Read Editorial with D2G – Ep 508

Read Editorial with D2G – Ep 508

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Getting back on track: on Union Budget 2021

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a brave effort to make good use of the lessons learnt from the unprecedented ( never having happened or existed before  ) global health crisis and ensuing ( to happen after (and often as a result of) something else ) economic setback ( a difficulty or problem that stops you progressing as fast as you would like ) to put lives and livelihoods back on track.

There is greater spending on health care and some fiscal push to undergird ( provide support or a firm basis for ) the struggling demand in the pandemic-hit economy. But this is no transformative budget that lives up to the heightened ( more intense than normal ) expectations of a weary ( feeling or showing extreme tiredness, especially as a result of excessive exertion ) population waiting for manna ( something beneficial that appears or is provided unexpectedly or opportunely ) from the government.

A lot more could have been done to address the chronic underinvestment in India’s public health infrastructure by appreciably ( to an appreciable extent; considerably ) raising expenditure. The Union Budget for 2021-2022 presented to Parliament on Monday, instead reveals an estimated health outlay ( an amount of money spent on something ) of ₹74,602 crore, almost 10% lower than the revised estimate of ₹82,445 crore earmarked for health spending in the current fiscal year.

The Minister, however, has claimed a 137% increase in the budgetary outlay on ‘health and wellbeing’ by including a one-time expenditure of ₹35,000 crore set aside for the COVID-19 vaccination programme, ₹60,030 crore budgeted for the department of drinking water and sanitation, as well as the Finance Commission’s grants for both water and sanitation and health totalling to almost ₹50,000 crore.

While it is an inarguable ( not open to disagreement; indisputable ) fact that the availability of vaccines, ensuring universal access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation and adequate nutrition are all key in determining a population’s wellbeing, an abiding ( lasting a long time; enduring ) thrust ( push suddenly or violently in a specified direction ) on creating and maintaining a sizeably more extensive public health infrastructure needed a substantially ( for the most part; essentially ) higher outlay on the standalone head.

In fact, the Economic Survey had eloquently ( in a fluent or persuasive manner ) made the case for providing a massive boost to health spending, which it reasoned would serve as a direct means to raising overall economic output by reducing the economic burden of illnesses. To her credit, the Minister did announce that the government intends to introduce a new centrally sponsored scheme, ‘PM Atma Nirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana’, to develop primary, secondary, and tertiary ( third in order or level ) care capacities over the next six years, at an estimated cost of ₹64,180 crore.

How exactly this scheme pans out in terms of strengthening the beleaguered ( in a very difficult situation ) public health infrastructure in the remote and far-flung ( widely distributed ) corners could well determine how prepared India is for the next unforeseen ( not anticipated or predicted ) health emergency. A sizeable ( fairly large ) fiscal ( relating to government revenue, especially taxes ) stimulus ( an interesting and exciting quality ) to reinvigorate ( give new energy or strength to ) consumption demand could have gone a long way in completing the recovery.

While the revised estimates for the current financial year project a fiscal deficit of 9.5% of GDP on account of expenditure surging ( (of a crowd or a natural force) move suddenly and powerfully forward or upward ) to ₹34.50-lakh crore, the Minister has opted ( make a choice from a range of possibilities ) for a mere ₹33,000 crore increase in the overall expenditure outlay in her Budget estimates for the next fiscal.

Here again, she has pointed to the ₹5.54-lakh crore set aside for capital expenditure to contend ( struggle to surmount (a difficulty) ) a 34.5% increase in outlay over the current year’s Budget estimate. Far from being an expansionary Budget, Ms. Sitharaman has opted to contain overall spending so as to rein ( keep under control; restrain ) in the fiscal deficit to 6.8% in the coming fiscal itself. The country cannot afford a premature scaling down of fiscal support at a time of rising inequality.

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