Timid approach

The Budget and the Economy

As in the past, this Union Budget was preceded by major announcements: hike in petrol and diesel prices, reducing the government’s liability to oil companies for keeping retail prices down; the NHAI is to become relatively autonomous, enabling speedier project execution; and the DMK Telecom Minister A Raja will now be overseen by a group of ministers for telecom headed by the finance minister.

But the Economic Survey’s suggestions, which had enthused the stock market was honoured in the budget.

The budget came amidst continuing global economic crisis, rising crude prices, the failure of the monsoon in north-west India and consequent spread of urban recession to rural India, possible burdens on government, poor exports growth, and a sharp fall in overseas funds for companies. But the finance minister abandoned past practice of the Budget speech as an annual statement of government economic policy and a roadmap for reforms.

GDP is to rise by 5.8 per cent but the government expects nine per cent growth in the near future. It does not take account of the expected setback to agriculture, fall in exports, decline in demand, sharp rise in prices of food products and decline in private sector investment, the driver of past growth.

Government expenditures are to rise by 36 per cent while revenues will rise only by 10 per cent. The fiscal deficit of the Centre plus states will in reality be over 12 per cent. Consequently, government will borrow over 40 per cent of all expenditure, crowd out funds for non-government investment, add to inflationary pressures, lead to higher interest costs on borrowing overseas and in India, and to a lowering of India’s credit rating abroad.

Government borrowings of over Rs 4 lakh crore will squeeze funds for private sector investment, and raise in interest rates after Diwali, hurting private investment. Public debt is at 85 per cent of GDP almost three times that of China and higher than Pakistan, makes interest the highest committed expenditure, at 22 per cent of the budget. Expenditure on poorly targeted and wastefully delivered subsidies is 3.7 per cent of GDP. So are expenditures on education and health, also inefficiently and wastefully spent, and yet far lower than many other Asian countries.

Infrastructure is to see substantially higher expenditures, by 23 per cent on NHAI, 87 per cent on JNURM, 160 per cent on APRDP for electricity. NREGS will get another 144 per cent without plans to ensure it all reaches the targeted poor. The budget promises three reforms: direct delivery of fertiliser subsidy to farmers, disinvestment, and introduction of the goods and services tax which will significantly reduce transaction costs in the economy from 2010.

Stimulating economy

Infrastructure expenditures, even inefficiently spent, will stimulate the economy while adding to assets. Social sector expenditures will further enrich corrupt administrators. The NREGS has resulted in higher farm labour costs. However 60 per cent of India’s agriculture depends on monsoons. There are no plans to correct this.

As the India Growth story swept the world, there has been an ebb and flow of large FII investments in Indian markets, stimulated by the exemption from short-term capital gains taxes for investments from Mauritius. It has led to unprecedented volatility in Indian stock markets, with rises and falls in the Sensex on many days of 1,000 points, and sharp changes in the value of the rupee. The budget is silent on tackling this.

Trashed by the stock market but welcomed by short-sighted businessmen who are fixated on tax rates not rising, the budget is a disappointment. It makes poor use of the electoral mandate. On last year’s performance it probably underestimates expenditures and the deficit. We cannot argue that our deficits are not higher than in the USA or UK. They are very unlike us, more efficient in their spending and execution. We waste and steal more than we actually spend on the poor, or on building assets.

Next year could see lower expenditures if the economy improves, since the Pay Commission spending is now built in to the total spending, NREGS may not need addition, disinvestment in state enterprises might have begun, adding to revenues and their efficiencies, and hopefully, there will be no more farmer loan write-off.

But we need to spend more on irrigation, on canals and micro water storage in rural India, making India monsoon-proof, from the present 60 per cent of the land. We must decentralise spending on education and health and give supervisory powers to local authorities. Local authorities need capability in people and financial powers. We need much better targeting of beneficiaries and not passively wait for the Unique National Identity Card to solve all such problems. We must take such actions as are known to be possible, now.

Perhaps all this is to come and Pranab Mukherjee decided not to put such policy statements in his budget, keeping it as a mere statement of account. It would have made such reforms more likely if they had been announced.

This budget will not give growth, harm private investment, and clearly demonstrates that not initiating major reforms for the last five years was not only because of the Communist intransigence.

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