Ballot-year populism

THE Congress government’s last Budget before the 2022 Punjab Assembly elections is, as expected, populist to the core. With the state’s farmers spearheading a protracted agitation against three farm laws enacted by the Centre, the Capt Amarinder Singh dispensation has intensified its focus on the agriculture sector in a bid to woo this all-important vote bank. The FM has announced to waive Rs 1,186 crore owed by 1.13 lakh farmers, while the landless ones won’t have to repay loans to the tune of Rs 526 crore. It was on the back of poll promises such as the crop loan waiver scheme that the Congress had wrested power from the Akali-BJP alliance in 2017. Though loan waiver is at best a short-term palliative measure that doesn’t address the problems plaguing Punjab’s agriculture — depleting water table, shrinking landholdings, wheat-paddy fixation — the Congress is staying the course due to political compulsions.

Even as the state’s debt has risen to Rs 2,73,730 crore — it was around Rs 1,53,773 crore in 2016-17 — the government has allocated Rs 7,180 crore to provide free electricity to farmers. For obvious reasons, power subsidy has remained sacrosanct for successive governments in Punjab, even though the Comptroller amp; Auditor General (CAG) has repeatedly red-flagged this largesse as a key contributor to the state’s abysmal economic condition. The FM has also announced schemes to promote horticulture and crop diversification, but it would require wholehearted efforts to make such ventures viable and sustainable for growers.

The Budget has something in store for virtually every section of society, be it government employees, old-age pensioners, students or industrialists. It seems the cash-strapped government will yet again be living beyond its means. Mobilising resources and enforcing fiscal discipline to ensure that there is no paucity of funds for the social sector, which has for long suffered neglect in Punjab, continue to be a tall order. Curbing the menace of tax evasion, which has been eating into the state’s revenue, is another challenge. Rationalising of subsidies can help to reduce the financial burden, provided there is strong political will to look beyond electoral gains in the state’s interests.

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