pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana

In recent times there have been several very impressive claims by the union government regarding its very strong commitment to various welfare programs. However at the same time we cannot ignore that equally strong criticisms questioning these claims have also been voiced. As a lot of statistics are often quoted in support of claims as well as criticisms, people are often left confused regarding what is the real situation.

To clarify such confusions we may start with the example of a scheme about the desirability of which there can be a clear consensus. This is the leading scheme relating to maternity benefits and nutrition support called Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY). Government claims say that the government has been spending on average about Rs. 2000 crore ( one crore=10 million) per year during the last seven years to give support to mothers directly for nutrition and other needs. When this information appears alongside the beaming face of a mother from a poor family, the first impression is to feel good about it and to thank the government for such a good scheme.

But if you listen to critical voices to get a more complete picture, you will be informed that  the scheme is the result of a provision in the National Food Security Act passed during the last days of the UPA government) which commits the government to provide at least Rs. 6000 to all pregnant and lactating women for all child births, a commitment that costs Rs. 14,000 crore per year according to expert calculations.  The NDA government arbitrarily made changes in this legal provision to cover only the first born child under this scheme (ignoring the earlier legal commitment to cover all child-births) and to reduce the payment made to a mother to Rs. 5000. At the same time the system of obtaining the benefit has been made very cumbersome with the increased possibility that many qualifying mothers may not be able to access it. Hence in fact, the critics say, Rs. 12,000 crore per year has been held back on average from deserving mothers during the last seven years as  only Rs. 2000 crore per year have been spent instead of the Rs. 14,000 crore per year needed to fulfill the obligation. What is more, the payment of Rs. 5000 has not been increased despite all the inflation.

So here we are. The government’s claims look impressive enough initially, but if you hear the full story from critics then government claims start appearing much less convincing! It is important that people should get to hear both versions, and then are free to make up their mind.

A very important fund for ensuring the safety and security of women set up by the union government is the Nirbhaya fund. The government claims to have allocated Rs. 6213 crore for this scheme during the 8 years preceding 2021-22, and this looks like an impressive budget to many people, signifying the commitment of the government to the safety of women.

Now let us look at what the critics say. They say that the scheme was started with an understanding of committing Rs. 1000 crore every year. Moreover with the passage of time and inflationary pressures, there was a clear need to increase the budgetary commitment. Hence there should have been an allocation of around Rs. 10,000 crore during these 8 years and allocation of only Rs. 6213 crore is clearly not adequate. What is more, a review in 2022 revealed that out of the allocation of Rs. 6213 crore during the last 8 years, in fact only Rs. 4138 crore were disbursed and only Rs. 2922 crore were utilized. Hence they say that actually this is a case of very substantial under-utilization of funds and not of any great achievement. If the fund had been properly utilized, much more could have done and several neglected and incomplete tasks still crying out for attention could have been accomplished.

If a question is asked regarding who have been the poorest of the poor in Indian society, then probably a large number of people will agree that those households who were or have been engaged in manual scavenging constitute the poorest of the poor. Hence clearly they deserve the most generous support from the government for improving their condition. Keeping this in view a self-employment scheme for providing alternative livelihoods to them was started by the Government of India and there were high hopes from this scheme.

The claim of the Government is that it has allocated Rs. 1255 crore during the period 2014-15 to 2021-22 for this scheme. This claim when highlighted alongside a photo of a beaming woman who has left manual scavenging to become a  shopkeeper with the support of this scheme cheers us up and we thank the government for fulfilling the society’s obligation towards the poorest of the poor.

However if we take care to check with critics they will tell us that in fact out of the total allocation of around Rs. 1255 crore for this scheme only Rs. 236 crore was actually spent or utilized. In other words, for this high-priority scheme meant for the welfare of the poorest of the poor, only 19% of the funds allocated were actually utilized. This happened when social activists working on this issue were repeatedly drawing attention to the several pressing needs of these households.

Under the various pension schemes, pensions for those elderly persons from poor households who do not have access to regular pensions are given. In addition pensions for widows are given and also pensions for disability affected persons are given. These are often held out as a commitment of the government to social security of vulnerable groups.

However if you ask the critics then they will tell you that the amount is too small for the real needs of such pensions and that despite the inflationary pressures there has been terrible stagnancy in the meager funds offered under this program by the union government (it is only after adding their own substantial and higher share that a few states can give a somewhat better pension).

Clearly then there is more than one side to the claims regarding the generosity of the welfare programs and schemes of the government. What critics have been saying is that in order to be truly beneficial, much more funds to meet adequately the real needs of people should reach them. Also, the allocations should be carefully monitored to ensure that these are used properly and honestly.

A more general feeling people have is that while all governments have some showpieces and some real achievements at a few places, overall the performance of most welfare schemes leaves much to be desired. Instead of glossing over such realities, it will be much more useful for governments to set up much better monitoring mechanisms and create more transparent conditions of working. If only 19% of the funds allocated for a top priority scheme are being spent and if statistics reveal serious shortcomings, then isn’t it proper to take timely action at an early stage instead of allowing the problems and retarding factors to persist for a long time?

Perhaps the government and critics can try to come closer to each other with the critics offering more constructive suggestions as well to improve the various programs and schemes, while the government also, instead of merely blowing its own trumpet, also  becomes more responsive to the constructive criticisms and suggestions from the opposite side.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Man over Machine.

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