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Of catchy slogans and budget targets that disappear 

Every Union Budget has a key offering, a driving feature that defines the government’s priorities and shapes the policies over a considerable period of time.

Published: 11th February 2018 04:48 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th February 2018 04:48 AM   |  A+A-

Image for representational purpose only.

Express News Service

Every Union Budget has a key offering, a driving feature that defines the government’s priorities and shapes the policies over a considerable period of time. This time the Budget focus was on National Health Protection Scheme that the government will float to cover 10 crore poor and vulnerable families providing a cover of `5 lakh for hospitalisation expenses. Arun Jaitley’s first 2014 Budget had the eye-catching focus on building 100 Smart Cities. Other budgets have focused on ‘Housing for All By 2022’, ‘Digital India’, ‘Skill India’ and so on. Each of these pet announcements stirs up some excitement, and media commentary, and then disappears from memory.  

AUDIT OF PERFORMANCE 
Subsequent budgets fail to audit previously announced policy and programmes; and more important, what is the follow-up in terms of outlay of funds and timelines. These announcements then are forgotten, and remain just as another chimera; till another big programme is announced. For instance, Budget, after Budget has announced a huge outlay for rural housing and lakhs of homes, are promised for the rural poor. However, there is no due diligence in Budget speeches as to how many homes and at what cost were built in the year gone by. 

Let’s look at the Smart Cities Mission. Most of the four years has been spent by government in conducting a selection process for the ‘Favoured 100’. After four years of hype, all that this year’s Budget has is a paragraph (No.87) which records that 99 cities have been chosen; and that `2,350 crore worth of projects have been implemented and `20,852 crore in projects’ worth is in the pipeline.  The Budget also discloses the overall outlay at `2.04 lakh crore (or, about $30 billion) – not even a drop in the ocean when one considers that a conservative estimate for building and transforming 100 Cities has been pegged at $5 trillion!

Very deftly and quietly the goals have been changed. The expectation from the Smart Cities Mission was building new cities and the total transformation of the old ones with new infrastructure and housing. What we now see in the 2018 Budget is a few ‘smart’ technology projects in each of the chosen cities like solar rooftop projects, and Smart Parks. Those who thought Smart Cities was a holistic programme for the transformation of Urban India will have to wait some more! 

DIGITAL INDIA SPUTTERING 
Digital India was the flavour of the season in Budget 2015. The Budget sanctioned connecting 2.5 lakh villages with 7.5 lakh kilometres of optic fibre. Tax on technology services was lowered from 25 percent to 10 percent to encourage bringing in new technology to set up digital infrastructure. It was the logical corollary to encouraging ‘Make in India’ and ‘Skill India’ – the PM’s clarion calls for the setting up of local manufacturing and boosting jobs. Budget 2016 saw Arun Jaitley announce the launch of ‘Sankalp’ – a Skill India programme to train 3.5 crore youth with an outlay of `4,000 crore. 

All these programmes are now sputtering without fuel. Budget 2018 has a limpid mention of the creation of 306 Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Kendras for imparting skills (Paragraph 81). But there is no audit of how many were trained and how many were absorbed in jobs. Similarly, there is lip-service paid to ‘Digital India’ (para 108) but no money is put where its mouth is. The only concrete allocation is `3,073 crore for ‘Digital India’ and `10,000 crore to build telecom infrastructure meant to benefit 5 crore rural citizens. For the task of ‘digitising India’ these are mere peanuts. Rural broadband connectivity is as far off today as it was 4 years ago. 

‘Housing for All By 2022’, another slogan of June 2015 vintage, envisaging the construction of two crore homes with an outlay of around $31 billion through the the PM Awas Yojana, finds mention in every budget to woo the rural audience. This year too, the FM has said 51 lakh houses would be constructed in the current financial year; and a similar number in the next year; or a whopping one crore in 2 years! 

There is something seriously amiss in these numbers. In other forums, the Government has claimed it has delivered 10 lakh homes till November last year. At this rate, by 2022, if it achieves 25 percent of target, 50 lakh of 2 crore homes, it will be a miracle! Budget targets that seek to bring about social transformation must be realistic and achievable. And the government must have the stomach and resources to see them through. Otherwise, crucial programmes like ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Digital India’ will be rubbished as mere slogans.
gurbir@newindianexpress.com



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