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The Indian Budget 2018: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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It won’t be a hyperbole to call the preparation of the Indian Budget the world’s toughest tightrope balancing act. In a country of 1.3 billion Indians, a gazillion sects and a country where the dialect changes every 20 kilometers, the Indian Budget is a unique unifying factor. Sitting in a small office, a select group of individuals charts the course of the Indian economy, soon to be the world’s fifth largest. A multitude of Intelligence and Security agencies are tasked to ensure that the Budget remains a secret before it is presented and the markets wait with a bated breath to gauge the winds that will blow with the onset of the Indian Budget. These winds can help the markets move at roaring speeds or topple the very applecart of their existence.

The Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance presented it final full Budget on Feb. 1, 2018. With elections due in eight states and the coming of the all-India General Elections, this budget was a final attempt by Modi to deliver on his promise of “Ache Din” (Good Days). But did he? Large sections of India is now restless. Farmers are suffering from a lack of good prices and mounting agricultural loans. Youth is suffering for the want of jobs. Businesses are under stress due to a new tax regime that they are yet to understand and comprehend. The Indian Middle class, BJP’s strongest supporters and among the minuscule few who actually pay a direct tax is reeling under high taxes. This was the last grab attempt to placate these sections and retain power for another five years. But what did it deliver? Sure enough, the budget contains a slew of measures for the agriculture and rural sectors, a new health insurance scheme has been announced for the poor and a small relief in income tax for the salaried class and senior citizens.

Let’s take a closer look at the Indian budget and break out the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

To placate the Farmers who have been protesting across the length and the breadth of the country, this budget promises to raise the minimum price offered to farmers for their crops. Stating that the focus of the government in the coming fiscal would be agriculture and rural India, the finance minister has announced that all Kharif crops will be paid a minimum support price (MSP) that is 50 percent more than the cost of production. It has also identified a need to invest heavily in the agricultural markets across India. It has also earmarked more money for rural areas, including that for irrigation projects and for aquaculture projects. The Kisan credit card will be extended to fisheries and animal husbandry farmers while Rs 2,000 crore provided for the development of agriculture market. The central budget directs state governments to purchase extra solar power generated by farmers using solar-powered pumps who have become cheaper after this budget.  The credit to agriculture would be raised to Rs 11 lakh crore in the coming fiscal from Rs 10 lakh crore. The budget provides for a 100 percent tax deduction for farm producer firms with Rs 100 crore turnover. There is a special impetus to promote “Operation Green”. In total, there has been a record allocation of Rs. 14.34 lakh crores for the agriculture sector.

In a bid to provide universal healthcare, the Budget announces a ‘National Health Protection scheme’ to provide health cover of up to Rs 5 lakh to each of the 10 crore poor families per year. Under the Aayushman Bharat programme, a total of 1.5 lakh centers will be set up to provide health facilities closer to the homes for which an outlay of Rs 1,200 crore to be allocated. A total of Rs 600 crore have been allocated for tuberculosis patients who will be provided with a grant at the rate Rs 500 per month during the course of their treatment. There are plans to set up 24 new medical colleges and hospitals by upgrading district level ones.  The budget lists that the PM JivanBimaYojana has benefited 5.22 crore families with more in the pipeline. And here we were really thinking that Obama-care was game changing?  Apart from all these announcements, the Budget contains a slew of announcements for the senior citizens of the nation like Incentives for Senior citizens like exemptions in income of Rs 10,000 from Banks FD and post offices and Rs 50,000 per annum exemption for medical insurance under Sec 80D.

With the finance minister promising a record infrastructure spending on roads and railways, construction and engineering firms, as well as train wagon-producers, could benefit. There is a plan to expand airport handling capacity by five times to handle 1 billion trips a year. It is estimated that Rs 50 lakh crore is needed for infrastructure building and the government will allocate Rs 7,140 crore for the textiles sector in next year.  National highways exceeding 9,000-km will be completed in 2018-19 and allocation of over Rs 1.48 lakh crore has been planned for railways. Regional air connectivity scheme shall connect 56 unserved airports and 31 unserved helipads for better connected and a closer India.

For the rural economy, the budget contains a slew of announcements. 8 crore poor women will get new LPG connections. Under the Prime Minister’s SaubhagyaYojana, it is estimated that 4 crore poor people will get power connection. A total spending estimate for this scheme is Rs 16,000 crore. Under the Swach Bharat Mission, the Government plans to construct 2 crore toilets in the next fiscal year. The government has set an ambitious target to provide a house for all by 2022. A total of 1 crore houses are to be built under Pradhan MantriAwasYojana in the rural areas. The Government will expand the PM Jan DhanYojana. All 16 crore accounts will be included under micro insurance and pension schemes for better returns and social outreach.

