governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘agriculture’

FM walks the budget plank gingerly

happy kisan

The Union Budget 2018-19 appears an honest and judicious construct when first viewed on video. Reading the fine print takes some of the shine off, going by precedent. The biggest relief is that there has been no substantive deviation from the path of fiscal discipline. The fiscal deficit for 2017-18 is pegged at 3.5 percent of GDP. This is 0.30 per cent higher than the budgeted estimate for this year.

But it is well within the 0.50 leeway recommended by the N.K. Singh Committee report on Fiscal Responsibility and Budgetary Management. Disruptions caused by GST still linger. Banks need to be recapitalised to expand new credit and public investment pushed because the private sector is still sitting on its funds. The stage seems set for walking through the door opened by the FRBM committee, in the interest of growth and jobs.

More reassurance comes from the fiscal deficit target for 2018-19 set at 3.3 percent of GDP. This re-establishes the declining trend for fiscal deficit towards the magic number of three per cent of GDP, which has eluded us so far.

Marginalised agriculture gets a break 

On the expenditure side, agriculture and rural development take centrestage. This is welcome against the backdrop of agrarian distress and farmer suicides. Ajay Jakhar of the Bharat Krishak Samaj points out that an Indian farmer commits suicide every 40 minutes. No wonder then that Mr Jaitley outlined, in great detail, many of the specific measures proposed to reverse this trend.

One popular, but possibly ineffective step is an assurance that all the crops notified for the kharif cycle will be covered under the minimum support price (MSP) scheme. This means that if market prices fall below the cost of production plus 50 percent as margin for the farmer, the government will stand committed to make good the difference (as is being done in Madhya Pradesh now) or to physically procure the produce.

Ajay Jakhar

But representatives of farmers’ interests are not satisfied. They want the methodology for setting costs should be spelt out in a participative manner to ensure that a meaningful MSP is assured. The downside of an MSP type of production incentive is that it kills innovation and discourages crop diversification away from those covered under MSP. This way of assuring farmer incomes also privileges the traditional “Green Revolution” areas in the North, which unfortunately are not well endowed with the natural resources — water, for example — to sustain intensive modern farming. On the other hand Eastern India, has all of nature’s bounties, but it is too far away from the national capital-oriented policy making we follow. Consider how different things would have been if Lord Hardinge had not decided in 1911 to shift the capital of the British Raj from Calcutta to Delhi.

Agro-products exports to be liberalised – $100 billion potential

Other big-ticket items in agriculture are a more than doubling of the outlay for agro-processing industries to Rs 14 billion and assurances that the export of agri products would be liberalised to boost their exports threefold to their potential of around $100 billion. Corporate tax on income was also reduced from 30 percent to 25 percent for firms with a turnover upto Rs 2.5 billion (US $35 million) benefiting 99 percent of the registered firms in India.

Bamboo the new “green gold”


For the Northeast, a Mission for Bamboo – now recognised as a grass and not a tree to facilitate its commercial cultivation – with an outlay of Rs 13 billion. Two new infrastructure funds — one for fisheries and aquaculture and another for animal husbandry — at a total outlay of Rs 100 billion. Crop credit would increase by 10 per cent to Rs 11 trillion in 2018-19 and lessee farmers would be facilitated to access crop credit from banks — something which they cannot do today and have, instead, to rely on rapacious moneylenders.

The budgetary outlay for rural roads, affordable houses, toilets and electricity extension of Rs 2.4 trillion will leverage five time more funds from other sources and generate work for 10 million people, per the Budget documents.

NamoCare is bigger than ObamaCare – health-equity in motion

Big changes were also announced in healthcare. A new flagship scheme will provide in-hospital medical insurance to 100 million poor families with an insurance cover of Rs 5 lakhs. Compare this with the measly cover now available of Rs 30,000 only under the Rashtriya Swastha Bima Yojana. The outlay on health, education and social protection increases by around 13 per cent over the 2017-18 spend to Rs 1.4 trillion. Simultaneously, the three publicly owned general insurance companies – National Insurance Company United India Insurance Company and Oriental Insurance Company are to merged to create a behemoth conservatively valued at Rs 4 trillion and listed on the stock exchange. Listing would enable the government to progressively hive off equity in them to the public and generate the estimated Rs 1 trillion per year premium to fund this mammoth programme, nick-named NamoCare after ObamaCare of the US. The scale of the ambition embedded in the program is breathtaking. A Rs 5 lakh cover is what even the well-off deem sufficient as health insurance. More importantly it signals that for the government the life of the poor is as valuable, as that of a well off person.

