Adapted from the author’s book review in Business Standard, August 17, 2017 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/well-begun-is-half-done-117081501123_1.html
Adapted from the author’s book review in Business Standard, August 17, 2017 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/well-begun-is-half-done-117081501123_1.html
Times are tough. Exports are in free fall. The import bill is increasing as oil prices harden in response to the international oil cartel’s plans to cut production. Domestic demand is moribund despite the largesse of the Seventh Pay Commission for the public sector. The stock market has sagged. Informal sector jobs are under threat. We need a push to get people over this sullen hump.
Four states, comprising one-fifth of the nation’s population, are about to elect provincial legislatures in the first quarter of 2017. From a national perspective, the BJP has little to lose but much to gain. Goa, that is ruled by the BJP, elects just two MPs; Punjab, ruled by ally Shiromani Akali Dal, elects 12; while Uttarakhand, ruled by the Congress, elects five MPs — which together account for a mere four per cent of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha.
It is Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the Samajwadi Party, which is the real prize. It elects 80 MPs (just under 15 per cent of total seats) to the Lok Sabha. Varanasi is the Prime Minister’s adopted constituency. This is the Hindu heartland of India. A wipeout in UP may not directly impact the BJPs prospects irretrievably in the 2019 general election. But a win would surely be a grand start to the campaign.
Finance Minister as fire fighter
Finance minister Arun Jaitley seems eager to salve those burnt by “notebandi”. He may offer some tax relief in the coming Budget, but that helps only a tiny sliver of the population — just two per cent who pay income-tax. Lower indirect taxes are hostage to progress on the Goods and Services Tax (GST). But a GST with multiple rates, and with the highest nominal rate at 28 per cent, is unlikely to reduce the incidence of indirect tax or drive growth in GDP.
The FM had budgeted a nominal GDP of Rs 151 trillion for this fiscal, 11 per cent higher than the nominal GDP last fiscal. This is now unlikely for two reasons. First, growth in real terms will slip by between one to two percentage points. Second, inflation is lower by one percentage point. Taken together the nominal GDP increase will be eight, not 11 per cent, over last year. Tax estimates are based on “nominal” GDP — real growth plus inflation. So, tax collection at 10.8 per cent of GDP will also slip by about Rs 0.4 trillion from the budgeted amount of Rs 16.3 trillion. There is little headroom in this fiscal to play with tax reduction.
Even in the next fiscal, with significant economic headwinds and domestic uncertainties, the prospects for a revival in growth is wishful thinking. Tax reform with lower taxes seems a far cry. A temporary income support mechanism is more appropriate.
The population segment most affected by demonetisation is domestic migrant labour and their families in villages. Urban migrants live on and save from what they earn daily. Over a period of six months, the income shock will feed back into their families in villages as income transfers decrease or vanish and migrant labour return home.
The FM must provide a “package” to soften the hard landing at home for returning migrant labour. This is urgent. Migrant labour are highly aspirational, having seen the “good life” available in cities. Their aspirations must not be squashed. Of cours it is not easy to distinguish between those affected by the loss of employment and others who never had any. Targeted income support for migrants can be ruled out. But a more generic income support for all those with stressed incomes is not as wasteful as it sounds.
Income support for stressed families in villages
Three approaches can be combined to suit the context. First, borrow the concept of “helicopter money” from the much talked about income transfer scheme. Make the support freely available on demand with very selected and easily verifiable eligibility criteria. Second, revive the now defunct notion of “taccavi loans”, which were used in the colonial period as a famine relief measure. Third, use a participative and transparent good governance approach to identify the beneficiaries. Ranking families by the extent of income loss in open village meetings mediated by village-level government officers is a useful way to develop consensus and reduce the mistargeting. Lastly, devise the support mechanism in a manner which eliminates the undeserving.
Give consumption loans at market rates repayable in labour
The income support should be a loan and not a grant. This will deter those looking for a freebie. The interest rate should be reasonable but not subsidised for the same reason. Around 12 per cent per year, or one per cent per month can avoid misuse for interest arbitrage and yet peg it much lower that the unsecured informal market loans, which are available at an interest rate of 40 to 50 per cent per year, or between three to four per cent per month.
To further deter those looking for freebies and to make the scheme attractive only for those who really need the work, the loan and interest should be repayable only through around manual labour by the family in village works and not in cash. Around 50 days of labour can repay a loan of Rs 5000 along with accrued interest over six months. The advantage of this twist is that it leaves the migrant worker free to continue looking for work in cities,once he has secured a “taccavi” loan for his family to help them survive for six months without compromising the future through crippling debt. As in NREGA, the productivity of village-level work is very contextual and varies. But such inefficiencies are a small price to pay for the positive ripple effect of well targeted, publicly funded, social security schemes.
The fiscal burden is bearable.
