When Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman rose to deliver her maiden budget speech in Parliament at 11 am on Friday, she was aware of the kind of popular expectations from her. The fact that she is the first full-time woman finance minister of the country and Prime Minister Narendra Modi reposed his trust and confidence in her over claims of several other seniors in the party made her position even more challenging. More so, this was first budget of Modi government 2.0, which had returned to power with enhance majority.
The broad theme picked up by her in the opening paragraphs of the budget speech made it clear that the economic policies of the government were in continuation of Modi government's previous term " working to better living conditions of those at the base of social pyramid. That segment of society had seen hope in Modi and it was important that for the next five years, the government policies are even more substantive for them.
Sitharaman began by saying, "The first term of Narendra Modi-led NDA government stood out as a performing government, a government whose signature was in the last mile delivery." That, along with the speed and scale of it, has been hallmark of this government. It was thus only natural for her to highlight this aspect. By saying, "I submit that our government keeps antyodaya at the core of all its efforts. At the centre of everything that we do, we keep 'gaon, garib, aur kisan'," she was addressing concerns as well as aspirations of the new social constituency which the Modi-led ruling dispensation has acquired.
"Har Ghar ko Jal (tap water to all)", which the government has put on mission mode with the kind of zeal that it had shown in previous term for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, is basically addressed for the underprivileged and those who live in parched terrains and spend a lot of time and energy on fetching water. Under housing for all, 1.54 crore houses were constructed in the last five years and this budget resolved that 1.95 crore houses will be constructed in the next five years.
In terms of political messaging, the amount of time spent on unveiling new policies for farmers may have been less than what had been contained in the past three Budget presentations " including the Interim Budget, but this time around, it was focused on bringing structural reforms to the agriculture sector. "We will invest widely in agricultural infrastructure. We will support private entrepreneurship in driving value addition to farmers' produce from the field and for those from allied activities, like bamboo and timber from the hedges and for generating renewable energy," Sitharaman said.
"Annadata can also be Urjadata," she said. If translated in tangible terms, this would give a huge boost to rural economy and living conditions. One of the first decisions taken by Modi government on its return to power was to fulfill its pre-poll promise of removing below two hectare ceiling eligibility for giving annual financial assistance of Rs 6,000 for farmers.
However, she didn't have anything substantive to offer to the middle class. While no fresh tax reliefs were given, no taxes were levied either. She had a lot to say about urban India but then, the two social segments which have strongly supported the Modi government, women and youth, were given special attention in the budget. "Nari tu Narayani" was a new socio-economic theme she proposed. It included a shift in thought process from women-centric policy to women-led policy approach.
"Gender analysis of the budget aimed at examining the budgetary allocation through a gender lens has been in place for over a decade. I propose to form a broad-based committee with government and private stakeholders to evaluate and suggest action for moving forward. There is no segment of human life where the contribution of women is not significant. This government firmly believes that in the socioeconomic transformation that is taking place, particularly in the last decade, Indian women's role and leadership is distinct. The recent elections have shown record turnout of women voters at par with men. We also have a record 78 women MPs here. This reinforces our approach of going beyond just women-centric policy-making to building women-led initiatives and movements," she said.
The two policy initiatives of Modi government, Ujjawala (LPG gas connection) and Saubhagya (electricity connection to every household), have vastly improved living conditions of women in rural are suburban areas. Sitharaman eloquently referred to that.
The finance minister's budget speech must be heartening for the business community also. "If before Independence, India Inc understood 'Swadeshi', today, they understand 'Make in India'. We do not look down upon legitimate profit-earning. Gone are the days of policy paralysis and license-quota-control regimes. India Inc are India's job creators. They are the nation's wealth creators. Together, with mutual trust, we can gain, catalyze fast and attain sustained national growth. I wish to propose a number of initiatives as part of a framework for kick-starting the virtuous cycle of domestic and foreign investments."
In the 'new India' theme which Sitharaman picked up, the MSMEs and small traders had a role to play. The micro, small and medium enterprise entrepreneurs would be happy that their access to credit will now be eased, loans up to Rs 1 crore for MSMEs within 59 minutes through a dedicated online portal.