Incentives for generating employment rather than buying machines

The government proposes to extend the existing scheme under which it meets the cost of a contribution of 12 percent per year towards the Employees’ Provident Fund contribution in the medium, small and micro enterprises to all the manufacturing sectors. The idea is to increase the attractiveness of employing young job seekers by reducing their cost to the employer for three years, by which time it is expected the skills they acquire will make their value addition viable on its own.

Infrastructure development – falling short

The highlights for new projects in infrastructure are that 99 smart cities have been selected with an outlay of Rs 2.4 trillion,  against which projects worth around 10 per cent of the outlay are ongoing and projects worth one per cent of the outlay have been completed. The government expects to complete 9,000 km of highways in this year. Bharat Net, the fiber connectivity programme, is also proceeding apace. The Railways will spend Rs 1.48 trillion on capital investments, mostly in new works in 2018-19. Six hundred railway stations are to be upgraded.

The nominal GDP in 2018-19 is estimated to be 11.5 per cent  higher than in the current year. The total expenditure next year is around 10 per cent higher than the estimate for 2017-18 of Rs 22.2 trillion. On the revenue side, the big increase is an estimated increase of 53 per cent (after accounting for the fact that GST was collected only for 11 months in 2017-18) in GST revenues next year by around Rs 2.6 trillion to a level of Rs 7.4 trillion, and a conservatively assessed Rs 20,000 crores from the new capital gains tax of 10 per cent on equity sold after holding it for one year. The huge increase assumed in GST and the undefined budgetary support for “NamoCare” make sticking to the 3.3 fiscal deficit target a bit dodgy in 2018-19.

FM keeps his gun-powder dry and in-reserve

Jaitley budget 2018

But who knows, maybe the finance minister has some artillery hidden up his sleeve.. Disinvestment has been assessed conservatively in 2018-19 at Rs 80,000 crores, against the achievement this year of Rs 1 trillion. The bank recapitalisation support of Rs 80,000 crores is expected to leverage new lending capacity of Rs 5 trillion. One cannot but  feel that some of the expenditure estimates are a bit conservative relative to the ambition embedded in the programmes.

The good news is ending 2018-19 with a higher fiscal deficit but equal to this year’s at 3.5 per cent is no big deal from the view point of fiscal stability, if all of it is pumped into infrastructure and other investments. But for the Narendra Modi government, which takes targets seriously, it would be an unhappy ending.

The blog and the article mistakenly mention the estimated value of a merged insurance behemoth as Rs 400 trillion. The error has now been corrected in the text. I am deeply embarrassed by this snafu. A more reasonable number is Rs 4 trillion. Regrets.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age February 1, 2018

Exports – India’s Achilles heel

children airplane

Before the world became flat in 1990 — to borrow the title of Thomas Friedman’s 2004 book on globalisation — developing countries were locked into twin traps of low access to foreign currency and low levels of domestic savings. India’s anxiety about foreign exchange, to fund imports, goes back to those desperate times when export pessimism was rampant and import compression all the rage.

Externally strong but domestic trip-wires aplenty

India has come a long way since then. Standard and Poor’s, the international rating agency (November 24, 2017 rating action), considers India’s external position to be the strongest aspect of its aggregate credit profile. Foreign exchange reserves are more than a year’s imports; external debt levels are modest at around 20 per cent of GDP and the foreign exchange gap between earnings from exports and remittances and the outflow on imports has narrowed to less than one per cent of GDP (2016-17). This is a tribute to India’s prudent external account managers.

Export of goods key laggard

Indian goods exports (excluding services) are 12 per cent of the national income. Manufactured goods (including textiles, clothes and gems) have a share of 76 per cent; minerals and agricultural products account for around 12 per cent. Petroleum products account for the remaining 12 per cent. The dissatisfaction has been with the trend value of exports. Over the last three years, this has lagged GDP growth significantly. The Trade Policy (2015-20) target of increasing our share in world trade from 1.5 to 3.5 per cent is unlikely to be realized anytime soon.

The world in the slow lane is unhelpful


This was never an easy target. World growth is yet to recover from the slowdown. Protectionist barriers, related to the loss of domestic employment and increasing inequality, are finding favour, including in our largest trade partner: the United States. In this unsupportive ecosystem, increasing our share of world trade pie needs a calibrated strategy to target markets and product lines where Indian goods are most competitive. Five initiatives can be considered.

