The recently concluded socio-economic caste census (SECC) is an exercise that draws considerable amount of awe for its sheer reach. The census surveyed 23.49 crore households across India using 6.4 lakh electronic handheld devices to arrive at a database of all households. It then ranked them on a relative scale of deprivation, after accounting for automatic inclusion (16.5 lakh) and exclusion of households (7.05 cr) based on a set of predetermined indicators.
The government's intent in using the data thrown up by the SECC is quoted in its own press release where it states that "SECC provides an opportunity to simultaneously address the multi-dimensionality of poverty by addressing the deprivation of households in education, skills, housing, employment, health, nutrition, water, sanitation, social and gender mobilization and entitlement." This article attempts to assess whether the government's investment into the social sector is indicative of this intent. In short, is the government putting its money where its mouth is? The answer is a loud no.
The SECC results state that there are 5.37 crore households who are landless and derive a majority of their income from manual labour. It also states that in close to 75 percent of rural households, the main earning member earns less than Rs.5000 per month. The MGNREGA, legislation passed to provide employment in the form of manual labour to all rural households on demand, is an initiative of the government to enhance the basic incomes of this very constituency. However, MGNREGA allocations have registered a continuous dip in real terms - from 0.45 percent of the GDP at market prices in 2011-12, to a meagre 0.32 percent in 2014-15. The stagnant budgetary allocation to MGNREGA in real terms, coupled with inadequate and delayed release of funds to the states has effectively attacked the basic legal mandate of the programme.
As per the SECC, there are 68.96 lakh female-headed households with no adult members between the age of 16-59. Given the precariousness of the economic situation that such households may be prone to, the presence of preventive social security mechanisms specifically targeting such households should be a priority. However, the government's will as demonstrated by its budgetary outlays are contradictory. Allocation for women specific schemes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, National Mission for Empowerment of Women, Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for empowerment of Adolescent Girls fell from Rs.1,075 crore (2014-15 RE) to Rs.587 crore (2015-16 BE).
The SECC results state that fewer than 10 percent of youth of rural households make it to the higher secondary level or above and just 3.41 percent of households have a family member who is at least a graduate. Households with no literate adult above the age of 25 amount to a staggering 4.21 crore. In light of this dismal statistic, the government's allocation to a significant sector like education is even more shocking. The allocation to Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the only centrally-funded intervention designed to achieve universalized elementary education fell from Rs.24,380 crore (2014-15 RE) to Rs.19,800 crore (2015-16 BE), while the allocation for the Department of School Education and Literacy fell from Rs.46,805 crore (2014-15 RE) to Rs.42,200 crore (2015-16).
Then, given the unanimous scientific agreement on the role of adequate nutrition in enhancing children's learning abilities through the education system, the budget of the Integrated Child Development Services fell from Rs.18,391 crore (2014-15 RE) to an unacceptable Rs.8,449 crore (2015-16).
Rural housing seemed to be one of the fortunate sectors that received the government's attention, at least in terms of public articulation. The SECC results have confirmed the need for such attention, given that 13.25 percent of rural households live with only one room, a temporary wall and a temporary roof. But the trend of cutting social sector budgets continues unabated even in this case. The allocation of Indira Awas Yojana - the only centrally funded intervention to provide rural housing - fell from Rs.16,000 crore (2014-15 RE) to Rs.10,025 crore (2015-16 BE).
These are only a few examples that indicate how the government is not adequately prepared, and intends to continue being ill-prepared if we are to assess its intent, through its budgetary decisions, to deal with the problem of providing basic entitlement of quality education and health to households deprived on multiple counts as reflected in the SECC. It is worth noting that the only flagship rural development interventions introduced by the current Government - Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana and Atal Pension Yojana are ones that do not involve any budgetary commitment for putting in place minimum infrastructure to be able to deliver tangible basic services. The union budget outlay for all social sector ministries have registered a drop from 1.92 percent of the GDP (2013-14) to a deplorable 1.68 percent in 2015-16. In this context, no number of investor summits, foreign MoUs and attempts at canvassing an image of India to the outside world can compensate for the irreversible steps being taken to slowly dismantle its social sector infrastructure through inadequate funding.
(Rakshita Swamy is a consultant with UNDP. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of the organisation she is affiliated to. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)