In a welcome change of national focus, becoming rich is no longer enough unless the poor are taken along. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is very au fait with international headwinds, was prescient in his December 31 address. For the first time, it was not the youth, nor non-resident Indians, nor Hindus, that the PM was focusing on. His attention was primarily on the travails of the poor. He donned the mantle, first evoked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi four and a half decades earlier in 1971, of a pro-poor proselytiser.
Recovering lost ground
Speaking in the shadow of the economic storm unleashed by the demonetisation of 86 per cent of the currency in November and December 2016, Mr Modi extolled the poor for their patience and resilience. They had shown, he said, “…even people trapped in poverty, are willing to… build a glorious India… through persistence, sweat and toil (they), have demonstrated to the world, an unparalleled example of citizen sacrifice.”
The finance minister would do well to gauge which way the wind is blowing when he rises to present the fiscal 2017-18 Budget on February 1. It is not as if the poor were ignored in the earlier three Budgets presented by him. But they only figured tangentially. Growth, macro-economic stability, infrastructure and jobs for the middle-class young, the usual Davos consensus, took pride of place.
A sombre 2017 ahead
We face a sombre fiscal year ahead. The International Monetary Fund’s economic outlook — a source the finance minister has used previously to highlight India’s outlier growth performance since 2014 — has projected a growth of only 6.6 per cent in 2016 — one percentage point less than the 7.6 per cent estimated pre-demonetisation. Worse, even growth in 2017 at 7.2 per cent will suffer. Even this is dependent on the shock being temporary. The subtext is that if the ongoing jihad against corruption is extended indefinitely and indiscriminately, business sentiment will collapse. Corruption is a curse. But it must be tackled surgically by an army of savvy saints, who are hard to find.
Lower growth in 2017 would reduce tax revenues. Hopefully this can be compensated by taxing some of the Rs 4 trillion, suspected to be dodgy money, deposited in banks during demonetisation.
Sops only for revenue and economic return multipliers
This stash should also encourage the finance minister to take the risk of slashing income-tax rates to boost revenue through better tax compliance and boost demand. The maximum tax rate for an annual income between Rs 25 to Rs 50 lakhs should be 15 per cent (current rate 30 per cent), with suitably lower rates for lower income slabs. The tax on income between Rs 2.5 to Rs 10 lakhs should be broad-banded at five per cent (current rate 10 to 30 per cent). Tax studies show that the revenue dividend is more pronounced by reducing tax in the lower income slabs. This is probably because the proportionate cost of evasion reduces at higher income levels so it is tough to beat. High income wallahs tax arbitrage internationally via corporate earnings. So, they declare domestically only enough to justify their easily verifiable lifestyle and assets.
Lower growth also red flags the fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP, which acts as a cap on public borrowing to spend. High fiscal deficits can lead to inflation and public indebtedness. But courtesy demonetisation money is cheap. Banks deposits have swelled by Rs 6 trillion since October 28, 2016. This is low-interest money waiting to be used by the government and its assorted entities. Inflation is well below the target five per cent. This presents the option for temporarily breaching the fiscal deficit target of three per cent for 2017-18 to infuse income into the poorest households.
Rich farmers, poor workers
Sops for agriculture are falsely conflated with poverty-reduction objectives. Admittedly, investing in agricultural growth is an efficient strategy for reducing poverty. Eighty per cent of the poor live in rural areas. But this is too blunt an approach.
Fifty-four out of 180 million rural households (30 per cent) own no land and survive on manual labour. Benefits from agricultural growth are indirect for the poor. Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Muslims are overrepresented in this group. They need instant relief. Consumption loans of Rs 20,000 for each household, deposited into bank accounts, repayable by labour in village improvement schemes, can combine the advantages of a direct benefits strategy, coupled with the self-selecting benefits of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act programme. This requires an allocation of Rs 1 trillion — three times the NREGA allocation. This would be a fit use for the demonetisation windfall.
Neo-middle class vulnerable to sliding back into poverty
But income support is a short-term mechanism to reduce poverty. The World Bank assesses that the Indian growth strategy, whilst effective in pulling people out of poverty, is less effective in keeping them out of poverty. By 2012 poverty levels were down to 22 per cent, from 45 per cent in 1994. But an astonishingly high 41 per cent in the neo-middle class were vulnerable to sliding back into poverty. Even in the go-go years (2005 to 2012) around seven per cent of the neo-middle class slid back into poverty. Sudden economic stress, like the loss of jobs, can significantly increase this proportion.
Reduce multidimensional poverty through better services
Vulnerability to sliding back into poverty can be fixed if the poor get steady jobs, which are more likely if they are educated. Shocks to household budgets can be mitigated by access to healthcare. Nutrition can be improved through clean water supply and sanitation. Lower tax on low-income earners reduces the effective cost of labour versus capital, making labour competitive in the formal sector. Public services, which reduce the multidimensional index of poverty, can be ramped up by the private sector, if the government provides viability gap funding.
Junk low economic return schemes & protect the poor from shocks
India can be on track, to meet the interim sustainable development goal of reducing the level of extreme poverty to nine per cent by 2020, if we safeguard growth and cocoon the poor from shocks by providing access to better public services. The finance minister must identify the allocations specifically for the core objectives and discard the chaff generated by the testosterone of high growth.
Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age January 20, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/200117/safeguard-poor-bring-india-back-on-track.html