Focus on niche markets, South Asia & Africa

Expanding bilateral trade within South Asia and with Africa should be the first order of business. Some trade is already round tripped via the Gulf, adding intermediary margins, which are denied to both the original exporter and final importer. Trade relationships tie regions together. The Indian Ocean littoral needs targeted attention via specific product chains.

Higher agri exports protect jobs

Primary products, particularly agricultural goods, were overweight in our export basket in the 1980s. Their share has shrunk post liberalisation. Legalising commercial leasing of large tracts of land for farming can revive agricultural production for export markets and protect domestic jobs.

Regional air connectivity initiative can bring export markets closer

The recently-launched progressive policy of regional air connectivity offers an opportunity for embedding export orientation even in hitherto inland, poorly connected locations. Air connectivity adds value to the local economy by kickstarting business around newly-serviced airports which are logistic nodes, connected to hubs in metros.

Long on diversity but short on volume

The Economic Survey 2017 notes that India exports a wide range of products. We export 97 per cent of the top 100 items traded worldwide at the four-digit nomenclature level and 83 per cent at the six-digit nomenclature levels. But the volumes exported are low, at just 1.6 per cent of the total value of world exports.

Joined up policy formulation and implementation needed- Committee for Investment and Trade (CIT)

Prabhu Modi

Exports need to be supported by a trade policy developed collaboratively with state governments. The Goods and Services Tax committee provides a role model. A similar federal trade and foreign investment committee, with all state governments on board, could provide a structure for joint policy formulation and implementation. Consider that meat exports have declined as state governments failed to sanction goons extracting “rents” from the movement of cattle — other than even cows — for slaughter. This also imposed a direct loss in domestic income of $1 billion — small beer, perhaps, in the larger scheme of things. But unnecessarily disruptive for one million people employed in the leather, dairy and meat industry. Significantly larger income loss is inevitable if the 40 million rural households who keep milch animals for boosting nutrition and for profit are dissuaded from doing so.

Link devolution to export effort – 15th Finance Commission

State governments lack incentives to promote exports. The recently constituted 15th Finance Commission could help by tweaking the fiscal devolution to include export effort as a carrot for enhanced devolution. Direct incentives are more empowering for states than Union government-funded schemes. Landlocked states, which have fewer options for exports than seaboard states, could be incentivised for narrowing the gap between themselves and the exports to GDP ratio at the national level.

Realistic exchange rate for ending the incentive to import and push exports

India has, perversely, become a world leader in initiating action under anti-dumping measures. In 2016, out of a total of 145 actions by all countries, India initiated as many as 69 actions. Maybe, if we were to fix the rupee exchange rate more realistically, so many anti-dumping actions may not be needed. Domestic producers are already hurting from the turbulence, admittedly temporary, from the recent tax reforms. But they also remain handicapped by an appreciated rupee. A “strong” rupee is bad for exports. It is also bad for domestic producers, since it makes imported goods artificially cheaper.

We are not the US – capital flows to plug the trade gap is not sustainable

Prudent management of the external account has chuffed investor confidence so much that surging capital inflows (other than debt) have obscured the desperate need to enhance exports to plug the foreign exchange gap, emanating from the trade imbalance.

Watch the oil price closer than your enemy

We have benefited from the continued low prices for imported oil by around $50 billion. But our inflows, via remittances from Indians working in the Gulf and elsewhere, have suffered a collateral damage of $10 billion. The net effect is a benefit of $40 billion.

But betting on oil prices is worse that betting on the monsoon being on time. Our dependence on imported oil, to fuel growth, shall continue, till solar power becomes the primary fuel for transportation. But that future is at least a decade or more away, even in developed economies. In the near term, we must make our trade balance resilient to the possibility of an oil price increase.

agri india

Exports, economic growth and good jobs are organically linked. We are ahead on growth. But the two other legs also need to catch up.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, November 29, 2017

Change UP to change India

victory 2

When it comes to winning elections, the sophistication and efficiency of the BJP political machinery is unmatched. Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma provides the base, which the party leverages, to ensure that their individual candidates win. So what does this historic win — pulling in an unprecedented 77 per cent of the seats up for grabs in the UP Legislative Assembly — mean for the nation. And specifically, is UP the tail which can wag the dog? PM Modi knows it can. This is why he has set five years from now 2022 as the milestone for changing India – not 2019 when the next general election is due.

