Of Semolina and sanitary napkins

Of Semolina and sanitary napkins

It’s not a populist budget, it’s completely insipid. There is nothing people-friendly in it. Apart from the ‘agandwadi’ (daycare centre) workers getting a tiny benefit and the eligibility level for old age pension coming down from 65 to 60 years, and if you are above 80, then pension rising from Rs200 to Rs500, it’s not a populist budget. This budget is more pro-corporate.

This is the middle of term for the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, it’s the third budget this finance minister has presented. In this crucial juncture he has tried to play to the corporate gallery.

Biscuit prices going down, semolina prices costing a little more and pizza costing a little less—this budget seems to have gotten over it, which was a welcome thing because the Union budget should not be dealing in these little things. Yet, unfortunately, in the old-habits-die-hard fashion, the tax issue on sanitary napkins did manage to creep in.

On the other hand, there was nothing for health, there is no real investment in basic, school level education. In the preordained style, whatever investment there is, is for higher education. We are forgetting one thing that in this country, we are seeing a very young populace. The minister mentioned that the nation will have a huge 20-25 years old workforce. But what are we doing for these young people? If we don’t find ways and methods to educate them, to give them skills, then all the investments in higher education goes to nought.

There has been an increased budgetary allocation for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) programme. But then what is SSA? We have to realize that this scheme deals only with infrastructure, building classrooms, painting schools and such other activities. What we lack are teachers.

Fund injection into microfinance institutions is a populist measure to some extent. Probably if it strengthens self-help groups. Just putting money is not enough. When a group of women produce something, their major impediment becomes selling because the marketing set-up is not in place. By pumping funds into this system, the money is given as loans for which the groups of women will have to stand guarantee. Either they will not be able to pay that back so you are willing to write that off after a couple of years, or alternatively you are giving them money in such a way that they become money lenders—it becomes a money-lending group and not a group that is working with a sustainable form of income. If the idea is to make this a money-lending country at the village level, then its fine. But is this method really going to help in development?

Next is the thought of direct subsidies. What is the mechanism for achieving this target? Does India have an apparatus in place that will deliver that volumnious amount of money to every villager? That money will be pilfered like its happening in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. What is happening right now is that people are preparing bills, there is a little bit of earth work here and there, showing on paper that a tank has been built, a road constructed and all. After one monsoon, it gets washed away. This scheme is not creating any true asset.

If the desire is to give people the buying capacity to purchase a foreign brand cola, then it’s fine. But if the people are to come up with assets that will last at least a decade, then it has to be based on reality. This will be opening a colossal aperture for corruption. By tightening its belts, it could have brought down prices of food items, pleased their masters—the corporates—and gained a momentum for the economy. This could have been a slightly harsher budget and it could have tried to ensure that price stability comes about in essential goods and in food stuff. There could have been much more investment in agriculture, more money for irrigation, alternative energy and infrastructure not just defined by airports and six lane highways but also in the form of drinking water and clean energy.

The finance minister seemed to say that we have overcome the effects of the global financial crisis. He mentioned it a couple of times in the past tense. However, with the situation in the Middle East and the Gulf region, areas producing oil, trouble is brewing in a big way. We should be preparing ourselves for another catastrophe. This is the time we could have tightened the belt, give the corporates sops, encourage them to bring back the black money invested outside but at the same time provide people with a safety net. What kind of a food security bill are they talking about if you don’t have water in the fields to irrigate the land and your farmer is being encouraged to migrate to urban areas? There are too many contradictions and these seemingly unconnected thoughts tell us that there is no coherent thinking process that has gone into the Budget 2011.

Tathagata Satpathy , Member, Lok Sabha

(As told to Elizabeth Roche.)