The 2018-19 budget of the Narendra Modi government has been touted as catering to interests of farmers, rural workers, women, Dalits and small businesses but nothing can be farther from truth. A strikingly paradoxical feature of this budget is the announcement of new schemes for farmers and poor accompanied with a reduction in the funds actually allocated in the budget. For example, allocation for Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojna (rural electrification scheme) has been cut by 30%, from Rs. 5,400 crore to Rs. 3,800 cr. This budget and this government of Bhartiya Janata Party is probably the most anti-people in the history of independent India as it believes more in publicity than real change.
The farmers have been guaranteed a Minimum Support Price of 1.5 times the cost of their production for Kharif crops, which has been a long standing demand of farmers’ organisations and recommendation of Swaminathan Commission. However, it has also been said that for some crops farmers are already getting 1.5 times their production cost. It is unclear how the costs are going to be calculated and therefore this has not generated much enthusiam among farmers. With the past experience of demonetisation and implementation of Goods and Services Tax now people are skeptical of announcements of the BJP government.
For boosting rural economy the number of rural agricultural markets or Mandis will be increased from 7,600 to 22,000. A Rs. 2000 cr. Agri Market Infrastructure Fund for developing these 22,000 Grameen Agricultural Markets – was announced without any actual allocation in the Budget. Similarly, a Rs. 10,000 crore Fisheries and Aquaculture Infrastructure Development Fund and Animal Husbandry Infrastrcture Development Fund has been announced with actual allocation in the Budget of merely Rs. 47 cr. There is also a promise to increase the irrigated area under cultivation. The loans to be given to farmers have been increased by 1 lakh cr. to a total of Rs. 11 lakhs cr. but the budget is completely silent on the most burning issue of farmers today – waiver of past loans, which would be instrumental in arresting their suicides. The government believes that it would empower the farmers so that they will not end up in debt. But the question is they will be able to reach such a situation only when they emerge out of present crisis. What use are all the measures if we don’t free them from the current debt, expecially when the governments have demonstrated leniency towards big corporate defaulters? The amount of money wasted in urban areas in the name of development, like providing air-conditioners to big government buildings, airports, educational institutions and purchase of expensive furnitures and vehicles for government functionaries, etc. must be diverted to providing relief to farmers.
A few schemes which have witnessed a good hike in fund allocation, such as Crop Insurance Scheme, are likely to transfer majority of the monetary benefit to private service providers in the garb of helping the poor. A farmer has to register for compulsory insurance when s(he) takes loan from banks as a certain amount is automatically deducted from the loan amount before it is credited into his/her bank account which is not the case with urban housing or car loans but how many farmers have got insurance amount when their crops are damaged due to natural calamity? We hear of only compensation from governments.
Funds allocated to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are at the same level as the previous year, implying a reduction in the real terms as the wages will increase due to inflation. In addition, there are a lot of pending arrears for unpaid wages from the past years. This will inevitably result in a significant drop in the total number of person-days of work that will be offered under MNREGS.
One of the major highlights of the budget is National Health Protection Scheme which is being referred to as Modicare under which health insurance for about 10 crore poor or vulnerable families or 40% population has been raised to Rs. 5 lakhs from the amount of Rs. 30,000 offered under Rashtriya Swasthya Beema Yojna. NHPS was first offered in 2016 budget with a cover of Rs. 1 lakh but it never materialised. Fate of the revised version remains to be seen. It is unclear what is novel about Modicare except that quantum of coverage has been increased. This government has a knack for taking more credit than they actually deliver.
United Progressive Alliance government under Manmohan Singh for the first time offered insurance cover for treatment in private hospitals empanelled by the government. A common phenomenon was the private hospitals would defraud the poor by inflating the bills so that thr entire amount of Rs. 30,000 was exhausted in a single visit to a hospital leaving the patient without any real cover for the remaining year. Hence Modi, as is his wont, has come up with a fantastic scheme to transfer public money to private health care sector leaving the government sector poorer in all respects where the common citizen goes for treatment. The NHPS will be a big blow to public health care system. Justice Sudhir Agrawal and Justice Ajeet Kumar of Allahabad Hight Court have recently delivered a landmark judgement saying that people receiving government salaries must get themselves treated at government hospitals without any preferrential treatment for Very Important Persons. This is something which will improve the functioning of government hospitals.
