Boost for agriculture in West Bengal budget before panchayat polls

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Kolkata: With panchayat elections in sight, West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra on Wednesday announced a whopping allocation of Rs23,920.87 crore for agriculture and rural development in fiscal year 2018-19, up from a revised estimate of Rs13,150.50 crore for the current year.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, in an address to party workers in Kolkata, said panchayat elections will be held within the next 3-4 months, well before the August deadline of August.

The Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a lobby group, described the state budget as an “exercise in welfare economics with stress on empowering rural Bengal”.

The minister cut budgetary allocations for health and urban development. He also announced a new scheme with a budgetary outlay of Rs1,500 crore in 2018-19 under which the state will provide financial assistance to underprivileged families to get their daughters married. Under the new scheme, the state will provide a one-time grant of Rs25,000 to each applicant. Only families with an annual income of up to Rs1,50,000 can apply.

The state counts among its key successes the Kanyashree scheme under which it provides financial assistance to girls in schools. Under the scheme, which is aimed at reducing dropouts, students are given an annual scholarship of Rs750 each for an aggregate state expenditure of Rs1,200 crore. From next year, the scholarship is being raised to Rs1,000, Mitra announced, adding that the scheme has so far benefited around 4.5 million students.

He claimed under the Trinamool Congress’s rule from 2011, the average annual income of farmers in the state had jumped from Rs91,000 to Rs239,000 in the past six years.

The state’s outstanding debt is estimated to swell to Rs3.94 trillion at the end of March 2019 from a revised estimate of Rs3.64 trillion at the end of the current fiscal year. The state was indebted to the tune of Rs3.37 trillion at the end of the last fiscal year.

In the past six months, Mitra said the state faced tax revenue loss of around Rs1,850 crore due to the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST). The centre has compensated to the tune of Rs1,000 crore only, he added.

In his budget speech, Mitra said the centre had changed the date of devolution of tax revenues to states from the first of every month to 15th, resulting in “problems with cash management”.

Mitra has scaled back allocation for urban development, sanitation and water supply from the revised estimate for the current year of Rs13,654.54 crore to Rs10,901.96 crore for 2018-19. Also, allocation for health and family welfare has been pared from Rs4,088.18 crore in the current year to Rs3,859.69 crore at a time when the state is expanding its healthcare infrastructure.

Mitra announced a one percentage point cut in stamp duty on properties priced between Rs40 lakh and Rs1 crore. Stamp duty on sale of urban properties in the state will be lowered to 6% and that on rural properties to 5%. “I am certain that this measure will greatly help the middle class and the construction sector,” he said.

Mitra also waived the mutation fee on transfer of properties for farmers.

Describing the stamp duty cut as a “boost” for the construction sector, Nandu Belani, a leading real estate developer in Kolkata and the president of lobby group Credai Bengal, said the “real dampener” for the sector has been the introduction of 12% GST. The centre should consider reducing it, he added.livemint