Shimla, Feb 22: The ruling Congress in Himachal Pradesh seems to have gone populist ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
The fund-starved government, which is already reeling under the ever-swelling wage bill, announced a fat financial bonanza to woo around 300,000 employees and over 100,000 pensioners.
At the same time, the government is moving to regularize over 12,600 illegal constructions in the state.
Political observers say in a controversial move, Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh introduced a bill in the assembly to amend the Himachal Pradesh Town and Country Planning Act of 1977 to regularise unauthorised constructions.
But expecting a backlash from the main opposition BJP, the chief minister at the last moment decided not to go ahead with it.
The assembly Friday referred to a house select committee the Himachal Pradesh Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Bill, 2014.
The move has left the BJP members stumped.
“The government can easily get the bill passed as it has its majority in the house. With his master stroke the chief minister at the last moment decided not to pass the bill in the absence of BJP. Now he can claim that the government was keen to regularise the constructions but not the BJP,” said a senior Congress minister.
The BJP, on the last day of the budget session Friday, also boycotted the assembly.
Introducing the amendment bill, Urban Development Minister Sudhir Sharma said the amendment was necessitated as the “high court had taken a serious notice of the grim situation and asked the government not to regularise the total unauthorised constructions”.
The minister said demolition of such large-scale unauthorised construction was neither feasible nor practicable.
To woo the common man, especially the employees, the chief minister presented a populist but deficit Rs.23,613-crore budget for 2014-15 with no new taxes.
The chief minister, who also holds the finance portfolio, announced a 10 percent dearness allowance from July 1 last year for government employees and pensioners.
“The increased dearness allowance will also be given to the pensioners of the government. The additional annual benefit to the government employees and the pensioners will be to the tune of Rs.580 crore,” he said.
Presenting his 17th budget spread over his record sixth chief ministerial stints in the state, he announced increase in daily wages from Rs.150 to Rs.170 and that all daily wage earners, who complete seven years of service till March 2014, would be regularised.
All people above the age of 80 will get a social security pension of Rs.1,000 per month, except those drawing any other pension.
Official sources said 60,000 new octogenarians would be covered under the social security pension.
The chief minister in his budget speech, which was boycotted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the estimated expenditure on salaries is Rs.7,647 crore and pensions Rs.3,496 crore.
Out of every Rs.100 spent, salaries will account for Rs.32.38, pensions Rs.14.80, interest payments Rs.11.64, loan repayments Rs.6.40 and the remaining Rs.34.78 will be spent on developmental works, including other activities, the chief minister said.
For toppers of Classes 10 and 12, netbooks will be provided to 7,500 students.
Officials said Virbhadra Singh’s budget was mainly focussed on employees to woo them ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
The serving and retired employees and their families constitute a sizeable chunk of the electorate in the state with over 4.6 million voters.
“The budget is laden with announcements with little benefits actually passed on to the common man,” Leader of Opposition and former two-time chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal told IANS.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) said Himachal Pradesh’s public debt is a whopping Rs.20,765 crore in 2012-13 and it increased by over Rs.5,000 crore in five years.
The debt from 2008-09 to 2012-13 increased from Rs.15,427 crore to Rs.20,765 crore, said the CAG’s report on state finances for the year ending March 31, 2013, tabled in the assembly.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)