- Railway Budget, a vanishing trick- END OF A JOURNEY
So finally, the almost century-old practice of presenting a separate Railway Budget ahead of the General Budget is to be dispensed with from the next financial year (2017-18), and the Railway Budget “merged” with the General Budget. The Union Cabinet has just cleared the proposal.
What are the reported reasons for this merger? According to earlier media reports, a separate Railway Budget is being dispensed with so that the Indian Railways need not pay the annual dividend to the Government of India on the budgetary support given each year, saving the financially stressed Railways about Rs.10,000 crore annually; over the years, the Budget has been misused by politicians as a populist platform to enhance their own image; no other Ministry has a separate budget and the practice exists in no other country today; the Bibek Debroy Committee has recommended discontinuance of a separate Rail Budget and it is part of the Prime Minister’s reform programme. Besides, it is a colonial legacy.
A point particularly stressed by the Finance Minister in the press conference announcing the Cabinet decision was that the Railways’ share in the General Budget has progressively reduced over the years, making a separate budget an anachronism.
Each of these “reasons” does not present the true or complete picture. It is necessary to separate fact from fiction.
EXERCISE IN THROWING FINANCIAL JURISPRUDENCE TO THE WIND—
- There have been sporadic calls in the past for doing away with a separate Railway Budget for various reasons, but the matter was never pursued seriously. One of the more publicised reasons is that it will free the Railways of the obligation of paying the annual dividend, as mentioned earlier.
- This is only partly true. The dividend is paid not only on the budgetary support extended during a year but also on the total “capital at charge” which includes the gross budgetary support (GBS) of previous years.
- By this merger, a “loan-in-perpetuity” is converted to a grant. Shorn of officialese, it is a loan waiver; and loan waivers are granted to individuals or institutions in extreme financial distress — something not to go to town about.
In popular imagination, the Railway Budget was seen as a grand spectacle, with the Railway Minister using it as a platform for populism and political grandstanding. What is not appreciated is that the Budget is not merely a statement of allotment of funds to various projects and programmes, unlike other ministries, but comprises a fairly detailed performance review, physical and financial, of the previous year and prospects for the current (Budget) year. Perhaps nowhere in the world is a political functionary called upon to present a financial report card of the country’s largest public undertaking in the full glare of publicity. A separate post-Budget discussion in Parliament on the Railways, as indicated by the Finance Minister, is no substitute, as the focus most likely will be on allotments to various projects, not on financial performance.
Talking of populism, the recent announcement by the Finance Minister of the proposal to set up a new Railway zone to placate a State government as part of a “special package” is proof that it is possible to be “populist” outside a separate budget.
Why should there be a separate budget for the Railways? The fact is that the Railways is indeed unlike any other Central ministry in size and scope: It is an operational ministry; it earns as well as spends, unlike other ministries that only spend. Its gross earnings (Rs.1.68 lakh crore in 2015-16) are among the highest for any Indian organisation, public or private; it has a staff strength (13.2 lakh) that exceeds that of the Indian Army; it fully meets the pension liabilities of its retired employees (13.8 lakh) out of its own earnings unlike other ministries; it follows an accounting practice, though not up to the standards of a purely commercial establishment, that has a number of features of a commercially-run organisation. So, if the Railways is to be treated like other ministries, will the government also fund its pension liabilities which are estimated to be about Rs.45,500 crore in 2016-17? That should be some “savings” indeed! the most misquoted reason given for the merger is that the Bibek Debroy Committee has recommended it. That is being economical with the facts. The committee has recommended it not as a stand-alone step, but as part of a slew of measures such as: complete overhaul of the project financing architecture of the Railways involving ruthless weeding out of unviable/long-pending projects; comprehensive accounting reforms; separation of infrastructure and operations; and setting up of a rail regulatory authority. Pending these steps, each of which is a major project in itself (some politically sensitive), the move to give a hasty send-off to the Railway Budget is perplexing.
