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Economic surveys: A case of hits and misses on GDP numbers

By Indivjal Dhasmana
February 05, 2021 14:41 IST
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Of the seven surveys presented under Modi govt, predictions of three were quite close to the actual GDP growth rate, one saw the base year change in between, but the last three were way off the mark.

Economy

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

If someone were to rate the finance ministry's advisors on the accuracy of their economic growth forecasts during the Modi government, he would, in all probability given them 5 marks out of 10.

Of the seven surveys presented during the regime, three predicted either a somewhat correct number or underestimated the actual growth.

One of the surveys can't be given a score because the base year changed in between.

 

The remaining Three surveys, all presented during the past three years, were way off the mark in predicting growth numbers. Let us analyse each of these surveys:

Economic survey for 2013-14:

This survey was authored by a team led by Arvind Mayaram, then economic affairs secretary.

One should note that it projects economic growth for the next year and generally takes the GDP expansion for the current year from the advance estimates.

In this respect, this survey seems to really underestimate economic growth (see chart).

However, by the time actual numbers for GDP came, the methodology for computing it had changed.

Now, GDP was calculated at market prices (which includes indirect taxes) unlike factor cost (sans indirect taxes), which had been the practice till then.

Besides, value addition is taken into account in various sectors such as agriculture, industry, services from the supply side of the computation.

The survey focused on reviving investment.

It said this required a three-pronged approach that worked through improving India's long-term growth prospects.

This strategy was to work through ensuring low inflation by putting in place a framework for monetary policy, fiscal consolidation, and food market reforms.

It called for tax reforms through goods and services tax (GST) and direct taxes code.

While GST came over three years later, the direct taxes code was shelved a year after.

Only in 2017, the government appointed a committee under Central Board of Direct Taxes member Arbind Modi to redraft direct taxes.

Its report was also junked and another committee was appointed under then CBDT member Akhilesh Ranjan.

Though the committee has submitted its report, its recommendations are yet to see the light of the day.

Meanwhile, both Modi and Ranjan have retired.

The Economic Survey, 2014-15:

This was the first survey under then chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian.

Taking inspiration from the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook, this Survey departed structurally from its predecessors and was presented in two volumes.

Volume one discussed the outlook and prospects as well as a number of analytical chapters addressing topical policy concerns.

Volume two described recent developments in all the major sectors of the economy and contained all the statistical tables and data.

In a sense, volume one was forward-looking but gained from the perspective provided by the recent past, which was the subject of volume two.

The survey was close to predicting the correct GDP growth number, though closer to the lower end of its range.

Against its prediction of 8.1-8.5 per cent range, the actual GDP growth turned out to be eight per cent.

The survey focused on the trinity of Jan Dhan, Aadhaar, and Mobile (JAM).

The government has really moved ahead with the concept and implemented it.

So far, during 2020-21, which was the year of the government's social welfare schemes to offset the impact of Covid-induced lockdowns, Rs 2.96 trillion was transferred through 2.36 billion direct benefit transfers (DBT).

Money was transferred to direct beneficiaries in 316 schemes and according to government estimates, there were gains of 1.78 trillion this way so far in the current financial year.

The Economic Survey, 2015-16:

Economic growth for 2016-17 turned out to be much higher than predicted by this survey--8.3 per cent versus 7-7.5 per cent, despite demonetisation.

This may also be due to the revisions in the growth rate in the later years.

Though one may say this survey was also off the mark in predicting the number, underestimating the growth rate would not have had as disastrous an impact as overestimating it.

The survey talked of creating a more competitive environment by addressing the exit (Chakravyuha) problem that bedevils the economy and is an impediment to investment, efficiency, job creation and growth.

The government later enacted the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code of India, which was suspended in the current financial year (2020-21 in various phases due to Covid-19 issues).

Rules on bankruptcy are yet to be notified to deal with individual and non-corporate cases.

The survey also talked about major investments in people--their health and education--to reap the demographic dividend.

However, the allocations are yet to see any major uptick in terms of their proportion to GDP.

The National Education Commission (1964-66), popularly known as Kothari Commission, had recommended a six per cent GDP expenditure on education.

The latest draft of the National Education Policy 2019 states that the government has never been able to meet the target.

National Health Policy of 2017 wanted the Centre and states to spend 2.5 per cent of GDP on the health sector, but the share has remained more or less constant at 1.15 per cent.

The Economic Survey, 2016-17:

The actual economic growth rate for 2017-18 fell between the range predicted by this survey (see chart).

