Unusual times call for unusual measures. That, in sum, should be the context in which finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget 2021 must be seen. As the Coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the Indian economy, the government was expected to pull out all stops to get the economy back onto the growth path. And, it must be said that given the conditions under which she presented the Budget, the FM has attempted to stay true to her promise of announcing a “Budget like no other”.
In the first digital, paperless Budget, Sitharaman managed to tick several of the boxes which the corporate sector, the financial markets, the infrastructure sector, and startups were expecting. Alongside, the Budget also unveiled a series of major financial sector reforms, and provided a boost to healthcare. The Economic Survey this year had made a case for countercyclical fiscal policy and to keep the stimulus going to push growth. The Budget seems to have clearly gone that route, and in a manner which has pleasantly surprised the financial markets and the corporate sector.
As I write this, the S&P BSE Sensex is up a hefty 2300 points, or 5%, while the Nifty 50 is up over 640 points, or nearly 5%. It’s been a while since the markets were so overwhelmed by any Budget. If the market and corporate reactions are indication, Nirmala Sitharaman has done very well this time around. And while Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to keep expectations realistic last week by saying that this Budget needed to be viewed as part of the series of “mini Budgets” announced last year to support the economy in the peak of the pandemic, the FM has clearly surprised on the upside with Budget 2021.
There is some criticism that the Budget does not do much for the middle class in terms of tax breaks which could, then, boost consumption. But where it scores is in attempting to set the stage for a freeing up of Indian enterprise on multiple fronts. There are some major reform measures -- the setting up of an asset reconstruction company to take over banks’ non-performing assets, creating what is called a “bad bank”, is a move which has been discussed over several years but never fructified. This Budget bites the bullet, and the move is expected to free up bank balance sheets for lending to productive sectors. Coupled with this is the ₹20,000 crore recapitalisation plan for public sector banks, and the move to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in the insurance sector to 74% from the current 49%. No wonder financial sector stocks led the rally at the markets on Budget Day.
Sunil Kant Munjal, chairman of Hero Enterprise, summed it up well when, during the course of the Fortune India-Editorji Budget discussion, he said many of the steps, including the deviation from the fiscal deficit target to push growth, had indeed been sought by the corporate sector. The deviation, it must be said, is quite substantial. The FM announced that the fiscal deficit for FY21 will stand at 9.5%, while that for FY22 has been pegged at 6.8%. A far cry from the 3% levels of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act. But while under usual circumstances these figures would elicit gasps of disbelief, these are hardly usual circumstances. In fact, the decision to deviate from the FRBM for now, pressing the pause button on fiscal discpline to aggressively push growth, is one of the high positive points of this Budget.
The Budget has pegged the revised estimate (RE) for expenditure at ₹34.50 lakh crore as against original budget estimate (BE) expenditure of ₹30.42 lakh crore for FY21. Sitharaman said the quality of expenditure “has been maintained as capital expenditure estimated as per RE is ₹4.39 lakh crore in 2020-2021 as against ₹4.12 lakh crore in BE 2020-21.” A BE of ₹34.83 lakh crore has been pegged for expenditure in 2021-2022, including ₹5.5 lakh crore as capital expenditure, an increase of 34.5% “to give required push to economy”. The fiscal deficit in RE 2020-21 is pegged at 9.5% of GDP --funded through government borrowings, multilateral borrowings, small saving funds and short term borrowings, with gross borrowing from the market for the next year to be around ₹12 lakh crore.
The Budget says the plan is to continue on the path of fiscal consolidation, achieving a fiscal deficit level below 4.5% of GDP by 2025-2026 with a fairly steady decline over the period. And importantly, it hopes to achieve this by “increasing the buoyancy of tax revenue through improved compliance, and secondly, by increased receipts from monetisation of assets, including public sector enterprises and land."
A major highlight of the Budget, then, is disinvestment, where a target of ₹1.75 lakh crore has been set for FY22. The government has been able to achieve hardly one-tenth of last year’s ambitious target of ₹2.1 lakh crore, but this time, with the markets buoyant and a disinvestment policy in place and cleared by cabinet, there is a certain resolve. Added to that is the plan to monetise idle assets, and the FY22 target, by most accounts, looks achievable if the government plays it smart.
The strategic disinvestment of BPCL, Air India, Shipping Corporation of India, Container Corporation of India, IDBI Bank, BEML, Pawan Hans, Neelachal Ispat Nigam limited among others are to be completed in 2021-22. Other than IDBI Bank, two public sector banks and one general insurance company is to be privatised. A special purpose vehicle to monetize idle land will also be set up and a revised mechanism for ensuring timely closure of sick or loss making public sector units will be put in place.
Financial sector reforms and disinvestment apart, the Budget scores big on its infrastructure and healthcare push. The idea clearly is to generate multiplier effects through both these initiatives. The National Infrastructure Pipeline has been expanded to 7,400 projects, there is a push for the creation of institutional structures for infrastructure funding, and for debt financing by foreign portfolio investors by making amendments to REITs and InvIT regulations. There’s also a substantial increase in capital expenditure for FY22, a hike of 34.5%, and a slew of initiatives on roadways, highways, expressways, and economic corridors to create that multiplier effect on growth and employment.
Healthcare, on expected lines, was another key theme of the Budget, with a 137% increase in outlay on health and well being for FY22. An amount of ₹35,000 crore has been earmarked for vaccines, and a ₹64,180 crore outlay over 6 years has been earmarked for the PM AatmaNirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana – a new centrally-sponsored scheme which is to be launched, in addition to the National Health Mission.
Aiming to assuage the farm sector against the backdrop of the farmers’ protests, the FM also laid out detailed figures demonstrating how the government has hiked payments for procurement from farmers, underscoring that it had ensured minimum support prices (MSP) at minimum 1.5 times the cost of production across all commodities.
Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget 2021 is her boldest yet. At a time when the government has been fighting an uphill battle on the economy, the need of the hour was to go aggressive and, to use a cricket metaphor, hit the ball out of the park. That she has done, but once again, much like all Budgets, this too is a statement of intent. The proof of the pudding, as former president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) Naina Lal Kidwai said on the Fortune India-Editorji discussion, will clearly lie in the execution. That’s where the government will now be tested.
If the Economic Survey’s hopes of an 11% rebound in FY22 is to be achieved, and a V-shaped economic recovery sustained, Sitharaman’s Budget will need to be executed swiftly on multiple fronts. For now, the sheer lack of any major negative surprises, and the aggressive push for growth, will keep the corporate sector and the markets quite happy.
The Budget says this moment in history is the “dawn of a new era – one in which India is well-poised to truly be the land of promise and hope.” There is hope and there is promise. Turning this promise into reality will be the real litmus test.