Much of the focus of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s first Budget speech and the chatter on social media was about making India a $5-trillion economy or about breaking the ‘briefcase’ tradition with red-clothed bahi-khata. What the Budget ignored were the Dalits and the poor, while the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes were mentioned only even once in the speech. India can become a $5-trillion economy, but what would be the position and share of Dalits in it?
ThePrint even published an article on “Why Nirmala Sitharaman renouncing budget briefcase for ‘bahi-khata’ is significant”. I just want to say, no, it was not significant. What the finance minister does not tell us and wants us to forget is that these bahi-khata carrying money lenders have been the worst exploiters of the rural masses and they still are in many parts of the country. So, breaking one tradition to go back to another regressive tradition is not significant.
When developed countries like New Zealand are moving away from the obsession of economic growth towards ‘wellbeing’ and social justice — the country had in May presented a first-of-its-kind “wellbeing budget”, where the focus was on mental health and people’s happiness, and not on improving the GDP — it is time for intellectuals in India to start focusing on improving the components of social stability. Benefits from India’s rising economy have not reached the masses (forget about Dalits), and many of the resources are still in the hands of a few. The national Budget should reflect what matters most to us. What we need today is social justice.
The Budget makes clear the underlying motives of the Narendra Modi government — it wants to sell public assets to private entities, and the Dalits see this as an attempt to nullify reservation and deprive them of their rights without touching tampering with the rules and regulations governing the reservation.
Devil is in the detail
As per the guidelines of the Scheduled Castes Sub Plan (SCSP) and the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP), budgetary allocation should be proportionate to the SC (16.6 per cent) and ST (8.6 per cent) population, both in physical and financial terms. But successive Budgets have denied the SC/STs their share. As per an analysis carried out by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights last year, the allocations in 2018-19 Budget were short by Rs 86,796 crore for the SCs and Rs 35,164 crore for the STs in proportion to their share in the country’s population. In the 2019-20 Budget, the shortfall is Rs 59,968 crore for the SCs and Rs 23,707 crore for the STs, according to the NCDHR’s report for this year titled ‘Dalit Adivasi Budget Analysis’.
Finance Minister Sitharaman presented a total expenditure budget of Rs 2,786,349 crore for the financial year 2019-20. The due allocation for the SCs should have been Rs 1,39,660 crore but they received only Rs 76,801 crore; similarly, the allocation for the STs should have been Rs 75,987 crore but the amount allocated was only Rs 50,086 crore.
Moreover, out of the respective allocation for the two communities, only around Rs 34,000 crore goes to schemes targeted for the SCs and around Rs 21,600 crore to schemes targeted for the STs. The remaining amount goes to schemes that have no impact on the wellbeing of members of the two deprived communities.
The NCDHR’s analysis notes that “the proportion of targeted schemes is 42.82 per cent with Rs 34,833 crore (for) the SCs and 40.9 per cent with Rs 21,628 crore for the STs. These are de facto general schemes, with a mask of SC or ST budget schemes. They do not qualify as SC, ST schemes that benefit the communities.”
For the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, the Modi government has allocated Rs 110 crore, which is higher than the previous year’s Rs 55 crore. But even the increased amount is not enough to eradicate the widespread practice. Moreover, these funds hardly reach the beneficiaries. An RTI application had revealed that for the FY 2015-16, Rs 36 crore of the total amount allocated for manual scavengers’ rehabilitation remained unutilised. The unused amount for 2017-18 was Rs 24 crore. The scenario was such that no amount had been spent until September 22, 2017.
The allocation for post-matric scholarship for the SC has been reduced from Rs 3,000 crore in last year’s Budget to Rs 2,926 crore this time. The funds allocated for higher education for the SCs and the STs have also been grossly reduced – the UGC has reduced by 23.5 per cent and the IGNOU by more than 50 per cent.
The finance minister’s mention of “naari tu narayani” would mean little if the amount allocated to ensure SC/ST women have better access to justice and they are adequately compensated for acts of violence remains insignificant. The government has only allocated Rs 147 crore for the SC/ST women under the prevention of atrocities Act, that too for sensitisation programmes. “When crimes against Dalit women have increased, how can such low allocation do any justice,” asks Benna Pallikal, the general secretary of NCDHR. I too wonder whether the slogan “naari to narayani” includes Dalit women.
Not a single rupee has been allocated to National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation, while it was Rs 30 crore in last year’s Budget. Similarly, not a single paisa has been allocated to National Scheduled Castes Finance and Development Corporation, which mobilises and facilitates funds for economic empowerment of the SCs. Last year’s budgetary allocation was around Rs 137 crore.
Moreover, there is no inbuilt mechanism to track the accountability and implementation of schemes meant for the SCs and the STs, which means the allocated funds rarely reach the target population.
It is not just Modi government that has denied Dalits their budget but previous central as well as state governments have done the same.
In 2010, the Congress government in Delhi had diverted Rs 744 crore from funds meant for the ‘poor sections of the society’ to projects related to the Commonwealth Games. The government had then claimed the funds were “combined with the development funds”. Similarly, there is a record rise in the unspent funds for the Dalits and tribals under the Modi-led BJP government. In 2016, then Congress-led government in Karnataka had allegedly diverted as much as Rs 6,000 crore from funds meant for the SC/STs to the upper castes.
If we really want to improve the situation of the SC/STs, there should not be any diversion of funds from SCSP and TSP and there should be proper monitoring. Fund allocated for the Dalits should be used on time, and all those involved in irregularities should be punished. For instance, delay in issuing scholarships to Dalit students should be made a criminal offence.
Otherwise, how else does India plan on achieving social justice? Or is it not part of the government’s plans? Communities deprived of their rights for centuries should be brought into the mainstream, otherwise it doesn’t matter even if India becomes a $5-trillion economy because it would not be worth it if a large section of the country’s population is still struggling and suffering. SCSP and TSP could be called visionary steps, but the purpose behind their creation has been defeated by acts of successive governments — insufficient allocation in the Budget, fund diversion, almost no accountability on government’s part, and non-participation of the SC/STs in pre-and-post planning of the Budget.
If the government is serious about ‘sabka vishwas’ (everyone’s trust) along with ‘sabka vikas’ (development for all), enough budgetary allocation for the marginalised communities is needed. At the same time, participation of these communities in policy-making while preparing the budget and schemes for their development should be made compulsory.
The author is the founder editor of Velivada, a web publication, and runs the online web portal Ambedkar Caravan. Views are personal.
This article has been updated to reflect a correction.