The Planning Commission has found unexpected support from HRD Minister Arjun Singh on the issue of greater funding for the social sector during the 11th Plan, even at the cost of fiscal discipline in sharp contrast to the approach favoured by Finance Minister P Chidambaram.
Advocating that the next plan "need not be constrained" by the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, Arjun Singh wrote to the Commission: "Indeed this Act has put artificial curbs on the capacity of the economy to invest more in poverty alleviation programmes as well as in the much-needed public investments in agriculture, which is the primary cause of the current agrarian distress."
Singh's position is in sharp contrast with Chidambaram, who in his response to the queries on approach to the 11th Plan had written to Ahluwalia that "in the present milieu, adhering to the FRBM targets in respect of fiscal and revenue deficits is critical for macro-economic, financial, external sectors and budgetary sustainability.
"Fiscal discipline remains the major factor in determining the investment grade rating of the Indian economy by various international rating agencies," Chidambaram had said in the letter.
On the contrary, Arjun Singh said, "We need to give a hard look at the growth strategy itself which has exacerbated inequities in our system and the impressive growth rate has gone hand in hand with mounting agrarian distress, price rise and vast number of our people have remained totally untouched by the mesmerizing statistics that people so decisively rejected in the last elections."
Echoing Arjun Singh's views, Ahluwalia told PTI, "We really do not care for FRBM targets so long as we get the money for planned programmes. We are just bothered about the resources for the 11th Plan."
Singh said the time has come for the UPA Government to chart a bold course in the 11th Plan to give shape and substance to the commitments made and respond to the hopes from this government in a sensitive and meaningful way.
With regard to the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) commitment, Singh said, it would be important to foreground the pro-poor initiatives proposed in the 11th Plan, particularly to enhance food security from household to the national level.
"Despite the commitment, to the contrary, we have allowed further erosion of the public distribution system, which has caused the current level of distress," Singh said.
Singh, however, was critical of the Approach Paper for being silent regarding education and demanded that the public funding on the sector be raised to six per cent of GDP.
"The documents need to articulate NCMP commitments in a faithful, bold and time-bound manner. For example, states must have time-bound targets and strategy for achieving the goal of raising public expenditure on education to six per cent of GDP and expanding the mid-day meal programme beyond the primary stage," the HRD Minister said.
On the issue of higher education, Singh said that the approach paper must seriously address the implication of operationalising Article 15(5) of the Constitution, i.e. The investments required to increase the capacity so as to ensure that as per the Prime Minister's commitment, the number of seats for the unreserved category is not reduced.
With regard to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the minister said the approach paper's recommendation enforcing accountability through giving parents a choice of schools is not feasible in most rural areas where the government/local body or government aided schools are the only ones available.
On adult literacy, the approach paper has said that the scheme is not an adequate measure of the level of functional literacy that is required in the new millennium and that the ministry should rededicate itself to a much higher level of literacy through CEP.
Reacting to it, Singh has said the government would emphasise higher levels of learning through equivalent programmes in the 11th Plan.