February 03, 2007

The Importance of Budget 2007-08
Budget 2007-08 would be the third Budget of the UPA Government. The Budget is going to be presented at a time when the people of India are suffering due to rising prices of essential commodities, especially food items. The 6% plus inflation rate surely cannot be justified by the 8% GDP growth rate being experienced in India today, since developing countries like China have succeeded in holding inflation at much lower levels despite having a higher GDP growth rate than India. The shortage in food items like wheat, sugar and pulses that has arisen is a direct fallout of the sustained neglect that agriculture in general and the food economy in particular has suffered since the policies of liberalization were initiated in the early 1990s. Being the first Budget of the Eleventh Five Year Plan, Budget 2007-08 should accord topmost priority to addressing issues concerning agriculture and food management.
The Approach Paper to the Eleventh Plan, as approved by the National Development Council, has also set several important objectives reflecting the commitments made in the National Common Minimum Programme.  There are at least six areas in which specific commitments have been made in the NCMP and the fulfillment of which require substantial fund allocation. These include increasing public investment in agriculture, spending 6% of GDP on education, spending 2-3% of GDP on health, ensuring social security for workers in the unorganized sector, universalization of the ICDS and providing a legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment for at least one able-bodied person in every rural, urban poor and lower-middle class household. Besides, there are other crucial commitments made in the NCMP like ensuring fair and remunerative prices for farmers, strengthening the Public Distribution System and moving towards universal food security. Budget 2007-08 should take decisive steps in the direction of meeting these commitments through adequate outlays for the Central Plan. The Budget should also demonstrate the political will to mobilise resources, primarily through taxation of burgeoning corporate profits, capital gains and wealth. The seriousness, which the UPA Government attaches to the NCMP, would be assessed in terms of the extent to which Budget 2007-08 meets these objectives.
Central Plan Outlay and Resource Mobilization
1.      The Approach Paper to the Eleventh Plan has called for an increase of budgetary resources for the Plan by 2.5% of GDP, to be attained by the end of the Plan period. While questions remain whether the crucial NCMP commitments mentioned above can be fulfilled with the amount of resources envisaged in the Approach Paper, a serious effort in that direction needs to be made in Budget 2007-08 itself. The Gross Budgetary Support for the Plan should be increased by at least 1% of GDP in Budget 2007-08. This increase should be over and above a 14% increase in Plan expenditure from what was incurred in Budget 2006-07, in keeping with the current growth rate of nominal GDP. In nominal terms this would imply increasing Plan expenditure, which was estimated at Rs. 172728 crore in Budget 2006-07, by over Rs 55,000 crore.
2.      Resources for such an increase in Plan expenditure is not difficult to find. According to the Note on tax Expenditures circulated in the meeting of the Consultative Committee attached to the Ministry of Finance held in November 2006, total tax exemptions/concessions granted in the year 2004-05 stood at Rs 176073 crores out of which corporate tax exemptions alone accounted for Rs 57852 crores. While the scheduled corporate tax rate is 33.66% including the surcharge and the education cess, it has been recently reported that the effective tax rate for the corporate sector in 2005-06 has only been around 16.5-17%, due to the myriad tax breaks. Continuing with such corporate tax exemptions in a context where corporate profits have increased sharply in the past few years, besides being morally unjustifiable makes little economic sense. Doing away with the myriad corporate tax exemptions, which are nothing but subsidies to the corporates, would be sufficient to finance the entire increase in Plan expenditure that is being sought. The Amendments to the SEZ Act suggested by the Left Parties in view of the proliferation of SEZ proposals should also be brought about immediately in order to eliminate the undeserving tax concessions to the SEZs. Tax exemptions for sectors like IT, which have been registering record profits in recent times, have also outlived their economic rationale.
3.      The reintroduction of the long-term capital gains tax and increasing the rate of the Securities Transaction Tax should be seriously considered, in view of the speculative excesses currently being witnessed in the financial markets. The entire exercise of differentiating between traders and investors among the FIIs, currently being undertaken by the Finance Ministry, is meaningless. Why should the effective tax rate of any FII be substantially lower than what is being paid by Indian corporates? The dismally low rate of capital gains taxation currently prevailing in the country, with a 10% short-term capital gains tax and zero long-term capital gains tax as compared to above 30% rate of corporate tax, is an open invitation for reckless speculative activities, which stifle genuine entrepreneurship. Reimposition of a long-term capital gains tax of 15% and a flat STT rate of 0.1% on the trading in all financial instruments, including equities, bonds, derivatives and government securities, would not only remove the anomaly but also contribute to the resource mobilisation effort.
