The Broken Headlights of the Union Budget 2017

The union budget is an annual planning document of the central government, which lays bare its economic priorities for the upcoming year. Since it outlines expenditure plans and revenue expectations (from tax proceeds), it has a significant impact on everyone, directly or indirectly, in the Indian economy. The consensus on the current union budget is largely that it is a ‘positive and progressive’ budget. Although seemingly it looks like a good budget, it suffers from a deeper malaise – of lacking a robust economic vision.

A government that is committed to economic development cannot not focus on employment generation and reduction of income and wealth inequalities. Further, employment generation has to happen in conjunction with decent wages. The former is an outcome of (both private and public) investment. It needs to be noted that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) is only an employment safety net and not an engine of employment; one must be very careful not to conflate the two. Decent wages call for worker-friendly labour laws and adequate minimum wages. The inequalities of wealth (notably land and financial assets) keep rising unless structural reforms are undertaken, such as land reforms, wealth tax, and capital tax. (To formulate such reforms, information on the personal ownership of assets as well as their social distribution is required. Hence, the publishing of the caste census becomes a socio-economic necessity.)

With respect to wage policy, the variable of socio-economic significance is the real wage and not the market wage. The real wage tells us how much goods and services that a unit of the market wage buys. The real wage is therefore dependent on inflation and the capacity of the worker to access transportation, health services, and a clean environment. The class of economists who ignored real variables at the expense of the apparent ones were labelled as ‘vulgar’ by the economist–philosopher Karl Marx.

In addition, a piecemeal reading of the budget, while appropriate from the standpoint of individuals and firms, is inappropriate from a macroeconomic perspective. This is because the economy is an interconnected system, and one sector’s gain can lead to another’s loss, and multiple sectors can gain simultaneously. More generally, both private and public economic actions have unintended consequences; for instance, while the increased budgetary allocation for physical infrastructure is welcome, what are its effects on the natural environment?

The Indian economy is facing aggregate demand deficiency because of damp rural incomes, stagnant manufacturing, self-imposed fiscal austerity, and weak external demand. Tax cuts (for low-income individuals and MSMEs) and increase in public expenditure (on railways, roads, and the small increase in NREGS allocation) positively affect the aggregate demand, whereas demonetization-induced low activity levels, fiscal consolidation, volatile external conditions, agricultural distress, low real wages, and stagnant manufacturing sector all negatively affect aggregate demand.

On the aggregate supply front, the Indian economy is constrained by low agricultural productivity, poor working conditions for the majority of the population, inadequate physical infrastructure (access to drinking water, electricity, and roads), and environmental degradation. In short, India fares badly in terms of both physical and human capital. While the current budget gives some importance to physical capital, the allocations to human capital are deplorable. Moreover, the negative consequences of physical infrastructure creation on the natural environment and on the displacement of people must be accounted for in the balance sheet of economic development. Therefore, the paltry allocations to improve aggregate supply give us nothing to cheer. And on balance, the current budget significantly falls short of its intended goal of economic development.

Lastly, in his budget speech, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley repeats the rationale for the demonetisation move of November 2016. He states that post-demonetisation, ‘GDP would be bigger and cleaner’. Moreover, he asserts (without any argumentation) that the demonetisation-induced fall in economic activity is a ‘transient effect’ and that this ‘is not expected to spill over into next year’ (contradicting the more cautious prognosis contained in the current Economic Survey). It seems that the FM is unaware of the concept of hysteresis: the short-term equilibrium can permanently affect the long-term equilibrium. This is part of the reason why mature democracies are extremely intolerant of labour unemployment. However, it is highly unlikely that official data will reflect the long-run adverse effects of demonetisation, because of its inability to adequately capture the economics of the informal sector.

In sum, there is no cause for any celebration but many reasons to be very worried for the economic present and future of India.