Kerala Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac on Friday sounded the bugle for the impending Assembly elections as he unveiled the LDF government’s agenda—a mix of social welfarism and developmental aspirations—for the next five years.
This was the sixth budget of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government. As expected, Isaac announced a slew of measures touching the entire spectrum of population in his budget speech that lasted more than 3 hours—the longest in the history of Kerala assembly.
One of the highlights of the budget was the focus on "transforming Kerala to a knowledge economy." A slew of measures for strengthening educational and digital infrastructure has been announced in the budget, including ensuring a laptop for every household. Isaac said that 1,000 teacher vacancies will be created in the varsities in Kerala and there will be 30 Centres of Excellence in the universities.
Isaac has also announced Rs 120 crore for school infrastructure development in a bid to raise the schools in the state to a global standard. It has also been decided to appoint a counselling personnel in every school with a monthly salary of Rs 24,000. Isaac said 500 postdoctoral fellowships called Nava Kerala Scholarship will be started to give beneficiaries upto Rs 1 lakh per month, which is “the highest by any state government in India”. Kerala Technical University, Medical University and Sree Narayana Open University will be allotted special funds for construction of new headquarters, according to the budget.
Tackling Kerala's unemployment—higher than the national average—seemed the top priority of Isaac’s budget. He has proposed a new Rs 20-crore project to convert buildings with at least 5,000 sq ft into workstations at the block and municipal level.
A digital platform through which companies can directly hire job seekers for ‘work from home’ or ‘work near home’ models has been envisaged. Professionals getting jobs through the platform will have access to government incentives like purchasing computers and technical devices on affordable loans through KFC, KSFE and Kerala Bank. The finance minister said the government plans to provide jobs to at least 20 lakh people in the next five years through the digital platform. This includes a large section of skilled women who may have been forced to break their careers for personal reasons and wishing to work again on a ‘work from home’ model.
As part of skill training, the budget also talks about forming a 'skill mission' under the Kerala Development Innovation Strategy Council (K-DISC) as part of which 50 lakh educated youth will be imparted training on a war footing.
Underlining its priority to take Kerala to the "new age", he said the first phase of the Kerala Fiber Optic Network (KFON), an ambitious IT infrastructure project to make the internet accessible to everyone, will be inaugurated by next month. The project will be functional by July, Isaac said during the budget presentation on Friday.
Families below the poverty line (BPL) will be able to surf the net free of cost besides extending services to over 30,000 government offices when KFON becomes operational. The finance minister also announced that no monopoly would be allowed in the internet highway in the state.
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Realising that the welfare measures initiated by the government in the last 4 years did pay dividends in the recently held local body polls, the government has once again upped its ante on social welfarism. Apart from increasing the social welfare pensions to Rs 1,600, honorarium for ASHA workers and elected local body representatives also have been hiked by Rs 1,000. Similarly, welfare fund contribution of NRK returnees has also been hiked to Rs 3,000 per month.
The budget has also increased the Minimum Support Price for rice, coconut and rubber. In November, Kerala had become the first state in the country to fix the minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural produce.
Equally important thrust has been given to eradicate poverty in the state, though Kerala is one of the states with lowest poverty rate in India. According to his own estimate there would be some 4 to 5 lakh people who live below the poverty line in the state. Isaac said the government envisages to formulate micro-plans targeting each family after identifying and enlisting them in various categories.
Though Isaac would present the last budget as a full-fledged one, the house would pass only a vote-on-account for four months as the tenure of the present government would end soon.