UPA woos women and tribal voters

Finance minister lists Forest Rights Act as one of its key achievements while MGNREGA doesn't find mention.

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 17 February 2014

Finance minister P Chidambaram presented the vote-on-account in Lok Sabha on February 17. The Rs 17.5 lakh crore expenditure proposed in the interim budget is more or less in the same range as in the last budget. An interim budget is always more electoral than economic. But when the country is going through an economic slowdown, and the ruling party's electoral stock is down, the finance minister has to be the most efficient vote catcher. Chidambaram has left no opportunity to squeeze the maximum electoral points out of every rupee. Even though he has not increased either plan or non-plan expenditure, he has set a priority list of expenditure that reflects the budget's political side.

Even though it is a convention not to propose tax-related provisions in an interim budget he brought in indirect tax cuts on many consumers' favourites like mobile phones and small cars. Each and every line of his proposals till June 30, 2014 seeks a few votes. Starting from appeasing the substantial ex-service persons to students who have taken education loans, he has budgeted more votes than money.

But, the core area is the UPA's rural development agenda. And the interim budget has not addressed this core constituency through more money but by reminding its decade-long commitment. And in selective announcement the finance minister has left no doubt to be cleared that it is chasing the vast tribal and women voters.

Which ministry gets how much
The interim budget has retained the allocation of last year to the key ministries. In last financial year many ministries couldn't spend all the budgeted funds, thus resulting in a saving of around Rs 1,00,000 crore for the government. This in many ways explains the government being able to meet its target on key fiscal targets like fiscal deficit
Ministry Proposed allotment (in Rs. crore)
Ministry of Minority Affairs              3,711
Ministry of Tribal Affairs 4,379
Ministry of Housing & Poverty Alleviation 6,000
Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment 6,730
Ministry of Panchayati Raj 7,000
Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation 15,260
Ministry of Women & Child Development 21,000
Ministry of Health & Family Welfare 33,725
Ministry of Human Resource Development 67,398
Ministry of Rural Development 82,202

Rights and credit support

In a surprise reappearance, the budget speech mentioned the Right to Forest Act as one of the key achievements of UPA. Since its enactment in 2006, this piece of legislation, giving tribal and forest dwellers rights over forestland never received political acknowledgement. It was the MGNREGA that always got into the limelight. The FRA benefits close to nine per cent of India's population including the tribal population. In electorally sensitive states like Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, tribal communities have benefited the most from this law.

Overall, forestry and agro-forestry as an off shoot of it have been given priority allotment. Just a few days before the budget, the government declared an agro-forestry policy  that will help mostly small and tribal farmers. In the interim budget, the finance minister has proposed Rs 444.59 crore to market minor forest produce (MFP) collected by tribal communities. Under FRA, local communities have right over MFPs that include bamboo and tendu leaves (used for rolling beedis). 

On the other hand, the proposed budget has some good news for the expansive self-help groups, a potential organised vote bank of 40 million rural women. The budget speech has highlighted government's credit support to these groups, amounting to Rs 36,893 crore. The other women-centric provision is to declare the Nirbhaya fund of Rs 1,000 crore budgeted last year as non-lapsable. Currently, women constitute 49 per cent of total voters.


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