"Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value."
Mita Nath Bora
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Just as this applies to an individual, it applies to a nation's and a state's budget too. When a government outlays its budget, it shows what it gives importance to and what its focus will be for the next 365 days. A state budget is the reflection of state priorities. It clearly shows how the state has planned to execute itself to make it a future best state.
Meeting the aspirations of its entire population is not easy; so apart from being a balanced budget, a state budget should be an intelligent budget that is designed to be effective and achievable. And even while it gives the government powers over the budget, it should be addressing the needs of its citizens, their expectations from the government, being well aware that it's the taxpayers' money used to outline the budget expenditure. Budget no longer needs to be a yearly focused budget, one that helps recover and pay off debts, if any, clear deficits, and get the economy going and provide tax relief. Along with having a budget that enables avenues for job creation, employment and education, while keeping the essentials of livelihood intact, it should be futuristic enough so that it makes a long-term impact over several years. Assam Budget 2021 seems to have addressed most of it, which is visible when one studies the sectoral budget allocation balancing the three dimensions of sustainable development – environmental, social and economic under Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
We are in the 6th year after the SDGs were declared on 25th September 2015 when world leaders gathered at the United Nations and adopted the 2030 agenda comprising 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 targets marking the transition from Millennium Development Goals to a set of new goals. These targets were designed to stimulate action over the next 15 years starting from 1st of January' 2016 with a focus on People, the Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership. In December 2015, GoA formally adopted SDGs and two documents Assam Vision Document: "Vision Assam 2030" was released in February 2016 & Assam 2030: Our Dreams, Our Commitment towards the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals in the State released in October 2016. The GoA has identified 59 core indicators covering 17 goals relevant to Assam and accordingly the same are being supervised through a monitoring dashboard since 2019.
The Assam Budget 2021 puts the SDGs in top perspective and each of the goals, 16 of the 17 (leaving aside Goal 14 Life below water) have earmarked goal wise budget allocation. It is noteworthy to see that Goal 4 - Quality Education gets top priority with a budget allocation of Rs 6145 crore after Goal 9- Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, and Goal 1 - No Poverty. This means that the state will give more focus to address issues of inclusive and equitable quality education and take care of an important aspect of the goal, i.e. to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. This is very crucial since though the School Education Quality Index earlier placed Assam at 10th rank, where it has marched ahead from its initial rank of 15th position in its base year, however, as per NITI Aayog SDG Index 2021 on Quality Education, Assam scored only 43 out of 100 and is categorized as an aspirant state.
Poor education or no education undoubtedly is the cause of various social ills. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of 2021 shows that of the 4,78,600 lodged in various prisons in India, 1,32,729 (or 27.37 per cent are illiterate and 1,98,872 (or 41.55 per cent) have studied below Class 10 level. Together, the two categories account for nearly 69.28 per cent of jail inmates.
At any point in time, lack of Quality Education is the sole reason for a society of misguided youths. In the past, lack of focus on educating all was a big reason that forced uneducated youths of the state to engage in illegal activities, be brainwashed into terrorism and get involved in numerous social evils. And today it is also the reason for the rise in the number of drug usage in our society. Education not being value-based and quality-oriented but exam centric only prepares every new generation to be confident loyal slaves of a materialistic society, while not building resilience and wisdom amongst growing children to help them stay away and not succumb to pressures of social ills. Evidence suggests that investment in quality education increases both cognitive and non-cognitive competencies. Individuals have a better capacity for logical and analytical thinking and reasoning and can take relevant decisions for economic and social change. Besides, as they are better informed, they have better work opportunities, with the capacity to stay away from criminal activity. This, however, does not mean that people with higher educational attainment do not at all commit crimes. They are just at a lower risk of becoming an offender.
Goal 1, i.e. no poverty is the root cause of endless hopelessness, of poor health and hygiene and untimely death amongst all. 31.98% of the population of Assam still live below the national poverty line, an alarming concern, considering that the State of Goa has only 5.09% of its population in poverty. Though statistics show that urban poverty in Assam has declined in a somewhat remarkable way, its rural poverty has some ups and downs. The historical trend in the incidence of rural poverty shows an increasing trend as opposed to a secular decline in all other States. A budget allocation of Rs 6,466 crore means Assam plans to strive harder to reach near the 5% mark. Besides, poverty also has a strange relation to crime. Those who live in poverty are always in vulnerable situations. The recent massive drive by the Assam Government against drugs if studied well will reflect that poor people living in abject poverty are easily lured and made participants in the drug trade, like drug smugglers and peddlers. Since these people do not have a stable form of income, in many cases it leads them to drug trafficking because of the fast and vast amounts of money that can come from selling drugs. Both education and poverty, therefore, have a relation with the drug.
The focus of Goal 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure is to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. Assam which was once counted among the economically prosperous states of the country in the early 1950s has continuously slipped down since then in the process of growth compared to other states. The social and economic development process of Assam has been affected by the two wars in the eastern front of the country and the large-scale migration of people from Bangladesh. Since 2016, this scenario is now changing and every year efforts are being made for reviving Assam's economy and its industrial scenario. The industry is a priority sector and with the highest budget allocation against Goal 9 at Rs 8040 crore, this sector will see tremendous change over the next 5 years. On the infrastructure development front, Assam has been marching ahead with building mega bridges, new roads, flyovers, footbridges, emphasis on other infrastructural projects and setting up of mega parks, higher educational institutions, medical colleges, etc.
On the innovation front, Assam ranks sixth in the North Eastern/Hill states category in the India Innovation Index 2020. Innovation is seen as an important factor that contributes to the long-term development of an economy. The India Innovation Index is a major step towards measuring innovation outcomes of states and facilitating optimal utilization of national and state mechanisms to realize the goal of an Atmanirbhar Bharat.
Assam has been working on this front with the Assam Start-Up Policy of which the Assam Start-Up hub has been established that facilities young entrepreneurs towards initiating innovative business ideas, products along with similar efforts for having Innovation Zones across various locations of the state.
With a detailed well thought out budget allocation, GoA's vision to transform Assam into a sustainably developed State by 2030 meeting the criteria of the UN SDGs does not seem impossible to achieve.