As I sat in the soundproof newsroom of TV18’s studio, listening intently to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s presentation of the Union Budget 2017, I was struck by how “corporate” he sounded. His talk was extremely well-researched (ever heard any other FM providing data points on exactly how many tax-payers were in each slab of income tax??), his budget paper was well-structured (describing the 10-point presentation) and he came across as someone cool and confident (laughing genially even when interrupted by Mallikarjun Kharge’s comments). His boss sat poker faced and watchful.
I liked what this budget outlined for the most part. It is what I call a ‘safe’ budget, not too brash in its populism and neither too dry or uninspiring. Here are my key takes:
- Women are a key focus area
The FM and the PM seem to agree that women are a decided focus, not just as a demographic segment, but probably also as a key voter base. There were at least half a dozen outlays that were either directly addressed at women or included women (500 Mahila Shakti Kendras, allocation of houses primarily in the name of women, MNREGA allocation for women, Stand-Up India scheme, Swayam platform, et al). While it irked the feminist in me that on at least 3 occasions the FM included Women under ‘vulnerable’ or along with ‘underprivileged’ or while referring to ‘weaker’ sections of the society, I am happy that he recognizes the need for empowerment of women.
- Tax reduction will increase employment for all, especially women
MSMEs with revenues of lesser than 50 crores will now pay 5% less tax. Is 5% a lot? For a country, yes, it is (I was actually getting worried where the FM will find all the money for all his various allocations if he was giving a 5% discount as well). For the individual company too, it is a reasonable amount. An MSME company that does a turnover of, say Rs. 5 crores per annum, with a reasonable income of about 50 lakhs per annum, will now have a surplus of Rs. 2.5 lakhs. That is a good amount to invest in business development, marketing spends, recruitment, a small social media campaign, et al. It is also sufficient to employ part-time or flexible-working women. The Personal Income Tax sops were a non-starter and I was not impressed by the 5% tax for the entry level. (I was reminded of the old Joker adage – “never do it for free”)
- Inclusion is very evident
Senior Citizens, Rural youth, Young Mothers, Underprivileged women, Persons with Disability – the FM touched all these different strands of Diversity! Union Budget 2017-18 sounded more inclusive than most budgets. I particularly liked the fact that all railway stations would become PWD friendly with escalators and elevators. I also appreciated the fact that the new Model Shops and Establishments Bill will be drafted which will allow greater women’s workforce participation
When the post-budget LIVE panel discussion began at TV18’s studio, I noticed how different the voices were – unsatisfied railway unions who believed that they deserved a budget all for themselves, unhappy farmers who were let down by the fact that the FM did not even mention the lakhs of suicides, economists who felt that this was a pretty budget but not a transformational one and CA’s who were delighted with the simple one-page IT declaration form. To me, it is a decent budget. It has something beneficial for everyone (except of course the super-rich who will pay with an added surcharge) and is built by a confident government who knows that the majority is reasonably satisfied with their performance till date.
I have just one thing to say – the devil is in the details. Traditionally, budget allocations have always been headline grabbers, but actual spends and the results are often buried in a small paragraph on Page 16. I would like to see how the intent manifests itself. Just like we did in the Working Mother and AVTAR Best Companies initiative, I would like to assess this budget, not on the basis of the announced policies, but on how well it was implemented, how well audited and monitored and how many millions it impacted. We have an opportunity to lead the world not just in GDP but also in Inclusion and I would love to see that this budget lays the foundation for that growth.