Samir Saran| Ameya Kelkar|Antara Sengupta|Bedavyasa Mohanty |Oommen C. Kurian|Vidisha Mishra
How does the interim budget impact some of the most critical facets of the Indian economy?
The allocation for health of around INR 63,540 crore is about a 13% increase from last year. Much of it has been to PMJAY, the flagship scheme of the government, which saw allocation rise from INR 2,400 crore last year to INR 6,400 crore in the interim budget. Ayushman Bharat’s second arm, the HWCs also got considerable hike in budget allocation — from INR 1,200 crore to INR 1,600 crore. FSSAI as well as the National AIDS Programme have also seen improvements in allocation.
However, an exclusive focus on PMJAY can result in a possible de-prioritisation of core health system functions, with slow-down or reduction of allocations under various heads, including NHM. Capital outlay on medical and public health, for example, has come down from 3047.67 crore in 2017-18 (actual) to 2391.33 crore in 2018-19 (RE) to 1675.90 crore in 2019-20. This can potentially impact health system’s capacity to expand in areas that need health services the most. Neglected areas can remain neglected unless there is specific focus. The budget document stated that of the 3,508 HWCs already operational, only 582 are in the aspirational districts, or the districts lagging in health development.
An exclusive focus on PMJAY can result in a possible de-prioritisation of core health system functions, with slow-down or reduction of allocations under various heads, including National Health Mission.
Lastly, it is easy to celebrate the INR 6,400 crore allocation, meant for around 50 crore PMJAY members. Still, the money allocated remains around INR 1,000 crore short of a conservative estimate of PMJAY spending this year. To put things in perspective, healthcare coverage to just around 35 lakh CGHS beneficiaries will cost the exchequer INR 3,000 crore, of which INR 2,850 crore was allocated in the interim budget. In addition, delays in payment of sanctioned amounts undermining efficiency of PMJAY remains a real risk, as with many health schemes. As of now, reports indicate that of the INR 2,400 crore allocated last year for PMJAY by the MoF, INR 1,000 crore has yet not been released, and that there are outstanding payments from the Centre to the States amounting to INR 1,700 crore under PMJAY. This can potentially impact the sustainability and effectiveness of the scheme.
It was decided by the government that India’s government health spending will be 2.5% of its GDP by 2025. At the current pace, it will be impossible. As a percentage share of total budget, the interim budget outlay on health was just 2.2%, below the figure in 2017-18, where the proportion of health outlay peaked under the Modi regime at 2.4%. Health in India needs significant additional resources, and not reallocation of existing resources. Ayushman Bharat becoming the flagship health initiative cannot and should not lead to a case of the government missing the forest for the trees. Without expansion of real health infrastructure, Ayushman Bharat will be just band-aid.
AI and automation technologies
The Union Budget 2019 signals early forays into artificial intelligence by the Indian government with the announcement that a National Centre on AI will soon be set up. This centre will presumably work in close coordination with Centres of Research Excellence in Artificial Intelligence (COREs) that were first proposed by the NITI Aayog in its discussion paper: National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence. While the NITI Aayog identified five areas primed for AI intervention, namely healthcare, agriculture, education, smart cities and smart mobility, the Union Budget speech hints that four more priority areas have been identified.
In a manner now idiosyncratic of the Modi government, the Minister of Finance also announced plans for the creation of an ‘national AI portal.’ Details of what this portal will achieve or what it will be meant for remain unclear. Also missing from the budget are critical details around the quantum of investment in AI and automation technologies that are being planned.
Conspicuously missing from the budget are any references to digital payments or cyber security — both strong protagonists in Modi’s Digital India.
The Finance Minister’s speech also revealed ambitious plans to digitise one lakh villages over the next five years as a part of the Digital India programme by providing WiFi access to these villages. This initiative will be spearheaded by the Common Service Centres that now serve as nodal points of delivery for public utility services.
Conspicuously missing from the budget though are any references to digital payments or cyber security — both strong protagonists in Modi’s Digital India. This absence will likely be felt by Indian tech companies who for a few years now have been demanding economic relief for domestic players to level the playing field and compete with the seemingly limitless cash inflow that US and Chinese tech startups seem to be riding on.
