Annual Budgets and Annual Reactions!

In the days following the Annual budget last week, I saw a clip going viral on WhatsApp which had Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena Chief and Chief Minister of Maharashtra speaking in a CNBC function to felicitate Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. This clip (watch here) must be couple of years old. In the clip, Thackeray in a very self-deprecating manner, talks about his tryst with giving budget reactions. He says that for few years he tried to understand what’s in a budget but by the time he could do so, it was time for the next budget! But, since as the party chief he had to give some reaction to the budget, he developed a template response which was “This is a budget which will make poor poorer and rich richer” and more often this response for every budget landed well with his constituency. You would notice that even today, this response has a lot of owners among politicians! In today’s article in the Times of India, columnist and now a MP Swapan Das Gupta has mentioned that Vajpayee while in opposition had a stock reaction to any budget which was “Garib ke pet lat” (Kick in the stomach for the poor)!

If there are Annual budgets, there are equal and opposite Annual reactions! It’s therefore clear that one cannot go by the reactions of politicians on the budget to conclude how the budget has been. If leaders of parties and politicians cannot figure out what’s there in the budget how can we expect the common man to understand how it is going to impact him? While we all know that provisions in the budget have a huge impact on the livelihood of millions of people in the country who remain below the poverty line, during the budget week what we hear is only responses of people to whom budgets don’t matter. Those who are impacted by the budget are not in a position to comment because it is beyond their comprehension.

Here’s where I feel that the Budget presentation and the speech needs to be simplified if we want the common man to fully appreciate the implications of announcements being made by the FM on behalf of the government of the day. And here is my wish list on some of the changes I would like to see in my lifetime (I might have articulated some of this before also):

  • Articulation of what matters: In the run up to this year’s budget, the buzz was on jobs. We all know that in the last two years of the pandemic jobs got hit badly. In a double whammy, the pandemic led to a cut in existing jobs and slow addition of new jobs. Human/Contact facing service industry faced the worst hit. So, the expectation was that there will be clear actions to revive the job market. However in the budget speech, there was no explicit mention of job creation. In the post budget interactions, the FM and her team took pains to explain that the government has taken the route of propping up growth by spending which will lead to job creation. For example, they said that the huge 35% increase in outlay towards infrastructure and capital expenditure is a step towards reviving consumption in sectors like steel, cement etc. and jobs. This is logical.  Yet commentators continue to mention about the lack of focus on jobs in the budget.  And Aam Admi obviously feels the same.
    • Now considering that there was an overall anxiety and expectations about jobs among common people particularly those below the poverty line, what if the speech mentioned the estimated number of jobs that would be created due to the outlay? For example, “National Highways network to be expanded by 25000 km in 22-23 resulting in an estimated number of “X” jobs during the year”! 100 PM Gati Shakti Cargo terminals for multimodal logistics facilities which is expected to create “Y” number of jobs!
    • The same outlay but with a clear articulation of what matters like “jobs” this year, I think would generate a lot of confidence and comfort to the people for whom these announcements matter.
  • Putting out Outcomes of last year outlay before announcement of new outlays: During the entire budget speech the FM keeps announcing crores and lakhs of Rupees as outlays for different initiatives much to the loud cheers of the party MPs. But as public, we don’t get to know what was achieved with previous year outlays for the same initiatives to appreciate the new outlay.
    • For example, the health sector has been allocated a 16% higher outlay of Rs. 86200 Crore in this budget compared to last year outlay of Rs. 72931 crores. Now we don’t get to understand details of how the outlay of RS 72931 crores was spent and what was achieved. Another example – During the UPA regime, after the horrific Nirbhaya incident, an announcement was made of a “Nirbhaya fund”. I have no idea if that fund still exists and how the same is being put to use.
    • If we understand that, then we will be in a better position to appreciate the increased outlay for the next year.
  • Articulation of what went wrong: In the budget speech we never get to hear of anything that went wrong on the outlays or the outcomes in the previous year.
    • For example, the targets for disinvestment have been missed for few years now. But we don’t get to understand what went wrong and why those numbers were missed. It could be the procedural delays or timing issues (Bull Vs Bear market) or it could be pandemic related delays. This could be a very utopian thought but if the government of the day articulates the reasons for the miss, it will go in a long way building credibility in the budget process.
  • Articulation of how taxes work: Present a summary of how the taxes that have been collected have been put to use in the current year.
    • Many years ago, on a trip to Colombo, I saw at the heart of the city, some major repair work was going on with the roads and traffic was diverted. There I saw a board which said “Take Diversion. Your Tax money at work”! This was in the early 90’s. The fact that I still remember it and recall it here says about the impact of such earnest disclosures from the government side. What if at the beginning of the speech the FM says, “With the taxes collected last year, we could lay X kms. of roads, build Y number of new hospitals, open Z number of Colleges and schools and so on just focussing on the physical assets created with the taxes this year? Don’t you think that this kind of commentary will once for all remove the clamour for income tax reduction or slab changes or rants for paying taxes year after year?
    • I firmly believe that the common people who earn and can afford to pay the taxes must be co-opted in the nation building process. Such small gestures of earnest disclosures, I believe will go a long way in this.
  • Keep the jargons for The Economic Survey: The speech and announcements are supposed to pick up threads from the Annual Economic Survey. My suggestion is that Economic Survey being a reference document prepared by economists can and should use jargons like “Crowding in”, “Virtuous cycle”, “Animal Spirits of the economy” and “JAM Trinity” etc. while the budget speech should be left simple free of lofty jargons and acronyms.

This is the ace cartoonist R.K.Laxman’s cartoon way back in 1989 post the budget!

This could very well play out the same way even today. The only way to change the same is to simplify the budget speech and ensure that the common people are co-opted into the budget comprehension process.

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)