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New Delhi: Those waiting for social reforms and inclusiveness were left disappointed, as finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s increase in funds in the national budget left no room for radical changes.

By Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

The finance minister also announced the launch of the National Urban Health Mission, but made no budgetary allocation for it. The project has been in the backburner since 2008.

The only major gain under inclusive development was to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, for which budgetary allocation was raised by 58% to 15,850 crore.

The lack of focus or priority in the policies on inclusiveness in the budget was a big concern, an expert said.

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“There is no effort for inclusiveness in the budget, besides the focus on ICDS," said A.K. Shiva Kumar, development economist and member of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC), which sets the government’s social agenda.

On the launch of the health mission, he said connecting health for urban poor to the improvement of seven medical colleges was myopic. The mission focuses on curative health than on preventive and primary healthcare, he added.

“We will have to wait for the 12th Five-Year Plan (which begins on 1 April) before drawing conclusions," Shiva Kumar said. “There is a lack of clarity but there is commitment to the health sector."

As a part of inclusive development, although Mukherjee has increased allocation to welfare programmes for scheduled castes and tribes, experts termed it a mere lip service in view of the major reforms that are required.

“In a situation where you talk about inclusive development, these two sectors—scheduled castes and tribals—are the most crucial ones," said Tanweer Fazal, assistant professor at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Milia Islamia University. “The increase in budgetary allocation for the next financial year would not be able to bring about any substantial change in the minority population, a group which should get priority in inclusiveness."

The budget raised allocation by 37% to 8,447 crore to the National Social Assistance Programme, a centrally-sponsored welfare scheme that provides pensions to widows, old people and disabled people living under the poverty line, besides other benefits.

Mukherjee in his budget speech said malnutrition needs decisive intervention if India were to attain “faster, sustainable and more inclusive growth" during the 12th Plan period that ends March 2017. He announced a multi-sectoral scheme to address maternal and child malnutrition in 200 districts.

But there was no clear road map on how malnutrition will be addressed, said Thomas Chandy, chief executive of Save the Children, a non-profit organization.

“The funding is highly inadequate. Despite mentioning malnutrition as a thrust area, there is no coherent move. A reduction of custom duty on soya was announced, which is not going to solve the problem," he said. “The Planning Commission’s working group had estimated the need for ICDS to be 1.83 lakh crore over five years, or over 36,000 crore per year, which means that India’s children need further and a more substantial increase in the budgets in the coming years."

Chandy also criticized the proposal of a 5,000 exemption for preventive health check-ups, as only private hospitals will gain from it. “Health check-ups is an urban trend and does not benefit the majority," he said. “There is no focus on the urban poor or people living below the poverty line in this regard."

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