Face to face Interview With Shruti Ambast
Category : FACE TO FACE:
Author : Aura Staff
On nutrition, where the Budget has been quite disappointing, it’s a continuation of the trend of the last few years. So it’s not a surprise as such. We have seen that child malnutrition continues to affect a very large percentage of children in India, and there are also very high levels of under nutrition among women. These are two of the major vulnerable categories. COVID has worsened everything – schools were shut so now there are no Mid-Day meals, Anganwadi centres were shut so women and children were not getting meals, food security getting worse; people eating less, having fewer meals and of a lesser quality. So what is needed is that we have certain services in place – Anganwadis, PDS, schemes for promoting nutrition. So what was needed was an expansion in these services, but over the last few years they have been shrinking.

Shruti Ambast is a senior policy analyst at the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability currently working on issues of public finance in the nutrition sector. Aura spoke to her on issues of the Budget 2022-23, particularly with reference to health, nutrition, gender and education related allocations and schemes.
What are some key takeaways from the new Budget for you?

There is nothing very remarkable to be said about it, which as it turns out is a problem, because there is a crisis that India is going through. So, quite a lot was expected of it. A lot of new issues have come up and the pre-existing issues have become worse. Large parts of the population are suffering. Certain support and increases in allocation were expected, but not much has changed and even otherwise, people had certain expectations of big announcements because the budget was to be announced before elections. But even that has not happened. I work on the social sector – from that perspective, I feel it falls short. From an overall economic perspective, even if you go by what other experts are saying, there are no big changes. The only kind of push is towards capital expenditure, but there’s a difference of opinion on how well that can lead to growth or create jobs.

In terms of nutrition, what does the Budget hold?

On nutrition, where the Budget has been quite disappointing, it’s a continuation of the trend of the last few years. So it’s not a surprise as such. We have seen that child malnutrition continues to affect a very large percentage of children in India, and there are also very high levels of under nutrition among women. These are two of the major vulnerable categories. COVID has worsened everything – schools were shut so now there are no Mid-Day meals, Anganwadi centres were shut so women and children were not getting meals, food security getting worse; people eating less, having fewer meals and of a lesser quality. So what is needed is that we have certain services in place – Anganwadis, PDS, schemes for promoting nutrition. So what was needed was an expansion in these services, but over the last few years they have been shrinking.

Currently, there is an Anganwadi workers strike going on in Delhi; what does the budget have in store for them?

In this Budget, there has been a very marginal increase to Anganwadis (previously called ICDS), so that doesn’t amount to much, because there was a large cut last year. So it’s not really an increase. There is an Anganwadi workers strike in Delhi; they provide very important services, but they get very little remuneration. They aren’t counted as workers, but volunteers or part time workers. So they don’t get any benefits or job security. They have no avenue for professional growth but they are more and more saddled with more responsibility. They are striking because there is no increase to their wages in this Budget. It can’t even be called wages because they’re not seen as workers; but their remuneration is not going to increase with this budget.

What are some takeaways in terms of education and health?

Education has seen an increase. It’s not very positive, because last year there was a cut. So it’s just a tweaking of the Budget every year but in terms of what is being delivered, there isn’t a big improvement. The only thing we can say is there hasn’t been a further cut. They also finally operationalized some parts of the New Education Policy. Earlier there were no allocations for it, now there are some.
There has been a very marginal increase for Health. But it’s almost meaningless because of the rate of inflation. Given the rate of inflation, a little increase will keep happening but it won’t actually change the amount of resources you have to spend.
For both Health and Education, the total spending on these two sectors as a proportion of GDP has been stagnant. Even as a proportion of the total Budget, it’s stagnant. So it shows that the overall priority we are giving to Health and Education is still very low and far from what it needs to be.

What is ‘Gender Responsive Budgeting’ and Gender Budgeting?

Gender Budget, which is a term you often see in the media, originated from 2005 when the Union Government started bringing out an additional statement called the Gender Budget statement. That statement takes certain allocations from the budgets of certain ministries and reports them in one place, saying that these allocations are for women. In theory it’s a disaggregation of the budget, saying these components are for women and therefore, the total of this is for women, the Gender Budget. But there are many limitations, it’s not fully accurate. There are many interventions for women that the Government has but is not reporting in the Gender Budget Statement, or there are some interventions which are being reported in the GBS but they are not exclusively for women or catering to a very large number of women. So it can distort the figure.

Gender Responsive Budgeting is a relatively new idea. It has been around in India for some time, it started somewhere in 2005. It’s there in a lot of other countries. The basic idea is that budgets should be designed in such a way that they meet the needs of women and that they are equitable in their impact on men and women. So if you are sitting down and deciding that this is how much we will spend on X or Y sector, and if you are not taking into account that there are a lot of gender inequalities, and because of that women cannot often access many services that the government provides or that they have some special challenges that are specific to them – if you don’t keep these things in mind, what happens is that by default, when you make the budget, and when you spend the budget, women’s needs and challenges get ignored.

