The Union finance minister, in his budget speech on Thursday, said "health for all and education for all remain our priorities", but when it comes to providing for the various programmes in these sectors, he fell woefully short.
Many experts feel that P Chidambaram has not even let schemes in these sectors continue their business as usual, leave alone any thoughts of expansion.
Given the difficult fiscal environment the government finds itself in, the modest increases in allocations for social sector schemes came as a bitter disappointment for development experts across the board. However, increased allocations in various sectors haven't stood the test of closer scrutiny.
First is the matter of the way increases have been calculated. Revised estimates (RE) of budgetary allocations to sectors such as health and education were lower than the last year's budget estimates, according to budget documents.
This means that the finance minister was comparing this year's allocations to significantly lower numbers (RE), automatically boosting the year-on-year rise. But even if one were to set aside such mathematical wizardry, the fact remains: the social sector got shortchanged.
Take for example, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), a scheme meant to improve health and nutrition of children between 0-6 years.
The 11% increase in the ICDS budget to Rs. 17,700 crore is still Rs. 7,000 crores short of the annual Rs. 24,600-crore budget allocated to it under the 12th Five Year Plan.
Experts like Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the commissioners to the Supreme Court, feel that the increase will barely cover inflation.
It is interesting to note that allocation increases under the UPA-II in health, education and women & child development sectors have been lower than in the 2004-09 period under the UPA-I. The obvious reason is the 2008 crisis and slow recovery that has affected government revenues.
The food security bill, bane of deficit hawks, also seems to have been severely under funded. According to Patnaik, "the Rs. 10,000 crores to implement the bill will barely cover the deficit of the food department".
Mathematical calculations are one problem, but for many schemes, it is not the lack of funds which is a problem. It is actually spending allocated funds.
"Allocations rise every year, new schemes are started, yet actual spending has remained low. Spending on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has come down from 70% to 61% in 2011-12. It happened in the cases of JNNURM, health schemes and even NREGA," said Yamini Aiyar, director, Accountability Initiative, a Delhi-based think-tank.
(Inputs from Zehra Kazmi)