The lakhs of families whose houses were destroyed cannot wait long without sliding further in their economic condition
Despite the existence of the National Planning Commission, what is planned for is from time to time not included in the government’s policies and programmes; some things promised in the policy document are not included in the budget; much of what is promised in the budget is not carried out, and in some cases, what is committed does not receive any budget, for example the local elections in the Budget for 2015-16, or much too low budget. The national budget that Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat presented in the Legislature-Parliament on Tuesday is not free from such shortcomings. Last year, too, Minister Mahat had presented the budget. But if we compare the promises there and the performance one year afterward, things will be clearer.
The size of the budget has been considerably increased this year over that of the last year to 819.47 billion rupees, mainly because of the need to set aside a huge outlay for reconstruction of the physical structures destroyed or damaged by the major earthquakes of April 25 and May 12 and the emphasis on infrastructure building. The amount earmarked for reconstruction amounts to Rs. 91 billion, of which Rs. 74 is to be used by the yet-to-be-constituted Reconstruction Authority and the rest to be used through the line agencies. This gives a hint of a longer period of time that the Authority may take to come into being, which in itself leaves room for doubt whether the reconstruction will be carried in a speedy way within five years. But the lakhs of families whose houses were destroyed are not in a position to wait that long without sliding further in their economic condition. It is a welcome move to aim to train 50,000 youths in such skills as carpentry, masonry and plumbing required for reconstruction.
The budget is ordinary. But even its sincere implementation would make a difference to be felt. The targeted 6 per cent growth rate without the backup of solid policy and programmes, such as how to revive sluggish sectors, reduce the trade deficit and how to create new opportunities, such as employment, may be a bit more optimistic. The budget has been welcomed by FNCCI’s representatives as most of its demands have been met. But those in, say, the garment and tourism have their own reservations. The budget has not increased many taxes, except in some, including alcoholic beverages and tobacco products, mainly because of the devastating earthquake. There are some positive provisions, such as doubling of the monthly allowance given to senior citizens, and some unrealistic ones, such as linking all VDCs with roads within three years and making a doctor available in every VDC. There has always been felt the need for the tax base to be expanded rather than increased in the country and in this area more needs to be done–and whether the increase in the VAT threshold from Rs. 2 million to Rs.5 million is a sound decision is debatable. Prolonged parliamentary budget discussions have tended to delay the budget release process on the one hand and have rarely changed the budget contents on the other. Why cannot it be shortened to, say two weeks?
Classes are being run in dozens of schools with red stickers in Ramechhap district putting the lives of the students and teachers at risk. There are 485 schools in the district and about 300 of them have been marked with red stickers. This district was badly hit by the recent earthquake of April 25 and its aftershocks. Other quake districts too have shared similar fates. There is an urgent need to provide zinc sheets to the schools so that the classes are not conducted under the open sky. The government has been funding some of the schools to build proper classrooms, but it is sorry to note that the money has often not been properly used, and there is corruption.
The need now is for the government to finance adequately for the construction of new school buildings. Under no circumstances should classes be held in school buildings tagged with red stickers. Priority should be given to allocate the necessary budget to construct the new school buildings along with the reconstruction of houses destroyed by the mega earthquake. As a temporary measure school buildings should be constructed by using locally available materials. Nobody should be allowed to run classes in the earthquake-damaged school buildings.
A version of this article appears in print on July 16, 2015 of The Himalayan Times.