I am not in the habit of following the budget speech. But there's a first time for everything and I did tune in this year. Mainly because I had to write 500 words on 'what the budget did/ did not do for the youth' for the Financial Express by 5 30 pm, the same evening. Here's what I wrote:
Let us build castles!
- Rashmi Bansal
Listening to the FM's budget speech in full evoked in me a feeling similar to watching the annual Republic Day Parade. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, rural employment, mid-day meal and assorted other schemes named after members of the Gandhi-Nehru family were the first to march past.
I felt like making a trip to the nearest electrified village and doing a jig to the tune of 'thodi si dhool meri, dharti ki meri vatan ki'…If there is a road to reach that village in the first place.
Call me a cynic but this is how most of young India feels when politicians rattle out statistics about 'development'. Seeing is believing and we don't like the dump of a country we see around a few islands of opulence and excellence.
Ironically, the FM made a statement about young people building 'castles in the air'!
But sir, we're glad you used the word 'castle' and not humble jhopdi, or 1 room PWD apartment. We're glad that you approve of young India thinking and dreaming big. So are you.
Leaving aside the 'announcements' on duty cuts and tax tweaks which experts are better placed to analyse, what pleased me were some of the vision statements. Imagine an India where you don't have to stand in line to file a police complaint, get a birth certificate or register as a voter. Where you can demand information from government departments under the Right to Information Act through an online application.
No science fiction, that. The FM plans to bring sarkari services online under a National E-governance plan. A more efficient and accountable government? Now that is something we will thank the FM for long after we've forgotten about cheaper soft drinks and Santros.
Speaking of thanks, students of Mumbai, Madras and Kolkata universities will be pleased with the Rs 50 crores allocated to each institution, in recognition of their completing 150 years. This is great news, except for the fact that the FM wants this money to be used for 'a specified research department or a research programme' when the problems that need to be addressed are far more basic!
And yet, as the minutes tick on, as achievements and proposed achievements parade by, you can't help getting carried away by a sense of pride. This is more just a 'budget', it is a document defining hope.
Because a budget implies 'living within one's means'. To which the young person's answer is I am not satisfied with that. Allow me to grow.
India is now a growth story and there is no looking back. What's more, the Finance Minister ended his speech with the immortal words of Swami Vivekananda, "We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. … our own destiny." Which is exactly what the young people of this country now believe.
For the underprivileged, the budget must continue to sow opportunities. And for the rest of us, allow us to enjoy the fruits of our own harvest.
There was more I wanted to say but could not due to the word limit. So here goes...
On education: The thrust of the budget outlay in education is towards primary and rural - rightly so. But higher education can't be left to fend for itself.
IISc Bangalore recieved Rs 100 crores in last year's budget towards upgradation and modernisation. This year another well deserved Rs 100 crores went to Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana
But what about a comprehensive policy that aims to upgrade all mediocre institutes to excellent ones, and the excellent to outstanding?
And also a quality control mechanism for private education. These are issues which of course need a whole separate forum for debate but if the primary schooling program is successful - imagine how many fold demand for higher education will increase say 10 years from now. And then, universities and colleges can't be set up or upgraded overnight!
On entrepreneurship: The Ministry of Finance has a pretty cool website where you can actually watch a webcast of the FM's speech and access budget speeches from previous years.
If you run a word search through this year's speech you will find the word 'entrepreneur' used no less than 4 times. It was not mentioned even once last year.
This year's speech specifically refers to young people building castles - and the FM says it is 'our job to lay the foundation for those castles'. So we enable you and you go out and create your own future.
Hope this translates to better power, roads, public transport - and other infrastructure which will allow us to be productive, not hassled citizens.
I am intrigued by this statement in particular: Recognize SMEs in the services sector, and treat the small scale enterprises in the services sector on par with the small scale enterprises in the manufacturing sector.
If this means access to credit for entrepreneurs in the service sector it would be a great step forward. The idea of a world of commerce where you don't have plant and machinery to pledge as collateral remains alien to the loan officer in the average PSU bank. And this is a stumbling block for entrepreneurs, young and old alike.
On accountability and follow up: Not to say the FM is lying but achievements like '10,366 villages electrified' are - I hope - published separately and verified by independent agencies.
Lastly, this article in FE raises the pertinent question: Where are yesterday's budget ideas?
Before today’s budget comes up with another list of new schemes for rural India and the environment, it may be worthwhile to look at where we have progressed with regard to some of the big announcements of earlier budgets.
The restoration of water bodies, the launching a horticulture mission, subsidies for micro-irrigation and the launching of a mega bio diesel plan were some of the major initiatives meant to breathe new life into India’s rural economy.
Unfortunately, by the time these schemes made their way through several ministries, it was already December 2005. With the end of the financial year round the corner, there is the usual rush to release money. In terms of actual work, however, there is very little to report.
Hope the media, NGOs and development agencies continue to discuss, debate, push and nag the government every week, every month tio implement its plans and show results for allocations. And not just wake up next year on Feb 27th!