Assam Budget 2016: Sounds of an Empty Vessel

It was probably the longest Budget Speech ever in Assam. But this simply reminds us of the proverb “an empty vessel makes a lot of sound”. So the govt. will hand over the mid-day meal scheme to NGOs throughout the whole state excluding Jalukbari from now on. This govt. is abandoning its own duties in the name of governance even as Himanta Biswas Sarma declared the motto of this budget as “No Arrogance, only Governance”.

Finance Minister, Sarma, said that 1.20 crores would be invested in each revenue village. Total requirement for the mission is a whopping 30000 crores. In the next point, the Finance Minister said that for the current year he proposes to allocate 500 crores. If the allocation follows the current trend in the next five years, the government will be able to spend only 2500 crores. In other words, it will take 60 years to spend 30000 crores at the current rate of allocation. In other words, the rhetoric of 1.2 crores for every village will require at least two generations.

The Central Govt. has already drastically reduced fund allocation to states with the argument that the states get bigger shares from the central pool of taxes after the 14th finance commission. So states, it is argued, should make bigger contribution of funds to various departments and schemes. But in this budget, Assam has hardly made any significant increase in public investment. Even the sluggish increases to some departments are too minimal in real terms because of high inflation. For example, allocation to the social welfare department has increased from 102 cr. in their last budget to 125 cr. Taking into account, high inflation, this is hardly an increase in real terms. With such marginal increase how will this CM keep his promise to increase the honorarium of anganwadi workers and helpers? Even Finance Minister, Sarma has not kept his own promise to ensure admission of all students who have completed HS and Matric. At least 1 lakh students, who completed their HS, have no space in colleges. The Education minister promised to take the matter seriously. But no announcement has been made for new colleges, infrastructural development of existing ones or recruitment of new college faculties. The budget declares the intent to establish three new engineering colleges, but did not mention the allocation of funds for that purpose in the heading. In another heading ‘Fund for new Engineering and Degree colleges’ Rs. 200 crores is allocated for both together.  Such allocation is welcome but it is still a meagre amount.

Most of the announcements are gimmicks and media-oriented. For example, few awards have been announced for some sports stars who already got media highlights. But there are still no schemes to recruit PT/PE teachers. Without any good infrastructure in schools who will play in stadiums? Or will those be commercialised for the use of private sports coaching centres? Time will say.  There are a few insurance and loan schemes for students and others.  Amartya Sen has warned us many times about how a credit induced economy is very fragile and unsustainable. It means people are ‘funding themselves’. Where is govt. funding here when they are collecting extra amounts of VAT? Total amount from VAT seems to remain the same as VAT rates are decreased in some items and increased in some others. But the FM of Assam shows his ideological conviction by helping satras, not collages.

Sarma also talked about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but there is no direction or fund allocation found in his budget speech to meet the SDGs. ‘No poverty’, ‘zero hunger’, ‘good health’ and ‘quality education’ are the major goals among the 17 goals. If the finance minister expects that his proposed 40 mobile medical units will achieve SDG #3 (i.e. good health) in the tea gardens where MMR is as high as 480 then it’s nothing but jhumla. This is because the primary reason for pathetic health condition is malnutrition. These workers are living on Asia’s lowest organised sector wage. There is no proposal to implement the Minimum Wage Act in the budget even in govt. operated gardens! Without improving the living conditions of the people, the pathetic provision of a few mobile units is like treating the symptom of disease, not the disease itself.

He also proposes 5 boat ambulances to provide round-the-clock Emergency Referral Services to over 300000 char dwellers. But never mentions the allocated amounts and how long they will take to be implemented. In the 2014-2015 financial year, the Assam government gave Rs 7.24 crore via the National Health Mission, to run the boat clinics on the Brahmaputra. That amount covers everything – salaries, supplies, fuel and the maintenance cost of the boats – for a service that currently reaches about 150,000 people every year. The amount was meagre even at that time.

The biggest mystery is regarding funds. Himant Biswa Sarma claims in the media that the ‘special status’ of Assam is unaltered. Meaning Assam would still get 90% funding for all central schemes. Moreover, along with all other states, Assam too would be getting 42% share of central pool of taxes and VAT has been increased recently. Still the budget document clearly shows that the State Govt. doesn’t have enough funds to provincialize the schools and only way is to put another education cess. It is clear that there are attempts to de-provincialize the already provincialized schools by putting complete blame of poor performance on them ignoring the other factors like infrastructure, over-burden on teachers, the new system under Sarva Siksha Abhiyan which does not allow retention of a student in the same class. Poor performance is a direct result of such policies which create poorly equipped students.

 

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Angshuman Sarma Written by:

Researcher at North East Social Research Centre (NESRC), Guwahati, Assam

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