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‘New India’ Needs A Broad Vision

By Indira Hirway

Looking at the present conditions in India, anybody would expect the budget to address the most critical problems of our population, namely, poor health, a semi-literate population, the agricultural crisis and the highest ever unemployment.  Unfortunately none of these problems are addressed properly in this budget! 

Take education to start with, an educated population is essential for a vibrant democracy, where people are capable of raising their voices and participating effectively in decision making at all levels and are equipped to take care of their own health and nutrition for family welfare. Also, secondary education with good quality is essential for any skill training worth the name, as skills not only improve employability of labour but also enable the youth to start new productive enterprises. Expansion of the MSME sector, which is an important strategy for expansion of productive employment for the youth, is feasible only if sound education up to secondary level is achieved. It is indeed very disappointing that the expenditure on education has not increased in real terms in this budget. As against the norm of at least 6 % of the GDP, we have not been able to go much beyond the present 4 %.

Ill health has been a major source of vulnerability for the bottom 30-40 % population.  This is because, as documented time and again, the primary health services given by the government are not dependable in most parts of the country.  People are forced to depend on private health services, and in the process many of them are forced to incur debts, which are highly exploitative.  A lot of improvements are therefore needed in these primary services.  Health insurance is fine, but only after quality basic health services are ensured. People need insurance for serious illnesses, for old age and other vulnerable situations.  The budget has allocated around 1 % of the GDP to the health sector (instead of the norm of 3 % of the GDP) and this is hardly enough to reduce vulnerability of the poor. The government target of reaching 2.5 % in 2025 is far from adequate. 

It is absolutely essential that providing basic health and education up to the secondary level is considered a fundamental duty of the government.  Absence of such services not only deprives the lowest levels of the population of good services, but it also carries forward the inequalities to the next generation and thereby divides society further. In short, insurances and loans or scholarships should be made available only for a higher level of services.

Another disappointment is the agricultural sector.  Though the expenditure on agriculture has increased impressively (from Rs 67,800 crore last year to Rs 1,30,485 crore in this budget), most of the increase will go to the PM-Kisan programme and there will not be much increase in public investment in agriculture.   Though the transfer of funds under PM Kisan will raise demand in the market, it is not likely to push up productivity in agriculture, which requires public investments in R & D, institutions for extension and training, credit, marketing etc. As there is no provision for these investments, agricultural growth is not likely to be big. This is indeed a great disappointment because the last few years have witnessed severe agricultural and rural crises and one of the reasons has been low public investments in agriculture.  Private investment will crowd in only after public investments are made.  Crop insurance also needs far better implementation.  

The budget has done far from enough to address the highest ever unemployment levels in India. The low public investment in productive sectors as well as in human capital formation will not encourage much the private investments.  Data show that government employment has declined in the recent years. The government itself needs to expand public sector jobs not only by filling in the present vacant posts, but also by adding new posts to expand social sectors like education and skills and health and nutrition. In fact, there is huge scope for expanding employment opportunities in the other ministries and departments like women and child, environment protection and conservation (land development, forestation, water harvesting and water management, waste management), statistics and evaluation, and employment guarantee programmes in rural and urban areas.

Labour reform is a vague term in the budget.  However, what we can gather from the on-going debates is that the reforms are primarily to give flexibility to employers.  It is to be noted that we already have plenty of flexibility in the labour market today. With 92-93 % workers in informal sectors, employers have a lot of freedom to hire and fire.  What is needed perhaps is smooth administration to implement the labour laws without harassment and corruption from inspectors.  The main focus of labour reform however should be on improving conditions of certain vulnerable sections of the labour force, like migrant workers, mining workers, landless workers etc.  Protecting basic labour rights of vulnerable workers is more important than reducing the number of labour laws to four.  A lot more needs to be done to expand productive employment opportunities for the youth.  It should be noted that the Rajasthan model of labour laws is far from
satisfactory.

The goal of reaching a $5 trillion economy (from the present 2.7 trillion $ at present) does not impress common people – even if it is feasible!  In fact, it does not mean much to them. What is imperative is the need to improve their lives and their capabilities in order to make them partners in development.  The budget falls short; very short on these expectations.  Our New India should be for everyone, and particularly for the bottom 30-40 % of the population!                    The Billion Press

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