Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

It’s just about a week since the Annual Union Budget – supposedly the most important policy statement for any Government in power, was tabled in the parliament in India.  In these days of extremely limited attention span, the news and noise around the Budget are already done and dusted. The media has already moved on from analyzing the Budget to debating if an MP’s loud cackle is acceptable parliamentary behavior and if the PM’s witty riposte to that, will pass the test of a Nehru or a Vajpayee in parliamentary decorum! The only remaining nugget about the Budget I see in the media in the last couple of days is, as to who won the TRP war on the Budget day! For the television media, the annual Budget presentation is another TRP generating event in the annual calendar and hence the whipped up frenzy and hoopla around it.

For the past 20 years, I have also been a victim of the annual cacophony called the experts’ analysis of the Budget and in the same breath, culprit in doing my own analysis and critique. Over the last few years, it started dawning upon me that slicing and dicing the Budget and trying to evaluate the same as good, bad or average is an exercise steeped in foolhardiness. And so, this year apart from a cursory look at the highlights in the evening of the Budget day, I spent little time in that direction.

This distancing has nothing to do with this year’s Budget and its contents but on the way “we”, as a country carry out the discourse around the Budget. When I say “we”, this includes the Government, the Opposition, the political parties, the media, the Industry, the commentators and folks like us.  For years, I have been seeing that the reactions to the Budget proposals have become extremely predictable. The ruling party members give a huge thumbs up to the Budget and usually follow it up with head line making epithets. (Path breaking/Visionary,…)  While the finance minister is presenting the Budget, any announcement of outlay which is seemingly bigger than that of last year is welcomed with huge thumping of the desks by the treasury benches. The Opposition parties usually criticize the Budget calling it Inflammatory (if taxes are raised), Anti poor (if subsidies are cut), “What about implementation?” (If outlays are increased) and so on! And for other political parties, the famous Mile’s maxim applies – “where they stand on the Budget depends on where they sit” in the parliament. The Industry usually in front of cameras always give a 12 out of 10 to any Budget!  The media provides a ball by ball update on the stock markets as the Budget presentation goes on, as if the entire nation’s well-being depends on how the stock market reacts to the Budget on that day!  And we all know that the stock market yo-yos on the Budget day, without proper understanding of the provisions and settles down few days later.  The media commentators present a typically “On the one hand, on the other hand, having said that,..” analysis replete with clichés and Budget equivalent of Shastri’sms the next day in their columns. And with the advent of social media, Budget day in India is a Kaun Banega Economist? competition with you and me donning the hat of economists to hail/trash the Budget based on the outlay proposals and our own prejudices!  All this repeated itself this year as well.

In the din, what is completely missed is an analysis and report of the outcomes of the previous year Budget outlays. Budget after Budget, finance ministers announce crores and crores for initiatives and programmes. But as a tax payer, we never get to know the outcomes of those outlays. 13 years after the then finance minister P. Chidambaram spoke of “outlays versus outcomes” in his Budget speech of 2005-06, no mechanism is still in sight to measure the same. Take for example one such announcement in the last year Budget, which I clearly remember. The finance minister had announced that allocation under MNREGA was being increased to Rs. 48,000 crore from Rs 38,500 crore which was meant to be the highest ever allocation in all these years. And this was supposed to provide rural jobs, alleviate poverty in rural areas by improving rural incomes and at the same time end up building assets as well. One year hence after this historically high outlay, maybe I missed, but do we know exactly know what happened to this Rs. 48,000 crores? And this is just one outlay. A regular Budget speech is replete with outlays like this and more.

Another glaring example is the Nirbhaya fund. Announced among thunderous thumping of desks in the 2013 budget by the then UPA Government following the heinous Delhi incident, over 90% of the funds remain unused. Does that mean that rapes against women have declined? This is a classic case of an outlay not yielding the desired outcome and still being provided for, year after year!

My disenchantment with the Annual Budget exercise stems from this gap. Of celebrating outlays without knowing what the outcomes were! In the finance minister’s Budget speech a review of the past year is usually limited to the GDP growth rates and projected fiscal deficits against the targets. Even these get revised when the actual numbers come out some time in May/June and very few of us take notice.  The Annual economic survey does cover some of the trends but I don’t think even that covers specifically the results of the previous year’s outlays.

For a developing economy like India, we need more transparency. We should not be pushed to use instruments like RTI to just understand outcomes and expenditures!  And hence here are my suggestions:

  • In the start of the Budget session, before the Budget for the next year is presented, have a day to present the outcomes for the previous year’s outlays. Tell the people what worked and what didn’t. This will help to justify increase or cut outlays for the next year.
  • Typically our parliament has 3 sessions. In these sessions, have each of the ministry provide an update on the progress of the initiatives, programmes, outlays and status of outcomes announced in the year’s Budget. If not for all, have this mandatory for all key industries.

