Let rural India be at the core of the Union Budget!
The holistic development of rural India means a fast paced movement to achieve the SDGs including hunger and poverty, which drive millions of people towards cities in search of bread and sustainable livelihood
Every Union Budget is unique in more ways than one! It is an important annual document which adds a new dimension to the country's development initiatives. For the past two years, the Union Budget has been very much aligned to combat multiple economic repercussions caused by Covid-19 and maintain the resilience of the nation's economy, which is being projected to be the third largest one of the world by 2030. The pre-Budget consultations by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman are almost over. Industry chambers and other think tanks have also submitted their recommendations and suggestions to the Finance Ministry for their consideration and incorporation if deemed fit or found in sync with the dynamics and policies of the government. The Central government has taken a number of initiatives to maintain the pace of economic progress despite Covid-19 vicissitudes, posing multipronged challenges to policy makers and implementers as well.
The Union Budget 2022-23 is being presented when the nation is grappling with the third wave of Covid-19 and the fear of Omicron far from being over. The pace of the build back process, which was put in motion two years ago, has to pick up further momentum. The whole government approach raises hope, while efforts to create more and more job opportunities for the masses are appreciable. The report of second quarter of Quarterly Employment Survey (QES), a part of All India Quarterly Establishment-based Employment Survey (AQEES), suggests that total employment in nine select sectors - manufacturing, construction, trade, transport, education, health, accommodation and restaurant, IT/BPO and financial services – stands at 3.1 crore for the quarter ending September 2021. Manufacturing accounted for nearly 39 per cent, followed by education 22 per cent and health as well as IT/BPOs sectors both around 10 per cent. The over-all percentage of female workers stood at 32.1, higher than 29.3 per cent reported during the first round of QES.
Development of rural India has always been an area of concern for the policy makers. There is a huge potential for job creation in rural areas. The holistic development of rural India means a fast paced movement to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including hunger and poverty, which drive millions of people towards cities in search of bread and sustainable livelihood. Three critical things for which rural people are always on their toes are healthcare, education and jobs. Their migration to bigger cities including smaller ones is an endless process. During the first wave of Covid-19, there was a frantic movement of people, returning to their rural habitats. A large number of people who end up landing in unknown cities are always at the mercy of their agents. 'Labour Chowks' are important points where they assemble in the morning with hope intact in their hearts and minds. Many of them do get the work for the day and many others don't. Not many of them are skilled enough to get into the organized sectors.
When there are so many debates and discussions around inclusive and sustainable development, rural India where 70 per cent of the country's population reside should get top priority in the budgets of the Central and the state governments. Every employment generation strategy should be aligned to the dynamics of rural India, which is also a major consumer. With better road connectivity in rural areas and highways boom, every block and sub-division can be developed as a manufacturing hub. Food processing units, farmers produce organizations (FPOs), self-help groups (SHGs), cottage industry, textile and khadi units, farm and rural tourism have tremendous potential to transform rural India. Barring a few specialized jobs – which are meant for highly skilled professionals – there is no justification to force millions of people to move to cities for a monthly household income of Rs 15,000 to Rs 17,000, which comes with a huge cost in terms of productivity and longevity of life.
Education in rural India is another area which needs to be upgraded in terms of both quality and quantity. It is of paramount importance to sustain the resilience of the economy. At present, most higher secondary schools are imparting education up to Class XII. Thereafter, students have to move to nearby towns for higher studies, which an overwhelming rural population cannot afford. It is one of the reasons for the country's poor gross enrolment ratio (GER). Some of the households do send their children to educational institutions at sub-divisional and district headquarters but majority of them do not. As a result, poor boys and girls are deprived of a lifetime opportunity to get higher education despite having merits and aspirations to grow. It is a critical gap in the country's growth strategies which needs to be addressed. Keeping in view the financial affordability of rural households, let there be multi-discipline colleges right from the block to district level. At block levels, a couple of schools can run 10+2+3 courses as well.
Similarly, there is a need to strengthen health set up in the countryside in sync with the ground realities. For want of proper and regular check-ups, and simple diagnostic interventions, rural folks suffer a lot. The existing facilities should be fine-tuned, overhauled and aligned to the needs of the people for which what is required is not colossal investment but making the existing system functional and plugging the loopholes. Health facilities in rural India should be institutionalized. From primary health centres to District Hospitals, the efficacy of the health delivery system should be ever green and guaranteed under any circumstances. Thus, one of the key focuses of the Union Budget-2022-23 should be creating more and more gainful employment opportunities in rural India along with the upgradation and expansion of education and health facilities. Perhaps mere increase in funds for the Union Rural Development Ministry won't deliver the desired results. Strategies should be in consonance with the fact that India will be the world's third largest economy of the world by 2030, and hence the people's ease of life, in particular of rural citizens, should improve accordingly!
(The writer is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are strictly personal)