While the defence budget has been pegged at INR 3.05 lakh crore, an increase in absolute terms, the percentage of the GDP used for India’s defence for the year 2019-2020 remains at the measly 1.5% mark, still very low for any effective modernisation to take place. The interim finance minister, in his budget speech, has stated that the current defence personnel will see a rise in the Military Service Pay (MSP), while at the same time allocating funds for special allowances of Air Force and naval personnel who are stationed in high-risk zones. Apart from this funding of the military, the government has also earmarked a separate INR 35,000 crore as part of its OROP pension payments, in line with the BJP election manifesto. However, this defence budget still does not take into account the modernisation needs of the country, pegging only INR 1.08 lakh crore for new weapon systems, while the day-to-day expenses have been given a budget of INR 2.10 lakh crore.
This budget, while being touted as the largest increase in the defence budget of India, still reveals the fact that the Indian military is not being given enough room to upgrade its current equipment to keep pace with the rapid modernisation of the Chinese military. The budget highlights the fact that the government is only willing to keep its military functioning at the level it already is, not taking into account the asymmetry between itself and its neighbours in terms of both technology and equipment possessed. While there is no doubt that this year’s budget is a step forward in the right direction with more money being pooled in the upkeep of the military, serious attention needs to be paid to the slow speeds of modernisation of the military’s resources, which will prove to be a major factor in the coming years, in a time where the Chinese have begun downsizing and modernising and indigenising their equipment to meet the new threats of both the present and the future.
This budget, while being touted as the largest increase in the defence budget of India, still reveals the fact that the Indian military is not being given enough room to upgrade its current equipment to keep pace with the rapid modernisation of the Chinese military.
Towards economic diplomacy
Compared to an allocation of INR 12,620 crore in 2014-15, the overall grant to the MEA in 2018-19 is INR 16,061 crore.
India’s allocation towards economic diplomacy has steadily crossed the USD 1 billion mark.With India already contributing nearly 15% to global growth, it must interrogate the consequences of its development partnerships more closely as allocations rise over the next decade.
Two notable heads this year are aid to the Maldives and the Chabahar port. Following the establishment of a friendlier government in Male, India has more than quintupled its aid to Maldives — from INR 109 crore in 2018-19 in the original estimate, to INR 440 crore in the revised 2018-19 estimate, and to INR 575 crore this year. And continuing a new practice from last year, India has allocated INR 150 crore for the development of the Chabahar port.
These investments reveal India’s crucial connections to both the Indo-Pacific and the Eurasian landmass. However, while South Asian states receive the bulk of India’s economic assistance, India’s aid to Eurasia stands at INR 25 crore this year.
India’s investments in regional institutions also remains unfortunately low: INR 8 crore each for the SAARC and BIMSTEC Secretariat. While the BIMSTEC budget has doubled over the past two years, it remains insufficient to create effective human or technical capacity in the institution.
Over all, the 2019-20 Budget makes clear that India must recalibrate its approach to economic diplomacy in the region, especially given its domestic constraints.
For one thing, India must begin to identify priority sectors and States — especially in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. Development projects that create social and economic value for local communities and where India has a comparative advantage will be key. Supporting institutions like BIMSTEC and the IORA will also be important.
Second, convincing India’s private sector to invest in the infrastructure needs of developing countries will also be crucial. Indian Overseas Direct Investment in developing countries is still limited. Budgetary support by way of concessional financing for Indian companies investing in strategic infrastructure projects abroad also remains low.
Third, India’s concessional LoC framework must be made more competitive and transparent. Many privately admit that loans are arbitrarily granted to a select few Indian actors. There is also little available data on the economic benefits that accrues to India.
Fourth, plugging India’s capital gap will require imaginative collaboration with international donors. India must explore multilateral cooperation mechanisms with the US, the EU, Japan and Australia have all announced new economic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia.
Given that India will emerge as one of the largest sources of development finance in the coming years, it is time for the Government to release a white paper on how development partnerships can advance India’s economic and strategic interests.
