We have had a new Budget. There is little in it to evoke serious complaint; it may be described as an election Budget — designed specifically to please voters in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu where state elections are due.
However, there are a few surprises. For instance, the Budget proposes to double the wages of anganwadi workers from the current Rs 1,500 per month to Rs 3,000 per month. It is difficult to say why anganwadi workers alone have been chosen for that bonanza. Incidentally, as a TV commentator has remarked, the Finance Minister said nothing about stopping their absenteeism.
It has been remarked that the Centre has any number of schemes that are in the nature of doles in rural areas, and none to check they work properly and efficiently. It is possible that the Finance Minister expects those workers will be so grateful that they will help his party in elections.
They may or may not. The sudden bonanza may also give rise to jealousy and similar demands from other rural workers.
Incidentally, the Finance Minister seems to be oblivious to reports on how those who question the operation of schemes such as NREGA are liable to be murdered.
Indexing wages under the NREGA scheme to inflation is a very good idea. The principle should apply to all government employees, particularly to the judiciary and police officials. This indexation indicates the political clout of the promoters of the scheme. One wishes they had the same concern for all other employees.
In a recent article, I suggested that kerosene subsidy be abolished and the purported beneficiaries given cash compensation.
I am happy that the Finance Minister has the same idea. One wishes he had done the same to all subsidies — abolished and replaced them with cash subsidies to the beneficiaries.
However, the idea of cash subsidies does not appear to be popular with activists — they do not think that the poor are wise enough to use that cash properly. Evidently, they prefer the government to act like Big Brother even if not an efficient one.
The Finance Minister has introduced a new concept of a two-tier old age. For a start, old age starts at 60 and not at 65 as at present. Considering that people are living longer, that reduction does not appear logical — old age should be related to life expectation.
Second, there is a new category of very old people, those over 80. Old people would probably prefer some inflation-indexed instrument rather than tax breaks.
The Finance Minister mentioned in passing about funding election expenses. He has also raised the limits to election expenses. I argued in favour of the former in my last article. Evidently, the Finance Minister has the same idea as I on that score.
However, I am not sure if he will agree with the three conditions I suggested for providing state help: One, candidates should be selected locally and not by a High Command; two, the selection should be done by taxpayers — who, after all, foot the bill, are only 3 per cent of the population and are also likely to be better informed; three, even those that do not win but perform well in the elections should get a due share of a large income. (For example, Parliamentary candidates should share Gandhiji's Rs 500 per month, around Rs 8 lakhs these days.)
If the government pays the entire cost of contesting elections — which it should — then, we should demand that all candidates are scrupulously honest. There is confusion in this regard.
People think that standing for elections is a fundamental right; it is not, it is a privilege.
It is not acceptable that a corrupt person, even a convicted criminal, can contest and remain a legislator until he or she exhausts every possible legal avenue. Only those who are declared innocent beyond doubt should have that privilege.
Many current legislators may not qualify, but that is what is needed. The saddest part of the Budget lies in what it does not address — Naxalism.
We have seen recently in Chhattisgarh how the Naxals kidnapped a district collector and a junior colleague and extracted ransom. Tribal alienation and Naxalism are real problems that are not for the Home Minister alone.
In fact, Home Ministry comes after the event — after people have rebelled against what they consider as injustice. The Finance Minister has a responsibility to take their sensitivities into account, to reassure them, to offer them a fair share of national resources.
It is a fact that some State governments have been grossly unfair — they pay the tribals a small fraction of what they charge businesses for the land they forcibly take away from the former.
If anganwadi workers can get Rs 3,000 per month, why should a tribal family not get a similar, or even a larger, amount when they lose their land and their livelihood? If NREGA workers can get inflation-indexed wages, why should not compensation for tribal families too be indexed? Why not give them a share in the business that comes up on their land and get dividends?
For instance, why should they not get dividends in place of compensation, whenever dividends are higher? Further, why should they not get modern schools, healthcare and employment training?
Our tribal families require reassurance if they are to be weaned away from Naxal propagandists. Unfortunately, the Budget does not offer any such reassurance.
There are other issues such as inflation, employment and housing which the Budget does not appear to address fairly. That can be dealt with separately.
(The author is a former Director, IIT, Madras. Response to >firstname.lastname@example.org and >email@example.com )
This is 298th in the Vision 2020 series. The previous article appeared on February 21.
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