Arindam Chaudhuri
[March, 2010]

Shortage of a hundred and fifty million rural jobs. Shortage of twenty five million urban jobs… Additional Rs 1 lakh crore required to replace urban slums… And Rs 10,000 crore required every year for five years to give justice to every Indian by ramping up the judiciary… Another Rs 20,000 crore required every year to make universal primary education a reality and have equality in education opportunities… And additional Rs 10,000 crore required annually to give some basic access to health facilities… Welcome to India. A country where the hospital beds to population ratio is 1:1422, ranked 161 alongside sub-Saharan African countries, against an ideal ratio of 1:333 prescribed by the United Nations. A country with 2.4 million temples but only 1.4 million temples of education i.e. schools… A country with 30 million cases pending in courts, making life hell for the common man who wants justice, because our courts have only 12 judges per million population compared to 120 judges per million in the developed world.

In the middle of such an environment, what’s the role of an annual budget? Is it to maintain status quo or to give the world a robust signal that we are committed to our people – the 45 crore people who earn below 1.25 dollars a day? If the objective is to maintain the status quo, then Pranabda has delivered a perfect budget, as loudly proclaimed by each and every member of the equally objectiveless and visionless industry organisations like FICCI, CII and ASSOCHAM etc. They were too happy that the entire stimulus package had not been withdrawn. As it is, the spokespersons aren’t independent intellectuals. They are timid business men – however rich they might be – scared to ever speak against the government as their businesses are at stake! In most cases, they aren’t even capable of commenting on the budget, such low is their understanding. But they are the people who give the bytes and that’s what next days headlines look like in papers indirectly and directly owned by them and mostly run by sold out editors or editors intellectually incapable of analysing a budget or how it needs to be. So the verdict that they have given is thumbs up!

The man on the street, of course, has no voice. And his concerns are of no importance to politicians or media. Media has no vision to effectively and constantly focus on their cause in order to effect a change. They are more interested in rapes, murders and sex, which keep the readers confined to intellectually dumbed-down dustbins of these media houses.

The truth, however, is that if we were to look at this budget from the perspective of people – those 45 crore that I mentioned above and another 35 crore who are just marginally better off – then this budget is a hoax for them. Allocations to the best scheme of the Sonia government, or for that matter any government in ages – the NREGA scheme – wasn’t even increased enough to cover the inflation! What was done was a mere increase from Rs 39,000 crore to about Rs 41,000 crore. At a point of time when the common man is being made to pay an astoundingly scary Rs 50 per kg for sugar and Rs 100 per kg for dal, when the food inflation has touched horrific proportions and when they were looking up to the budget for some relief, forget immediate relief measures, there were no signs of any long run relief either in this budget. No lip service even to stop hoarding. No measures to stop speculation in food. No recommendation of strict punishment to the hoarders and no announcement of using the country’s huge forex reserves to import basic food necessities to increase supply and reduce prices. In other words, totally shocking. The reference to the aam aadmi went missing. It was clearly a budget for the mango people who live in India and not the aam aadmi who lives in Bharat.

The long-run steps to increase agriculture growth through a new green revolution got a token Rs 400crore. Nothing could have been more hilarious. Now, NBFCs (non banking financial institutions) can open banks and Rahul Bajaj must be very happy with his part of lobbying. But the real requirement of financial inclusion, which reaches a rotting low of less than 200 million people compared to the required 900 million people, still remains unsolved. At a time when so much had to be done for the poor who are the direct sufferers of the high inflation, the government gave away Rs 26,000 crore to the middle class and rich through its new tax structure favouring the two per cent top class of people who pay taxes in this country! I have been always for lesser taxes to increase tax base, but in a year like this, such a move was a bit too much to accept, especially when compared to the lack of commitment of resources for the bottom 70% people.

The allocation of Rs 22,300 crore is marginally up for national rural health but still is too less when you look at the fact that 85 per cent of Indians do not have access to health insurance; and every year, an estimated 30 million people slip below the poverty line because they have to meet healthcare expenses through out-of-pocket expenses.

So is all bad? No! We are now going to have a new symbol for currency; similar to the dollar and the euro. And some agency, which will design it, will make a lot of money! It’s assumed that the developed world is so full of donkeys that despite the pathetic conditions that we have bestowed upon a majority of our people, the developed world will respect India due to a new symbol of our currency. Oh yes, how can I forget that in times of such internal security crisis and naxalite movement, a hilarious number of 2000 new paramilitary forces will be employed!

All in all, there have been some welcome extra investment in infrastructure and highways, good non-pollution initiatives, and some great tax structure changes if you are a tax-payer. For the rest, it has been an objectiveless exercise. Bringing me back to the question, ‘why have such a budget at all?’ When throughout the year, the government in any case keeps announcing various policies, then why should we not let the budget be a mere statement of results? Why this sham? There is no accountability… the poor hardly get anything; and to top it all, during the last year, a whopping Rs 1 lakh crore of allocated funds remained unused! It will only grow this year. I repeat, to me it was an objectiveless budget. A mere timepass.
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