Parliment Proceedings | Finance Minister backs outlays for health, defence

Nirmala Sitharaman strongly counters Opposition charge of crony capitalism; labels Rahul Gandhi “India’s doomsday man”.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Saturday tore into the Opposition’s charges that Budget 2021-22 paid inadequate attention to health, defence, and rural employment distress, by stressing that allocations for these sectors were more abundant than they were under the UPA.

Presenting her defence of the Budget’s proposals in the Lok Sabha, Ms. Sitharaman labelled former Congress president Rahul Gandhi “India’s doomsday man” for stoking fears about issues such as the country’s handling of the pandemic and the economy.

Also read | Farm laws only to benefit two friends, says Rahul Gandhi

Taking on the Opposition’s suggestions of crony capitalism driving the Budget’s proposals, the Finance Minister said the only cronies that the government works for were the people of India, and questioned a former Congress-led State government’s decision to invite a ‘crony’ to set up a port.

“Crony capitalism is a tendency they have. They [the Congress] say they nationalised banks, but by using phone-banking at those banks, non-performing assets were left behind. This is their tendency — create institutions and misuse them for their own — ‘Hum Do Hamaare Do’ is useful for that — and keep accusing others at the end of the day,” she said.

“Their second tendency is to say what they feel like in the Parliament, make allegations, use abusive language, but when as per the system, someone rises to respond point by point, they are not ready to listen. They will disturb, shout or walk out. This is what happened in the Budget debate,” the Minister said.

Also read | Opposition creating fake narrative on Budget, says Nirmala Sitharaman

Minister slams Congress

“We should recognise these two tendencies of the Congress and this makes it clear that their belief in democratically elected Parliamentary system is completely finished,” Ms. Sitharaman said, concluding her feisty response to the Budget debate.

She also accused Mr. Gandhi of persistently insulting constitutional authorities, be it former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (by tearing an ordinance in public during the UPA regime), President Ram Nath Kovind (by discussing his address to the Parliament during the Budget debate) and, recently, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla as well.

On criticism about allocations for the PM Kisan Yojana falling as per revised estimates for 2020-21, the Finance Minister said this was necessitated due to the West Bengal government’s stance on the scheme and refusal to share details of an estimated 65 lakh farmers in the State.

Also read | Rural India’s lifeline missing from Budget 2021 speech

The Centre was unable to pay farmers for whom provisions were made because of lack of details from the State, the Minister said.

“That is not cutting down of allocation. It is merely that the State for whom allocation was made, did not use it. It is important to highlight that a State should decide that its farmers should not be given the money, which the Prime Minister is giving all over the country. So shedding crocodile tears for farmers doesn’t help; the money is lying there,” the Minister said.

On members’ concerns about the healthcare Budget and the inclusion of water and sanitation under the same aegis, Ms. Sitharaman reiterated that including water and sanitation in health was not a ‘figment of the government’s imagination’ and allocations to ‘core health’ spending have been raised. “Even the WHO has said water and sanitation contribute to health. And if there is no management of sanitation efforts, including bringing in toilets, and drinking water, you are going to have health-related problems. That is why I said we are taking a holistic approach to health,” Ms. Sitharaman asserted, adding that the Budget is focused on preventive as well as curative health.

Budget 2021 | Expenditure on MGNREGS and rural development falls, rises marginally for education and social welfare

“Some members said Defence is getting no mention in the Speech, it has low allocations… why are we hiding details about Defence? Not at all,” she said, before highlighting the increase in Defence Budget allocations compared to the last Budget of the UPA government.

“It is merely that the State for whom allocation was made, did not use it. It is important to highlight that a State should decide that its farmers should not be given the money which the Prime Minister is giving all over the country. So shedding crocodile tears for farmers doesn’t help; the money is lying there,” the Minister said. 

Health, Defence outlay

On members’ concerns about the healthcare Budget and the inclusion of water and sanitation under the same aegis, Ms Sitharaman reiterated that including water and sanitation in health was not a ‘figment of the government’s imagination’ and allocations to ‘core health’ spending have been raised. 

“Even the WHO has said water and sanitation contribute to health. And if there is no management of sanitation efforts, including bringing in toilets, and drinking water, you are going to have health-related problems. That is why I said we are taking a holistic approach to health,” Ms Sitharaman asserted, adding that the Budget is focused on preventive as well as curative health. 

“Some members said Defence is getting no mention in the Speech, it has low allocations… why are we hiding details about Defence? Not at all,” she said, before highlighting the increase in Defence Budget allocations compared to the last Budget of the UPA government in 2013-14.

Pension dip

“I will readily point out that spending on defence pensions has come down, because in 2020-21, it grew 19% to ₹1,33,825 crore. This is now about ₹1,15,000 crore allocated, which is a reduction of about 13%,” Ms. Sitharaman said, stressing that this reduction was because pending arrears arising from the One Rank-One Pension decision were paid out last year.

“This year, naturally, that one-time payment won’t be repeated. We are not hiding it or have any pretension that it is not coming down. We are not waffling on that,” she said, adding that capital spending in defence had been raised 18.8% in 2021-22. 

On employment-related matters and the MGNREGA, Ms. Sitharaman said that normally, the government is accused of not being sincere about the rural employment guarantee scheme, but the numbers suggest a different narrative. 

“The Congress party gives birth to all these very good schemes but lacks the will to use them properly, openly and transparently. The moment such schemes are born, misuses them to favour cronies. You have given birth to MGNREGA, but also take the credit for mismanaging it, giving it to ghost workers,” she said. 

Allocations for MGNREGS reflect the Opposition party’s hypocrisy, the Minister said, citing how large Budget allocations announced for the scheme during the UPA era were not utilised fully. “This means they either don’t care for it, or they give it to their cronies and forget the actual workers,” she said. 

The current government, she argued, had instead ensured that the utilisation levels of MGNREGS funds were higher than the Budget allocations. 

“This means for a demand-based programme, we keep giving. In this year of the pandemic, ₹61,500 crore was allocated in the Budget presented before the COVID-19 crisis. But as the year went by, and migrant workers went back to villages after the lockdown, we increased that to ₹1,11,500 crore because that support was needed,” she said. 

“At the end of the year, we may end up utilising only ₹90,000 crore, but still far higher than ever utilised under the scheme. Therefore, Budget 2021-22 has given ₹73,000 crore and are truly willing to give more through the supplementary demands for grants if necessary, so that migrant workers who have not returned to their jobs can still continue to get support,” she explained. 

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