To formalize the economy, the Employees Provident Fund Act will be amended to reduce the contribution of women to 8 percent from 12 percent for first three years, with no change in employer’s contribution. The government will contribute 12 per cent of wages of new employees in EPF for all sectors for the next 3 years. The target for loan disbursement under Mudra scheme has been set at Rs 3 lakh crore for next fiscal.

The Bad

The government has extended Corporate Tax of 25% to companies with turnover up to Rs 250 cr in the financial year 2016-17. For a party always under a perception of being a corporate front, this will not go down well in the eyes of the media and the party will have a wild time dousing the flames. Also, 100% tax deduction is allowed to co-operative societies, the majority of whom have cooked books and shady members.

The long-term capital gains will now be taxed at a rate of 10% if exceeding Rs 1 lakh. The Education cess increased to 4% from 3% to collect additional Rs 11,000 crore but in turn, has put an additional burden on the tax paying middle class. The government’s decision to impose long-term capital gains tax on equity investments may dent investor sentiment for financial services companies, life insurers and providers of mutual fund products.

The Indian Defense Budget, while increased contains no clear roadmap to make India a manufacturing powerhouse and increase our armament production. Barely spending money is not good and while the outlays are increasing continuously, it is no secret that our outlay is minuscule in comparison to our GDP. Furthermore, most of the current budget is spent on personnel and maintenance costs, leaving very little for capital acquisition.  There is a serious need to quantify the defense budget and earmark separate funds for the capital acquisition.

The Ugly

Apart from a few scraps here and there like Rs 40,000 standard deduction, Mr. Modi has completely ignored the honest Indian Direct Taxpayer. A resentment is now brewing in this segment which has honestly been paying to tax and has time and again got pinched by every budget. In a nation where barely, 1.9% of the populations pays any tax, the honest Indian Taxpayer has become a minority of sorts, exploited and with no one to raise a voice for it. Hopefully, Modi can mollify this before the General Elections or all hell will break loose.

Conclusion

To conclude, the Indian Budget is prudent, not populist. The Indian Government deserves full credit for bringing out such a balanced budget so close to the General Elections. The fiscal prudence of this government has been lauded by international agencies and the recent budget is in line with the attempt of the government’s fiscal consolidation path. The Finance minister has set the fiscal deficit for 2019/19 (April-March) at 3.3 percent of the gross domestic product, slightly higher than expectations for 3.2 percent. Altogether, the budget has focused more “investments” than one-time hangouts. However, the devil lies in the details. There is a pertinent need for faster and smoother implementation.  The infrastructure projects will generate more jobs and ultimately, more usable projects on completion. R&D will generate more output for this nation. The government is ably trying to focus on both the “Ease of Doing Business” and the “Ease of Living”. Elections are upon the present dispensation and the Government must now focus on the implementation. If the 2014 election was about Ache Din, 2019 (or 2018) will be about the poor. The buildup initiated with the Jan Dhan and theUjwala Yojana, continued with the PAHAL andSaubhagyaYojana and now the AyushmanYojana and this Budget. The ingredients are all there. It now up to the chef Modi to cook his broth. But will his broth taste like sweet victory or a bitter-sweet defeat. This only time, and the Indian Rural Voter will tell.

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South Asia

The “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region

Kagusthan Ariaratnam

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Addressing an event last week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Hambantota Port (in southern Sri Lanka) is a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.”

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has denied US’ claims that China might build a “forward military base” at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which has been leased out to Beijing by Colombo. Sri Lanka failed to pay a Chinese loan of $1.4 billion and had to lease the China-developed port to Beijing for 99 years. Both New Delhi and Washington had in the past expressed concerns that Beijing could use the harbor for military purposes.

Image courtesy of Google

The USA, China, and India are the major powers playing their key role in the “Neo-Cold War” in Central Asian landmass and the strategic sea lanes of the world in the Indian Ocean where 90% of the world trade is being transported everyday including oil. It is this extension of the shadowy Cold War race that can be viewed as the reason for the recent comment made by the US Vice President Mike Pence that China is using “debt diplomacy” to expand its global footprint and Hambantota “may soon become a forward military base for China’s expanding navy”.

According to some analysts, the deep-water port, which is near a main shipping route between Asia and Europe, is likely to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In his book “Monsoon” Robert D. Kaplan (2010), a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes the following:

[…] the Indian Ocean will turn into the heart of a new geopolitical map, shifting from a unilateral world power to multilateral power cooperation. This transition is caused by the changing economic and military conditions of the USA, China and India. The Indian Ocean will play a big role in the 21st century’s confrontation for geopolitical power. The greater Indian Ocean region covers an arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Its western reaches include Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug trafficking […]

Two third of the global maritime trade passes through a handful of relatively narrow shipping lanes, among which five geographic “chokepoints” or narrow channels that are gateway to and from Indian ocean: (1) Strait of Hormuz (2) Bab el-Mandab Passage (3) Palk Strait (4) Malacca and Singapore Straits and (5) Sunda Strait.

