Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mamata in Delhi

On Friday, October 21,  Delhi's corridors of power witnessed a new phenomenon - Hurricane Mamata.  Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee swept like an Aila unleashed in her quest for an elusive `big bang’ package for her home state. The centre says it wants to help, but not in a single Diwali bonanza.

A lunchtime meeting at 7 Race Course Road with prime minister Manmohan Singh, evening tea with rural development minister Jairam Ramesh at her flat, and a planned flight back to Calcutta tomorrow in Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s 14-seater Embraer, were all part of the chief minister’s `Get Money from Delhi’ mission.

Mamata complained bitterly to Singh that of every Rs 1 West Bengal gets, she ends up spending 94 paise in repaying a mountain of debt left behind by the Left front and in paying salaries and pension to her staff. “I have just 6 paise out of Rs 1 that we earn or get, to do any kind of development work … how can anyone do anything with that kind of money?”

The chief minister said after her meeting with the prime minister “on one side we have Junglemahal, on the other Darjeeling, besides 11 of our 19 district are backward … the Centre should help us.” A Rs 500 crore package for Darjeeling’s development which she has demanded still lies bound in red tape in Delhi’s corridors of power. Though Jairam Ramesh has written a letter to her indicating his ministry would declare two more districts – Bankura and Purulia – as Maoist infested and these would get funds from the Centre’s Integrated Action Plan, Mamata knows that money can only flow only after the home ministry and plan panel approves each fund release.

Mamata wants her states’ more than Rs 2 lakh crore debt recast and at the very least “a moratorium for three years” on repayment of interest. Mukherjee has tried to help out by setting up a high level committee on debt recast for the three most debt stressed states – Kerala, West Bengal and Punjab. But the committee’s report will have to pass muster through many layers of the bureaucracy and be acceptable to the country’s finance commission before a debt recast package is actually ordered.

North Block officials say Mukherjee wants to help but within rules. “We know Bengal is a special case because of the financial mess which the previous government left behind and will help under various schemes – money will come as each scheme gets approved … but a big bang package which she seems to be seeking is difficult … that would also cause heart burn elsewhere and we would be open to accusations of favouritism,” pointed out officials.

The centre’s problem with Mamata is that she not only wants her monies in one go but also as of yesterday. “In this five months (since the Trinamool-Congress alliance came to power), we have got nothing,” she told newspersons.

Money already sanctioned as central assistance to the tune of more than Rs 9,000 crore, is also similarly still lying in Delhi’s coffers, caught up in the red tape of checks and cross checks which the bureaucracy submits all pay-outs to.

To the extent that red tape is holding up her money, officials admit, she has a point, but in many cases she wants assurances of money for which schemes have yet to be drawn up by her state government and submitted. Ramesh, on his part, tried to keep the mercurial leader happy by stating “I have assured the chief minister that the rural development ministry is a friend, ally and a partner” and would clear her schemes within the shortest possible time after they are submitted.

Mamata also complained her state did not get its share of coal royalty. Something, which mines ministry official say they can’t get as it charges an `illegal’ coal cess which no other state charges. The cabinet had consequently decided four years ago not to give West Bengal the benefit of coal royalty as long as it continued to charge a cess.

Top officials say money can come out of special schemes to help hill districts, tribal districts, border districts, for earthquake relief in Darjeeling, to build infrastructure in Bangladeshi enclaves which will be transferred to India and even the truly big bonanza of a debt recast, but Mamata “must be patient.”

Officials also warn the Prime Minister’s Office to which she has been rushing with her demands and complaints isn’t exactly happy with her either. By jeopardising an agreement with Bangladesh over Teesta water sharing, she had also held up a transit treaty with that country which was desperately needed by the north east to link up with mainland India and in the process made the Prime Minister and the country lose face in Bangladesh. That’s something which the ruling Congress can’t afford to forget or forgive in a hurry.