Budgeting for jobs, skilling and economic revival

The Budget needs to provide direction to India’s tottering economy and a boost to aggregate demand and investment

Updated - January 24, 2020 12:40 am IST

Published - January 24, 2020 12:05 am IST

The forthcoming Union Budget will determine whether India’s economic engine gets the steam needed for a rebound, or the current economic situation becomes even worse. Not just the future of the economy, the future of the country’s youth depends on the Budget.

The unemployment rate at 6.1% (Financial Year 2017-2018) is the highest in 45 years. The rate for urban youth in the 15-29 years category is alarmingly high at 22.5%. These figures, however, are just one of the many problems, as pointed out by the Periodic Labour Force Survey. The Labour Force Participation Rate has come down to 46.5% for the ‘15 years and above’ age category. It is down to 37.7% for the urban youth. Even among those employed, a large fraction get low wages and are stuck with ‘employment poverty’.

Structural factors

The prolonged, and ongoing, slowdown, is the main reason behind the depressing employment scenario, though several structural factors have also contributed to the situation. The GDP growth for the second quarter of Financial Year 2019-2020 is 4.5%, the lowest in the last six years, for which a decline in private consumption and investment are the factors primarily responsible. The aggregate investment stands at less than 30% of the GDP, a rate much lower than the 15-year average of 35%. The capacity utilisation in the private sector is down to 70%-75%.

While the structural factors need addressing, in the interim, the Budget should also focus on reviving demand to promote growth and employment. Schemes like PM-KISAN and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) are good instruments to boost rural demand. It is really unfortunate that in the current fiscal year, a significant proportion of the budgetary allocation for PM-KISAN will go unutilised. Farmers and landless labourers spend most of their income. This means that income transfers to such groups will immediately increase demand. Further, rural India consumes a wide range of goods and services; so, if allocation and disbursement is raised significantly, most sectors of the economy will benefit. And, the payoff will be immediate.

Besides, rural unemployment can be reduced by raising budgetary allocation for irrigation projects and rural infrastructure like roads, cold storage and logistical chains. These facilities, along with a comprehensive crop insurance scheme, can drastically increase agricultural productivity and farmers’ income. Moreover, by integrating farms with mandi s, such investments will reduce wastage of fruits and vegetables, thereby leading to a decrease in the frequency of inflationary shocks and their impact.

Boosting urban employment

In urban areas, construction and related activities are a source of employment for more than five crore people; across the country, the sector’s employment figures are second only to those of the agriculture sector. These projects, along with infrastructure, support 200-odd sectors, including core sectors like cement and steel.

However, due to the crisis in the real-estate and infrastructure sectors, construction activities have come to a grinding halt. At present, many real-estate projects are caught up in legal disputes — between home-buyers and developers; between lenders and developers; and between developers and law enforcement agencies like the Enforcement Directorate. The sector has an unsold inventory of homes, worth several lakh crores.

Even worse, multiple authorities — the Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA); the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT); and the many consumer courts — have jurisdiction over disputes. Consequently, restructuring and liquidation of bad projects is very difficult, and in turn, is a main source of the problem of Non-Performing Assets faced by the Non-Banking Financial Companies.

To revive demand for housing, the Budget can raise the limit for availing tax exemption on home loans. The ₹25,000-crore fund set up by the centre to bailout 1,600 housing projects should be put to use immediately. The funds should be used to salvage all projects that are 80% complete and not under liquidation process under the NCLT. Several additional measures can also help. For example, there should be a single adjudication authority.

The multiplier effects of spending on infrastructure and housing in terms of higher growth and employment are large and extensive. Therefore, the ₹102-lakh-crore National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) programme is a welcome step. If implemented successfully, it will boost the infrastructure investment over the next five years by 2%-2.5% of the GDP annually.

Private sector’s risk appetite

Here, the problem is that more than 60% of the planned investment is expected from the private sector and the States. The government does not seem to realise that for private investment, regulatory certainty is as important as the cost of capital. Many infrastructure projects are languishing due to regulatory hurdles and contractual disputes between construction companies and government departments. As a result, infrastructure investment has come to be perceived as very risky. This is the major reason behind non-availability of private capital for infrastructure.

In this scenario, where the private sector has very little appetite for risky investments and State finances are shaky due to low GST collection, the onus is on the Centre to ensure that the programme does not come a cropper. The budgetary support to infrastructure will have to be much more than the NIP projection at 1.11% of the GDP.

Bidding and contracting for new roads, highways, railway tracks and urban development projects is a lengthy process. This is also the reason why several infrastructure-linked Ministries like those for civil aviation and roads have not been able to spend money allocated to them in the current fiscal year. Therefore, rather than earmarking budgetary support for new projects, the focus should be on projects that are currently under implementation so as to complete them as soon as possible. That is, funding should be front-loaded. In addition to creating employment, a timely completion of infrastructure projects will help increase competitiveness of the economy.

The distress among Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) is another area of concern. For many products produced by these enterprises, the GST rates are higher for inputs than the final goods. Due to this anomaly, around ₹20,000 crore gets stuck with the government annually in the form of input tax credits. This has increased cost of doing business for SMEs, which employ over 11 crore people.

Next, according to some estimates, there are more than 22 lakh vacancies in various government departments. Such dereliction is baffling when the unemployment among youth is very high.

Job openings that arise in the private sector put a premium on practical skills and work experience. Here, popular perception is that a good job requires a college or university degree. This misperception is the result of failure of the governments to provide affordable and good quality vocational training programmes.

To stop the demographic dividend from becoming a national burden, there is a need to invest heavily in skilling of the youth. Besides, the Budget should give tax incentives to companies and industrial units to encourage them to provide internships and on-site vocational training opportunities. This work experience can be supplemented with teaching of relevant theories. at educational centres set up at district levels. Distance education mode can also used for the purpose.

Ram Singh is a Professor at the Delhi School of Economics and can be reached at ramsingh@econdse.org

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