The funds for MGNREGA scheme was drastically cut in this year’s Budget The Hindu KIRAN BAKALE | Photo Credit: Kiran Bakale
Squeezing social sector spends at a time of depressed consumption among lower income groups, will hurt economic recovery
The Finance Minister, in her Budget speech, emphasised India’s strong resilience during the pandemic as the economy bounced back to pre-Covid levels of GDP. India lost two years of GDP due to the pandemic, with the Ukraine conflict now adding to uncertainties.
Further, NSO in its latest national income estimate for 2021-22, has downsized growth from 9.2 per cent to 8.9 per cent, compared to the 6.6 per cent contraction in 2020-21.
The recovery from the pandemic has been unequal as a large number of small and micro enterprises have been struggling to recover. Though the aggregate unemployment rates came down to the pre-pandemic level by September 2020, a disaggregated analysis of CMIE CPHS (Consumer Pyramids Households Survey) data shows a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the employment and income of women, youth, and people belonging to marginalised communities. The government’s fiscal strategy is crucial for the direction of the post-Covid inclusive recovery process.
Medium-term growth strategy
From the perspective of medium-term growth strategy, the attempts to boost capex are laudable as it is expected to crowd-in private investment and create large multiplier effects. And this is expected to create jobs and boost aggregate demand.
However, given the capital intensive nature of large-scale infrastructure projects, massive employment generation is unlikely. Further, there is a huge gestation period. Thus, the actual multiplier effects may be smaller than assumed by the Budget.
The government has increased capex at the cost of revenue expenditure. Compared to FY22RE allocation, total spending and revenue expenditure have fallen in real terms after adjusting for inflationary expectations in FY23. As the economy is recovering from Covid 19, a higher revenue expenditure was expected since it has a higher multiplier effect in the short run and helps the economy recover faster than capex. It will also have an ameliorative impact.
The latest estimates for 2021-22 released by the NSO show that private final consumption expenditure — accounting for about 60 per cent of GDP — is back to pre-pandemic levels. However, some studies show that the bottom 40 per cent population experienced a more significant decline in income, and the recovery has been weak, resulting in increased inequalities. Analysis of CPHS data shows that not only does the consumption of marginalised groups and bottom sections decline faster, their recovery has been slow while the consumption of non-rich returned to pre-pandemic levels after the initial lockdown.
Hence, social sector spending is critical for households pushed below the poverty line. When total revenue expenditure is netted of committed expenditures (interest payment increased by 15.6 per cent and pension by 4.1 per cent), nominal social sector spending is drastically reduced. The programmes that bore the maximum brunt of the fiscal consolidation are food subsidy and MGNREGA.
Spending on food subsidies declined 17.8 per cent, from Rs. 2,86,469 crore in FY22RE to Rs. 2,06,831 crore in FY23BE. MGNREGA budget was cut by 25.5 per cent, from Rs. 98,000 crore in FY22RE to Rs. 73,000 crore in FY23BE. PM-Kisan (income support for farmers) and rural development spending was mainly flat.
In contrast, allocations for urban development, transport, IT and telecom increased considerably, which could aggravate the rural-urban divide. As the urban areas lost more employment during the pandemic, an urban employment guarantee programme would assure income for the unemployed and help boost consumption demand.
Premature fiscal consolidation
The Union government’s mistimed focus on fiscal consolidation is hugely responsible for trimming the revenue expenditure. While revised estimates of revenue expenditure overshoot Budget estimates, revenue deficit declined from 5.1 per cent (FY22BE) to 4.7 per cent of GDP (FY22RE).
The rise in direct tax collection and GST collection could have been utilised in social sector projects. Instead, the Finance Minister preferred to stick to the fiscal consolidation path and bring down the fiscal deficit from 6.9 per cent (FY22RE) to 6.4 per cent (FY23BE). This fiscal consolidation in times of crisis delays the inclusive recovery process.
Despite the rise in tax collections and marginal reduction of total expenditure, the union government debt, both internal and external, is projected to rise from 52.7 per cent in FY22RE to 59 per cent of GDP (FY23BE). In normal times, this would be considered significant and worrisome.
However, due to countercyclical fiscal policy measures, governments across the world resorted to debt financing of fiscal stimulus measures, which resulted in an all-time high of $226 trillion global debt, taking the debt-GDP ratio to the highest point after the Second World War.
The IMF’s Global Debt Database shows that the public-debt-GDP ratio reached a new peak of 99 per cent in 2020, driven mainly by the advanced countries where public debt to GDP increased to 122.69 per cent in 2020. India’s debt to GDP ratio increased from 74 per cent to 90 per cent during the pandemic.
More importantly, the weight of available empirical research suggests that higher debt does not necessarily lead to lower growth. A higher debt/GDP ratio can stimulate aggregate demand and output in the short run. And this is what the Indian economy needs now. International experience suggests that countries that borrowed to finance their fiscal spending have been able to recover from the pandemic faster.
Further, recent research shows that borrowing does not adversely affect the economy as long as the government follows a credible fiscal policy plan that reduces the debt burden back to sustainable levels. Hence, it is important that the government invests substantially not only in building infrastructure for growth but also focuses on targeted short-term measures that boost the consumption demand of those worst hit by the pandemic.
The fiscal consolidation path of the government could be driven by fear of sovereign downgrading by the global credit rating agencies (CRAs). However, last year’s Economic Survey demonstrated that economic fundamentals do not justify or drive sovereign credit ratings. Research suggests that CRAs give higher ratings to developed countries regardless of their fundamentals.
The Budget started tapering off the expansionary fiscal policy prematurely and focussed on fiscal compliance for fear of sovereign downgrading by the global CRAs.
The ongoing Russia -Ukraine war has disrupted supply chains and pushed energy and commodity prices. As costs rise and interest rates rise, capital expenditure will slow down. A higher allocation towards revenue expenditure, particularly flagship social sector programmes, would have sustained the economic revival. One can only hope that the government’s strategy does not cost the Indian household in a big way.
The writers are with the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram. Views expressed are personal