Bold, historic and reforming.

These are some of the keywords that dominated the news coverage of India’s first pandemic budget. While The Print editor Shekhar Gupta said that the Budget marked a shift in the “Right” direction, India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai said that informed opinion believed that it was the “best Budget” . Calling the budget a “bold leap”, the editorial board of the Indian Express concluded that the “government means business”.

The narrative around the Union Budget showed a complete disconnect from what ordinary people expect not just from the government but also the media.

The government indeed meant business when it offered several incentives to start-ups and businesses like Rs. 1.97 lakh crore in next five years for production-linked incentive schemes for 13 sectors and extending tax holidays. The Budget’s policy thrusts on infrastructure, privatisation, and fiscal transparency set the Sensex soaring.

However, it also failed to bring adequate relief to the poor or ensure redistributive justice. The education sector saw a staggering Rs 6,000 crore cut at a time when India facing one of the highest school dropout rates on the back of the pandemic. At a time when, as a report by Oxfam India highlighted, India’s 100 top billionaires saw their fortunes increase during this time of unprecedented economic crisis, no commitments were made to bring in a wealth tax or ensure growth was equitable and inclusive.

Oxfam’s recent Fight Inequality Alliance survey suggests that 78% people were in favour of imposing a 2% Covid cess on individuals earning more than Rs 2 crore per annum. Despite projecting a Rs 80,000-crore shortfall to meet expenditure targets, the Budget fails to tax the rich and make the wealthy pay their fair share for the public good. Instead, the finance minister proposes to meet the shortfall through market borrowing.

Greater spending

Several civil society organisations and experts also urged the government to spend more on essential public services and welfare instead of on corporations and businesses. The Fight Inequality Alliance – an alliance of NGOs, civil society, environmental groups, trade unions and social movements – held rallies, street plays and demonstrations across five states to demand fiscal justice, progressive taxation and better public services through a people’s budget. The Right to Education Forum, a coalition of around 10,000 organisations working in 20 states across India had also echoed the sentiment.

As far as informed opinions are concerned, Nobel laurate Abhijeet Banerjee had advised government not to cut education budget during the pandemic.

The mainstream media’s ability to hold the government accountable on the matters of better public services, education and health is diminishing. Earlier this month, Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said in the Lok Sabha, “No child was deprived of online education during pandemic as government had taken several steps in that direction.” This obviously absurd claim has largely gone unquestioned despite digital divide resulting in death by suicide of children from marginalized communities.

The Budget session is critical to hold the Central government accountable to make the economy work for all, not just the privileged. It is critical that the media too should work for everyone, not just the rich and the privileged.

The authors work at Oxfam India. Anjela Taneja leads the work on education, health and inequality. Akshay Tarfe is a campaigner at the organisation.