Sunday, August 19, 2001, Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Punjab poll in mid-November
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, August 18
If the renewed feverish political activity and mannerism of offering sops to urban and rural sections is any indication, Punjab may expect Assembly elections in mid-November.

The government is carefully and quickly drawing a politico-economic electoral map to take full advantage of the populist announcements it is making as well as to cash on the prevailing confusion and disunity in the Congress. It also wants to cap the inter and intra factionalism within the SAD-BJP ranks.

While the announcement of minimum support price (MSP) for paddy, 2001-02, is still awaited, a high-level meeting on paddy, rice ‘’specifications’’ is scheduled to be held in New Delhi on Monday. It will decide on permissible moisture content, presence of foreign matter and extent of damaged grain in the paddy to be purchased by procuring agencies.

Punjab is making arrangements to procure 125 lakh tonnes of paddy though it expects to buy 115 lakh tonnes against 10 lakh tonnes in 2000-01. For this financial requirements—cash credit limit—is being worked out. A sum of Rs 6,700 crore is needed for the procurement operation. The Principal Secretary, Finance, Mr K R Lakhanpal, is already in Mumbai and is expected to be joined there by the Director, Food and Supplies, Mr G. Vajralingam, next week.

Though the state has represented to the Prime Minister (along with Haryana and Andhra Pradesh) for an enhancement in the MSP by at least Rs 50 per quintal over that of last year, sources say that the government of its own is keen on announcing an additional ‘’bonus’’ as well for the paddy growers.

The joint memorandum submitted by Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu, Mr Om Parkash Chautala and Mr Prakash Singh Badal desired that paddy procurement operations for kharif should commence in the three states with effect from September 1. In effect, Punjab is keen that procurement should begin from September 15. The Centre, last year, had fixed October 1 as the date for starting procurement. But on the insistence of Akalis it was advanced to September 21.

The paddy purchase operations will again be in respect of “A’’ grade and “Common’’ varieties. Punjab wants the Food Corporation of India, FCI, to buy 40 per cent of the arrivals, as was the target in kharif 2000-01. The actual procurement by the FCI was barely 32 per cent. This had put additional financial burden on the state procurement agencies. On top of that the milling got delayed and movement of rice outside Punjab slowed resulting in stockpiling of rice. In view of the election-year, the Chief Minister has been taking personal interest to ensure procurement operation is “fool proof’’ so that the credit is encashed through votes.

Highly placed sources told TNS today, ‘’No government will like to miss the opportunity to reap on the expected buoyancy it envisages after the ‘successful’ procurement of paddy. Look at the string of sops being offered. Can a government allow any dilution of the impact of these by prolonging the elections till February? Time lapse will be counter productive. Remember, the Punjab state electricity board decision (at the behest of the government) to give concessions to consumers, domestic and Scheduled Castes?’’

On octroi, the sources were clear—The government is in a dilemma. The Council of ministers meeting is scheduled for August 20. The agenda is being finalised. The issue of octroi will come up. But what is the alternative? Can Punjab Budget provide nearly Rs 500 crore per annum to compensate the municipalities? Alternatives have been studied. But these provide no sustainable solution.

“Octroi will be abolished and sales tax simplified’’, reads the SAD-BJP Common Minimum Programme drawn up to “guide the policies’’ of the government on dealing with “traders’’. The other promise was “harassment in any form by officials will be dealt with severely’’. Yes, the BJP did act upon the second promise. It not only arm-twisted the Akalis to get concessions, but also, at times aided and abetted “attacks’’ on officials of the Excise and Sales Tax departments.

The Rajasthan model is being mentioned as a possible alternative. Sources who have inspected are not satisfied. At best resourcing the tax realisation would fetch the local bodies Rs 150-odd crore. Where from will the gap be filled? Even if some taxes were to be imposed at “source’’, as in the case of liquor that fetches between Rs 60 crore and Rs 70 crore, the gap will persist. There is a suggestion that petroleum products could be another item where tax can be imposed at “source’’. This may, at the most, fetch another Rs 40 crore.

How much can the Budget provide for? On the other hand, the Local Bodies Minister, Mr Balramji Das Tandon, has gone on record to say that even the share from the five taxes that should go to the municipalities was not being apportioned, what to speak of releasing the budgeted money. There are a large number of municipalities that have meagre resources and depend, by and large, on octroi for their funding.

Octroi is now as much an emotive issue as a political dilemma. The eyes that are set on the ballot fail to see the implications of such populist decisions in a long-term perspective. Octroi remains a source through which money trickles in every day. Moreover, it is argued, its abolition will benefit only a small segment — big businessmen, manufacturers and wholesale dealers. Even retailers may not gain much. Its abolition would entail doing away with “nakka’’ system and accepting returns filed by traders.

This is a dicey issue on which, no doubt, the SAD-BJP alliance finds itself on a sticky wicket. Therefore Mr Parkash Singh Badal is expected to weigh the electoral permutation and combinations before taking any decision, sources added.

Every procurement season as also in the election-year, a government conveniently forgets its own reports and recommendations, even those of a cabinet sub-committee, to meet the demands of political exigencies. The governments go on a spending spree and offer freebies. Will someone re-look at the recommendations of one such report on paddy operations of April 17, 2000?

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