New Delhi, Feb 2: Even the critics of Budget 2018 will admit that it's a very important budget on several counts. First, the economy of the country is facing several crises--slowdown in the growth rate, rise in inflation, rise in fuel prices and distress in the agrarian sector, to name a few problems, which are surely not very healthy signs.
Amid such gloom, when finance minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday presented the Union Budget 2018, he had the burden of fulfilling everyone's expectations. Clearly, the Budget 2018 does not address everyone's wishes, especially the middle class, who are burdened by the growing taxes.
However, the silver lining in the entire economic exercise is the sops for the poor, farmers and rural population, because of which the latest budget stands out. Critics are seeing the budget 2018 as a measure by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to woo rural and poor voters ahead of the elections.
Nonetheless it is a budget that goes beyond the urban contours of the country and reaches out to farmers and marginalised sections in the hinterlands of the country, where Bharat exists.
"This is a very important budget because of three things: One, it recognizes the crippling agrarian crisis that grips India today. Two, it provides a very substantial security net for health, in the form of the health insurance scheme. And three, it gives poor tribals and forest dwellers a win-win option by supporting development of the bamboo sector," said Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), commenting on the Union Budget of 2018.
Here is the list prepared by the CSE which elaborates why the Budget 2018 is very important:
One of the key interventions the budget proposes is in the field of health insurance. Jaitley has announced a flagship national health insurance scheme which will cover 10 crore vulnerable families, with a coverage of Rs 5 lakh per family per year for secondary and tertiary hospitalisation.
It must be acknowledged that this significant measure might make healthcare accessible to some of the poorest in the country - provided it reaches them. The experience with previous insurance schemes tells us that most such measures tend to end as damp squibs in the absence of effective implementation and monitoring.
Narain points out that putting in place such schemes are essentially curative steps - what India desperately needs today is preventive action as well. The country is witnessing a massive surge in incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), largely triggered by a whole range of environmental factors from air pollution and toxins in the environment to junk food.
Over 61 per cent of all deaths in India are due to NCDs. The Budget does nothing to address this concern.
On air pollution
The issue of air pollution--which has steadily acquired the status of a national emergency--has been tackled rather briefly through a "special scheme" to manage crop residues.
The scheme offers to help the governments of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi-NCR by subsidising the machinery for management of crop residues. Says Narain: "The scheme is welcome. The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) has already endorsed the report of the sub-committee set up by the Prime Minister's Office on this issue.
"However, the scheme has to be implemented quickly - the machines must come before next winter, the season when stubble burning is usually at its peak. The clock is ticking."
Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE's executive director and the head of its Right to Clean Air campaign, adds: "The Budget does not seem to recognise the urban air pollution challenge as an issue of national importance. Air pollution is not a problem that afflicts just the Delhi-NCR region and its adjoining states - every major city in India is now burdened with it."
CSE analysts say that two key sectors that need immediate intervention in the form of enhanced infusion of funds - mobility and clean fuels - have been ignored.
On agriculture and livestock
The Economic Survey 2018 has pointed out that agriculture in India is in a state of serious crisis. In a climate-risked world, there is worse that can be expected in the years to come--and the most severely affected would be the marginal and small farmers, who make up the bulk of the farming fraternity in India.
For these farmers, their livestock - cows, buffaloes, goats, horses etc -- forms the most valuable resource; it is their key to survival in difficult times. The budget's announcement of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Infrastructure Development Fund and the Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund (with allocation of Rs 10,000 crore each) has to be acknowledged as a welcome move.
Additionally, what is important is to acknowledge and protect the entire value chain (milk, meat, leather etc) of all livestock. It is important to ensure that the prevalent mood for protecting the cow does not come as a backlash for the small farmer.
The CSE has always been a strong proponent of using bamboo for building livelihoodt security, especially for the tribal poor - in the light of this, the government's proposal to restructure the National Bamboo Mission and promote the bamboo sector in a holistic manner is a positive step.
On energy access
Air pollution resulting from biomass burning for cooking is a huge contributor to the disease burden of millions of Indian women, especially in rural and semi-urban sectors.
In the light of this, it is imperative that poor households must be given access to clean and affordable energy for cooking. Jaitley has announced an expansion of the Ujjwala scheme to benefit 80 million poor families, who will be given free cooking gas connections.
CSE analysts point out that while this is another welcome intervention, refilling of cooking gas cylinders has been found to be rather lax compared to the scale at which free connections are being given--the scheme's overall implementation, hence, needs careful scrutiny and monitoring.
However, economists fear that the promises made in the budget are difficult to meet.
Writing for The Indian Express, Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, stated that Jaitley made grand promises in the budget.
"But the actual increases in budgetary outlay are shockingly low in relation to the massive promises made. This is deeply worrying, not just because of the government's public declarations, but because the Indian economy now desperately needs major measures to ensure a sustainable revival of economic activity that would benefit the bulk of the people," Ghosh added.