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Pawan Sharma, Hindustan Times
Chandigarh, March 20, 2013
The SAD-BJP government may be struggling to pay salaries at times, but its populist pitch was apparent as Punjab finance minister Parminder Singh Dhindsa presented the budget for 2013-14 in the Vidhan Sabha on Wednesday. No new tax have been imposed and the ambit of sops enlarged with an eye on the Lok Sabha polls due next year, even though many promises made in the run-up to last year's assembly elections remain, at best, on the backburner.


As for any opposition, the Congress remained busy holding a mock session outside the House seeking revocation of the suspension of its nine MLAs over last week's pandemonium.

Inside the House, at the epicentre of the Rs. 69,052-crore budget proposals were the potentially game-changing 15 lakh poor families - beneficiaries of the subsidised atta-dal (flour-and-pulses) scheme beneficiaries - before whom the government has tried to dangle a string of sops. In particular, 37% of the total budget is focused on Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Backward Classes (BC).

But to make the proposals seem friendly to all sections - from eraser-using students to the hard-of-hearing elderly -- the ruling alliance has resorted to some smart and shrewd jugglery of statistics, besides new schemes.

Besides the economically weak, beneficiaries of some of the announced doles would include students, senior citizens, women, government employees, besides retired military personnel and war veterans.

Though new taxes were imposed, the VAT (value added tax) on soft drinks is to be increased from 13% to 20.5%, and that on cigarettes goes up from 20.5% to 50% (plus a 10% surcharge). These hikes would fetch Rs. 80 crore and Rs. 100 crore, respectively, per annum -- the money will be used for the cancer and de-addiction fund.

In fact, on the cancer front, the government has also proposed to install RO (reverse osmosis) water purifiers "in all villages" facing problem of heavy metal contamination in groundwater that is believed to cause the deadly disease. While 1,804 villages have been covered, the water in 1,012 more have been found contaminated with uranium, nickel and aluminium.

But the existing 5.5% VAT has been abolished on children's items including schoolbags, pencils, erasers, crayons, water bottles; on hearing aids, sticks and other walking supports mostly used by senior citizens; and also on lemon squeezers, chakla belan (roller and rolling pins), mats, brooms, doona and pattal (cup and plates made of dry leaves) in order to give relief primarily to the poor people.

A housing scheme and cashless insurance have been dangled to attract poor families and employees, respectively.

GROWTH-SPEAK
Deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal described the budget as development-oriented, but expenditure focused on the development sectors has been increased only marginally - up Rs. 192 crore, from Rs. 24,436 crore to Rs. 24,628 crore. This raises a question mark how the SAD-BJP regime will achieve the Rs. 16,123-crore annual plan targets of 2013-14, as during the current fiscal the government has failed to accomplish even 60% of the last fiscal's plan of Rs. 14,000 crore. In fact, for financing the 2013-14 plan would require additional resources, the minister admitted. He said, "We propose to generate this by cutting down the unproductive expenditure, adopting other austerity measures and better tax compliance."  

The budget -- having projected revenue deficit of Rs. 1,747 crore and Rs. 9,258-crore fiscal deficit -- lacks radical steps to ensure fiscal discipline and improve the already dwindling economic health. Admitting that the government was finding it difficult to adhere to revenue deficit targets, the finance minister blamed "inadequate support" from the Centre and the "implementation of pay commission recommendations" for the rising revenue deficit. "We have achieved some success in containing revenue deficit," Dhindsa added.


STRING OF SOPS

FOR STUDENTS
*With 12% (Rs 9,641 crore) of budget earmarked for education, the government aims to fulfill promise of giving free tablet computers to 1.5 lakh students of class 11 -outlay of Rs. 110 crore had been made last fiscal. Finance minister said government is committed to supplying tablets/Akash free of cost, besides free bicycles to students of class 9 onwards.
*Adarsh School at Talwara, and another 1,000 model schools in public-private partnership (PPP) mode. Academy at Rupnagar will be set up to train 600 students every year for the navy.
*Poor students at govt schools securing 80% or more in class 10 would get annual Rs. 30,000 for two-year senior secondary education.

FOR THE POOR
* Mukhya Mantri Awas Yojana promises 1 lakh houses in the next two years for atta-dal scheme beneficiaries (families having Rs. 30,000 or less annual income) not owning a house; labour sheds in class-A towns and corporation areas.
*Bhai Ghanaiya Scheme for medical cover of Rs. 1.5 lakh will not be restricted to members of co-op societies. New Bhagat Puran Singh scheme to provide medical cover of Rs. 30,000 to the atta-dal scheme families; Rs. 400 premium will be borne by govt. Free life insurance of Rs. 75,000 to all BPL families, and monthly stipend of Rs. 200 each for their children.

FOR WOMEN
*While Nanhi Chhaan scholarships of Rs. 30,000 per annum will be for girl students of BPL families for professional courses, education in government-run ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes) will now be free for all girls.
*A subsidy of Rs. 17,500 per cattle for female dairy entrepreneurs, who will get Rs. 11 lakh subsidy to set up a notional 20 cattle dairy farm costing about 27 lakh.

FOR SOLDIERS
*Financial assistance for ex-servicemen, World War-2 veterans or their widows aged over 65 who are not drawing any assistance from any other source doubled to Rs. 2,000 a month.
*War jagir given annually to the parents of soldiers who served during the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars will be doubled to Rs. 10,000 per year, the minister said; annuity to gallantry awardees to go up by 20%.

FOR GOVT EMPLOYEES
*Punjab govt spends Rs. 160 crore per annum on medical reimbursement of its 6 lakh employees and pensioners. Now, the government will launch a cashless health insurance scheme.
*Scheme voluntary for existing employees and pensioners and compulsory for the new ones; to cover dependents too.

FOR FARMERS
*Rs 30,000 per annum per acre compensation to farmers whose land is situated across the border fence in the no-man's land between India and Pakistan.
*Govt survey found 4,688 cases of farmers' suicides during 2000-10. Last time, Rs. 30 crore announced for the families, and so far 2,886 families affected up to 2006 got Rs. 1 lakh each. This year, Rs. 66 crore earmarked; all families to get Rs. 2 lakh each.