Education: Less money to State institutes and technical colleges
The Interim Budget 2019 allocated INR 93,847.64 crore to education, which is although the largest till date with about a 10% increase from last year’s budget allocation — it is still only about 3.3% of the GDP. While the increase in allocation is a good sign, it has again failed to target the recommended 6% of the GDP required for India to inch closer to the Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Unlike last year, this year’s budget speech gave little importance to education as a priority sector for the economic development of the country.
Of the total budgetary allocation, school education yet again received the highest revenue of INR 56,386.63 crore, up from 50,000 crore in 2018-19. The National Education Mission (which comprises the Samagra Siksha Abhiyan for school education from pre-primary to class 12 and teacher training programmes) saw the maximum outlay of INR 36,472 crore, up from INR 31,212 crore in 2018-19. Although this is an increase, it is not enough to address the issues in school education, which has a massive near-perfect enrollment rate. Allocation to mid-day meal scheme that is known to increase attendance and improve health among children has seen paltry increase of INR 500 crore from last year. Most disheartening is to see a reduced outlay of about INR 87 crore for central schemes such as National Scheme for Incentive to Girl Child for Secondary Education, National Means cum Merit Scholarship Scheme, National Award to Teachers and Digital India e-learning.
While the increase in allocation is a good sign, it has again failed to target the recommended 6% of the GDP required for India to inch closer to the Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Unlike last year, this year’s budget speech gave little importance to education as a priority sector for the economic development of the country.
As for higher education, it has yet again failed to garner the attention of the policymakers. This year’s interim budget allocated INR 37,461 crore, which is a small increase of about INR 2,000 crore for 903 universities, 39,050 colleges and 10,011 standalone institutions in the country. Fund allocations to statutory bodies like UGC, AICTE, have decreased, which means lesser money to state institutes and technical colleges. Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), which funds all the State universities and colleges has seen an allocation of INR 2,100 crore, which is about INR 700 crore more from last year. This is highly insufficient for the upgrade of educational institutes in the States that are in a pitiable condition. To fund major infrastructural projects through loan grants, last year Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) was allocated INR 2,750 crore, however that too has been reduced to INR 2,100 crore this year. HEFA also funds capital expenditure of the elite institutes that have been asked to allow 10% EWS quota and increase their intake capacity by 25%. These will need major revenue boost, that seems impossible from the current budget outlay. Fund allocation to central universities too have been reduced. The only major improvement in higher education seems to be the increase in salary scale for professors and funds allocated to research and innovation activities.
Greater gender integration, but decline in women-specific schemes
In the last budget before the national elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pitched for transforming “women’s development to women-led development.” Adopted on the evidence-backed premise that gender-neutral policies lead to gender-unequal outcomes, India formally adopted Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) in 2005. Every budget since has included a statement that lists out two parts — Part A, which reflects ‘Women Specific Schemes’ which have 100% allocation for women, and Part B, which reflects ‘Pro Women Schemes’ where at least 30% of the allocation is for women.
On Friday, interim finance minister Piyush Goyal proposed to increase the budget allocation for the Mission for Protection and Empowerment for Women from INR 121,961 crore in 2018-19 to INR 131,700 crore for 2019-20, reflecting an overall increase of INR 174 crore. The mainstreaming of gender budgeting across sectors is demonstrable in the fact that more than 70% of beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, which offers financial support to small and micro enterprises, were women. Similarly, the Ujjawala Yojana, which has already provided 6 crore free LPG connections, and aims to provide another 2 crore free connections by next year, has a very direct impact on homemakers, especially in rural areas. Further, an increase in budgetary allocation of schemes such as the National Rural Livelihood Mission (INR 4,512 crore), MGNREGA (INR 20,000 crore) and the PM’s employment generation programme (INR 2,327 crore) is also reflected in the gender budget.
The recognition of the cross-cutting nature of gender concerns and their firm integration in fiscal policies is good news. At the same time, it is noteworthy that the budgetary allocation on “women-specific schemes” has declined from INR 4,271.09 crore (budget estimates/BE) to INR 2,573.66 crore (revised estimates/RE) in 2018-19. Hence, an overall increase in the gender budget does necessarily translate into higher spending on women without careful implementation and gender audits.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).