Union Budget 2023-24 not fair to the vulnerable sections of society

Budget 2023-24 will not bring much-needed relief to the common people at a time when there is a likelihood of considerable downturn in the Indian economy as per all authoritative estimates

NH Photo (File) by Vipin
NH Photo (File) by Vipin

Gyan Pathak

“The fundamentals of the Indian economy are sound as it enters its Amrit Kaal, the 25-year journey towards its centenary as a modern, independent nation. Policies pursued carefully and consciously to ensure …” was of course noisy and highly opinionated statement of the Economic Survey 2022-23, but the Union Budget 2023-24, tabled in Parliament on February 1, is even noisier, sounding much on the pre-general-election mantelpiece that is being meticulously constructed. It does remind one of the proverb ‘empty vessels make much noise’.

Obviously, Union Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman has emphasised about ‘Achievements since 2014: Leaving no one behind’ in her budget speech. She said that per capita income has more than doubled to Rs 1.97 lakh. In these nine years, the Indian economy has increased in size from being 10th to 5th largest in the world, she said. It is a true but deceptive statement since accumulation of wealth in the hands of the rich has increased the average income as well as growth but impoverished the people sharply, increasing inequality during the Modi regime as never before.

This is also the first Union Budget as India enters the first year of the so-called Amrit Kaal during which PM Narendra Modi, after successfully selling dreams during the last two general elections which did not come to fruition, is trying to sell even bigger dream to be realised during the next 25 years to presumably culminate in the emergence of India as the biggest global power by 2047.

Union Budget 2022-23 thus presents the ‘Vision for Amrit Kaal’ with the three priorities – ‘Opportunities for Citizens with focus on Youth; Growth and Job Creation; and Strong and Stable Macro-Economic Environment’.

It cannot be taken on its face value since about 23 crore youth between the age of 15 and 30 are on the roads now while only a little over 4 crore are getting an education and a little over 10 crore are in jobs with the majority in the informal and unsalaried ones without any social security.

Since the Union Budget is also the last full budget before the general election of 2024, the Finance Minister had no choice except to cover up the failures of the Modi government in the last nine years of his rule, especially in the social sector, by highlighting alleged spectacular achievements besides the new proposals in the budget.

The Budget talks about the ‘Saptarishi’, i.e. the 7 priorities it has purportedly set for the government during the Amrit Kaal –Inclusive development; Reaching the Last Mile; Youth Power; Financial Sector; Green Growth; Unleashing the Potential; and Infrastructure and investment.

The rising inequality in the last nine years of Modi’s rule might have encouraged the government to bring the sacred name of the seven sages (Sapta Rishis) to try and rescue the government from the guilt of failure on almost all fronts of the economy, particularly in the social sector.

What the Union Budget 2023-24 was to do was even clearly indicated by the Economic Survey 2022-23, which ‘in a departure from the past’, ‘introduced the chapter on India’s social sector’ and ‘not without reason’, the document has asserted.

However, in so many words, the Survey tried to conceal the real ‘reason’ which the Union Budget has clearly revealed to be only political consideration in a way that could be a vote catching tool.

In the backdrop of failing in “doubling the farmers income by 2022”, the Union Budget talks about providing Rs 20 lakh crore targeted funding for agriculture credit.

Under health, it announces establishment of 157 new nursing colleges, new programme to promote research in pharmaceuticals. It boasts of increasing health expenditure from 1.4 per cent of GDP in FY19 to 2.1 per cent in FY23, and for education, these figures are 2.8 and 2.9 per cent respectively.

The Union Budget showcases the ‘The Big Tent that accommodates all’ which was already indicated in the very chapter ‘Social Infrastructure and Employment: Big Tent’ of the Economic Survey 2022-23.

The Budget showcases 9 crore drinking water connections, Rs 2.2 lakh crore to over 11.4 crore farmers under PM-Kisan, 11.7 crore household toilets, 9.6 crore LPG connections, 220 crore vaccines et al.

However, given the dire situation at the grassroots level, the government’s claim that “the social sector expenditure outlay of the Centre and State Governments has increased steadily to stand at Rs 21.3 lakh crore in FY23 (BE) with its share in total Government expenditure standing at 26.6 per cent” sounds audacious.

The hollowness of the claims and the proposals is more pronounced in the health and employment sector. The last three years under the shadow of the pandemic had already exposed the dire situation of the health infrastructure when people were reportedly dying in thousands due to lack of oxygen.

The entire health infrastructure was overwhelmed which also exposed the lack of health professionals and workers, included doctor and nurses. Public health expenditure, both of the Central and state government’ budgeted expenditure, could reach only 2.1 per cent of GDP for 2022-23, even less than revised estimate of 2.2 per cent in 2021-22.

India was to increase this to 2.5 per cent by 2025 as per National Health Policy of 2017.

In the employment sector, India entered the era of joblessness just after three years of Modi rule in 1017-18. The unemployment rate reached a 45 year high at 6.1 per cent and was 8.3 per cent in December 2022. Independent India has never suffered such joblessness as it is suffering now under the present regime.

As for poverty alleviation, the gains of the decades have already been washed out first due to joblessness during the first six years of Modi rule and then by the pandemic that have pushed lakhs of people into extreme poverty according to several latest data of the UN agencies and the World Bank.

The Budget has little to arrest this decline.

The Union Budget 2022-23 has talked much about social protection schemes, customised for different sections of the population such as elderly, unorganized workers etc. It talks about special focus on aspirational districts, health, education, financial inclusion, and basic infrastructure.

Under the bouquet of social sector, government had 318 Central schemes and over 720 State DBT schemes. Clearly, there is no dearth of schemes to entice voters, but what is clear from the Union Budget 2023-24 is that they are not funded enough to provide real succour to the common people.

The Union Budget 2023-24 will therefore not bring the much-needed relief to the common people at a time when there is a likelihood of considerable downturn in the Indian economy as per all authoritative estimates.

(IPA Service)

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