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Unexpected? Food, nutrition budget down by Rs 77,500 crore, NREGA by Rs 29,000 crore

By Bharat Dogra* 

The Union budget for the year has been presented at a time of growing concerns that expectations regarding an inclusive recovery from the COVID and lockdown related economic crisis have not been realized for millions of poor households, while inequalities have been increasing sharply. 
There was therefore hope for using this budget as an instrument for providing immediate relief to the bottom half of the population (which now has access to only 3 to 6% of the total wealth, according to various estimates, and only 13% of the total income of the country) for improving its prospects for sustainable and stable livelihoods as well as better access to essential services like education, nutrition programs, health and sanitation.
The work available under NREGA or the  National Rural Employment Guarantee Act can be very important for some of the poorest households in these difficult times. The allocation in the previous year was found to be adequate just for about just 40 days or so of employment. 
As NREGA stipulates the availability of 100 days of work and as the wage-rate as well as proportion of wage costs to material costs are broadly known, it is possible to find out the budget needed for the fulfillment of this legal obligation, once we assume that number of workers seeking employment will be the same as the previous year.
According to calculations made by the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG), a budgetary provision of INR 2,71,000 crore is needed in the union budget for 2023-24 for NREGA to fulfill the obligation of 100 days of work for these workers. INR 98,467 crore was spent on this programme in 2021-22. 
The revised estimate for this in 2022-23 was INR 89,400 crore. However, the allocation for financial year 2023-24 regarding this program with legal stipulations attached to it amounts to only INR 60,000 crore.
The National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) is by far the most important programme for making available pensions to the elderly people, widows and disability affected persons in the unorganized sector. 
There is widespread concern over the stagnation in the budget for this programme (leaving aside any allocation made under the COVID package) in recent years, despite the obvious urgency of this programme. This year a big rise in NSAP was expected but the allocation at INR 9,636 is even marginally lower than the allocation for the previous year.

Nutrition programmes

Nutrition programmes obviously have a high priority keeping in view the high levels of malnutrition. The government has been announcing plans for significant improvements without providing the budget for these, with the result that, not to talk of big improvements, even the maintenance of normal levels has become difficult. This year the budget for major allocations under food and nutrition are lower or stagnant.
There was hope that relief would be provided to the bottom half of population which has access to only 3-6% of the total wealth
Indeed, a disturbing aspect of the union budget for the year 2023-24 relates to food and nutrition. In the case of most allocations there is a decline compared to the previous year or else there is near stagnation, which also means a decline in real terms after accounting for inflation. 
Although so many schemes and programmes impact the food and nutrition situation, here we concentrate attention on five leading programmes.
The highest expenditure incurred in the context of   food and nutrition is on the food subsidy given by the government to the Food Corporation of India under the National Food Security Act. INR 2,08,929 crore was spent on this during 2021-22. During the next year the Revised Estimate (RE) for this was INR 2,14,696 crore. 
As compared to this, the allocation for 2023-24 in the recently presented union budget is only INR 1,37,207 crore. This is only about two-thirds of last year’s revised budget while the need is for higher allocation taking into account inflation and higher number of people. 
The food subsidy for decentralized procurement of food grain under the NFSA was INR 79,789 crore in 2021-22. The Revised Estimate for 2022-23 was INR 72,282 crore. By way of comparison, this has come down to INR 59,793  crore in the allocation for 2023-24.
Next we come to two core nutrition programmes which have been renamed and have taken a new form with mergers. In the case of Saksham Poshan and Anganwadi the allocation this year is almost the same as the previous year. However in real terms, after accounting for inflation, this is a decline. Then we must also consider that last year also this was considered to be inadequate allocation keeping in view real needs. 
In the case of the second core nutrition programme, called PM Poshan, the revised estimate last year was INR 12,800 crore while the budget allocation this year is only INR 11,600 crore, despite being much talk of improving and adding to this programme.
Labour welfare is an important area of concern but the budget for important labour welfare schemes has come down. Budgets for important schemes of welfare of minorities too have suffered. Budget of schemes under Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities has also suffered.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food', ‘Man over Machine' and ‘Protecting Earth for Children'

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