Welfare spending and Government's claims: facts and hyperbole

The government’s exaggerated claims of welfare spending need a reality check

Representative Photo (Getty images)
Representative Photo (Getty images)

Bharat Dogra

If you were to believe all the claims made in various government advertisements, the poor people of India should have no grievances. All their needs—of income, food, shelter and health—have been fulfilled already, if you go by the claims made in those giant billboards and full-page advertisements. You would imagine the government’s commitment to welfare is unwavering.

For the government and its apologists, criticism of those claims makes you a ‘compulsive contrarian’, to quote a former finance minister of this Union government. When it comes from Opposition quarters, you’ll be led to believe that this is a case of sour grapes. As the Prime Minister Modi repeatedly claims, his government is doing what no previous government had done; and hence they have got into the habit of criticising the government when no criticism is due. Even voices of experts who cite statistics to back what they say are drowned in the noise generated by mainstream media.

It is not easy for the layman to tell the wheat from the chaff. Most of us are left confused by claims and counter-claims over electrification, highways, houses, subsidy, scholarships, gas cylinders—the list is long and endless. With even fact-checkers acquiring a bad name as anti-national elements trying to discredit the government, people find themselves obliged to accept what they are being told. But a casual look at some of the welfare schemes throws up some interesting insights.

The Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) is a key scheme to ensure the health and nutrition of expecting women. The government claims to have spent an average Rs 2,000 crore every year over the past seven years on the scheme. The claim appeared in advertisements alongside the photograph of a beaming mother from a poor family. It was designed to allay misgivings about pregnant women in poor families. A feel-good moment on an otherwise miserable day surely made one thankful to the government for such an initiative.

To the bewilderment of many, critics were quick to point out that the advertisements conveyed only the half-truth and not the full picture. The scheme stemmed from a provision in the Food Security Act of 2013, made into a law in the last year in office by the UPA Government. It committed the government to pay a minimum of Rs 6,000 every year to all pregnant and lactating women for all child births. The scheme was estimated to cost the exchequer Rs 14,000 crore a year then, a lot less than what the government has spent on the renovation of the Central Vista in New Delhi.

The NDA government amended the provision to extend the scheme only to the first-born child and not all child-births. It also reduced the payment to be made from Rs 6,000 to Rs 5,000. What is more, said the critics, the procedure prescribed to avail of the benefit has been made more cumbersome, making it even more difficult for expecting mothers to avail it.

Contrary to its exaggerated claims, critics say, the government has actually cut back the scheme from the originally intended Rs 14,000 crore to a mere Rs 2,000 crore, thus holding back Rs 12,000 crore every year from eligible mothers. In other words, over the past seven years, young and lactating mothers have been done out of Rs 84,000 crore that was legitimately theirs—the government actually spent only Rs 14,000 crore in seven years instead of the Rs 98,000 crore as originally intended. What is worse is that despite inflation reducing the purchasing power of the rupee, there has been no upward revision in the curtailed amount of Rs 5,000 per year in the past seven years.

This apparently is not an isolated case. The Union Government, for example, had set up the Nirbhaya Fund to ensure the safety and security of women. In the eight years preceding 2021-22, as much as Rs 6,213 crore were allocated to signal the Government’s commitment to the cause.

Critics, however, remain unimpressed. The original scheme, they point out, had the provision of allocating Rs 1000 crore every year to the Fund. But by the Government’s own admission it allocated Rs 6,213 crore in eight years, disbursed Rs 4,138 crore during this period out of which only Rs 2,922 crore were utilised. A classic case of under-utilisation and undermining an important scheme, they assert.

Similarly, a self-employment scheme for manual scavengers, the poorest among the poor, was initiated by the Government, which allocated Rs 1,255 crore for the scheme during the period 2014-15 to 2021-22. Advertisements once again show a glowing former scavenger who is now a shopkeeper, thanks to this scheme. Once again the utilisation is reportedly confined to only Rs 236 crore, 19% of the allocation, even as manual scavengers continue to die while cleaning sewers.

The number of welfare schemes is mind blowing indeed. But how does one reconcile the claims made by the Government with the reality on the ground is the real issue. Media reports showing up leakages and benefits bypassing the eligible are often dismissed as exceptional and as stray cases. But there is no mechanism— unless one waits for the Comptroller & Auditor General to carry out performance audits which take several years and which in any case are sample surveys.

Examples of the elderly among the people deprived of the promised pension, howsoever meagre, widows and the disabled missing out on the promise are not very difficult to find. Every such example raises doubts about the claims and commitment made by the Government. All that can be confirmed are the Government’s own records of allocation, disbursal and utilisation

That more funds are required for welfare schemes, despite the Prime Minister’s broadside at freebies, is generally accepted. What is also agreed is the need for better monitoring and Parliamentary oversight so that no Government can get away by making exaggerated claims and take credit for what is part of their mandate.

All Governments of all parties will have some real achievements to showcase. But when everything is given a gloss, when Governments do not admit to any slippages or failures, suspicion is natural that not everything is what they seem; that not all claims made by Governments are credible or can be taken at face value.

It is in the interest of governance and indeed of Governments, both at the Centre and in the states, to keep claims realistic and transparent. Avoiding a crisis of credibility is any day more important than score brownie points with selective data and glossing over shortcomings. Governments need to have broader shoulders and a more thick skin to acknowledge as and when they fail.

(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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