If one thing is clear about this year's budget, it is that the UPA government has gone rural with a vengeance. Allocation for all rural-focused schemes has increased by at least 45 per cent, going up to 144 per cent for the government's pet rural job project, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Allocations for the NREGS has gone up to Rs39,000 crore. Other schemes to benefit are Bharat
Nirman, the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, the Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana, and the Indira Awas Yojana, at a total cost of almost Rs62,000 crore. The aim is clearly to stimulate demand in rural India, an idea that industries across sectors have mostly applauded.
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a Doordarshan interview, ''It is essentially a rural development-oriented budget. A record increase in allocation for national rural employment guarantee fund, increased money for irrigation benefit schemes, the Bharat Nirman programme, which seeks to upgrade and modernise rural infrastructure - these are all programmes which will primarily benefit our rural areas and reduce the gap between Bharat and India.''
The finance minister added in his budget speech that the government would soon come out with a draft food security (guarantee) bill after working out details. The government has already promised legal rights to 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs3 per kg for families below the poverty line.
Mukherjee also said that to increase productivity of assets and resources under NREGS, convergence with other schemes relating to agriculture, forests, water resources, land resources and rural roads is being initiated. In the first stage, 115 pilot districts have been selected for convergence, he said.
As usual, however, the devil will lie in the details. Apart from such highly desirable convergence, Mukherjee also promised that he would plug the gaping loopholes in the delivery of all such schemes to the intended beneficiaries. But he was delightfully vague on how he would go about achieving this.