Budgets haven’t really changed over the decades. An analysis of budget break-ups since 1999 shows that proportions of most heads just do not change, as GDP growth and hence tax revenues usually stay nearer where they have been before. Discretionary revenue expenditure can only go up when GDP growth really perks up as we saw between 2009 and 2012. From then, it has been downhill in terms of growth.
They are creatures of habit. They are now quite habituated to pulling fast ones. Take the National Health Protection Scheme. The budgetary allocation for this is in reality Rs 2,000 crore. Jaitely announced it as a Rs 30,000-crore scheme. But Hasmukh Adhia, the revenue secretary and Narendra Modi’s man in the finance ministry contradicted him and said on television that the allocation is just Rs 2,000 crore and the scheme is yet to be conceptualised in detail. Even the back of the envelope numbers seem out of kilter.
As usual, they are just distracting us with promises and hoping to stave off the inevitable - popular discontent. Take for instance the much-hyped National Health Protection Scheme to cover 500 million people or 100 million families with medical cover of up to Rs 5 lakhs.
But what will be the outlay for this when it is fleshed out? Jaitley says it will be a measly Rs 30,000 crore translating into a premium of about Rs 3,000 per beneficiary family, whereas the prevailing premiums are at about Rs 4,400 a year.
Even here the government is being disingenuous. If this were in addition to what is allocated to the Rs 1.38 lakh crore to health, which was at Rs 1.22 lakh crore in the previous year, there would be some little cause to cheer. No, instead it comes from the health budget, which in effect means that this year less money is being spent on public healthcare.
So if government hospitals and clinics continue to have fewer doctors and lesser medicines, be happy with your health insurance and go to a private nursing home or corporate hospital and see how soon the cover evaporates. In effect this is a direct benefit to private healthcare providers, and insurance companies who will get a Rs 30,000-crore windfall.
Similar sleight of hand is indulged in increasing the standard deduction to Rs 40,000 for salaried persons. The outlay for this is Rs 8,000 crore. But the education cess goes up by 1 per cent, which means an outgo of Rs 11,000 crore. So who is out of pocket by Rs 3,000 crore?
The government has announced that it will fund eight crore new stoves and cylinders on getting a gas connection. This is an existing scheme. But reports from gas agency dealers in several parts of the country, especially those in rural areas, have claimed that an extremely low number of Ujjawala beneficiaries are returning for refills of their cylinders. Thus, the number of LPG connections may be rising rapidly, but LPG usage is not. The catch is that below poverty line families who exist on less than Rs 32 a day in rural areas and Rs 47 a day in urban areas are simply too poor to afford the market rate of LPG.
There was much expectation of an agriculture-oriented budget. Nothing of that sort has been announced to suggest that. Institutional credit to the agriculture sector has gone up to Rs 11 lakh crore when it was Rs 10 lakh crore last year.
The finance minister spoke about “revitalising Infrastructure and Systems in Education by 2022. Technology to be the biggest driver in improving quality of education. To increase digital intensity in education, it will move infrastructure from blackboard to digital board. By 2022, every block with more than 50 per cent ST population will have Eklavya schools at par with Navodaya Vidyalayas”. Fine, but show me the money? He is clearly a man for the big picture who doesn’t get into such specifics.
Am I unhappy about the Budget? Why should I be?
The limit for senior citizens for investment in interest-bearing LIC schemes doubled to from Rs 7.5 lakh Rs 15 lakh. But as Claude Pepper said: “At my age I don’t even buy green bananas!”