NEW DELHI: Finance Minister Arun Jaitley unveiled a budget that seems to focus on farmer growth and the rural poor. Taking the ‘suit-boot-ki-sarkar’ tag seriously, the government set to offset this image by revealing what the FM described as a “transformative agenda” with the focus on farm and non-farm rural sectors, job creation, infrastructure and the social sector. Fiscal discipline, tax reforms, ease of doing business and financial reforms also formed part of the agenda, but lower on the list, enabling the “boosting farm growth” description that has accompanied coverage and analysis of the budget. “This is the first time after independence that a Budget has been made specifically for the farmers, the poor and the village,” Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh said.

While the shortcomings of the budget on the issue of farm growth has been extensively covered -- with several political and economic experts pointing to the goal of “doubling farmers’ income in the next five years” being a pipedream -- other aspects of the budget also raise points of concern.

A brief overview of the keywords in the finance minister’s budget speech shows that while investment and growth were heavily mentioned, crucial aspects of development such as nutrition, social security, integrated child development services, midday meals/school meals, maternity entitlements, the national food security act, and pensions (other than the organised sector) received no mention at all. The National Health Mission was mentioned only once, and children received no mention whatsoever in the budget speech.

“The latest Budget Speech perpetuates a chronic blindness to basic social needs. Children are not mentioned at all and nor are (say) nutrition, social security or maternity entitlements,” wrote economist Jean Dreze.

Budgets in India, in general, have not had a good record when it comes to children -- who at 442 million constitute 39% of India’s population, but receive less than 3.2% of the budget.

Further, , the budget allocation for children has steadily declined from 4.45% in 2008-2009 to 3.26% in 2015-2016, despite activists demanding higher allocations for child protection, healthcare and education.

Analysis of the Union Budget 2016, however, has focused on the rural sector, with comments stating that the upper middle class and the “rich” -- seen as constituencies of the NDA government -- were given the “short shrift” as there were no relaxations on tax slabs or exemption limits, and there was an increase in surcharge from 12% to 15% on incomes above 1 crore rupees.

Farmers, however, stole the show, with the budget aiming to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. The FM announced an allocation of nearly Rs 36,000 crore for the farm sector while raising the agri-credit target to Rs 9 lakh crore for the next fiscal. Jaitley also He also allocated Rs 15,000 crore for interest subvention on the farm credit, Rs 5,500 crore for the new crop insurance scheme and Rs 500 crore to boost pulses output.

Not all saw the targets as achievable, with Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) giving the budget a thumbs down. “The goal of doubling farmers' income in the next five years is a dream. Its is not possible when farmers are committing suicide due to the pressure of the huge debts. The government has not given funds to free farmers from debts,” BKU national spokesman Rakesh Tikait said.

The political opposition wasn’t too impressed, either. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “I think it (doubling farmers' income) is an impossible dream and there is no inclination, no way of telling the country how it will be achieved because it implies a 14 percent annual increase in the farm income in each of the five years."

RJD President Lalu Prasad Yadav indicated that the budget was full of empty promises when he said, “PM Modi said he will double the income of farmers by 2022. What is the guarantee?”

(Cartoon by Mika Aziz)