By Amarjeet Kaur
The final package, the fifth one in a row, announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on May 17 was a fiasco. Sitharaman during her press conference for two hours and six minutes spent more than an hour detailing the policy actions of her government’s last six years’ rule, repeating the already provided proposals during the two budgets after coming to power for the second time, even as reiterating her briefings on the four earlier packages she had announced over the previous four days.
Much hype created around the Rs 20 lakh crore package to fight Covid-19 proved to be hollow as the real input has been only between Rs 3.5 lakh to Rs 4 lakh crore. Different economists have been putting the real input between 1 and 2% of the GDP only.
Sitharaman gave just five minutes for her policy statement on the health sector, as if she was making a passing reference to it, only forgetting, wilfully, that the nation is dealing with a health emergency. She provided breakup for the already announced package of Rs 15,000 crore by the Prime Minister. She also repeated the previous announcement favouring private players in the health sector.
There was no commitment to strengthen the public health system to the meet present and future health emergency. Rather, the only talk was to have district level test labs for infections. We at the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) have been demanding for the immediate infusion in the health sector not less than Rs 1 lakh crore to meet the requirements of of health professionals, upgrading the health system. Increase in health budget, specially the public health, system has been our demand.
Similarly, her schemes for education address a small section of our society, ignoring the needs of the children of vast majority of poor masses and the ground reality situation of the families which comprise almost 100 crore population of our country.
In regard to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the announcement of additional Rs 40,000 crore is a very meagre in the face of the real pressure on the rural economy with crores of additional workers who are going back to their native places and would need work.
There is an urgent need for immediate infusion of Rs 1 lakh crore in the health sector in order to meet professionals’ requirements
Sitharaman said that 300 crore mandays will be covered, which means that only three crore families will get the benefit of only 100 days per year. It has been reported in Parliament that in 2018-2019, as many as 5.47 crore households availed of MGNREGA. During the current Covid-19 period, the Finance Minister in one of her briefings had said 40-50% more people have enrolled. That means, as per the government’s own admission, it comes to eight crore people.
Now with many more people wanting to have jobs in the countryside, there is need to create not less than 12 crore jobs under this scheme in rural India with increased number of workdays from 100 to 150.
It is to be noted that the government has been continuously reducing the funds for MGNREGA. Number of districts was reduced in contradiction to the legal requirement of this scheme being demand based. In the 2020-21 budget, the allocation for MGNREGA is Rs 61,500 crore, which is less than the provision of 2019-20, which was Rs 71,200 crore. This sector needs not less than Rs 1.5 lakh crore of additional infusion in the present circumstances.
Meanwhile, the government has failed to provide Rs 7,500 for each family in the unorganized sector and daily/ casual/ self-employed persons who have suddenly lost their livelihood for their sustenance, a demand which had been raised not only by trade unions but from all sections of society, including political parties.
Neither has the government conceded to the demands of trade unions that the wages of workers of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) be paid by the government April onwards during the lockdown period and further on till SMEs resume work.
Interestingly, Sitharaman spent less than five minutes to quickly mention the figure of allocation to various sectors to add up to show it reaches more than Rs 20 lakh crore, which was more of a jugglery.
In answer to a question she accepted that the money will be mainly from borrowings, wondering, why should one ask from where the money comes, why not talk about where it will go. She was arrogant to the hilt on questions being asked about the miseries of the stranded labourers and the arrangements for them to reach their native places.
General Secretary, All-India Trade Union Congress