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Punjab budget: Free education till class 12, retirement age cut to 58

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Reducing government employees' retirement age from 60 to 58, free education for all students up to Class 12 and a debt waiver for landless farmers were some of the major announcements made by Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal in the 2020-21 budget on Friday. Badal on Friday presented a Rs 1,54,805 crore budget in the state Assembly here. Deciding against levying any fresh taxes, Badal also announced a waiver of Change of Land Use (CLU) charges for two years for new industries coming up outside municipal limits and slashed 'mandi' fee on vegetables from 4 to 1%.

The budget earmarked Rs 100 crore for giving 10 lakh free smartphones to the youth, which was one of the main poll promises of the ruling Congress. The delivery of smartphones, however, has been halted due to the coronavirus outbreak in China, Badal said in his fourth budget speech. Asserting that the state's finances were "back on track", Badal said the state has reached the point where there is no funding gap in 2020-21 because of the government's sustained efforts to bringing in fiscal prudence.

In a major announcement, Badal said the retirement age of government employees has been reduced from 60 to 58. "With this, we will be able to provide employment to three to four times the number of people who retire. We will also be able to get more talented pool of young people to serve Punjab," he later told reporters. He said the number of employees who are going to be affected by this move was yet to be worked out and that the decision will be implemented in two phases.

"Those who have turned 59 will retire on March 31 this year and those who are 58 will retire from September 30," he added. Currently, 3.50 lakh government employees are working in the state departments and the attrition rate is 5 to 9%. When asked about the financial implications, Badal said he was expecting that the financial outgo on account of reducing the retirement age would be Rs 3,500 crore. Allocating Rs 12,488 crore for promotion of schools and higher education, the minister announced free education for all students in government schools up to Class 12. Currently, education is free for all students up to Class 8 and it is free up to Class 12 only for girls.

Free transportation facility for primary schools students will also be provided and for this Rs 10 crore has been allocated, Badal said. He also announced to earmark Rs 4,000 crore in the budget for the 6th Pay Commission which is expected to submit recommendations in the near future. He further announced payment of 6% Dearness Allowance arrears to employees next month which would involve financial outgo of Rs 1,000 crore. The government employees have been seeking release of their pending DA.

Badal also announced allocation of Rs 2,000 crore including Rs 520 crore especially for waiving loans of landless farm workers under its flagship programme of crop loan waiver scheme. The government has already waived crop loans of all small and marginal farmers (up to 5 acres) who have loans of up to Rs 2 lakh. Later, Badal also said the compensation to families of farmers who committed suicide would be ensured within 60 days. The allocation for free power subsidy for farmers has been kept at Rs 8,275 crore for 2020-21, he said.

In another important announcement, the minister said under the new assessment policy of the excise and taxation department, the number of pending and old VAT assessment cases would come down from 1.24 lakh to about 30,000. In the budget, Badal proposed revenue receipts of Rs 88,004 crore and revenue expenditure of Rs 95,716 crore for 2020-21. He further said the revenue deficit for 2020-21 will be Rs 7,712 crore (1.20% of GSDP) and the fiscal deficit will be Rs 18,828 crore (2.92% of GSDP). He also projected outstanding debt of Rs 2,48,236 crore for 2020-21 as against 2019-20 revised estimates of Rs 2,28,906 crore.

While Chief Minister Amarinder Singh lauded the budget, the Opposition dubbed it "visionless and directionless". "With his futuristic budget projections, the finance minister laid down a progressive roadmap that will chart the way for the state's holistic growth and development, with all sections of the society set to be benefitted," said Amarinder Singh in a statement here. BJP national secretary Tarun Chugh said the budget is "nothing but a document of deceit" and a "U-turn" on the promises made by the Congress party ahead of 2017 assembly elections. Shiromani Akali Dal leader and former minister Bikram Singh Majithia described the budget as a "fraud" on the people of Punjab.

In a statement here, he said figures had been "fudged" to paint a rosy picture even as Punjab was suffering due to "inefficiency and mismanagement" of the state's finances by Badal. Badal also proposed capital expenditure of Rs 10,280 crore. He said the state would get higher share from the central taxes as has been proposed by the 15th Finance Commission. He said the state government proposes to set up two agriculture colleges at Gurdaspur and Balachaur.

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