The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Subhas takes on austere Asim

Calcutta, March 26: Finance minister Asim Dasgupta’s efforts to enforce austerity among his Cabinet colleagues met with resistance today, with the transport minister describing the drive as an “exercise in futility”.

Less than a week ago, Dasgupta in his budget speech had said that the ongoing austerity drive was binding on all ministers, bureaucrats and employees due to the government’s current financial crunch. Last January, Dasgupta had issued a circular drastically cutting down non-plan expenditure in government offices and establishments.

“What do you mean by an austerity drive' What is more important — to minimise expenditure or to govern the state' Do you want us to walk to office' Should we stop boarding planes and trains to minimise expenditure' I feel those engaged in working out a strategy on how to minimise expenditure are either half-educated or unrealistic,” said transport minister Subhas Chakraborty at Writers’ Buildings.

Dasgupta, replying to the debate on the state budget in the Assembly a few yards away, seemed to have an inkling about his colleague’s observations. He stressed that ministers needed to be more cautious in the days ahead to help maintain the austerity drive.

The finance minister indicated that more steps will be taken to cut down on non-plan expenditure to pull out Bengal out of the financial crisis and ministers will have to shoulder a considerable burden.

Dasgupta said in the Assembly that the austerity drive — that included restraint on spending on ministers — appeared to have paid off in the current fiscal.

He said the government had hoped to mop up around Rs 500 crore by taking certain steps to cut down non-plan expenditure. “We have been able to save about Rs 403 crore by this,” he added.

He pointed out that in Bengal, expenditure on a minister was the lowest in the country. “Per capita expenditure on ministers is the lowest in Bengal. But we will have to be more careful in the future,” he said.

However, Chakraborty maintained that the ongoing austerity drive would not help better governance of the administration. When told about communist leader Ho-Chi-Minh’s riding a bicycle to office, Chakraborty became visibly angry.

“If those times were prevalent now, then your Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (chief minister) could have ridden a bicycle. Don’t forget one has to change to keep pace with time.”

He was reacting to an observation made by the leader of the Opposition, Pankaj Banerjee, in the Assembly yesterday. Banerjee had alleged that Chakraborty and two other Left Front ministers had travelled to Benaras, Mathura and Agra from Delhi in hired air-conditioned cars on government expenditure.

“ I am a senior Cabinet minister. Do you think a minister like me would travel in ordinary bus or train to attend official work 'Ministers’ code of conduct and rules of business do not permit them to travel as ordinary citizens," he added.

Seeking the co-operation from the opposition to implement his budget for 2003-2004, the finance minister underlined the need to increase capital expenditure and plan allocation.

Dasgupta also announced that the Bill to bring about value-added tax (VAT) system in the state will be tabled in the Assembly for discussion tomorrow. He said that establishments having a turnover between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 25 lakh will not come under VAT. "So far 28 states are on their way to implement VAT. Through this system we will be able to minimise tax evasion," he added.

He said the next fiscal's budget was aimed at promoting growth in production and generating employment. He said that the growth-rate anticipated was about 8 per cent from 7.6 per cent while about 7 lakh employment was expected to be generated. He also emphasised on collection of revenue in the next financial year.

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