Kolkata: West Bengal has come up with a novel idea to recoup some of the money spent on the reading habits of bureaucrats. Civil servants, who get reimbursed for newspapers, have been asked to hand them in after reading to the government so that they can be sold to scrap dealers, who typically pay Rs6-7 per kg.
Officials who don’t comply with the measure face a 15% cut in reimbursement, according to an order by the state’s finance department issued towards the end of 2009.
A state finance ministry official said, on condition of anonymity, that the rule wasn’t being observed too widely, much to general relief.
“The logistics hasn’t been sorted out yet,” he said. “Some officers had started bringing old newspapers from home, but thankfully not many did. If they did, we would have had old newspapers piling up in our department. For a government, even selling old newspapers isn’t easy.”
Bureaucrats of the rank of chief secretary are entitled to get six newspapers at home, while those of the rank of principal secretary get three.
Most officers seem to have found it easier to agree to a 15% cut in reimbursement.
The finance department has spared ministers, who are entitled to eight newspapers, although many subscribe to more. The rule is now being strictly enforced.
“By implementing these measures, we have already managed to pare costs (on newspapers) by almost 50% in the past couple of months,” the finance official said.
The state has also imposed tighter limits on the use of phones by its officers, saving at least Rs3 lakh a month.
These are among the measures the finance department has taken in the past few months to contain the fiscal deficit—the difference between the state’s income and expenditure.
The government is also seeking to restrict Plan expenditure for which budgetary allocations have been made at the beginning of the fiscal year at 75%, according to C.M. Bachhawat, principal secretary at the finance department.
Departments have been instructed in a 31 December order to obtain approval from the finance department for all Plan expenditure above this limit.
The finance department has turned down requests from at least four departments to buy computers and fax machines.
“The finance department is refusing to clear even orders worth as little as Rs5 lakh,” said an official of the planning and development department, who too refused to be named.
While Bachhawat claimed these measures were taken “to cut waste and to improve management of finances”, some ministers such as Kshiti Goswami, in charge of public works, are not too pleased with the austerity drive.
“The last three months of a (fiscal) year are extremely crucial. Unless funds are released promptly, we cannot reach certain milestones,” said Goswami, referring to ongoing projects that might have to be halted unless the public works department gets funds. That could cost the government popularity ahead of state elections.
The thrust is on cutting Plan expenditure because there is little that the state can do about non-Plan expenditure, such as salaries, pensions, subsidies, interest and repayment of debt, said the finance department official cited earlier.
State finance minister Asim Dasgupta had estimated expenditure in the current fiscal year at a shade under Rs70,000 crore, with non-Plan expenditure accounting for at least 80% of that.