If one were to judge the budget by its cover, then the maiden budget of India’s first-full-time woman finance minister fell far short of expectations. It had slogans–from Gaon, Garib aur Kisan, Ease of Living to Naari tu Narayani–and quotes–from Gandhi to Tamil Sangam literature to Urdu couplets–aplenty, but little of substance that one would have expected from a government that won a historic mandate of 353 seats.
Grameen Bharat received sufficient attention in the budget but nothing by way of structural reform that could usher in a second green revolution and double farmers’ income. As former agriculture secretary Siraj Hussain said, “The first budget of the Modi 2.0 government has disappointed agriculture experts who expected that the NDA government, having won an unprecedented mandate, will kick in structural changes via the budget. But the budget’s refusal to take the plunge shows that victory in an election is not enough to undertake deep reforms and a political consensus is required before decisions affecting millions of people can be taken.”
New Bottles, Old Wine
Among the measures the budget advocated was zero-budget farming, “We shall go back to basics on one count: zero-budget farming. It is not a new thing. We need to replicate this innovative model. Some states have already tried it. Farmers are already being trained in this practice. Steps such as this can help to double farmers income by 2022, in time for our 75th year of independence,” Sitharaman said. Introduced by Subhash Palekar 25 years ago, zero-budget natural farming is neither loaded with chemicals nor organic. It is a self-sustainable gardening of sorts, with minimum external intervention. However, Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj, dismissed the measure outright, saying, “It is far-fetched to even imagine that zero-budget farming can help improve farmers’ incomes, let alone double it.”
Another measure this budget resuscitated was the setting up of farmer producer organisations or FPOs. “We also hope to form 10,000 new farmer producer organisations, to ensure economies of scale for farmers over the next five years,” Sitharaman announced. The agriculture ministry has launched such FPOs in the past, but it did not eliminate the problem of middlemen gaining at the expense of farmers in various states.
The budget also announced a new scheme for the fisheries sector, the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana for the fisheries sector. ‘Fishing and fishermen communities are closely aligned with farming and are crucial to rural India,’ the budget points out. ‘This will address critical gaps in the value chain, including infrastructure, modernisation, traceability, production, productivity, post-harvest management and quality control.’ How this focus on fisheries, already a part of some states’ mission of a blue revolution, will address so many gaps at the same time was left unexplained.
The budget also announced the Scheme of Fund for Upgradation and Regeneration of Traditional Industries or SFURTI. The scheme, the budget proposes, ‘envisions setting up 100 new clusters during 2019-20 which would enable 50,000 artisans to join the economic value chain’. Among the sectors that are under focus are bamboo, honey and khadi. The scheme is of a piece with the government’s wider promise of heavy investment in agriculture infrastructure. “We will support private entrepreneurship in driving value-additions to farmers’ produce from the field and for those from allied activities, like bamboo and timber from the hedges and for generating renewable energy. Annadata can also be Urjadata (farm producers can be energy producers),” the finance minister said.
There was nothing, however, in the budget that could revive rural income and demand. Says Jakhar: “The few schemes which the finance minister mentioned in her budget speech have meagre allocation. Since farmers voted on issues other than their own livelihood, agriculture has lost the symbolic importance it used to enjoy in the budget.”
There were no bold strokes, no breakthroughs. Or, in World Cup season, as Congress leader Shashi Tharoor put it, “Unnecessary defensive strokes, dropped catches and was marred with no balls instead of bold boundaries.” The budget had no big ideas on irrigation, expanding agricultural marketing beyond eNAMS or GrAMS, or in plugging structural loopholes that riddle agriculture in India.
A Carnival of Grand Schemes
What Sitharaman did do was to reiterate a lot of the government’s schemes in the previous terms and suggest incremental changes in them. These schemes include Ujjawala Yojana for cooking gas, Saubhagya and Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana for electricity in every household, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Grameen (PMAY-G), the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY).
Accordingly, the budget proposed to take the number of rural homes built between 2014 and 2019 under PMAY-G, from 15.4 million to 19.5 million by 2022. These rural homes would come with electricity, toilets and LPG connections. The budget also talked of expanding the scope of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to include sustainable solid waste management in every village. The finance minister also emphasised that the average number of days for completion of houses reduced from 314 days in 2015-16 to 114 days in 2017-18. (See accompanying graphics.)
Besides rural housing, rural roads was another area the budget chose to focus on. ‘PMGSY-III is envisaged to upgrade 1,25,000 km of road length over the next five years, with an estimated cost of Rs 80,250 crore,’ reads the budget.
And while there were no radical announcements to revolutionise irrigation, except for speedy completion of pending projects, Sitharaman did touch upon water security and providing access to safe and adequate drinking water to all Indians as a priority of the NDA government. “A major step in this direction has been the constitution of the Jal Shakti Mantralaya, integrating the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation,” she announced. The new water ministry will work with states to ensure Har Ghar Jal (piped water supply) to all rural households by 2024. Mega water security, though, seems a longer term project for the Modi government and beyond the ambition and scope of the budget.
Meanwhile, the government seems committed to widen digital literacy in the country. According to the budget, some 20 million Indians have become digitally literate under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDSA). To bridge the rural-urban digital divide, Bharat-Net is targeting internet connectivity in local bodies in every panchayat in the country. ‘This will be speeded up,’ the budget proposes, ‘with assistance from Universal Service Obligation Fund and under a public-private partnership arrangement.’