The Budget : More Sleight of hand

Published: February 14, 2018 - 12:13

Faced with challenges, pressures and expectations the last NDA budget before 2019 is in line with its modus operandi: much gloss and fanfare, but if you read the fine print it shows a different picture
altogether


The Union Budget 2018 was presented at a time when the Indian economy is facing the worst slowdown in at least half a decade (CSO). While macroeconomic shocks such as demonetization and the implementation of
the goods and services tax (GST) are likely to have contributed to the slowdown, the root of the slowdown lies in the decline of investments in the country. The slowdown in investments has led to all round and
widespread gloom and distress. The big question about this budget then was to see how it addresses issues arising out of this such a job contraction in the informal sector, slowdown of manufacturing,
increasing farmer and lower middle class distress? In a budget you take from some and give to others. So who gives and who takes is where we should be looking.

The challenge of budget making is to take enough from the nearly 15% of the population or about 200 million making up 40 million families liable for direct taxes, without dissatisfying them too much. This should provide enough to blunt the edge of popular anger of the 60% who make little more than subsistence in terms of income. This covers about 700-750 million population or 150 families. It is these people have largely been bypassed by  the huge growth gains made since 1998. That means the two NDA and two UPA terms. Added to this the government has to promise delivering all this with a most expensive public administration (10.4% of GDP), and an almost defunct delivery system. A majority of government employees - over 25 million - are the bedrock of the direct taxes paying cohort. So in effect, a major part of the direct taxes are realized by the government from those who work in it. In either case, we the people pay for them. So you need to get much from others. This is where indirect taxes come in. Indirect taxes are derived from a far bigger base of population. For instance, even the lowest sections will buy match boxes from which taxes are derived. As you go up the chain of manufactured goods the polyester yarn manufacturers will look at askance at too many reliefs and benefits given to the cotton textiles sector. Balancing the budget is the easier part. Balancing aspirations is next to impossible.


The big question about this budget then was to see how it addresses issues arising out of this such a job contraction in the informal sector, slowdown of manufacturing, increasing farmer and lower middle-class distress?

Thus, budgets haven’t really changed over the decades. An analysis of budget break-ups since 1999 shows that proportions of most heads just do not change, as GDP growth and hence tax revenues usually stay
nearer where they have been before. Discretionary revenue expenditure can only go up when GDP growth really perks up as we saw between 2009-2012. From then it has been downhill in terms of growth.
Against this backdrop how are Modi and Jaitely faring? I must say quite heroically. Like boys on the burning deck. They are just distracting us with promises and hoping to stave off the inevitable - popular discontent. Take for instance the much-hyped National Health Protection scheme to cover 500 million people or 100 million families with medical cover of up to `5 lakhs. But what is the outlay for this?


It is a measly `30, 000 crores translating into a premium of about `3000 per beneficiary family, whereas the prevailing premiums are at about `4400 a year. Even here the government is being disingenuous. If
this were in addition to what is allocated to the `1.38 lakh crores to health, which was `1.22 lakh crores in the previous year, there would be some little cause to cheer. No, instead it comes from the health
budget, which in effect means that this year less money is being spent on public healthcare. So if government hospitals and clinics have fewer doctors and lesser medicines be happy with your health insurance
and go to a private nursing home or corporate hospital and see how soon the cover evaporates. In effect this is a direct benefit to private healthcare providers, and insurance companies who will get an `30, 000 crores
windfall. Similar sleight of hand is indulged in increasing the standard deduction to `40, 000 for salariedpersons. The outlay for this is `8000 crores. But the education cess goes up by 1%, which means an outgo of `11, 000 crores. So who is out of pocket by `3000 crores? The government has announced that it will fund 8 crores new stove and cylinder on getting a gas connection. This is an existing scheme. But reports from gas agency dealers in several parts of the country, especially those in rural areas, have reported that an extremely low number of Ujjawala beneficiaries are returning for refills of their cylinders. Thus, the number of LPG connections may be rising rapidly, but LPG usage is not. The catch is that below poverty line families who exist on on less than `32 a day in rural areas and `47 a day in urban areas are simply too poor afford the market rate of LPG.


Discretionary revenue expenditure can only go up when GDP growth really perks up as we saw between 2009-2012. From then it has been downhill in terms of growth.Against this backdrop how are Modi and Jaitely faring?

There was much expectation of an agriculture-oriented budget. Nothing of that sort has been announced to suggest that. Institutional credit to the agriculture sector has gone up to `11 lakh crores when it was
`10 lakh crores last year. The Finance Minister spoke about “revitalizing Infrastructure and Systems in Education by 2022. Technology to be the biggest driver in improving quality of education. To increase digital intensity in education, it will move infrastructure from blackboard to digital board. By 2022, every block with more than 50 per cent ST population will have Eklavya schools at par with Navodaya Vidyalayas”. Fine, but
show me the money? He is clearly a man for the big picture who doesn’t get into such specifics. Am I unhappy about the budget? Why should I be? The limit for senior citizens for investment in interest- bearing LIC schemes doubled to from `7.5 lakhs to `15 lakhs. But as Claude Pepper said: “ at my age I don’t even buy green bananas!”

This story is from print issue of HardNews

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