Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s 2021-22 budget for healthcare proves the adage right: that for every negative there is a positive. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly has forced the government to do something substantial to provide muscle to India’s woefully inadequate public healthcare infrastructure.
The budget has made a provision of ₹35,000 crore for COVID vaccines and to ensure they reach the population. For the overall healthcare sector, the budget outlay is ₹2,23,846 crore, an increase of 137 per cent compared to ₹94,452 crore in the previous year.
Most significant has been the outlay for drinking water and sanitation, which jumped from ₹21,518 crore in 2020-21 to ₹60,030 crore in the latest one.
Clearly, the pandemic, which is not yet over, has brought home the fact that healthcare is too fundamental and crucial for any government to ignore. The healthcare sector has been asking that the government increase spending in this area from 1.2 per cent of the GDP to at least 2.5 per cent of the GDP.
The government has intended the Pradhan Mantri Aatmanirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojna with an outlay of ₹64,180 crore over the next six years to be the high point. But, as always, the plans sound welcoming but the challenge is in the implementation, going by healthcare professionals’ reactions to the budget.
The plan to boost primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare sectors would go a long way in improving the healthcare facilities across the country. It is expected to have a spinoff in that it will open up avenues for employment and revive the economy wherever it is linked to healthcare.
Strangely, amidst the increased outlay for healthcare, the only dip is in nutrition where the budget has been cut from ₹3,700 crore to ₹2,700 crore. But 112 districts have been identified under Poshan 2.0 to boost nutritional facilities for women and children.
The government, responding to the inadequacy of health infrastructure at points of entry into the country, has made provision for 17 units to make up for it. Besides, the budget plans modernisation of existing health units at 32 airports, 15 seaports and land ports.
For a country that historically has never paid attention to public healthcare facilities to the extent required, and where the private sector has rapidly developed in recent years, the budget intends to set right the anomalies. Whether the intention is matched by deed will be known by the time the next budget comes up.
Since the pandemic is expected to die down either on its own or with the help of vaccination, the same fervour to improve healthcare should ideally not drop once Covid is passé.
The provision for ₹35,000 crore for the vaccination of the Indian population is the immediate test whether it will help succeed in its endeavour. But, as healthcare professionals have been saying for some time, the government should look at the sector holistically, as that is what will sustain in the medium to long term.