Understand The Poor To Understand This Budget

Under Modi’s leadership, new India will be a land of shared prosperity in which the first benefits will go to those who need it most 

4/20/2018 9:45:46 PM
written By : MJ Akbar Print

It requires deep reserves of contempt for the poor to dismiss a man who sells savouries on the roadside as nothing more than a beggar. The political leader who made such an instinctively disparaging comparison is a stalwart of the Congress Party, former finance minister P Chidambaram.

The anonymous seller of pakodas from a street-side stall, Chidambaram, does not beg for favours; he makes an honest living in difficult circumstances with more dignity and character than those who sneer at him. He is a symbol of aspiration and determination.

It was entirely characteristic of the Congress to hand over its response to the breakthrough 2018-2019 Budget, a milestone moment in the war against poverty, to a former finance minister who has no sympathy for those who suffer in the bleak despair of impoverishment. It is this mindset, surely, which prevented Congress, during its decades in power, from recognising that even a pakoda-seller is an entrepreneur, a businessman who deserves fiscal credit through banks.

Today, he has MUDRA, a scheme, which has already disbursed upwards of Rs 400,000 crores to over 100 million small-and-micro scale entrepreneurs, in loans without collateral. The radical innovation within MUDRA is that 75 per cent of these loans have gone to women. In other words, some 75 million women have become financially empowered through banks. This is a dramatic change from a culture in which, under the previous dispensation, some banks were forced to become fellow-travellers of selected fat-cats. Today, banks also serve the poor.

The Budget for 2018-19 is a booster thrust to a careful economic policy that has sought, since 2014, to improve the quality of life of the 100 million families at the base of the economic pyramid, initially through incremental steps, and now with a quantum leap. It took three Budgets and a slew of accompanying initiatives to do the hard work on reforms, to challenge venal, cancerous corruption within the system, and to knit a social welfare blanket for the deprived and stressed.

This Budget is an historic advance, unprecedented in both concept and scale. The National Health Protection Scheme, already dubbed NaMo-care, offers health insurance to an estimated 500 million “poor and vulnerable” Indians. 

It is, astonishingly, the world’s largest healthcare government-funded programme, and a display of commitment that has left opponents a bit shell-shocked. Since 2014, 300 million Indians who had never dreamt of entering a bank got bank accounts, even if they had no money to deposit. 

Today, 500 million Indians who had never dreamt that they would be able to afford a hospital, Indians living on the edge of subsistence who had to fend for themselves when health faltered, are looking at, literally, a new life. 

Nearly half of the nation’s population will get government-funded coverage of up to Rs 5 lakhs per year for secondary and tertiary hospitalisation. The multiplier benefits will be visible in an upsurge within the long arc of our medical industry, but the principal objective is to arouse new confidence and hope among the poor, to make them feel that the country belongs to them as much as they belong to the country.

The Congress, unable to digest what it could neither imagine nor ever offer, has no answer except to revive a tired term from the pygmy dictionary of its hired cluster of social media misleaders. The best that it can say is that the health scheme won’t work. Why do I get a sense of déjà vu? When Swachh Bharat began, Congress said it wouldn’t work. Today, over 75 per cent of rural India has toilets, assures women dignity and self-respect. When Jan Dhan was launched, Congress laughed. It was implemented in just three months. When Prime Minister Modi started distributing free gas cylinders to rescue poor women from smoke-thick kitchens, they scoffed. In this Budget, the initial target of 50 million households has been revised upwards to 80 million. I could go on.

If health was the soul, then the heart of this Budget is a massive revival programme for the rural economy. A Minimum Support Price of 1.5 times the cost of production eliminates uncertainty and guarantees the productive return that is essential for the confidence of farmers. An expansion of infrastructure will ensure that the farming community gets access to marketing facilities. The restructured National Bamboo Mission may not mean much to urbanites, but it is the only answer to shrinking land holdings.

A Budget is an all-encompassing statement of a government’s priorities and expenditure, and therefore too long to be captured within the limited scope of an article. But the message is clear: New India will be a land of shared prosperity in which the first benefits will go to those who need it most, the poor, the farm sector, the uncertain elderly, and the enthusiastic young who will build the nation’s future with cutting-edge technology and multiple across-the-range skills. The Economic Times headline distilled the essence in its main headline: FM Prescribes Modicare for Bharat; Focus on Jobs, Labour Reforms & Health Sector.

One final point. Don’t laugh at the beggar either, Mr. Chidambaram. The poor do not beg out of choice; they do so because they have been left with no other option. Each woman with a bowl, each child with an outstretched hand, is a blot of shame on modern India. Don’t sneer at the pakoda-seller; he had no fortune to inherit, or a privileged school to take for granted.

The day you understand the poor, you will understand this Budget.

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