A Responsible New Govt May Want To Declare A Financial Emergency
First published in
The Statesman Editorial Page, March 24 2007
Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls beginning April 7. Nothing may succeed better in focusing the minds of its citizens and political candidates than some hard macroeconomic realities. Discussing UP’s public finances may be the first step to bringing cool rationality to the cauldron of its politics ~ consisting as it does of seemingly deep and irreconcilable divisions of religion, caste and personality.
UP shared initials of the old British “United Provinces of Agra and Oudh”, and in 1947 was mostly the same territory. It deserves better than to be known merely as our “Northern State”: UP has been India’s fulcrum, deeply affecting our history, culture and politics. There could have been today not merely a new Uttarakhand but also perhaps Agra, Bareilly (Rohilkhand), Jhansi (Bundelkhand), Meerut, Avadh (Ayodhya, Oudh), Kanauj, Varanasi etc.
History and politics
Each has had its history. Oudh was seen by the British before Dalhousie as a northern buffer for their Bengal possessions. Bareilly was “an important centre of disaffection” of Muslim soldiers against the British in 1857 and also where Hindus after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 had “thrown off the imperial yoke” refusing to pay tribute to Delhi. The very idea of “Pakistan” was mostly a UP-invention. Long before Iqbal and Jinnah, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi (1786-1831) initiated a mass migration of Muslims and created a theocratic principality in the NWFP (Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah) which collapsed due to conflict between his Pashtun and North Indian followers. Pervez Musharraf’s family were frankly nostalgic during their India-visit, and indeed Pakistan’s Mohajirs long for fertile UP more than the arid country they in fact possess ~ even more than for J&K on which Pakistanis since Liaquat (UP’s most prominent Muslim legislator between 1926-1940) became fixated instead.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the “Ram Janambhoomi/Babri Masjid” dispute may have been mostly a gigantic, inchoate, incoherent national exercise in defining our identity: “Who are we?” or perhaps “Who are we not?” as modern Indians, questions that remain unanswered. Certainly, in 1908 the Imperial Gazetteer of India Vol XIX pp 279-280 reported: “After Babar had gained a footing in Hindustan by his victory at Panipat in 1526, and had advanced to Agra, the defeated Afghan house of Lodhi still occupied the Central Doab, Oudh, and the eastern districts of the present United Provinces. In 1527, Babar, on his return from Central India, defeated his opponents in Southern Oudh near Kanauj, and passed on through the Province as far as Ajodhya where he built a mosque in 1528, on the site renowned as the birthplace of Rama. The Afghans remained in opposition after the death of Babar in 1530, but were defeated near Lucknow in the following year.”
History books and doctoral theses should have been perhaps where all such old facts deserved to remain in a modern self-confident, self-aware India.
Today’s UP at more than 166 million people exceeds in population France and Germany combined. One in every six or seven Indians is from UP. The State has become notorious for its chaotic politics, its “history-sheeters”, its corruption, crimes, badlands, astrology and other superstition. Its popular power gets divided between Mulayam, Mayawati and the BJP: each the self-appointed spokesman of Muslims, “Bahujans” and Hindu upper castes respectively. Congress, once India’s grand old secular national party, has been side-lined in UP politics.
Yet UP’s pivotal role remains such that the healthiest development for Indian democracy today may be for the Lok Sabha Member from Rae Bareilly to close down 10 Janpath as a residence and office for herself, and live instead as an exemplary parliamentarian among the common people of her constituency, setting the example too for her son to do the same in Amethi. Their permanent departure from New Delhi, becoming prominent UP politicians instead, would be the desperately needed “tough love” required by the Congress Party ~ which finally, after many decades, would be compelled to grow up and elect a leadership for itself based on some real political principles and not mere sycophancy.
Focussing on UP’s Public Finances is the first constructive step towards a rational political economy arising in the interests of its many citizens. As with other States of our Union, it is not impossible to understand what is going on with UP’s finances, though it does take some serious effort. The State receives tax revenues, income from State operations (like bus fares etc), and grants transferred from the Union. Of these revenues, more than 70% arise from taxation. Of those taxes, about 45% is collected by the Union on behalf of the State according to the Finance Commission’s formulae; 55% is collected by the State itself, and about 50% of what the State collects is Sales Tax. On the expenditure side, some 43% has been going to repay the State’s debts plus interest owed on that debt. The remainder gets distributed as summarily shown in the table.
Audit and restructuring
As with the Union of India, as well as with other States like West Bengal, the wide difference between income and expenditure implies the Government must then issue new public debt, which typically has been a larger and larger sum every year, greater than the maturing debt being amortised or extinguished. The grave consequences of this will be obvious to any householder, and makes it imperative that calm, sober thought and objective analysis occur about UP’s financial condition and budget constraint. E.g., what is revealed at a higher level of detail is that in 2003-2004, Rs. 5.43 Bn (Rs 543 crores) were spent to collect Rs. 1.18 Bn (Rs. 118 crores) of land revenue! UP has also spent extraordinarily vast public resources (and World Bank loans) on electricity ~ yet its power supply remains dismal.
These kinds of facts may be enough for any responsible new Government of UP (perhaps even a “Unity Government”) to declare a financial emergency under Article 360 of the Constitution, followed by ordering the most stringent of audits of all government departments and projects using public resources as well as recognition of public assets, followed in turn by a restructuring of the public budget over a few years with the aim of cutting all waste, fraud and abuse, and directing public resources instead to areas of highest social usefulness.
