The finance minister quoting Shakespeare's Hamlet during his budget speech — "I must be cruel only to be kind" — has provided an appropriate segue to review the budgetary provisions pertaining to the social sector. Among five key objectives outlined by Pranab Mukherjee to be addressed in the coming fiscal year was the need to address the issue of malnutrition in 200 high-burden districts. A move from a generic attack on poverty to a specific one on malnutrition, and that too, in a specified area. The reference to a multi-sectoral programme to address maternal and child malnutrition in these districts is promising. It is recognition of the fact that malnutrition exists because of multiple reasons, and that the traditional silo-bound approach will not succeed.
However, a clear and corresponding budgetary allocation seems hard to locate for this programme unless the expenditure is to be met out of either the Integrated Child Development Scheme — for which there is a 58% increase in allocation or the mid-day meal scheme or the Food Security Mission of the Ministry of Agriculture or through the implementation of the Food Security Act.
For a country that spent only 3.11% of its GDP on education and 1.3% on healthcare in the preceding year, the increase in allocation on these sectors is welcome. The outlay for health is up over the revised estimate for the previous year, by 25.72% and the outlay on expenditure has increased by a respectable 18.64%. Of the total central plan outlay, health and expenditure account for nearly 13.6% and rural development 11.72%. In other words, the resources for the flagship programmes of UPA-1, the National Rural Health Mission and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act continue to be made available.
Of the total Central Plan outlay, nearly 35% is to be spent on social services and rural development. However, the devil will remain not in the details but in systemic inefficiencies. Another objective mentioned by the finance minister was to improve delivery systems, governance and transparency. Aadhaar and direct cash transfers based on this seem to be primary methods to plug leakages. The political will to address this objective will determine the success of the investment in social services not a mere increase in outlay.