For all the expeditious decision-making on infrastructure projects and a war-room-like approach for most other things, not to mention a comfortable strength in the legislature, his first year report card could have read differently. Instead, even as Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis gets praise across party lines for the Jalyukta Shivar Yojana and for his energy levels, he will no doubt be handed a laundry list of failures.
And it’s not pretty: The lynching at Dadri may have been a turning point in beef vigilantism, but the Maharashtra government had set that ball rolling; amid a nationwide outrage against attacks on rationalists, the government has appeared unwilling to push for a ban on the Sanatan Sanstha despite a member being arrested for the Govind Pansare murder; a government circular appearing to reinforce police powers to bully dissenters with sedition charges had to be hastily withdrawn.
The government also stands accused of tokenism on issues ranging from primetime shows for Marathi movies to a grand foundation stone-laying ceremony for an Ambedkar memorial on land that is yet to be acquired.
Former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan said there’s no doubt that the government and the chief minister’s political capital are eroding. “They received a huge majority and should have been able to do the difficult things we were not able to due to a difficult coalition. But they’re blowing the opportunity,” he told The Indian Express.
Calling the government’s response flat-footed, Chavan said the biggest failure is the “mishandling of finances”. It was populism that led to toll collection being cancelled in some places despite the state’s delicate finances, he said. “This government has also pandered with the trader community by cancelling LBT, a tax not paid by traders but by citizens and only collected by traders,” Chavan said. “There is a hit of about Rs 10,000 crore from these two decisions.”
Chavan also reiterated what some analysts have pointed out that the additional tax on petrol and diesel, announced as a cess for drought relief, is being seen by citizens as a way to compensate for the revenue loss from LBT. Also, the 0.2 per cent increase in tax on gold may have been explained away as taxing the rich, but the concomitant cost could well be migration of jewellery business out of Maharashtra.
Economist Dr Abhay Pethe added that the loss of LBT has led to a sharp disempowerment of cities. “One of the good things this government has done is put the focus on urban development initiatives. The rhetoric that India lives in its villages is finally being consciously replaced with urban planning,” he said, listing the clearance to long-awaited Development Plans for city municipalities and the focus on infrastructure projects for the Mumbai region and other growth centres as promising measures for a young government full of first-time ministers.
But Dr Pethe added in the same breath that the absence of sustainable revenue handles for cities after giving up LBT and octroi, alongside the inaction on the recommendations of multiple State Finance Commission reports to devolve funds to cities, has left municipal finances a mess. “Cities must get empowered, not enough has been done in that direction,” Dr Pethe said.
To be fair to Fadnavis, he not only inherited a state debt of nearly Rs 3 lakh crore, rising at over 10 per cent a year, but also found himself at the helm amid one of the worst droughts the state has ever seen. Despite all the constraints, he has raced past senior chief ministers of other states in drawing a promised Rs 70,000 crore worth of investments including from major names such as Foxconn, GM and Ford. New investors are being wooed with a smoother than ever process of seeking and getting approvals. The chief minister has also announced drought mitigation measures without waiting for bureaucratic estimations of crop loss to emerge. Even Opposition legislators concede privately that there was nothing more any government could have done when rainfall was so poor — the returning monsoon and the Jalyukta Shivar water structures helped sidestep an even worse tragedy in the farm sector.
But Prithviraj Chavan said Fadnavis’s eight foreign trips have yielded only announcements for now, and “not a single new manufacturing unit in MIHAN”.
Maharashtra Congress president Ashok Chavan said the government appeared unable to stop Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel from coming to Maharashtra and wooing investors away. Chavan, a former chief minister and also former industries minister, said the government was “directionless”.
“I have nothing personal against Mr Fadnavis, but his government has not lived up to people’s expectations,” Ashok Chavan said.
Contesting these claims, Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said: “Rs 1,049 crore has been spent on electricity connections, Rs 2,000 crore will be saved annually through my department’s new purchase policy, millions of litres of water storage created through works under Jalyukta Shivar. Why are these not being discussed?” he asked. Mungantiwar added that the Opposition cannot stomach the fact that this government has cancelled LBT and scaled down toll collections without introducing any new tax. “Logon ka kaam hai kehna,” he said. “Let them talk, the truth is that over the decades, senior Congress leaders themselves asked for a ban on beef. It’s just a convenient talking point now.”
However, people have also begun to point to a drought of bold new ideas. Urban planners have pointed out that the government chose to persist with the traditional “reservations” to formulate city Development Plans, a method that has achieved little. Dr Pethe added that there is a also worrying continuation of using FSI and TDR as fiscal tools to earn revenues for development work instead of as planning tools.
South Mumbai member of Parliament from the Shiv Sena, Arvind Sawant, did not shy away from stating that the coastal road project seems to have run into delays, as has the planned development of MbPT land. “People are beginning to ask where are the Acche Din,” Sawant said candidly. On inflation, the government could have taken a leaf out of the previous Sena-BJP regime and announced fixed prices for some essential items, Sawant added. “We are not able to meet people’s expectations,” he said.
BJP MP from Mumbai North, Gopal Shetty, is quick to refute the assessment that Mumbai’s projects have slowed down. “There’s action on every single major project, whether it is the new Metro rail routes announced, the fast-tracking of environmental clearances for the coastal road, the Ambedkar memorial or extensive improvements to the suburban railway system,” Shetty said. “The work is moving very fast, results will be seen soon.”
Prithviraj Chavan concedes that the chief minister cannot be faulted for issues beyond his control — tensions within the Cabinet and the party’s policies on issues. “But these affect his image too, for the government led by the chief minister has failed to deliver.”