Budget blues

The finance minister's money bag may emerge as the commoner's bete noir

Published: Monday 31 March 1997

PRIME Minister H D Deve Gowda's talent for undermining the need to protect the environment and people's rights is well-known. The finance minister (FM), P Chidambaram, is one of the same ilk, say critics after his budget speech in Parliament on February 28. Even officials at the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) feel that what the FM has sanctioned for the ministry is just not enough.

Enhanced fertiliser and food subsidies and an 'accelerated irrigation benefit programme' notwithstanding, former Union home minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Murli Manohar Joshi, termed the budget as one "for India, not for Bharat" - essentially pro-middle class and pro-corporate. Former FM, Jaswant Singh, called it a "directionless document".

At the beginning of the fiscal year 1996-97, the budgetary estimate for the environment was Rs 552.74 crore, while the revised estimate at the end of the fiscal year is Rs 548.36 crore. For the coming fiscal year 1997-98, the allocation is Its 638.02 crore - an increase of Rs 85 crore or 15 per cent over the budgetary estimate of 1996-97.

According to MEF officials, an increase of 15 per cent is far lower than what was expected. This is because non-plan expenses (sudden expenditures) have risen to Rs 11 crore, while plan outlay has risen to Rs 74 crore. Funds alloted for a bulk of the ongoing projects are not sufficient and the new budget leaves only small amounts for them.

The budget has also allocated Rs 50 crore for a new programme called The Taj Protection Mission. But MEF officials are irked because the money is also to be used by others like the urban development ministry, the government of Uttar Pradesh and the power sector, working for the protection of the world-famous mausoleum. Another new scheme called the India Environment Management Capacity Building Projects has been alloted Rs 7.5 crore. And for the on going Ganga Action Plan, the budget would provide Rs 11 crore compared to the Rs 24 crore sanctioned last year.

Rs 256.01 crore - Rs 1.75 crore less than last year - has been allocated to forestry and wildlife. Of this the FM has allocated Rs 50.68 crore for wildlife preservation - Rs 8.19 crore less than last year. Last fiscal year, the government had sanctioned Rs 175 crore for the prevention and control of pollution. In the revised estimate, the projected allotment was Rs 223 crore. But the amount that has been actually sanctioned is Rs 207 crore.

Critics feel that in his zest to boost economic reforms, the FM, like his predecessor Manmohan Singh, has forgotten that an increase in fertiliser and food subsidies is not going to benefit Indian farmers. The budget focuses on the share market and foreign companies and would only fill the coffers of the industries concerned and totally ignore the poor, observed Joshi.

Analysts opine that enhanced allocation for the irrigation sector is a healthy sign mainly for contractors and engineers. They point out the FM is silent on the issue of improvement of minor irrigation projects, which would actually benefit India's farmers; they also add that there is no attempt to boost the country's foodgrain production although the last economic survey had apprehended a shortfall in foodgrains.

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