4.      The list of Indian billionaires show that within one year, i.e. between August 2005 to August 2006, the wealth of the richest Indian grew by over Rs. 32000 crore, which is nearly 1% of India’s GDP. One wonders why in such a backdrop, the wealth tax collection of the Government remained at a paltry Rs. 265 crore in 2005-06, and exactly the same amount was budgeted for 2006-07. The Wealth tax rate should be increased from 1% to 3% without further delay and initiatives need to be taken to broaden the wealth tax base by bringing all the urban as well as rural crorepatis into the wealth tax net.
5.      The obsession with cutting customs duties down to ASEAN levels with scant regard for its implications for revenue and adverse impact on domestic industries and agriculture need to be abandoned. The recent cut in customs duty on a host of items including cement, metals and chemicals just ahead of the Budget, was an ill-conceived move. The justification provided for the move in terms of curbing inflation is not at all convincing, since consumer price inflation is being mainly driven by primary articles like food items. These import duty cuts need to be reversed in Budget 2007-08, at least partially.
Priorities for Pro-People Expenditure in Budget 2007-08
National Commission on Farmers:In view of the continuing crisis in agriculture, a substantial increase in the Plan outlays for Agriculture and allied activities and Irrigation and Flood Control should be made in Budget 2007-08. The recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers, which should be considered on an immediate basis, are:
            a. Constitution of a Fund to assist farmers affected by crop losses.
            b. Reduction of the interest rate for farm loans to 4%.
c. Undertaking an all-India Debt survey and taking appropriate measures for debt relief including waiver for those farmers who are in distress.
            d. Creation of a price stabilization fund for agricultural commodities.
e. Revamping of Agricultural Extension services through the establishment of farm schools and village knowledge centres across the country.
f. Expansion of crop Insurance to the entire country and cover all crops, and with greater flexibility to respond to local needs of farmers.
Tariff Protection for Agriculture:The Approach Paper to the Eleventh Plan has also made some significant observations regarding agriculture: “There have also been too many cases in recent years when world prices have declined very sharply and compensating changes in tariffs have been unduly delayed. All this has lent credence to the view that WTO and globalisation are against farmers’ interests and that the government is no longer committed to supporting farm prices. Such sentiments contribute to pessimism about farming, although in fact our tariff bindings in WTO are in most cases adequate to prevent prices falling below costs of production through WTO-compatible interventions…We also need to evolve a clearer understanding of how best to adjust import tariff to insulate farmers from collapses in international prices. This may require an internal mechanism that includes the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices for signalling automatic tariff revision.” Budget 2007-08 should put in place a mechanism on the lines suggested in the Approach paper, whereby automatic tariff revision can be made in the case of price crashes in agricultural products.
Strengthening Procurement:The management of the food economy has become a matter of grave concern. Procurement of wheat has fallen drastically eventually necessitating imports at prices much above the procurement price paid to Indian farmers. The NCMP states “Farmers all over the country will receive fair and remunerative prices”. This has clearly not happened so far. The Minimum Support Price policy has to be extended to more crops as well as more regions, where production increases are likely to take place, as has been noted in the Approach Paper to the Eleventh Plan. Fair prices have to be ensured for the farmers. This cannot be achieved by allowing private players to replace the FCI in procurement and storage of foodgrains. Rather, the FCI needs to be strengthened and procurement operations expanded through more fund allocation.
Food Security and PDS:No concrete steps have been taken so far to strengthen the Public Distribution System, let alone moving towards universal food security as was promised in the NCMP. The linkage between controversial poverty estimates to allocations under the BPL quota for the States has been unjust to the poor. The number of BPL cardholders needs to be increased substantially besides bringing more items within the purview of the PDS like pulses, sugar and edible oil. The Antodaya scheme has to be expanded, especially in tribal areas afflicted by severe malnutrition. These steps have to be initiated in Budget 2007-08, by increasing food subsidy if necessary.
Rural Credit:Steps should be taken to revive the Regional Rural Banks and the Cooperative Credit Institutions and expand their network in order to reverse the trend of dwindling rural bank branches and increase the flow of credit to the rural poor. Currently, 13% of the priority sector lending is earmarked for agriculture. The Government should set norms to ensure that at least 50% of total agricultural credit goes to the small and marginal farmers.
