Second LDF govt presents 'health-oriented' budget; Rs 20,000 crore COVID package

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(adds details) Thiruvananthapuram, Jun 4 (PTI)Announcing a COVID revival package of Rs 20,000 crore, the second Pinarayi Vijayan government on Friday presented a 'health-oriented' budget promising food, livelihood and free vaccination to all besides making significant allocations to agriculture and poverty eradication.

An additional Rs 1,500 crore was earmarked for providing free vaccination to all aged above 18 years and purchasing allied equipment for the inoculation drive, a proclaimed policy of the Left government which came to power after achieving a resounding victory in the April 6 assembly polls.

A six-pronged strategy was announced to tide over the pandemic-induced 'health emergency' in Kerala and prepare it to fight against the possible third wave of the virus infection in future.

Despite the state reeling under acute financial crisis, Finance Minister K N Balagopal opted not to impose any fresh taxes in his maiden budget for the 2021-22 fiscal.

A first-time legislator, Balagopal said though the budget presented by his predecessor T M Thomas Isaac early this year was a comprehensive one, the government came up with a 'revised budget' now in view of the rapid spread of the coronavirus and concerns about its possible third wave.

The government was compelled to adopt a firm stance, 'health first' or 'health above all' as its vision for development in the present circumstances, he said.

'A second COVID package of Rs 20,000 crore is announced now to address the health, social and economic challenges that are emerging in the backdrop of the second wave,' he said presenting the budget and vote on account.

Under the package, Rs 2,800 crore was earmarked to tackle the health emergency, while Rs 8,990 crore was set aside for direct disbursement to those in crisis after losing their livelihood, he said.

A total of Rs 8,300 crore outlay, under the package, was made to boost the economy by giving loans and interest subsidies to the needy.

The budget allocated Rs 10 crore for the production of COVID-19 vaccine and its related research at the Institute of Advanced Virology (IAV) here.

Among several allocations to strengthen the health sector, Balagopal set aside Rs 636.5 crore for setting up isolation wards with 10 beds exclusively for contagious diseases in all taluk, district and general hospitals besides Rs 50 crore for building isolation blocks in three medical colleges.

Seeking to revive the economy, the budget announced a slew of low interest loans to help agriculture, MSMES, neighbourhood groups and so on and an amount of Rs.100 crore was provided for the interest subvention.

A Venture Capital Fund with a corpus of Rs 100 crore to activate the rapid growth of small scale enterprises and start-ups has also been proposed, while Rs 10 crore outlay to provide low interest loans for SC/ST entrepreneurs, was also part of the financial revival steps.

In order to resolve the issues in the tourism sector, a rejuvenation package would be implemented, he said, adding that an amount of Rs 30 crore was earmarked as government share for the same.

In addition to the existing provision of Rs 100 crore, Rs 50 crore has been additionally earmarked to Tourism Department for marketing, he said.

Two new tourism circuits- Malabar Literary Circuit and Bio-Diversity Circuit-- were announced and Rs 50 crore was allocated for its implementation.

Wooing the fishermen community, the budget proposed Rs 11,000 crore-worth development programmes in the coastal belt of the state in the next four years.

'It is expected that this development package, comprising coastal conservation project, coastal highway project and wayside amenity project, will provide a huge economic stimulus to the coastal sector,' he said.

Five agro parks will be set up with the participation of farmers and Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB).

The Finance Minister said the extreme poverty reduction scheme would be implemented with the participation of local self government institutions and an amount of Rs 10 crore was initially earmarked for the same.

Efforts would be made to implement at least 12 crore person days of employment through employment guarantee schemes, he said.

In the general educational sector, Rs 10 crore was earmarked to create a common online teaching platform, incorporating the technologies of virtual reality and augmented reality, for children to make learning possible as in school atmosphere.

'As part of creating Kerala knowledge society, the allocation for 'knowledge economy fund' for skill promotion and technological transformation is increased from Rs 200 crore to Rs 300 crore,' the finance minister said.

Due to Covid pandemic, as many as 14,32,736 NRKs (non-resident Keralites) have returned to the home state and the budget allocation towards various welfare schemes for expatriate Keralites has been enhanced to Rs 170 crore.

The minister said Rs five crore each was set aside for the 'Smart Kitchen' project to alleviate the difficulty of domestic work and for the protection of children who lost their parents due to Covid pandemic.

'During economic slowdown and natural disasters, the government could have stepped aside by reducing the expenditure. But, this is not the approach of the Left Front.

During a crisis, the Left approach is to stand upfront and save the society even through borrowings,' he said.

In the last financial year, the state's GSDP came down by 3.82 per cent compared to the previous year, he said, adding that the growth rate that was positive for decades fell under the impact of Covid-19 induced lockdown and the state revenues recorded a decline of 18.77 per cent.

He flayed the Centre for its alleged delay and uncertainty in releasing even the legally mandated GST compensation to the State also caused considerable financial difficulties.

The Centre's increasing tendency to rely on cess, particularly on petroleum products, had an adverse impact on the state finances by reducing the divisible pool, that is to be shared with States, he said.

As a result, revenue deficits grew and states were forced to borrow, the finance minister added.PTI LGK RRT BN BALA BN BALA

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