The New Bihar

Updated: Jul 27 2002, 05:30am hrs
The fact that most states in the country are in a fiscal mess needs no further documentation. This includes West Bengal, which is now celebrating 25 years of rule by the Left Front. It is an unhappy coincidence that Volume I of the Civil Audit Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General should have been tabled in the state’s legislative assembly. The state’s revenue expenditure accounts for 87 per cent of total expenditure in 2000-01, while interest payments account for 24 per cent of revenue expenditure. This is familiar territory. What is new are financial irregularities used to keep the revenue deficit low, such as adjusting for non-existent interest receipts from the West Bengal State Electricity Board. Loans raised for infrastructure were parked in West Bengal’s deposit accounts, and not spent, because this improved the state’s ways and means position. After all, West Bengal used ways and means advances for 360 out of 365 days. Non-budgeted excess expenditure was never regularised.

At the level of individual departments, there was also no attempt to reconcile expenditure figures. Since systems didn’t exist, expenditure was never monitored. The CAG report documents several social sector schemes - for SC/STs, environment, health (tuberculosis, blindness, leprosy, AIDS), irrigation, rural water supply, drinking water and fire protection. The common refrain is the following: Expenditure doesn’t lead to improvement in outcomes. Targets are missed. Achievements are deliberately over-stated. Money meant for these schemes is not released. When released, there is complete financial indiscipline and leakages. Equipment bought is of inferior quality. Expenditure piles up in March. Hence, governance is more a transparency and accountability issue rather than paucity of resources. Had government-delivered expenditure improved social sector indicators, India’s track record in human development would today have been far superior. Other states have tried to reform, by introducing greater accountability, injecting competition in the delivery of services, decentralising and enacting Right to Information Acts and citizens’ charters. West Bengal’s name does not figure in this list of reforming states. It is not surprising that the Planning Commission’s National Human Development Report for 2001 should document West Bengal’s relative (compared to other states) and sometimes absolute decline in education and health indicators. This is the price paid for 25 years of uninterrupted Left rule. Unfortunately, unlike other states, the countervailing pressure of the citizen’s voice is rarely heard in West Bengal. This drags the state down to the lowest common denominator of Bihar, a phenomenon CAG has now documented.