“This scheme is not for you”, reads one of the memes circulating on social media after the Budget speech of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. It underlined the feelings of most Indians. Though the meme was aimed at the middle class who could not find anything for them in the Budget, the question is, which segment of the society does Budget 2022 really serve?
Nothing for the poor.
Nothing bad for the rich.
Nothing for women.
Nothing for farmers.
Nothing for the markets.
Nothing for health.
The budget is not bad,
And it’s not an election budget either.
It’s not that the budget has not touched upon the various sectors or segments mentioned above. But one can also ask whether it’s enough.
Those who are in its favour argue that despite five states going to polls in the coming weeks, the budget broke the “political shackles” of being an “election budget”.
The Finance Minister’s speech represented fiscal responsibility and budget management, they argue. But when the Union Budget does not have much for most of the society, should it be called courageous or lacklustre?
The Poor Can't Wait for the Govt to Realise Its Dream
Chief Economic Advisor Dr V Anant Nageswaran hopes that India will achieve the target of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2026-27. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has termed the budget a “Document with a 100-year vision”.
The pandemic has broken the backs of the unorganised sector and small and medium entrepreneurs. They are yearning for immediate relief. The common person cannot wait for years while the government realises its dream.
As famous lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi said, “Ye Duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?” (Even if I get the world, what is it to me if the time has passed?)
'When' Is the Real Question
The Finance Minister announced a 35 per cent increase in capital expenditure amid thundering applause from treasury benches in Parliament. She declared that the focus would be on infrastructure development and the allocation has been increased from Rs 5.4 lakh crore to Rs 7.5 lakh crore for the financial year 2022-23. The Union government insists that it will boost employment, but when? The poor need relief now, not years later.
The pandemic has forced the closure of schools and the common person requires a mobile phone for their children to attend online classes, today. They have to pay school fees today, they have to pay the medical bills hanging over their heads like a sword, today.
Most armchair experts in Delhi do not have a clue about the plight of the unemployed, for whom the expense of even Rs 200 for the “flu” caused by COVID-19 is akin to scaling Mount Everest. The budget has reduced the allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The scheme was instrumental in providing major relief to rural poor during the lockdown.
The government today focuses on high-speed internet connectivity but poor children would first need a mobile phone in hand to even access it. The budget does not disclose where the money for the proposed infrastructure push would come from.
A recent global inequality report by Oxfam says that the gulf between rich and poor has been increasing in India. That is why the poor needed immediate support from the government. It would have not only benefited the poor but would have also saved the government from borrowing Rs 15 lakh crore.
Farmers Feel Cheated
The Modi government had promised long ago that the income of the farmer would be doubled by 2022. But the word “farmer” was barely mentioned in Budget 2022. The government announced that it will pay Rs 2.25 lakh crore for the procurement of crops at the minimum support price (MSP). But Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait says the government has reduced the budget for procurement of wheat and rice. “The government is in a vengeful mode on farm issues,” says Yogendra Yadav, a well-known farmer leader.
There is much talk about the concerns of small farmers. But how will they benefit from drones? The farmer is no longer in the mood to patiently listen to the hollow talk about food processing and the enhancement of storage infrastructure. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) has already announced that the government’s intention on MSP is now clear and that they will intensify their protest.
Self-Sufficiency vs Self-Defence
The government has announced that it will spend 68 per cent of its defence budget on procurement from Indian manufacturers only. But it is doubtful whether that would be possible without any compromise on the security of the nation.
Pakistan continues to be a thorn in the flesh, while the ‘dragon’ is continuously hissing. It is a welcome step that the defence research sector is being opened up for private entrepreneurs, but it may take time for these efforts to yield results.
Health is No Longer an Issue for the Govt
The COVID-19 pandemic made us understand that standard health facilities are important not only for the health of the citizens but also for the health of the economy. If there is a lockdown due to the pandemic, migrant labourers move back to their homes and factories shut down, turning the economic cycle upside down.
It was expected that budget provisions for the health sector would be visionary, but nothing was announced. Where is the ‘100-year plan’ for the health sector?
The talks around a National Digital Health Platform and a Universal Health Card are also old wine in a new bottle. A rural poor needs a doctor more than a digital health platform card, because when he does need medical care, there are neither doctors, nor medicine, nor ICU beds, nor oxygen.
The 'Election-Winning Machine' is Just Indifferent
Much-touted schemes such as 80 lakh affordable homes, tap water to every home, and toilets, will continue. A loan scheme is in the offing for small and medium businessmen, but that formula has already proved to be unsuccessful during the pandemic.
Experts in the share market are terming the budget a “non-event”. Where the market will head in the coming months would be decided not by today’s budget but by cash flow, the monetary policy of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), global cues, and election results of the five states, they say.
Though the focus on capital expenditure has improved the market sentiment for select stocks, no one is sure how long this hangover shall last. Not tinkering with the capital gains tax is definitely a welcome step.
In Uttar Pradesh, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing a tough electoral fight, paltry sums have been allocated for organic farming on the banks of river Ganga and for the Ken-Betwa river linking project.
Fiscal prudence is being touted as the key feature of Budget 2022, but past experience with the BJP and the Modi government shows that the upcoming elections won't suddenly turn less important for the saffron brigade.
When a party that has turned itself into an election-winning machine does not care about the effect of the Budget on the upcoming polls, it is pertinent to ask, is this discipline or lethargy? And is it just chance that the budget speech of Sitharaman was the shortest ever?