party as well as the National Democratic Alliance' It is not unusual for Vajpayee to let things drift once a crisis is over. But he must surely realize that the disinvestment imbroglio has provided him with a unique opportunity to lash out at sangh parivar stalwarts like K.S. Sudarshan and thus win back minority votes as well as some of the credibility that he had lost when he had failed to condemn Narendra Modi in the aftermath of the Gujarat pogrom. Not to forget giving a fillip to his party’s chances in the next general elections.
Nisha Dutta, Calcutta
Sir — The Reserve Bank of India’s analysis of the West Bengal government’s finances merely confirm what has long been suspected — that the state’s finances are in a very bad shape compared to those of other states (“Dole drums”, Sept 26). The comptroller and auditor-general’s report on the performance of the state government in the past year also talks about the impending debt trap. The situation began to deteriorate from the mid-Eighties onwards and the report clearly states that the government’s total liabilities have grown by about 156 per cent during the five-year period between 1996 and 2001. In 2001-2002, the government spent approximately 40 per cent of its total revenue to pay interest on loans. If this trend continues, the government may find itself paying a whopping 55.5 per cent of its total revenue in interest payments in a few years from now.
In 2001-2002, most of the development projects in the state were financed by external loans and the government had to pay the salaries and pension of its employees from borrowed funds. While its revenue expenditure increased by 22.6 per cent, its revenue income grew by only 15.3 per cent. Unless the state government is willing to affect a major change in its fiscal policy, it is likely go bankrupt. It must therefore increase its revenue collections as well as reduce non-plan expenditure. Unfortunately, the state’s expenditure reduction programme is no more than a token gesture. The chief minister’s travelling in an airconditioned chair car instead of a special coupe is not going to make much of a difference unless all additional expenditure is cut down and redundant posts phased out.
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta
Sir — The state government’s attempts to reduce expenditure are at best cosmetic and bypass the real problems plaguing the economy (“Austerity axe on phones, cars”, Oct 1)). For instance, the ministers have not been considered “extravagant enough” to be brought within the purview of the drive. The state may, for the time being, be able to tide over the financial crisis by curbing wasteful expenditure, but no long-term gain is going to come of it unless the government follows up these checks with an increase in revenue. Although the revenue department boasts of realizing at least 70 per cent of the total revenue, facts and figures prove otherwise. Huge collections through the voluntary disclosure scheme expose the mockery of such claims.
The government could take a lesson or two from the West Bengal state electricity board, which has successfully improved its ailing fiscal situation. A few stringent measures need to be taken for the proper realization of revenue: one, the setting up of a special cell which will not only monitor revenue collection but also bring to the knowledge of the government the lacunae and flaws in the system. This will help the government formulate effective policies for revenue-collection. Two, strict vigilance must be maintained over revenue collection by strengthening the powers of the state vigilance commission, since corruption in the different wings of the government is one of the major causes of the loss of revenue. This should be followed up by creating a separate audit wing for each revenue section.
It is no secret that the Left Front’s politics of expediency has bled the state exchequer dry. By trimming expenditure and freezing recruitment, it may still redeem itself in the eyes of the electorate.
Faiz Ahmad, Calcutta
Sir — There is nothing new in Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s decision to travel to Malda in an air-conditioned chair-car compartment in order to save government expenditure. Not so long ago, Laloo Prasad Yadav had ridden a bicycle to the secretariat, soon after he became the chief minister of Bihar. Is Bhattacharjee really serious about the financial health of his state' If so, why do we have five ministers for five branches of education — primary, secondary, higher, technical and madrasah education' Surely, having one education minister would suffice' We also have one minister for agriculture and another for agriculture-marketing. Which other state has ministers for fire services or library services' Every minister has innumerable secretaries and officers working under him. They only serve to strain the state’s exchequer.
Till recently, corporations, municipalities and panchayats had to finance the development projects undertaken by them from the taxes that they collected from the public. The situation is somewhat different now, and the government is giving them huge sums for development activities, most of which is spent in paying salaries to their staff. Is it fair to talk of reducing expenditure when the government is unable to pay bonus to its employees.
Sucharita Ghosh, Calcutta
Sir — By travelling to Malda by ordinary chair car instead of reserving a full compartment as is customary, the chief minister of West Bengal has demonstrated that he is sincere about reducing expenditure. His colleague, Asim Dasgupta, the state finance minister, has gone one step further by circulating a list of dos and don’ts for officers that would curtail expenditure. The gesture is no doubt appreciable. But one cannot help wondering whether the officers would be able survive without these perquisites. Given that they are part of the Left Front’s vote bank, will the government want to risk annoying them'
Sudarsan Nandi, Rangamati
Sir — “Buddha-stirred VC takes metro” (Oct 4) is yet another gimmick, intended to divert attention from the state’s finances. When I was a student in Calcutta in the late Fifties, I was used to seeing politicians indulge in such publicity stunts. They also managed to get back the perquisites they had given up on one pretext or another. The tradition lives on.
Sunil Kumar Pal, London