The first full-fledged union budget of the BJP/NDA government 2.0 presented to Parliament and the nation on July 5, is a huge disappointment. The general expectation was that after it was returned to power at the Centre in General Election 2019 with an unexpected larger majority in the Lok Sabha, the Modi government would begin the herculean task of cleansing the Augean stables of the socialist garbage of the Congress party which during its 50 years rule over post-independence India buried the country’s native spirit of enterprise seven fathoms deep. Instead, radical reform proposals were conspicuously absent in the two-hour budget speech of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, which for the first time in the history of independent India, didn’t contain any numbers.
The primary purpose of the annual Union budget exercise is for the Central government to render account to Parliament and the people of how resources raised last year were spent, and how resources proposed to be mobilised this year will be spent for nation-building over the next 12 months, in an easy-to-read format. Instead, in the budget 2019-20 speech, the public is advised to search for accounts rendered in anodyne annexures even as the government’s socio-economic development plans are outlined in a broad Vision Plan — building physical and social infrastructure, digital and pollution-free India, developing MSMEs, blue economy, water management, space programme, healthy society, food self-sufficiency, the works. But there is precious little detail on how this utopian wishlist is to be funded.
Examination of the budget documents indicates that the resource mobilisation effort is merely incremental, and in time-honoured tradition the government’s income of 2019-20 will be distributed over several sectors and a large number of welfare schemes. Fixed outlays — establishment expenditure (Rs.5.46 lakh crore), defence (Rs.5.52 lakh crore), interest payments (Rs.6.60 lakh crore) — will consume 63 percent of budgeted receipts this year (Rs.27.86 lakh crore), leaving precious little for investment in rural development (Rs.13.84 lakh crore), education (Rs.0.95 lakh crore) and health (Rs.0.93 lakh crore).
Against this backdrop, the duty of the finance minister was to boost the Central government’s revenue through a bold privatisation programme, reduce unmerited middle class subsidies (water, electricity, higher education), and slash establishment expenditure to mobilise resources for investment in public education, health and rural infrastructure. In particular, Sitharaman has nonchalantly fudged the issue of reducing the runaway establishment expenditure of the 4 million-strong neta-babu brotherhood which lavishly consumes 16 percent of the revenue of the Centre. Curiously, there’s no public outcry against wasteful establishment expenditure which enables the neta-babu brotherhood to adopt lifestyles which eclipse the pomp and splendour of the maharajahs of pre-independence India.