New Delhi— On Wednesday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the 2023 budget to President Draupadi Murmu, marking a historic occasion as it was the first time a woman finance minister presented the budget to a woman president in India's history. Despite this momentous event, it seems that the budget did not bring substantial benefits to women.
The recent budget allocation for the Ministry for Women and Child Development fell short of expectations, as the allocation as a percentage of GDP decreased from 0.71% to 0.66%. Despite this, the allocation increased slightly to Rs 25,448 crore from the previous allocation of Rs 25,172.28 crore in 2022-23. The highlight of the budget was the introduction of the Mahila Samman Savings Certificate scheme, which allows for a deposit of up to 2 lakhs to be made in the name of a woman or a girl child for a maximum two-year tenure with a fixed interest rate of 7.5% and the option for partial withdrawal. The scheme will be available until March 2025.
Despite the recommendation by the National Education Policy for a 6% allocation of the GDP to education, the allocation in the recent budget decreased from 2.64% to 2.5%. However, it saw an increase in absolute terms with a allocation of 1.12 lakh crore rupees to the Education Ministry, which is the highest ever allocation to the ministry. The Samagra Scheme, the largest school education scheme, which replaces the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, received an allocation of 37,453.47 crore rupees. The government has also allocated 11,600 crore rupees for the Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman scheme, which replaces the mid-day meal scheme. The total budget for research and innovation stands at 210.61 crore rupees.
Despite the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government seems to have become complacent in its response. The health budget saw an increase of 12.6% in absolute terms with an allocation of 89,155 crore rupees in the 2023-24 Union budget, but decreased as a percentage of GDP from 2.2% to 1.98%. Key schemes such as the Matru Vandana Yojana have been reduced by Rs 40.15 crore. This neglect of the health sector runs counter to the National Health Policy, 2017, which aimed to incrementally increase public health expenditure to 2.5% of the GDP by 2025.
The allocation to the agriculture sector saw a decrease in the 2023-24 budget, receiving only 2.7% of the total budget compared to 3.36% in the previous year. To support rural startups and build a digital public agriculture infrastructure, the finance minister announced the Agriculture Accelerator Fund. The allocation for the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme, which provides an annual sum of Rs 6,000 to beneficiaries, remained unchanged at Rs 60,000 crore, resulting in a decrease as a percentage of the total outlay. The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, a government scheme providing crop insurance, received an allocation of 13,625 crore rupees, which is more than the revised estimates for 2022-23 but falls short of the proposed allocation of 15,500 crore rupees from the previous year.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently declared that there will be a full implementation of mechanization for cleaning septic tanks in line with the goal of ending manual scavenging. However, Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson expressed disappointment to The Mooknayak, stating that this was not the first time such a declaration had been made, pointing to the lack of follow-through from last year's announcement of Namaste (Mechanized Sanitation Ecosystem). According to Wilson, the budget lacks any genuine consideration for human welfare, ignoring the plight of individuals who have lost their lives in manholes and those in need of rehabilitation. Wilson condemned the budget for being solely focused on mechanical solutions, neglecting crucial humanitarian aspects.
However, what attracted the most attention was the decrease in allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The allocation was reduced from 89,400 crores to 60,000 crores, representing a cut of 32%. This marks the first time that MGNREGA allocation has been reduced since the Modi government came into power in 2014.Such significant cuts in vital sectors will likely provide ammunition for the opposition in the lead up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
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