In Delhi circles, I hear that this government of Narendra Modi is a “Dashboard” government. In the sense, the PMO expects weekly/monthly/quarterly dashboard on their ministry’s accomplishments from all the ministries.  Why not extend this “Dashboard” governance to the parliament and get ministers to showcase their ministries’ performance to the people?

Even the media and the commentariat must devote time to analysing outcomes of previous outlays and bring it to the fore rather than just talking of the new outlays!

Thumping of desks by MPs and celebrating outlays on the Budget is passé.  Aim must be to let people celebrate outcomes by voting for you at the hustings!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)

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Long lasting Budget Wishlist!!!

Tomorrow, on the 29th Feb 2016 as the finance minister “rises to present the budget of the Union for the year 2016-17”, he also raises a lot of hopes. In the media in India in the past 1 week or so, it’s been raining wishlists from the budget. As an Aam Admi, I also got tempted to join the bandwagon to submit my own wishlist though I know very well that it’s too late to incorporate even one from this (Wait a minute, may be one can be). But I still go ahead and here’s my list of 10 things which I would like to see change around the budget atleast in my life time.

Here we go:

  1. First up, do away with this archaic “Halwa ceremony” where the FM participates to prepare Halwa in the North Block office along with the staff who are going to be holed up for few weeks in isolation running upto the budget. What’s this Halwa got to do with the budget making? On the other hand, “Halwa Kudukarathu” (Giving Halwa) in Tamil is a euphemism for taking one for a solid ride😁😁! So unless the Govt. actually meant this only every year, they should stop this. And what’s this FM and team posing every year stirring up the Halwa😩
  2. On the day of the Budget, one familiar sight every year you can’t escape is the FM posing with a shining new “Brown Brief case” just as he enters the parliament. To me this brief case symbolizes extreme colonialism which we find it difficult to shrug off. In British parliament also same thing happens to date. (For more on the history of the “Budget Bag” pls click here).  For a country, which boasts itself as an IT behemoth and all that jazz why can’t the FM just walk in with a high capacity pen drive or a lap top instead of this antiquated brief case??? Won’t that be cool?

Budget pic3. And as the FM reads the budget speech, it’s usually from a huge bound document supported by a wooden stand crammed with facts and figures. How will it be if the same is presented as a power point presentation – with slides to the point with graphics? (something we could see in this year’s Economic Survey presented by Arvind Subramanian and team)

4. I don’t know when or who started this trend of sprinkling budget speeches with Shayari??? I do know that FMs like Manmohan Singh, Yashwant Sinha and now Arun Jaitley (Not to mention P.Chidambaram and his Thirukural couplets) get into shayar mode in the course of the budget speech but with limited effect. While it’s good to keep the speech which tends to get boring interspersed with some couplets, poetry,… more often than not it looks thrust upon and not in a flow. As if the British left that also as a rule! Some good self-deprecating humour could be a better option!

5. What is this thumping of the desks by the treasury benches for every outlay announced? It’s now obvious that outlay in itself doesn’t mean anything. Before the FM starts reeling out budgetary allocations, I would like to see the FM starting with the “Outcomes” from the outlays of the top 20 items in the previous year and explain how it benefited the people at large. That will give us some idea as how “our” money has been utilized and for the Govt. an opportunity to boast their report card. This can be followed by the outlays for the next year with clearly expected outcomes from the same.

6. And what is this “ranking” business the media resorts to by the Industry captains immediately after the budget? We have now seen that the devil is in the detailed explanations that surface later. So any ranking without understanding the fuller provisions according to me is an exercise dipped in frivolity.

7. And when is the last time you have seen industry captains giving a thumbs down to the budget?? It is generally a mega thumbs up or atleast a thumbs up with conditions attached. The feedback is always ‘right” and seldom “honest”. So why get into reactions from the Industry which are any way far removed from honesty?

8. Any why do the pink channels get excited and scream about the way the Stock market reacts to the budget?? We have now seen many times in the past that the Stock Market reaction to the budget is knee jerk and not borne out of any proper analysis of the after effects of budget proposals.

9. And why do the pink papers – The Economic Times in particular come out with a blockbuster issue the next day of the budget with the full budget speech and the myriad annexures??? Just upload on the net and leave it to the discerned to access if they need. Saving trees and the environment can just start here!

10. And finally, instead of the FM just making a once a year marathon appearance why not present a review of the budget and the progress made on outlays once every Qtr.? This will help us understand which ministries are performing and will aid PM to separate the wheat from the chaff!