The Railway Budget is indeed a colonial legacy; but so are English, the Railways, Rashtrapati Bhavan and the sedition law. Enough said. All this is not to say that the Railway Budget is a holy cow that cannot be touched. Far from it. The question is not “why”, but “why such a hurry to bury it”?
LIVING BEYOND THE MEANS – YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY
The answer, in one word: Obfuscation. By all accounts, the Railways’ financial position is precarious due to the triple whammy of a fall in revenues, a sudden spike in expenditure due to implementation recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission, and an increasingly unsustainable interest burden on market borrowings. A separate Budget would have meant having to openly declare an operating ratio in excess of 1.0 (in layman’s language, that means one is living beyond one’s means): not a very good advertisement for a system that aspires to have high-speed tilting Talgo trains shortly and Bullet trains in the not-too-distant future. So why not banish and “vanish” the Railway Budget into anonymity as one of the myriad annexure in the General Budget and earn a fat “bonus” of about Rs.10,000 crore in the bargain? A smart move indeed! It seems now the Budget is more valuable dead than alive. However, what should be a matter of serious concern to the aam aadmi is that the Railways’ finances are sought to be shored up, not by improving efficiency, increasing revenues and cutting costs, but through a dexterous bureaucratic sleight of hand, taking cover behind the smokescreen of “reforms”.
Finally, a suggestion to the government: Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater; table an annual “Indian Railways Report” in Parliament on the lines of the Economic Survey prepared by the Chief Economic Advisor under the Ministry of Finance. That will signal reforms with transparency.
- The economy on a road to nowhere
As the Narendra Modi government inches towards its halfway mark, its economic philosophy stands revealed. This appears to consist of aiming at some ideal institutional architecture while leaving economic forces to play out on their own. The criterion of macroeconomic stability, defined mainly by inflation kept within a range, completes the picture. Underpinning such an approach is the premise that the potential of the economy, reflecting the chosen acts of private agents, not only cannot be improved upon by the government but its realisation could actually be stymied by intervention. This is a well-known position in the canon of Anglo-American economics tending towards the view that market outcomes are the best. The maxim ‘minimum government is maximum governance’ could legitimately claim to be its progeny.
Life in slow lane — How, it may be asked, has this philosophy served the economy? We could start with growth. Since May 2014, growth has accelerated but at a much slower rate than that it already had commenced upon in 2013-14. India today is the world’s fastest growing economy but this we owe to the fact that China has slowed more than India has. India has not exactly surged to number one position. But more importantly, the government has not so far been able to achieve the substantial quickening of the economy that Mr. Modi had promised at election time. The government has on occasion extolled its record in maintaining macroeconomic stability. This is indeed correct. Inflation has declined but this only reflects a downward trend that had started in 2013-14. The government would also no doubt like to take credit for sticking to the pre-announced fiscal consolidation path. The fiscal deficit has steadily declined since May 2014. The Finance Minister’s public statements suggest that he treats this as a significant achievement of his government. Actually, it typifies the search for the ideal architecture without sufficient concern for outcomes. The truth is that this government had inherited an economy with quite rapidly accelerating growth and steadily declining inflation. It has barely managed to maintain this scenario. The promised resurgence has not materialised.
It is with respect to investment that the government’s record is uninspiring. Far from having been able to instil confidence among private investors, the government has been unable to stem a decline in capital formation — as a share of output — in progress for at least half a decade. On its part the government takes recourse to the figures on foreign direct investment (FDI) to signal the effectiveness of its policies. Data from the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion show that in the year just passed, the economy attracted increased FDI up to 29 per cent in dollar terms. While this is impressive, and to be welcomed, it is important to have a sense of what it amounts to. In the year 2014-15, FDI amounted to a mere 4 per cent of total capital formation in India. So, while FDI is to be encouraged, its ability to make a significant contribution to growth is limited. On the other hand, over 75 per cent of capital formation is undertaken by the domestic private sector. Any significant change in the investment scenario would depend upon the actions of this segment.
