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Can but unable: State can't help hail-hit citizens due to poll code

It’s a catch-22 situation for the govt, as it will either have to defy the model code of conduct to provide financial aid to the people affected by the catastrophe, or follow the rules and face the public’s wrath

Every disaster is an opportunity for some, and in election season, politicians are always ready to appease the electorate with sops and reparation.

On thin ice: Except a few districts, several places in the state have reported significant damages owing to unseasonal rain and hailstorm.
On thin ice: Except a few districts, several places in the state have reported significant damages owing to unseasonal rain and hailstorm.

So, the unseasonal rain and hailstorm that have laid waste to large swathes of farmland in Maharashtra over the past fortnight, has left the Congress-NCP state government sweating bullets, as, while it may earn the ill-will of the citizenry over this natural calamity, it cannot offer any remedies, owing to the model code of conduct for the Lok Sabha elections having come into effect.

Sources say, while many of the ministers were ready to defy the poll code and announce a financial relief package for those affected, the administration refused to follow its directives, saying it had to be cleared by the election commission first.

The hailstorm havoc has, so far, claimed 28 lives, damaged crops on 14 lakh hectares and destroyed over 18,000 houses.

The problem has compounded with the state’s coffers being nearly empty, and that means any financial measures would require an advance from the state contingency fund (CF), or diversion of resources from other departments.

To find a way out, chief minister Prithviraj Chavan convened a meeting of his cabinet colleagues at the state guesthouse on Thursday. The first option that was available before the government was to go for CF advance.

But, sources said, officials claimed that this was impossible, as the amount required for relief was to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 6,000 crore, and raising it through CF was not allowed under the rules.

The state cannot breach the existing norms to offer relief during natural calamities. And the damage is so heavy that the little monetary assistance, permissible under existing rules, is certain to invite public ire, the government feels. Any hike in the amount would require the EC’s approval.

The second alternative discussed was of diversion of funds from other departments. For this, the government will have to call a special session of the state legislature, as re-appropriation of state funds beyond the ceiling of Rs 20 lakh is not allowed without the legislature’s consent. Then the option of calling a special session was discussed. But, it was pointed out that opposition parties might demand a hefty amount for relief of hailstorm-hit farmers to score political points.

As the meeting failed to arrive at a consensus on these options, some of the ministers suggested that the state defy the election code and announce a special package. But, senior officials said they would not follow these orders, unless the election commission gave a green signal

In a fix
Finally, the state had to dump its own plans because of stern refusal by the babus, and a decision to approach the central government for an immediate relief package was reached. Now, even if the union government approves a special package, it will go before the EC for permission, and the likelihood of approval is remote, as the step may be seen as appeasement of voters.

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