Social sector: The emphasis of Budget is on the consolidation of schemes
The finance minister has taken a pragmatic approach in the last full budget before the general election next year. There is a clear departure from the past three budgets, where the focus was on cushioning the adverse impact created on the poor and rural areas, post-pandemic. The Union Budget 2023-24 largely ring-fences financial outlays made to various social sectors, and it is reflected in nominal increases and consolidation of schemes and programmes to make them more effective.
It is anticipated that actual spends would be more demand-driven in key schemes such as MNREGA and the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), with the government retaining the recourse to supplementary budgets during the year. The green growth agenda announced in the current Budget will need a measured approach, as the transition to a less-carbon economy would have a greater adverse impact on the poor and vulnerable sections of society.
The budgeted expenditure on health has reached 2.2 per cent of GDP, against the 2025 target of 2.5 per cent set by the National Health Policy 2017. In the post-Covid-19 scenario, human resources, health infrastructure development, research and disaster preparedness have emerged as critical focus areas. Reaffirming this, the outlay for the Pradhan Mantri Ayushman Bharat Health Infrastructure Mission has been increased by 122 per cent over last year, and by 70 per cent for health sector disaster preparedness and response. There is a renewed focus on developing human resources in the sector, with a 59 per cent increase in allocation, which includes establishing 157 new nursing colleges.
However, the reduced allocation to One Health (-14 per cent) and pandemic-related research deters the prospects of deriving insights to prevent and prepare for future pandemics. The Budget specifically calls out focus on eliminating Sickle Cell Anemia by 2047, which is a welcome measure benefiting a large section of the tribal population.
Sustaining gains in nutrition after the pandemic that adversely impacted livelihoods and food security, requires significant budgetary allocation towards nutrition interventions. However, the allocations embedded in programmes such as ICDS and the mid-day meal scheme have only seen marginal increases. The launch of the new PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) aims to provide free food grain to all Antyodaya and priority households (8 million beneficiaries) for the next one year is a welcome move.
Overall allocation to education (nearly Rs 1.13 trillion) has been increased by 13 per cent, and is around 3 per cent of GDP. Increased public sector spending on education, to reach 6 per cent of GDP, is critical to implement reform initiatives envisioned in NEP 2020.
The flagship scheme, Samagra Shiksha, at Rs 37,453 crore, has received a 16 per cent increase over last year. The move to re-envision teacher training through innovative pedagogy, curriculum transaction, continuous professional development, dipstick surveys, and ICT implementation is a welcome move to enhance the teaching-learning process.
To improve the quality of education in middle- and high-level schools in remote areas for tribal children, 740 Eklavya Model Residential Schools (EMRS) will recruit 38,800 teachers and support staff serving 350,000 tribal students. The increased allocation of Rs 800 crore (100 per cent more than FY23) for theStrengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States (STARS) programme also reinforces the focus on achieving learning outcomes. The Pradhan Mantri Schools for Rising India (PM-SHRI), with an outlay of Rs 4,000 crore, is a welcome initiative. It will prepare more than 15,000 schools of excellence, which in turn will help showcase the implementation of NEP 2020.
Budget allocations for higher education have focused on research and development, fellowships and scholarships for students, grants to Indian Institutes of Technology and other national higher education institutions, interest subsidies for education loans and implementation of flexible academic programmes.
Within the social sector, skill development has seen the highest growth (85 per cent) in budget allocation. The increased allocation to key schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana 4.0 (PMKVY.4.0), Pradhan Mantri – National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme (PM-NAPS), and Jan Shikshan Sansthan indicate the focus on skilling and preparing youth for new-age jobs.
Schemes such as Skill Acquisition and Knowledge Awareness for Livelihood Promotion (SANKALP) and Skill Strengthening for Industrial Value Enhancements (STRIVE) funded through externally aided projects have seen an increase of more than 100 per cent in allocation, indicating a renewed focus on institutional strengthening, market relevance and quality of short/long-term training programmes in the vocational education space.
The skill development agenda is also embedded in some of the cross-sectoral interventions such as the ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ inititative in Tourism and multidisciplinary courses for futuristic medical technologies, high-end manufacturing and research in medical devices.
Livelihoods and rural development
The current budget allocation of Rs 60,000 crore for the flagship rural employment guarantee scheme MGNREGA is 33 per cent lower than projected expenditure for FY23, keeping in line with the decreasing trend from the all-time high allocation of over Rs 1 trillion allocation in FY21.
At the current average wage rate per day of Rs 218 per person, these allocations will provide employment for only 18 days to the current 151 million active card-holders. Increased demand from beneficiaries may require a supplementary allocation during the year.
Around 150 per cent increase in the Budget for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (Rural) and an increase in capital outlay to Rs 10 trillion are in line with the government’s goal of “Housing for All”. The eligible beneficiaries will be able to obtain one-time monetary assistance and home loans from banks and housing finance firms at a reduced interest rate. Approximately 4.5 million families can avail themselves of this benefit in FY24.
The allocation for National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) continues to be in line with past expenditure trends. This includes the current laudable initiative of mobilizing rural women into Self Help Groups (SHGs) and opening of 47.8 crore “JanDhan” accounts to promote financial inclusion.
For economic empowerment of women, two major pronouncements include the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Rural Livelihood Mission, which will continue to empower 8.1 million self-help groups of rural women through formation of large producer enterprises and the new savings scheme for women and girl children, the Mahila Samman Saving Certificate.
The overall gender budget has seen only a marginal increase of 4 per cent for FY24, and an increase in allocation would have helped accelerate the social and economic empowerment of women.