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2023-24 budget allocation for social sector, tribals witnessed 'difficult-to-justify' cuts

By Bharat Dogra* 

While there is a provision for revising original allocations (called BE or budget estimate) in budget later in the year (when Revised Estimate or RE is prepared), normally a downward reduction is not expected in those cases where the BE was quite low to start with or where the scheme or the department/ministry is a high priority one.
However, the experience of the ongoing financial year 2023-24 is contrary to this expectation and in fact there have been quite a few arbitrary, difficult to justify cuts.
As the health sector is known to be much under-funded, a big cut here was not expected. However in reality we find that the BE for the Department of Health and Family Welfare of Rs 86175 crore was reduced to RE of Rs 77,624 crore, a cut of over Rs 8,000 crore.
In the case of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs the BE of Rs 76,431 crore was cut to RE of Rs 69,270 crore, a cut of over Rs 7,000 crore.
Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is clearly a high priority Ministry. However even its BE of Rs 10,222 crore was cut to RE of Rs 7,848 crore.
The Ministry of Planning has also suffered badly despite its obvious importance. Its already very low BE of Rs 824 crore was cut to RE of Rs 514 crore.
In the case of the Department of Science and Technology, the BE of Rs 7931 crore was cut to RE of just Rs 4891 crore.
In the case of the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, the BE of Rs 5443 crore was cut to RE of Rs 3961 crore.
In addition there were big cuts in the Department of Justice and Social Empowerment and Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Coming now to some specific schemes, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (housing for the poor) is a high priority and widely publicized scheme of the government. However even its BE of Rs 79,590 crore was cut very heavily to RE of Rs 54,103 crore, a cut of over Rs 25000 crore.
Another priority development scheme is of rural roads (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana). Its BE of Rs 19,000 crore was cut to RE of Rs 17,000 crore.
The BE of Rs 16,000 crore for Urban Rejuvenation Mission was cut to RE of Rs 13,200 crore.
In the case of Swachh Bharat Mission Urban (urban sanitation program) the BE of Rs 5,000 crore was reduced to RE of Rs 2,550 crore.
In the case of Mission Shakti (for protection and empowerment of women) BE of Rs 3143 crore was reduced to RE of Rs 2,325 crore.
In the case of SANKALP (skill acquisition) BE of Rs 488 crore was reduced to exactly half RE -- Rs 244 crore.
Despite all the publicity given to the National Mission for Natural Farming, its BE of Rs 459 crore was cut very heavily to get RE of just Rs 100 crore.
Despite its obvious importance, the BE of the Border Area Development Program was cut from Rs 600 crore to RE of just Rs 251 crore.
In the case of such a high program like the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project its BE of Rs 110 crore was cut very heavily to just Rs 2 crore.
In addition there were big cuts in several schemes for weaker sections including Eklavya residential schools and SEED, and even some core of the core programs and schemes.
Such arbitrary cuts in priority schemes and programs are a matter of great concern and steps should be taken immediately and with a sense of urgency to avoid such arbitrary cuts in future.

Tribal welfare: Low utilisation of funds

Tribal communities need and deserve a high priority for welfare schemes as there has been a past record of neglect and exploitation. The government has also repeatedly confirmed its commitment to welfare schemes for tribal communities. Unfortunately when we look at the recent record of utilization of already allocated funds, then this reveals that utilization has been shockingly low.
The original allocation for the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the 2023-24 financial year budget was Rs 12,461 crore (one crore=10 million). This is called the Budget Estimate or BE. However later in the year Revised Estimate (RE) is prepared which generally should not be lower that the BE in the context of such a high priority ministry.
However, it is shocking to know that the RE for this ministry was reduced to as low as Rs 7,605 crore. In other words there was a reduction of as much as Rs 4,856 crore, or 38%. This has happened at a time when there are so many urgent unmet needs of tribal communities. One can imagine how much in terms of education, livelihood support etc. could have been achieved by a careful utilization of Rs 4,856 crore. Hence this is very unfortunate and a cause for very serious concern.
When we look at Central Sector Schemes/Projects of this ministry then the BE for this year (2023-24) was INR 6,618 crore. However RE for this was reduced to just Rs 3,072 crore. In other words in this context the cut has been more than 50%.
Coming now to centrally sponsored schemes the BE was Rs 4,295 crore while this was cut to RE of 3,285 crore later in the year.
In the case of the Umbrella Scheme for the Development of Scheduled Tribes (which is referred to as one of the core of the core schemes by the government, testifying to its importance), the reduction from BE to RE is the same as this is the main Centrally Sponsored Scheme in this context (from BE of Rs 4,295 crore to RE of Rs 3,285 crore).
What such big declines can mean in terms of the problems and distress suffered by existing and potential beneficiaries of various development and welfare schemes can be imagined. To give just one example, in the case of the central sector scheme of ‘Eklavya Model Residential Schools’ the BE of INR 5,943 crore was reduced to RE of just Rs 2,471 crore, a reduction of as much as Rs 3,472 crore. Only 42% was left, 58% was gone. A question arises regarding the impact on these schools, where already most students are studying in difficult conditions.
The above analysis has been in the context mainly of scheduled tribes and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. However some other tribal communities such as nomadic tribes, semi-nomadic tribes and denotified tribes are covered under the Department of Social justice and Empowerment. There is a scheme for economic empowerment for DNTs, NTs and SNTs which is briefly called SEED. For this INR 40 crore was allocated in 2023-24 which to start with was very low for a national level scheme. However this was further cut to just Rs 15 crore in 2023-24.
Clearly such arbitrary cuts in welfare schemes of tribal communities are very worrying, and learning from this, immediate steps should be taken to avoid cuts and improve utilization in the new financial year 2024-25.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Planet in Peril”, “Protecting Earth for Children” and “A Day in 2071”

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