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51 cow universities, old pension scheme, jobs — what RSS affiliates want from 2023 Budget

Welfare schemes and ‘self-reliance’ figure high on Sangh organisations’ wishlists for finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman ahead of the Budget, which she will present on 1 February.

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New Delhi: Various affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have not held back while presenting their wishlists to Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman for the 2023-24 Budget, which she will present on 1 February next year, ThePrint has learnt.

From the setting up of 51 cow-centric universities, to an inflation-linked increase in the minimum support income for farmers under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme, to measures to discourage Chinese imports, to creating more jobs — these are just a fraction of the demands from Sangh Parivar bodies during Sitharaman’s pre-Budget consultations with several stakeholder groups, held between 21 and 28 November.

While the RSS is the ideological fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),  the organisation and its affiliates have not always been completely on board with the government’s fiscal policies, and have occasionally called for a redirection.

For instance, the RSS last year passed a resolution on a “Bharatiya economic model” to address the unemployment crisis, increasing aatmanirbharta (self-sufficiency) through promoting homegrown industries, and reducing the emphasis on foreign direct investment (FDI).

Some of these themes were also evident in this month’s submissions to the government by RSS-linked affiliates including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (a labour union), the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (which represents farmers’ interests), and the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (which promotes economic self-sufficiency).

Also read: Prudence over populism — why Modi govt must resist rolling out big-ticket schemes in Budget 2023

Demands for farmers’ welfare, rural growth

In a 22 November consultation meeting that agriculture bodies with Sitharaman, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) put forth a laundry list of demands to reduce farmers’ distress and boost agrarian entrepreneurship.

Speaking to ThePrint, BKS general-secretary Mohini Mohan Mishra, who was at the meeting, said that the body had pointed out that farmers were producers of food, but many of the inputs they used were taxed under GST. Further, they were not getting any input tax credit.

“How can farmers’ incomes be raised if we do not reduce their distress in some way?” Mishra said, adding that the BKU had called for provisions including input tax credit for farmers and the removal of GST for agricultural inputs.

Further, instead of instead of channelling subsidies through manufacturers of fertilisers, the government should give them to farmers as direct benefit transfers (DBTs), Mishra said.

Another demand from the BKS was that the minimum income support for farmers of Rs 6,000 per year under the PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme should be linked with inflation and increased accordingly.

“It is a highly popular scheme, but it was started in 2018-19. Since then, input costs of agriculture have increased due to inflation; its ceiling should be increased to de-stress small farmers,” Mishra said.

The BKS also pitched increasing the limit of kisan credit cards from Rs 3 lakh to Rs 10 lakh, while also giving card-holders a licence to establish micro-processing food units without needing to get certification from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

“Getting FSSAI certification is a lengthy process with many hurdles. The government already has the data of kisan credit card-holders and so they should be given a licence to become entrepreneurs. It will help generate employment,” Mishra argued.

The Sangh farmers’ body has, in addition, offered some suggestions to help boost organic farming, pointing out that Modi has described it as a basis for economic success.

To this end, the BKS has proposed the setting up of 51 universities to build research and knowledge in “cow-based” organic farming, and help promote it across the country. This, claimed Mishra, would also facilitate entrepreneurship in rural areas.

Finally, the BKS raised the issue of a languishing scheme to develop 22,000 haats (village markets) into gramin agricultural markets (GrAMs). This scheme was announced by the late former finance minister Arun Jaitley in the 2018-19 Budget with a Rs 2,000 crore outlay.

A BKS functionary told ThePrint that most of this allocation remains unspent and that the scheme should receive a fresh push to generate employment in the rural sector.

A push for old pension scheme, hiking seniors’ FD

The labour wing of the RSS, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), was part of a pre-Budget meeting of trade union representatives on 28 November.

One of the major asks of the BMS was to bring back the old pension scheme (OPS) for government employees — which ironically echoes the poll promises of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.

