The last full budget of the Modi government before the next Lok Sabha election was placed before Parliament on February 1. Like all previous budgets of Arun Jaitley, this one is also high on rhetoric and low on any meaningful allocation or policy direction towards solving any of the burning questions that confront the Indian economy today – be it the chronic agrarian crisis, mounting unemployment or the slump in domestic demand and productive investment. The budget also continues to be in denial mode about the disruptive and recessionary effect of two of the Modi government’s most talked about recent economic measures – demonetization and GST.
In fact one cannot even find any reflection of the concerns expressed by the government’s own panel of economists. The Niti Ayog’s concern over underemployment – lack of secure and remunerative jobs – was trashed by the Prime Minister himself when he used selling Pakodas as the iconic metaphor for job creation under his stewardship. The concerns expressed in the Economic Survey that came out just a couple of days before the budget – with a pink cover ostensibly to draw attention to the need for women’s empowerment and talking about falling rural wages and income, both farm and non-farm, and the disastrous implications of climate change for Indian agriculture – remained equally neglected in Jaitley’s 2018 budget.
The two big talking points from the BJP camp about this year’s budget are the grand announcements about giving farmers an MSP that is 50% higher than the cost of cultivation and the promise of providing 100 million households with an annual health insurance cover of up to half a million rupees. Now a close look at both these announcements only raises serious doubts about the sincerity of the government and what they really imply.
The BJP was actually bound by its 2014 manifesto to implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendation regarding remunerative MSP, but so far it has turned out to be just another jumla of the Modi government. In fact, in 2016 the government even told the Supreme Court that it was not possible to implement it. In the face of growing agrarian unrest across the country, the same government now comes up with this grand announcement. So what has happened between 2016 and now? The trick lies in how the cost of cultivation is being calculated. While the Swaminathan Commission factored in the rent of the land and also remuneration for the managerial role played by the farmer, the government would have none of that in calculating the cost of cultivation!
The proposed National Health Protection Scheme, enthusiastically being packaged by pro-government channels as Modicare (for them it is the Indian version of American Medicare or ‘Obamacare’), is even more deceitful. India has been experimenting with insurance-based healthcare since the launch of the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana in 2008. In the last two budgets the expenditure on this account was Rs 465.58 crore (2016-17) and 470.52 crore (2017-18) respectively. This when the RSBY was supposedly giving an insurance cover of Rs 30,000 to 100,000 to a smaller target group of BPL households. The allocation on this head in this year’s budget is only Rs 2000 crore and the government is talking about giving up to Rs 5 lakh cover to 10 crore poor and vulnerable households!
Contrast this to another item in the budget that tells us how much money the government has spent to ‘recapitalize’ public sector banks. This is to bail the banks out of the crisis caused by mega corporate defaults. The allocation on this head in last year’s budget was Rs 10,000 crore, and the revised estimate of government expenditure on this count was nine times that allocation (Rs 90,000 crore) and this time the allocation itself is Rs 65,000 crore. This tells us the budget is much more about bailing out banks than providing health insurance cover to the people. But why then the talk is only about the launch of the world’s largest health insurance scheme? Jaitley provides a candid answer in his interview to Livemint (4 February, 2018): ‘You won’t get political benefits by saying you want to recapitalise banks. You get it by saying I started a health scheme.’
So the Rs 5 lakh health insurance publicity is designed to achieve the same purpose as the celebrated 2014 talk of Rs 15 lakh accruing to every account through repatriation of black money: to deceive the people and garner their votes. From the point of view of public health, the state is responsible for providing universal health coverage and guaranteeing health for all and not paying huge sums to private hospitals for secondary and tertiary care hospitalisation. When the primary healthcare system suffers from acute resource crunch and the people running the National Rural and Urban Health Mission on the ground are denied the basic recognition and remuneration that every health worker must rightfully get, what ‘revolution’ can be achieved in public health through a mega health insurance scheme? Cuba never talked about any ‘Castrocare’ but achieved high standards of universal quality health coverage by setting up a remarkable public healthcare system.
Allocations on rural development and employment schemes or on basic pillars of social development like housing, health and education all remain stagnant, if not lower in real terms. In terms of revenue mobilisation the salaried classes will have to pay an additional cess of one percent on their tax bill to fund the health insurance scheme while the corporate sector up to 250 crores of annual turnover gets a tax cut of 5%.
It has now become amply clear that for the Modi regime, economic governance is not about implementation and delivery, it is more about waging a propaganda war while playing a huge gamble with people’s lives and livelihood. The rhetoric has kept shifting from Jan Dhan and Swachh Bharat to Make-in-India and now Modicare. All that Modi really cares for is centralisation of absolute power and Budget 2018 is the latest salvo in this war.
Viewed together with the growing BJP clamour for simultaneous holding of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections – it was mentioned by Modi in his recent interview and also the President in his inaugural address to the budget session – the budget is perhaps just a signal for early elections. But just as Jaitley was presenting his 2018 budget, bypoll results from Rajasthan gave a massive jolt to the BJP right in one of its most infamous laboratories of mob lynching. Coupled with the narrow escape in Gujarat, the Rajasthan results indicate that if Modi is toying with the idea of an early electoral gamble, the people of India are also itching to give his government a good rebuff. Budget 2018 should only add fresh fuel to the simmering fire of people’s anger against Modi’s callous and cruel regime of corporate plunder and communal hate.