The political ambition and the unstated goal of the Union Budget this year was to reach out to the farmers and the Aam Admi, and thus for those concerned with the 'Other India' it had apparent positives. Thus there is the much talked about. A loan waiver to farmers of Rs.60,000 crores, and some big and big-sounding allocations like Rs.31,280 crores for Bharat Nirman, Rs.13,100 crores for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Rs.6300 crores for Integrated Child Development Services, Rs.8000 crores for mid-day meals, and Rs.12,050 crores for the National Rural Health Mission.
Yet if one had to look at the Budget not from the distance it covers but from how far it is from the destination the euphoria over increased allocations for social sector can quickly come down. And just as importantly, when one considers how selective the government appears to be in deciding which of the various social entitlements ought to be funded, the optimism over each new budget's allocations is squashed a little.
The goal for the Union Budget in India cannot be an attempt to cater to the masses generally but to see that it reaches out to the last man and lead to Antaodya (literally, the rise of the last man) - a term in vogue in P Chidambaram's Budget rendering in past years, though out of fashion this time! Reaching out to the last man to cater to his essential survival needs is not discretion but a duty of the government. Once you open that point of view it becomes easy to see that the Finance Minister cannot talk about Employment Guarantee and Drinking water in different languages, as he did in his Budget speech on the 28 February.
Consider closely what he said on these two critical concerns in the Budget:
"[The] National Employment Rural Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) will be rolled out to all 596 rural districts in India. Initially we will provide Rs.16, 000 crore. Let there be no apprehension in anybody's mind: as demand rises more money will be provided to meet the legal guarantee of employment."
"The goal of the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission is to supply safe drinking water to uncovered habitations and slipped back habitations as well as to address issues of quality. I propose to enhance the allocation to Rs.7,300 crore in 2008-09 as against Rs.6,500 crore in 2007-08."
The Finance Minister's emphasis that "more money will be provided to meet the legal guarantee of employment" under NREGS is welcome. These words were similar to what he said on NREGS in his budget speech last year - "Since NREGS is a demand driven scheme carrying a legal guarantee of employment, the budget allocation would have to supplemented according to the need." But why are the supplemental allocations restricted to only employment, and not to something else, say, supply of safe drinking water to uncovered habitations, the goal of the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission? While the Finance Minister spoke about an increase in allocation by about 800 crore for the Mission in 2008-09, why couldn't he add, as he did for NREGS, that 'more money will be provided to meet the legal guarantee of safe drinking water'?
However, if the Finance Minister refuses to recognise that allocations shall have to be supplemented according to the need for drinking water, by exactly what yardstick and timeline does he aim to meet the goal of the RGDWM? The budget this year does not speak about how many habitations eligible for the mission's funds exist in the country today, though in last year's Budget speech he acknowledged missing the drinking water target of 73,000 habitations by more than a fifth. One can only imagine that the lawyer-FM would be hard pressed to explain to the folks in the 'uncovered habitations' that they have a fundamental right to drinking water!
By the same logic, one can also put on hold the celebrations over new allocations to SSA, as there are close to one and a half crore children (by conservative estimates) who are yet to be registered in schools. In the same vein, how many of the millions of farmers for whom he's made fresh allocations will get the government's protection against usurious lenders? How many of the children working in farms and homes will get protection against being employed under-age? Or is it the government's prerogative to decide which entitlements are real, and which ones can be ignored?
Chances are, the Finance Minster does not deliberately ignore any entitlements, but nonetheless it is now impossible for him to tackle the various needs through meaningful allocations. This is because he is part of a system where there is a tradition of budgetary allocations being made almost mechanically, with little regard to where the need could be greater. Arun Shourie has educated us though his lucidly written book on 'Governance' that just two factors - the previous year's allocation, and 'assorted formulae' - determine nine tenths of the annual allocations to central ministries and to states.
There is thus clearly a structural bottleneck, and that's perhaps the reason why UN Human Development Reports in the past have been saying that 'restructuring budget priorities to balance economic and social spending should move to the top of the policy agenda for development'. This leads to the next question: how can the restructuring of priorities be brought about?
Given this dominant reality of budgetary allocations, it can be seen that Budget is not in itself equipped to generate the right priorities. However, there is another 'dominated' reality that suggests how budget exercises may turn in favour of the needy. The paradoxical reality is that the every poor man in the country lives with a rich assortment of rights. This suggests that from the standpoint of the poor man, a rights-based approach to budget-making can show the way ahead.
The adoption of such an approach would mean the acceptance of the fact that there are identified and specific 'minimum core obligations' (A non negotiable quantifiable core of rights to water, education, health, shelter etc.) that the government is committed to honour through budgetary allocations. In other words, the Government is under a lawful mandate to have a plan to 'increase' fulfillment of rights as evidenced by allocations made in the budget. An opening can be seen in what the Finance Minister himself said towards the end of his budget speech. He said: 'I think we do not pay enough attention to outcomes as we do to outlays; or to physical targets as we do to financial targets..."
It was this realisation that helped the Government of India to launch the mechanism of Outcome Budget not long ago. There is a need to take notice of not only how outlays are being matched with outcomes, as the Finance Minster has suggested in his speech, but more crucially, how those outlays and outcomes measure up with the realisation of the rights of the poor and the marginalised.
Unfortunately thus far in India the Budget has mostly been about awesome numbers, whereas all its talk of rights has been limited to lofty principles that are not adequately upheld by those numbers. We are habituated to living with budgetary figures that don't add up, and with a rights regime that doesn't deliver. Things have got to change and it will only change if the India growth story becomes more than an absorbing and inspiring tale, and adds to itself an honest account on the rights of the last man.