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Fiscal love for a sullen electorate

The writer is adviser, Observer Research Foundation
Published : Dec 20, 2016, 1:01 am IST
Updated : Dec 20, 2016, 7:33 am IST

The FM must provide a ‘package’ to soften the hard landing at home for returning migrant labour.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (Photo: AP)
 Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (Photo: AP)

Times are tough. Exports are in free fall. But the import bill is increasing as oil prices harden in response to the international oil cartel’s plans to cut production. Domestic demand is moribund despite the largesse of the Seventh Pay Commission for the public sector. The stock market has sagged. Informal sector jobs are under threat. We need a push to get people over this sullen hump.

Four states, comprising one-fifth of the nation’s population, are about to elect provincial legislatures in the first quarter of 2017. From a national perspective, the BJP has little to lose but much to gain. Goa, that is ruled by the BJP, elects just two MPs; Punjab, ruled by ally Shiromani Akali Dal, elects 12; while Uttarakhand, ruled by the Congress, elects five MPs — which together account for a mere four per cent of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha.

It is Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the Samajwadi Party, which is the real prize. It elects 80 MPs (just under 15 per cent of total seats) to the Lok Sabha. Varanasi is the Prime Minister’s adopted constituency. This is the Hindu heartland of India. A wipeout in UP may not directly impact the BJPs prospects irretrievably in the 2019 general election. But a win would surely be a grand start to the campaign.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley seems eager to salve those burnt by “notebandi”. He may offer some tax relief in the coming Budget, but that helps only a tiny sliver of the population — just two per cent who pay income-tax. Lower indirect taxes are hostage to progress on the Goods and Services Tax (GST). But a GST with multiple rates, and with the highest nominal rate at 28 per cent, is unlikely to reduce the incidence of indirect tax or drive growth in GDP.

The FM had budgeted a nominal GDP of Rs 151 trillion for this fiscal, 11 per cent higher than the nominal GDP last fiscal. This is now unlikely for two reasons. First, growth in real terms will slip by between one to two percentage points. Second, inflation is lower by one percentage point. Taken together the nominal GDP increase will be eight, not 11 per cent, over last year. Tax estimates are based on “nominal” GDP — real growth plus inflation. So, tax collection at 10.8 per cent of GDP will also slip by about Rs 0.4 trillion from the budgeted amount of Rs 16.3 trillion. There is little headroom in this fiscal to play with tax reduction.

Even in the next fiscal, with significant economic headwinds and domestic uncertainties, the prospects for a revival in growth is wishful thinking. Tax reform with lower taxes seems a far cry. A temporary income support mechanism is more appropriate.

The population segment most affected by demonetisation is domestic migrant labour and their families in villages. Urban migrants live on and save from what they earn daily. Over a period of six months, the income shock will feed back into their families in villages as income transfers decrease or vanish and migrant labour return home.

The FM must provide a “package” to soften the hard landing at home for returning migrant labour. This is urgent. Migrant labour are highly aspirational, having seen the “good life” available in cities. Their aspirations must not be squashed.

A support mechanism is desperately necessary to dilute the temporary income shock in villages. Three approaches can be combined to suit the context. First, borrow the concept of “helicopter money” from the much talked about income transfer scheme. Make the support freely available on demand with very selected and easily verifiable eligibility criteria. Second, revive the now defunct notion of “taccavi loans”, which were used in the colonial period as a famine relief measure. Third, use a participative and transparent good governance approach to identify the beneficiaries. Ranking families by the extent of income loss in open village meetings mediated by village-level government officers is a useful way to develop consensus and reduce the mistargeting.

The income support should be a loan and not a grant. This will deter those looking for a freebie. The interest rate should be reasonable but not subsidised for the same reason. Around 12 per cent per year, or one per cent per month can avoid misuse for interest arbitrage and yet peg it much lower that the unsecured informal market loans, which are available at an interest rate of 40 to 50 per cent per year, or between three to four per cent per month.

To further deter those looking for freebies and to make the scheme attractive only for those who really need the work, the loan and interest should be repayable only through around 50 days of manual labour by the family in village works and not in cash. The advantage of this twist is that it leaves the migrant worker free to continue looking for work in cities,once he has secured a “taccavi” loan for his family to help them survive for six months without compromising the future through crippling debt. As in NREGA, the productivity of village-level work is very contextual and varies. But such inefficiencies are a small price to pay for the positive ripple effect of well targeted, publicly funded, social security schemes.

Around 60-80 million such unsecured loans of Rs 5,000 each could cover all needy families (broadly 15 per cent households in urban areas and 30 per cent households in rural areas), with a sufficient margin to spare for the inevitable leakages from poor identification. The one-time cost of Rs 0.3-0.4 trillion can be met by either enlarging the allocation for NREGA or by overshooting the fiscal deficit target by 0.25 percentage points (3.75 per cent instead of the budgeted 3.5 per cent). With weak retail demand, this temporary transgression from the fiscal deficit target is unlikely to be inflationary and in effect sustains rural demand.

Desperate times need innovation, with a human face, to soothe the hurt imposed by systemic shocks. Shielding the weak from the unbearable cost of bad economic decisions is a must, to preserve the consensus for change.

Tags: bjp, arun jaitley, seventh pay commission