Modi government: one year of dismantling the welfare state
A dominant feature of the first year of Narendra Modi's leadership is the quiet dismantling of India's imperfectly realised framework of welfare and rights, covertly, by stealth.
A declared pro-corporate agenda, such as the land acquisition ordinance, proved politically messy and costly. Therefore, the government resorted instead for an enfeebling of the welfare architecture of the country through a combination of fiscal withdrawals, ignoring even legally mandated obligations.
But this attracted barely any attention, although having profound implications for millions of India's impoverished people.
The National Food Security Act, passed in September 2013, mandated its full roll-out with a year. The Union government administratively resorted to three advancements of this deadline without any amendments to the law, which is illegal.
The budget nominally sustained the food subsidy, but full implementation of the act required major increases in real terms.
The budget announced a stunning 54% fall in ICDS allocations for infant, young child and pregnant mother feeding; and a 30% decline in allocations for school feeding.
The near-universal maternity benefit programme, guaranteeing support of Rs 6,000 for every pregnant woman in the food law, received almost no budgetary allocations.
Take again the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. We find a brutal one-fifth cut in allocations for the flagship vehicle Sarva Shikha Abhiyan.
The cuts in public health are among the most drastic. India's public spending on health at 1.2% of GDP is one of the lowest in the world, but this has been reduced even further, badly stymieing the possibilities of the National Health Mission to refurbish primary health services for the urban and rural poor.
This same dismal story repeats in all aspects of social spending, including pensions, drinking water, sanitation, rural infrastructure and urban renewal. The government's defence that these cuts will be offset by greater devolution of funds from the central tax pool to states in disingenuous, even deceitful.
Because increases in tax devolution have been matched by an almost equal reduction in central assistance to states, as a result of which the total funds which are being transferred from the centre to the states stand almost unchanged.
Even more worrying, the centre has decided to discontinue supporting expenditures on staff salaries, which constitutes the bulk of expenses in health and education.
This asphyxiation is also manifest in the wage-guarantee MNREGA, which Prime Minister Modi sardonically trashed as "living proof of the Congress's failure in reducing poverty over decades".
Nitin Sethi in Business Standard reported that for January-March 2015, the government provided 347 million person-days of work, less than half the work provided to the poor in rural India in the corresponding period of 2014, and below 60% of the work provided in January-March 2013.
Further, extraordinary delays in transfer of funds to states have choked wage payments. Last year, the wages of more than 70% workers were delayed beyond the legal limit of 15 days, effectively slow-killing the programme.
What are the consequences of this dismantling brick by brick of India's welfare architecture? Feeding programmes for children will be starved, impoverished pregnant mothers will be denied the promise of rest and nutrition through maternity payments.
Budget cuts will ensure even poorer provisioning for state schools--which are now the preserve only of children of the very poor and lower-castes--and disgraceful low access to healthcare for millions of indigent people will plummet further.
Rural workers will no longer be able to rely on MNREGA for wage survival alternatives to unemployment, hunger, distress migration and debt bondage.
In two fiercely competing ideas of the good state, one is of a redistributive state, which defends rights of people of disadvantage. The alternate is of a state which nurtures globalised markets and private investment, and trusts markets to enable people to purchase healthcare, education, nutrition and social security.
Government in the last ten years placed high faith in markets, but its market-friendly policies were offset by beginning the building of a rights-based social welfare infrastructure. India still spent too little for the poor.
But Modi's stewardship of the country in its first year represents--not just through savage social spending cuts, but labour and land acquisition reforms--the consolidation of corporate control over policy-making, and the further extinction of hope that the indignity and want of India's poor will ebb significantly in the foreseeable future.
(Harsh Mander is convenor, Aman Biradari. He is the author of Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India. The views expressed are personal.)