The evening of budget day, you could hear a pin drop in the packed Ballroom of the ITC Grand Central, Mumbai, as India Inc's top honchos listened to the budget analysis presented by The Economic Times and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Everyone there needed to better understand the implications of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's announcements their careers depended on it and that evening, there was no better way to do that than listen to the experts of PwC and the panel of corporate CEOs assembled for this special occasion.
The ball was set rolling by Jairaj Purandare, executive director, PwC, who welcomed the audience to the event and enumerated the key features of the budget. "Moving from last year's negativity to optimism, the FM has had significant challenges in maintaining a fine balance between GDP growth, fiscal discipline, inclusion and reforms in drawing up the budget," he said.
Mr Purandare's introductory address was followed by presentations by two of PwC's senior tax experts, who put the finance budget for 2010-11 in historical perspective and went into some depth in talking about its implications.
In his presentation on direct taxes, PwC executive director Ketan Dalal pointed out that the ratio of total tax collection to GDP stands at 10.4, of which direct taxes contribute 6 and indirect taxes, 4.4. This is actually a change from earlier years when the economy was less developed and indirect taxes contributed more to the government coffers.
"It's a good sign that direct taxes have begun to contribute more to the than indirect taxes. It's a sign the tax payer base has widened and our economy has matured," he said.
The significance of this trend was later reinforced by PwC Executive Director S Madhavan, when he made his presentation on indirect taxes. Mr Madhavan also pointed out an extraordinary statistic that emerged from the FM's speech that 56% of India's GDP is from services, but the tax receipts from this sector remain relatively low. He also referred to the tax breaks given to specific sectors, saying, "Sector specific packages are not a good practice from a policy standpoint. But the budget has responded to sector imperatives in green technology, healthcare, electronic hardware, infotainment."
Mr Madhavan also spoke at some length on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which the FM plans to introduce by 1 April, 2011, saying that the GST will bring goods and services on par and the rate is likely to be 8%. Meanwhile, much needed to be done ahead of the introduction of GST and the Technology Advisory group headed by Nandan Nilekani is likely to play a major role in enabling the tax administration in this matter.
Mr Dalal and Mr Madhavan were also a part of the lively panel discussion that immediately followed their presentations, with participants drawn from India Inc's top corporates. Moderator R Srid-haran, senior editor - news and trends, ET Now, began the discussion by asking the participants to rate the budget on a score of zero to ten.
Interestingly, the two women in the group - Kalpana Morparia, CEO, JP Morgan India and Naina Lal Kidwai, Country Head, HSBC - gave the FM a higher score than their male counterparts, possibly indicating that women are more lenient examiners.
Ms Kidwai welcomed the emphasis on agri-business, warehousing and cold storage in the budget. She also said it is important for the government to maintain an positive sentiments in the market if the Rs 40,000 crore worth of disinvestment is to be achieved. On tax administration, a subject that repeatedly came up in the course of the evening, Ms Kidwai pointed out that disputes still took too long to resolve. "Tax administration doesn't depend on external factors, it's wholly within the government's control, but it has been an issue that's never been properly addressed," she said.
Fellow banker Kalpana Morparia especially welcomed the FM's new tax incentive for investment in infrastructure bonds, saying, "The idea has been around for quite a while - I'm glad it's been implemented this year."
Anil Singhvi, vice chairman of Reliance Natural resources expressed some doubts on whether the steps taken in the budget will actually enable the country to move into double digit growth in the years ahead. But he was optimistic of the other counts. "One of the best as-pects of the budget is the clear trajectory for the fiscal deficit in coming years," he said.
JJ Irani, director Tata Sons, compared the Indian and Chinese approach to infrastructure investment, saying that China first created the infrastructure and industry followed, whereas in India, it was usually the other way round. "We're always long on planning and short on implementation," he said.
Kewal Handa, managing director, Pfizer India, talked of the many important areas that went unmentioned in the budget. "There a lot of emphasis on rural infrastructure, but there is nothing in the budget about infrastructure in the cities, which are growing at 40%," he said.
The discussion was heavy, but YM Deosthalee, wholetime director and CFO, Larsen & Toubro, did manage to evoke some laughter with his quip about the increase in MAT rate. "At 20%, where's the minimum in Minimum Alternate Tax?," he said. On the subject of infrastructure development, where his company has a major stake, Mr Deosthalee said there was far more to it than the budget could address, including issues of land acquisition and public private partnerships.
The discussion ended with a question and answer session, where one member of the audience asked JJ Irani about the impact of the coal cess. The former chief of Tata Steel said that industries like power and steel would be affected but the cost increase would still be relatively minor.
The last question was on the subject of what happened to the money allocated to various sectors in the previous budget and the con-sensus was that much of it remains unspent. Which led the discussion back to the point Dr Irani had previously made that the country has always tended to be long on planning and short on implementation.
The evening ended with the particpants networking over cocktails and dinner. This was an initiative by Times Grey Cell.