By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai, Feb 26 (IANS): As the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government readies for its third annual Budget (2022-2023) in early March, the focus is again on the state of the state's finances.
The state has been grappling - ranking among the worst-hit - with the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the series of lockdowns that have played havoc with the economy, revenues and expenditure, and diversion of most resources to the health sector for the masses reeling under the impact of Covid-19.
Till the previous fiscal (2020-2021), the state had notched up a whopping debt of Rs 520,717 crore, mostly comprising unpaid loans and other liabilities.
However, the fiscal deficit percentage vis-a-vis GSDP is 2.1 per cent and the debt stock to GSDP is 19.6 per cent - well within the prescribed limits of 25 per cent, as per the Fiscal Policy Strategy Statement of last year, according to the official data.
"Though appearing huge, the debt figures are an accumulation of the past several years owing to various factors. The average annual addition is in the range of Rs 65,000 cr," said Dr Ratnakar Mahajan, well-known economic expert and former Executive Chairman, Maharashtra State Planning Board.
Unlike many other states, there are no money-guzzling 'populist schemes' operating in Maharashtra - barring one important welfare measure started in Jan/2020 - the affordable meal of 'Shiv Bhojan Thali' - which was extended and heavily subsidised after the pandemic lockdowns were imposed in March 2020.
A pet venture of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, the 'Shiv Bhojan Thali' - on which the state government has spent less than Rs 500 crore in the past 24 months - proved to be a life-saver for the urban-rural poor and the lakhs of migrants on the move in the early days of the lockdown series.
However, officials say the debt has to be serviced without fail every year - which is the expenditure part of the annual budget - but there is scope for being prudent, said an official of the state Finance Ministry, headed by Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar.
The official - requesting anonymity - explained how the two years of the severe pandemic has hit all sectors of the economy, compounded by the economic slowdown, job losses which are now gradually being rolled back, the farm loans waivers, handling a series of natural calamities, shortfall in all types of tax revenues and also the massive amount of GST dues pending from the Centre.
Dr Mahajan said one of the factors responsible for growing fiscal burden in the past was, finances were raised at higher interest rates for shorter periods, like availing loans at 11 per cent for 3 years.
Some governments managed to overcome this by restructuring the old loans at lower rates of interest for longer periods - say, at 8 or 9 per cent for 5 years - which lessened the burden and spread it over the years less painfully.
Besides, whenever any government takes up new or mega-projects, it becomes the responsibility of the next regime to take it forward with adequate budgetary provisions.
Officials said some like the Metrorail may be top priority to reduce traffic congestion but others like the Bullet Train could wait for a while to prevent diverting scarce resources from other critical sectors, especially during the pandemic period.
Nevertheless, Dr Mahajan feels that with 'safer and cautious decisions" it is very much possible to bring the state's finances "well on the track" in just two years.
"This was done in the past during the tenure of the former Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde... with certain decisions that helped revive the financial situation and also reduced the state's debt burden significantly," he said.
As for the next year's State Budget (2022-2023), all eyes are on (DCM & FM) Ajit Pawar to see how he juggles with the stretched finances and scarce resources to keep the state afloat amid optimistic signs that it is veering out of the scalding Covid-19 cauldron.