While Lutz Kleveman (2003), argues that the Central Asia is increasingly becoming the most important geostrategic region for the future commodities, Michael Richardson (2004) on the other hand explains that the global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through the strategic international straits, waterways, and canals in the Indian Ocean.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)  report published in 2017, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit” (p.1). These channels are critically important to the world trade because so much of it passes through them. For instance, half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers through these maritime routes. The blockage of a chokepoint, even for a day, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and thus these chokepoints are critical part of global energy security.  Hence, whoever control these chockpoints, waterways, and sea routes in the Indian Ocean maritime domain will reshape the region as an emerging global power.

In a recent analysis of globalization and its impact on Central Asia and Indian Ocean region, researcher Daniel Alphonsus (2015), notes that the twists and turns of political, economic and military turbulence were significant to all great players’ grand strategies:

(1) the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the future Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; (2) Project Mausam, India’s struggle to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, broadly viewed as its answer to the MSR; and (3) the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. (p.3)

India the superpower of the subcontinent, has long feared China’s role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, an Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China’s economic and military interests “risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba” – a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro’s Cuba right on the United States’ doorstep. Located at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives Sri Lanka the strategic and economic weight in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the center of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. Furthermore, alongside the MSR, China is building an energy pipeline through Pakistan to secure Arabian petroleum, which is a measure intended to bypass the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca altogether.

A recent study done by a panel of experts and reported by the New York Times reveal that how the power has increasingly shifted towards China from the traditional US led world order in the past five years among small nation states in the region. The critical role played by the strategic sea ports China has been building in the rims of Indian Ocean including Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Port of Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly validates the argument that how these small states are being used as proxies in this power projection.

This ongoing political, economic and military rivalry between these global powers who are seeking sphere of influence in one of the world’s most important geostrategic regions is the beginning of a “Neo-Cold War” that Joseph Troupe refers as the post-Soviet era geopolitical conflict resulting from the multipolar New world order.

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South Asia

IMF bail-out Package and Pakistan

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Pakistan may approach IMF to bail-out the current economic crisis. It is not the first time that Pakistan will knock the doors of IMF. Since 1965, Pakistan has been to IMF 17 times. Almost all of the governments has availed IMF packages. Usually, IMF is a temporary relief and provide oxygen for short time so that the patient may recover and try to be self-sustained. The major role of IMF is to improve the governance or reforms, how the ill-economy of a country may recover quickly and become self-sustained. After having oxygen cylinder for 17 times within 5 decades, Pakistan’s economy could not recover to a stage, where we can be self-sustained and no more looking for IMF again and again. This is a question asked by the common man in Pakistan to their leadership.  People are worried that for how long do we have to run after IMF package? The nation has enjoyed 70 decades of independence and expects to be mature enough to survive under all circumstances without depending on a ventilator.

The immediate impact of decision to approach IMF, is the devaluation of Pakistani Rupees. By depreciating only one rupee to US dollar, our foreign debt increases 95 billion rupees.  Today we witness a depreciation of rupee by 15 approximately (fluctuating), means the increase in foreign debt by 1425 billion rupees. Yet, we have not negotiated with IMF regarding depreciation of Rupees. Usually IMF demand major depreciation but all government understands the implications of sharp devaluation, always try to bargain with IMF to the best of their capacity. I am sure, Government of Pakistan will also negotiate and get the best bargain.

IMF always imposes conditions to generate more revenue and the easiest way to create more income is imposing tax on major commodities including Gas, Electricity and Fuel. Pakistan has already increased the prices of Gas, Electricity and Fuel. It has had direct impact on basic necessities and commodities of life. We can witness a price hike of basic food, consumer items and so on. Except salaries, everything has gone up. While negotiating with IMF formally, we do not know how much tax will be increased and how much burden will be put on the common man.

We believe, our rulers know our capacity and will keep in mind the life of a common man and may not exceed the limit of burden to common man beyond its capacity. We are optimistic that all decisions will be taken in the best interest of the nation.

It is true, that Pakistan has been to IMF so many times, so this might be a justification for the PTI Government to avail IMF package. But, there are people with different approach. They have voted for change and for “Naya” (new) Pakistan. They do not expect from PTI to behave like previous several governments. If PTI uses the logic of previous governments, may not satisfy many people in Pakistan.

Especially, when Pakistan was in a position to take-off economically, we surrendered half way, may not be accepted by many people in Pakistan.