Around 60-80 million such unsecured loans of Rs 5,000 each could cover all needy families (broadly 15 per cent households in urban areas and 30 per cent households in rural areas), with a sufficient margin to spare for the inevitable leakages from poor identification. The one-time cost of Rs 0.3-0.4 trillion can be met by either enlarging the allocation for NREGA (Rs 0.35 trillion for 2016-17) or by overshooting the fiscal deficit target by 0.25 percentage points (3.75 per cent instead of the budgeted 3.5 per cent). With weak retail demand, this temporary transgression from the fiscal deficit target is unlikely to be inflationary and in effect sustains rural demand.
Desperate times need innovation, with a human face, to soothe the hurt imposed by systemic shocks. Shielding the weak from the unbearable cost of bad economic decisions is a must, to preserve the consensus for change.
Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age December 20, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/201216/fiscal-love-for-a-sullen-electorate.html
Delhi. Fauji veterans agitate, unsuccessfully thus far, for implementing the One Rank One Pension principle. This is a promise, unadvisedly made to them, by both the previous and the present government. They boycott the celebrations commemorating the 1965 war. Even those who fought to win that war stay away effectively devaluing the event. An unintended and unfortunate outcome is that scores of disciplined ex-soldiers and one prominent fauji brat get on-the-job training, on how to enter politics to safeguard your rights.
Ahmedabad. An angry, young man clad in faux fauji combat fatigues, conducts a caste maha-panchayat of half a million Patels. The occasion is the demand for inclusion in the list of backward castes, eligible for affirmative action (reservation) as a fast track route to a government job or admission into schools and colleges. The young leader’s social media profile has him posing with a gun in hand-very much like Bihar’s notorious upper-caste Ranvir Sena or the face-book friendly young militants in Kashmir today.
Life on the edge
Mumbai, the city of dreams, a sordid, family drama unfolds of a possible filicide; secret serial marriages and shady doings, so bizarre that it could only happen in star crossed Bollywood.
The Proletariat strikes back
Across India, labour unions prepare for a general strike of all workers on September 2 to express their rage. The cause- dissent against dilution of the regulatory ambit of the labour laws; opposition to privatization of State Owned Enterprises and Foreign Direct Investment in Railways, Insurance and Defence; support for regularization of contract workers and the demand for better social protection measures.
Were all these happening in the 1970s it would be pretty commonplace in that decade of social unrest and hartals. But this is 2015, with a stable BJP government in place and more than half way through the first quarter, of what was once touted, as the India Millennium.
Have we than gone horribly wrong already even before we have begun? or is there a grand design behind this ripple of disquiet?
Has the OROP been deliberately allowed to fester so that it can be settled, with a flourish, just prior to the Bihar elections with the personal intervention of the PM, making the fauji vote thereby indebted to him?
Is the Patel agitation merely a manufactured storm? Is it calculated to subside with strong and reassuring intervention from Delhi to help the floundering Chief Minister Anandiben, thereby reinforcing the “strong leader” image of the PM?
Is the impending general strike and the prospect of extended labour unrest; lost jobs and forgone income, meant to scare voters in Bihar into opting for stability and the BJP, rather than taking a punt at the alternative politics of the rag-tag combination of Nitish Kumar, Lalluji and Arvind Kejriwal?
Truth is stranger than fiction, so none of these scenarios can be summarily discounted. But one thing is clear. The government needs to tighten its boot straps if it is to be an instrument of economic and social change.
Four priorities emerge:
Legally correct but bi-partisan
First, the rule of law must prevail in spirit. This is not yet visible. Using the letter of the law for one’s own ends is not the same as the rule of law prevailing. The golden rule is to err on the side of administrative effectiveness, simplicity and comprehensive reading of the law. Delhi presents an opportunity. The electoral mandate of the Delhi government is unquestionable. Respecting it and developing a positive functional relationship with it is in the long term interest of democratic governance. After all in every harmonious family-as the Speaker Mahajan of the Lok Sabha views Delhi to be- the youngest – even a rebellious, member’s foibles are accommodated.
Where are the tough economic reforms?
Second, clear signals for undertaking tough economic reform are a must. This is a government which garnered far reaching support on the basis of its reformist credentials. The government agenda is long on “win-win” options but not so impressive where there is no option to causing some pain. Initiatives crying out for attention are- (a) restructure electricity utility debt to make them financially viable; use the energy and commodity price decline to move to a “hands off” regulatory regime for energy prices; (b) make State Owned Entities/Public Sector Banks autonomous. Delink them from the control of their administrative ministries. (c) Enhance government effectiveness by boosting the availability of specialized, functional skills at decision making levels. The absence of even a game plan towards these objectives is worrying.