UP the sleeping giant

The taj

UP has a rich past and a glorious future. It is the present which needs some looking after.

Uttar Pradesh accounts for around 12 per cent of India’s GDP but has 17 per cent of its population. If you sometimes wonder why India doesn’t grow more than it does or why the existing growth is not well-distributed, look no further. UP is to blame for both negative outcomes. It pulls down national metrics on per capita income and growth. It also makes us look bad on social inclusion. Nearly a quarter of all Muslims and the poor (based on the government’s poverty headcount metric) live in UP. The state’s poverty level, at just under 30 per cent, is the second highest in the country, after Assam.

UP – the key to ending poverty

child poor

If the BJP can halve poverty in Uttar Pradesh, bringing it down from 30 to 15 per cent (same as the existing levels of poverty in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra), the national poverty ratio will fall by a massive 10 percentage points, from 22 per cent to 12 per cent. Reducing the levels of poverty in UP also has high positive externalities — particularly political. There are sizable communities of migrant workers from UP in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, through whom the message of “achche din” can travel to these metros, generating a “feel good” tsunami.  Consider that if the BJP can make Uttar Pradesh grow at the average rate of national GDP, it would increase the rate of growth of the national GDP by 0.5 percentage points. This additional income, even if it is proportionately distributed across the population of the poor, would reduce poverty to single digits in UP.

Why the BJP is uniquely place to take up the challenge

BJP leaders

Cynics could ask how can we be sure that the BJP will extract the potential? Others think the BJP will face headwinds while picking a chief minister, thereby risk displeasing sections of the winning rainbow coalition. The squabbling in New Delhi in 2014 is evidence that even the BJP is not immune to internal sabotage by disgruntled cadres. The BJP works best when it functions in a vertically-integrated manner — much like the Communist Party of China. Significant decisions are all made at the very top. Targets are determined for lower level formations at the state and municipal levels. These are then vigorously followed up and performance measured against targets. Now that UP is directly controlled by the BJP, the Narendra Modi performance juggernaut can be rolled out uniformly across the state.

So here are three focused ways in which the BJP can be different.

Give UP back to real-time management by it’s bureaucracy

UP officers

UP has many Durga Shakti Nagpals – officers who seek to serve. The present Cabinet Secretary, the Chief Election Commissioner and the PMs Principal Secretary are all UP cadre officers. But two decades of “populist” rule post “mandal” in the 1990s have diminished the excellence, which was the hall mark of UP administration.

First, today UP is a state which is resource poor and deficient in entrepreneurship. Out of the 100 top companies listed by market capitalisation on the Bombay Stock Exchange, only one company — Dabur India — is headquartered in UP. The Annual Survey of Industries 2014-15 lists only six per cent of the total number of factories and industrial workers, and just five per cent of industrial capital in UP. This illustrates that government efforts remain crucial, unlike in more developed states, where private sector initiatives can substitute for government efforts. The Modi magic, of revitalising the bureaucracy through direct interaction and consultation, as is now being practised at the Centre, must be institutionalised. This “direct contact” pattern of administration at the Centre has significantly reduced the earlier proliferation of corruption and silo-based operations. Mr Modi must return Uttar Pradesh to the real-time management of its bureaucracy, who have been sidelined and broken in spirit for too long.
The State in UP has become moribund. It must be reinvented, and used as an instrument for social change.

Make UP the international “laboratory” for agri growth


Second, agriculture is the heartbeat of Uttar Pradesh. Poor rural infrastructure and lawlessness have constrained additional investment in agriculture. Eighty per cent of the poor also live in rural areas. Agriculture based on “per drop more crop”; large scale diversification to non-cereal crops and commercialisation of agriculture outside the subsidy regime format of minimum support prices; cheap fertiliser and energy can pay rich dividends. The new land leasing arrangements should be led by UP, just as Rajasthan has taken the lead in amending outdated labour laws. More urgently, crop yield is not uniform across the four sub-regions. Average agricultural productivity can be increased by 10 per cent by simply pushing up productivity in the lagging central and eastern sub-regions (which account for around one-half of total foodgrain production in UP) to the levels prevailing in the state’s western region, adjoining Delhi and Haryana.

