Is Budget 2016 all about ‘Swachh Bharat’ and a rustic touch?

Experts opine on whether the water and sanitation sector got a meaningful budget push this year.
Drinking water source in a village at Kawardha, Chhattisgarh Drinking water source in a village at Kawardha, Chhattisgarh

Is this year’s budget a mere continuation of the trajectory set last year in social sectors like drinking water, sanitation, employment guarantee and agriculture? Is the budgetary outlay for urban development responsive towards the drinking water and sanitation needs of vulnerable sections of society such as the urban poor and women? Does the budget hold appeal for India's rural poor?

We talked to a range of experts to understand if farm and social sector spending on programmes like Swachh Bharat Mission and National Rural Drinking Water Programme has been upped or just hyped? Some say that Central Government spending on major welfare ministries and key social sector schemes has plummeted while others feel that the increase has been particularly dramatic for some key social sectors like agriculture and irrigation, which seems to have received the lion’s share of allocation.

Sanitising India through Swachh Bharat Mission: Did it go the whole hog or was it a dampener?

There is an enhanced outlay in this year’s budget for the Prime Minister’s pet programme Swachh Bharat Mission, which aims to make India open defecation free by 2019. This year’s allocation at Rs. 9000 crore is two and half times that of the previous year. If the need arises, the budget has provisions for enabling a levy--Swachh Bharat cess--at a rate of 2% or less on all or certain services. Is this a good enough boost for a programme that aims to construct 11.11 crore individual household latrines in the country?

“The government’s enhanced outlay is very welcome”, says Rohini Nilekani, Chairperson, Arghyam. “Clearly, it will not be enough to fulfill the aspiration of giving every household a latrine. Moreover, unless the government’s own processes for giving the subsidy are re-engineered and streamlined, the rate of toilet building even where people want one, may not pick up satisfactorily. But most importantly, we need more funds allocated to creating future-proofed sanitation infrastructure that takes care of the waste stream in cost-effective, sustainable and safe ways. This calls for more research, innovation and swift implementation with a decentralised approach. It is unclear if the governments at all the three levels are committed to this approach. It will be a public health nightmare if poor pit and septic tank construction further contaminates the groundwater or surface water in dense settlements”, Nilekani adds.

How has the government performed in its engagement towards sanitising India through its flagship Swachh Bharat Mission in the last year? Trisha Agarwala from the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), a New Delhi based public policy think tank says, “The government has surely gone the whole hog towards sanitising India through its Swachh Bharat Mission as evident from the increased allocations in the states. More than 122 lakh toilets have already been constructed in rural areas so far under the Mission. Sanitation coverage, which stood at 40.6% as per NSSO data, has risen to around 48.8% as on December 31 2015, as reported by the Economic Survey 2015-16.”

Toilet construction does not necessarily lead to increased usage and behaviour change

The Centre’s move last year following the 14th Finance Commission was that revenue expenditure for Swachh Bharat Mission would be now borne by the states. It was thus important to understand the funding pattern, and whether overall expenditure of the centre and states will decrease or increase. CBGA with the support of Arghyam, recently conducted a study in seven states to track policy and budgetary commitments for drinking water and sanitation. The study showed that the political will towards sanitation has been present uniformly across the states. A case in point is Odisha, which had low sanitation indicators but since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, allocations for sanitation has increased manifold. Jayamala Subramaniam, CEO, Arghyam notes, “There is a need to follow the money from the district and below in order to develop specific advocacy messaging in relation to implementing practices on the ground”.

As far as school sanitation goes, an article in Business Standard indicated that the government was unable to achieve its target of providing toilets to every school by August 15, 2015 through the Department of School Education’s specially launched Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya programme.

How has the Swachh Bharat Mission performed in its urban component? “Urban sanitation has definitely got a renewed focus through the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban). Most allocations for sanitation have shown a rise due to the new allocation for urban sanitation. However, Tamil Nadu has lower allocations compared to other states. This could also be because of the state’s own schemes for sanitation”, notes Agarwala.

A lot remains to be done to make the programme focus on preventive health care and generate awareness and not just on hygiene and cleanliness as asserted by the Finance Minister in his last year’s Budget Speech. Dr. Manjur Ali, CBGA notes, “Evidence shows that toilets are being constructed usually in areas which already have existing water supply connections. This leaves out a large section of the population who live in unauthorised colonies. Toilet construction amounts to a large part of the expenditure accounted for in the Swachh Bharat Mission. This should also simultaneously lead to increased usage and behavior change. Monitoring the usage and maintenance of toilets is crucial to assessing the success of the programme. Sustainability of toilets and slip-back in sanitation behavior needs to be looked into. One hopes that the Swachh Bharat Mission would solve the problem of open defecation by 2019 provided it does not become another Total Sanitation Campaign, in terms of states trying to achieve targets by increasing toilet construction with scant concern on toilet usage and sustainability.”

