‘Seeking cohesive social sector strategy’

‘Seeking cohesive social sector strategy’

Avani Kapur

More than ever before, the Interim Budget 2019-20 needs to be studied by going beyond budget numbers, and instead focusing on what they reflect about the social sector strategy employed by the government since 2014.

As the last Budget before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it was expected to be populist. And there, in fact, are a few sops.

The launch of an old-age scheme (Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Mandhan) to provide a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 for workers in the unorganised sector; tax relief for the middle class; the expansion of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogaya Yojana (PMJAY) from Rs 2,400 crore in 2018-19 (revised estimates) to Rs 6,400 crore as part of Ayushman Bharat; the support of Rs 6,000 per year to small farmers, were some of the features of this budget.

However, a cohesive social sector strategy remained elusive.

Rural development was supposed to be a key focus of the current government. Yet, the allotments in this area, which include spending on rural housing, employment and roads, among other things, have barely increased.

The Budget speech also made no mention of education.

This is not surprising as allocations for the newly launched Samagra Shiksha — an integrated scheme for School Education — remains far below expectations.

While the Expenditure Finance Commission had approved Rs 75,000 crore from 2018-19 to 2019-20, actual allocations (revised estimates for 2018-19 and budget estimates for 2019-20) stood at Rs. 67,103 crore, which is 89% of the approved amount.

The other major social sector initiatives of the government have been for health and nutrition. Here, there is some positive news.

Ayushman Bharat, with the twin components of creating 1.5 lakh Health and Wellness Centres (HWCs) and PMJAY, touted as the world’s largest insurance programme, has seen significant increases.

With India’s disease burden increasingly shifting to non-communicable diseases, greater allocations for HWCs are essential, and this year saw a Rs 400 crore increase.

Similarly, allocations for PMJAY also grew more than 2.5 times (though it still remains lower than the government’s estimates of Rs 10,000 crore).

The ICDS scheme saw an 11% increase. These increases however, come at a cost. With most rural infrastructure functioning well below norms set by the Indian Public Health Standards, and many health centres functioning without the requisite number of health workers, the neglect of NHM is worrying.

(The writer is the Director of Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research)