Will Government Dedicate Last Full Budget Before 2024 Election to Working Poor?
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The inability of the Indian government to structure an inclusive recovery from the pandemic-related economic distress has prolonged the struggle for subsistence for the majority of India's working poor—and allowed billionaires to hike up their wealth like never before. This writer recently spoke with around 60 construction and domestic workers in Delhi to find out what they expect from the budget. The capital is where one would expect relatively better living conditions, but the workers unanimously said their situations are worse than ever. Some traced the onset of the decline in their incomes to the pandemic. Others said the crisis began back in November 2016 when the Centre removed from circulation all currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000.
I met workers at the JJ Colony in Bawana, Shahbad Dairy and around. They said their wages have stagnated since before the pandemic, and prices have galloped far beyond their reach. They spend less on essentials, even food than they could earlier. The long phases of unemployment during the Covid-19 lockdowns, followed by the ban on construction work due to pollution, hurt them immeasurably. As a result, unemployment lingered on for them long after the lockdowns got lifted. This is particularly true for the domestic workers I met, though even construction workers said they find work on average just 15 days a month. Many said the burden of repaying the high-interest debts they took during the lockdown has not eased.
The struggle to survive is the most difficult for households that do not own a ration card or live in rented accommodations. Poor living conditions accentuated their problems. Many working-class households in Bawana must pay to use a toilet. They also must buy drinking water from tankers or dealers because the water in the area is not potable due to high salinity.
So what will the government do in Union Budget 2023 to make their lives easier? We know what it must do—hike investments in nutrition, health, and education, create stable income sources for working people and provide social security to the aged and young. The government must also understand that these are long-term investments that converge over time into an inclusive recovery path. Recent events in Joshimath, Uttarakhand, and other hilly areas emphasise the urgent need to protect livelihoods and the environment. People must not lose jobs because rampant large-scale construction is done in the name of development which violates regulations and puts lives at risk.
Whatever the budget throws up, these are the expectations for 2023-'24 of the people I met. It is the last full budget this government will present before next year's General Election, before which an interim budget will be presented. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government may view this year as an opportunity to make up for its serious budgetary lapses in past years. Unfortunately, the government's record does not give us much room for optimism this year either.
There is a wide gulf between impressive announcements and the government's commitment to allocate resources to key development and welfare needs. The relief packages during the pandemic and lockdowns yielded little when scrutinised. As this analysis shows, India's relief measures were far too inadequate considering the extent of jobs lost and lower than what much smaller countries provided people. Next, considerable shares of recent budgets went into repackaging existing schemes, leaving them inadequate. The Rs 50,000 crore PM Garib Kalyan Scheme is an instance of how the government melted existing earmarked funds in one pot, making it appear as if it is helping the working people—not actually doing so.
Even modest commitments for priority welfare schemes have been subjected to frequent significant cuts. These are introduced arbitrarily, without discussion or explanation. In 2016, the National Plan of Action for Children suggested 5% annual budgetary allocations for policies and schemes directed at children. But as this writer pointed out, the Budget Estimate for 2020-21 for children-related schemes was just over 3.5%, which fell to 2.46% in the middle of the pandemic year 2021-22. Reliable information on these cuts is rarely available. When Parliament approves the budget based on promised allocations, should it not be informed, with reasons, of the big slashes in scheme allocations? It must discuss them, not to mention fighting on behalf of people to have them rolled back.
Today, transparency and truth-based functioning are virtually absent, which has hurt the credibility of fiscal processes. This is why the most important allocations for development and welfare are taking a hit. The recent cancellation or squeezing of funds to numerous scholarships for poor students from disadvantaged sections is just one instance. Such cuts are not just statistics on government records but signal the death of the aspirations of tens of thousands of students and their families. Society pays a high cost if the funds to rehabilitate manual scavengers are cut, as was done in Budget 2020-21, by Rs 10 crore. Society suffers if the differently-abled are denied funding or funds to provide security for women or pensions to the elderly in the poorest households, decline or disappear. The crisis of crucial social sector programs, lagging due to regular cuts, is genuine. The extent of human suffering that results from budget injustices is very high.
The National Social Assistance Program, administered by the Union Ministry for Rural Development, is a critical project that has seen no significant budget hikes in recent years. As a result, after accounting for inflation, elderly persons, widows and disability-affected persons from poor households get lower pensions today than before. In villages and urban conglomerations, this budgetary reality reflects in the regular sight of the elderly, with hands trembling, clutching at bundles of papers as they wait in queues outside pension offices. Recently, a man died in Kashmir while the administration put residents through having to prove they were entitled to a pension despite the bitter cold. These issues and concerns are rarely discussed in the mainstream media.
The government says it wants to improve the nutrition standards, but a quick glance at the figures reveals these claims are untrue. Allocations are actually declining after providing for inflation. On the one hand, there is a promise of including breakfast in mid-day meals and expanding coverage. On the other, funds are squeezed, especially after counting in inflation.
India is way behind the world in budgetary allocations for education and health. We seem keen to meet the minimum standards, but the roadmap to achieve this in two or three years is filled with uncertainty. Much has gone wrong with the government's priorities, and it should strive to get them right at least once.
The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. The views are personal.
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