[Answered] Critically analyze the Union Budget’s approach to the social sector, particularly in terms of allocations for education, health, and social welfare. (150 words, 10 marks)

Introduction: Give a brief context to the question

Body: Highlight and critically analyze the approach to the social sector

Conclusion: Way forward

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented her sixth Budget on February 1 where she focused on the government’s broad achievements over the last 10 years. Since this is a election year the budget was not complete but rather a vote on account and did not include major announcements on the revenue or expenditure accounts.

Approach to the social sector

  • Education: Both higher and school education received an increased allocation in the budget and schemes like PM Schools for Rising India (PM SHRI) got almost 50% more allocation than the last budget. The total allocation for the School Education Dept is 73,008.10 crore which is more than the previous allocation. Critics argue that a major share has gone to fund the PM-SHRI project which is to upgrade existing government schools in the country and not allocating funds for increasing government schools.
  • Health: A major announcement in the Budget pertains to health cover extension to ASHA & Anganwadi workers under PM-Jan Arogya Yojna. The allocation of the health sector has been increased from 89,155 crore to 90,658.63 crore. Experts in the sector argue Government to focus on Non-communicable diseases, increasing tax exemption for preventive healthcare & improving and upgrading the quality of subsidized treatments.
  • Social Sector: The Budget allocations for most social sector schemes and departments remain more or less the same as last year. The allocations for school and higher education as well as the health and family welfare departments show some nominal increases compared to last year’s BE, about 6-8%. While there was no new announcement of major schemes in the budget the Finance Minister highlighted that 25 crore people have been brought out of multidimensional poverty (MPI) in the last 10 years. Experts argue that MPI does not tell us about the trends in income poverty, a useful indicator of economic well-being. The further claim that the “average real income of the people has increased by 50%”, does not tell us much about how the lives of the poor changed as what matters is the distribution of the national income. Experts also argue that average rural worker income has increased marginally which is also reflected in the poor growth in private final consumption expenditure. There is a noticeable reversal in the structural shift of employment, marked by an increase in the share of agriculture in total employment. This suggests a scarcity of job opportunities beyond agriculture. The recent rise in women’s labor force participation rates over the past 4-5 years appears to be driven by distress, as a significant number of women are engaged in unpaid family labor rather than gainful employment.

Conclusion

The government needs to take into account comprehensive reform of health, education, and social sectors rather than focusing on big mega schemes. While these are important schemes for the poor, it doesn’t take away from the fact that health, education, and social security budgets remain woefully inadequate even as these services suffer from poor infrastructure, huge vacancies, and inadequate resources.

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