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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 July, 2004, 18:14 GMT 19:14 UK
India's please-all budget

By Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
India economic analyst

Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram
It was Mr Chidambaram's third budget

The Union Budget in India is more than a bland presentation of balance sheet finances of the second most populous country in the world.

It is invariably a political statement, a presentation of the direction of economic policies of the government in power.

So when the first budget of the newly-elected centre-left coalition government - called the United Progressive Alliance - was presented in the lower house of parliament in New Delhi late on Thursday morning, there were expectations that the budget would mark a sharp leftward shift in economic ideology.

That was, however, not to be.

The budget for 2004-05 presented by the Harvard-educated Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, disappointed his allies in the Communist parties who are supporting the Congress-led coalition government without participating in it.

Economic liberalisation

The budget was also predictably criticised by the right-wing opposition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was in power until May this year.

Mr Chidambaram's please-all budget was attacked by the BJP's former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, who complained that the government was riding piggy-back on a healthy economy left behind by his administration.

Indian farmers in a rice paddy
About 7% of government spending goes on food subsidies

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - himself a former finance minister credited with initiating India's policies of economic liberalisation in 1991 - as expected praised the budget and argued that it would improve the lot of India's poor and its farmers.

Whereas agriculture accounts for 22% of the country's gross domestic product, it provides a livelihood to 58% per cent of the population.

Roughly a quarter of India's population subsists on less than $1 a day.

The budget included a slew of measures aimed at reviving the farm sector, including steps to increase the flow of credit to agriculture and higher outlays on food-for-work and other employment-generating programmes.

But independent economist Surjit S Bhalla felt that there was "more rhetoric than substance" in the budget announcements.

Globally competitive

The proposal to increase the threshold for levying personal income tax was welcomed by the middle class. But there has been all-round criticism of the finance minister's inability to widen the tax base.

In a country of more than a billion people, barely 27 million pay personal income tax. More than half this number would stand to benefit from Mr Chidambaram's budget proposals.

Bombay shanty town
Many poor people have yet to benefit from liberalisation

In his speech, the finance minister repeatedly emphasized the need to improve elementary education and basic healthcare facilities in the country.

While stressing the need to create new jobs and improve access to drinking water and housing, Mr Chidambaram has at the same time streamlined the indirect taxes regime (excise and customs duties) with the professed aim of making the Indian economy globally competitive.

In the fiscal year that ended in March 2004, the Indian economy grew by 8.2%, the second fastest rate in the world after China.

Growth target

However, this impressive rate of growth came after a bad agricultural year that saw farm output falling by more than 5%.

This was Mr Chidambaram's third budget - he had presented the other two as finance minister in the centre-left United Front government in 1996 and 1997.

He has implicitly assumed a real rate of growth somewhere between 7% and 8%.

Such a growth target is ambitious, because the Indian economy has never grown by more than 8% during two successive years.

Car factory in India
Low interest rates have boosted manufacturing

The monsoon during the current year has been favourable, but sustaining a high growth rate will not be easy.

Since India imports close to 75% of the country's requirements of crude oil and petroleum products, high international oil prices could spur inflation and skew the government's calculations.

So can the finance minister achieve what has not been achieved in India so far?

The chances do not appear bright.

(The author is director of the School of Convergence and a journalist with over 27 years of experience in print, Internet, radio and television.)

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