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New Rajasthan laws seek to help poor, but does the government have resources?

By Bharat Dogra 

Recent steps taken by the government of Rajasthan, one of the better governed states of India, can result in providing much needed relief to the weaker sections ( with rights based longer term commitments added) and hence deserve our high praise and appreciation. 
The Chief Minister Mr. Ashok Gehlot deserves appreciation for his commitment to giving high priority to pushing ahead a number of significant welfare steps in recent times, as well as involving several reputed social activists and organizations of high integrity in these steps, while these social organizations led by the Rajasthan Soochna va Adhikar Abhiyan (a group of about 80 civil society organizations) in turn deserve praise for using all their experience to bring in more durable rights based laws for the poor, doing away with the more frequent doles or concessions oriented approach to welfare.
The Minimum Guaranteed Income Act 2023 of Rajasthan consolidates and enhances existing programs like those for rural and urban employment guarantee and for pensions for the poor. The Gehlot government in fact has been a pioneer of the urban employment program. With further enhancement now an assurance of 125 days employment is given for both urban and rural employment programs. 
With increased pensions for the elderly, the disabled and for widows and with even more significant annual increase of 15% built into the program, it is hoped that this together would amount to significant income support, particularly when this is seen in addition to the earlier significant relief provided in the form of a big health initiative which can significantly reduce the indebtedness and sinking into poverty that arises from serious health problems and health or injury emergences. 
In addition there are other helpful initiatives likely a dedicated fund to help scheduled castes and tribes, assurance of work for traditional art performers, a recent law to help gig workers, welfare measures for nomadic groups and some other deprived groups.
Prominent economist Prabhat Patnaik referred to these recent steps as ‘very impressive’ at a press conference in Delhi. While all this is to be certainly welcomed, one should nevertheless be cautious regarding the limitations of such welfare measures in order to present a more balanced and accurate view.
There are basically four approaches to reducing that part of human distress which is related to the denial of fulfillment of basic needs. Firstly, there is the component relating to improving government services and programs with an emphasis on helping the weaker sections in particular (including making available more funds for these). Secondly, there are aspects leading to a more comprehensive improvement of economy, including structural measures to reduce inequalities. Thirdly, there are social reforms, for example those related to improving the access to resources for women, deprived children and discrimination affected groups, as well as those related to reducing consumption of various intoxicants etc. Last but certainly not the least, there are various efforts for environment protection and sustainability. All these four categories are of course related to each other to some extent.
The most important and durable help for the poor is in the second category but this has been the most neglected in most parts of the country including Rajasthan. The reforms of the Rajasthan government, which are most welcome, are confined mainly to the first category, to some extent to the third category and there is good potential of first category of work also contributing to the fourth category, particularly in the form of water conservation.
Even within the first category, reforms are likely to be most effective only to the extent that budgetary resources are adequately available for them and their implementation can be kept free from corruption.
Fortunately Rajasthan has been the scene of many important transparency, governance improvement and anti-corruption movements as well. It is also encouraging that the groups involved in such transparency and anti-corruption movements have also been involved in the advocacy and subsequently formulation of recent important initiatives of the Rajasthan government. Nevertheless it would be well to remember that despite all that has been done, big corruption scams have continued to take place in Rajasthan and one should not be complacent regarding this.
Regarding budgetary resources, the capacity of most state governments in India in recent years has been constrained due to the lesser capacity to independently raise resources (following the introduction of the GST regime) as well as the fixed very high share of government finances going to government staff salaries and pensions or clearing debt and interest payments. Hence it remains to be seen to what extent state governments remain capable of fulfillment their commitments regarding recently announced initiatives, particularly where annual increments (which too are welcome and needed of course) are involved.
However it is encouraging to know, as prominent activist Nikhil Dey stated at the press conference, that the Rajasthan government has held important consultations with civil society activists regarding making budgets a highly participative process, both at the pre-budget and post-budget stages. This will be helpful for raising the budgetary resources for these important initiatives in transparent and participative ways.
Hence the highly welcome initiatives of the Rajasthan government should be seen in a wider perspective, so as to maintain a balance, and also to remember that despite the importance of what has been achieved, what remains to be achieved is still more than what has been achieved.
---  
The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine, When the Two Streams Met and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food

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