Budget: exercise in self-pity

Of all the negative human emotions, there is nothing as terrible as self-pity. Simply because it hinders our will to improve ourselves. By creating imaginary grievances, we are in a way hiding our own inadequacies.

Unfortunately, the polity of Punjab has been reduced to blaming others. It displays itself most conspicuously in our fiscal management. Every government would blame its predecessor for the deplorable state of affairs and then accuse the Centre of turning a Nelson's eye to Punjab's concerns. The latest budget presented by the finance minister is yet another illustration of that. Like last year, the minister passed the buck on the Centre's alleged "insensitivity" towards the state's concerns.

Punjab could do with some more assistance from the Centre, but will that be a panacea for all our troubles? Even by the most magnanimous estimates, the Centre's debt to Punjab (specifically for fighting terrorism) is around Rs 10,000 crore. Even if all of it is waived, aren't we being dishonest in creating an impression that the colossal debt of more than Rs 1 lakh crore that we have created would be controlled? Why are we creating this false pretext?
Terrorism was the lost decade for Punjab. But by God's grace, we were able to overcome it two decades ago. Rather than focusing on the present, why do we keep harking back upon it?

Instead, it would be appropriate for the finance minister to inform us as to why Punjab's average GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate has been far less than the national average in the two decades after terrorism?

'Credit' for downslide

Roughly speaking, we have grown at around 5%, while India has grown at more than 7%. Chhattisgarh, a state continuously grappling with Naxalism and of a similar size as Punjab, has been growing at an annual rate of more than 9% in the past few years. I am aghast that the finance minister is seeking a pat on his back for a growth rate of around 5.2%.

Then there is another pet peeve   poor industrialisation in the state courtesy a slew of benefits to neighbouring states. Since there is no industry, it automatically means that our tax collections will be low. The moment anyone mentions Haryana, our excuse is prompt: "Haryana owes its better tax collections not to better administration but its geographical proximity to New Delhi."

While we concoct excuse after excuse, states such as Gujarat and Bihar, both far away from Delhi and having irksome borders with Pakistan and Nepal, respectively   show impressive growth year after year.

Bihar now leads in India in terms of annual per capita income growth, an aspect where Punjab is lagging.

As per the finance minister's budget speech, the committed liabilities constitute more than 85% of the total revenue. Add to it the government's excesses and unconscionable expenditure (no use cutting Rs 3 crore on security, if you are going to spend 13 times more than this money on purchasing fancy choppers!), and you have chicken feed left for the state's development.

No wonder, the deputy CM is offering justifications that feature verbal paradoxes such as "debt for development". By contrast, the Gujarat government spends 65% of its annual budget on development. The same figure for the union government is 35%, a level where it is chastised for not doing enough for the welfare of the people.

Old as new

Wednesday's budget included a lot of things that have been said already but could not be fulfilled. It is insincere to pass them off as new measures. For example, the whole matter about 1,000 model schools under the PPP (public-private partnership) model. What happened to the so-called Adarsh schools that were supposed to transform Punjab's primary education system the way Mao Zedong unleashed the schooling revolution in China?

Why is LTC (leave travel concession) being projected as a new feature? The government couldn't afford to pay it because it did not have any money last year. Ditto for laptops and unemployment allowance   these have been announced before. The young people of this state don't need a small dole, they need employment opportunities so that they can earn a livelihood and stay away from the frustration that is pushing them towards narcotics.

The annual GDP growth rate has come down from 5.95% to 5.19%. Agriculture, the main component of the state's economy, is growing at a dismal 1.67%, but still the FM is hopeful of increasing value-added tax (VAT) collections by 33% and also bring down the deficit by 33%. This is not possible unless there is some statistical sophistry, the sort which the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has accused the government of. A lot of so-called fiscal improvement has been possible by withholding necessary spending and diverting money that came from central schemes.

Punjab can do without these manipulations and also without self-pity. This would first necessitate a candid admission that we have been wrong and in doing so, we have severely impoverished our own state and people. Astute American businessman Ross Perot had once said, "The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, the public debt should be reduced and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled." Punjab's latest budget fails on each count.


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