A number of health and education schemes aimed at some of India’s most vulnerable groups have been slashed in this year’s Budget estimates. Why?
While the Narendra Modi government has certainly raised allocations for several important sectors and schemes in this year’s Budget, the highly unjust reduction of several priority schemes still rankles, particularly because in many cases the adverse consequences will be shouldered by some of India’s most vulnerable groups.
There is still time and opportunity to undo this injustice while preparing revised estimates, so it is useful to look at some of the more unjust and/or irrational reductions. Much of the data below comes from an analysis by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability.
First and foremost, it obviously does not make any sense to reduce pre-matric scholarships for scheduled castes from Rs 550 crore in the Budget estimate of 2016-17 to just Rs 50 crore in this year’s Budget estimate.
Since there is absolutely no doubt about the need for these scholarships, perhaps the only justification for the reduction can be in terms of less than optimal utilisation. But it is for the government to improve this, of course, with the help of social organisations that have on-ground experience in this area. It is completely wrong to cut the pre-matric scholarships for Dalit students so drastically. In the case of such drastic reductions in priority areas, the government crucially needs to explain its reasons clearly and in detail.
In addition, this year, there is also a significant reduction in that component of the Budget for school education which comes under the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment (as distinguished from the main component under the Department of School Education and Literacy). This is a blow to improving inclusiveness of education at a time when there is a crying need to increase it.
Under the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, there is a programme called ‘assistance to disabled persons for purchase and fitting of assistive devices’. The Budget estimate for this high-priority programme in 2016-17 was Rs 150 crore, and this year a significant increase was eagerly anticipated by many. Instead, the Budget for this was reduced to Rs 130 crore, a cruel blow. However, if there is a will, it should not be difficult to undo this damage when the revised estimates are prepared.
While the objective of reducing infant and child mortality has been rightly prioritised by the government, it is surprising to learn that the allocation for the ‘Reproductive and Child Health Flexi Pool’ (including routine immunisation and other components) has been reduced from Rs 7,775 crore in the Budget estimate for 2016-17 to Rs 5,966 crore in the Budget estimate for this financial year 2017-18. This is completely at variance with the government’s own stated priorities and should certainly get a re-look when revised estimates are prepared.
Even the Budget for the overall National Urban Health Mission has been decreased from Rs 950 crore in the Budget estimate for 2016-17 to Rs 752 crore in the Budget estimate for 2017-18. With many serious health problems and diseases threatening our cities, such a significant decline should be a cause for serious concern and needs reconsideration.
In a different context, the reduction in the Budget of the National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana is also unfortunate. While there was an allocation of Rs 200 crore for this in the Budget estimate of 2016-17, this was reduced to Rs 150 crore in the Budget estimate for this financial year 2017-18.
What is much more unfortunate is the fact that the already-low allocation for the rehabilitation of those engaged in manual scavenging has been squeezed further. The allocation of Rs 10 crore in last year’s Budget estimate was low in itself, but this year an allocation of only Rs 5 crore has been made in the Budget estimate.
While a comprehensive scheme for universal pensions appears further and further away from the government’s agenda, at the very minimum, India’s most vulnerable should expect budgetary increases that guard against inflation.
However, what we see is that the allocation for the Aam Aadmi Beema Yojana was Rs 450 crore in the Budget estimate of 2016-17 but was reduced to Rs 350 crore in the Budget estimate for current financial year, 2017-18. At the same time, the allocation for Atal Pension Yojana declined from Rs 200 crore to Rs 155 crore while the allocation for the Rashtriya Swasthya Suraksha Yojana, renamed as National Health Protection Scheme, was reduced from Rs 1,500 crore to Rs 1,000 crore.
While the overall need for climate change mitigation has increased greatly in recent times and India also has to meet strong commitments in this context, it is shocking to learn that the allocation for the Ministry for Renewable Energy, which amounted to Rs 12,301 crore in the revised Budget for the previous year, is down by almost 33% to Rs 8,244 crore in the Budget estimate for the current year. More specifically, the budget for research, development and international cooperation in this sector has been cut drastically, from Rs 445 crore in the Budget estimate for the previous year to just Rs 144 crore.
While the revised estimates for 2017-18 may bring changes to these unjust and irrational considerations, it is also crucial that the government of the day explains why such reductions were deemed necessary.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.