The term “Missing Millions” is often used for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) to indicate their invisibility, especially in reference to the absence of data. A lack of funds follows the lack of data.
The 2023-24 budget was tabled in the parliament on February 1 by Union finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman. The total expenditure outlay of the budget is Rs 45 lakh crore (approx). This is a 7.5% increase from the revised estimate for 2022-23. These revised estimates were 6.1% higher than the budget estimates for 2022-23. Thus, there is an increase of Rs 5.5 lakh crore (approx) in absolute terms from the last year’s budget.
Despite a substantial increase in the outlay of the budget, both in absolute terms and percentage, the disabled community yet again has received a raw deal in terms of allocations. The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DoEPwD) under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is allotted Rs 1,225 crore in this financial year. This is a meagre 0.027% of the total budget. This year’s budget estimates for DoEPwD is only Rs 13 crore more than 2022-23 budget estimates. However, the last year’s budget was underutilised by approximately Rs 210 crore. Thus, in terms of percentage, the DoEPwD’s allocation has increased by just 1% from last year’s budget estimates.
There has been continued ignorance of schemes under DoEPwD in budgetary allocations. The budget allocation for the Scheme for the Implementation of Persons with Disabilities Act (SIPDA) is a mere Rs 150 crore. This is a decline from the last year’s budget allocation of Rs 240 crore. The revised estimates for 2022-23 showed that out of this Rs 240 crore, only Rs 100 crore was used, which is 42%.
According to the DoEPwD’s Annual Report, SIPDA has 15 components in its ambit. Schemes like Accessible India Campaign, Skill development program for PwDs, Unique Disability ID, Research on Disability-related Technology Products, and Issue Scheme fall under its purview. The number of schemes under SIPDA has gradually increased, but proportionate budgetary allocations are still missing.
The DoEPwD submitted before the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment that it will be able to use the entirety of the fund for SIPDA (Revised amount: Rs 147 crore) but could only spend Rs 108 crores in 2021-22. The revised amount was already lower than the budgetary allocation for that year, i.e., Rs 210 crore. The DoEPwD informed the Committee that the lack of proposals from the state government for schemes under SIPDA significantly contributed to declined usage of funds.
The untimely release of the amount allocated further aggravates the crisis of unavailability of funds. According to the Annual report 2021-22 of the DoEPwD, there is a continuous decline in the amount released for the SIPDA. The graphical representation of budget estimates and funds released is given below.
The Standing Committee, in its 39th Report, expressed its anguish at its inability to understand the cause of the delay in the release of funds already approved. The committee observed that the lack of accountability of officers in the DoEPwD is the root cause of such delays.
There is also a complete ignorance of the flagships scheme for the disabled population. For instance, Accessible India Campaign (AIC) didn’t feature in the list of Major Scheme as released by the finance ministry.
AIC has three components: infrastructure accessibility, transport accessibility, and ICT accessibility. However, the scheme has missed its target since its inception in 2015. In its 2021 report, Standing Committee observed the scheme’s continuous failure. The committee suggested that DoEPwD adhere to deadlines and invoke penalty provisions under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPwD Act) 2016 for breach of deadlines. However, there’s still ignorance of the necessity to restructure the scheme and have a specific allocation for it. The Standing Committee advocated this view in its 39th report.
The finance minister emphasised that the budget has seven priorities, wherein the first one is “inclusive development”. Disabled people or Divyangjan (as used by the government) feature just once in the finance minister’s speech, i.e., in the inclusive development priority. The omission of disabled people in other aspects of the address was not incidental but rooted in the peripheral consideration of the community. This is evidenced by the fact that DoEPwD working for disabled peoples’ welfare has the lowest allocation among all the departments working for the marginalised groups (women, SC/ST, farmers, etc.).
The above trend of continuous stagnation of fund allocation and untimely release indicates much more profound flaws.
First, the mandate under RPwD Act is too wide to be duly incorporated in one scheme, i.e., SIPDA. There is an urgent need to diversify the fund allocation rather than a singular.
Second, DoEPwD has taken little cognisance of the standing committee’s report on demand-for-grants released annually. The lack of accountability is aggravating this crisis.
Thirdly, the government still relies on 12-year-old data for disabled people in the country. Any reliance on this data for determining financial allocation will be antithetical to the welfare mandate of the state.
And fourthly, the government’s support of other schemes for the welfare of disabled people, like the National Social Assistance Program, is misleading given the multitude of factors involved in the scheme and the general procedural requirements framed thereunder, which disproportionately affect disabled people.
In this first budget of “Amrut kaal,” as the finance minister called it, India’s disabled population is again overlooked and provided hand-to-mouth allocation. With this continued ignorance on the monetary front, it might take another 75 years to reach inclusive development for disabled people.
Shashank Pandey is a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. He can be contacted at [email protected]