What’s the point of dissecting the state budget?

What was pathetic about the state budget presented last week, was not so much the populism it was based on – that was expected – as was the reactions to it from various sections, including politicians of parties other than the BJP.

The budget is meant as an exercise to allocate public money for the betterment of the people – with the emphasis categorically on "betterment of the people". It is NOT money available to the ruling party, for announcing measures that would enhance its prospects in the next elections. That perspective has, alas, been completely lost sight of, by every party and politician who presents a budget, whether at the state level or for the nation. And we, as the people making up a democracy, are also playing along, not raising pour voices on such (mis) appropriation of taxpayers’ money for political capital at the elections.
Predictably, those in the opposition have called chief minister Shettar’s budget an exercise in wooing voters.

Rice at Rs 2 a kg. Last time it was synthetic saris and cash in the slums, which the poor received with gratitude (even though some of them were told that receiving goodies did not mean they were forced to vote for that party – no one tells them that, and activists who tried to, faced the possibility of threat or worse from goondas who monitored the slums.

Rice at Rs 2 for whom? I can show you poor residents of Bengaluru who have been running from one office to another, in pursuit of a ration card, for two years. On some pretext or the other, lower level minions in the administration block their access, to both cards and higher authorities ("Sahiburu ello hogiddare, enu aagubeku?")

Even my personal intervention and helping with registration via the internet has not helped one family of six get the ration card they are entitled to. The man works as a watchman, earns Rs 3,300 (he is told that he is "not entitled to a "BPL" card – he spends Rs 30 for a kg of rice per day, Rs 900 a month, to feed his three children and aged mother just rice and watery sambar, and one girl has been diagnosed as severely malnourished). He doesn’t qualify for the Rs 2 bonanza.

So who does? And of those who qualify, how many will actually get it? Is there any point in this exercise of announcing ‘measures" for the voters as long as the administration does not follow up with checks to ensure that the policies announced are actually reaching the beneficiaries, and corruption is rampant?

Rs 200 crores to mutts and religious institutions – we are supposed to be a secular democracy. Can public money be handed over to mutts? Do the people have any voice in deciding this? Is it justified when government schools do not have even basic facilities, the midday meals scheme is ridden by periodical scams, and the allocation for a "nutritious meal" for a growing child has been "hiked from Rs 4.60 to Rs 6". What nutrition can one get for that kind of money?

Anganwadi workers went on strike because they had not been paid salaries for months; street sweepers went on strike because they have to remove filth and muck with bare hands, and have no basic facilities.

Now, milk prices have been hiked steeply this week (how many poor families will substitute tea for milk, for their children? With what long term effects?). The argument is that milk producers need to be compensated for the hike in oil prices. It is a ring-a-ring-o’-roses game in which "all fall down" is indeed the cruel end result.

It is customary for politicians in the opposition, to find fault each time a budget is presented – and indeed it is impossible to please all, given the resource constraints – but it is time we questioned even that assumption about "resource constraints". There is plenty of money, hundreds of crores, available, for installing a musical fountain at the legislators’ home, going globe trotting on jaunts at public expense. There is money, quite a lot of it, which could be used for public good. The will power is lacking among those in power – whatever their party affiliations.

The budget announces an increase in Social Security Pensions for destitute widows, physically challenged, and senior citizens above 80. Announcing is one thing, ensuring its implementation is quite another – I can show you destitute widows who sit outside the post office day after day, waiting for their miserably meagre pensions, I can show you physically handicapped citizens who have given up trying to access their entitlements because the tahsildar will not give them the certificates they need. I can show you 80 year old street vendors who slog all day, selling fruit, because they are not even told that they are entitled to state relief.

The budget details do not reach those who are illiterate – no one goes to the grassroots to tell them what the government has set apart for them so that they can claim it, no one monitors the employees at the lower levels to ensure that the needy get what they are entitled to.

We are no longer talking in terms of crores, or even hundreds of crores, it is now thousands and lakhs of crores (farmers’ subsidies total Rs 22,310 crores)

The Rs 2 per kg rice scheme is estimated to cost the state Rs 1,200 crores. It costs far more than Rs 2 to grow a kg of rice. Farmers do not benefit from these measures.

So who pays? Where does the money come from, if the state is "cash strapped". You and I end up paying for the subsidy. Which is okay if we are assured that the extra we pay goes to benefit those who deserve it. My studies as an investigative reporter over the years, and the studies reported in the press, show that benefits go to line the pockets of those in power, not the deserving.

Is there any point, in even dissecting the budget, when it has been reduced to a mere paper exercise to benefit the party, rather than the needy poor and the middle classes being squeezed by rising food prices?


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About Sakuntala Narasimhan 73 Articles
Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Jayanagar based writer, musician and consumer activist.