The conundrum is that higher growth needs higher public spends of around 6-8 per cent of GDP on infrastructure, health and education.
The introduction of a 10 per cent tax on capital gains, accruing from the sale of equity, after holding it for at least one year, has generated a great deal of angst. But it is unconscionable that stock market investors who have earned windfall gains of 30 per cent over the past year should mind paying three percentage points out of that windfall as tax.
The government has gone further and “grandfathered” from the tax all equity-related capital gains accruing till January 31 — the day prior to the Budget 2018-19 proposals being made public. The stock market slid by about six per cent thereafter. Future gains will depend upon better profitability in Indian corporates; the options for alternative risk-free returns in developed markets (US treasuries, for example, which are likely to have higher spreads) and growth in India. The tax is not onerous in the present context. But at the heart of the discontent is a corrosive aversion to pay tax, even by the very wealthy. There are good reasons why we are habitual benders of the rule of law.
To find the reason for this national shame, look no further than our political leaders. The Election Commission turns a Nelson’s eye to the yawning gap between actual election expenditures and the income of parties on the books. The recently introduced Election Bonds are unlikely to bring about a transformative reform.
No crony capitalist wants to be identified while buying these bonds from designated banks. Privacy of information arrangements are easily breached, to ferret out who contributed how much to which party.
Demonetisation did throw up big data on the ownership of cash. But following up on suspected tax evaders is quite another matter. The options of bribing their way out or legally delaying a final decision reduces the incentive to respect the rule of law. We are then back to square one. During the demonetisation of November 2016, the bulk of the cash came back into the banking system, because tax evaders innovated, on the fly, to escape the tax net.
No wonder then, that the tax revenue at the Central level is stuck at just below 12 per cent of GDP with an additional 10 per cent in the states and local governments.
The conundrum is that higher growth needs higher public spends of around 6-8 per cent of GDP on infrastructure, health and education. India has underinvested in these for decades. The real problem is that tax revenues are difficult to increase with 40 per cent of the population being either poor or vulnerable to fall into poverty.
China had the same problem. Their solution was to decentralise development decision-making within a broad party line of priorities. Local government and local party offices worked together to monetise government assets — principally land — for private development projects. The proceeds from such monetisation generated the resources to finance infrastructure and increase spending on health and education. Without a doubt, the dynamics of working with the private sector also lined the pockets of party and government officials. But both were held to account if there were failures in achieving development targets.
The good news is that India is changing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made chai vendors respectable. Our next Prime Minister may do the same for pakora sellers — much derided today by some, who look down their noses, at anything but formal sector jobs. But Shekhar Shah, director-general of NCAER, a New Delhi economics think tank, cautions that formalisation, China style, can be a double-edged sword.
Yes, formalisation does improve work conditions and facilitates production at scale. But it takes away from rewarding livelihoods for people in the bottom 40 per cent with traditional or low-level skills. President Kagame of Rwanda — till recently a darling of donors, because of his rapid adoption and implementation of the “doing business” type of performance metrics — runs a spotlessly clean capital, Kigali, with neat markets. But this is at the expense of street vendors who were priced out by the prohibitive cost of a licence.
We need to innovate, to increase government revenue, without trying to copy China. The 15th Finance Commission could be crucial in tweaking the transfer of resources to states and local government in a way which incentivises them to generate more local revenues. That is where a significant contribution to aggregate government taxes can be made, as suggested by the Economic Survey 2018-19.
The mantra for government spending is simple. Big ticket public development spending (both revenue and capital) must generate at least a similar level of private investment as extra-budgetary resources. Funding the premia for providing health insurance to 100 million poor families is one such scheme which can change mindsets and provide the forums for productive collaborations between the Central and state governments and the private sector. There is enough fat hidden away in the 2018-19 Budget to fund the scheme.
A ready market already exists — in urban and peri-urban areas, covering around 40 million poor families, as private hospitals are accessible. With an annual premia amount of Rs 20,000 crores, a similar sum as private investment can be leveraged in new healthcare facilities. Insurance companies, which will enjoy the bonanza of publicly-funded premia, will need to work with the healthcare industry to enlarge access to hospital facilities in under-covered areas. Similar state-level health insurance schemes should be allowed to lapse. States should divert their funds instead, to primary care, nutrition and public health.
The government must, in a sequenced manner, pull out of the business of direct provisioning of services, except in disaster situations. Central, state and local governments must learn to use the power of public finance to leverage private capital and management. A big push for outsourcing public services might be the only way to fill the financing gap between aspirations and today’s sordid reality.