Budget 2024: Development for the few, Mandir for the many

1 February 2024: The Finance Minister, Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman, in her interim Budget Statement (BS) of 2024 speech lauded about how the BJP government has transformed the economy in the past 10 years but she failed to mention who in the country has benefited from this transformation and where have the crores of jobs that existed in the economy 10 years ago disappeared today. The BS is a testimony of the countless empty promises made by the BJP government over the past 10 years to the working people and the poor that still remain unfulfilled.

Declining social spending

In the past 10 years, the money government spends on health and education, in real terms, has not increased. The same holds true for the expenditure on MNREGA and other social protection programmes including the ICDS (anganwadi) programme.

Money budgeted for the so called Ayushman Bharat and PM-Awaas Yojna for 2023-24 remain unspent. Capital expenditure, apart from on national highways and the railways, in several key areas including irrigation works, rural roads, small production unit, on research and development, on rail and road safety, etc., remain unspent and incomplete. These could have been areas that could contribute to better and stable earnings and livelihoods for working people employed in these projects but the government clearly lack both the desire and the will to complete tasks that do not involve and benefit large corporates.

The BS is replete with numbers of loans given out for all forms of minor self-employment to crores of people. According to the BS the total number of loans given out for self-employment by government exceeds 75 crore. It is for no one to know what is the outcome of these loans and how many safe, stable and sustainable livelihoods have been created by these loans. There is however an exception where we know what the outcome is. The BS states that, under PM-SVANidhi scheme, 78 lakh street vendors have received loans yet only 2.3 lakh of these are returning borrowers. This implies that out of 100 street vendors only 3 have made good their loans. We are not informed about the plight of the remaining 97 of 100 or 75+ lakh vendors.

The government projects its benevolence in announcing that food rations have been made available through the public distribution system to about 80% of the population. This however does not square up with the government’s claim of having taken 25 crore people out of poverty in the last 10 years. The reach of Ujwala has been included as an anti-poverty measure by government. Ujwala only reaches about 80% of households in Gujarat, Jharkhand and Tripura. Furthermore, as a result of the high price of cooking gas, 1.1 crore Ujwala beneficiaries did not buy a single cylinder of gas in the last year and 90 lakhs bought only one cylinder in a year. This tells us that at least 2 crore households, who may be Ujwala ‘beneficiaries’, are continuing to use unsafe and harmful cooking fuels since they cannot afford even subsidised cooking gas.

Development for the few, Mandir for the many

The BS highlights the growing number of airports that have been built in the last 10 years and the number of new air routes that have been introduced, but it fails to tell us that 25% of the second-class seats have disappeared and been replaced by expensive, ‘dynamically priced’, air-conditioned seats and berths on our trains, which have become out of reach of the many who rely on it to travel across the country.

We know that over the last 10 years nearly 2 crore workers returned from cities to their villages. The number of workers ‘employed’ in agriculture has gone up by this number. We also know agriculture is in distress and farmers are unable to make ends meet. The two taken together implies that 2 crore urban workers were forced to return to their villages as they lost their jobs putting their families in the village under more duress.

Household consumption is low and household savings are declining as working people are being pushed into debt to meet their daily needs. This also tells us that while the rich have grown much richer over the last 10 years, working people have been pushed to the wall.

The reality also is that whilst the BJP says it has managed the economy better than every government in past, the country is more indebted than it was 10 years ago. Today one rupee out of every five rupees of union government expenditure goes in paying interest. This is apart from repaying the loans that government has taken itself.

In many ways, the MNREGA, which provides employment to the largest number of workers in the country signals the crisis that the BJP has pushed us all into. There is demand for MNREGA work which is not fulfilled. When workers do get work their wages are not paid. As a result there are more workers who are willing to work for less. The BJP has pushed us into becoming a country of destitution and deprivation yet blinded by a jingoistic zeal for a ‘hindu rashtra’ or ‘Ram Rajya’, symbolized by the Ram Mandir, that promises to bring an end to our collective suffering.

A people cannot rise, and a society cannot develop unless the gains of the economy are shared by all. Until this happens economic development will remain an illusion. This is what we must fight together to change.