Invest in UP’s infrastructure

gadkari 2

Finally, UP has the worst road infrastructure in North India. Power cuts are rampant, even in Noida, which is a satellite township that adjoins Delhi. A proposal to build a regional air hub to service Agra has been gathering dust because the political alignment between the Union government in New Delhi and the state government in Lucknow was not favourable since 2002. If Delhi plans to link Myanmar and Southeast Asia by road with Afghanistan and beyond, over 700 km of this highway must pass through UP. Some of transport minister Nitin Gadkari’s expertise in getting infrastructure going could be usefully applied to UP.

2017 election results are a gift – use it well

The BJP is known for its executive and managerial abilities; its disciplined cadre; its capacity to ramp up domestic and foreign investment and to link investment to results. Uttar Pradesh is likely to give it the biggest bang for every buck it spends, simply as the desire to do better in UP is matched only by the utter frustration of its citizens over their stagnating future prospects. If UP booms, India will follow. This is one chance that we simply must not lose.


Bangles in Firozabad, brassware in Moradabad, rich textiles in Varanasi, the juciest mangos from orchards across the state, Nimish – the flavoured forth from early morning milking of cows, Mughal delicacies from Lucknow and Rampur, ancient monuments at every turn and a culture bred by centuries of civilised life – UP has it all, except transformational leadership- will Modi be the one? 2022 will tell.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age  March 13, 2017


Plough deep for reform results


Deep ploughing is necessary for reform results. Photo credit:

The government is stacking up its “reform credentials”. The long elusive Goods and Services Tax is now part of the constitutional scheme for taxes. This has been followed up with a double-punch by putting to rest the colonial tradition of a separate railway budget.

Bye bye separate rail budget

Rail budget reform was well received by the opposition, including the Congress and the Biju Janata Dal. In contrast Mr. Nitesh Kumar’s criticism that this will make the railways less autonomous appears to be reflexive dissent with an eye to the potential media coverage. Didi’s Trinamool Congress was similarly truculent. But Mr. Dinesh Trivedi, a previous minister of railways from the TMC, dulled the edge of the attack by not opposing the move.

The net budget support for the railways is just Rs 5,000 crore or one quarter of one percent of the annual budget. But having to get its budget passed, independently by parliament – a colonial tradition when the railways were a major public asset – exposes the railway minister to the inevitable “populist” demands to steer the budget through. This additional burden will now be borne by the finance minister – the redoubtable Mr. Arun Jaitley – whose reform credentials are growing by the day.

There is some concern that the granular information in the railways budget may no longer be available. But the concern is misplaced. The railways are reportedly implementing commercial accounting standards. Mr. Suresh Prabhu – the energetic minister for railways – could consider tabling an advance supplement based on the results for the first three quarters of the fiscal year- April to December, with the Budget documents for next fiscal followed up by yearly outcomes in the annual report tabled in parliament.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Well begun is only half done. Process reform, like the new rail budget mechanism, whilst necessary, is low hanging fruit. To show results process reform has to induce management and operational changes. In the age of “Big Data” access is not the constraint. It is using data to change behavior that matters.

1991 reforms had a narrow, central government focus

Some change in track is also necessary. Since 1991, the economic reforms have primarily focused on the sunrise sectors –  industry, commerce and finance. Tech grew under the governments radar because it remains export oriented. Inevitably urban boats have risen significantly. Two third of jobs are generated in cities, which explains the continuing in-migration from rural areas.

But connectivity and business as key drivers of growth blur the urban rural divide. Business is more concerned about seamless supply chain networks as the critical cartographic feature, not administrative borders. Similarly, markets do not end at the city limits, particularly if mass e-tailing is to grow.

SMART cities and dumb villages; broken supply chains.

We cannot hope that cities will be the sole engine of growth. There were nearly 19,000 villages, with a population of more than 5000 persons each and nearly 4000 villages, each with more than 10,000 persons, in 2001. Merely reclassifying these villages as urban spaces could increase the statistical level of urbanization from 31 to 50 percent of the total population. Estimates of the share of urban population in 2030 would then increase to 70 percent. But even the remaining 30% would constitute 450 million people left behind in villages. A significant market and a sizable vote bank.

The government has been diligent in rolling out new schemes to pull rural dwellers out of poverty. Financial inclusion via the Jan Dhan Yojna; economic and social security via subsidized insurance policies and the focus on public health and publicly financed housing are all positive moves. But most of these initiatives are still at the process reform stage. Tangible results – more disposable money in the hands of the poor – is still some time off. It is unclear, for example how many of the 200 million bank accounts opened under JAM are operational on a substantive manner. Enlarging the direct benefits transfer will make financial inclusion real. But last mile implementation is a slow process.

