Big picture missing, budget 2015 makes last year seem memorable

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 28, 2015 20:38 IST

Last year's budget, which turned into a "damp squib", seems in hindsight a more visionary one than the present one. It contained many announcements--Swachch Bharat, Ganga conservation, goods and services tax, etc--that found mention in this year's budget also.

Apart from the phased reduction in corporate tax, there is no imprint of anything memorable this year.

This budget was remarkable for the confidence it exuded on the surface, clearly trumpeting the fact that the government is willing to make a go of it. In all this the hand of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visible. "Make in India" and "maximum governance" were phrases used liberally. Concessions to industry such as reduction in corporate tax were there. If last year finance minister Arun Jaitley talked of lowering the level of inflation, this year he said his government had all but achieved it. While predictions for the world economy by the IMF and the WTO had been less than optimistic, the global multilateral bodies were upbeat about India. India's stock markets were the second-best performing among the major economies. Running through this was a political gusto that has been a characteristic of the present government.

By changing the base year, on the basis of which GDP is calculated, the budget targets 7.4% real GDP growth. However, this does not chime in well with weak industrial production and the fall in exports.

More disquiet remained. Last year the finance minister said in his budget speech "all fresh cases arising out of the retrospective amendments of 2012 in respect of indirect transfers and coming to the notice of the Assessing Officers will be scrutinized by a High Level Committee". The follow-up to that was rather tepid. He acknowledged that the implementation of the general anti-avoidance rules (GAAR) has been "a matter of public debate". And as "the investment sentiment in the country has now turned positive", it was decided to defer the applicability of GAAR by two years. This could have pleased neither the business community nor the proponents of GAAR. That GAAR had taken the back stage was quite even during the days of the UPA regime.

The previous budget had devoted a large part to foreign direct investment (FDI). FDI in insurance and defence, which later took the ordinance route, found mention in last year's budget. This year the budget has been strangely silent on that except to say how FDI in defence had given a boost to Modi's slogan 'Make in India'.

The budget last year had announced the "Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission", stressing that Gujarat has demonstrated successfully the "rurban development model of urbanisation of the rural areas". It was also said that the mission would foster "economic activities and skill development". Not a word was there in this budget on the scheme.

The same is true of the "Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana", for which Rs 500 crore was set aside. There was no mention of this except the promise of "electrification, by 2020, of the remaining 20,000 villages in the country, including by off-grid solar power generation". How it is to be brought is a question.

This budget has announcement "Physical Aids and Assisted Living Devices for senior citizens living below the poverty line". Will this be part of the Varistha Bima Yojana, announced by the Vajpayee government?

The weakest part of the budget has been the little attention it focused on the safety of women. Rs 1,000 crore has been provided to the Nirbhaya Fund all right. But what happened to the Rs 150 crore allotted last year towards the safety of women in large cities? Why no provision for women in rural areas?

The phrase "ease of doing business" was scattered throughout the budget speech. Except for promising central excise and service tax registration in two days, most of it was vague.

The expenditure reform commission, announced in the last budget, has submitted part of its report. This budget was strangely silent on that.

If looked at from the point of view of maintaining continuum, this budget has been an achiever. But beyond tweaking it has not gone very far.

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