The vision highlighted in the budget speech does not match ground realities
This is the first of a 2-part series
The Union Budget 2023-24, leading up to the 2024 general elections, was branded as a budget for the amrit kaal or ‘golden age’ of India, with inclusivity and social justice as its key values.
Such claims were bolstered with the Union Minister of Finance, Nirmala Sitharaman, introducing the budget with a vision to extend ‘fruits of development’ to all citizens, with a special focus on youth, women, farmers, other backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
Now that the din of desks being banged at the announcement of Rs 15,000 crore for the yet-to-be-launched Pradhan Mantri Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups Development Mission has died down, one can look at whether Scheduled Tribes can expect a just slice of the amrit kaal pie.
The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, established to govern the realities and aspirations of a Scheduled Tribe population of 104.5 million, was extended a meagre allocation of 0.27 per cent of the Union Budget 2023-24 compared to 8.6 per cent of the total Indian population.
The lives and locales of the Scheduled Tribes, a historically marginalised group, have been the sites of egregious extraction and exploitation as a result of colonial policies. This has continued into post-colonial India and right into the proclaimed amrit kaal, as highlighted by civil society organisations.
It would be handy to use the themes of education, health and nutrition as well as wealth and employment in the context of the Scheduled Tribes, as analytical filters against the sparkling glare of absolute numbers launched in the budget speech.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw a massive impact on education in India, especially for those belonging to marginalised communities, with educational institutions shutting down and children being withdrawn from schools due to financial impact on savings.
While the government touted the use of Information and Communication Technology in this period as a panacea, however, there was a sea of disparity in access to Information and Communication Technology between rural and urban, as well as across social and economic groups.
The median number of years of schooling continues to remain low among Scheduled Tribes, compared to dominant social groups. The lack of digital infrastructure, prohibitive investment costs and state-led internet shutdowns undermined the reliance on digitalisation for achieving inclusive access to education in a short period of time.
This would have exacerbated the already existing literacy gap between Scheduled Tribes (59 per cent) and the national literacy rate that is 14 per cent overall, 15 per cent for females (ST 49.40 per cent) and 12 per cent for males (ST 68.50 per cent).
The absence of digital literacy will wash over the utility of investing in online education systems as internet usage was the lowest among members of the ST communities (15-49 years) — 38 per cent for men and only 20 per cent for women.
Hence, policies such as setting up a National Digital Library for children and adolescents seem illogical at this stage, especially when one is already being run by the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur.
The Union Budget remains flat-footed in assessing the educational needs, especially in these post-pandemic times. The allocated budgetary estimates of Rs 1.12 lakh crore in 2023-24 represent 9.5 per cent of the total estimates, which is a decline from the educational expenditure of 10.7 per cent in 2019-20.
While the Union education minister tweeted the amount as the “highest ever allocation” to the education sector, the expenditure on education as a share of GDP remained stagnant at 2.9 per cent since 2019 — even the New Education Policy commits 6 per cent in accordance with global standards.
The allocation of funds, however, means nothing unless expended judiciously. Only 51 per cent of allocated funds was released for the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan by December 2022, showed the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research, an independent public policy think tank.
Sitharaman stated that the Centre sought to recruit 38,000 teachers and support staff for 740 Eklavya Model Residential Schools, benefitting 350,000 students from tribal communities.
Still, the news seems grim for the ST community considering that the government’s actual spending on education, within umbrella expenditure on social service, had decreased from 42.8 per cent in 2015-16 to 35.5 per cent in 2022-23.
Within the ambit of saptarishi or seven priorities of the Union Budget 2023-24, inclusive development cannot be achieved without securing the health and nutrition needs of the Scheduled Tribes.
Data on the impact of COVID-19 on the tribal groups of India remains nebulous, with a lack of baseline data for over half of the existing indigenous groups. These tribal communities dwell in regions with poor healthcare infrastructure.
Certain groups such as PVTGs are highly susceptible to infections passed on by non-tribal communities, heightened by lack of access to resources and information. The Rural Health Statistics (2019-20) revealed a shortfall of over 6,600 sub-centres, over 1,300 primary health centres and 375 community health centres in tribal areas against the required number as on March 31, 2020.
The infant mortality rate for Scheduled Tribes was over 41 compared to 28 for all; the under five mortality rate was 50 for Scheduled Tribes and 33 for All, according to the National Family Health Survey 5.
Over 40 per cent of ST children were stunted, 23 per cent were wasted and about 39 were underweight compared to ‘Other’ communities at 30 per cent, 17.5 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively, the Nutritional Status of Children report showed.
Even after experiencing a crisis of health infrastructure during the pandemic, the 2023- 24 Union Budget saw a decline from 2.2 per cent to 2 per cent on budget expenditure allotted to health at Rs 89,000 crore over last year.
The Economic Survey also revealed that the government had failed to utilise the amount of Rs 87,000 crore in 2022-23. As with education, the Union government does not match the National Health Policy’s recommended expenditure for health services at 2.5 per cent.
The core health schemes of the Union government such as the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Ayushman Bharat Health Infrastructure Mission, Sakshman Anganwadi and POSHAN 2.0 showed a meagre increase in allocation in budget estimates.
But what is worrying is that the government fails to utilise the sanctioned amount. The meagre increase in allocation of 1.4 per cent over the previous year for the umbrella Integrated Child Development Scheme, which provides not only nutrition but wages to anganwadi workers who mostly come from the same community, will not even cover current levels of inflation.
The Economic Survey presents uncertainty in both allotments of funds and their utilisation, including schemes aimed at the protection of children and securing their nutrition. The National Health Mission saw a decline in allotment this year from Rs 37,000 crore allocated in 2022-23, pushing it below the 37 mark, with the oft-repeated case of under-utilisation.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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