Make one, keep one-the mantra for government employees
Third, make jobs not skills. People learn better on-the-job. Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises (MSME) are ideal for maximizing the jobs per unit of capital. Facilitate them by- (a) Ensuring metered supply of 24X7 electricity on priority feeders (b) Supply electricity at the actual cost of grid supply (c) Provide incentives for such businesses to meet environmental standards. Forge a compact with state governments to make the rural development, panchayati raj, labour and industries department staff focused on employment and migration at the Development Block level. Encourage monitoring using rapid survey techniques. Remember what is monitored gets done. Reward Blocks which excel at growing employment in MSME. These measures fit well with the financial inclusion and social protection initiatives already underway.
Junk the colonial district management architecture
Fourth, change from the bottom-upwards is always the prudent way to start. End a relic of colonial rule, under which the District Magistrate is mandated to exercise oversight of the police via judicial powers under the Criminal Procedure Code. It is high time that the Police Commissioner system, already functioning in metros, is extended to all districts. The district level civilian administration would consequently be free to focus on development- for which they are best trained and equipped. This simultaneously empowers Police Officers and makes them squarely responsible for maintaining law and order- an unpardonably ambiguous mandate today. It also kick starts the process of modernizing the somewhat creaky, colonial legacy of district level general management- often the missing link in speedy implementation today.
The calendar from now to 2019 is chock a block with state assembly elections starting with Bihar later this year. The die has already been cast, the major populist decisions have been taken, including special aid for Bihar and Smart Cities. Now the outcome will depend on smart vote management- an area where the BJP excels. Time to strategize on improving the knotty fundamentals of growth and development with decisions kicking-in as soon as the votes are cast in November.
(photo credit: dailymail.uk.co)
February is when the Indian Finance Minister (FM) gets flooded with unsolicited help from well-wishers on how to get his job done of presenting the Union government’s annual budget on the 28th.
This time, the flood is a Tsunami as a consequence of the Delhi state assembly electoral debacle for the BJP on the 10th February. Some fears are imagined. Others are real.
BJP only for the rich?
The BJP has traditionally been a party which works well with the private sector. If viewed through a “zero-sum” filter, this strategy could be perceived as working against the immediate interests of the poor. The classic example is whether electricity supply should be subsidized and if so to what extent and in what manner and whether the private sector’s bottom line concern for profitability can be consistent with an electricity subsidy for customers?
The “Davos mafia”- banks, big business and “growth” fundamentalists are keeping a hawks eye on everything the FM now says to detect signs of his wavering from the hard path of economic reforms announced by him last year. Their expectation is that he will resort to “populism” to placate the poor, with an eye on the nearing state elections in Bihar.
Will Bihar drive the budget?
The BJP cannot afford to lose Bihar. Doing so will surely crack the political invincibility of PM Modi. Some believe it is already dented by an ill-advised, last minute tactic in Delhi of pitting the PM versus Kejriwal, even though it was known as early as January 15th when the elections were announced, that the BJP was unlikely to win. None of this environment is of the FMs making. But it hampers him greatly in being bold, outspoken and visionary on economic reforms- as he has shown an inclination to be.
Statistical flights of fantasy
It does not help that the Indian Statistics establishment has further queered the pitch by an ill-timed release of a new formula for calculating GDP which shows that the UPA government was doing fairly well on growth (6.9%) even in its last year (2013-14) accompanied by reduction in the trend rate of inflation (consumer price index) to 9.5% from 10.2% the previous year.
This raises the bar for the FM in FY 2015-16 to unrealistic levels in growth (>8.5 %?) and possibly also inflation expectations (<5% ?).
The dilemma of the FM is that if he follows a tough approach to economic efficiency he gets branded as heartless and gutless if he doesn’t.
Privatization can soften the subsidy cuts
Privatization of our clunky 277 publicly owned industrial companies; poorly governed 7 public insurance companies and 27 banks is a no-brainer to calm both the heart and the gut of the FM.
The share of publicly owned companies in the Indian stock market capitalization is 48%. If more of them were publicly listed this proportion would increase further.
The capital gains from privatizing- selling at least a 50% plus 1 share in publicly held equity to private investors is sufficient to meet the existing annual aggregate subsidy outlay of around Rs 4 lakh crores (USD 66 billion) for the next five years till 2020 with linked fiscal benefits from tax revenue on higher growth and profitability of these entities. Associated economic benefits like more jobs and employment would be additional.
The FM has the choice of either being fiscally profligate or remaining cautiously courageous whilst perturbing the entrenched interests which feed-off the public sector; a small proportion of unfit employees who would lose their secure jobs; petty contractors who have developed a nexus with public sector contracting authorities and Trade Union leaders. None of these are part of the 300 million poor people of India. Nor are they part of 90% of the workforce, which operates in the unorganized sector as contract labour.
The FM would be well advised to err firmly on the side of “financeable equity”. This objective points him to generate additional revenues to finance selected tax breaks and subsidies.
