Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic took centre-stage during the presentation of the 2021 Union Budget by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
“The preparation of this Budget was undertaken in circumstances like never before,” she said in opening remarks to Parliament. “We knew of calamities that have affected a country or a region within a country, but what we have endured with COVID-19 through 2020 is sui generis [a Latin phrase meaning ‘in a class by itself’.”
Experts in advance called on government spending on healthcare to be raised to 2.5 percent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP). Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD) president Dr S. S. Soodan, senior vice-president Dr Arun Mitra and general secretary Dr Shakeel Ur Rahman said in a joint statement “IDPD notes with concern the growing inequities in healthcare to our population. This has become more evident after the COVID-19 pandemic and has exposed the lack of government preparedness to deal with such situations.”
The 2021 Union Budget did indeed incorporate health and wellbeing as one of six pillars of the government’s plans for expenditure in the new fiscal period. The other pillars included physical and financial capital and infrastructure; inclusive development for aspirational India; reinvigorating human capital; innovation and research and development; and minimum government, maximum governance.
The section of her remarks focused on health and wellbeing saw Sitharaman tout the contribution of frontline workers to Indian society. She said
“Even as a large section of citizens stayed home, milk, vegetable, and fruit-suppliers, health and sanitary workers, truck drivers, railways and public transport workers, bank employees, electricity workers, our annadatas, police, firemen, and the armed forces, all had to go about their work as normal, but with the additional anxiety of the virus hanging over them. We recognise this, and I think I speak on behalf of everybody in this august House, when I express my heartfelt gratitude to these men and women, for how they were able to carry out their work and duty, to provide for the nation’s basics, over those crucial months.
She noted that “in May 2020, the government announced the AtmaNirbhar Bharat package (ANB 1.0). To sustain the recovery, further into the year, we also rolled out two more AtmaNirbhar Bharat packages (ANB 2.0 and ANB 3.0). Total financial impact of all AtmaNirbhar Bharat packages including measures taken by RBI was estimated to about Rs 27.1 lakh crores which amounts to more than thirteen percent of GDP.”
Healthcare and wellness initiatives enjoyed a boost of Rs 2.23 lakh crore during the budget, according to Inc42. With this increase in outlays, per the report, allocation for health and wellbeing increased by 137 percent compared to the previous year.
India’s spending on healthcare has long been a bane. The government’s arguably inadequate outlays for healthcare has been accredited with driving up out-of-pocket spending on healthcare by families, plunging many into poverty. As Sitharaman acknowledged, COVID-19 has represented uncharted territory for many. The new budget may not be what all have hoped for, but it is the first budget enacted in the era of a pandemic that has underscored why healthcare is an investment vital as a public and moral imperative.