Taking A Leaf Out Of Gujarat Model, Himanta Biswa Sarma Presents A Game-Changing Assam Budget

by Subhrangshu Pratim Sarmah and Abhimanyu Hazarika - Feb 17, 2017 12:50 PM +05:30 IST
Taking A Leaf Out Of
Gujarat Model, Himanta Biswa Sarma Presents A Game-Changing Assam BudgetSarma, accompanied by supporters, is on his way to file nomination papers from Jalukbari Assembly Constituency in Guwahati. (BIJU BORO/AFP/GettyImages)
  • This budget has something for everyone despite riding on an inheritance of more than Rs 10,000 crore worth of liabilities from the Tarun Gogoi era.

    While the ball is in the proverbial babu’s court, if the intended policies materialise as planned, Dr Sarma can be rightly credited for a legacy of creating the next model BJP governed state.

On 7 February 2017, Assam Finance Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma presented what is arguably a game-changer in terms of budgets. This is not just in terms of meaning for the people of the state but also of the potential of an economic document to transcend ideologies, party lines and even traditional targets.

In an unprecedented move, this is the first ‘taxless’ budget of sorts in recent times, with no mention of an increase or decrease of taxes. However, the fears of both extreme camps of the left-right spectrum have been allayed to a great degree. One would naturally assume that with his move to the BJP, the budget would be reflective of policies of minimum government, i.e., privatisation and phasing out of unproductive, dole-based subsidy transfers. Others would feel that his Congress days would see him usher over-dependence on the social sector at the cost of growth, job creation and infrastructure. What we got instead was one that took a leaf out of the Gujarat model, with special stress on infrastructure development without ignoring the agricultural sector.

As experts have already highlighted on major aspects, let’s focus on the more subtle ones that appear cosmetic on paper but have wider implications. It is a fact that our natural resources aren’t fully mobilised for commercial purposes. This has been taken care of by means of funds for riverfront development, which if done along the lines of Sabarmati in Gujarat holds potential for growth in both tourists and employment.

Arth Kranti, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) which had proposed demonetisation, had stressed on the universalisation of bank accounts to eliminate leaks and black money. Having created over 6 lakh bank accounts for tea workers, a grant of Rs 2,500 each for opening and regular use within 6 months is a welcome step towards incentivising electronic transactions.

A slew of other steps can be seen as the first concrete means of enacting the Assam Accord after the setup of NRL and IIT. In accordance with clause 6, measures like education free for poor till graduation, modernisation of police force, regional equity (in terms of new ISBTs, planetariums) have the potential to go on to help preserve Assamese people’s culture and rights.

After the new government came to power, Sarma took charge of its most crucial portfolios (health, education, finance). Assam became the first state in India to ratify goods and services tax (GST). It also succeeded in drawing enormous long-term benefits as part of the proposed legislation and the presence of Assam was acknowledged at the national-level deliberations of the GST Council. Assam registered a positive month over month growth of 21 per cent commercial tax collection even after demonetisation. In December 2015, the tax collection was Rs 718.83 crore that interestingly increased to RRs 875.60 crore in December 2016.

Be it the Swami Vivekananda Assam Youth Empowerment Yojana (SVAYEM), which seeks to provide suitable credit support to one lakh youth for taking up income generating enterprises or the proposal for a Gene Bank for Indigenous Fish (GBIF), almost all the schemes are based on innovative premises. The inclusion of eggs in the mid-day meal scheme is in a way helpful for the rural economy for it would increase local demand for poultry products. The proposal for the Price Stabilisation Fund with the allocation of 150 crores will directly tackle the menace of inflation if its operational guidelines are issued properly.

As the Finance Minister mentioned in his budget speech, Kautilya too wrote of Assam silk – Muga (Dukula), a signature of Assamese handloom industry, in his writings years ago. In this budget, he has laid down the vision of increasing the production of Muga Silk by 10 times by 2026. Along with zero interest crop loans, the proposal for establishing the Pravasi Asomiya Department is definitely going to play a big role in the years to come. The programme for doorstep-delivery of 22 non-public distribution system (PDS) items in eco-friendly e-rickshaw through unemployed youth is another attraction. With the proposal of cyber dome, introduction of e-challan system, the Police Memorial in Guwahati – our straddled law and order forces finally get a boost.

One budgetary proposal which has received attention across the country is that of geriatric care. The employees working in the government/government undertakings/state public sector undertankings/employees of companies will be expected to take care of their respective elderly parents and in case of non-compliance, a certain portion of the salary of such employees would be deducted to be given to their respective parents. It will be interesting to see how the legislation is formed keeping the complex dynamics of family feuds and vested interests involved in those in view.

In this budget, the tea garden workers have received numerous benefits in almost all the fields including finance, health, education, social welfare etc. This is important as the community has remained historically secluded from the mainstream and fixated in underdevelopment due to the colonial legacy associated with the administration of tea gardens. Moreover, certain other steps like, establishment of a department under the Act East Policy, a sports academy, a mini secretariat in the Barak Valley, digitalising the Tahsildari transactions and developing the Guwahati State Capital Region along the lines of Delhi National Capital Region are included in the budget. Even “Journalist Family Benefit Fund”, a media fellowship of Rs 50,000 along with journalist pension has also been announced.

It is an all too established fact that Assam’s tourism potential is highly undervalued and untapped at present. By roping in Priyanka Chopra as the brand ambassador and initiating the Awesome Assam campaign, he has already hinted at the bigger picture by proposing a three-star resort in Majuli – the largest river island in India, a ropeway from Kamakhya Railway Station to Kamakhya Temple etc. Another notable feature is ‘amar alohi’ (our guests) scheme, meant for developing rural home stays in Assam. It is expected that this initiative will, apart from being beneficial to boost tourism, will encourage the rural people of Assam to become entrepreneurs.

This budget has something for everyone despite riding on an inheritance of more than Rs 10,000 crore worth of liabilities from the Tarun Gogoi era. What it is meant to usher in is however, something beyond Assam’s boundaries. It seeks to draft a footing of a growth-driven welfare state, generating buzz akin to Modi’s Gujarat. While the proverbial ball is in the babu’s court, if the intended policies materialise as planned, Dr Sarma can be rightly credited for a legacy of creating the next model BJP governed state, to be analysed and discussed by economists, policy-makers and academicians the world over.

Read the full budget report here.

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