Unleash a reforms Tsunami to lift “rural boats” as well


Rural India : Seemingly placid but very uncertain.

Glimmers of hope persist. The Arvind Subramanian Report on price support for Pulses is a signal that government is shifting attention from urban centric reform areas, where progress is ongoing, to the neglected but high potential value addition sectors – agriculture, rural development and water. Agriculture needs to be brought out of the shadows where it has been consigned since the Green Revolution in the 1970s.

Visibility in rural and local governance is the first step


Baiga women at a meeting – listening passively to top down wisdom.

If the government is to lead, it first has to increase its presence in rural areas by decentralizing personnel, functions and finance to the sub-district level. Currently, on average, only one third of state government jobs are in local governments. The majority are centralized in the state capital and its deconcentrated offices, like the District Offices of various departments. This inter-se allocation of personnel needs to be reversed and officers reallocated closer to the people. This implies starting a conversation with state governments.

Mr. Piyush Goyal, the effervescent minister for power, coal and renewable energy recently successfully concluded just such a conversation around restructuring DISCOM debt. This model of cooperative federalism can be replicated for personnel reallocation – targeted central funds for measurable actions.

A second conversation also needs to be started for levying Income Tax on agriculture. The tortuous but eventually successful negotiations around GST provide the replicable model for this thorny issue. States may be happy to let the central government impose the tax and share the proceeds- for them a windfall gain with no political downside..


End untargeted agriculture subsidies or tax agricultural income.

Use NITI Aayog strategically

As in everything else, leadership counts. The Prime Minister should consider shifting the attention of his “A” policy team – NITI Ayog – to agriculture, irrigation, rural development and social protection. Currently it seems flooded with all manner of residual work. It could usefully focus on delivering tangible, measurable outcomes from its two key task forces on agriculture and poverty alleviation set up way back in March 2015.

Recommending which PSUs to sell; planning new tourist islands and ensuring 50 gold medals in the next Olympics, can be done elsewhere just as well. Surely creating jobs in rural areas and putting more income in the hands of the poor rank higher in the priority list. There is not enough bandwidth to run all races simultaneously.


Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age, September 28, 2016

Budget 2015: Swap higher outlays for efficient spending

jaitley dnaindia.com3  

(photo credit:

A cold Republic Day had FM Jaitley looking dapper under his stylish cap as he snuggled into his overcoat on a rain lashed Rajpath munched nuts and broodingly watched the parade go past.


Was he fleshing out what he would say in his budget speech to the Indian Parliament just one month away?  Should he bowl a leg-spin veering sharply left towards equity or an off-swing veering right and towards growth? Around him, on its 66 Republic Day, Modi India was visibly exhilarated celebrating its “off-swing” to the right.

China, possibly stung by this sudden change of events, after the cozy, bon homie of the recent jhula swing on the banks of the Sabarmati, retorted by clasping Pakistan even tighter as an eternal friend. Meanwhile the Greek “loony left”, united with the “loony right” to aspire to become a sovereign debt defaulter with the rest of Southern Europe waiting to follow, should their anarchic tactic succeed.


Avoiding payment by default is not a new strategy. Latin America similarly exploited the short memories of lenders with serial debt defaults.  In contrast Asia, in general and India, in particular, has been very puritanical about its debt obligations, never having defaulted even once in the last forty years, though we came close to it in 1991.

Whilst morally correct, it is unclear if this is a good fiscal strategy. Standard and Poors rates India sovereign debt BBB-, the same as Brazil (which defaulted thrice-1983, 1986 and 1990 in the last 40 years) and lower than Peru-BBB+ (which defaulted twice in 1980 and 1984). From this perspective, debt default is not about “prestige”, “national honour” or about financial rewards. It is merely a game of brinksmanship to be played with the market, if it serves us well.

Was FM Jaitley pondering the merits of doing a Latin America; borrowing recklessly to finance a populist, public investment binge, which “growth-wallahs” are crying themselves hoarse demanding?

Borrowing more is the “soft” option to reforming expenditure since tax collections have dipped. Our borrowing capacity for FY 2015-is limited by a Fiscal Deficit (FD) envelop of 3.8% of GDP, down from the target of 4.1% in the current year. Even the higher FD level severely constrained resources though this constraint remained hidden. The previous UPA-II government put so many non-fiscal barriers on investment-lengthy environmental approvals; land acquisition constraints and contractual inconsistencies which ensured that the project stream froze thereby avoiding additional cash outflows.

