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Rural area roads, tea gardens sops, credit card for entrepreneurs — what’s in 2023 Bengal budget

West Bengal government’s budget for FY 2023-24 also proposes scheme for welfare of fishermen and a monthly stipend for women over 60 years of age.

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Kolkata: Monthly stipend for women older than 60, a credit card for budding entrepreneurs, extension of sops for tea gardens and a special project for development of roads in rural areas. These are some facets of the Rs 3,39,162-crore budget for FY 2023-24 tabled in the West Bengal Assembly by the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government Wednesday.

“The multitude of interventions made by our government will open up opportunities for huge employment in different sectors. We shall continue to grow with hope and optimism,” Minister of State (MoS), finance (independent charge), Chandrima Bhattacharya said in her budget speech.

Addressing a news conference later in the day, Bhattacharya said West Bengal’s GDP (gross domestic product) is projected to grow at 8.4 per cent and industry at 7.8 per cent in the ongoing fiscal — “higher” than the country’s expected growth rate on both accounts.

North Bengal, where the TMC is trying to dent the vote share of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the upcoming Panchayat polls and 2024 Lok Sabha elections, remained a key focus in the budget with the government allocating Rs 823.29 crore for its development.

The BJP had won 30 of the 54 seats in north Bengal in the 2021 assembly elections, and seven of the region’s eight parliamentary seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

To that effect, the government extended the waiver on agricultural income tax levied on tea gardens till 2025, while also exempting owners of small tea gardens from rural employment cess. Unlike small tea gardens that are taxed on the entirety of their income, larger tea estates pay agriculture tax on 60 per cent of profit, while the remaining 40 per cent is calculated under income tax.

Reacting to the budget, Darjeeling Tea Association chairperson B.K. Saria told ThePrint, “These exemptions were already in place but didn’t help much in reviving the tea gardens. We didn’t have any expectations or announcements for the tea gardens in this year’s state budget.” 

With an eye on women voters, the Mamata Banerjee-led government also extended its flagship ‘Lakshmir Bhandar’ scheme for the welfare of women older than 60. This 2021 pre-poll sop aims to provide a monthly stipend to women from economically weaker households. “In order to ensure continuity of financial support beyond 60 years of age, I’, happy to announce that recipients of ‘Lakshmir Bhandar’ will receive Rs 1,000 per month after attaining 60 years of age, by automatic transition to old age pension scheme,” Bhattacharya said in her budget speech.

Another key highlight of the budget was “Rastashree” under which 11,500 km of roads will be developed in rural areas of the state. An allocation of Rs 3,000 crore has been made in the budget for this special project.

The TMC government also announced the development of an industrial and economic corridor which it says will “create employment opportunities for about one lakh people”. This corridor will have three branches: Dankuni to Raghunathpur, Dankuni to Kalyani and Dankuni to Haldia.

To encourage budding start-ups, the budget includes a proposal to extend credit of Rs 5 lakh each to 2 lakh entrepreneurs aged 18-45 through the ‘Bhavishyat Credit Card’. “Financial assistance as loans up to Rs 5 lakh through banks will be provided to set up micro-enterprises. Rs 350 crore has been earmarked for the scheme,” Bhattacharya said in her budget speech.

In addition, the state government has allocated Rs 30 crore towards the full waiver of rates under the West Bengal Irrigation Act 1958 and the West Bengal Irrigation Act 1974. The move could bring further relief to farmers in the state following the revocation of mutation fee for agricultural land.

A new scheme which found mention in the budget was ‘Matsyajeebi Bandhu’, which proposes a one-time grant of Rs 2 lakh to dependents of registered fishermen in the 18-60 age group in the case of their untimely death.

Also Read: ‘Shame shame’: Bengal BJP MLAs interrupt Governor Bose during his maiden speech in assembly

Bengal budget & ‘burgeoning fiscal deficit’

The opposition, however, pointed out that West Bengal’s fiscal health remains a matter of concern. According to the statement tabled in the assembly, the state’s public debt stood at Rs 77,580 crore in FY 2020-2021. Compared to the estimate of Rs 1,14,958 crore in last year’s budget, public debt in FY 2023-24 has been pegged at Rs 1,20,040 crore.

“It is a matter of concern, but you have to also consider the huge debt we incurred from the CPI(M) regime,” Bhattacharya said when asked about the surge in public debt.

According to the government, the state’s fiscal deficit was Rs 50,528 crore in FY 2021-22, and Rs 61,901 crore (revised) in FY 2022-23. The budget now pegs the fiscal deficit for FY 2023-24 at Rs 65,838 crore.

The opposition BJP, while staging a walkout in the legislative assembly during CM Mamata Banerjee’s speech, claimed the budget fell short of fulfilling people’s aspirations and addressing the issue of unemployment.

BJP MLA Ashok Lahiri, a former chief economic advisor to the Government of India, said, “This government is only a government of announcements. I don’t see any hope of development in West Bengal through this budget.”

Slamming the budget, leader of the opposition and BJP MLA Suvendu Adhikari termed it a “futile exercise trying to plug too many loopholes”. “As for the burgeoning fiscal deficit, this government’s best bet is hoping that the next BJP government will tackle it,” he remarked.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: Last trams standing—Kolkata citizens are pushing hard to keep them running


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