LAHORE - Punjab Finance Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman started off his budget speech with the announcement that today he was here in the House with the biggest-ever budget in Punjab’s history. But he conveniently forgot that every new budget is bigger in size than the previous budgets. We have never seen a budget which is smaller in volume than the previously announced budgets.

The finance minister termed it “Awami budget” with emphasis on meeting the needs of the poor sections of society. The official figures, however, depict an altogether different picture. How could it be called “Awami budget” when around 65 per cent (700 billion) of the total budget is meant for non-development expenditure?

The ratio of non-development budget vis-à-vis the development budget comes to 65:35 respectively. This is because the government has allocated Rs 345 billion for its development programmes as against around Rs 700 billion non-development expenditure which is incurred on running the government machinery.

Is it because of a few billion subsidies the government has announced for the poor that finance minister described it Awami budget?, asked an opposition member after the budget speech. 

Another fact which belies finance minister’s claim of an Awami budget is that the non-development expenditures of some provincial departments supposed to provide services to the people exceed those of the development expenditures. This means that a department set up for providing services to the people consumes a major chunk of the budget itself and the spending on people remain comparatively low.

The budget documents may have some details about the expenses to be incurred under the head of non-development expenditure which has been projected at Rs 700 billion for the 2014-15 fiscal, the finance minister in his budget speech confined himself only divulging the details concerning the development expenditure which is 34.5 per cent of the total budget outlay of Rs 1045 billion.

The finance minister in his speech identified increasing population as one of the major issues facing the country. He also told the House that fruits of development could not reach the masses unless population is kept within permissible limits. But looking at the meagre allocation of Rs 1.50 billion he announced to control the population growth, it does not appear that government considers it a major issue.

Similarly, the minister declared that unemployment was another major problem haunting the nation. Giving figures, Mujtaba said that 70 per cent of Punjab’s total population comprised people under the age of 30 and the government had prepared a comprehensive strategy to impart skilled education to the youth. Under this plan, he added, 2 million people including men and women would be given such training in the next four years. Again, the allocation announced for the purpose was only Rs 6 billion. The minister claimed that in the next four years the government would succeed in providing jobs to 7 million people now living below the poverty line.

Budget allocation for south Punjab was the prime focus of finance minister’s speech, as he announced Rs 119 billion for different development projects in the region. He said it was 36 per cent of the total development budget more than its population share.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was present in the House to buck up his finance minister in the face of strong hue and cry raised by the opposition which boycotted the budget speech. The PPP members did not join the protest mainly led by PTI and the PML-Q lawmakers. 

At one point, when Shujaur Rehman paused to get his breath back, the chief minister signalled him to continue the speech non-stop lest the opposition gets the impression that finance minister had got nervous due to its protest. Consequently, poor Mujtaba did not dare drink the remaining water left in the glass. It was only after he had finished the speech that chief minister himself picked up the glass and presented to his courageous minister.