Mamata Banerjee's Hefty Puja Dole Strikes as Odd in Cash-Strapped Bengal

A section of civil society believes that for a state which is under severe financial duress and is recovering from havoc caused by Cyclone Amphan, a grant of Rs 180 crore to Puja committees is gratuitous.

Kolkata: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Thursday announced financial assistance of Rs 50,000 for Durga Puja to 37,000 organising committees. The amount was Rs 25,000 last year and Rs 10,000 the year before, when she had first introduced the grant.

“You people [clubs organising Durga Pujas] may not get adequate advertisement this time. May not get adequate sponsorships this time. The economic situation is so bad. So, we are trying our bit. Fire department won’t charge money for Puja permissions. Corporation, municipality or the panchayat won’t levy any charge. Power suppliers CESC and WBSEB will give 50% discount. We are a poor government but still we would like to help Puja committees with Rs 50,000 assistance.”

The announcement has naturally surprised many. A section of civil society believes that for a state which is under severe financial duress and is recovering from havoc caused by Cyclone Amphan, a grant of Rs 180 crore to Puja committees is gratuitous. However, with elections only eight months away, political observers believe that the grant can also go on to help Mamata Banerjee to counter BJP’s projection of her as essentially an anti-Hindu leader.

Bengal goes to poll in less than eight months and the time is ripe for the chief minister to garner support from all imaginable quarters.

Trinamool Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha, Derek O’ Brien’s new video series released in July devotes an episode on how much the Centre owes to Bengal. In the video, O’ Brien says, “The Central government owes the Bengal government a total of Rs 53,000 crore.”

The chief minister herself, time and again, has charged the Modi government over not clearing state dues, highlighting Bengal’s economic strain. On September 2, Banerjee wrote to the Prime Minister, urging the Centre to clear GST dues to states.

Also read: Armed With Doles, Mamata Banerjee Is Out to Counter BJP’s Popularity Among Her Lost Voters

“You are aware that, during the period of COVID-19 pandemic, the farmers, the unorganised sector, the migrant workers and the unemployed youth and labour are facing an acute crisis of survival. Instead of helping states, is it proper for the Centre to stop assistance to the states and thrust more financial burden on the state,” Banerjee wrote in the letter.

On May 5, finance minister of West Bengal, Dr Amit Mitra, tweeted saying that the Centre is blind to the collapsing finances of states.

Again, on September 15, calling the Central government’s behaviour on the GST compensation issue “bullying”, Mitra in an exclusive interview with The Wire, said, the government must realise that the states simply do not have the headroom to borrow money to make up for the GST shortfall.

Speaking specifically about his own state, West Bengal, Mitra said if Bengal is left with no option but to borrow the GST compensation, it would have to cut back on a lot of critical development expenditure. He said, education, water, roads and facilities for the poor would be badly affected.

The decision to grant Puja committees money at this stage is thus going to prove an expensive one.

Last week, speaking to the media from the state secretariat, Banerjee announced a monthly stipend of Rs 1,000 each for around 8,000 poor Hindu priests in the state.

“Poor Hindu priests had met me multiple times so that we would consider an honorarium for them. We have decided to give a monthly pay-out of Rs 1,000 to the nearly 8,000 priests who had already applied. The government will also build houses for the poor priests who don’t have homes under the Banglar Awas Yojana,” said the chief minister.

On September 8, while observing West Bengal police day, Banerjee announced a special ‘Durga Pujo’ bonus of Rs 2,000 for all accredited journalists in Kolkata and Rs 1,000 for those in other districts.

At this stage, Banerjee’s sustained efforts to reap the benefits of the festive season with an eye on the polls is a testament to the saffron party’s Hindutva campaign and the anti-incumbency stir that the latter has created already. Much of what the chief minister has done in the recent past appears to be a response to BJP’s politics.

As The Wire has noted in its reports, the lockdown has left families in west-central Bengal in a state of debt. In the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, the misappropriation of compensation and related funds continues to make news in the state.