A Budget that Strikes the Poor

  • Smt. Sonia Gandhi

While evaluating the recent budget, we must listen to the voice of the people of India and ignore the budget glorification of the Modi government and its ministers. People have been complaining about high inflation, record unemployment and falling incomes for many years; grave challenges that this budget has not only failed to address, but it has compounded these problems by lacking allocation in schemes meant for the poor and by diluting their rights enshrined in the laws brought in by the UPA government. This is a silent attack on the poor by the Modi government. At present, except for the rich Indians, the condition of all Indians remains worrisome. According to RBI consumer surveys, majority of the people feel that the economic conditions have been getting worse every month since November, 2019. During the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, lakhs of Indians from all walks of lives expressed despair over the severe economic crisis in which India is headed. All - whether poor or middle class, rural or urban - are troubled by the triple whammy of inflation, unemployment and slashing incomes. Modi ji and his ministers have been blind to this truth because in this budget, he has reduced the funding for the schemes being run for the poor, something never seen in over a decade.

Rural labourers will have less work, as funding for MGNREGA has been reduced by a third. Wages are also deliberately being kept below market rates and workers struggle to get paid on time. It is also credited to this budget that our schools will be strapped of resources, with funding for the rebranded ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ remaining stagnant for three years in a row. To add insult to the injury, children will have less nutritious meals, as funding to mid-day meals in schools has fallen by a tenth (by10 per cent) this year. Rations to the poor have been halved, since 5 kgs of free food grains available under the ‘PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana’ have been arbitrarily stopped. Similarly, allocation for schemes for minorities, disabled, pensions for the elderly, have all been summarily reduced. In addition, the rise in prices over the past four years means that every rupee buys about a quarter less than in 2018. This deadly combination of insufficient funding and rising inflation directly hurts our nation’s poorest, the underprivileged and most disadvantaged.

As expected, the Prime Minister has maintained his iconic silence on why this attack on social schemes was needed during this inordinate crisis? Reading between the lines, we understand that the rationale is to fund capital expenditure, which the budget has sharply increased. A prosperous country like India of course needs highways, railways, ports and electricity, but there is a larger point—funding infrastructure at the expense of human development is a mistake, both in the short term and the long term. Social programmes improve people’s lives by directly providing work, meals, better education, affordable healthcare, or cash in their hands. Helping people directly is a surer and faster way of providing relief, compared to the uncertain hope that the spending on large capital-intensive projects will eventually trickle down to the people at large. Sharp cuts to social security, education, nutrition and health hurt the poorest today, and stunt our progress tomorrow. Remember, that a healthy and educated population is the foundation of prosperity.

By slashing the allocations meant for many essential schemes, the government is not only snatching money from the poor, but is also weakening their rights. Many rights - to education, food, work and nutrition - were enshrined in law during the UPA era. We believed that laws guaranteeing rights are very different from government schemes. Rights-based laws not only help citizens to fulfil their basic needs, but also empower them to demand their rights from the government. These were especially helpful to the poor and vulnerable, as the Parliament gave them powerful tools in the form of legislation, in their struggle for daily livelihood. In fact, the UPA’s rights-based legislations were important and cohesive steps towards realizing the Constitution’s promise of equality and justice.

Prime Minister Modi makes no secret of his dislike for all this talk of rights of poor and vulnerable citizens. He began by ridiculing in Parliament the schemes for the poor. Even this budget reflects the Prime Minister’s favourite policy of benefiting a few of his rich friends at the expense of the poor and the middle class. When the income of crores of Indians declined during Covid, some billionaires made lakhs of crores and joined the list of world’s richest people. Modi Ji helped do this by selling the critical infrastructure like ports and airports at cheaper rates, forcing them to withdraw or sell them to competing capitalists, and forcing public institutions like LIC and SBI to invest into poorly-managed companies owned by its chosen friends. Now Modi Ji’s most favourite capitalist is facing serious allegations and the hard-earned money of crores of Indians is in danger. Modi ji, who talks openly on every issue, is silent and is denying debate in the Parliament. The Prime Minister’s policy of favouring his few rich friends has led to a series of economic disasters -Be it the badly designed GST regime hurting small businesses, or demonetisation, or the failed attempt to bring three farm laws or the subsequent neglect of the agriculture sector altogether. Destructive privatization has handed over priceless national assets to select private hands at throwaway prices, leading to unemployment, especially for SC’s and ST’s. Is this the ‘Amrit Kaal’ that Modi ji wants us to celebrate?

Courtesy: Jagran