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A file photo of Asha worker on her rounds administering polio vaccine. Image: Shutterstock
Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman, in her interim Budget speech on February 1, announced a handful of social welfare schemes, centred around the government’s focus on “four major castes”, which is the poor, women, youngsters, and farmers. One of the announcements, which experts consider to be a huge step in the right direction, is the extension of health care cover under Ayushman Bharat to ASHA workers, anganwadi workers and other helpers.
“Extending this social security to them is the first step towards recognising anganwadi workers and ASHAs as ‘workers’ and not just honorary volunteers from the community,” says economist Mitali Nikore, founder of Nikore Associates, a youth-led economics research and policy think-tank. The biggest demand from ASHAs and anganwadi workers over the years has been to increase their honorariums, which is still in the lower end of single digit thousand rupees per month. “A lot of the salaries for ASHA and anganwadi workers is controlled by state governments. Raising their salaries remains a key requirement, but their inclusion in Ayushman Bharat is a good signal, which one hopes will lead to more social security benefits and legal rights in the future,” says Nikore, adding that one needs to look out for how exactly the government will implement this. Questions that need to be answered include how much coverage these workers will, get, whether the centre or states will bear this cost, or will it be a combination expense. The estimated budgetary allocation towards Ayushman Bharat-PMJAY has seen only a marginal increase, from Rs 7,200 crore in 2023-24 to Rs 7,500 crore this year. The finance minister’s speech was largely women-forward, and she spoke about efforts and initiatives for women under various schemes, including housing scheme---the PM Awas Yojana---under which 70 percent houses have women as sole or joint owners, and the ‘Lakhpati Didi’ scheme that has helped 1 crore women across 83 self-help groups (SHGs) in the country to earn an income of at least Rs 1 lakh per household. The scheme, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech last year, was targeted towards skilling at least 2 crore women with an aim to empower them financially. “It has been decided to enhance the target for Lakhpati Didi from 2 crore to 3 crore [women],” said Sitharaman in her speech. Also read: Budget digest: Unveiling tax shifts in 2024 As per a written reply in the Lok Sabha by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, India’s per capita net national income at constant (2011-12) prices increased from Rs 72,805 in 2014-15 to Rs 98,374 in 2022-23, as per the provisional estimate published on May 31, 2023. “So if 1 crore women are being able to take their annual income to Rs 1 lakh, which is on par or even better than the per capita income of the country, it will encourage more women who are part of SHGs,” says Nikore. The finance minister also referenced the direct benefit transfer scheme using PM Jan-Dhan accounts, which she said has led to savings of Rs 2.7 lakh crore for the government. The government has launched a scheme to help deserving section of the middle class “living in rented houses, or slums, or chawls and unauthorised colonies to buy or build their own houses”. Further details on this are awaited. A file photo of tribal villagers excavating barren land under a rural welfare employment programme in Jharkhand. Image: Shutterstock The estimated budgetary allocations towards the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana have only seen a marginal increase, from Rs 79,590 crore in 2023-24 to Rs 80,671 crore this year. As per Sitharaman, over 70 percent houses under this scheme belong to women as solo or joint owners. The PM Awas Yojana (Grameen) scheme is close to achieving the target of [building] 3 crore houses, and 2 crore more houses will be taken up in the next five years “to meet the requirement arising from increase in the number of families”, the finance minister said.
MGNREGS and farmer income allocations
The government has increased the allocation towards the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), from an estimate of Rs 60,000 crore last year to Rs 86,000 crore this year. This year’s estimated allocation is, however, the same as the Budget’s revised estimate for 2023-24. The government had reduced allocation towards the MGNREGS last year, which is the main source of temporary social employment and a social security net for many people, and had also introduced an Aadhaar-based payments system. These decisions have not gone down well with workers, particularly women, who have faced multiple barriers to access work under this scheme, as well as their payments. The increased allocation towards MGNREGS is strategic, Nikore explains, because “the government has realised that if they want to chase their rural infrastructure and development goals, they have to increase opportunities for women and the marginalised to get work. Investing in MGREGS will help them do that.”Also read: Budget 2024: FM Sitharaman announces large fund to support R&D, deep tech In terms of farmer support, the finance minister announced that 11.8 crore farmers receive direct financial assistance under the PM Kisan scheme. The allocation of Rs 60,000 crore towards PM Kisan remains unchanged. The electronic national agriculture market (e-nam) has integrated 1,361 mandis, which provide services to 1.8 crore farmers with trading volumes of Rs 3 lakh crore, said the finance minister in her speech. “This implies that 12 to 15 percent farmers are not just digitally connected, but also digitally transacting, which is good news,” says Hemendra Mathur, co-founder, Bharat Innovation Fund. “Focus on building post-harvest infrastructure and near-farm micro processing units will go a long way in not just reducing food losses, but also helping farmers build products and brands instead of selling crops as just commodities, hence enabling more meaningful participation in supply chain and more income in the hands of farmer.” (With inputs from Naini Thaker)