The Prime Minister New Year’s Eve speech did not provide any succor for those badly hit by demonetisation. So will the 2017 budget address their problems?
The government’s coffers are full and it must go beyond repackaging existing subsidies for poor people.
So, here’s a wish list for the finance minister:
1. Support all pregnant women: Three years ago, the National Food Security Act promised maternity entitlements of ₹6,000 for each child. Tamil Nadu gives double the amount per child from its own coffers. The Centre needs to invest at least ₹16,000 crore. Unfortunately, reports suggest that the ministry is planning only a modest hike, despite bulging coffers. Equally unsettling is the hint that there were will strings attached such as eligibility criteria to restrict the benefit only to those below the poverty line or age limits.
2. Increase old age pension from ₹200 to ₹2,000 per month: Demonetisation has hurt the elderly. Only one of every five receives pension. To add insult to injury, the Centre’s share for 22 million senior citizens has been a pitiable ₹200 per month under the National Social Assistance Programme. Instead all that the PM offered in his December 31 speech for senior citizens is a fixed interest rate of 8% on deposits for the next decade. This can only benefit the middle class who have tidy savings. The impoverished have been left high and dry. The finance minister must universalise and increase social security pensions 10-fold.
3. Waive farmers’ debts: Thanks to demonetisation, moneylenders are ruling the roost in rural areas. Worse, the government has cut the import duties on wheat, which is likely to flood the market with foreign harvests. Instead, all that farmers have got this year are more loans to increase their debts. All the new schemes announced under Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (PMAY) are again loans, with obligation to repay. A farm debt waiver similar to the one rolled-out in 2009, targeted at small farmers, is the need of the hour.
4. Double MGNREGA budget: As migrants return home in the demonetisation aftermath, there has not been a word of solidarity with India’s “wage hunters”. This year, despite severe drought, at least 6 million families who demanded MGNREGA work did not get any. In addition, more than ₹3,000 crore of pending wages are also due. The FM must double the MGNREGA budget.
Swati Narayan is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She is also an activist working on the right to food and education
The views expressed are personal