Rural drinking water component misses attention yet again

Budget 2016-17 has been a dampener in its rural drinking water component with the allocation of Rs. 5000 crore for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme being only a marginal improvement over the previous year’s allocation of Rs 4373 crores. “Surely, after the states raised a hue and cry with the reduced allocations last year, the government stepped up the allocations through the Supplementary Budget; however, the amount is still less, if one compares it to the earlier year’s budget for rural water. Hence, one is bound to ask whether the increase in sanitation allocations have come at the cost of reduced allocations to drinking water”, says Agarwala. “Most of the coverage targets have been met as per the IMIS of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, however, slip back habitations and sustainability of water sources is an issue. Due to groundwater depletion there is a switch now to surface water sources. Despite the focus on fluoride and arsenic as water quality contaminant issues, other water contaminants like iron also need to be looked into”, she adds.

Capital investments in urban water supply; local water sources ignored

In the urban context, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), the erstwhile Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) is the national flagship programme driving capital investments in water supply. How has the programme performed last year? Was it able to push for governance reforms by urban local bodies and state governments? This year’s budget for AMRUT and for 100 smart cities is Rs. 7296 crore.

“Because smart cities is a dream project of the government, its attention is likely to be on this. AMRUT is more or less like the former JNNURM whose experience suggests that the emphasis is on drawing water from exogenous sources instead of developing and managing local water sources. AMRUT also denies free water provisioning for the poor and pushes for water privatisation through the route of Public Private Partnerships. The project costs spiral as a result and the poor consumers have to bear the burden. In Madhya Prdesh under AMRUT and its predecessor JNNURM, only a fourth of the 114 approved projects have been completed over the years”, says Rehmat of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Badwani. 

“All public buildings need to have modern sanitation as a priority. All government offices, transport stands, schools, etc need adequate funds to build and operate modern hygienic sanitary infrastructure”, says Nilekani. “Most disappointingly, the government is doing nothing on a permanent basis to prevent the Indian Railways from democratically spreading disease around the country with its hole in the floor toilets. And until that project is complete, we can never have Swachh Bharat", she adds.

Rural employment and irrigation: Do they continue to face a fund pinch?

This year Rs. 38500 crore has been allocated for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and this constitutes about 44% of the year’s budget of the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD). While this constitutes a raise of 11%, the allocation is not as much considering the rise in inflation, and it still remains way below the figures for 2010-11. The Ministry’s budget has in turn been raised by around 10.7% when compared to last year. Will this budget hike boost rural employment?

The MGNREGS scheme, the previous government’s employment generation flagship scheme and dubbed as a monumental failure by the present Prime Minister, gives a legal guarantee of 100 working days to rural, unskilled adults. Though the MoRD had last year insisted on an additional allocation of Rs 5000 crore to maintain the momentum of MGNREGS as promised in Budget 2015-16, the government did not yield. Non-availability of funds and considerable delay in receipt of wages continue to plague the programme. Many states had spent the money allocated and were staring at a negative balance of payments due to a shortage of funds. Long unpaid material payments and overdue wages for workers to the tune of Rs. 5972 crore as per official records was pervasive at a time when drought was staring at most parts of the country. Figures state that the proportion of payment delays was as high as 72% in 2014-15, discouraging people from demanding work.

Per Accountability India, “MGNREGA has had a significant impact in raising standards of living, nutrition levels, school enrolments, etc. Cutting funds would surely bring down the performance of the programme (if it has not already done so) and its impact on development itself”. Hence, there is a need to ensure that funds do not run out and that compensation is paid to beneficiaries for delayed payments so as to ensure the standing of the Employment Guarantee Act, a constitutionally demand-driven scheme. Else, the programme would become an allocation-driven scheme instead.

Irrigation, another aspect of agriculture seems to have been highlighted in the ‘rural’ centered Budget 2016-17. The push includes the decision to fast track the irrigation projects that have been languishing under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme. A dedicated long term irrigation fund will be created in NABARD with an initial corpus of about Rs. 20000 crore through budgetary support and market borrowings.

A major programme for sustainable management of groundwater resources has been prepared with an estimated cost of Rs. 6000 crore and proposed for multilateral funding. “However, only about Rs. 5717 crore has been allotted for the much acclaimed Prime Ministers Krishi Sinchai Yojana and the total funds allocated for irrigation amounts to just Rs. 11434 crore. Last year’s allocation for the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare of Rs. 25917 crore has been upped to Rs. 35984 crore but this is far too less”, says Rehmat of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra. The budget speech highlighted the need to look beyond ‘food security’ and focus on ‘income security’.

Though the Government has promised to reorient its interventions in the farm and non-farm sectors to double the income of the farmers by 2022, it remains to be seen whether this translates into reality on the ground. The Prime Minister's Fasal Bima Yojana, the new crop insurance scheme that has got a budget outlay of Rs. 5500 crore holds promise if effectively implemented. Under this, the farmer will pay a nominal amount of insurance premium and get a reasonable compensation in the event of any loss suffered.

In all, this year’s budget looks like a mixed bag as far as the farm and social sector goes. An analysis by Yamini Aiyar of Accountability Initiative suggests that social sector investment in Budget 2016 is no different than the previous year. A lot remains to be done to factor in the Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) context, given India’s international commitments--especially the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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