Irrigation:Besides starting new irrigation projects, adequate funds should be allocated to expedite the completion of ongoing irrigation projects in a time-bound manner. A specific target should be set in Budget 2007-08 for the completion of some of the major irrigation projects by the end of the financial year.
NREGA:The Employment Guarantee Scheme has to be extended to 200 more districts in Budget 2007-08. One of the problems encountered in the implementation of the scheme so far has been the inadequacy of the works being undertaken, which has not made it possible to achieve 100 days of guaranteed employment in most districts. This needs to be corrected at the earliest. Besides, other wage employment schemes like SGRY should be expanded in the districts not covered under the NREGA. Increases in outlays on Bharat Nirman would also help in generating work in the rural areas.
Education:Expenditure on Education has to increase substantially in order to meet the commitment of spending 6% of GDP on education. As the Right to Education has already been mandated by Article 21A, it is essential to ensure that sufficient funds are allocated to enable access to good quality public school education to all children in the country. The Central Government has to shoulder the major responsibility of ensuring the Right to Education by making adequate resource allocation. The proposed change in expenditure sharing on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan between the Central and State governments (from 75:25 as is being followed currently to 50:50) that has been proposed by the Planning Commission, has been strongly opposed by most of the States in the NDC meeting. This change should not be made. Additional funds for expanding secondary and higher education should be generated by increasing the education cess. Taxpayers do not resent paying the education cess since it directly contributes to social welfare through expansion of education in the country.
Health:Expenditure on health has to increase substantially in order to meet the NCMP target of 2-3% of GDP. The condition of the primary health centres as well as the hospitals continues to be pitiable and falls far short of the requirements of the people. There should be a substantial increase in the outlay for both urban health programmes and the National Rural Health Mission in Budget 2007-08. Besides, the UPA Government has to live up to the promise of creating six AIIMS-type institutions in different parts of the country.
Social Security for Workers:The proposed Social Security Scheme for the unorganized sector workers, a crucial commitment made in the NCMP, is yet to be initiated. Neither has any initiative been taken to frame a social security framework for agricultural workers so far. Budget 2007-08 should allocate sufficient funds for the initiation of these Social Security Schemes.
Towards a Gender-sensitive Budget: Steps should be taken to fulfill the NCMP commitment of universalising the ICDS. The emoluments of ICDS workers should also be increased. While the initiative for Gender Budgeting in Budget 2006-07 was welcome, the concept was neither conceived nor implemented properly. Almost the entire Budget of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was shown as the gender component of the Budget as also the entire funds for the ICDS. This inflated the gender component substantially. What is required is a specified gender component in all employment generation, poverty alleviation and other welfare schemes and a gender-based target of 33% of all beneficiaries to be women. This should be done in Budget 2007-08. A special allocation should also be made for the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act. Central allocation for widow pensions should also be increased.
Special Measures for Dalits and Adivasis: Allocations for the Special Component Plan and the Tribal Sub-Plan should be increased substantially. Two specific commitments made in the NCMP related to the welfare of Scheduled Castes and Tribes are yet to be initiated. These are:
(i)                 A comprehensive national programme for minor irrigation of all lands owned by dalits and adivasis.
(ii)               Endowing land to landless families through implementation of land ceiling and land redistribution legislation.
These programmes should be initiated in Budget 2007-08.
Steps for the Uplift of the Minorities:In the backdrop of the Sachar Committee findings regarding the condition of the minorities, especially Muslims, the following steps should be initiated in Budget 2007-08:
(i)                 Formulation of a sub-plan for minorities on the lines of the Special Component Plan and the Tribal Sub-Plan, allocating 15% of total resources for employment generation, poverty alleviation and other development programmes for minorities, especially Muslims
(ii)               A special initiative to commence development activities under Plan programmes on education, health and housing in the 100 districts with substantial Muslim population identified by Sachar Committee. In these welfare programmes, there should be a special focus on Muslim women.
(iii)             It should be ensured that 15% of priority sector lending by banks goes to Muslims.
