Media underplays the pruned outlays

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Media Practice | 03/02/2018
It was left to the politicians, not journalists to look closer at the actual numbers. And even when they did the Modicare math, they did not play it up.
SEVANTI NINAN wonders why
Mr Jaitley presents his Budget


Its tough being the finance minister and having to meet expectations of  both party and people, with only so much money to play around with.  So you announce the intentions and hope nobody will notice that you are not actually spending more overall.  Even less, in vital sectors. Or explaining where the money will come from for the massive outlays that will be needed. And given how obliging the press is, you get away with it, and get the headlines you want: “FM prescribes Modicare for Bharat.” (Economic Times.) 

Budget 2018 announced by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was instantly framed as a political exercise ahead of a big election next year, by both TV channels and newspapers, and all its announcements taken at face value thereafter.  That was perhaps the obvious thing to do. It was left to the politicians, not the journalists to look closer at the actual numbers, though a few did.  When West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra arrived in the NDTV studio and announced what they were showing, Prannoy Roy was a bit stumped.  The allocation  for the national drinking water  mission had been reduced, and for the national health mission he said. Border area development down by 29 per cent, allocations for minorities down by a much bigger percentage. No increase in the allocations for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, puny ones for education and health. And so on. 

The Hindu did carry a graphic on social spending on page 7 which used data over three financial years and this year's budget estimates to clearly show the decreasing trend in outlays for the rural employment guarantee scheme, rural development, higher education and school education. But the paper did not have a pointer to this on page one, as it did to other aspects of the budget.

How many actually did the Modicare math?  The Times of India did get around to it on page 9 on Feb 2—“Health gets a super pep pill but where is the money for it?” It pointed our that the national health care mission actually saw a decline in health care allocation citing the numbers, and that the  Rs 2000 crore allocated was hardly enough for Rs 5 lakh  coverage for 10 crore people. It also questioned the figures on page 8. “Slipped fisc? Math doesn’t quite add up.”

The Indian Express was perhaps the only major English newspaper to point out in front page stories that budgetary provisions were absent for the minimum support price scheme. And that one didn’t know where the money would come from for the five lakh rupees health cover. It was the only paper whose editorial pages flagged the allocations issue prominently. “Budget addresses  the crisis in agriculture, the devil is in the allocations”. And, “Where’s the money, Mr Jaitley?”

The Hindu took passing note of the under-budgeting both for the “ambitious rural package” comprising gas connections,  electricity and toilets,  as well as the social sector schemes such as the National Health Protection Scheme announced, in its Budget editorial.  As did Business Standard.  One para in the editorial lower down took note of the “virtual freeze on big and important expenditure items like health, education, rural development, and urban development—all of which along with defence get only marginal increases in outlay.”

 The Hindustan Times also took note of it in its editorial, even more cursorily than the above papers did.  But its edit page  had CPM general secretary  Sitaram Yechury  raising the question of allocations.

On the op-ed page of BS economist Nitin Desai had a column  pointing out that the Budget does not provide adequately for ambitious schemes,  offers no evidence of a budget provision for the extended minimum support price support announced, or for that matter for the hospitalization  coverage scheme. Biggest in terms of coverage,  not in terms of spend, said Aakar Patel’s column below Desai’s, rubbing it in. 

Mint columnist Manas Chakravarty also did the numbers to show that budgeted growth in  government expenditure will be lower than what it is in the current  fiscal year—“Many a slip between the announcements and the numbers”. On page 6 in the second part of the paper. The column also says that budgeted growth as a percentage of GDP will be lower  this year than last year. 

The numbers that follow say that rate of increase in budgeted expenditure on the Department of Rural Development will be 3.1% in 2018-19, compared with a 14.7% rise in the current fiscal.  And goes on to document pruned outlays on a whole host of rural development programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Mission, the National Health Mission, the National Rural Drinking Water Mission and the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana. Most of the push to rural growth is supposed to come from extra-budgetary resources. 

The Finance Minister said thereafter in interviews  that the money for the increased rural spending would come from extra-budgetary resources. Including state governments. 

Budget coverage alas, is blinded by attention-getting announcements. And plays down what is actually being budgeted for them.


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