The present government is working overtime to unclog the pipes and clear payment arrears. These have built up over time but they do not show up in the budget. Unlike Indian companies, the government follows the “cash” and not the “accrual” accounting system. Both unpaid current liabilities and uncollected current assets are not accounted for in the annual budget. This loop hole enabled the previous government to “sell our future” by collecting arrears whilst falsely showing a robust budget allocation.


Indian “growth-wallahs” are prepared to risk inflation if it means pushing growth to 7% from the 5.5% it is likely to record in the current year. But the trade off, at the margin, between growth, inflation and jobs is unclear. This is dangerous ground for those living on the edge.

Growth is just a meaningless number for the average citizen. Jobs are welcome of course. But we do not have a “jobs filter” that can assess competing investment.  We do not even measure changes in employment through the year. In comparison inflation is an everyday reality which the poor and the urban lower middle class have to battle with daily.

If there is a choice between growth and more inflation, the FM would be well advised to choose containing inflation to below 5% even at the cost of chugging along at a 6% growth level.


The real question is if the domestic and international private sector is unwilling to invest, as for example in Nuclear energy, how can it be desirable for public investment? Clearly, an unhelpful institutional context makes these investments into “lemons”. Unless the root causes of their unviability are addressed, such projects are neither good for the private nor the public sector.

Public investment stoked growth is strongly dependent on the efficiency of public expenditure and the avoidance of “pork”- gold plated projects which fail to provide social returns and jobs. Excessive investment in new renewable energy (a rapidly evolving technology) has precisely this risk.


Of course the stock markets will not be enthused by such fiscal caution. But who really gains from the irrational financial exuberance (or despair) of stock markets except a few savvy speculators with deep pockets- not all of them Indian either.

Real Estate is another sector which should be left to lag not lead growth. It is a safe haven for “black money” fed speculation. Five years of cheap money since 2009, high inflation and massive corruption are the drivers of the Indian realty bubble. We have to guard against such bubbles, which consume the savings of the middle class, as in Japan (1980 to 1990) and more recently in the US (2004 to 2012).


One stratagem to inject conservatism into the budget would be to project the FY 2015-16 budget on the growth and revenue numbers which were achieved in 2014-15.

Looking backwards to define the fiscal envelop will further constrict spending estimates. But this would be a useful, albeit unorthodox mechanism, to drive better collection of tax and non-tax revenues and contain “pork” in the spending estimates.

If there are “happy” surprises – revenue exceeding estimates or growth exceeding forecast levels, the surplus generated could be allocated to pre-defined schemes in a supplementary budget later in the fiscal year. Leaving something on the table is good strategy anyway to keep stakeholders engaged and responsive.

Our biggest worry is that populism will trump reason. Subsidies are the elephant in the room of fiscal responsibility. Rationalizing them has become a political hot potato with potentially high political costs. This is why reform needs to be both well timed and appropriately sequenced.


FY 2015-16 is the only reform window available to India for the next four years. If we can’t do it now we never shall. The 2016-17 budget shall be populist since Bihar (2016), UP (2017) and then Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to the polls (2018) followed by National Elections in 2019.

Can we, for starters at least, legislate a cap on subsidies just as there is a medium term trend and cap on FD? We don’t know enough about the extent, substance, nature and social impact of subsidies. Why not make these aspects more explicit by changing the way in which we present the budget documents?

Two subsidy reform steps are immediately doable.

First, making petroleum prices market determined is a no-brainer in the present scenario of cheap energy. This will plug one gap in the subsidy envelop.

Second, rationalize agricultural subsidies which are provided through multiple mechanisms; assured purchase prices for cereals; cheap fertilizer; cheap power; cheap irrigation water; no tax on income and minimal tax on land. Despite these subsidies, rural wages remain low and migration to urban areas is the only options for landless workers and marginal land owners.

These subsidies have only served to create a class of elite “millionaire” farmers; a tiny fragment at the very tip of the 600 odd million strong farming community. Why not use it to better target the poor, rural folk instead? An additional advantage would be that the rural poor have a significant overlap with Dalits and Muslims, neither of which are part of the BJPs traditional support base.

Will FM Jaitley grasp the moment and push through reform or do we have to wait till 2020 for substantive change?

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