There was a smile on the faces of people suffering from life-threatening diseases like cancer and HIV infection when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced exemption of excise duty on six specific life-saving drugs and vaccines in his Budget proposals for 2012-13.

Reading out proposed financial allocations for the health sector on Friday, Mr. Mukherjee announced extension of concessional basic customs duty of 5 per cent with full exemption of excise duty.

The exempted items are raltegravir potassium used for treating HIV; rotavirus vaccine, live, oral, pentavalent; pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine for thalassemia; posaconazole oral suspension for life threatening fungal infection; temsirolimus concentrate for infusion for injection for renal cell carcinoma and natalizumab for multiple sclerosis.

The Finance Minister also announced an increase in the basic excise duty on cigarettes by adding an ad valorem component of 10 per cent to the existing specific rates. It would be chargeable on 50 per cent of the retail sale price mentioned on the pack. Tobacco is the major cause of mouth and lung cancer in the country.

“I also propose to carry out nominal increase in basic excise duty on hand-rolled bidis from Rs. 8 to Rs. 10 per 1,000 and on machine-rolled bidis from Rs. 19 to Rs. 21 per 1,000,” Mr. Mukherjee said. Paan masala, gutkha, chewing tobacco, unmanufactured tobacco and zarda will also be brought under the purview of the compounded levy scheme making them more expensive.

In an attempt to protect women and children from protein deficiency, the government also proposed slashing basic customs duty on soya protein concentrate and soya protein to 10 per cent.

The move is aimed at fighting protein deficiency among women and children, which is one of the most common sources of malnutrition in the country, the Minister said. Simultaneously, excise duty on all processed soya food products is being reduced to the merit rate of 6 per cent.

He also proposed to provide a concessional basic customs duty of 2.5 per cent, along with reduced excise duty of 6 per cent, on iodine in a bid to address the health issue. The consumption of iodised salt prevents iodine deficiency and related diseases.

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme is being strengthened and re-structured for which Rs. 15,850 crore has been allocated as against Rs. 10,000 crore in 2011-12. This amounts to an increase of over 58 per cent.

Identifying probiotics as a cost-effective means of combating bacterial infections, Mr. Mukherjee proposed reducing the basic customs duty on this item from 10 per cent to 5 per cent.

Focussing on expansion of immunisation cover, the government has proposed an impressive Rs. 789 crore budget for the pulse polio programme despite the fact that no new polio case was reported in the country. While existing vaccine units will be modernised, a new integrated vaccine unit will be set up in Chennai.

Announcing expansion of the scope of Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), Mr. Mukherjee said this would also enhance their remuneration. Allocation for National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) is proposed to be increased from Rs. 18,115 crore in 2011-12 to Rs. 20,822 crore in 2012-13. The much-awaited National Urban Health Mission will be launched and the Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojana is proposed to be expanded for upgrading seven more government medical colleges.

On school education, the Finance Minister announced Rs. 25,555 crore for the integrated Right to Education and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Scheme, which is a 21.7 per cent hike over last year's allocation. In the 12th Plan, 6,000 schools have been proposed to be set up at block level as model schools to benchmark excellence. Of these, 2,500 will be set up under public-private partnership.

Similarly, Rs. 3,124 crore have been allocated for the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan — launched in 2009 — which is nearly 29 per cent higher than last year's allocation.

Importantly, a scheme for education loan is being implemented by banks. To ensure better flow of credit to deserving students, the government proposes to set up a Credit Guarantee Fund for this purpose.

“In a difficult year like this, it is commendable that the Finance Minister has continued to invest in education. This is the surest road to empowerment,” Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal said.

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