New Delhi: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur leaves for the Parliament to announce the 2021-22 Union Budget, in New Delhi on Monday, 1st February 2021.

M. K. Shaji 

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(Asian Independent)- The present Indian Government claims to work for all classes and peoples (Sabka Saath). Its leadership firmly believes in the merits of a full-fledged capitalist economy and makes all out efforts to facilitate maximal profit for investors, industry and businesses. Apparently for this reason, all the schemes and programmes being introduced by the present Government for the development of all sections or classes of people (Sabka Vikas) basically employ capitalist market economy instruments, such as provision of bank loans and credits and various insurance schemes. Finance Minister in her Budget speech has talked about larger credit for farmers even while continuing the adamancy with regard to the controversial farm laws which favour corporatization of agriculture against which the farmers are agitating for long. The Government has introduced Fasal Bheema Yojana and a number of other insurance programmes. The introduction of these capitalist market instruments are being accompanied by withdrawal of various kinds of subsidies and other social sector service programmes. Subsidies for the disadvantaged social classes and groups are being limited to interest subsidies on loans. This helps capitalist investors in different sectors (rural agriculture, housing etc) by creating demand for loan money from the unaffordable classes of people, a large number of whom will end up in indebtedness. In essence the new capitalist avatar of the old traditional money-lending (bania) economy is being erected. Government is also withdrawing from social security services meant for the socially disadvantaged and the poor.

About 27.5 percent of India’s population still lives below poverty line. Highest proportion of the poor is found among the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) communities. Central Government has been making budgetary outlays for various social security and economic development schemes for these communities.  In this year’s budget, there is a clear signal of the Government’s resolve to reduce and ultimately withdraw social security schemes for SCs and STs.  This is openly stated while introducing in the Budget a new scheme for SCs, namely, Pradhan Mantri Anusuchit Jaati Abhyuday Yojana (PM AJAY) which purportedly is said to “drastically reduce poverty rates of the SC communities” by implementing projects related to income generation by maximizing the employment potential through skill development, “thereby reducing dependency of the target population on the various social assistance programmes.”  While the logic and stated purpose is clear and agreeable, there is ample reason for the SC communities to doubt the sincerity of purpose of such schemes and prospect for their effective implementation.

Suspicion arises from the fact that the Government has given short shrift to similar economic development schemes for SCs which it introduced earlier. An example is the scheme of Venture Capital Fund for SCs introduced in 2014-15 with a budgetary outlay of Rs 200 crores to promote entrepreneurship among SCs. The Government has not been able to utilize this fund and there was nil utilization of this fund in 2017-18. Apparently, SC people are not able to benefit from this fund because of the conditionality that 25 to 50% of the project cost has to be borne by them which they cannot afford. Rs 125 crores allocated for it in the Budget of 2020-21 has been reduced to Rs 50 crores in the Revised Budget 2020-21 and this year’s budget provides only Rs 100 crores. Similarly, the Government has drastically reduced the outlay for the three finance development corporations created to help the economic advancement of SCs, Safai Karmachari communities and OBCs from the last year’s Rs 420 crores to only Rs 250 Crores this year. The outlay for Self-employment scheme for Rehabilitation Manual Scavengers was Rs 125 crores in Budget Estimates 2020-21 has been reduced to Rs 50 crores in the Revised Estimates, and allocation for this year is only Rs 100 Crores. In the context of the frequent reports of deaths of manual scavengers from exposure to poisonous gases in sewers, the Government needs to be more sincere in their rehabilitation and introduction of mechanization of cleaning of sewers and drains. Can we really create an Atmanirbharat Bharat without liberating this section of people from such inhuman conditions?

Most Dalits are economically very weak to enter into entrepreneurial activities requiring much capital investment. Educational level among them is only gradually improving. This improvement has been facilitated mainly by provision of various scholarships. Worryingly, the present Government is on a course of withdrawing the provision of scholarships for SCs and STs. Post-Matric Scholarship for SCs, introduced by Dr Ambedkar from pre-Independence time has been helping the educational advancement of a section of SCs. But in the last few years the Government has been unwilling to meet the increasing demand for this scholarship from SC students and therefore large numbers of them had to drop out mid way through their studies. The outlay provided in this year’s budget for this scholarship (Rs 3415.62 crores) is less than in the last year (Rs 3815.87 crores) and is grossly inadequate to meet the educational aspirations of large numbers of SC students.  This scholarship, along with reservation for SCs, is a commitment made to Dr Ambedkar by the then national leadership in the Pune Pact 1930, which helped Gandhiji to end his fast in Yeravda Jail, in lieu of Dr Ambedkar’s agreement to withdraw his demand for separate electorates for SCs. Therefore, the responsibility for this scholarship is with the national (Central) Government, but presently State Governments are made to incur part of the funds for this scholarship.

There are some smaller Central scholarships for SCs and OBCs like National Fellowship for SCs and OBCs, Top Class education for SCs, Free Coaching for SC and OBC students, National Overseas Scholarship for SCs and OBCs.  The outlay of Rs 545 crores for these “Central Scholarships” provided in last year’s Budget has been reduced to Rs 315 crores in the Revised Estimates. This shows insincerity of intention of the original outlay. This insincerity towards the weak and disadvantaged sections is also seen from the fact that for the two programmes of Rehabilitation of Beggars and of Transgender Persons Rs 110 crores allocated in the last year’s Budget has not been spent as seen from “Nil” amounts shown in the Revised Budget Estimates.  Besides, this year’s Budget has entirely dropped the schemes like SC Boys and Girls Hostels for which Rs 30 crores was allocated last year, and “Pre-Matric Scholarship for Children of those Engaged in Unclean Occupations and Prone to Heath Hazards” for which Rs 25 crores was allocated last year.

The diversion of all governmental functions towards capitalistic interests is clearly seen from the conversion of the scheme of “National Overseas Scholarship Scheme for OBCs” into “Interest Subsidy on Overseas Studies of OBCs”. In similar fashion, the general and consistent hostility and anathema towards NGOs shown by the present Government can also be seen in respect of NGOs working for SCs. There is no outlay provided in this year’s Budget for the earlier four schemes of assistance to Voluntary Organizations working for SCs, OBCs, the aged, and for social defence services.

For Dalits, who are still mostly agricultural labourers and others who are engaged in the hardest and undignified labour works, the dawn is still dark.  For them, the Budget 2021-22 is an uninspiring fare. Government needs to introduce real empowerment measures like distribution of cultivable lands to landless rural SC families and other special measures as envisaged in the original concept of Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes (SCP) to instill faith in them. Otherwise the quoting of the beautiful verse of Rabindranath Tagore by the Finance Minister in her Budget speech — Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark – would appear a pretentious farce.

The author is a social justice activist working with NGOs