Assam Budget lacks intent to improve poor record on human development
Assam Finance Minister Ajanta Neog with Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma-led Assam Government presented the second budget of his government on March 16. The Budget is released less than one and half months after the government’s controversial crusade against Child Marriage in the state, which saw the arrest of more than 3,000 people and another 8,000 in the FIR. A series of reports published by government agencies, more recently NITI Aayog, presented the state as one of the worst performers among all major states in social and human well-being. The state recorded one of the highest Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) and Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) in India. As per the records of the National Family Health Survey, the state reports IMR (40) and MMR (15.2) in 2019 and 2015 respectively compared with the national average of 30 and 8.1, respectively. 

The state has a similarly poor record of child marriage and underage pregnancy. NFHS survey report that the state has an underage pregnancy rate of 11.7% compared with the national average of 6.8 per cent. 

As a corrective measure, the government turned the socio-economic problem of child marriage into a legal problem, inviting police action to correct the same. In reality, child marriage is often adopted as a survival strategy by the families of girl children in context of economic and social backwardness, marked by uncertainties in livelihood sources due to unemployment, illiteracy and natural calamities. The poor IMR and MMR are reflections of poor health infrastructure, which limit access to quality healthcare services. The government should play a stronger role in mitigating these challenges.

Reflections on the allocations of different heads under the capital and revenue account in the Budget 2023-24 underlie the government’s continued neglect of the sectors crucial for better livelihood, human security and well-being. The budget allocations for the heads crucial for sustainable and better livelihoods – agriculture and allied activities, irrigation and flood control, rural development and health and family welfare and education, sports, arts and culture have received short shrift in the recent budget. When compared to the budget estimate for 2022-23, allocation for education and health and family welfare has witnessed a marginal decline in nominal terms, which, adjusted for inflation, would be much sharper (Fig1). The allocation for the expenditure under education and health and family welfare has in fact witnessed a decline in real terms when compared with the revised allocation for 2022-23.

Source : Author’s estimate from the Budget document 2023-24

Allocation for agriculture and allied activities has witnessed only a marginal increase in nominal terms and will likely decline in real terms when adjusted with inflation. However, budget allocations for both heads: irrigation and flood control and agriculture and allied activities witnessed a sharp decline when compared with the revised estimate of Budget 2022-23. Reflections on rural development also presents a similar scenario – only a marginal increase when compared with the budget estimate of 2022-23 that disappears when contrasted with the revised estimate. The budget allocation under social welfare and nutrition remains the only sector to buck the trend, recording a significant increase in budgetary allocation compared to the previous year. 

Source: Author’s estimate from the budget document 2023-24

With the exception of social welfare and nutrition sectors, budget allocations for all other heads as share of total expenditure under the budget have declined when compared with the actuals of 2021-22 and budget estimate of 2022-23 (Fig 2). A case in point is budget allocation for health and family welfare, allocation for which, as a share of the total budget, has witnessed a decline from 6.6% in the year 2022-23 to 5.37% in the present year. Allocation for agriculture and allied activities has witnessed a decline from 4.6% in 2022-23 (already lower than the average share of states) to 3.97% in 2023-24. Public Investment in the sector has been historically lesser than the average of all states. It is important to note that even in 2022-23, the allocation for all three sectors: agriculture and allied activities, health and family welfare and rural development have been lower than the average of the states. The fact that the share of these heads for 2023-24 have been lower than 2022-23 does not augur well for a vision of pro-poor growth. 

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While the emphasis on ‘Green’ budget and climate-related disaster is been a welcome change in the Budget 2023-24, there is no budgetary allocation for mitigating natural calamities which has been occurring with increasing frequency in the state in recent times. Recently released first-ever report “Gross Domestic Climate Risk” by XDI, an Australian firm, has identified the state as one of the most vulnerable states in India and among top 50 most vulnerable zones in the world in terms of risk from extreme weather, whose cost is disproportionately borne by the people dependent on agriculture, and those living in riverine areas. An increasing share of people from the disaster-prone zone in the state is migrating out as seasonal migrants from the state. By undermining sectors crucial for sustainable livelihoods and human well-being in Budget 2023-24, the government lost an important opportunity to take a corrective measure for a course correction in poor human record and make better provisions for sustainable livelihood.

Rajib Sutradhar is an Assistant Professor of Economics at CHRIST Deemed to be University, Bangalore. 

Anamika Das is associated with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. 

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