Is it possible to be popular without being populist? This Budget, which has sought to combine the virtues of macroeconomic stability with growth, is a good example. Keynes had said, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” So, have we at least tried to escape from some old ideas? There are some medium-term issues which deserve attention.
Path of fiscal consolidation
First, the preferred path of fiscal consolidation. We know that the Budget achieved the fiscal deficit target of 3.9 per cent for the current year and would stick to a target of 3.5 per cent for the coming year. This is consistent with the path of fiscal consolidation stipulated in the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act of 2003 (FRBM Act). It has done this notwithstanding expenditure pressures of Rs.1.02 lakh crore from the Pay Commission and Rs.7,500 crore from the One Rank, One Pension scheme. Added to these are global headwinds, rural economy in stress, with two successive years of drought with subdued private investment.
The Budget has also announced “the constitution of a Committee to review the implementation of the FRBM Act and give its recommendations on the way forward”. Historically, high fiscal deficit was a contributor to the balance of payments crisis of 1991. The FRBM Act was enacted in the context of the deteriorating fiscal health in 2000. The Bill was presented to the Lok Sabha on December 22, 2000. It was thereafter referred to the Standing Committee. Its report observed: “Numerical ceilings and the timeframes set for attaining the said levels induce excessive rigidity into decision-making, depriving governments of the flexibility needed to respond to the exigencies in an appropriate manner, to serve the national interest best.” They did not favour specified levels of deficits which “might lead to decline of low level of funds already available for developmental purposes and towards providing basic services to vast populations below the poverty line.” Instead, they sought the modification of the words “pre-specified levels” to be substituted with “pre-specified prudent levels”, as laid down under the rules. A revised Bill, however, without reflecting these concerns, was passed by Lok Sabha in May 2003 and Rajya Sabha in August 2003. It was notified on August 6, 2003.
The intellectual rationale for a 3 per cent fiscal deficit target remains somewhat opaque. Its most proximate source lies in the Maastricht Treaty, namely the Stability and Growth Pact. The magical number is not available in the literature of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the public finances and modern history database of 200 years of budget deficits covering 55 countries over the period 1800-2011.
Contemporary literature argues that high debt-to-GDP ratios cause macroeconomic instability, which is not good for growth. However, economist Evsey Domar has argued that “the proper solution of the debt problem lies not in tying ourselves into financial straitjacket but in achieving faster growth in GNP.” It is in this context that the G20 ministerial meeting in March 2009 examined the IMF paper on fiscal multipliers which measures the ratio of a change in output to an exogenous change in fiscal deficit. The size of the fiscal multipliers are country, time and circumstance-specific. These are relevant in the Indian context, since the debt/GDP ratio has significantly come down from 83.3 per cent in 2003-04 to 66.1 per cent at end March-2014. Since fiscal sustainability is the equivalent of public debt sustainability, a declining debt ratio enlarges fiscal space. Accepting a 3.5 per cent fiscal deficit target for next year enhances credibility but cramps demand. A higher outlay both for infrastructure and agriculture could have multiplier gains in spurring private investment. These have sought to be met through extra budgetary resources, as a below-the-line entry from non-tax revenues.
Spurring growth remains our overarching objective. The mandate of the proposed committee on FRBM should be broader than recalibrating fiscal deficit targets. It should evolve an acceptable framework for a Macro Stability Responsibility Act (MSRA), to replace the FRBM. It needs to encompass a wider set of criteria which should also enable contra-cyclical measures depending on time and circumstances.
Also read: A fine balance on the Budget
Implementation of Aadhaar
Second, after years of prevarication, the government has introduced the far-reaching legislation, The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Service) Bill, 2016, enabling the Aadhaar platform to be effectively used for direct benefit transfers (DBT) for multiple beneficiary programmes. These go beyond LPG to cover fertilizers, health, education and the now rationalised centrally sponsored schemes (CSSs). Concerns have been raised on whether it should have been a Money Bill. Article 110 of the Constitution stipulates that a Bill shall be deemed to be a Money Bill if “it contains only provisions dealing with the matters specified, more importantly, appropriation of moneys out of the Consolidated Fund of India”. This revised Bill ensures this by deleting all non-money aspects. In any case, the Bill meets the satisfaction of the Speaker since Article 110 (3) stipulates that “if any question arises whether a Money Bill is a Money Bill or not, the decision of the Speaker of the House of the People thereon shall be final”. Beyond the Bill, it must be recognised that the obstinacy of the Opposition to block legislation earlier sponsored wholly by them places the government in an unenviable position. Governments in office are enjoined to deliver. Can they be faulted to seek innovative ways, legal engineering if you like, for ensuring passage of important economic legislation? Betterment of the lives of the people cannot suffer the palpably irrational action of a limited group. The other concern about privacy has been overcome by provision of clauses 28 to 47. Issues of security are no doubt paramount and any possible misuse by political parties in office to secure information using the security ruse must be jealously safeguarded.
The implementation of Aadhaar, however, needs three further ingredients. First, interoperability between platforms in case other platforms are used to deliver benefits. Second, the tendency to adopt non-verifiable alternative platforms, bypassing the Aadhaar, can lead to abuse. Third, while disbursements through DBT using Aadhaar can be quickly effected, withdrawals would require a significantly faster pace of ensuring reliable connectivity, covering all 2,50,000 Panchayats. The suggestions by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India of using public-private partnership for a faster implementation now deserve priority.
Third, the Budget seeks to redefine the relationship between the Ministry of Finance and the RBI. The proposed amendment of the RBI Act of 1934 and the constitution of a Monetary Policy Committee will dispel current ambiguities and “will add a lot of value and transparency to monetary policy decisions.” A great deal will depend on how this committee works. Not only domain knowledge, the balance of decision-making in the Committee with the final word on interest rates resting with the Governor of the RBI, fostering greater public debate on evolution of Monetary Policy. Indeed, monetary and fiscal policy need to act in tandem, keeping in view the twin objectives of growth and acceptable inflation band.