Budget populist, lacks vision

With the Karnataka Assembly elections due in the first half of 2018, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah went on a sop spree in his record 12th budget presentation in the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday. That the chief minister, who also holds the finance portfolio, managed to include all sections and sectors points to his political astuteness. From beer guzzlers to Olympians and from government to private sector employees, there is something for everyone, a pointer to his ‘inclusiveness’ agenda.

Populism trounced pragmatic budget-making as the chief minister borrowed ideas
from states such as Tamil Nadu to Uttar Pradesh to Delhi. Free laptops for college students, waiver of power bills, free LPG connections, ‘Namma canteens’ like Tamil Nadu’s ‘Amma canteens’ and a bumper allocation for his ‘Ahinda’ vote bank have increased the subsidy burden by Rs 6,000 crore — about 33% more than the 2016-17 fiscal. But the grey area is in resource mobilisation. With no new taxes, how the government plans to fulfil its promises is anyone’s guess. Populist measures alone do not win elections, as was proved in Uttar Pradesh with the Akhilesh Yadav government. In a bid to leave no stone unturned, Siddaramaiah has also allocated Rs 2 crore for the development of tomb of Shahaji, father of Maratha King Shivaji, in Channagiri, Davangere, as a tourist centre.

The budget document is carefully crafted to highlight the government’s achievements in the last four years and the new schemes proposed for the current fiscal sector-wise, making it read more like a poll document. The budget states that growth has slowed down to 6.9% as against the rate of 7.3% during 2015-16 due to a decline in the growth rate of industry and services sectors, but does not address the issue. Karnataka has been reeling under a severe drought for the last five years, and it is here that the budget lacks vision. Other than allocations for irrigation schemes and cloud seeding, the chief minister has failed to prop­ose a long-term plan. And the bankruptcy of ideas is palpable when the budget proposes underbridge and widening of overbridge at Hebbal in Bengaluru to ease traffic.

Perhaps, the chief minister could take a leaf out of the Union government’s Economic Survey. For the first time, the Centre used Big Data to point out eight interesting facts about India. Among them two are relevant to Karna­taka. First that welfare spending suffers from misallocation and second that Bengaluru collects only between 5% and 20% of its potential property taxes. Instead of taking the aid of scientific evidence to usher in social justice and also mobilise revenue, Siddaramaiah opted for free-wheeling populism.

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