Is this the right time to pursue fiscal consolidation— Right now private investment is very likely being restrained by the weak balance sheet of firms. The flip side of this is the high level of non-performing assets (NPAs) of the public commercial banks. Forcing these banks to lend would be poor policy. But it is not clear whether everything that can be done to lower the lending rate is being done. After all, consumer price index (CPI) inflation, the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) preferred inflation index, is trending downward and there is a case for lowering lending rates. But the RBI has now been put into the straitjacket of inflation targeting and can no longer respond to considerations of output. This leaves fiscal policy as the only instrument with the government.
The government, however, is reluctant to use it to increase aggregate demand for fear of deviating from its fiscal consolidation path. It is of course possible to step up public investment by trimming subsidies. Here the National Democratic Alliance government’s approach is cravenly political, and no different from that of its predecessor, the United Progressive Alliance. It is reluctant to be seen as cutting subsidies even when it is clear that a rupee-for-rupee swap in certain subsidies for public capital formation is likely to be beneficial for both growth and welfare. The fertilizer subsidy presents the most obvious instance. It has done little to stem the rise in food prices while continuing to take up precious fiscal space. There is a strong case for reviewing its continuation, at least in the present form. Well-designed empirical research alone can settle the matter of its desirability, and one hopes the government will provide this in time for its third annual Budget.
The inspiration- NITI Aayog Lecture on Transforming India –
An object of this government’s admiration, aspiration and agenda has been revealed to us in the choice of speaker for the first NITI Aayog Lecture on Transforming India. It chose Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore who was earlier its Finance Minister for close to a decade. A trained economist with considerable international exposure, Mr. Shanmugaratnam typifies the Singapore model, which recognises the value of high human capital in its leadership, something that India has not seen since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru. Prime Minister Modi is right to have invited this global leader to participate in a brainstorming on how to transform India, thus drawing much-needed attention to the achievements of Singapore. Though its cultural policies may not be to everyone’s taste, the economic transformation that this tiny state has so quickly wrought is most impressive indeed. There is an astounding presence there of public capital in the form of infrastructure, the most egregious of which is public housing which hosts over 80 per cent of the population. Along with its approach to political freedoms, Singapore’s record is closer to that of socialist planning rather than free-market capitalism. Its government has not hesitated to intervene in the economy but its interventions have been made with a finesse that has yielded substantial returns. It is ironic that a government that had so ceremoniously replaced the Planning Commission must simultaneously seek clues from the history of a country transformed by economic planning.
There is one specific area in which our own government may learn from the Singapore experience. The government there had instituted a provident fund to which all workers and employees have had to contribute. These contributions ensured a rise in the saving rate which in turn was a source of funding for public investment. In the muddled discourse on fiscal policy in India today, the reigning argument appears to be that a fixed private saving rate sets the limit for the attainable fiscal deficit. This overlooks the possibility of raising the private saving rate, which is precisely what the Singapore government had done early in its history, enabling it to achieve a scale of public capital formation that truly distinguishes it from India. All indications are that the present government of India is striving to replicate Singapore’s institutional architecture, as in laws governing business, rather than the transformative role of public investment that turned a fishing village into a global destination for FDI. What other conclusion can be drawn from the fact that in the Budget for 2016-17 the increase in the allocation for capital expenditure amounted to a mere 2.3 per cent, with inflation running at around 4 per cent per annum?
BLEAK AGRICULTURAL ZONE— A sector that is unlikely to be well served by the philosophy than an economy left to its own devices will achieve its potential is agriculture. Three of the past five years in India have been years of poor agricultural performance, reflected in persistent food price inflation. We are very likely witnessing creeping climate change with direct consequences for production. The advisory from most funds in the financial sector is that the economic outlook this year will depend upon the monsoon. It is surprising that the imperative of drought-proofing an increasingly vulnerable Indian agriculture hardly figures in the public discourse on the economy when it is of no less importance than rolling out the Goods and Services Tax. Nothing short of a transformation akin to the Green Revolution can achieve this, and the States would have to be on board. The present government has had little to say on the matter so far.
By disbanding the Planning Commission, the Centre has lost a long-standing conduit to the States whose planning boards did have at least a titular connection to the former.