Assembly polls in four States find echo in Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget

The year-long battle with COVID-19 and even before that the political-economy lessons from Maharashtra polls were also evident.

From Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman quoting verses from Rabindranath Tagore and Thiruvalluvar’s works to massive allocation of funds, the influence of the coming polls in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam was obvious on the Budget. And the year-long battle with COVID-19 and even before that, the political-economy lessons from the Maharashtra polls, were also writ large.

The four States will go to the polls in the next couple of months.

Allocations per State

The most obvious political aspect of the Budget was, of course, the allocations announced for these States — 1,100 km of national highways in Kerala at an investment of ₹65,000 crore (including a 600-km section of the Mumbai-Kanyakumari corridor), a ₹25,000-crore worth highway works in West Bengal (including an upgrade of the Kolkata-Siliguri road), more than 1,300 km of national highways to be built in Assam, new phases of the Chennai Metro at a cost of ₹63,246 crore, a seaweed park, a major fishing harbour to be developed in Chennai and national highway programmes to the tune of ₹1.03 lakh crore.

A welfare fund of ₹1,000 crore is also to be set up for tea estate workers in Assam and West Bengal.

Maharashtra and PMC depositors

As a fallout of the Maharashtra elections and the sight of cheated depositors of the PMC Bank in the State crowding into the BJP’s Mumbai office trying to get an audience with Ms. Sitharaman, the government approved an increase in the deposit insurance cover from ₹1 lakh to ₹5 lakh and promised that it would be moving amendments to relevant laws to streamline the provision so that depositors can get easy and time-bound access to their savings to the extent of the deposit insurance.

Farmers and MSP

Ms. Sitharaman spent considerable time elaborating on the enhanced amounts of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) paid out by the government over the years, an obvious reference to the weeks-long agitation by farmers’ unions on the outskirts of Delhi. The unions have, for months, been demanding the repeal of three farm laws that will make it easier for private traders to bypass ‘mandis’ or market places run by Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) in order to buy agricultural produce as well as removed stock limits on certain commodities under the Essential Commodities Act.

Ms. Sitharaman also said that 1,000 more ‘mandis’ would be incorporated into the E-NAM marketplace, in a bid to demonstrate that the government had neither dismantled the MSP nor the ‘mandi’ system.

COVID-19 aftermath

The Budget math did reflect the economic impact of the year of the pandemic, with the deficit, for the first time in years, being pegged at 9.5% for 2020-21 and is said to be 6.5% for the coming financial year. But the lessons from the distress of migrants across India under one of the harshest lockdowns were also evident — the government would be pushing ahead with promoting “One Nation-One Ration Card” for migrant workers to access food anywhere in the country. A portal for gig and migrant workers would also be set up.

The tough year of the pandemic and the busy electoral calendar for this year have been reflected within the year’s Union Budget.

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