By Sushil Kutty
The day after, and Budget 23-24 stands out in stark relief, warts and all. February 1, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was the picture of animated tranquillity when she read out Budget 2023-24 dressed in red, both the minister as well as the country’s ‘bahi-khata’. She did not miss a trick in the book to make Budget 2023-24 sound like it was up every citizen’s alley.
With all its implications to the middle class, the tribal, and the women, even if many women were by evening sticking pins in the budget. “How could she, a woman?” was the common refrain.
Apparently, there was very little for women in Sitharaman’s ‘workhorse budget’. Other sobriquets Budget 2023-24 garnered included “amazing budget” and “wondrous budget”. The sheikhs of Dubai, the nation-state addicted to superlatives, would have approved.
That said, the free rations and other ‘labarthi’ schemes will continue. There’s also the new one-time saving scheme for women called the ‘Mahila Samman Saving Certificate’. Another women-centred provision in the budget is the proposal for setting up 157 new nursing colleges attached to 157 medical colleges.
The government is also dead serious in empowering women’s self-help groups. Food security is another commitment. A free food-grain supply scheme started January 1 under the PM Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana. Sitharaman said the government had ensured nobody went to bed hungry during the COVID pandemic.
The question is, did the Antodaya scheme, and food security, sound the death-knell of the MGNREGA/NREGS. Has the government succeeded in lifting people out of poverty? Like the Chinese did in the three decades after 1980?
On February 1, Minister Sitharaman, without any telltale emotion writ large, cut drastically allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The revised estimate of Rs 89400 crore for MGNREGA in the previous budget was brought down to Rs 60,000 crore in this year’s budget, drawing scathing reactions. The budget was pilloried and taken to the cleaners by the critics of the Modi government.
The MGNREGA allocation of Rs 60000 crore for this year is the lowest in four budgets. The question being asked: Was the Modi government in its senses when it cut to size the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MGNREGA? It’s a job guarantee scheme and has stood the test of time for nearly two decades.
While not lifting people out of poverty, it kept the rural poor employed for at least 100 days of the year. It was the Dr. Manmohan Singh government doing yeoman service to millions of Indians.
Now, in one fell swoop, the Modi government after nine years playing tinker-tailor has come to the conclusion that mercy-killing MGNREGA would be the best for a rising India, a ‘New India’. What does it mean; is India out of the poverty index? Has India gotten free of Oxfam, which in its 2023 report painted a depressing picture of India’s poverty scenario?
The manner in Budget 2023-24 has dealt with MGNREGA, it’s like, after the start of the Covid pandemic and now, demand for MGNREGA has dried up, and MGNREGA is demand-driven! So, the reply to “Why was MGNREGA cut to size?” is that demand for MGNREGA has plummeted. People do not want MGNREGA daily work anymore.
Does that mean they are otherwise gainfully employed? If so where…in the towns, in the cities, or in the villages? Is India well on its way recovering from the ravages of the Covid pandemic? Is the economy recovering faster than somebody showing symptoms of Long Covid? Are MSMEs and the organised industries generating jobs in the thousands, and in the lakhs? Are governments filling up ‘sarkari’ vacancies like their lives depended on guaranteeing full-employment?
For the last nine years the Opposition has been crying itself hoarse on unemployment and underemployment and nothing seemed to move the regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ which was glued to ‘pakoranomics’, Mudra loans, and buoyed by start-ups.
This budget is showing the thumbs down to MGNREGA, and is high on start-ups and youth power, India’s demographic dividend. The only problem is taking the Modi government on its word. Trusting the Modi dispensation is like looking the snake in the eye! All you will see will be the forked tongue flicking.
It’s hard to believe that regular jobs are back in currency in India after the long Covid layoff. Have the lakhs of migrant workers who had trekked home in distress returned to the factory floor, and the commercial establishments?
Or, is it the government’s sleight of hand? Is the government using MGNREGA numbers to give the impression that employment has shot up, and jobs are there for the taking; therefore there’s no demand for MGNREGA man-days, man-hours. Perhaps, free rations frees people from employment. The government’s claim that Budget 2023-24 is a ‘revdi-free’ budget must be another false-flag operation! (IPA Service)