Education budget has been slashed from 3.8% to 3.71% of GDP. While the government, which is very good with coming up with acronyms, is going to start Revitalising Infrastructure and System in Education (RISE) by awarding Prime Minister Research Fellowships to encourage engineering students from institutions funded by central governments to pursue research in select institutions, it is silent on how it will improve the quality of basic education. The government hopes to build a ‘smart’ India and create skill based jobs without strengthening the foundation of education system. In fact, the ground reality is that in spite of Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act being in place, about half the children don’t cross the Class VIII stage. The obstacles which the government itself is creating are – making Aadhar compulsory for admission to primary schools and taking a decision to not construct any more new primary schools as the enrollment in government schools is dropping in spite of the fact that RTE Act says that every child should have a primary school within a kilometre from her home.
Lottery is being used to decide admissions in schools where more applications are received under RTE section 12(1)(c) whereas the Act clearly says that at least 25% seats have to be filled with children from disadvantaged groups and weakers sections. This means if necessary more than 25% children should also be admitted if parents so desire. Ideally, lottery should be banned in deciding admissions and every application should be entertained and child admitted if s(he) fulfills all the required criteria.
Additional Rs. 4,800 crore has been provided to increase the number of benficiaries under Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana for free cooking gas to poor rural women from 5 cr. to 8 cr. The ground reality is that because only the connection is free and the beneficiaries have to pay full amount for subsequent gas cylinders, which is unaffordable for the poor, most of them have fallen back on traditional cowdung cakes or biomass based fuel sources and keep the gas connection only for emergency. What the government doesn’t mention in Ujjawala advertisements is that there will be no subsidy for people who get free connections in spite of the fact that they belong to the category of rural poor.
The allocation for PM Awas Yojana with the objective of housing for all has been cut by over 5%, from Rs. 29,043 cr. in 2017-18 to Rs. 27,505 cr. in 2018-19, while at the same time the Finance Minister announced the intention of constructing 51 lakh houses in rural India in 2018-19. The housing available to urban poor under the central government’s Basic Services for Urban Poor scheme for about Rs. 16,000 for SC/ST families and about Rs. 19,000 for others in Uttar Pradesh during the previous government’s regime are no longer available. The PMAY talks of giving subsidy on loans assuming that the poor will have a land of his/her own or will be able to get land allotted in cities. Recently, District Urban Development Agency, Lucknow conduced a lottery for allotment of urban poor housing in which only applications made on the portal of the Chief Minister were considered and all applications given by hand in Project Officer, DUDA office were not taken into account. Genuine applicants, especially those not having a mobile phone which is required for registering a complaint on CM’s portal, were left out. DUDA conducted a lottery without even conducting any screening process which means a number of undeserving people would have got in. This is a good example of how poor will be excluded from digitalisation of services in the New India, for which the PM doesn’t lose an opportunity to give a clarion call. Moreover, how can a process of lottery be used to decide a basic need like housing when the government has promised ‘housing for all’?
The banking sector ‘reforms’ are making life difficult for the poor, especially after the horrendous experience of demonetisation. When some parents complained about not receiving the Rs. 5,000 from U.P. government for buying books and uniform for their children admitted under section 12(1)(c) of RTE Act they were told by the Basic Shiksha Adhikari office in Lucknow that funds could not be deposited into their account as they did not have the required minimum balance of Rs. 3,000. The government which allowed zero balance accounts to be opened for the poor expects parents from disadvantaged and weaker sections to maintain a balance of Rs. 3,000. When an activist who works with beggars went to get an account opened for a beggar he was told that the Jan Dhan Scheme was over. When Socialist Party (India) gave a cheque for Rs. 3,000 to one of its candidates for the Assembly election the cheque was not deposited as the bank told the account holder that an activity was required in the Jan Dhan account before any cheque could be deposited.
And finally the tokenism of Modi government is best reflected in the most publicised programme of Swachcha Bharat. When a Gram Pradhan Bhola Singh of Gram Panchayat Uttar Kondh in Sandila tehsil of Hardoi district was asked about how much funds he had received for construction of toilets he revealed that because population of his GS, about 750 families, was big he had not received any funds. Only small GSs are being given funds so that more number of villages can be declared ‘Open Defecation Free’. Even in the declared ODF villages not every family has a toilet.