The pandemic that dawned upon the world out of the blue was different for all the people. While some were easily sitting in the comfort of their homes and passing their time with new hobbies, some households were suffering to make the ends meet because of the economic crackdown and some didn’t even have roof over their heads to sleep in and stay safe. More than anything, the pandemic made us realise the ever-rising income gap and distributive inequality between various sections of the society, making us all a little more grateful for our privilege and more giving of our resources.
Just to statiscally state the aforementioned facts, Oxford India’s recent report explained how India’s 100 top billionaires saw their wealth risen by Rs 12,97,822 crore during the Corona virus crisis at the time when 84% households saw a fall in income. This gap shows the striking reality of India and its ever-rising income gap between the rich and the poor.
And thus, with the Budget announced by the Finance Minister Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman, earlier this February, people were expecting actions and policies acknowledging and reducing this income inequality, gender gap and distributive inequity. And to the greater population’s disappointment, the focus on inequality and redistributive justice was completely missing in the budget of 2021. The said objective expected to witness introduction of a wealth tax or policies such that the economic growth is equitable and inclusive, unlike what we’re witnessing right now, with majority of the population falling on the poor side. A survey conducted by the Fight Inequality Alliance (FIA) suggested that 78% of the people surveyed expressed their opinion on favour of imposition of 2% COVID cess on individuals earning more than INR 2 crore per annum, opening a potential source of income for the government and a chance to fill in the distribution hap by using that money to uplift the economy and directly aid the poorer sections of the economy.
This also would’ve been a more viable source to meet the 80,000 crores shortfall that is being referred to in the budget, which, as the Finance Minister explained, is planned to be met by market borrowing. Not just that, the pandemic also had a hard-hitting impact on the health and education sector, dampening not only the infrastructure but all the poor sections of the society, leaving exposed the large difference of resources between the rich and the poor, and the more vulnerable class of women, elderly and children. As a result, speculations have risen by experts on the sufficiency of allocations of Rs 35000 crore for COVID vaccination’s free, universal and timely distribution, especially to the classes that lack resources and are worst hit, while the calculated costs of the said inoculation drive reach about Rs 52,000 crores. Minimum wage and insurance for all frontline workers, which the government claimed to be the need of the hour, hasn’t received priority from the government in the allocation of funds either. For a country whose less than 1% population has the majority of the income, it is crucial for the government to come up with progressive schemes that helps level the distribution gap and create a balance of income distribution.
This income divide calls in quests for the education sector- with less than 20% of children in rural households having access to online education, and the proportion dropping even further for rural women. Reports also suggest the large number of school children, mostly girls, that have dropped out of school and those that haven’t had excess to any form of academia in the past year or so. As a result, the proportion of funds allocated to the education sector, especially after the introduction of the New Education Policy and digitalisation, are terribly low in the new budget proposed which saw an about 6% cut from the last year’s funds. This either points to the privatisation of education sector with the advent of the new education policy or the insufficiency in the allocation of funds- which would affect the poor section more either way.
One of the most heart-breaking incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic was to witness the plight of migrant workers that had to walk back to their homes in the scorching heat, amidst the deadly virus, due to the lack of resources and means here in the city. There’s no denying the fact that amongst the poor sections of the society, informal and causal labour form the most vulnerable section and thus their livelihoods are the worst hit due to the pandemic. As an aid to it, poor sections and experts expected an urban employment guarantee scheme or new provisions to aid the migrants’ condition, which however the budget completely misses out on.
And as mentioned time and again, women and marginalised communities have come out as the more vulnerable sections during the pandemic, which the statistics on various fronts- including health, education and employment, and thus, the budget for the coming year was expected to have provisions to strengthen their position to bring about a change in the redistributive narrative. However, the gender budget didn’t include any increase in the priority for women and instead, the funds allocated to the Mission for protection and Empowerment of Women saw a decline from Rs 1163 crore to a stooping low of Rs 48 crore.
Of course, a budget cannot be expected to take care of all of the country’s problems, especially when the economy is at its lowest, but there’s a need to prioritise the less privileged section of the society at all fronts so that they don’t suffer like they did during the pandemic and a country’s government needs to take care of that. Thus, it would be fair to say the Union budget of 2021 has failed to address the inequality and offer relief to those worst hit by the pandemic. We can only hope the narrative changes in the coming months and the government takes initiative to strengthen the weak.