The common man, whose concerns were at the heart of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s two successful election campaigns, doesn’t seem to be the focus of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s budget.

The Gandhi-led NAC was behind social entitlement programmes such as the MGNREGS. India Today Images

The budget, which has proposed trimming the government’s subsidy burden and is expected to increase inflationary pressures, is bereft of measures that will cushion the common man from rising costs, said experts. The railway budget presented on Wednesday proposed an across-the-board increase in passenger fares, while the finance ministry approved a move to cut the interest rate on deposits with the Employees’ Provident Fund to 8.25% for the current fiscal year from 9.5% in 2010-11. The Gandhi-led NAC was behind social entitlement programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) that guarantees 100 days of work for poor village families and path-breaking legislation such as the Right to Information Act and the Forest Rights Act, which gives forest dwellers rights over produce. NAC has also been lobbying heavily to make people-friendly changes to land acquisition and rehabilitation legislation, and has sought a social security Act for unorganized labourers as well as a food security Bill to distribute subsidized foodgrain to the poor.

“Poor people have been completely ignored in the budget," said N.C. Saxena, an NAC member. “The budget has become a non-event. Nothing has been done for food security, rehabilitation and land acquisition. It has no focus at all. It’s direction-less and lustre less," added Saxena, a former Planning Commission secretary.

Although Mukherjee referred to the food security Bill and the strengthening of the public distribution system, no money has been allocated for the scheme, expected to be the flagship programme of the UPA in its second term. The National Food Security Bill that seeks to grant priority beneficiaries the right to 7kg of foodgrain per month per person at 3 per kg for rice, 2 per kg for wheat and 1 per kg for coarse grains was introduced in the winter session of Parliament and is pending before the standing committee.

Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women and an active campaigner for the food security legislation, alleged that the government was trying to wriggle out of its responsibilities even while it is making tall promises on inclusiveness. She argued that the budgetary proposal to rely on indirect taxes and divestment for resource mobilization without touching corporate taxes will add to the burden on the common man.

“They are reducing the subsidy and cash transfer has become a policy now," Raja said. “There is no mention of minimum wages in MGNREGS, despite pressure from the NAC. The government talks about focusing on sustainable livelihood, but the other hand is snatching away the livelihood... Even (on) the food security Bill, the government is now talking about a targeted population, not universal coverage."

Raja said the government should have institutionalized accredited social health activists and anganwadi workers in order to provide social security. Although Mukherjee has increased sub-Plan allocation for scheduled castes and scheduled tribe funds, the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme and the Mid Day Meal Scheme in schools, experts said these were merely theoretical.

“In practical, the inclusiveness is mostly ignored," said N. Bhaskara Rao, a Delhi-based political analyst. “The political language of this government may be aam admi, but when the Planning Commission plans, the priorities are different."

Added Biju Janata Dal member of Parliament Kalikesh Singhdeo: “The inclusive growth factor is missing. Rural India and poor India have been victimized by the budget because the direct taxes have been given leeway whereas indirect taxes have been increased on commodities which will affect the common man."

Political observers pointed out that the priority for the social and rural sectors, often credited to Gandhi, is missing from the government’s agenda.

Rao, a keen observer of the Congress party politics, said the UPA government has lost touch with the common man.

“Even the state election results showed that the government no longer has that wavelength with the common man," Rao said. “Overall, the thrust of the budget and its policies are no longer for the aam admi."

liz.m@livemint.com

Close