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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

Last updated on: June 19, 2014 12:06 IST

A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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Nitin Desai

The Budget will have to show a beginning towards the goals that the president mentioned in his address in Parliament about "Swachha Bharat" by 2019, says Nitin Desai.

The first Budget of the new government is eagerly awaited by stock market punters and corporate managers who have been greatly enthused by the electoral outcome.

Middle-class income earners will also expect some sign of fiscal benevolence.  

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent speech, warning of tough measures, is a good corrective to the expectation of a Budget bonanza.

What are the more specific signals that Arun Jaitley's first Budget should convey and what are the temptations that he needs to avoid?

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Image: Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will present his first Budget on July 11.
Photographs: Courtesy, PIB

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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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First, he must avoid the temptation to please middle-class supporters with some big giveaway in the income tax.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won the election and does not need to do this now. Save the giveaways for some later pre-election year.  

There has been talk of raising the income tax exemption limit to as much as Rs 5 lakh and the 80C exemption limit to Rs 1.5 lakh.

There is no justification for such a largesse. If one looks at the income tax exemption limit and the level at which the peak income tax rate applies, the increases since 2004 have been way higher than what the inflation numbers could justify.

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Image: There is a talk of Income Tax exemption being raised in the Budget.
Photographs: Reuters

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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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Between 2004-05 and 2013-14, the exemption limit rose fourfold and the peak rate level rose sixfold while the consumer price index rose twofold.

An increase in the exemption limit may not cost much in immediate revenue loss, but the reduction in the numbers in the tax net would go against the long-term fiscal goal of widening the tax base.  

The 80C exemption is an expensive concession; its actual impact on the level of personal savings is questionable and, therefore, needs to be studied carefully.

In fact, the finance minister should signal his intention to examine the impact and the cost-benefit ratio of all of the exemptions in direct taxes, which, according to Budget documents, implied a loss of Rs 1.13 lakh crore ( Rs 1.13 trillion) against the direct tax collection of Rs 5.64 lakh crore (Rs 5.64 trillion) in the Budget estimates for 2012-13.

Expenditures or revenue loss of this order of magnitude call for a justification that goes beyond casual empiricism and requires a more rigorous with-and-without analysis of impact on the target variable.

Another matter that requires attention is the regressive nature of the present arrangements for dividend taxation.

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Image: An increase in the exemption limit may not cost much in immediate revenue loss, but the reduction in the numbers in the tax net would go against the long-term fiscal goal of widening the tax base.
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff
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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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The finance minister must signal a serious intention to contain fiscal profligacy by announcing a three-year set of target for the tax-to-GDP ratio based on a realistic assessment of the pressures arising from the need to restore defence preparedness, improved policing and the forthcoming Pay Commission award.

The best signal of a serious intention to control the deficit would be measures to cap open-ended subsidies and tax sops.

He must also give a clear timeline for the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) and the direct taxes code (DTC).

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Image: Finance Minister Arun Jaitley wil have to address critical issues in the upcoming Budget.
Photographs: Ahmad Masood/Reuters

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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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The Budget will have to show a beginning towards the goals that the president mentioned in his address in Parliament about "Swachha Bharat" by 2019  and a pucca home with electricity, piped water and sanitation for all by 2022.

Hopefully, this will be done without compromising on the need to contain the deficit.  

A Budget to put the fiscal back on a sustainable track is not one for radical proposals.

But the finance minister can signal his commitment to equity by starting a debate on the role of an inheritance tax in reducing inherited inequalities and encouraging philanthropy.

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Image: The Budget should promise the poor homes with electricity and piped water.
Photographs: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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The signal that is eagerly awaited is what the finance minister will do to restart stalled projects and the investment growth engine.

His government has promised us job-oriented growth and that too needs a budgetary signal.

One is reluctant to suggest tax concessions in the present fiscal environment, but some tweaking of regulatory provisions to expedite clearances, encourage venture funding, agro-processing and marketing, and skill development would be welcome.

A liberalised system of bank loans to youngsters for skill training or higher education would go down well with the youth who want opportunities, not doles.

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Image: Firms expect concession for agro-processing units in the upcoming Budget.
Photographs: /Reuters
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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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A major theme of the vision laid out by the prime minister is co-operative federalism.

The Budget must include some bold steps in this direction.

At present, responsibilities for Centre-state finance are split between the finance ministry, the Planning Commission, sectoral ministries with large centrally sponsored programmes and the Reserve Bank of India.

These could be consolidated in a division or a department for federal finance in the finance ministry, which would provide a single-stop contact for state finance officials on all Centre-state transfers and market borrowing programmes.

He may also indicate the government's intention to rationalise centrally sponsored schemes and set up a National Development Council (NDC) committee for this.

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Image: At present, responsibilities for Centre-state finance are split between the finance ministry, the Planning Commission, sectoral ministries with large centrally sponsored programmes and the Reserve Bank of India.
Photographs: /Reuters

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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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The finance minister is also the minister for corporate affairs, and in both capacities he must convey the message that crony capitalism is out and his government is market-friendly rather than business-friendly.

The difference arises because being market-friendly involves doing things like enforcing disclosure norms, prosecuting wrongdoers, opening up entry options and promoting competition, which corporate owners and managers may not like. Ensuring competition involves more than the Competition Act and the Competition Commission.

Many other policy areas affect the state of competition.

For instance, fiscal and trade policies may be discriminatory and favour some, and discretionary allotments of natural resource rights may be distorted by favouritism - or worse. A draft of a national competition policy is ready, one understands.

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Image: The middle class population expects tax relief from the Budget.
Photographs: /Reuters

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A few points the FM must consider in his first Budget

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The finance minister must announce the acceptance and release of this in his Budget speech and establish arrangements to subject all policies to the test of fair and open competition.

Nowhere is this more important than in the process the government intends to follow in the allocation of rights to publicly controlled resources. 

The election of this government with a decisive mandate has generated a huge sense of hope not just in the corporate board rooms, which have been waiting for this for some time, but in millions of youngsters, who expect new opportunities to open up for them.

They are not looking for doles and handouts, but for a chance to acquire a skill, educate themselves, get a decent job or to start some enterprise of their own.

The finance minister has the difficult job of responding to this spirit of hope and yet getting the country back on a more sustainable fiscal path. Good luck to him! 

 


Image: The youth expects job opportunities to open up for them.
Photographs: Sherwin Crasto/Reuters
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