LAHORE The budget speech of Punjab Finance Minister Tanvir Ashraf Kaira was well balanced, not only accommodating the contentions of the leadership of both the PPP and the PML-N, but to also spotlighting the challenges and the government ambitious programme vis-a-vis education, poverty alleviation, health, law and order. The budget is the first after announcement of the NFC Award and introduction of 18th Amendment, and singular for earmarking a huge volume of Rs 584billion with highest development outlay of 194billion. Under the NFC Award, the provincial government is going to have additional Rs 98billion that may provide for the financial relief to the masses after one per cent increase in GST, which is going to be an additional burden on the common man by way on lifting prices of every item. Under the award, the GST collection has also come under the domain of the provinces. Budget did not levy any new tax but streamlined the current taxation to generate more revenue. The minister admitted the fact of hardships confronting Punjab on account of terrorism, power and gas crisis and others the cause of which however has more bearing on the Centre. The coalition partners, PPP and PML-N, in the Punjab Assembly in unison applauded the budget while the opposition, particularly woman members, had no letup to play it down by loud shouts and desk thumping particularly when the minister mentioned of a huge spending of Rs 135billion on development of Southern Punjab in the current year and further allocation of Rs 52billion for implementing the same in the next budget. The PML-Q-led opposition gave credit of this spending to its leader Ch Pervez Elahi government during Musharraf era. The Punjab budget was carefully framed to avoid any further opportunity being availed by its critics, inclusive of the Punjab governor, to malign its performance. The minister mentioned about the efforts of all top leaders of both PPP and PML-N in context of the NFC, Charter of Democracy. While commending the sacrifice given by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to make the NFC Award a reality and accommodate other provinces, he mentioned about President Asif Zardari who invited all CMs and political leaders to NFC signing ceremony. At the mention of CoD, he reminded the sagacity of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif while he praised cooperation extended by PM Gilani to CM Shahbaz Sharif, whose programme on education and health, agriculture and poverty alleviation found a special mention in the speech. The CM also earned the credit of first time getting profit of Rs 28billion on hydel project from the Centre and the Centre for releasing Rs 13billion without any delay. Though industry in Punjab was badly affected by energy crisis and the province throughout, remained up in arms as major affectee of the petrol, gas prices and terror hits, the 4.25 per cent GDP growth is an achievement although, public woes did not decrease despite that. To fortify this claim, the minister cited a report of Punjab Economic Research Institute. The budget announced to continue with Sasti Roti and Ramzan package despite the fact, it has earned severe criticism from a quarter led by Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. The increased Rs 1.8billion outlay on providing free of cost textbooks to school kids and Rs 1.05 billion to female students in far flung areas is indeed a welcome continuity. But transparency and making use of the money effectively is still a call as a deep rooted feudal and wadera culture in the far-flung areas hardly admits of imparting education to the female and kids. The setting up of IT labs at school level to produce over two million IT engineers, 300 seats increase in the engineering education and extension of the same to 1200 in four years, increase of 452 medical seats at the initial level and further 525 after four more medical colleges become operational and more institutions to impart technical educations at the head of autonomy to Tevta and 12 per cent added education budget clearly show ambitious outlook of the government to promote quality professional education and literacy. This is all in addition to Punjab Endowment Funds, and other on going schemes for the students and teachers. But the point is that the government side by side needs to make arrangements for absorbing these technical and professional lot otherwise it would cause the brain drain. And for that the government needs to equip and promote other sectors for which energy needs are compulsory to be met. For the agri side it is minded to fashion solar energy use in tubewells while showing more dependence on the centre to initiate main power generating projects. The CM Punjab has laid stress on using all natural resources including coal and wind for power generation and the budget was needed to address this proposition too. On the health sectors - DHQ and THQ - Rs six billion have been earmarked for free medicines besides spreading the scope of free dialysis facility to the whole province, in addition to setting up 22 mobile hospitals. This indeed would go to provide better health facilities at the rural level. The budget envisages setting up of liver transplant centre after kidney centre, but that must be within the parameters, set by the SC for the donation of organs. The Punjab Youth Employment Fund is a new project. Prior to that, projects like Youth Loans, Yellow Cabs, rozgar scheme and others were initiated for the purpose of youth employment but they failed to yield the desired results on account of political meddling and favouritism exercised by power holders at the helm of the affairs. Land on lease to agri graduate is another new theme in our economy for the success of which, a highly strict and above the board mechanism is needed. First time the budget announces in clear terms the scheme to auction spare public land and also that grabbed by qabza group, and to spend the proceeds on development. This indeed is going to be a big challenge as qabza mafia is holding a large chunk of the public land and their tentacles are spread far and wide. Previously the government announced to auction large and royal mansions in the City but it failed to take even the first step. The most important question is how to plug pilferage in the development projects and what modalities are adopted to tame the bureaucracy and its supporter vis-a-vis the fair use of these funds; when this sector is upright no corruption can be practised. The budget should have announced reduction in fertilizers and pesticides prices to make agriculture cost effective. The budget rightly touched upon promoting livestock as it can also fetch the province foreign exchange. In nutshell, the budget hinges upon more on hopes and challenges and now it is up to the rulers as to how they fulfil the public hopes and meet the challenges.