• NOVEMBER 3, 2014

Social Sector and Budget 2015-16

Work on the Union Budget for 2015-16 has started in earnest. Powerful sectional interests will assert their claims for concessions with the promise that they would deliver on growth. In all this no one would advocate the cause of the poorest relative i.e. the social sector. Within the social sector there would be a pecking order, with centres for higher education getting priority over primary education, state-of-the-art hospitals getting priority over primary health centres, beautification of gardens with fountains in capital cities gaining priority over pockets totally bereft of drinking water and grand design schemes gaining priority over rudimentary sanitation.

Prime Minister's clarion call

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has issued a clarion call that sanitation, drinking water, primary education and health issues should be over-riding priorities which hopefully should be reflected in the Union Budget for 2015-16.

Can common person understand Budget?

It is well known that when there are macroeconomic pressures to reduce the gross fiscal deficit, the social sector is the softest target. There is no lobby to ensure that Primary Health Centres have simple medicines to alleviate pain, that there are village schools with teachers, that drinking water is available within reasonable access, that rudimentary sanitation is provided in remote villages. Again there is a great divide between allocation and actual disbursements. Furthermore, the articulate segments denigrate increased allocation to the social sectors as populist. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Fiscal pundits chuckle at the confusion in the mind of the common person trying to understand the budget from the viewpoint of the social sector. Let us look at the document 'Budget at a Glance for 2014-15'. There is bifurcation of expenditure into 'non-plan' and 'plan outlays'. It is hoped that the Union Budget for 2015-16 will get rid of this charade.

The central outlays for Drinking Water and Sanitation have been reduced from Rs 12,000 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 231 crore in 2014-15. Allocation to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is reduced from Rs 25,990 crore to Rs 8,426 crore. The allocation for Human Resource Development is reduced from Rs 61,862 crore to Rs 17,672 crore. The allocation for Women and Child Development is reduced from Rs 18,000 crore to Rs 989 crore.

To understand these drastic reductions, the common person has to turn to the state plan outlays. The allocation for the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has been increased from nil in 2012-13 to Rs 15,026 crore in 2014-15. Likewise, for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the increase is from Nil to Rs 25,459 crore. For Women and Child Development, the increase is from Nil to Rs 19,818 crore. These fiscal gymnastics are incomprehensible to the common person. One hopes that in the Union Budget for 2015-16, the Budget at a Glance would be presented in a manner which would be easy for the Common Person to understand. The central issue is that these sensitive sectors should be provided larger allocations in 2015-16 and that they should not be made the sacrificial lambs in the name of correction of the fiscal deficit.

Dimension of sanitation problem

Ninety years ago, Mahatma Gandhi made a telling statement when he said "Sanitation is more important than Independence". Today, of the 11 billion people in the world practicing open defecation, 60 per cent are Indians, thereby creating a major health problem (Vijay Raghavan, Secretary Department of Biotechnology, Sanitation is Independence, Hindu Business Line, March 13, 2014). About 60 per cent of rural households in India do not have access to a latrine.

In the 1920s when Kathrine Mayo wrote her book Mother India to describe the depths of misery, the Indian nationalist movement was up in arms led by Lala Lajpat Rai's response in Unhappy India wherein the miseries of India were attributed to the British Raj. It is sad that in the year 2014 we have a telling book by Ms. Bhasha Singh 'Unseen: The Truth about India's Manual Scavengers'. The Central Government passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill in 2012. Bhasha Singh argues that all that this has been done is to make manual scavenging illegal. Today we do not have to react as we did in the 1920s to Katherine Mayo's book. It is the bounden duty of every citizen of India to consider Prime Minister Modi's call as a sacred duty. The Ministry of Finance should step up allocations to the social sector without worrying about the adverse reaction of the elite segments of society. After all Prime Minister Modi has said "Government has no business to be in business."

Accordingly, the Budget should simply not make any allocations to the business sector merely because it is in the public sector. The social sector should be the overriding priority in the Union Budget 2015-16.

Tragedy of pulses

The food grains stocks as of October 1, 2014 were 48 million tones-twice the buffer requirement. It is sad that the per capita consumption of pulses has fallen for years. The latest crop has been very poor and there will be escalation in prices. Pulses are the major source of protein for the masses and for many years more and more people are giving up consumption of pulses. We have to be serious. Do we want to have a nation of protein deficient children? Pulses should be distributed free by the government; the cost of doing so could be recouped by a very marginal reduction in the cereals subsidy. Extreme problems need extreme solutions. It is unconscionable that we do not wipe out the shame of the tragedy of pulses.

Please Note: This article was first published in The Freepress Journal on November 03, 2014. Syndicated.

This column, Common Voice is authored by Savak Sohrab Tarapore. Mr. Tarapore, is an economist and he runs his own Multi-Language Syndicated Column. Mr. Tarapore's other column, which appears in The Hindu Business Line, is titled Maverick View.


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