The Budget for 2023-24 has not under-provided for schemes that help the poor, says Dr T V Somanathan, Finance Secretary, Government of India. Some reductions, such as in fertilizer and food subsidies and lesser allocations to schemes like the MNREGS, will have no impact on those they are meant for, said Somanathan, In a conversation with businessline’s Editor, Raghuvir Srinivasan, in a ‘Breakfast with businessline’ event in Chennai at ITC Grand Chola, an LEED Zero carbon hotel. 

The Finance Secretary, who was in Chennai exclusive to participate in the event—his only post Budget even in the city—said that the reduction in fertilizer subsidy (from RE ₹2.25 lakh crore to BE ₹1.75 lakh crore) only reflected the anticipated fall in the cost of imported fertilizers or in the prices of inputs such as ammonia. The farmer would feel no impact of it, he said. As for food subsidy, ( ₹2.87 lakh crore vs ₹1.97 lakh crore), what has been provided for in the Budget is enough to meet the promise made under the PMGKAY, a scheme that gives foodgrains and edible oil to the poor. 

On rural employment scheme

On MNREGS, (a 100-day rural employment guarantee scheme) Somanathan noted ₹40,000 crore of additional funds have been provided for two other schemes that also can generate rural employment – the PM Awaas Yojana (housing) and Jal Jeevan Mission (water supply). Both employ the same kind of semi-skilled or unskilled people as the MNREGS does. (Allocation to MNREGS is down by ₹29,400 crore to ₹60,000 crore.) 

“We expect this to have some impact on the need (of rural people) to come into the safety net of rural employment guarantee,” Somanathan said, stressing that the government could provide more funds if a need arose. 

Pointing out that the MNREGS is a demand-based scheme that gives a job to a person who wants a job, Somanathan observed that it would be unwise to simply allocate more funds to the scheme upfront, because, as it has happened often, “the demand just rises to equal the supply”.  

PM Ujjwala scheme

On petroleum subsidy (down from ₹5,813 crore to ₹2,257 crore), he said that the PM Ujjwala scheme was only for a one-time acquisition of gas connection and hence not a recurring subsidy. On whether the poor could afford to buy the cooking gas, he said that fuel was cheaper than the alternatives. “Firewood is not lying around for everyone to pick,” he said.