Running a state government is a complex task, especially these days when India has a domineering Central government that is obsessed with centralising all fiscal and administrative powers, and often acts in discriminatory ways towards those who have a different view.
However, it is possible to run a state government in a way that keeps peoples’ welfare centre stage and devotes meticulous attention to ensuring that whatever possible should be done to improve the living standards of people. The recently passed budgets of various states offer a glimpse of what the state governments’ priorities are and how much money it is putting in for important sectors.
A comparison of the budgets for 2021-22, passed by the four major states going to polls within weeks throws up a fascinating picture. The Kerala state government led by the Left and Democratic Front (LDF) is clearly the leader in spending on health, education and welfare of dalits, adivasis other backward castes and minority communities. On agriculture and rural development, Tamil Nadu spends slightly more than Kerala, but then, Kerala has a very small agricultural sector.
In order to make acceptable comparisons, NewsClick computed the per person expenditure in each state. Kerala and Assam have a population of about 3.5 crore persons each while Tamil Nadu has a population of 7.6 crore and West Bengal, 9.75 crore. These are population projections for 2021 as worked out by the Census office, New Delhi.
Education & Health: Kerala Leads, Bengal Lags
As the chart below shows, per person spending on education by the state government is highest in Kerala (Rs.6,702) and lowest in West Bengal (Rs.4,402), which is governed by the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress. Most of school education, as also vocational and technical education is under state governments. In recent years, Kerala has turned around government-run schools dramatically, leading to increasing enrolment.
On health again, Kerala has the highest spending (Rs.2,919) followed by Tamil Nadu (Rs.2,513). West Bengal is notably backward in this count, spending only Rs.1,308 per person, less than half of Kerala. In the past few years, Kerala has faced several health calamities, either through viruses (corona and earlier Nipah), or as an aftermath of devastating floods in 2018 and 2019. Despite these, the state government has continued to expand and strengthen the public healthcare system. This has been most clearly visible in the very low mortality rate from COVID-19 despite a high number of cases.
SC/ST and Other Deprived Sections
Kerala’s LDF government leads in spending on welfare of dalits, adivasis, OBCs and minority communities, as shown in per person spending in the chart below. It spent Rs.907 per person compared with Rs.857 in Assam and only Rs.612 in West Bengal. All four states have large communities from one or other of these sections.
This concern in action is in marked contrast to all the so- called “social engineering” that the other parties indulge in at the time of elections. These electoral tactics are only meant to draw votes – afterwards all is forgotten. In Assam, where the Bharatiya Janata Party has been ruling for the last five years, it has tried to create and divide ethnic identities for narrow political gains, but its government is a laggard when it comes to actual developmental work.
Agriculture & Rural Development
Tamil Nadu has the highest per person spending on these crucial sectors that cover a vast number of people. It spends Rs.4,086 per person, closely followed by Kerala at Rs.3,994, although the agriculture sector in Kerala is quite limited historically because of less arable land.
Surprisingly, the other two states with huge agrarian populations lag behind, with West Bengal the usual last, spending only Rs.3,178 per person. These low spending rates by agrarian states are a symptom of how much of injustice has been done to farmers in these and other states, which is reflected in the ongoing farmers’ struggle against three new farm laws.
This is not the whole story of each state government’s performance. But it does offer a snapshot of what is possible if there is an honest government, dedicated to using the limited powers it has to give some succour and support to the people even as they strive for bigger changes in their lives.
[Data collated by Peeyush Sharma from state government portals]