Regular-article-logo Thursday, 21 September 2023

Bengal budget thrust on poll battlegrounds

Welfare schemes worth over Rs 4,000 crore for SCs and STs

Pranesh Sarkar Calcutta Published 10.02.20, 09:46 PM
Amit Mitra and Mamata Banerjee after the budget was presented

Amit Mitra and Mamata Banerjee after the budget was presented Picture by Gautam Bose

Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra announced a slew of welfare schemes worth around Rs 4,000 crore for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the state budget on Monday, reflecting the Mamata Banerjee government’s thrust on reclaiming ground lost to the BJP in the general election last year.

In the 2020-21 budget ahead of the summer Assembly elections next year, the pension, social security and loan schemes announced by Mitra are targeted at the battleground districts in western and northern Bengal.


The principal target group of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is largely in north Bengal and Jungle Mahal, where the Trinamul Congress performed poorly in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

In the seven Lok Sabha seats in Jungle Mahal in 2019, Trinamul won two and the BJP five. In 2014, Trinamul had won all seven. In the eight Lok Sabha seats in north Bengal in 2019, Trinamul won none and the BJP seven. In 2014, Trinamul had won four there and the BJP one.

Two pension schemes have been proposed for those aged above 60 — Bandhu Prakalpa for Scheduled Caste beneficiaries and Jai Johar Prakalpa for Scheduled Tribe beneficiaries. A cumulative amount of Rs 3,000 crore has been earmarked for the two schemes.

“The pension schemes will benefit about 25 lakh people. With this, the state government will extend support to cent per cent persons over 60 of SCs and STs who are not covered by any other pension scheme,” said Mitra.

Two other schemes — Karma Sathi Prakalpa for unemployed youths and Bina Mulya Samajik Suraksha for workers of the unorganised sector — have been proposed with a total allocation of Rs 1,000 crore.

The state government will shoulder the entire burden of the social security scheme for workers in the unorganised sector. Till now, the state used to give Rs 30 a month and the workers had to shell out Rs 25 a month.

Soft loans of Rs 2 lakh will be given to 1 lakh unemployed youths every year for three years, under a scheme called Karma Sathi Prakalpa.

The schemes have been targeted at the backward classes as the majority of the workers in the unorganised sector are from these sections, sources in the government said.

In a move being described as “AAP-like”, Mitra announced a scheme called Hasir Alo, under which no electricity tariff would be levied on poor domestic consumers whose quarterly electricity consumption is less than 75 units. Setting aside Rs 200 crore for the scheme, Mitra said 35 lakh families would be the direct beneficiaries.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted in the evening: “We have presented a people’s budget without having to sell any of the state PSUs. Simultaneously, we’ve spread smiles across communities. The Centre can, for a change, help make these smiles broader by working with the states. We’ll let the people decide which budget is better.”

After the budget speech, a senior cabinet colleague privately described the finance minister as “Kolpotoru Mitra”, referring to the mythical wish-fulfilling tree.

Some others cautioned that the real test would lie in the delivery of the welfare schemes. Delivery is a double-edged weapon: if it is done well, it can reap dividends but if mismanaged, it can be a source of corruption and alienate voters.

In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, Trinamul was hobbled by allegations that local leaders had been demanding “cut-money” for ensuring the smooth flow of welfare funds in the last mile.

Several Trinamul leaders conceded on Monday that proper implementation would be vital this time.

“The government has to be extremely cautious in the preparation of the lists of beneficiaries, particularly in the tribal-dominated areas where literacy rates are low,” a minister said. “Similar schemes with noble intentions had backfired in the same areas. Allegations of cut-money and other extortion tactics were levelled against Trinamul leaders. The same mistakes should not be repeated before the Assembly polls,” he added.

Unlike last time, now the Didi Ke Bolo outreach is in place, which offers the beneficiaries an avenue to complain if they are subjected to demands for bribes.

The BJP ridiculed the apparent attempt by the budget to win back the voters.

“Having done precious little for the uplift of the poor and marginalised masses in all these years in power, the Mamata Banerjee government is trying to bribe the underprivileged in a desperate bid to win back their support. But it is too little, too late,” BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh said on Monday.

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