Here are three suggestions that could set the tone of the FY 2015-16 budget.
Metric of administrative efficiency
First, the FM should announce that this government intends to demonstrate its credentials of being an efficient administration by collecting more revenues from the existing taxes despite offering selective tax relief. This fits well with the already publicized drive against “black money” and the return of undeclared foreign assets of Indian national, residents. This also reassures tax payers that the government intends to retain stability and predictability in the tax regime.
There is nothing like burning ones bridges to bring out the best in oneself. The FM did this last year by taking up the challenge of meeting a 4.1% Fiscal Deficit target for this year and 3.6% of GDP for the next. He should carry through this resolve now without opting for the “lazy” alternative of using the new, inflated GDP data to project a rosy revenue estimate.
Surplus income with small tax payers boosts demand
Second, the FM should demonstrate the government stated preference for “small government”; private finance lead investment and the market.
One equitable way of doing this is to leave more income in the hands of the small tax payer by increasing the income tax-free level from Rs 2 Lakhs per year (USD 3300) to Rs 5 Lakhs (USD 8200). This simple measure takes 90% of the existing assesses (around 29 million in numbers) out of the tax net but impacts only 10% of the revenue.
Pancaked, indirect taxes on consumption (customs/excise; sales tax; municipal taxes) drain 50% of the disposable income of such tax payers in any case, so there is an equity view point also along with the argument for the greater efficiency of a more focused and selective tax effort.
Increase tax revenue equitably and efficiently
India’s tax revenues need to be increased by at least 1% point of GDP but not by continually “milking” the narrow tax base available historically. This approach is neither efficient nor does it build political credibility amongst the tax victims –the salaried middle class. Imposing a new, low tax with a huge tax base as on stock or commodity market transactions and siphoning off a part of the windfall due to the crash in oil prices could be two such option.
Extending income tax to the creamy layer with huge agricultural assets on a presumptive basis is a must. Tax free agricultural income is the easiest refuge for rebranding “black money” as “white”. This loop hole needs to be stamped out.
Agricultural income tax is a tax resource reserved for the State governments. But the Union Government could incentivize States by offering a higher share of GST to states willing to introduce agricultural income tax. This would be in the spirit of efficient, equitable, cooperative federalism.
Third, the Jan Dhan Yojna for financial inclusion has opened 125 million new bank accounts during the last few months. The bulk of these accounts remain dormant. But despite such caveats, this is a good scheme. Recent work, including by Thomas Piketty illustrates that personal wealth is the biggest asset in incremental wealth creation. Why not extend then, albeit in a small measure, the key to wealth creation to the poor also?
Endow the poor for wealth creation
“Dhan” (wealth) is an asset-something you own. It is a pre-condition for wealth creation. Why not open bank or Post Office accounts for the poor also? Of course the poor have no surplus to put into a bank. But the government can fill this gap by depositing Rs 10,000 (USD 164) into each of the bank accounts of all “poor” account holders as a 10 year fixed deposit from which only the interest income would be available to the account holder till maturity. To narrow the ambit and the financial implication of the scheme initially, only poor women and poor senior citizens (the most marginalized of the poor) could be eligible.
Fiscal fundamentalists will deride this measure as irresponsible in an environment when subsidies have to be contained, if not reduced. There are two reasons why their apprehensions are unfounded.
First, the small value of the deposit and its unavailability for withdrawal for 15 long years reduces the attractiveness of the scheme for would be scammers. The annual interest earned of Rs 800 (@8%) per account is not enough to attract fraud but sufficient to keep a genuinely poor person interested in the account as a source of additional income. For the Bank this provides a pool of valuable long term resources for their Treasury operations.
Second, the fiscal outlay, whilst significant, is not unmanageable. The likely pool of “poor” women and senior citizens would be around 200 million. If full coverage is targeted over a three year period, an annual budgetary allocation of around Rs 70,000 crores (only 18% of the existing aggregate allocation for subsidies) would be required. The spread effect, both political and economic, is hugely significant.
In comparison, the Union government alone spends an estimated Rs 4 lakh crores (USD 66 billion or 4 % of GDP) on subsidies. Much of this outlay is either lost in transit to the beneficiary (as in food subsidy- refer to Ashok Gulati, India’s brilliant agricultural economist) or the targeting of the subsidy is so vague (fertilizer and energy subsidies) as to benefit the poor only marginally. A “wealth and income transfer” scheme aided by the Unique Identification mechanism, where available, is likely to be more efficient and effective.
The recent developments in Southern Europe and now in Delhi should convince Mr. Jaitley that “demonstrated equity and inclusion” as a “brand” is in. Citizens do appreciate a tough “reforms” stance. But it must be balanced by effective instruments for income transfers to the poorest of the poor.