Other Important Measures
Reduce Petrol and Diesel Prices by Restructuring Duties and Taxes:In the backdrop of the inflationary build up in the economy and in view of the significant fall in international oil prices, a cut in petrol and diesel prices should be brought about. This can be done without hurting the bottomlines of the oil companies if Budget 2007-08 takes concrete steps to do away with the ad valorem duty structure on oil imports and replace it by specific duties. Further, taxes on the retail price structure of petrol and diesel should be rationalized and the funds collected through the oil cess be used to create a Price Stabilization fund in order to avoid frequent revisions of petro prices.
Provide Tax-Relief to Salaried Employees and Pensioners: The withdrawal of standard deduction of salaried employees along with the raising of the basic income tax exemption limit to Rs 150000 made in Budget 2006-07 have put the salaried employees in a disadvantageous position compared to businessmen. Businessmen are able to book expenditures like travel, depreciation etc. as business activities while salaried employees cannot claim exemption on account of travel and other related expenses. This can be corrected through the reintroduction of standard deduction for salaried employees. Tax relief should be provided to senior citizens. The health allowance for pensioners who cannot access the CGHS should be enhanced.
Revise Customs and Excise Duty to Protect Small Industries:The Tariff liberalization following Free Trade Agreements with countries like Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka have hurt sections of Indian manufacturers. This is particularly true for the Indian vanaspati industry, which is facing serious problems because of cheap imports from Nepal and Sri Lanka. The domestic rubber producers, especially the cooperatives, are also worried about cheap imports. The domestic colour TV manufacturers are being hit by imports from Thailand. Concerns have also been raised that some Indian producers are routing their produce through these countries in order to avail duty exemptions. Budget 2007-08 should address these concerns effectively by suitably revising customs and excise duties in order to protect small domestic producers. Besides revising customs duties upwards in some cases, a reduction of excise duties for Small Scale Industries in some of the sectors badly hit by import competition should be considered.
Increase Investment by Central Public Sector Enterprises: A disturbing trend being noticed over the past few years is the unwillingness by highly profitable CPSE’s to reinvest their profits and hold on to cash reserves instead. In fact, according to a recent report, CPSE’s in crucial sectors like heavy engineering, mining, steel, telecommunications, IT and chemicals have either reduced their investments or have marginally increased them despite earning huge profits. According to the data of the Department of Public Enterprises, net investment by all CPSEs in 2005-06 stood at Rs. 35118 crore only, whereas they had reserves and surplus worth over Rs. 300000 crore in 2004-05. Besides clearly showing the pointlessness of any move towards disinvestment of CPSEs in order to raise resources, this trend towards underinvestment by CPSEs have given rise to genuine concerns whether public investment is being held up in order to create space for private competitors. Budget 2007-08 should provide clear signals for a massive expansion of investment by the CPSEs in all the crucial sectors. Announcing the upgradation of some of the Miniratna PSEs into Navaratnas in the Budget would have a positive impact on the overall climate of public sector investment.
Summing-up the Pro-People Measures Suggested for Budget 2007-08
  •  Increase Plan allocations to meet NCMP commitments. Raise resources by taxing the corporates and the rich.
  •  Increase public investment in agriculture and irrigation. Expedite completion of ongoing irrigation works.
  •  Reduce interest rate on farm loans for farmers to 4%. Provide Debt Relief to all debt-stressed farmers. Ensure 50% of priority sector lending to agriculture goes to small and marginal farmers.
  • Check price rise of essential commodities. Strengthen procurement and increase agricultural production. Universalize the PDS by increasing food subsidy.
  • Bring down prices of petrol and diesel by restructuring the duty structure on petroleum products.
  • Extend NREGA to 200 more districts. Allocate more funds for the rural employment and infrastructure development.
  • Increase expenditure on education to meet 6% of GDP. Increase education cess to fund expansion of education at all levels.
  • Increase expenditure on health to 2-3% of GDP.
  • Allocate funds to initiate social security scheme for unorganized workers.
  • Universalize the ICDS. Introduce gender component in all development programmes and set gender based target of at least one-third of total beneficiaries being women.
  • Commence national programme for minor irrigation of lands owned by dalits and adivasis. Redistribute land to landless families.
  • Formulate sub-Plan allocating 15% of total resources on all development programmes for minorities, especially Muslims. Ensure 15% of priority sector lending target for minorities.
  • Reintroduce standard deduction for salaried employees. Enhance health allowance for pensioners and allocation on widow pensions.
  • Increase customs duties on sectors being hit by cheap imports. Reduce excise duties for Small Scale Industries.