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Rs 2,149-cr deficit budget for State

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal with Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma holding Tablets containing electronic version of the State Budget for 2018-19. – AT Photo
 GUWAHATI, March 12 - Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma today presented a Rs 2,149.04-crore deficit budget for the State for the financial year 2018-19 announcing a host of new schemes and relief to small tea growers. However, with the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime, there has been no change in the overall tax structure.

This third budget of the BJP-led government in the State was in electronic format, making Assam the second state in the country to present an e-budget after Andhra Pradesh.

In his budget speech in the Assembly, the Finance Minister said the estimated receipts of the State for the fiscal 2018-19 would be Rs 381,688.26 crore against the estimated expenditure of Rs 380,688.27 crore, leaving a surplus of Rs 999.90 crore. But because of the opening deficit of Rs 3,149.04 crore, the year will end with a deficit of Rs 2,149.04 crore.

Proposing to give relief to small tea growers, the Finance Minister said that in the last two budgets, the rate of specified land cess has been reduced from 25 paisa to 10 paisa per kilogram of green tea leaves in two phases. “Now, we will go a step further and completely exempt the cess on green tea leaves despite the fiscal impact as committed in my previous budget speech to remove the cess over a period of time. Besides, the exemption limit under the Agriculture Income Tax Act has been raised to Rs 2.5 lakh from the existing Rs 1 lakh, while the other tax slabs have already been rationalized,” he added.

Sarma said that in spite of higher budgetary commitments, he would not like to propose any new tax except the rationalization of electricity duty, in aid of the long term sustainability of the ASEB Pension Fund Investment Trust that looks after all matters involving payment of terminal benefits to the employees of the ASEB and its successor entities. In order to make the ASEB Pension Fund Investment Trust self-sustainable and to meet the liability gap, the Finance Minister proposed to levy electricity duty at five per cent on ad valorem basis as against the existing specific duty, which is currently at 20 paisa per unit.

The Finance Minister admitted that over the years, the government failed to give due attention to collection of non-tax revenue and proposed to rationalize the fees, fines and user charges levied so that the State can improve collections from these important sources.

He informed the House that contractors or suppliers affix a tender fee of Rs 8.25 only which is too low considering the fact that the tender value has been raised over the years. He proposed to increase the fee from Rs 8.25 to Rs 100 for tenders up to Rs 20 lakh, and Rs 500 for tenders beyond Rs 20 lakh. “This will definitely boost the resources of the State as well as discourage the non-serious bidders from participating in the bidding process,” he said, adding, the revenue department will work out modalities for the proposed increase subsequently.

The Finance Minister also proposed one per cent increase in the prevailing rates for stamp duty levied and registration fee for transactions in immovable properties to augment the revenue from these quarters.

On environment and forest department, the Finance Minister said that it is important to raise revenue in order to combat the adverse effects of exploitation of natural resources, besides fighting climate change and promoting sustainable tourism and allied sector. He proposed to enhance various fees associated with wood-based industries and ecotourism centres located in protected forest areas. He also proposed to improve the services of forestry and allied sectors through enhancement of service charges and fees.

To improve the services of the Public Works Department, Sarma proposed to increase the contractor registration fees for the large contractors. He proposed to increase the registration fees of Class I(A) contractors of the PWD from Rs 15,000 to Rs 1 lakh, for class I(B) contractors from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000, for Class I(C) contractors from Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000, for Class II contractors from Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 and for Class III contractors from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000.

The Finance Minister also proposed to set up a high power committee to examine the feasibility of further increasing the non-tax revenue collection.

Further, to generate a third stream of revenue for the State, the government decided to explore the possibility of investing in profitable state-run PSUs. The government had earlier invested in Numaligarh Refinery which earned a dividend of Rs 168.93 crore in 2016-17. To reduce the outflow of interest liabilities, he proposed to retire high-cost debt and swap it with low-cost debts. This will result in substantial savings which can be redeployed for developmental purposes, he added.

The Finance Minister asserted that the government has endeavoured to present a budget that is not just holistic, aspirational and futuristic but also inclusive, participatory and versatile. “Steps have been taken to make this budget future-ready, citizen-friendly and all-embracing through our e-budget model,” he said.

He admitted that it is important to ensure that the announcements made in the budget are implemented in the right earnest and requested his colleagues to periodically review the schemes. He also called upon the new Chief Secretary to review the announcements made in the budget. He assured the House that the finance department would leave no stone unturned and play a proactive role to ensure that the schemes are implemented in a time-bound manner.

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