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In an exercise reduced to an accounting drill involving numbers that are either suspect or with little sanctity, the 2022 Budget speech left most listeners wondering what was actually said.
This Budget was presented at an unusual point in time. With two years of the pandemic behind us, the vaccination drive having progressed (even if yet short of the end-2021 completion target set by the government), and experience with COVID-19 management that would possibly prevent a recurrence of the calamitous developments of mid-2021, it seems time to quickly recoup the economic losses incurred over the last two years and help those damaged most by the pandemic and lockdowns get back on their feet.
That could pave the way for focused attention on two of the country’s most pressing problems: unemployment and the crisis affecting agriculture and the informal sector.
But almost from the beginning the finance minister’s speech made clear that the focus of attention, if any, lay elsewhere, rather than on the problems of the present and immediate future.
Mixing the vernacular with digital slang, the finance minister defined a ‘vision’ for “Amrit Kaal, the 25-year-long leadup to India@100”. The stated objective, the minister declared, is to combine over this long quarter of a century, at the end of which this government would be an almost forgotten entity, a focus on growth with a focus on ‘all-inclusive welfare’.
To realise that combined objective, private sector investment, crowded in by public investment, is to be used to promote a “digital economy and fintech, technology enabled development, energy transition, and climate action”.
That vision, being so general, could just as well have been left unstated. That it was defined speaks to the absence of any sense of urgency to address the crisis afflicting the economy.
What is surprising is that this absence of a sense of urgency is reflected at a time when the campaign for crucial elections in a number of states has gathered momentum. Yet there seems to be little enthusiasm to use the central budget as a potential means of swaying voter sentiment in favour of the ruling party. For this government, the age of the proactive budget is clearly at an end.
Evidence of the downgrading of fiscal policy is abundant. Take, for example, the numbers on Union government spending.
Compared to the revised estimates for 2021-22, total expenditure is projected to increase in nominal terms by 4.6% in 2022-23 to Rs 39,44,909 crore. That would imply near stagnation in real terms after adjusting for inflation. Things get worse as we move to allocations for programmes that have been crucial, even if inadequate, for those who were hit hard by the pandemic and the government’s response to it.
Allocations for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, a life-saver for migrant workers forced to return home, which stood at Rs 1,11,170 crore in the first pandemic year 2020-21, are reported to have fallen to Rs 98,000 crore in 2021-22 as per the revised estimates (RE) and are projected at a low of Rs 73,000 crore in 2022-23.
Food subsidies routed through the operations of the Food Corporation of India to implement the National Food Security Act (NFSA), which were as high as Rs 4,62,789 crore in 2020-21 (because of the need to clear large accumulated arrears due to the organisation) and came down to Rs 2,10,929 crore in 2021-22 (RE), are slated to fall sharply to Rs 1,45,920 crore in 2022-23, despite the persisting problem of hunger and assurances to farmers of enhanced procurement at a higher MSP.
The corresponding figures for subsidies provided for decentralised procurement by states under the NFSA are Rs 78,338 crore in 2020-21, Rs. 75,290 crore in 2021-22 and a much lower Rs. 60,651 crore for 2022-23. With the fifth phase of the COVID-19-driven Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana slated to end in March, clearly the government does not plan to extend it any further.
And though the pandemic is still with us, the demand for grants of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shows that total spending (revenue and capital) in this crucial area, which rose from Rs 95,192 crore in 2020-21 to Rs 1,24,345 crore in 2021-22 (RE) is budgeted to fall to Rs 1,13,458 crore in 2022-23.
Together, these reduced allocations suggest that the government seems have decided that special expenditures to address the COVID-19 crisis are no more required, even though the effects of the pandemic still weigh heavily on large sections of the population.
The flip side of this retreat from even the limited effort at proactive intervention in the face of the pandemic is an unwillingness to mobilise additional resources to finance much needed expenditures, let alone to roll back the many direct tax concessions granted in recent years, especially the corporate tax concessions of September 2019.
The only effort at direct taxation is an impost on gains from crypto trading. The belief that such lethargy can be compensated with receipts from asset sales is proving difficult to ensure, even when the stock markets were booming. Ambitious projections in Budget 2021-22 on non-debt capital receipts from disinvestment and monetisation of assets have not been realised.
As compared to budgeted receipts of Rs 1,75,000 crore from asset sales in 2021-22, the revised estimates place the figure at Rs 78,000 crore, reflecting a shortfall of close to Rs 1,00,000 crore. Even the revised estimate is likely to materialise only if the privatisation of institutions like the Life Insurance Corporation of India are pushed though before end-March.
To save itself from this difficult situation it has pushed itself into, the government has relied hugely on special duties and cesses on petrol and diesel, much of which it does not have to share with the states. Receipts from the special excise duty on motor spirit has risen from Rs 79,359 crore in 200-21 to Rs 92,970 crore in 2021-22 (RE) and is budgeted to touch Rs 95,750 crore in 2022-23. The corresponding figures for a cess on crude oil are Rs 10,894 crore Rs 17,500 crore and Rs 18,020 crore; and for the road and infrastructure cess on petrol and diesel Rs 123,596 crore, Rs 2,03,235 and Rs 1,38,450 crore respectively.
Receipts from these cesses originally accrued to the Central Road Fund (CRF) set up under the Central Road Fund Act, 2000 and was meant to be used to build and strengthen National Highways, state roads, rural infrastructure, rail under and over bridges, etc.
However, in 2018 the CRF was renamed as the Central Road and Infrastructure Fund (CRIF), allowing these resources to be used for other infrastructure projects. Moreover, from July 2018, the CRIF was brought under the Ministry of Finance which now had the authority to allocate the funds for whatever purpose it desired increasingly the flexibility with which these resources could be deployed.
These revenues have been a major crutch for the government. Much of the expenditure on social infrastructure in the budget, such as the entire Rs 60,000 crore allocated for the Har Ghar, Nal Se Jal programme to reach tap water to individual households, is financed with funds from the CRIF.
In the case of the National Highways Authority of India, Rs 1,00,100 crore of the proposed investment of Rs 1,34,015 crore in 2022-23, or as much as 75% will come from the CRIF. And another Rs 50,000 crore of the Rs 1,37,100 crore of net capital expenditure of the Ministry of Railways is to come from the CRIF. In sum, a huge part of the capital expenditure which the finance minister makes much of, is to be financed with sums mobilised through inflationary taxes on universal intermediates like petrol and diesel that are directly or indirectly paid for by the common person.
This reliance is bound to have a serious effect on the pace and pattern of growth. Estimates of national income for recent quarters suggest that private consumption expenditure has been depressed. The effort to squeeze out surpluses with inflationary petroleum product taxes imposed on the population at large to finance even limited expenditures would only compress consumption even further.
Together with the reduced real aggregate expenditures of the centre in the coming year, this would cut short the return to pre-pandemic growth and trigger stagnation. Given inflation aggravated by inflationary taxation, the budget paves the way for ‘stagflation’.
The fact that the government has chosen to stick with this regressive and conservative fiscal stance in an election year, sends out a clear message. This government does not see fiscal policy and the budget as instruments to improve its political fortunes. All bets are being placed on a polarising agenda dressed up as the nationalism suited to ‘New India’.
As a result, the government does not care that fiscal interventions can be crucial to support a beleaguered majority of citizens. It remains to be seen whether a polarising agenda is adequate to neutralise the effect on popular sentiment of the callous neglect of economic hardship worsened by engineered increases in inequality and sops for a small elite.
C.P. Chandrasekhar is a former professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.