Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Budget 2010 - Article in

Dear FM, let Budget 2010 target meeting common man's expectations
JANUARY 27, 2010
By Subhashree Kishore

IT'S again that time of the year
Longing and hope mingle with fear
Yet another briefcase
Prudence and populism jostling for space
Men - moghul and menial try to keep pace
Wondering “ Will I miss or hit an ace?

BUDGETS do not inspire poetry yet people do wish to find a thing of beauty or intelligence in them. There seems to be lesser enthusiasm this time, probably because we had an overdose of budgets and stimulus in 2009-10. Yet there remain problems to be addressed and so long as statisticians, economists and politicians are active the corpus deliciti - the annual budget, well, exists. The plaintiff (common man) always cries for a better deal and the defendants - the ‘men with authority and influence' protest its propriety. No budget is claimed to be a complete success which means it was also a failure for the argument cuts both ways!

The usual plea for lower taxes and more incentives have appeared on the wish lists of the industry and agriculture lobbies. But that apart there seems to be no new direction or novel arguments. This may be due to the haze around the Direct Taxes Code and merger of various indirect taxes. The government has of course stated that it will use resources at its disposal - the glittering PSUs to increase social spending. So, should this budget be more of the same? Not necessary.

Sustaining agriculture

Agriculture, once derided as a less important portfolio is very much in news with over billion mouths to feed, Rs. 7000 crore organized dairy business, booming commodity index and ever increasing prices. Apart from the Third and perhaps the Fifth Five Year Plan there has been little focus on agriculture. We prefer cash cows to milch cows. Impetus to industrialisation and technological advancements and moving to a targeted rather than universal PDS have pushed us into food crisis. Agriculture is not about loan waivers, biofuels, FDI in processed food industry or aiming for higher productivity through GM crops which do not crossbreed and are vulnerable to new pests.

In this budget we could look at increased outlay for agriculture as opposed to the present below 3% levels, to improve productivity and crop diversity - encouraging indigenous varieties. We had the present FM saying that agriculture would do well if there was good rainfall, as late as February 2009. We need to do a better job of water management to avoid the paradox of the flood-hit and the drought hit. This might sound archaic but the sad truth is that over half a century of planning has still not rid agriculture of the old evils.

We could consider a sabbatical on trading in commodities. Food lends itself to speculation while hunger does not. The average Indian investor now executes a quixotic purchase of rice and pulses with profits made on trading in pepper or turmeric! The usual strategy to combat (complaints of) price rise to import or release buffer stocks is not sufficient. Increasing money supply in the hands of people by minimal tax cuts or raising threshold does not help. We may examine the concept of ‘maximum supportive price' - a counterpart to the ‘minimum support price' which protects the producers against loss. Government fixed rates are in vogue in property transactions. We have rent controls, risk assessors and surveyors, registered valuers and government run (fair price) liquor shops. It should not be difficult to fix a price beyond which essential commodities cannot be sold. The argument of value addition in salt/sugar or curd, greens and potatoes which necessitates price increase cuts no ice. We have survived on non-branded, less fancy rock salt or ‘ration' sugar. Units which are not able to hold the price line may get weeded out as dictated by purest of market economics.

Stimulating revenue

There have been pleas for continuing the stimulus (rather stimuli). “It has worked and should continue but it has not worked enough to pay taxes at present rate …”
“Recession has been arrested but industries still need to be pampered…”
“Inflation calls for tightening money supply but industry seeks greater purchasing power to push up demand for its goods…”
The state of economy is about as conclusive as the IPCC report! What is heartening is that in this respect we are on par with the USA. Stimulus has worked and the institutions have prospered enough to repay moneys borrowed but cannot pay tax on banker's bonus…regulatory oversight is acknowledged but that does not call for more regulation!
Saddled as it is with numerous demands on its resources the government cannot afford to extend the stimulus. Of course, it may lead to prices rising again. But if not tax, either currency futures, or oil prices or overheads are bound to push them up. So, no one is worse off for the discontinuance of stimulus.

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