The newspapers opened with a full-page advertisement by the government headlined, “9 Years: Building New India, Ensuring Welfare of the Poor”. Has the Modi government got the contours of its development strategy right? After all, in these nine years, GDP growth has been satisfactory and the government claims to have implemented several welfare schemes for the poor – pucca houses, toilets, tap water connections, and LPG connections, to name those that the government has highlighted.
However, the list of achievements in the advertisement is more noticeable for their conspicuous absence of substantive programs in vital areas that matter most to people – health, education, nutrition, and livelihoods. More worryingly, extremely disturbing signs have emerged. There are clear signs of an increasingly divisive society. Further, India is now counted amongst the most unequal societies with unacceptably high levels of unemployment and poverty.
A conspicuous absence of substantive programs
In the health sector, the government has highlighted the opening of 23 AIIMSs’ and coverage of 50 crore persons under its much-publicised Ayushman Bharat scheme. The budget outlays for the establishment of the new AIIMSs’ has not only seen tardy implementation but massive budget overruns from the original estimate of Rs 650 crore to close to Rs 7,000 crore. Most of these institutes are yet to get fully functional.
This money could have been much better spent on strengthening hundreds of district hospitals that are in a pitiable state. This would have obviated the need for poor households to go to AIIMSs’ in the first place. Further, as the core of Ayushman Bharat is to reimburse the hospital expenses of private hospitals, there has been a large diversion of the virtually static and small health budget to private players. Estimates suggest that Ayushman Bharat could eventually gobble up to 75 per cent of the centre’s health budget.
Next, let us visit the government’s performance on food security and nutrition. Despite the supply of large quantities of free and subsidised food grains, the Global Hunger Index ranks India 107 out of 121 countries. The government’s own NHFS-5 survey presents a grim picture of child malnutrition: as many as 35% are stunted, 19.3% “wasted”, and 32% are underweight. Massive nutrition imbalances remain a major cause of worry. The government needs to rid itself of the mindset that the supply of cereals alone can tackle child and adult malnutrition, however much it may enable it to garner votes.
Childcare budgets have remained static and even cost-effective interventions such as providing iron supplements to tackle the rising prevalence of anemia, and food fortification have remained on the back burner.
Third, despite the announcement with much fanfare of the New Education Policy, school education budgets have seen little increase. There is no mention of any achievement by the government in the area of school education – an area that is fundamental to human development. Surveys suggest that learning levels are extremely poor and a majority of children go on to class five and even beyond without learning to read or write.
Fourth, despite alarmingly high levels of poverty and unemployment, the list of achievements does not note even a single program that directly addresses poverty and improves livelihoods. There is clear evidence that 70 per cent of GDP will come from urban areas and that most new jobs will come from towns and cities. Yet budget allocations to improve urban infrastructure and the quality of life in towns and cities have been abysmally low. The conditions of slum residents and migrant labour, an estimated 25 per cent of the urban population, can best be described as unlivable. Most urban areas lack access to proper sanitation and solid waste management is pathetic – the “Swach Bharat” mission seems a forgotten narrative for India’s towns and cities.
Finally, apart from the rhetoric of Nari Shakti, there has been little effort at reducing the gender divide or promoting women’s employment. The female labour force participation rate is at a low 23 per cent. Most women that are in the labour market are engaged in agricultural labour, in low-skill and poorly paid jobs or are self-employed earning a pittance as street vendors or the like. The work that women are having to undertake reflects a regressive form of feminisation as little attention has been paid to changing patriarchal and gendered mindsets. And we have seen in recent days, even women wrestlers who should serve as role models are vilified rather than applauded.
Will we see a course correction?
Sanjay Kaul is a development policy analyst and author of An Alternative Development Agenda for India.