The survey segregated the time of presenting Volume-1 and Volume-2. Volume-1 was presented in February 2017 after the government announced demonetisation in November 2016.

Volume-2 was presented in August 2017, a month after the GST was introduced.

The first volume talked of doing full justice to demonetisation and then proposed GST, or else it risked being "Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark".

It said that while analysing demonetisation was complex, one could definitely say that there were short-term costs; however, there were also potential long-term benefits.

The survey suggested that appropriate action could help minimise the former and maximise the latter.

The Survey advocated the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) as an alternative to the various social welfare schemes in an effort to reduce poverty.

It pointed out that the two prerequisites for a successful UBI are: (a) functional JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile) system as it ensures that the cash transfer goes directly into the account of a beneficiary and (b) Centre-State negotiations on cost sharing for the programme.

The UBI idea still remains in the conceptual stage.

One may argue that PM Kisan Samman Nidhi which transfers Rs 2000 to every farmer in a quarter is also a kind of UBI, albeit confined to the farm sector alone.

The survey proposed the setting up of a public sector asset rehabilitation agency (PARA), which is essentially a centralized bad bank.

The idea was discussed repeatedly but was never implemented. It again resurfaced recently, but no clear-cut contours have emerged.

The survey for 2017-18

From here onwards, the surveys could not project the economic growth rate correctly and overestimated it by a huge margin.

Against its projection of 7-7.5 per cent, the GDP growth rate turned out to be just 6.1 per cent.

The survey suggested quick remonetisation, push for digitisation, bringing land and real estate under GST ambit, reduction in taxes and stamp duties and an improved tax administration system as key reform measures to ensure long-term economic benefits.

Among these recommendations, bringing land and real estate under the GST domain remains a challenge.

However, income tax rates, both personal and corporate, were reduced drastically.

Also, a faceless system of assessment was kicked in income tax which is a major tax administration reform.

Economic Survey for 2018-19:

The first survey, authored by the current chief economic advisor Krishnamurthy Subramanian, was way off the mark in predicting GDP growth rate.

The economy grew at the rate of just 4.2 per cent against seven per cent projected by the survey.

This was probably be due to the slowdown which had cast its shadow on the economy, and the initial impact of Covid-19.

The survey proposed a well-designed minimum wage system as a potent tool for protecting workers and alleviating poverty, saying the present structure has 1,915 minimum wages for various scheduled job categories across states.

The government did enact a law on minimum wages in August 2019, but it awaits implementation since the all-important national level board is yet to be set up.

The board, which will have representations from industry, trade unions and others, would set up a national level floor below which states cannot fix their minimum wages.

Economic Survey for 2019-20:

The year 2020-21 is a difficult year for anyone to predict in the beginning of the calendar year 2020.

That's Why the survey, tabled in Parliament in January end, projected the economy to grow by seven per cent.

Now the economy is officially projected to contract by 7.7 per cent this financial year.

The survey recommended aggressive divestment of central public sector enterprises (CPSEs).

It suggested the government take a leaf out of Singapore’s Temasek model and transfer its holdings in central public sector enterprises to a separate corporate entity, which would be managed by an independent board.

This entity can then continue to divest individual units at appropriate points in time.

The aim of any privatisation or divestment programme should be maximisation of the government’s equity stake value, the survey said, while proposing the new structure.

The Budget for 2020-21, tabled in Parliament a day after the survey was presented, did project an aggressive divestment and strategic sales which would fetch the government Rs 2.10 trillion in the year.

However, the government is nowhere close to the target with the mop up standing at close to Rs 18,000 crore.

A few more offers for sale (OFS) would make the kitty bit fatter, but it would be far lower than the target.

The survey also suggested solutions that can make public sector banks  more efficient.

To incentivise employees and align their interests with that of all shareholders of banks, bank employees should be given stakes through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) together with proportionate representation on boards proportionate to the blocks held by employees, it suggested.

While banks have started given ESOP to employees, the board representation is nowhere in the sight.

The survey came out with the concept of “thalinomics” to gauge the money that a common person pays for a vegetarian or non-vegetarian thali.

Using the annual earnings of an average industrial worker, the survey found that the affordability of vegetarian thalis improved 29 per cent from 2006-07 to 2019-20, while that of non-vegetarian thalis improved by 18 per cent.

Basically, it defended the Modi government's inflation management control.

It would be interesting to see if the upcoming survey will use thalinomics for the first nine months of 2020-21 as well, with the average retail food inflation rate standing at a staggering 9.17 per cent in this period.

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Indivjal Dhasmana in New Delhi
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