The government has explained that other options like economic assistance from friendly countries was also very expensive, so that they have preferred IMF as more competitive package. I wish, Government may educate public on the comparison of available options, their terms and conditions, their interest rate, their political conditions, etc. There might be something confidential, Government may avoid or hide, one may not mind and understand the sensitivity of some of the issues. But all permissible information on the terms and conditions of all options in comparison, may be placed on Ministry of Finance’s website or any other mode of dissemination of knowledge to its public.

Against the tradition, people of Pakistan have voted Imran Khan, who so ever was given ticket of PTI, public has voted him or her blindly in trust to Imran Khan. A few of his candidates might not be having very high capabilities or very good reputation, but, public has trusted Imran Khan blindly. Imran Khan is the third most popular leader in Pakistan, after Jinnah the father of nation, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Former Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1970s.

People of Pakistan have blindly trusted in Imran Khan and possess very high expectations from him. I know, Imran Khan understands it very well. He is honest, brave and visionary leader and I believe he will not disappoint his voters.

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Now India denies a friendly hand: Imran Khan debuts against arrogant neighbors

Sisir Devkota

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Imran Khan is facing the brunt for overly appeasing its arch rival-India. On September 22, Khan tweeted that he was disappointed over India’s arrogant reply to resume bilateral talks in the UNGA and that he had encountered many “small men” in big offices unable to perceive the larger picture.I am observing a south Asian order changing with Khan’s rise in Pakistani politics. We in Nepal need to grasp the possible reality before circumstances shall engulf our interests.

Observation 1

Narendra Modi was undoubtedly “The Prince”of South Asia from Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century classic political narrative. I sense the old prince acting in distress over the rise of a new one. Imran Khan’s invitation for a ministerial level meeting in New York; amidst the eyes of foreign diplomats could not have been a better approach by Pakistan in a long time. Instead, Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj dismissed the offer, blaming Pakistan’s double standard in killing Indian forces and releasing Burhan Wani’s (India’s terrorist and Pakistan’s martyr) postal stamps. Khan did not sanction the postal release, but as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he must be held accountable for failing to stop the killings,just when talks were supposed to happen. He should have addressed the highly sensitive Indian government. But, I do empathize with Khan’s statement, “small men in big offices”; as he clearly outlined the exact problem. He directly called upon the Indian government to think bigger and escape circumstances to solve historical problems. Narendra Modi has developed a new rhetoric these days; that India is not going to keep quiet over Pakistan’s actions. It fits the nature of Machiavelli’s Prince as an authority which can maintain national virtue. Unfortunately, I do not buy Modi’s rhetoric. The Prince has come a bit late in his tenure to act for Indian virtues. I am sure many at the UNGA would have noticed India’s apprehension in the same manner. I suspect that the ex-prince is facing insecurities over the fear of losing his charisma. Nepal, in particular was charmed by his personality when he first visited our capital, with promises that flooded our heart. And then, we faced his double standard; right after the massive earthquake in 2015. Nobody in Nepal will sympathize with Swaraj’s justification of cancelling the meeting.

Observation 2

Let me explain the source of insecurity. Modi has thrived by endorsing his personality. A tea man who worked for the railways under great financial hardships, became the poster man of India. He generated hope and trust that his counterparts had lost over the years. His eloquent stage performance can fool the harshest of critics into sympathizing his cause. People have only realized later; many macro economists in India now argue that demonetization was, perhaps, one of the worst decisions for India’s sake. Narendra Modi is India sounds truer than Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India.

Imran Khan, a former cricketer does not spring the same impression as Modi. Khan, a world champion in 1992, is known for his vision and leadership in Cricket. Comparatively, Khan does not need to sell his poster in South Asia. He does not cry over his speeches to garner mass euphoria. Ask anybody who’s into the sport and they will explain you the legend behind his name. I suspect that Modi has realized that he is going to lose the stardom in the face of Pakistan’s newly elected democratic leader. After all, the Indian PM cannot match Imran’s many achievements in both politics and cricket. I suspect that Modi has realized the fundamental difference in how his subjects inside India and beyond are going to perceive Imran’s personality. I expect more artificial discourses from India to tarnish Imran’s capabilities.

Nepal & Pakistan

You will not find Pakistan associated with Nepal so often than with India. Frankly, Nepal has never sympathized with Indian cause against Pakistan. We have developed a healthy and constructive foreign relations with the Islamic republic. However, there has always been a problem of one neighbor keeping eyes on our dealings with another. Indian interests have hindered proximity with past governments. Now, Imran Khan has facilitated the platform for deeper relations. He does not carry the baggage of his predecessors. He is a global icon, a cricket legend and a studious politician. He is not the result of mass hysteria. Imran Khan has pledged to improve Pakistan’s economy, reinstate foreign ties and boost regional trade. For me, he is South Asia’s new Machiavellian prince; one that can be at least trusted when he speaks.

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