Poornima Joshi/ Aesha Dutta

Activist Aruna Roy

The rights-based approach to welfare took a backseat when the BJP assumed power with its open disparagement of subsidies and the landmark Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). But the drastic Budget cuts to the social sector in the first year of the BJP are no longer the norm, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley asserting that he has made the “highest ever” allocation to MNREGA. In an interview to BusinessLine, grassroots activist Aruna Roy gives her assessment of the BJP’s flip-flops on welfarism, and its record on transparency. Excerpts:

Has the delay in the implementation of the Food Security Act and MNREGA exaggerated the drought distress?

Over a third of India is reeling under the effects of a drought for the second successive year. The recent Supreme Court judgment in the Swaraj Abhiyan case highlights the inadequacy of what has been done to alleviate drought distress.

Drought is largely a natural calamity, but unlike other disasters, it is incremental. Therefore, timely intervention can make a big difference. NFSA and MNREGA, which provide guarantee of grains and employment to help fight hunger and poverty, are systemic measures that can address these issues.

This government initially projected these programmes as the previous regime’s “entitlement” misadventures. While the ground realities and resistance led to a change in the rhetoric, it still does not accept that this is a legally binding requirement. The SC judgment says the state cannot say it is not bound to follow the law and create a smokescreen of lack of finances.

The Centre claims MNREGA has been strengthened with more workdays and the “highest ever” allocation. What is the reality?

The Finance Minister continues to make factually incorrect statements. The highest allocation to MNREGA was ₹40,100 crore in 2010-11; with inflation it should have been raised to over ₹60,000 crore. Even the promise of 50 extra workdays in drought-hit States did not see any budgetary increase. Consequently, crores of workers found it difficult to get work, and those who got work did not get wages. At the end last fiscal, more than ₹12,000 crore of wages and material were unpaid. Even the legally mandated compensation for delay in wages was not honoured.

After cutting allocations for health and education last year, there is some effort this year to increase social sector expenditure. Is there confusion in the BJP’s vision for this sector?

There is no real vision in the BJP for the social sector. The government cannot shirk basic responsibilities by switching to cash transfers, and projecting technocratic solutions such as JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhar, and Mobile) as magic bullets. You need to travel in rural Rajasthan to see the havoc in delivery and consequent distress being caused by Aadhaar-based biometric authentication.

There can be no substitute for adequate financial allocations. The minimum expectation of 6 per cent for education and 3 per cent for health, are far from being met, making India’s social sector expenditure, and human development indicators amongst the worst in the world.

How is the current political climate for activists?

This government has created an atmosphere of fear to intimidate anyone with independent views, and differences — university students, civil society activists, intellectuals, and even farmers’ groups. The government’s indifference and antagonism to public consultation is palpable. The pity is that it is failing to use the resource of its own citizenry.

“Foreign-funded” organisations are viewed with suspicion. Yet, you were praised for not criticising India on foreign lands.

This double-speak shows the use of traditional political prejudice to gloss over unethical, arbitrary use of power. The bogey of foreign money is a red-herring to sidetrack issues of accountability. Foreign money has one hue. It cannot endow extraordinary privilege for one segment, which believes global finance is the way forward; and be a contamination for those forming another set of global network — raising questions about the model of growth. The irony is that a government fixated on FDI-fuelled growth seeks to define the nationalism debate!

How do you rate the government’s performance on transparency?

This government came riding on promises of good governance — greater transparency, accountability, and public participation — for which money is not needed, only political will is needed.

But the platforms available for collective consultation have shrunk. The implementation of mandatory disclosure under section 4 of the RTI Act has been forgotten. The Central Information Commission has been hampered by long delays in appointments. The Lok Pal and Whistleblowers Act have been pushed into the quagmire of retrograde amendments. The ‘immediate enactment’ of the Grievance Redressal Bill has been reduced to a potential ‘scheme’. When in opposition, the BJP called for immediate implementation of all these measures.