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Country's CFO shows the path
Anil D Ambani |
March 01, 2003
Finance Minister Jaswant Singh concluded his Budget speech 2003-04 with the remarks: "This Budget is of an India that is on the move. An India that now rapidly advances to prosperity. It is about an India that banishes poverty, and builds on its great resource base, the strength of its human capital and the immense reservoir of its knowledge."
With the finance minister's permission, I will put it differently. This is a Budget that will put India into its next orbit of growth that will unleash the true potential of India Inc. A Budget that seeks to alter the mindset of India removing all limits and restrictions on Indian companies investing abroad to acquire businesses.
A Budget that very sensibly balances the dictats of hard economics and the compelling realities of politics, the assembly elections in nine states this year, and the general elections next year. A Budget that treads, in a sense, a predictable path and does not resort to fiscal adventurism.
And yet, a Budget that skilfully weaves in creative financial engineering, to address fundamental problems in the fiscal environment that have defied resolution for decades. A Budget that looks hard at the need to create physical infrastructure to support the growth and development of the Indian economy- roads, railways, airports, seaports, and power.
And yet, a Budget that also cares for the people of India- providing an innovative new community based universal health insurance scheme, enhanced benefits for hospitals and life saving and medical equipment, support for education, tax rebates for the elderly and senior citizens, special new policies and schemes for pensioners, and measures to improve the supply of that most fundamental of needs: pure drinking water.
Let us turn to some specifics. How healthy is India? Can we run the marathon of economic empowerment and supremacy, and earn global respect? What is the window of opportunity for growth in the next few years? The Budget for 2003-2004 seeks to provide some crucial building blocks, and the triggers for unleashing rapid growth.
What the finance minister proposes to do in one sweep is: manage the fiscal deficit, infuse fiscal discipline, reduce the cost of capital by lowering interest rates, rationalise taxes, channel savings to productive purposes, boost infrastructure growth, modernise agriculture, invite foreign investment at home, and urge Indian companies to invest abroad. It is an enviable "can-do" list.
And therefore, a Budget that demands from all of us as citizens of India our contribution to transform this into a "must-do" list. A Budget that recognises, perhaps for the first time, the imperative of "reliable and reasonably priced power supply", as the finance minister so aptly put it.
And therefore, a Budget that talks of bringing in long overdue reforms in the power sector- a critical building block for achieving accelerated gross domestic product growth in all sectors of the economy, be it agriculture, manufacturing or services, through early enactment of the Electricity Bill, 2001.
A Budget that recognises that the non-performing assets problems of public sector banks cannot be wished away and therefore, a Budget that proposes an innovative piece of financial engineering, taking a leaf as it were out of private sector books!
It proposes a buyback of government loans from banks, and utilisation of the premium from the buyback to provision NPAs, thereby strengthening the financial position of the banking system. And, a similar innovative debt-swap with the states to enable them to prepay high cost debt, and reduce their burgeoning interest expenditure!
Instead, I will mention the key challenge before all of us as I see it: to strengthen the "public-private partnership" that the finance minister repeatedly stressed in his speech, to ensure this direction of movement, India's continued gathering of momentum, and enhanced performance.
It is a moot point that the rate of growth that India needs can be achieved only by the growth and superior performance of infrastructure, enhancement of manufacturing and R&D capabilities, and value-addition in all sectors of the economy.
This will require constant and careful, indeed, brave nurturing. Because information superhighways will come to nothing if the surface is weakened by bad material inadequate and inefficient power, education, health and manpower.
An information corridor will lead to a dead end instead of the infinity of growth unless the structure is designed to boost the age of information than merely the industry of information.
The Path to Profit will meander unless there is a GPS equivalent of a policy fix on how to get from Point A to Point B in the most cost and time efficient way. This is true as much for government as it is for business. So, if there is a highway that India must build, operate and transfer, it's the Performance Superhighway. If there is a corridor that India must travel through, then it must be the Performance Corridor.
If there is a path to profit, then P2P must indelibly come to read: Path to Performance. The alternative reality--economic mediocrity and social upheaval--will be far more painful that the pain caused by any adjustment or restructuring.
The Union Budget has addressed many of these issues, but it will require a collective change of attitude to bring about real change. Replacing the defensive motto "level playing field" with something more performance oriented, "opportunity to grow", has the potential to bring prosperity to regions and people that have known only poverty.
This attitude is crucial these days, as India learns to play the game of globalisation. India's success will have to be achieved in a world that is at once more welcoming and ruthless. The dynamics of a country are far more complex but the logic of growth not dissimilar to that of a company.
In the end, it is about the courage of conviction in a common, productive future. The country's CFO has shown us the path. It is now for us to deliver.
The author is vice-chairman of Reliance Industries Limited.