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This article was first published 2 years ago  » Business » Ms Sitharaman, You FAILED Us On The Budget

Ms Sitharaman, You FAILED Us On The Budget

February 01, 2022 18:51 IST
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This was the one Budget that required radical departures on all these fronts, when it had none, asserts, Shreekant Sambrani.

IMAGE: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman arrives at Parliament for the presentation of the Union Budget 2022-2023, February 1, 2022. Photograph: Kamal Kishore/PTIPhoto

Long decades ago, when I was a small schoolboy, I used to watch with fascination my mother put away sums of money from the monthly amount my father gave her into small envelopes, marked rent, kirana, maid's salary, school fees etc.

Years later, I discovered that my mother-in-law followed the same monthly ritual, as did my wife.

And for the last year, when I have become the housewife, so do I.

I was surprised, therefore, that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has followed a similar approach with the Budget for 2022-2023 which she presented in the Lok Sabha on 1 February 2022.

She seems to have realised like the millions of householders that when the means are limited and fairly fixed, so is your allocation to each of your envelopes.

At best, you might try increasing the amount in one envelope, say when a child falls sick, but that would have to come from cuts in other envelopes.

That happened with our last two Budgets, when emergency provisions in the wake of the pandemic had to come from reduced allocations to education and health.

Despite sometimes soaring rhetoric and the routine genuflections before the pulpit of atmanirbaharata and PM-this or that scheme, this Budget had no leaps of imagination nor grandiose schemes.

The only time my ears stood up was when she announced that the government capital expenditure would be increased by a whopping 35 per cent, from around Rs 5 trillion to Rs 7 trillion.

Surely, there would be no slack in the Budget of that magnitude, I thought.

The puzzle was solved when Dr Subhash Garg, a former finance secretary, explained this as an expert commentator on one of the channels.

Half of that amount would be in the form of states being allowed to borrow more and the other half would be from central public sector units being made to buy the new green bonds.

Net-net, the only change would be the central government investing Rs 2 trillion more, but at the cost some others within the government umbrella.

Yet another instance of shuffling money from several other envelopes to one big one.

That is why the Budgetary deficit next year would remain about 6.4 per cent, the same as this year's.

We heard how the PM gati-shakti investments would generate 6 million jobs, but over the next three years, thus telling us that the finance minister now knows that infrastructure has positive impacts at best after a reasonably long period.

We heard how the defence ministry's purchase plans would increasingly involve medium, small and micro industries, but we heard not the impact this would have on the quality of armaments (a senior naval officer working on the new aircraft carrier project told me how this procurement policy has added to their costs, even as they worry about the quality of such supplies).

This is at should be in normal times. The government's allocations to various departments and programmes should cause no stir and the Budget should be no big news.

I had observed in connection with the 2017-2018 Budget 'The Big News about the Budget for 2017-18 that Mr Arun Jaitley presented in Parliament on 1 February is that there is no Big News.'

Except that this is far from being normal times.

The country is recovering from two years of pandemic-induced lockdowns and partial shutdowns.

The finance minister took great pride in saying that the Indian economy is the fastest growing major economy in the world, but she failed to mention that even this growth would take us almost to where we were in 2019.

That by itself should cause us some concerns.

Since 2019 was not a year to celebrate anything either should cause us to stop for a moment and rethink what the government ought to be doing.

Just think: The youth in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh is agitating about unemployment, or rather the failure to find even the most menial of government jobs.

A couple of days ago, someone in Prayagraj on the verge of being 30 was interviewed on one of the TV channels.

He has lived in a cramped room for the last six years, appearing for various government job examinations and has not succeeded as yet.

Many of his fellow sufferers have taken to streets and blocked trains.

This Budget has nothing for them.

But they are the lucky ones, who have had the means to get a smacking of what we call education.

Millions more suffer quietly in the countryside, euphemistically labelled as being engaged in agriculture.

Their farms would do fine if they were not on them.

They have taken recourse to farming as the employer of the last resort.

A very large number are wondering how they would repay the loans they have taken to help get what passed for treatment to one of their kin who fell victim to Covid.

Some of these passed away, many more survived, but are in no condition to contribute to the family budget.

Ms Sitharaman proudly mentioned how the country has come out relatively unscathed after the deadly second wave of Covid, but these words offer no solace to the millions who lost everything to the treatment cost.

Many million young children have not gone to school for a year or longer.

They have missed out on what passes for education.

We admire the success of many Unicorns of Indian origin, Byju's being at the forefront of them.

Have we ever pondered why that is so?

The Byju's success story is based on the middle class parents' desperation to get their children at least rudimentary education in these Godawful times.

Should not the success of a digital school tuition enterprise make us deeply concerned about our education system?

And similarly, should not the widely-televised instances of Covid patients dying for want of oxygen make us ponder about the medical infrastructure?

What good would be the scores of new medical colleges and hospitals springing up all over the countryside if they cannot supply oxygen to incoming patients?

The prime minister has been proclaiming it a success that the government managed to provide free rations to 800 million during the pandemic.

What kind of a wannabe economic superpower claims it a success that 65 percent of its population cannot afford to pay for the most basic requirement of life, food?

No Ms Sitharaman, this was the one Budget that required radical departures on all these fronts, when it had none.

It required to say how we would permanently gain an export share which the Chinese have been vacating and countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh are not in any position to take up the slack, in garments and footwear.

We needed to hear how the government has a package of policies to attract new investment in these and similar industries and make available to them cheap manpower, so that they become globally competitive.

This was the time when we needed to hear how we are reversing the trend of untrained manpower returning to agriculture.

When you have a tax-to-GDP ratio stubbornly staying stuck around 10 per cent, you need to think out of the box to raise more resources, because the existing resources would nearly all be exhausted servicing earlier loans and paying the salary, and now pensions.

As a business education graduate, Ms Sitharaman surely knows that unfunded pension liabilities make an organisation economically unviable.

Government of India is in that category.

Where would the money come from then for such a big-bang Budget?

For one, from a vigorous and serious disinvestment.

Ms Sitharaman proclaimed the Rs 18,000 crore sell-off of Air India as a great success, but she did not mention that the target in the previous year's Budget was many times higher.

And this year, she said a part of the government equity in the behemoth Life Insurance Corporation would be sold, but she did not say what happens to many other public sector enterprises.

Had such a Budget been placed on the Lok Sabha table, we would have stood up and applauded. We would have said to ourselves, let's go do it.

We yawned instead and muttered "Thank God, it was not the usual two-hour long yarn!"

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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