With an ocean of salthttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mgnrega-funds-piyush-goyal-union-budget-jobs-5570892/

With an ocean of salt

Interim budget does little to tackle unemployment, poverty. And it is clear that the government’s figures cannot be trusted.

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Based on these findings, the panel, under Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Rural Development Nagesh Singh, is expected to make its recommendations in another month.

Last month, I was part of an all-party delegation of MPs from Karnataka, led by a Union cabinet minister, who met the Union rural development minister. We requested him to release the MGNREGA funds overdue to Karnataka. We pleaded that the poorest of the poor, who turn to MGNREGA as a lifeline, were being discouraged from accessing the programme as they were not being paid for a long time because the Centre had not released the funds they owed to the states. Therefore, when I hear Piyush Goyal announce big amounts as funds allocated to MGNREGA, I can only respond with a weary laugh.

Goyal has learned the art of hype well from his prime minister. But the voters know better and will confront them with reality in a few months. For where voters had been promised Rs 15 lakh in their Jan Dhan accounts, only a few farming families will receive a pittance of Rs 3.30 per day. When the average loan burden is Rs 45,000, they will receive Rs 6,000 per year, far lower than the income transfers offered by Telangana and Odisha, and a far distance from being debt free as envisioned by Congress state governments.

The interim budget is overflowing with announcements aimed at targeting different sections of voters. But it is instructive to see who is left out. The Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana targets land-owning farmers, when it is actually landless labourers and tenant farmers who are experiencing rural distress more acutely. As has been the pattern of this government’s budgets, they have been ignored once again. The urban poor have also been ignored. Whereas the urban middle class have got a tax rebate, which, here’s the catch, can only be put into effect by a new government. So, it’s jumla time yet again.

The eve of the budget was also marked by the leak of the NSSO jobs report. This showed that unemployment under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at a 45-year historic high. Jobs are hard to find and, as CMIE has shown, 1.1 crore jobs have been lost in 2018 alone. The Modi era has been devastatingly destructive for job seekers. The worst affected have been India’s young men and women.

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There is nothing in the interim budget which seeks to address this challenge. Goyal talks of Startup India while offering no relief to startups from the daft and draconian Angel Tax. MUDRA loans are oft-mentioned but the majority of the loans are so small, it would be difficult to run a pakoda stall.

The farmer income support, the middle-class tax rebate, and numerous other programmes have been announced as being supported through resources saved under other programmes announced in the previous budget, the last one for which this government had a mandate. This means that none of those prior announcements has been backed with adequate fund allocation and proper implementation. So, it’s no surprise when targets have not been met. Or, as in electrification, targets have been met by slashing them downwards to claim a pyrrhic victory.

The BJP’s social media is awash with how the defence budget is at an all-time high, hiding from the people how this year’s defence budget is one of the lowest when seen as a percentage of the GDP.

The government wants us to believe that the economy did well and revised the growth rates upwards to 8.2 per cent for the year when it unleashed the surgical strike on the economy called demonetisation. The truth comes through clearly from IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath’s study that shows demonetisation caused a decline in the national economic activity of roughly 3 percentage points or more. The intensity of night lights decreased during and after demonetisation. Employment contracted. Industries witnessed a slowdown.

That the budget did not address the question of record unemployment demonstrates its priorities. Instead, the government had tried hard to hide the NSSO numbers, which revealed the bitter truth. This budget thus shows how the Modi sarkar has abandoned our youth amidst talk of Uber driving.

There is a vast difference between the government’s promises and its implementation of various X-in-India programmes. Ujjwala hype does not show how few people have come back for an LPG refill. Swachh Bharat remains a toilet building programme rather than one which has actually eliminated open defecation or controlled manual scavenging.

New project announcements have been at a 14-year low. Exports have fallen. Foreign Direct Investment has gone down and, so, the newly renamed DIPP has not released numbers after August.

It is clear that the government’s numbers have to be taken with an ocean’s worth of salt. They have no credibility. They have emerged from the ruins of the reputations of India’s statistical establishment.

This is a government playing with smoke and mirrors. The people of India will shortly give a befitting response to these jumlas and errors. Only then will we see a budget whose numbers can be believed. Only then will the pain of our fellow Indians be relieved.