Schemes for food security, child welfare, employment guarantee for tribals saw shrinking of funds
This is the second of a two-part series. Read the first story here.
One typically sees the role of the state as a protector of those in its care, and the government as an agent of such action. In the 21st century, no other phenomenon acted as much of a litmus test to depict the true alliances of the elected representatives as did the COVID-19 pandemic. If one looks beyond the dressing up of data in the Union Budget 2023-24 speech, the unravelling of policy safety nets is clearly visible.
The tribes are dependent on schemes for National Food Security to mitigate external stresses affecting their livelihood and food production, besides accessing them during lean periods between harvests and flock sales.
In a period when the country’s population is still recovering from the throes of the pandemic, the food subsidy has been cut down by almost Rs 90,000 crore, compared to the revised estimates of 2022-23 to Rs 1.97 lakh crore.
Schemes such as the mid-day meal programme, which also provide impetus towards the right of children to education, saw a drop of Rs 1,200 crore compared to the revised estimates of 2022-23.
Allotment for expenditure on food subsidies to both the Food Corporation of India and for decentralised procurement of food grains under the National Food Security Act has decreased by over Rs 77,000 crore and over Rs 12,000 crore respectively, compared to the revised estimates of 2022-23.
Such actions hint at the Union government’s interest in privatising food procurement and distribution systems, while running the public distribution system to the ground. The welfare nature of the state keeps eroding away for those on the margins, especially the tribal communities across the nation.
The impact of the livelihood crisis across the nation has been acutely felt among the Scheduled Tribes, owing to their already marginalised socio-economic position in society. Over 45 per cent of members of the Scheduled Tribes were living below the poverty line in rural areas and over 25 per cent lived in urban areas, according to the Tendulkar methodology estimates used by MoTA in its 2021-22 Annual Report. They constitute more than 20 per cent and 12 per cent respectively of all populations in the stated regions.
Over 70 per cent of Scheduled Tribes lie in the lowest wealth quintiles, according to the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21). The labour force participation rate for Scheduled Tribes exists at over 47 per cent and the worker population ratio at over 45 per cent; the percentages are significantly higher when compared to the average of all communities.
It is pertinent to note that there has been a rise in demand for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which is a lifeline for tribe folk to meet subsistence needs. However, the allocation for the rural employment guarantee scheme has been slashed by 33 per cent from the revised estimates of Rs 89,400 crore last year to Rs 60,000 crore.
The amount is less than a fourth of that required to guarantee legally stipulated employment or transfer, assuming a constant number of people will seek work. Already, over 80 million people worked under this scheme this year, compared to a total of 79 million last year, pointing at its need.
Slashing the allocation to this vital safety net will only increase rural distress, including within tribal communities that use the scheme to eke a living and help build necessary infrastructure for the region they dwell in.
The Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme, another source of security for small and marginal tribal farmers, has received an allocation of Rs 60,000 crore in 2023-24 — 12 per cent lower than last year.
Labour exploitation is another concern within tribal communities as they have the highest incidence of child labour among all social groups at 6.7 per cent. However, child protection seems to be a diminishing priority for the Union government, with a reduction of allocation for the National Child Labour Project from Rs 30 crore to Rs 20 crore and a stagnation of the amount allotted to Mission VATSALYA (child protection and welfare services).
Comprehensive measures to tackle such exploitations will falter with the reduction in the budget for central sector schemes of the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment from over Rs 16,000 crore last year to only Rs 12,000 crore for 2023-24.
The shrinking of funds for the National Livelihood Mission by Rs 107 crore, the Labour Welfare Scheme from Rs 120 crore last year to Rs 75 crore this year and the Pradhan Mantri Karam Yogi Mandhan Scheme from Rs 50 crore last year (BE) to Rs 3 crore this year shows the callousness of political representatives towards the needs of the tribal communities.
A careful reading of the budget would only be irksome to the ruling party, much like the response of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman when asked questions by the reporters during the press conference after the budget speech.
One needs to look beyond the spectacle, such as the symbolic increase of 4.5 per cent allocation towards umbrella programmes for the development of Schedule Tribes, which would barely satiate the maws of inflation.
The union government has been consistently underspending the amount promised for tribal umbrella schemes:
Another instance of such data gymnastics is exhibited in the massive increase depicted for the allocation to the much-required Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana to over Rs 79,000 crore from Rs 48 thousand crore. But this is actually a decline when placed against the actual spending of over Rs 90 thousand crores in 2021-22.
The nature of the government towards its vulnerable and marginalised citizens can also be gleaned from the decreased allocation towards rural development, the central schemes for Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj (from Rs 163 crore BE to Rs 76 crore) and the department for the empowerment of persons with disabilities (from Rs 740 crore to Rs 680 crore).
Even as Sitharaman insisted on jan-bhaagidari (public participation) and sabka prayas (efforts by all), it seems the Union government does not want to undertake its share of the work.
In an era when the citizens need more aid from the state, the current regime continues to dilute the role of the state in delivering public goods as an entity for the welfare of its citizens.
The safety nets established for the marginalised communities continue to be shredded down by the neoliberal state, while any semblance of civility and care by political representatives is replaced by jingoism and the preservation of private and hegemonic interests.
The Union Budget 2023-24 is a statement of apathy and step-treatment towards the Scheduled Tribes beneath the exultations of inclusivity. The only gold promised during the Amrit Kaal is that of fool's gold.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.
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