B S Raghavan

A mish-mash of figures

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on March 01, 2011

The Finance Minister was content to palm off nebulous and oft-repeated generalities as a strategy, leaving the people no wiser than before.

Let me first treat you with a few titles of the Budget commentary that I had been rolling over in my mind in advance while working out various combinations of the expectations and the speculations that were doing the rounds in the few weeks preceding the B-Day: Pranabda bites the bullets of inflation and black money!

A laudable trade-off between inflation and inclusive growth! Pranabda gives a vigorous push to lagging reforms! A roadmap for acquiring economic superpower status! India on the roll!

What do we get instead? Here again, before I finally made my choice, I was mulling a few titles which would not take a harsh view of the concoction dished out by Pranabda and, at the same time, serve as a fair comment that I owed to readers.

Here are some examples which I was constrained to reject one by one: Long on minutiae, short on substance! A litany of the familiar, adding up to little! Pranabda opts not to rock the boat! Skirting round core issues! A lot of dots with no effort to connect them!

In fact, by the time Pranabda wound up his 105 minute long speech, I had hit the nail on the head with a new law that leapt to my mind: The solid worth of the content of a Budget speech is inversely proportional to the time taken to deliver it!

I think that Pranabda has become a victim of a practice which holds within itself the seeds of its own insipidity.

Budget demystified

It was all right in the era of the Government's vice-like grip on economic activities, as during the licence-permit-control raj, for the Finance Ministers to hold every detail exclusively reserved for mention in the Budget speech, because that was the only means of the economic players and the public at large knowing what was in store for them.

Also, in those years of yore, the reach of the media and mass communications was not so pervasive, nor was their inquisitiveness so aggressive, as they are today.

It is all a free-for-all when everything that a Government does, or proposes to do, is supposed to be laid bare for all stakeholders and affected interests to see.

In the bargain, the Budget, as the word goes, has been considerably demystified in the sense that almost the entire gamut of the Finance Minister's proposals can be safely disclosed in advance without any damage or danger to national interest.

There is no point, in the new context, to load the Budget with a series of references to small and middling grants to various financial, banking, educational and other institutions and taking the time of Parliament with a long and stale list of existing schemes and funds and recount the allocations being made to them.

Since those minuscule provisions of Rs 30 crore or even Rs 100 crore each are not likely to prove politically contentious, they could as well have been given out at any time before or after the Budget, separately or simultaneously, in the form of an omnibus notification.

Routine announcements

For instance, raising the defining age of senior citizens, encouragement to the use of ragi, millet and the like as nutrition supplement, increasing fodder production, indexation of the wage for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, doubling the emoluments of anganwadi workers and their assistants, sanction of pre-matric scholarships for scheduled class and scheduled tribe students — to cite a few examples — could hardly be construed as the stuff of which a Budget speech should be made.

Its proper aim and thrust should be towards enunciating the Government's assessment of the burning issues and emerging challenges impacting the nation's economy and the policies and mechanisms it has envisaged for dealing with them.

Any Budget speech that is in sync with its effective and substantive format need take only an hour or less. Otherwise, it is liable to crowd out major issues by routine announcements.

Take the question uppermost in the minds of experts, the intelligentsia as also the aam aadmi: The rise in prices of essential goods and commodities of everyday use in average households.

Commodity and crude oil prices are unrelentingly pointing northward, exerting pressure on local production, transportation and distribution. Other than saying that the widening gap between wholesale and retail prices was ‘unacceptable', the Budget speech provides little consolation.

Likewise, there is nary a clue in the Budget speech about the exact form of attack by the Government on corruption and black money.

One wonders whether the Government is at all aware of, or sensitive to, the intensity of feelings in the public mind on this account.

That apart, the gargantuan dimension both these pernicious evils have assumed, with their stranglehold on the economy, is bound to foil the national aspiration for elimination of poverty and ushering in of prosperity. Pranabda was content to palm off nebulous and oft-repeated generalities as a strategy, leaving the people no wiser than before.

Positive features

So also, the Budget speech provides no coherent picture on the speeding up of remainder of the reforms, the matrix of growth that would beat inflationary trends, the steps to fiscal consolidation, finding and using one trillion dollars in the next five years to put world-class infrastructure in place, measures to reverse the tilt away from portfolio investment towards foreign direct investment (FDI) and the Government's stand on FDI in retail.

However, the Budget speech is certainly not a wash-out: Jacking up of allocations to important sectors; pressing on with disinvestment; reining in fiscal and revenue deficits; broadening avenues for microfinance; commitment to make GST a reality; further streamlining and simplifying of Customs and excise duties; and direct transfers of subsidies are all positive features that are capable of yielding long-term dividends.

Finally, Pranabda's firm declaration that resources will pose no constraint for any worthwhile initiative must put heart into everyone of us.

He will, no doubt, agree that announcements will not become accomplishments without a sustained watch over implementation.

Published on March 01, 2011

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