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'Cheerful' ads that are miles away from the truth

By T N Ninan
April 12, 2016 13:08 IST
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At a time when more and more of government spending is done by states, the impression you get from these large advertisements could well reflect the slogan of Emergency days: the nation is on the move, says T N Ninan.

At times when there is a surfeit of bad or depressing news, seekers after good news might find solace in the multi-page announcements put out by state governments, reporting and recording long lists of achievements. Such announcements have been made in recent weeks by the governments of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (both preparing to face voters next year) and by the Delhi state government (which is in permanent campaign mode and has decided to term its own budget “magical”).

Naturally, all of them make for very cheerful reading. At a time when more and more of government spending is done by states, the impression you get from these large advertisements could well reflect the slogan of Emergency days: the nation is on the move!

The problem is that scrutiny often reveals different facets to the picture that has been put together by using selectively highlighted claims. The Delhi government, for instance, has just put out a two-page advertisement that talks of revenue increases despite cuts in tax rates.

But when you dig up previous years’ records, you find that the revised estimate of expenditure for the Aam Aadmi Party’s first year in office, 2015-16, was Rs 37,965 crore (Rs 379.65 billion) - or 7.7 per cent below the original budget figure of Rs 41,129 crore (Rs 411.29 billion).

The revenue from stamps and registrations, budgeted for this year at Rs 4,000 crore (Rs 40 billion), is significantly lower than the Rs 4,800 crore (Rs 48 billion) originally budgeted for 2014-15. Did you expect to see these mentioned in the newspaper advertisements?

The big push by the Kejriwal government has been in education, for which the outlay has gone up sharply. But plan outlay for water and sanitation this year is lower than it was two years ago. Phase-III of the Barapullah elevated road, extending it to the other side of the Yamuna, is mentioned in the current year’s Budget, but it was also mentioned two years ago.

While 500 mohalla clinics were promised in the 2015-16 Budget, there is no update on that target one year later, only a new target of 1,000 mohalla clinics. Overall, Plan outlay has been growing much slower than non-Plan outlay.

But if you look for the details of this rapidly growing non-Plan outlay (totaling Rs 26,000 crore), the state government’s website showing highlights of the Budget, as well as the charts on display, provide no explanation or break-up.

Taken together, state Budgets now involve much larger sums than the Union Budget. But it is the central Budget that is a model of transparency and information.

No one has cared so far to suggest that state Budget documents follow a common format, so that numbers are comparable and easily analysed. So it is not easy for someone in Delhi to scrutinise the advertised claims of the UP and Punjab governments; in addition, there is lack of familiarity with the situation on the ground.

The most voluble claims in recent years have been made by Amit Mitra, finance minister in the West Bengal government. In his 2015 fiscal statement, he complained that “Central grants-in-aid have been on a trajectory of consistent decline over last few years”.

But over the full five-year period of Dr Mitra’s Trinamool government, such grants-in-aid have gone up by 296 per cent, while tax revenue has gone up only 119 per cent. It bears adding that Mr Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, was not above making exaggerated claims.

The latest set of questions relates to the performance of the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, whose record Mr Modi was given to touting. The Comptroller and Auditor General has taken the company to task in a critical report on poor risk management and non-recovery of dues from joint venture partners.

Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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