The author is Contributing Editor, The Statesman
UP Government Finance 2003-2004 EXPENDITURE ACTIVITIES : Rs Billion (Hundred Crore) government & local government judiciary police (including vigilance etc) prisons bureaucracy collecting land revenue & taxes government employee pensions schools, colleges, universities, institutes health, nutrition & family welfare water supply & sanitation roads, bridges, transport etc. electricity irrigation, flood cntrl., environ, ecology agricultural subsidies, rural development industrial subsidies capital city development social security, SC, ST, OBC, lab.welfare tourism arts, archaeology, libraries, museums miscellaneous debt amortization & debt servicing total expenditure
tax revenue operational income grants from Union loans recovered total income 268.74 22.82 24.82 124.98 Govt. Borrowing Requirement: (total expenditure minus total income) 420.67 financd by: new public debt issued use of Trust Funds etc.
385.41 35.26 420.67
From the author’s research based on latest available data published by the C&AG of India
Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation
first published in The Statesman, March 5 2007
Editorial Page Special Article
It seems the Dream Team of the PM, Finance Minister, Mr. Montek Ahluwalia and their acolytes may take India on a magical mystery tour of economic hallucinations, fantasies and perhaps nightmares. I hasten to add the BJP and CPI-M have nothing better to say, and criticism of the Government or of Mr Chidambaram’s Budget does not at all imply any sympathy for their political adversaries. It may be best to outline a few of the main fallacies permeating the entire Governing Class in Delhi, and their media and businessman friends:
1. “India’s Savings Rate is near 32%”. This is factual nonsense. Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.
2. “High economic growth in India is being caused by high savings and intelligently planned government investment”. This too is nonsense. Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before. New Delhi still believes in antiquated Soviet-era savings-investment models without technological progress, and some non-sycophant must tell our top Soviet-era bureaucrat that such growth models have been long superceded and need to be scrapped from India’s policy-making too. Can politicians and bureaucrats assist India’s progress? Indeed they can: the telecom revolution in recent years was something in which they participated. But the general presumption is against them. Progress, productivity gains and hence economic growth arise from enterprise and effort of ordinary people — mostly despite not because of an exploitative, parasitic State.
3. “Agriculture is a backward sector that has been retarding India’s recent economic growth”. This is not merely nonsense it is dangerous nonsense, because it has led to land-grabbing by India’s rulers at behest of their businessman friends in so-called “SEZ” schemes. The great farm economist Theodore W. Schultz once quoted Andre and Jean Mayer: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – Mother of all science; it remains the science which makes human life possible”. Centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, there was an Agricultural Revolution led by monks and abbots who were the scientists of the day. Thanks partly to American help, India has witnessed a Green Revolution since the 1960s, and our agriculture has been generally a calm, mature, stable and productive industry. Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.
4. “India’s foreign exchange reserves may be used for ‘infrastructure’ financing”. Mr Ahluwalia promoted this idea and now the Budget Speech mentioned how Mr Deepak Parekh and American banks may be planning to get Indian businesses to “borrow” India’s forex reserves from the RBI so they can purchase foreign assets. It is a fallacy arising among those either innocent of all economics or who have quite forgotten the little they might have been mistaught in their youth. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s balance of payments and are not akin to tax revenues, and thus are not available to be borrowed or spent by politicians, bureaucrats or their businessman friends — no matter how tricky and shady a way comes to be devised for doing so. If anything, the Government and RBI’s priority should have been to free the Rupee so any Indian could hold gold or forex at his/her local bank. India’s vast sterling balances after the Second World War vanished quickly within a few years, and the country plunged into decades of balance of payments crisis – that may now get repeated. The idea of “infrastructure” is in any case vague and inferior to the “public goods” Adam Smith knew to be vital. Serious economists recommend transparent cost-benefit analyses before spending any public resources on any project. E.g., analysis of airport/airline industry expansion would have found the vast bulk of domestic airline costs to be forex-denominated but revenues rupee-denominated – implying an obvious massive currency-risk to the industry and all its “infrastructure”. All the PM’s men tell us nothing of any of this.
5. “HIV-AIDS is a major Indian health problem”. Government doctors privately know the scare of an AIDS epidemic is based on false assumptions and analysis. Few if any of us have met, seen or heard of an actual incontrovertible AIDS victim in India (as opposed to someone infected by hepatitis-contaminated blood supplies). Syringe-exchange by intravenous drug users is not something widely prevalent in Indian society, while the practise that caused HIV to spread in California’s Bay Area in the 1980s is not something depicted even at Khajuraho. Numerous real diseases do afflict Indians – e.g. 11 children died from encephalitis in one UP hospital on a single day in July 2006, while thousands of children suffer from “cleft lip” deformity that can be solved surgically for 20,000 rupees, allowing the child a normal life. Without any objective survey being done of India’s real health needs, Mr Chidamabaram has promised more than Rs 9.6 Billion (Rs 960 crore) to the AIDS cottage industry.
6. “Fiscal consolidation & stabilization has been underway since 1991”. There is extremely little reason to believe this. If you or I borrow Rs. 100,000 for a year, and one year later repay the sum only to borrow the same again along with another Rs 40,000, we would be said to have today a debt of Rs. 140,000 at least. Our Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in this manner (in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banking system) but displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “ Fiscal Deficit” (see graph, also “Fiscal Instability”, The Sunday Statesman, 4 February 2007). More than two dozen State Governments have been doing the same though, unlike the Government of India, they have no money-creating powers and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union as well. The stock of public debt in India may be Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. Mr Chidambaram’s announcement of a “Debt Management Office” yet to be created is hardly going to suffice to avert macroeconomic turmoil and a possible monetary collapse. The Congress, BJP, CPI-M and all their friends shall be responsible.
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