Beginning of February is the budget time in India. The finance minister announces the budget for the coming year, which usually includes policy statements from the government. Railway budget used to be a separate event earlier. Now it is combined into the general budget. Which makes it an even bigger event.
I have been a big fan of the budgets since my college days. I remember the eminent jurist and fiscal expert Nani Palkivala commenting on the budget. His speeches, in the pre-internet days, used to be held in the Brabourne stadium in Mumbai. I had the good fortune of attending a couple of them. Budgets are watched widely by different segments of the society, for different reasons. Individuals would like to know about the change in taxation slabs, while the corporations are interested in policies affecting their businesses, taxation being one of them.
Over the years, I found that reading media reports does not give the complete picture. Each journalist takes a particular view of the budget, like a blind man touching one part of the elephant. Reading the finance minister’s budget speech in its entirety, and then laced with comments from the experts gives a better picture. Thanks to the technology revolution, the speech is available in video and text form for everyone to consume on the same day it is made.
I tend to look at the bigger picture as to the direction being pursued by the government, rather than the detailed numbers in the annexures. After all, I am no expert in accounting or taxation or even the economy. This budget has been described as a digital budget. What it meant is that the finance minister read it from a handheld computer, made in India. This move itself saves a lot of paper from being wasted. It also symbolizes the coming of age of India as a digital power on the global stage. The census due this year will also be totally digital, putting India’s core competency in IT (Information Technology) to good use. Along with the digital infrastructure come the powerful tools driven by AI (Artificial Intelligence) to slice and dice the data to make meaningful decisions. Data and such tools are the new gold.
Being hit by a major global pandemic, the economy shrank, unemployment increased and so did the budget deficit. As a result, we have a massive emphasis on the health facilities to fight future pandemics, big spending on creating infrastructure which will boost the economy and create employment, while at the same time being fiscally responsible to reduce the deficit from 9.5 to 6.5%. It was a delicate balancing act with spending wisely and still reducing the borrowings in such difficult times.
Health facilities include testing labs, web portals, primary centers, level 3 biohazard labs and a center for virology. A good move since viruses are here to stay and the next battle may be around the corner while we vaccinate against the current pandemic. I like the government’s emphasis on infrastructure development. I have not seen so many development projects being managed to completion in a reasonable amount of time and within budget. Project management has been India’s achilles heel for several decades in the past. Hundreds of miles of highways, building of port capacity, dedicated freight corridors for moving goods by rail, metro rail all over the country are good examples.
I am excited by the developments on the alternative energy front. Solar and wind capacity is being added in a big way. My view is that the third world countries will leapfrog the developed ones in this area, just like they did in the area of cell phone revolution. Simply because there is no incumbent business lobby to fight for the status quo. In the US, the coal lobby is a major force in politics who make a significant chunk of the population deny the climate change, thereby making hay while the sun shines (actually denying the sun power in favor of fossil fuels !). Government controlled coal sector in India has no such reasons.
Privatization of the public sector is a major agenda where the government has not been successful in the past but nurses ambitions that things will be different this time. Air India has been an albatross around the government’s neck for a long time now. Privatization of ports and some other public sector units along with 2 Banks are on the line. Let us hope for the best. Good thing is that India has not indulged in crony capitalism by rapid fire sale of public assets to the cronies of the leaders in power, like Russia did.
I like the government’s approach on settlement rather than litigation. Either in the area of taxation, with schemes like “vivad se vishwas”, or in bankruptcy resolutions. Establishing a Central University in Leh will go a long way in the development of the region. The GST (Goods and Service Tax) has come some way. One nation, one ration card, using the digital infrastructure, is a good development. More ship recycling work (dismantling and discarding the older ships) from all over the world will come to India as it has agreed to the Hong Kong international convention for handling the resulting waste.
Is everything hunky dory ? I am not happy with the duty increases on some items as part of Atma nirbhar program. This is likely to protect inefficient industries. Building trade barriers is not a great idea – whether Trump does it or the third world countries. It can be done in very restricted cases and only for a shorter period of time.
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