It's interesting that MGNREGS lives to die another day. It has received an additional allocation of Rs 34,000 crore but is that for life saving or to keep it up and running? The finance minister played this one close to his chest.
The brightest spot in the Budget in social sector spending is in education. Research has shown that the best schools are those that are integrated from primary to higher secondary levels and the fetish of supporting a primary school within a kilometre of habitation is actually doing more harm than good. Nobody at the top has ever taken this conclusion further but it is very likely that this budget might have. The finance minister's emphasis to shore up and strengthen secondary schools within five km from habitation could well be a big step in that direction.
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Yes, there is a nod in the direction of health but it is barely perceptible. If you blink, you might altogether miss Section 125 which, incidentally, is really about tax benefits. The promise on health that was in the early section of the Budget speech is not picked up later. Setting up AIIMS look-alikes in Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir or Assam will not help unless quality medical care is made available universally.
The prime minister's earlier statements on Universal Health Assurance have not been echoed in this Budget. There has been an increase in the limit of tax deductions on health insurance premiums for individuals and family from Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 and for senior citizens from Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000, and some aid in providing medical living devices to elderly, but the health issue, if truth be told, has been dodged. Also, India has roughly half the number of children in South Asia who are acutely malnutritioned. A special emergency provision to tackle this scourge would have been a very welcome step, as achieving this would not take that much money, but more government support and encouragement.
If the National Skill Development Mission is to take off, it would be a good idea to ensure children survive and are in good shape to train and find jobs later in life. On the subject, it is time the corporate sector also chipped in to make this a reality. In Germany, business chambers play an active role in this process but not here. While one should encourage the ease of doing business, if India is to be a manufacturing hub, private enterprises should also put some skin in the game when it comes to upskilling the youth.
Finally, it appears the air quality is slowly getting to be the same for both VIPs and ordinary folk. Jaitley promised that by 2022, upwards of 1,75,000 MW of renewable energy would be produced. If that happens, give or take 1,000 MW, the NDA could well be in power at that time, too. But for that, some concrete steps must start now.