LAHORE: For the first time in the country’s history, allocations for education and health sectors have taken the lead in both federal and provincial government develop budgets. These sectors had always been big ticket items in the non-development budgets. Development budgets for these sectors have historically seen only modest increases. Departing from this norm, the major part of the 2016-17 budget speech was devoted to education and health sectors. It did not seem to be mere rhetoric. Sizeable financial allocations were announced, with double digit increases. More than half of the budget has been earmarked for the priority sectors of education, health, water supply and sanitation, agriculture and law and order. The social sector is the major beneficiary in the hefty increase of Rs150 billion in the development budget, which now stands at Rs550 billion.
In the development budget, the allocation for education, health and water supply and sanitation is Rs168.87 billion (31 per cent). Compared to 2015-16, allocation for education has increased by 47 per cent; for heath by 62 per cent; and for provision of clean water by 88 per cent. Such increases in budgetary allocations are unknown in the province’s history.
In the education sector, the higher education has traditionally received preferential treatment at the cost of other sub-sectors. This time, however, the chief minister seems to have put his confidence in schools education. The budget for this sub-sector has received a massive increase of 71 per cent.
This shift of emphasis from physical to social infrastructure is not just a change of heart. It makes perfect economic, social and political sense. Returns on school education are known to be the highest. An educated and skilled youth can contribute to long-term sustainability and high economic growth.
Socially, the neglect of public schooling has played a role in creating space for extremism. A correction was long overdue. Politically, it was about time the government corrected the perception that it did not see development as a holistic and inclusive process.
Human development is concerned with investment on elementary education and primary and secondary healthcare facilities.
The allocation for health sector has increased by 62 per cent compared to last year. There seems to be a clear focus on district- and tehsil- hospitals. The experiment of setting up basic health units and rural health centres has not worked in the province. Doctors and patients both tend to avoid these facilities. Resultantly, tertiary hospitals in large cities remain crowded beyond their capacity. The answer lies in strengthening of district- and tehsil- level hospitals.
While vertical programmes of preventive health have been continued, the strongest preventive healthcare initiative has emerged in the form of spending for provision of clean water. The priority given to the Saaf Pani Project in rural areas of southern Punjab and other districts with unsafe underground water will health indicators among income-poor households. Investment in health is known to have significant impact on labour productivity, enabling economic growth.
The emphasis on girls’ education, child and maternal health will further enhance social and economic returns.
Nonetheless, decent allocations for priority sectors are only a first step. Timely release and effective utilisation of funds are important for attaining desired outcomes. Most importantly, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s personal commitment may for the first time ensure a successful human development project in the province.
The writer is a senior political economist based in Islamabad.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2016.