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Critical issues have not been addressed

Critical issues have not been addressed

Little was expected in the budget for social sectors and little has been delivered. The finance minister has chosen a business-as-usual model for addressing pressing social sector problems with some tweaks and increases in budgetary allocations. These increases apart, the budget is expectedly, devoid of a vision for social policy and a road map for implementation of reform.

But these commitments and increases will mean little in the absence of real reforms in implementation. And while the budget may not be the place to discuss implementation, the fact that it was devoid of any bold policy statements or a vision for implementation of reform is disappointing. Take the instance of food security.

In his speech, the finance minister referred to two possible mechanisms to ensure effective implementation of food security—the Aadhaar platform and the creation of a computerized network for the public distribution system (PDS) by December 2012.

But the real issue with food security is that of identifying the poor in the first place. Aadhaar can help ensure that those who receive benefits are the people on the below poverty line list, but it cannot ensure that those on the list are the ones who deserve to be there in the first place. Moreover, it is well recognized that schemes with complex targeting (which is precisely what the proposed food security Bill does) makes implementation difficult and many have thus been arguing for a universal PDS system. Ensuring that the food security Bill meets its objectives will require the government to tackle this issue head on. Some policy direction in this regard would have been welcome in Friday’s budget speech. One can only hope that some direction will be given once the standing committee report is made public.

Finally, on local governments. As I argue every year, stronger local governments hold the key to improved implementation and promoting the agenda of inclusive development. Budget 2012 has announced the government’s commitment to continue the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF), the Panchayati Raj ministry’s flagship programme, with a budgetary increase of 22% in 2012-13. But this is mere tokenism. The real problem with BRGF is not allocations, but the district planning system.

At present, districts are inundated with a multiplicity of central schemes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the National Rural Health Mission with their own planning requirements that bypass local governments’, rendering BRGF meaningless. Convergence of these schemes through an integrated local district plan is critical to strengthening local government. In his speech, the finance minister referred to the Planning Commission’s proposal to streamline and reduce centrally-sponsored schemes, but if this is to result in improved implementation and stronger local government, then convergence at the district with an integrated district plan determining expenditures is essential.

On these critical issues, the finance minister is silent and so we have a budget that gives us what we expected—more of the same.

Yamini Aiyar is the director, Accountability Initiative of Centre for Policy Research.

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