So when we say gender responsive budgeting, it is to recognize that currently budgets are not really responding to gender issues, and this is true of most countries in the world, even developed countries. By default, budgets don’t take gender into account, and this has to do with a lot of things, including that the representation of men in policy making is higher and that we don’t have the right kind of data to inform this. Gender responsive budgeting is the idea that gender and the unique needs of women should be taken into account. For example, when you make a budget, it might mean to recognize that the labour force participation of women in India is very low. Now if you fail to recognize that, if you continue to spend only in sectors that largely employ men, it’s not going to help the situation. So in this specific case, gender responsive budgeting would mean that women need certain support and measures to bring them into the labour force. So it’s a larger idea that this is how budgets should be designed and spent.

There are some flagship schemes, particularly those related to women. What is their status, particularly with allocation and actual spending? We know how the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme spent a great chunk of funds on advertisements.

So most such schemes meant exclusively for women come under the Ministry of Women and Child Development. If you look at most of them, over the years, their allocation has been decreasing. That’s one trend. Another trend is that even the allocations that are there, they are not being used fully. The expenditure data is much less than the original estimate. Then we have to look at what is the expenditure on – for example in the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme as you mentioned, a large chunk was for publicity and advertisement but there are many other things under the scheme which are more substantial, such as support services for girls. One thing which happened last year is that many of the schemes have been bucketed under umbrella schemes – Sambal and Samarthya. These umbrella schemes have subsumed most of these schemes – Ujjwala, working women’s hostels, shelter homes for women in distress. So now we know the allocation only for umbrella schemes and we don’t know how much is going where for particular schemes. So this is a gap in accountability and we are no longer able to evaluate how much a particular scheme is being allocated. We also don’t have data on how each scheme will be implemented.

What about the centre state relationship in the budget? While there is an erosion of federalism, there is also a simultaneous increased dependence on the States to supply funds; similar to how a great deal of responsibility was put on them in the vaccine program.

So for now, this is just the Union Budget, and the State Budgets come out later. So more specifically, we can only tell how much the states have contributed when those Budgets come out. But of course we can talk a little about it – one thing that is true for India in general is that states bear most responsibility for social sectors – water, education, health, nutrition – the onus is largely on states and the Centre supports them. This is a big challenge because states have faced a lot of challenges and lost out on revenue during the pandemic. The states don’t have all the powers to raise funds unlike the Centre – the Centre can sell PSUs, borrow etc. The states are strapped for funds. They need more support.

We see the erosion of federalism in how the Centre is sharing resources with states. The Centre levies taxes and it shares that pool with the states. What we have been seeing over the last few years is that this divisible pool of taxes has been shrinking and the Centre has been relying more on cesses and surcharges and these are not shared with the states. This is another aspect of the overall centralization, which leaves states with lesser resources to spend on citizens.

What about the health budget? News reports say that it has been slashed because the vaccine demand isn’t going to be so big this year.

Last year there was a lot of exaggeration of the health budget, and the way it had been reported. Many things had been bucketed and it was said that the health budget is huge. It turned out that only a part of that was the health budget. So the budget for vaccines is an additional and a special component, it is not something that will continue. But we know that the coverage has not kept up, we don’t have universal coverage and there are still many people who have not even got their first doses. So given that, the vaccine budget should be retained. Additionally, we don’t have clarity on how much of the original vaccine budget has been spent.

It’s also not just the vaccines. There was still a lot of expectation from the health budget. We have been seeing that India has a huge deficit of hospitals, doctors, everything. It was expected that we would see a substantial increase over and above the vaccine budget. If we look at the components, there is an increase in health infrastructure but the budget for things like the National Health Mission, which is a major flagship program for delivering health services has not seen much increase.

Finally – for those of us who struggle to understand such complex data, and only get to rely on media reports, how can we approach the Budget?

This is a real challenge. The onus is on the government. The budgets are for us and are created with our money and spent for us. We have a right to expect that budget information will be both accurate and accessible. There should be a demand that the government make the budget as accessible as possible.

Secondly, we should be wary of and avoid media reports on the Budget on the day of the speech. They just pick up quotes from the speech. We have to distinguish between the speech and the document itself. The speech is entirely political – it is upto them to highlight and frame certain things. There are often things declared in the budget speech but have no allocation – like the National Tele Mental Health Program announced this year, it has no funding this year. Maybe it will next year. A lot of media outlets just use headlines like – budget has good news for women and children. When you look at the actual budget, there’s not much good news.

Finally, we at CBGA have a portal for this purpose, where the endeavour is to make budgets more accessible. We try to break the data down and represent it graphically with some basic analytics. A lot of other think tanks also bring key takeaways.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *