Comment

A Budget that goes nowhere

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is mistaken if she thinks her first Budget is going to revive a slowing economy.

The economy grew by just 5.8% in real terms in the last quarter of 2018-19. Yet, the Union Budget for 2019-20 assumes that the economy will grow this year by 12% in nominal terms, or by 7-8% in real terms. How can that dramatic a turnaround take place? Only if there is a sharp pick-up in investment — private and/or public.

There is little in the Budget that is likely to boost domestic private investment. There are neither any incentives for private investment nor support for public investment. To make matters worse, the Budget has actually projected a decline in central government capital expenditure (public investment) in 2019-20 by 6% in nominal terms. This is perhaps the first ever decline in public investment in the past half century, which, once adjusted for inflation, could measure over 10%. It is no wonder that the Finance Minister, shedding the convention of decades, did not mention any allocations for schemes in her speech and pushed all the numbers to the fine print.

Same direction as before

It would seem that since the government is unable to catalyse domestic investment or fund public investment, it is now turning abroad to fuel growth. Some of the norms for foreign institutional investment (FII) are to be liberalised, so too for foreign portfolio investment (FPI) and ceilings on foreign direct investment (FDI) are to be raised in some sectors. More ominously, the government has now decided to go in for external commercial borrowings to meet part of its borrowing requirements, claiming that India’s external debt to GDP ratio is very small. This is very much like what the governments of the 1980s did, which eventually led to the balance of payments crisis of the early 1990s. Why are we again heading in that direction?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan of a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25 has taken over the discourse on the economy. The Economic Survey gave it considerable importance and now the Union Budget has too. We have forgotten that a larger economy does not necessarily translate into improved well being for all. A larger economy is of value only if in the process it delivers more jobs and better services. It is significant that the word “jobs” found no mention in the Finance Minister’s speech.

The approach of the Narendra Modi government in its second term seems much like in the first — focus on a select group of welfare schemes like Ujjwala Yojana, Swachh Bharat, Sowbhagya and Jan Dhan (all of which are believed to have served it well in the 2019 elections) and now Jal Shakti, while leaving it to private investment or private consumption to deliver economic growth.

If private investment does not deliver, then the assumption is that private consumption will. Indeed, consumption with the help of household debt has been driving growth in recent years. The dangers of consumption loaded by private debt are obvious.

Numbers from interim Budget

Since the numbers in the Budget papers have steadily lost their integrity, it seems pointless to examine them in much detail. Last month, the Controller General of Accounts had made public the provisional numbers for 2018-19. These showed that central tax revenues were lower than the revised (yes, revised and not Budget) estimates by as much as ₹1.67 trillion. In order to hold down the fiscal deficit, the government cut its expenditure by ₹1.33 trillion. Though these updated figures are available (with the Finance Secretary himself saying in the post Budget press conference that the actuals for 2018-19 are now with the government), why on earth do the Budget papers reproduce the numbers from the interim Budget of February 2019? Obviously because presenting the final numbers for 2018-19 now would have shown the Modi government in a poor light: unable to fulfil its promises on tax collection and spending commitments in its last year of its first five-year term.

To be fair to the Finance Minister, the revenue projections, especially in income tax, are more modest and therefore perhaps more realistic than that of her predecessor. They are modest enough to project a decline in gross tax receipts from 11.9% of GDP (2018-19) to 11.7% of GDP (2019-20), arising from a slump in both direct and indirect taxes. It is interesting that the last time there was a fall in tax revenue was in 2014-15, the first year of the first Modi government.

How then is the government planning to marginally lower its fiscal deficit in 2019-20 to 3.3% of GDP (assuming that this is indeed a reliable estimate)? It turns out a boost in non-tax revenue will make the difference. The biggest jump is of dividends from the Reserve Bank of India and the nationalised banks: ₹1.06 trillion, a 43% jump over 2018-19. Since few public sector banks are making money, most of this must be expected from the RBI. These dividends have more than doubled from 2017-18. We now know why the government-RBI tussle was so bitter last year.

Cooperative federalism?

True to form, the government swears by cooperative federalism in words but does actually the opposite in practice. A major source of revenue mobilisation is to come from a higher cess and special additional excise duty on petrol/diesel. That is good for the Centre because cesses are not to be shared with the States!

With the year ahead already threatening to be a difficult one because of a monsoon that increasingly looks likely to be less than normal, we have to buckle up. We will not get any support from the second Modi government’s first Budget.

A feel good spirit from an impressive electoral victory and slogans about a $5 trillion economy are by themselves not going to give any buoyancy to the economy.

C. Rammanohar Reddy is Editor of The India Forum

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2020 4:13:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-budget-that-goes-nowhere/article28298315.ece

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