Finance minister Arun Jaitley on Wednesday signalled a shift in the government’s anti-poverty strategy to ensure that flagship schemes benefit the poorest of the poor.
Presenting the budget for 2017-18, Jaitley identified the rural population as well as the poor and underprivileged as two of 10 focus areas and announced a Mission Antyodaya—uplift of the weakest sections of society and development for all.
The programme aims to “bring one crore households out of poverty and to make 50,000 gram panchayats poverty free by 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of (Mahatma) Gandhiji,” he said.
“We will utilize the existing resources more effectively, along with annual increases,” he said, adding: “This mission will work with a focused micro plan for sustainable livelihood for every deprived household. A composite index for poverty-free gram panchayats would be developed to monitor the progress from the baseline.”
The raft of measures could be seen as an attempt to deflect criticism from the opposition that has labelled the government “suit-boot ki sarkar”.
That the emphasis on Mission Antyodaya was indeed a key part of the government’s plans was underlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Maximum emphasis in this budget has been on the farmers, villages, poor, Dalit and the underprivileged sections of the society. Agriculture, animal husbandry, dairy, fisheries, watershed development, Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) are the areas which hold lots of potential to uplift the economic situation in rural India and also bring a sea change in the quality of life there,” Modi said following Jaitley’s budget presentation.
In his speech, Jaitley said more than Rs3 trillion “are spent in rural areas every year, if we add up all programmes meant for rural poor from the central budget, state budgets, bank linkage for self-help groups, etc.”
The minister also announced a hike of Rs 9,500 crore for the flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), bringing up the allocation for the year 2017-18 to Rs48,000 crore. This is one of the highest allocations since the launch of the scheme in 2006.
Jaitley proposed a hike of Rs8,000 crore for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna, which aims to build 10 million homes by 2019 for those without a house of their own and those living in mud houses. He stepped up the allocation for Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana—Gramin (rural) from Rs15,000 crore in 2016-17 to Rs23,000 crore in 2017-18.
Another area of focus for Jaitley was the marginalized Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
The allocation for the welfare of Scheduled Castes was increased from Rs38,833 crore in 2016-17 to Rs52,393 crore in 2017-18, representing an increase of about 35%. The allocation for Scheduled Tribes was take up to Rs 31,920 crore and for minority affairs to Rs4,195 crore. “The government will introduce outcome-based monitoring of expenditure in these sectors by the NITI Aayog,” the minister said.
According to Himanshu, associate professor at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University: “Targeted interventions have been the cornerstone of the Narendra Modi government.”
“This is opposed to universal programmes like the idea of the Universal Basic Income that covers a wide category,” he said, referring to a proposal outlined in the Economic Survey 2016-17 that was presented to Parliament on Tuesday.
“The government has already been moving in the direction of targeted delivery of benefits, which is why it is looking at using the data compiled during the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC),” Himanshu said. The SECC evolved some exclusion criteria that would determine whether a rural household was eligible for government assistance. For instance, a household is automatically excluded if it has: a motorized vehicle, or a kisan credit card with a credit limit of over Rs50,000, members in government jobs or a member earning over Rs10,000 a month.
“What I would like to know is whether the government has allocated enough money for various programmes under the targeted interventions, given that there is no measure of poverty,” Himanshu said.