I admit that my wishlist is more on the “method” and not on “matter” and “form” rather than “content”. One of my earlier posts (read here) delved on that a bit. Hopefully we get to hear something sweet in the leap year budget speech tomorrow which will leapfrog our economy. And are not dished out the greasy “Halwa” we Tamilians abhor.

Sir, a Plus budget!!!

In India, come Feb, it’s time for the release of the mother of all blockbusters – “The Union Budget”. While even the blockbusters of the Khans are just in the vicinity of few 100 crores, this one flies in the space of thousands and hundreds of thousand crores. Isn’t it interesting, that the whole nation awaits with bated breath to find out how the Govt. of the day is going to spend “it’s collective” money in the next 1 year??? So too I was yesterday, when Arun Jaitley the Finance Minister rose oops sat down to present what I would think as one of the most significant budgets in recent years for our country.

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Since yesterday afternoon, we have been fed with hours and hours of programming in all current affairs channels with experts dissecting the budget. After having gone through these boiler plate stuff for so many years, I get a feeling that the reactions are mostly pre-determined irrespective of the content of the budget. As in, the verdict on the budget is along expected lines. Panelists from the ruling front sing panegyric paeans on the budget while those from the opposition usually sing the “disappointing” tune rather petulantly :(. Also for experts. For those with leanings towards the Govt. of the day, it is a transformational budget and for those in the other side of the divide it is “trashformational”!!! And for CII – any budget is a 9 on 10 budget!!! This satirical piece – Budget Criticism 101 from The Unrealtimes I feel is not a satire at all but the Annual reality 🙂 🙂 . So I thought why not analyse the budget through a normal aam admi prism devoid of any ideological/political tilt?

As a responsible tax paying citizen of the country, I look for the foll. In the budget:

  • Does the budget spell out initiatives which can fuel growth in the Indian economy? Overall Economic growth brings in investments, increases jobs for all, raises salaries,…,…
  • Is there any transformational/game changing idea (or is it Big Bang) which has longer term impact for the country? – Like De-licensing, Gram Sadak Yojana, Aadhaar, GST,…,…
  • India is notorious for its archaic regulations and laws. Is the Govt. doing anything to make life simpler for doing business – local or foreign?
  • What’s in it for the poorer sections of the people – which is still significantly big in our country?
  • Finally what are the signals being sent by the Govt. of the day?

Looking at the Modi-Jaitley budget from the above perspective, my sense is that they have presented a “Smart” budget. They know very well that the expectations of all sections of the people are very high and had to do the balancing act to appease everyone. At the same time, elbow space for tough decisions is only available in 2015 and 2016. Beyond that the Govt. gets into re-election mode.  It appears to me that, from whole lot of things they need to do (which they have promised) they clearly prioritized the ones which needed to be attended to in this budget. And put off a few for the future. And I feel that’s the way to go.

  • The budget indeed brings in focus back to economic growth without being apologetic about it. Focus on infrastructure, Corporate Tax cut, Job creation,.. signal that.
  • Though there are no new transformational ideas in this budget – to be fair to Modi – he didn’t wait for the budget to announce a few. Ideas like the Jan Dhan Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Make in India – all transformational ideas were kicked off last year itself. This is a welcome sign. Finally GST gets a final deadline.
  • Cleaning up gets a lot of attention. Whether it is Swachh Bharat, Clean Ganga or for that matter Black money cleansing!!!
  • The Universal Social security net for all Indians is an interesting initiative. That it is through the insurance route comes as a relief. Otherwise India could end up suffering like most of the European economies with very high long term liabilities.
  • The Govt. has clearly for this year atleast prioritized on domestic investors rather than foreign if one looks at the introduction of SETU fund …and no major FDI relaxations.
  • The pandering to salaried class interests with more income tax cuts or other gimmicks have been I guess postponed for years closer to 2019!!!
  • Again things like flowing money to Smart Cities, Digital India are on hold in this budget. Means could tap the private route for these initiatives or will be taken up in the coming years when tax collections are more buoyant with better economic growth.
  • I see a lot of critiques on the increase of Service tax rate from 12.6% to 14% which will overall shrink our wallets. But I think this is a clear attempt to prepare all of us for the introduction of GST which will be at a higher rate of may be 16%!

Any budget proposal will have its share of misses. And there were a few in this too. However overall, I think it is a Smart, Working, Balanced budget which sets the tone for the economy to grow in the coming years. Taking up a few important issues and implementing them is better than announcing a slew of initiatives and outlays and messing up the outcomes. So in that sense Sir, it is a Plus budget!!! And I guess the FM scored well if not a centum!!

Budget2

India has indeed reached a sweet spot. We must now be in a hurry to change its status from #WorkinProgress to #JustArrived!!!