Focus on the basics

MONDAY'S UNION BUDGET

The date for the Union government to present the national budget for the ensuing financial year 2016-2017 is getting nearer. Generally, the Union budgets over the several years have been rather placid affairs.

Year on year, the successive budgets have been mostly marginal improvements. A tweak here and a tweak there. Seldom was there any fundamental change. Incrementalism is a feature of our budgets. No wonder, finance ministers like Yashwant Sinha of NDA-I and P Chidambaram of the UPA-II needed sher-shayaris or Thirukkurals to pep up their presentations.

However, this time around, it is the second budget of the Narendra Modi government – a government that has come to power on huge promises and therefore raised expectations of the citizens. The first budget of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, presented last year, was a damp squib. People excused the tepid affair as it was the new governm-ent’s first budget after assuming power.

Will the FM now deliver a real Big Bang budget, one that is Modi-esque? One that justifies his larger than life and imposing image of the saviour of Bharat that was hurtling down into abyss? One that embodies the hefty promises made by Modi and the NDA to the electorate during 2014?

One of the promises was that there would be a school within five km radius of every child. That is indeed a very laudable goal. But, how will that be achieved? If the last year’s budget allocations are considered, the share of funds for the education sector had come down compared to that in the UPA’s 2014-2015 budget. Jaitley had allocated Rs 42,219 crore for school education and Rs 69,074 crore totally for the education sector, as compared to Rs 55,115 crore and Rs 82,771 crore by the UPA government in 2014-2015.
We do not know what compulsions Jaitley had last year. But if India has to make rapid economic progress, it is imperative that we boost our manpower productivity by educating them. ‘Make in India’ would be a thumping success only when we have a high quality human capital. For any economic and social betterment, a general growth in education levels is extremely beneficial. Education boosts the inner strength of a nation. It is the most basic of reforms to be carried out. Our education spend (expressed as a percentage of national GDP) has been lower than the world average.

This time around, will Jaitley increase the funds available for education – particularly for the primary and secondary school education? Not just the funds, will the budget reveal any innovative approach of the new government in dealing with problems of illiteracy and low quality education in the schools.

Availability, accessibility, applicability, attractiveness and affordability are some of the issues. How will the elixir of education penetrate? What measures will the government take? How will those be reflected in the coming budget?

Another big bang but basic improvement has to come in our health sector. Despite all the rhetoric at the time of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Modi government actually slashed the 2015-16 budget allocation for health and family welfare from UPA’s Rs 35,163 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 29,653 crore. With the government treasury being in a comfortable position due to drastically reduced import bill on petroleum and other commodities, we hope that Jaitley will make considerably larger allocations to the health department this time around.
The third but perhaps the foremost concern which the ensuing budget sho-uld address is that of hunger and malnutrition in the rural areas and the poor slums in the cities.
Budget is not just an allocation process. A budget reflects the government’s vision as to what it foresees it should do. Surely, the Modi government will have a roadmap of what needs to be traversed in the route to hunger-free Bharat. And the budget 2016-17 should be a big step in that direction. Cosmetic changes will be a travesty.

Agriculture in danger

Rural areas and agriculture are the backbone of India’s economy. Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for the people as over 58% depend on it. However, today this lifeline sector is in grave danger. We are still highly dependent upon the vagaries of the monsoon. The agrarian problem is multifarious. To begin with, it suffers from proper technical improvements.

Optimum use of the chemicals like the pesticides and chemical fertilisers, the restoration of the lands that suffer from past excessive use of these chemicals, turning of supposedly fallow land into agriculturally productive land, conservation of rainwater, recharging of the groundwater, restoration of lakes and other water bodies, appropriate use of the water resources by selecting the kind of crop to grow, crop rotations, and checking the applicability of the methods of irrigation that are already prevalent in other countries suffering from drought and desert type conditions. The list goes on. If there is a will, there are several things to do. 

It is good that the government has announced Pradhan Mantri Gram Sinchan Yojana. Befitting the style of Modi, there are good slogans too like “Per Drop More Crop”. Similarly, there is the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund of Rs 25,000 crore promised during the last budget. The need is to produce results. The government talks about raising agricultural credit; there was a target of Rs 8.5 lakh crore during 2015-2016.

However, is it reaching where it matters? Is it reaching fast enough? The farmer suicides, because of their indebtedness to local money-lenders and utter despair, seem to have only increased.  Will the Union budget 2016-17 urgently attend to the basics, please?

(The writer is former Professor, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore)

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