New Delhi: Keeping in sight the assembly elections in four states which will be crucial to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s strive to expand the party’s footprint in newer areas, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in the Union budget presented on February 1 for the 2021-22 financial year, announced a number of multi-crore, central infrastructure allocations to West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam.
The finance minister particularly highlighted infrastructure allocations for West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala where the BJP is looking to make significant electoral gains, and also to Assam where the party is seeking a re-election. These states are scheduled to go to polls after April and May this year.
In poll-bound West Bengal, where the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is giving the BJP a tough contest, Sitharaman announced Rs 25,000-crore worth of road projects. A stretch of 675 kilometres of National Highway is to be created in the eastern state, she said.
The finance minister particularly stressed on the redevelopment of the Kolkata-Siliguri highway.
The news was greeted with rousing applause by BJP MPs, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This specific mention was crucial since the party is aiming to win at least 50 of the 54 assembly seats in north Bengal. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the BJP could raise its tally of MPs from the state substantially by winning seven of the eight seats from that belt and had secured a lead in 38 assembly segments.
Yet another state that the saffron party endeavours to form a government in is Kerala, which too has got Rs 65,000-crore road infrastructure projects under the 2021-22 budget. This would entail construction of 1,100 km of roads in the southern state.
The minister specifically mentioned that the phase two of the Kochi metro railway, covering a length of 11.5 km at a cost of Rs 1957.05 crore, would be carried out from the allocation, besides including the 600-km section of the Mumbai-Kanyakumari corridor that would pass through Kerala.
Last October, the Union Minister for Ministry of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari had said that 23 projects involving a stretch of 650 km were being developed in Kerala at an investment of Rs 50,000 crore as part of the Mumbai-Kanyakumari economic corridor. That corridor is expected to be the lifeline of the state as it would improve connectivity in key cities and towns like Kollam, Ernakulam, Kannur, Thalassery, Kozhikode, Kasargod and the capital city Thiruvananthapuram.
Another poll-bound state, Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is trying to expand its footprint, a 3,500-km long highway at an investment of Rs 1.03 lakh crore was announced. The finance minister announced, amidst cheers from her party members at the parliament, that the allocation would include the construction of the Madurai-Kollam economic corridor.
Additionally, a Kochi-Chennai-Visakhapatnam fisheries hub is to be set up along with a multipurpose seaweed park in that state. “Seaweed farming is an emerging sector with the potential to transform the lives of coastal communities,” Sitharaman said in the Lok Sabha.
In July 2020, as a part of the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, the Central government had already announced that a sum of Rs 637 crore would be spent over the next five years for seaweed cultivation in the state, primarily as subsidy support. The government, in February 2019, had carved out the Ministry of Fisheries.
Rajeev Ranjan, secretary at the Ministry of Fisheries, had told reporters then that India’s potential to produce seaweed “has been estimated at a million tons, a fourth of which in Tamil Nadu alone…Raised to that level, this vocation can give employment to 6-7 lakh people,” Ranjan had claimed.
Effectively, Sitharaman’s announcement on February 1 confirmed the central allocation to push the industry as an employment generator in the southern coastal belt. With the nationwide lockdown in 2020 creating a situation where jobs were lost, the move could well help soften public opinion about the BJP in poll-bound Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Additionally, Rs 1,957 crore will be allotted to the Chennai Metro project, addressing a public demand for better public transport options in the city.
In Assam, where the BJP is seeking yet another term after a rather strong public protest for including the state in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act by which the Assam Accord of 1985 would be compromised, the finance minister announced a sum of Rs 3,400 crore for its road development. She emphasised that road construction worth Rs 19,000 crores was underway in the state and a length of Rs 1300 kms would be constructed in the next three years.
The work on a four-lane carriageway of National Highway 15 that would ease travel across a wide span of upper Assam has taken a long time. The deadline has now been fixed for December 31, 2021.
Last October, during a visit to Assam, Gadkari had said that his ministry had allocated around Rs 80,000 crore for the development of roads and bridges in the state. However, two crucial central projects previously announced for Assam – the construction of a highway along the Brahmaputra and a bridge to connect the island of Majuli to Jorhat district – have remained under consideration.
While the state chief minister Sabananda Sonowal had already laid the foundation stone by the Brahmaputra in Dibrugarh, raising hopes among locals, Gadkari, in October 2020, had said that the Brahmaputra Express Highway “is still under consideration”.
In 2016, campaigning in Majuli, Sonowal’s assembly constituency, Modi had promised that a bridge to connect the island with Nimatighat in Jorhat district would be made, fulfilling a longstanding demand. His announcement was met with applause from those gathered at the rally. A few days prior to it, Gadkari had also laid the foundation stone for it.
However, in the last five years, no progress has been seen at the Centre’s end about a poll promise made by the prime minister himself. Gadkari, during his October visit, had however told reporters that the bridge “would be finalised shortly”.