Amid the onslaught of Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war, commoners are reeling under threatening economic conditions. Much was being expected from the Budget 2023. It was expected that it will try to provide respite from the tough economic conditions. However, this Amritkal budget seems to have served only the privileged sections of the society.
The Ministry of Minority Affairs received 38% lesser allocation in this Budget (`3097 crore) vis-à-vis Budget 2022 (`5020 crore). Considerable reduction has been made in educational empowerment of the minorities which has factually reduced from `2515 crore (allocated in Budget 2022) to `1689 crore this year. If we further dive deep, it becomes evident that pre-matric scholarship for minorities has received only `433 crore this year which was budgeted at `1425 crore last year. Already, this age-group is under immense psychological pressure since the break out of Covid-19 and now the dropout rate may go boundless. No doubt, funds for post-matric scholarship have been increased from `515 to `1065 crore, yet in the absence of students promoted from lower classes to senior classes, the need for post-matric scholarship allocation in future may decrease. It is pertinent to mention here that in case of under graduate and post-graduate minority students who undertake scholarship for professional and technical courses, a catastrophic reduction has been made in the allocation - from `365 crore in 2022-23 to `44 crore in 2023-24. Not only the decrease in allocation has taken place in the context of education for the minorities, rather in Pardhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakarm too, that aims at developing socio-economic infrastructure and basic amenities for the identified minority concentration area for improving their quality of life.
One of the dazzling highlights of this Budget remained the opening of 748 New Eklavya Model Residential Schools (EMRS) for the tribal students’ along with the recruitment of 38000 new teachers. However, this announcement looks misplaced when it is weighed against the fact that already established Eklavya schools (running since 1997-98) are facing a heavy shortage of teachers. Of the already sanctioned 600 Eklavya Model Residential Schools, only 400 are functional. It would have been appropriate had the government increased allocation for increasing the operational efficiency of the existing schools.
When we debate the plight of Indian masses, rural India calls for a special mention owing to the double whammy of joblessness and inflation in the past few years. MGNREGS which is a flagship demand driven rural employment scheme aimed to supplement rural incomes remained fund starved. It is an acknowledged fact that MGNREGS workers come from the most vulnerable section of the society. Estimates suggest that for providing 100 days of work with `239 as a daily wage to all the active job card holders, a substantial allocation to the extent of `2.7 lakh crore is required. Even if the government admits 40 days’ work is to be given to the active job card holders, there is a requirement of `1,24,000 crore. The government’s paltry `60 000 crore allocation in this budget is just sufficient to provide 17 days of work per active household. Advocates of employment were looking forward to the diversification of MGNREGS towards the urban areas, but this budget has not only dashed their hopes, rather slashed funds for the rural MGNREGS as well.
Pioneering budget announcements also saw 100% desludging of the septic tanks and slums through machines. A sum of `97 crore is allocated to the Ministry of Social Justice for mechanised sewer cleaning, but this sum gets dwarfed when seen against the existence of 766 districts in India which leaves just `12.5 lakh for the purchase of the machines in each district. Further, the budget maintains silence over the rehabilitation of sewer workers.
World Inequality Report 2022 had highlighted that in India, men earn 82% of the labour income whereas women earn 18% of it. The Indian government seems to have taken no lesson from this and allocated `25,448 crore towards the Ministry of Women and Child Development which is just 1% higher than the previous year figure of `25,172 crore. An adjustment of inflation can circumvent this increase too. Mahila Samman Saving Certificate (MSSC) that offers a high rate of interest (7.5% p.a.) for two years up to `2 lakh for the women seems noteworthy only in theoretical sense. Realistically, 90% of the population in India earns less than `10,000 per month. Thus, this scheme may usher benefits to the middle- and upper-class women than vulnerable women. The state of children is no different from that of women. Funds for PM-Poshan (renamed mid-day meal scheme) have witnessed a 10% reduction in allocation from `12,800 crore (revised estimates of budget 2022) to `11,600 crore in this budget. The scheme served twin objectives that is, increasing the enrolment of students in schools and offering the benefit of free meals to the children. Lowering the allocation in this scheme not only means an increased risk of malnutrition amongst the children, rather a decrease in enrolment ratio in schools from the marginalised sections of the society.
There are further many cases where the government has taken a harsh stand towards the vulnerable sections. Allocation of `10 lakh crore for the capital expenditure seems to have been arranged by sacrificing the economic interests of the marginalized. Oxfam’s recently released report entitled Survival of the Richest: The India Supplement has highlighted the widening gap between the rich and the poor in India. The report categorically stated that the top 1% of India’s richest people owned about 40.5% of India’s total wealth in 2021, while the bottom 50% (70 crore) owned only 3%. Since the start of the pandemic in April 2020 and till November 2022, the wealth of India’s billionaires increased by 121%, or `3,608 crore per day, or `2.5 crore per minute. In contrast, the number of Indians affected by hunger increased from 19 crore to 35 crore. Not only this, 64% of the total GST collection (`14.83 lakh crore) in 2021-22 got collected from the bottom 50% Indian population, while only 3% came from the top 10% rich. Similar estimates were earlier released by the World Bank in October 2022, where it was highlighted that Covid-19 worldwide plunged 7.1 crore people into poverty during the year 2020, of which 5.6 crore were Indians. Despite these observations, serving Amrit further to the privileged class only, through this this Amritkal budget is a cruel joke towards the vulnerable.
Dr. Rajiv Khosla is Associate Professor at DAV Institute of Management, Chandigarh
Dr. Manjit Sharma teaches Economics at DAV College, Sector 10, Chandigarh