The Budget for people like them

When the finance minister was delivering the Budget Speech on Thursday, like many others, I too was glued to the television screen all morning. Commentators on television and indeed Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, called it a pro-farmer, pro-poor budget. All I could do was to see how it stands up in front of some of the many stories of India’s invisible majority that I’ve written about in this column recently. 

Good things first. For farmers, this budget definitely gives cause for cheer. Awarding tax free status to farmer cooperatives is a positive step, as I’ve long believed that this could be a way forward not only for the agricultural sector, but for other rural enterprises like handicraft and handloom as well. I remember the farmer I met in Tijara, a district in Rajasthan barely 100 km from Delhi. He told me that for him, markets in Delhi were a practically unreachable target. Instead he sold his produce at the local mandi. He made such little money from farming that the idea of buying an expensive machine to uproot crop stubble made no sense. People like him would benefit immensely if they were in a cooperative with jointly-held machinery and market linkages, as they would by the government’s assurance of a minimum support price of agricultural products at 1.5 times the market rate.

However, as I watched the finance minister talk about the budgetary benefits for senior citizens, I remembered the story of Babulal, a part-time gardener in his late sixties. While there are some well-deserved benefits in the Budget for senior tax-payers, there’s nothing specifically for people like him, who are facing their sunset years with no savings in the bank, little family support or help from the government. With advances in medical care, the population of people above 60 in the unorganised sector will only increase in the years to come, a population that will face an uncertain future when they’re no longer able to work. The unfortunate starvation death of 64-year-old Premani Kunwar in Jharkhand in late 2017 illustrates what happens when this vulnerable demographic is not adequately protected by government’s schemes.

Interestingly, in spite of the government’s hype about the Swachh Bharat programme, the Budget has little for the lakhs of urban India’s unauthorised settlements. Last year, I’d written about Seema, a Delhi slum dweller. She drinks dodgy groundwater, uses a toilet built over an overflowing septic tank and breathes air, both outdoors and indoors, that is polluted through the year. While the budget promises some outlay for the Swachh Bharat and Namami Gange programmes, it has overlooked the need to clean urban spaces and revamp their beleaguered sewage systems. What’s the point of trying to reduce open defecation when many toilets in slums and unauthorised settlements are not even connected to sewage lines?

As the budget speech ended, my thoughts returned to farmers. The 2017 Annual Status of Education Report points out that in the age demographic of 14-18, nearly 78 per cent of rural youth — whether enrolled in school or not — do some agricultural work. Yet, the percentage of students in agricultural or veterinary courses around India is less than 0.5 per cent of all undergraduate enrollment. A truly pro-farmer budget would have had an allocation for agricultural education, not only for youths but also giving incentives to existing farmers to upgrade their skills.

As I switched off the television, I realised that in spite of clearly trying hard, Budget 2018 had left me with more questions than answers about how Babulal, Seema and others like them would fare in the year ahead.

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