Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Some bad days are needed for good times to roll

This was published in Nai Dunia, 17 June 2014. 
Giving below the English draft that I sent.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks in Goa on Saturday that tough economic measures will have to be taken to put the economy back on track have invited predictable jokes about achche din and bure din. Perhaps the BJP brought these jokes upon itself by overdoing the achche din aane vaale hain message during the elections, but this is neither the time nor the subject for jokes.
Because the simple truth is that the economy is in a bad state and government finances are in even worse shape. It is true that the UPA government was not fiscally responsible. Former finance minister P. Chidambaram may have kept the fiscal deficit at 4.6% of GDP, but this has been done by postponing some expenditure (which the new government will have to bear) and getting some revenue in advance. So the Modi government’s first economic step will have to be to restore some order to government finances. Sound government finances are the foundation of a robust economy.
The other major problem facing the government is that of inflation, which is still not in the comfort zone. The Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan has moderated his hawkish stand on interest rates to give the new government time to address the structural issues that are fuelling inflation. The government needs to get cracking on these to create an environment where he can bring down interest rates. 
So what are the tough measures that Modi is planning? It is clear by now that the only person who knows Modi’s mind is Modi himself, but if he is really serious about doing what he has indicated, these are some of the steps he could – and should - take.
One, on the revenue side, increase in tax exemption limits may not happen (though media reports say this is expected). The inflation monster has not been tamed yet and giving people more money to spend without addressing supply shortages and bottlenecks will not be a wise step. The economy certainly needs a demand push, but this has to be calibrated. Besides, an increase in the exemption limit to Rs 3 lakh is expected to cost the exchequer Rs 60,000 crore a year, according to the finance ministry. This is certainly not the time for such giveaways. The corporate sector, too, will have to reconcile itself to having some excise cuts given by the previous government taken away.
Two, on the expenditure side, there will be a drastic overhaul of the subsidy regime. The President’s address and Modi’s own statements during the elections show a welcome emphasis on infrastructure. This will mean that the bias towards revenue expenditure – which is 86% of total expenditure – will be corrected and capital expenditure will get the focus it sorely needs.
But revenue expenditure has one item that is committed expenditure – interest payments, which absorb over 40% of tax revenues. Defence and salaries too cannot be touched. That leaves subsidies, which eat up 25% of tax revenues. Interest payments do not affect people’s budgets directly, so it can be safe to assume that when Modi speaks of tough measures, he intends to cut the subsidy burden significantly. This is something the economy has been crying out for.
Subsidy reform will not mean withdrawing all subsidies or drastically cutting allocations across the board. What it will mean is better targeting, which means only the genuinely needy will get subsidies and a lot or undeserving people will not.
If Modi is really serious about subsidy reform, then the cap on subsidised LPG cylinders should go back to nine. That will not only result in a saving of nearly Rs 4000 crore, but it will still cover 89% of the population.
His government should also allow decontrol of diesel prices or at least allow price hikes. This will have an immediate inflationary effect, but that will fade out in time. Importantly, it will also moderate wasteful consumption and bring enormous savings to the government.
A far more tricky issue will be tackling the food subsidy, the biggest subsidy item at nearly 40% of the total bill. The BJP backed the National Food Security Act (NFSA) which could lead to the food subsidy bill ballooning. But this problem will have to be tackled. One way to bring down the food subsidy bill would be to bring down the cost of procuring foodgrains. This could mean not allowing huge increases in the minimum support price. There are other ways to reduce this cost – reforming the procurement mechanism and eliminating inefficiencies but that will be a long-drawn out process. The farmers will be up in arms, but the government will have to remain firm. 
There are a whole lot of other tough measures that the economy needs but these are the ones that will bite the people. That is why governments are generally loath to take them. The fact that Modi seems to be preparing the climate for these unpopular measures is a good sign. It shows two things. One, that he is not going to let politics prevail over good economics. Two, he has realised the necessity of explaining things to the people, something all reforming prime ministers and finance ministers from 1991 onwards have ignored.
People are not unwise. They know the need for belt tightening and cutting wasteful expenditure – they do it all the time with their household budgets. Surely, they will realise that if they want achche din forever, they will have to put up with bure din for some time.

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