Status quo for majority of social sector schemes

Status quo for majority of social sector schemes
There were a lot of expectations from Budget 2017. The demonetisation on November 8, and the chapter on Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the Economic Survey had raised our hopes for a big bang announcement on the social sector. Partially, I admit, this expectation was premature. UBI is complicated at best, something recognised by the Economic Survey as well, and the ‘benefits’, if any, of demonetisation are yet to be realised. The net result is thus status quo for a majority of the schemes under the social sector.

Let’s look at a few examples. The finance minister spoke about the need for ‘quality education (to) energise our youth’ and ‘a significant increase in welfare of women and children’. However, a look at the allocations of many of the core schemes indicate only marginal increases. For instance, allocations for SSA have increased only 4%, MDM 3%, and ICDS 5%. If one takes inflation into account– these increases are probably in the negative! So, where are the increases?

First, of course, is housing. Given the push for infrastructure, allocations for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) increased 44% for the rural component and 22% for the urban component.

Second, allocations for NHM show a significant 20% increase over last year’s revised estimates. A bulk of this is for health system strengthening, which increased by 52% and for Human Resources for Health and Medical Education, which increased over two-fold. Given the current weaknesses in our health systems, this is a welcome step. However, allocations for reproductive health present a mixed picture.

While allocations for the Maternity Benefit Programme have seen a much-needed increase of Rs 2,066 crore, allocations for Reproductive and Child Health under NHM have actually decreased by Rs 1,667 crore!

Given the government’s commitment to make India Open Defecation Free by 2019, the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin saw a significant 33% increase in allocation. Surprisingly, allocations for urban sanitation have remained constant. Hopefully, some of this money will also go into awareness building rather than merely construction.

Finally, a word on MGNREGS. Allocations are the highest ever. The big increase was, however, in 2016-17, which saw funding increase by Rs 9,000 crore from what was initially estimated. In effect then, 2017-18 allocations have seen only a 1% increase from last year’s Rs 47,499 crore. But is this enough? Pending payments stand at nearly Rs 7,000 crore and states have already spent more than the allocations.

In conclusion, this budget sticks to the status quo, which is not in itself detrimental to social policy. However, there are two major problems with social policy in India – the lack of money and the lack of ideas. Unfortunately, this budget contributes little to both.

(The writer is a fellow at CPR and leads Accountability Initiative’s research in Public Finance)
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