President Pranab Mukherjee's Address to the Joint Sitting of Parliament in the august Central Hall at the start of the Budget Session was perhaps the last one, as he demits office at the end of his tenure later this year. Pranab Mukherjee was associated with Parliament since 1969, when he was first elected to the Rajya Sabha. Later, he was elected to the Lok Sabha twice from West Bengal, his home State. At the culmination of an illustrious career, Pranab Mukherjee was elected to the highest office as Head of State. True to his reputation, President Pranab Mukherjee stuck to age-old customary practice of riding in the buggy, in which he came to Parliament House, instead of using the car and sported Sherwani on all State occasions, while wearing Jodhpuri suit during the official functions. Interestingly, the occasion of his last Address to the Joint Sitting of Parliament was historic in many ways. It was historic because this Budget Session heralded the advancement of the Budget cycle. With the Budget presentation advanced to February 1, the Budget process would get completed by March 31 and the budgetary allocations would be available from the start of the financial year on April 1. In fact, the Budget timing was also advanced from the customary late evening to 11:00 AM. Until the year 2000, the Budget was unveiled on the last day of February at 5 pm. This was a colonial practice inherited from the days of the Raj and it continued with no rhyme or logic. Apparently Brokers in London would benefit by trading on UK stock markets with tips gleaned from the Indian Budget, which would be transmitted via telegraph. In 2000, the then Union Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha decided to end this colonial practice once and for all. Besides, the present occasion was also historic as it marked the merger of the Railway Budget with the General Budget for the first time in Independent India. The British saw merit in the Railways and deemed it important enough to warrant a separate Railway Budget. The Railway Budget was presented to Parliament by the Railway Minister a couple of days ahead of the Union Budget during the Budget Session of Parliament. The practice, started in 1924, continued till 2016, after which it was discontinued. By merging the Railway Budget with the General Budget, the Government has signalled an end to a 92-year-old tradition. In his last Address to Parliament, President Pranab Mukherjee succinctly touched upon key issues that are central to the Modi Government. One is financial inclusion, key to poverty-alleviation. He said an unprecedented 26 crore plus Jan Dhan accounts have been opened for unbanked. Over 20 crore RUPAY debit cards have been issued to enable cashless payments. Moving swiftly from Jan Dhan to Jan Suraksha, he said close to 13 crore poor have been covered under various social security schemes. To take the banking system to the doorstep of the poor and the unbanked, the Indian Postal Payment Bank has been started. The postal network with wider reach and deep penetration of over 1.5 lakh post offices will also function as postal banks. Besides the over 1 lakh Bank-Mitras appointed by banks, over 2.5 lakh Gram-Dak-Sewaks will also function as banking correspondents. The President pointed out that over Rs 2 lakh crore has been provided through 5.6 crore loans sanctioned under Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana to ensure collateral-free bank financing for the unfunded and to promote small businesses. Seventy percent of this has been availed of by women entrepreneurs.
Dwelling on women empowerment, he said the Government is making Nari Shakti an integral part of development journey. Women deserve equal opportunity. The Rio Olympics, where we took great pride in the performance of PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, Deepa Karmakar and others illustrates the strength of women. The President also pointed out that women are being inducted in combat streams of the Armed Forces. The nation is proud of its first three women fighter pilots. This illustrates what can be achieved, as a nation, if women are fully empowered and if their skills and talent are optimally utilised. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme that addresses the issue of declining Child Sex Ratio, is yielding encouraging results. Under the Sukanya Samridhi Yojana, launched with an objective of ensuring a secure future for the Girl Child, over one crore accounts have been opened and an amount of over Rs 11,000 crore has been deposited. The Pradhan Mantri Surakshit Matritva Abhiyan will provide comprehensive ante-natal care by a qualified medical practitioner to all pregnant women. The revision of Maternity Benefit Act and enhancement of maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks will support pregnant women at the workplace. The demographic advantage was best illustrated by the President. He said that nearly 24. 65 percent of the population is below the age of 35. Youth is the greatest strength and youth energy needs to be effectively channelized. With the motto of Har Haath ko Hunar, steps have been initiated for skilling the youth and improving their employability.
Work of skill development, earlier spread across 21 Ministries and 50 Departments, has been brought under one umbrella Ministry. The Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana has been launched with a Budget outlay of Rs 12,000 crore, to train one crore youth over the next four years. Over 20 lakh youth have already benefited. National Apprenticeship Promotion Schemehas been launched with a Budget outlay of Rs 10,000 crore and 978 employment exchanges spread across the country have been integrated as part of the National Career Service Portal. In the most stirring imagery, President Pranab Mukherjee spoke of how the people professing different faiths and religions constitute the spirit of India and contribute to the strength of the nation, just like the strings of sitar, which produce different notes but come together to create a beautiful melody.The President also invoked Mother Teresa, who was cannonised recently, the symbol the spirit of selfless service, inspire the people in equal measure.