By UCA News
By Rock Ronald Rozario
Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the budget for the fiscal year 2021-22 on Feb. 1 with an ambitious plan of spending about US$500 billion to boost an economy reeling from the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the minister outlined financial plans for the nation of 1.3 billion people, the big question emerged as to how India will overcome the current fiscal deficit of about 9.5 percent between revenue and expenditure, the highest since India entered the free market in 1991.
The budget aims to boost the financial sector, cheering up business groups and stock marketers in the absence of new taxes. But it is unlikely to offer a lifeline to the two-thirds of Indians classified as poor as they live on less than $2 a day.
Unemployment has soared to more than 9 percent and about 85 million more have fallen below the poverty line due to the pandemic.
The new budget is not encouraging for vital sectors like health care and education. Both have been allocated far fewer resources than necessary to meet the basic needs of millions of the poor.
The already low education budget has been further slashed this year by 6.13 percent to $9.3 billion in 2021-22. The allocation was about $9.9 billion the previous fiscal year.
The cut in the allocation shows a government policy that aims to privatize and commercialize the education sector. But it has hit hard both the rural and urban poor.
Millions of poor children lack distance-learning facilities due to the digital divide as schools have closed because of the pandemic and opted for online classes. These children face risks of dropping out and becoming child laborers.
The budget ignores the responsibility to bring them back to school. Already, about 25 percent of children, mostly from low-income families, don’t go to school, according to UNICEF.
According to government data, India had some 32 million students aged 6-17 drop out of school in 2018. Experts predict the number to double after the pandemic-induced closure of schools.
The budget allocation for education ranged between 2.8 and 3 percent of GDP from 2014 to 2020. Educationists call it grossly insufficient for 250 million students in schools and 34 million in higher institutions. They suggest that the allocation must double at least 6 percent of GDP to make quality education accessible.
By the government’s own estimate, some 287 million Indians are still illiterate, accounting for 37 percent of the world’s total illiterate people. Under these circumstances, is it not absurd to slash education funding?
The health sector has long been underfunded, receiving only some 1.2-1.5 percent of GDP from 2014 to 2020, which is the lowest among the world’s major economies. The public health system collapsed in 2020 when Covid-19 hit the nation, exposing the sector’s decades of neglect.
Amid huge criticism, the government decided to boost the health sector by allocating about $30 billion, which is a rise of 137 percent from the previous year. It is still insufficient as it accounts for about 1.3 percent of the national GDP, which means the poor millions will struggle to access health services.
With nearly 11 million infections and over 154,000 deaths, India stands as the second worst-hit nation after the US. It was not unexpected that the government would allocate $4.8 billion for what is dubbed the world’s largest nationwide vaccination drive.
The bulk of the health budget is meant for improving a poor health system that is gasping for life as India continues to battle the pandemic. That is not enough to support poor people in rural and urban areas where tens of thousands suffer and die each year from communicable diseases like diarrhea, dysentery, viral hepatitis, jaundice and malaria.
Each day an estimated 25,000 people die in India, while 40 percent of deaths are from non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological problems.
The poor suffer badly as state-run facilities are inadequate and often inaccessible. Private health care cost up to seven times more than public facilities.
Children remain most vulnerable. UNICEF says some 1.4 million children die in India before their fifth birthday due to malnutrition and diseases, including diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, making it one of the world’s highest child mortality rates.
How can a government neglect the vital sectors — health and education — if it aims to build a stronger nation? It is time religious and civil society groups raised their voice against this neglect of millions of poor, who make up the majority in India.
The federal government, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014, entertains one core goal: to assert Hindu hegemony in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully advanced this unbecoming agenda, which had also meant persecution and suppression of religious minorities.
Christian missioners, who introduced modern medicine and education in India, built up and ran institutions independently. Christian groups continue to help millions through their vast network of health and education institutions, without which both sectors would collapse. But the government looks unfazed by such a prospect. Maybe the neglect is part of a plan.
Pope Francis insists the Catholic Church is “of the poor and by the poor.” If so, the church leadership in India is morally bound to stand up against the neglect of the health and education sectors for the sake of the illiterate and sick millions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.