An Indian billionaire tweeted that the budget presented by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was a “once-in-a-century” budget. Some compared Budget 2021 to the historic 1991 budget. The stock market surged.
For those unfamiliar with the Indian economy, all this would suggest a truly transformational undertaking by the government. Of course, I am neither unfamiliar with the Indian economy nor with the obsequiousness of Indian business leaders. You only have to review the budgets of the last few years to see how high praise and stock market surges accompanying budget announcements failed to change the fundamental dynamics of the economy.
As I feared in my previous column, this budget is “business-as-usual”. That means it has some good things and others that we could do without. But it is not a budget that views the COVID-19 crisis as an inflexion point.
After the pandemic struck, I wrote about a confluence of crises facing India in the form of a slowing economy, a raging virus, and Chinese aggression. At the time, I warned about the long-term damage that these crises can have on India’s economic and national security. I urged quick and substantial action to limit crisis impact and mitigate long-term economic scarring.
I have also pushed back against a narrative that suggests a V-shaped recovery is certain. It is not. In fact, much distress is already baked in. When a tsunami hits, the damage becomes clearer when the water recedes. The full impact of this crisis will become clearer in the years ahead.
Usually, budget presentations are not useful for outlining broad strategic directions. After all, we are discussing the government’s revenues and expenditures. However, as we saw during the 1991 crisis, the budget became an inflexion point for the India economy. It was a transformational moment. I had hoped for a similar, transformative vision during this crisis. Perhaps a call for massive investment in human capital or a transformative vision meshing together climate change and technology or a bold vision for transparent and accountable government. There was opportunity to meet this great moment.
Unfortunately, and no matter what anyone says, this budget does not rise to the occasion.
Don’t get me wrong. There are good things in the budget. For instance, transparency around the fiscal deficit is welcome. But this is more a function of an opportunity presented by COVID-19, not of a broad transparency agenda that India would benefit from.
I also like the idea of more spending on health even though a lot of it has to be for the vaccine and not as much for the kinds of investments India needs. I like the idea of disinvestment but am deeply concerned that a government that brought in electoral bonds may not be transparent about selling non-strategic assets and utilizing sale proceeds.
I do not like the idea of a steep decline in the share of corporation taxes and a steep rise in the share income taxes along with a rise in indirect taxes. That is a recipe for more, not less, inequality.
In 2020, the net worth of ten Indian billionaires increased by US$ 76 billion. Why is it that the most fortunate Indians are not called on to pay more in taxes when millions have lost their jobs? We know that corporate profits are up because of cost cutting. Does the government not need to help poor and low-income families more? Does the government not need more revenues to invest in public health and education? It is puzzling.
The 2021-22 budget does what most budgets do. But this is no ordinary time. This was an opportunity to go big on ideas for the future and to set India on a different trajectory. I am afraid we are headed back to normal. Many will cheer the return to normal. I will not.
As I have written before, the old normal included opaque governance, an increasingly unequal society, and a country unprepared for the 21st century. If you believe that is what India needs, then you can also believe that this was a “once-in-a-century” budget.
(The author is a development expert, author, and commentator. Views expressed are personal.)
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