Social sector asks Jaitley to review subsidy alternatives

Several instances of in-kind transfers being successfully implemented.

Social sector groups want Finance Minister to review the implementation of alternative subsidy systems before going ahead with Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT).

“There have been several instances of in-kind transfers being successfully implemented in various parts of the country. Our appeal to the Finance Minister was to look at all the successful examples of alternative schemes before the government pushes ahead with the JAM (Jan Dhan Yojana-Aadhaar-Mobile) and DBT schemes,” said Dipa Sinha, representing the Right to Food Campaign, following a pre-budget consultative meeting between Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley and representatives of social sector groups on Tuesday.

The government must also look into pegging the funds for mid-day meals in schools to inflation, Ms Sinha said. She cited examples of how schools across the country have not been serving dal for the past few months. Another recommendation was for the MGNREGA budget to also be inflation-indexed, and measured as a per cent of GDP rather than in absolute terms.

“India is a chronic low spender on public health by international standards. Within the country, some states like Mizoram, Sikkim, Goa, and Puducherry do quite well but overall the situation is one of low funds,” said Ravi Duggal, representing the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.

“Around 2.5-3 per cent of GDP should be on healthcare. We are currently at around one per cent,” Mr Duggal said. Another deficiency, he pointed out, was the paucity of doctors and nurses in the public health system.

The problem, he said, was not one of supply. However, while India has enough doctors, the problem is attracting them to public sector jobs. One of the recommendations Mr.Duggal made was for a system similar to that in Thailand where doctors have to compulsorily work for the public sector for a few years before they can get a license to practice privately.

“With the 0.5 per cent Swachh Bharat cess and the $1.5 billion commitment by the World Bank for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the government has a lot of funds for this. We have urged (the Finance Minister) for a clear-cut spending plan regarding this,” said Mamta Das of Water Aid.

The demand comes at a time when the government is keen to expand the ambit of its Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme for subsidies.

“Inclusive growth is high on the priorities of the present government and the government will take adequate measures to ensure social security for the children, women and senior citizens of the country,” Jaitley said in his opening remarks during the pre-budget consultative meeting with the representatives of different social sector groups.

The unanimous appeal from all the bodies was for additional funds for the social sector. The previous budget’s plan that laid the responsibility of social sector spending on the states was not working, the groups said. They also said there were some states that depend almost entirely on Central funds for social sector spending.

The meeting with the Finance Minister comprised around 20 different groups—representing various facets of the social sector including education, healthcare, water and sanitation and minority empowerment—each of whom made presentations of about 3-4 minutes on their recommendations.

Representatives from Child Rights and You, Right to Education Forum and the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights all made presentations to the Finance Minister seeking additional funds, greater accountability and better planning in these sectors.