Budget 2017: Social sector

Digital push outweighs social spending

The traditionally neglected rural infrastructure gets a fillip with the DigiGaon initiative.   | Photo Credit: Paul Noronha

The 2017-18 Budget is quite low key when it comes to social spending. The government’s approach to welfare spending appears more focussed on promoting the digital agenda rather than any meaningful increase in social sector allocations.

In his Budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a series of initiatives to promote service delivery and monitoring via digital platforms, without making notable increases in allocations for any of the flagship welfare schemes or social sector ministries.

For instance, the allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) saw a 1% increase, from ₹47,499 crore (revised estimate or RE) in 2016-17 to ₹48,000 for 2017-18. Similarly, the allocation for the rural roads scheme, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, remained where it was last year, at ₹19,000 crore. The Mid-Day Meal scheme allocation rose nominally, from ₹9,700 crore to ₹10,000 crore. The only exception was the affordable housing scheme, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, whose allocation went up by ₹8,107 crore: from ₹20,936 crore to ₹29,043 crore. The allocations for education and health did not show any significant expansion, remaining stagnant as a percentage of the GDP.

However, a slew of measures have been announced that seek to bring the social sector under digital purview — either by routing service delivery via digital platforms, or by strengthening digital infrastructure to enable easy monitoring.

No debt waiver for farmers

For instance, while the much-hoped-for debt waivers for farmers hasn’t been forthcoming, the Finance Minister announced that ₹1,900 crore will be spent on computerisation and integration of all the 63,000 Primary Agriculture Credit Societies (PACS) with the aim of ensuring “seamless flow of credit to small and marginal farmers.” Similarly, belying the demands for a big hike in education spending, the allocation for the sector grew marginally, to keep pace with inflation and the GDP growth, from ₹73,599 crore to ₹79,685 crore. However, the sole welfare initiative in the education sector was the proposed launch of SWAYAM platform, which would offer 350 online courses.

Another digital initiative is the introduction of Aadhaar-based smart cards for senior citizens, which would contain all their health details. Also on the anvil is a “comprehensive web-based interactive Pension Disbursement System for Defence Pensioners.”

The traditionally neglected rural infrastructure gets a fillip with the DigiGaon initiative, which will be “launched to provide tele-medicine, education, and skills through digital technology.” About ₹10,000 crore has been allocated to the BharatNet Project, which aims to provide high speed broadband connectivity via optical fibre to more than 1.5 lakh gram panchayats by the end of 2017-18. The stated aim is to offer “wi-fi hotspots and access to digital services at low tariffs.”

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 10:10:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/business/budget/Digital-push-outweighs-social-spending/article17131134.ece

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