The OPS was phased out in 2004 and replaced with the National Pension Scheme (NPS), which has led to several agitations because the new scheme has fewer benefits for employees.

Speaking to ThePrint, BMS general secretary Ravindra Himte said that the organisation has also demanded social security, minimum health cover, and pension benefits for all workers through a policy framework.

“The government has the data of about 28 crore unorganised sector workers in the e-SHRAM portal… there is a need for allocations of funds for social security schemes for them. A pension comprising 50 per cent of their last drawn salary can also be allocated for unorganised workers,” Himte said.

The focus of the budget, according to him, should be on introducing welfare schemes for the unorganised sector as well as the promotion of village-based, micro, and small industries.

The BMS also claimed that though the Union government increased the wages of ASHA (which stands for accredited social health activist) and anganwadi workers in 2018, payments have not always been disbursed appropriately by states. These states, it said, should be “warned”.

The RSS affiliate also raised the issue of the Employees’ Pension Scheme (EPS-95), over which it had carried out a protest in January, reiterating its demand that the minimum pension should be raised from Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000 per month. This, it said, should benefit all 70 lakh eligible pensioners.

For senior citizens, the BMS has advocated raising the limit of the fixed deposit scheme for the elderly from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 30 lakh, and also to restore railway travel concessions.

The BMS has further proposed that legislation should be brought in for all government welfare schemes, like Ayushman Bharat and PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi, so that no future dispensation can discontinue them midway.

A call for ‘self-reliance’

The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), which is another RSS affiliate working to promote the interests of local traders and small-scale industries, has asked the finance minister to raise customs duties to discourage the import of basic items from China. The SJM was part of Sitharaman’s consultations with economists on 28 November.

In Budget 2022, notably, Sitharaman had introduced higher customs duties for several such items, including umbrellas and imitation jewellery.

Ashwini Mahajan, the national co-convenor of the SJM, told ThePrint that the body had reinforced that the Budget should implement the vision of “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, or self-reliant India.

“Chinese imports should be discouraged to raise manufacturing in small-scale industries and to generate employment. Duties on Chinese goods should be raised,” he said

The swadeshi lobby has also proposed that the rural sector could be de-stressed by making more budgetary provisions for non-crop activities such as fisheries, horticulture, and allied services.

“Since wages are very low in the rural sector, there is a lot of migration from villages to towns. We have to make provisions to create employment in rural India,” Mahajan said.

He added that another suggestion given to Sitharaman was to make it set up a mandatory outlay for research and development spending by the corporate sector. This, Mahajan said, could be implemented like the country’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) law, which mandates that companies earning more than a certain amount must spend a percentage of their profits on social welfare initiatives.

“Doing so will create a whole new horizon for the country’s research-based ecosystem,” he added.

‘Semi-final Budget’

While the worst of pandemic-related economic aftershocks in India seems to be behind, growth still hasn’t caught up to pre-Covid levels, leading to a somewhat sombre outlook for income and employment.

Amid an international slowdown, the Russia-Ukraine war, and with little legroom for tax concessions, Sitharaman will have to strike the precarious balance between fiscal prudence and an infra push, especially keeping in mind next year’s elections in Karnataka, Telangana, and the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh.

Speaking to ThePrint, a senior BJP leader said that the government was aware of the challenges before it.

“Spending will be crucial for the recovery of the economy, and employment is a challenge that needs to be addressed in the upcoming budget. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi distributed 71,000 appointment letters to the youth (as part of the Rozgar Mela scheme)… so government is aware of this problem,” he said.

Another BJP leader said that inflation and unemployment could both turn out to be big issues in poll-bound states. “The party will have to see how budget allocation should be done to boost employment and infrastructure in these key states. The rural economy should be a focus,” he said, pointing out that 116 out of a total of 543 Lok Sabha seats fall in states that are going to the polls next year. “It will be a semi-final Budget before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections,” he added.

(edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: GDP data this week will indicate FY23 outlook. But analysis shows growth still below pre-Covid yrs




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