R. Subramanian

With the economy doing well and the markets hitting new peaks every other day and Indians getting the largest pay hikes in the world, who is bothered about the Budget? After all, when the times are good and everyone is raking in whatever he (or she) can, why bother about it?

This year's Budget will probably pass off as one with the least expectations attached to it and to that extent the country has come of age. Which developed country makes a major hue and cry about the Budget like ours, used as we are to waiting for the annual exercise of being stunned (in the '70s and '80s) and then waiting for the annual largesse of tax cuts and so on (in the '90s and the early part of this decade)?

From a consumer standpoint, the biggest things are cheaper small cars. Here, of course, considering the competition, price cuts are a certainty - cheaper soft drinks may not come about as the industry's duopoly is busy trying to staunch its years of red ink and will invent all reasons to not pass on the benefit (expect to hear about price points, already lowest prices in the world and so on).

The interesting thing is about food processing - all the focus will in some time trickle down to a greater range of products being available but for now we can hope to have cheaper pasta (the Italian connection!) and ice-creams and ready-to-eats and, of course,

idli

and

dosa

mixes (the Chennai connection in compensation).

The one thing one would have wanted is a reduction in edible oil import duties - nothing there at all to take solace. With LPG sales taxes being knocked out of the State Government's hands, one only hopes the State Governments do not hit back at us to compensate.

No change in tax slabs

With no change in tax slabs and rates (even to adjust for inflation) we can take solace only in that there is a Rs 1 lakh per annum tax-exempt superannuation contribution that employers should make and that the hassle and pain of filing tax returns is gone as the compulsory tax return regime under the 1 by 6 scheme is gone. The big hit is that the computer for the kid (and for ourselves) is becoming costlier - as imported PCs may become costlier, the domestic ones will surely increase their prices too!

Service tax

The invisible hand of service tax is getting longer and sharper - the 8 per cent tax became 10 per cent and has now become 12 per cent (really 12.24 per cent with the cess) and can be levied on many, many things. The Finance Minister did say that as it was `offsettable,' the impact will be very small.

Of course, if the impact was very small why levy it at all? People like us pay it on telephone bills (did you know it) and to wedding contractors and unfortunately unlike the big businesses, we cannot adjust it anywhere!

Broadly, it's a Budget that tinkers more than it changes - but the tinkering does pinch more than it soothes - but a Budget firmly in the direction of do-not-care-about-me-any longer!

(The writer is Managing Director of Subhiksha, the Chennai-based discount retail chain.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 1, 2006)
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