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T K Thomas
T K Thomas
Opinion

BUDGET: A VOX POP

Prof. T K Thomas

As a young broadcaster in Mumbai in the 1970s one had the first brush with the Union budget; was asked to do a vox pop on the budget, presented earlier in the day by the then Finance Minister. Instructions were given as to how to do a vox pop by asking questions on the reactions to the budget to what was called a cross section of society; it should be the voice of the man in the street and not of the expert; for that we will wait for the annual analysis of the budget by eminent jurist and economist Nani Palkhivala.[one recalls how people used to throng the hallowed grounds of the Cricket Club of India- CCI, a stone throw away from our station] The other major instruction was to cover all shades of opinion, both for and against the government’s new budget; it should not be one sided one sided, supporting or opposing the economic policies of the government. This was the post emergency period when AIR was a government department and talking about not taking sides may sound strange to today’s radio professionals in an “autonomous corporation” who seem to specialize in taking and projecting only a clear pro government stance; sometimes being more loyal than the King!

So we set off with an almost 5Kg Sony ultra portable tape recorder, first to the Bombay Stock Exchange in Dalal Street, bustling with activities. The stock brokers and their clients were animatedly discussing after listening to the budget speech on their transistor radios, various announcements being made by the then Finance Minister and how the budget proposals affected the stock market. From the BSE we headed to different parts of the city to complete our Vox Pop by speaking to people from ‘the cross section of the society’. They included ordinary citizens, salaried employees, shop keepers, vendors of tobacco products, liquor shop owners and their clients and so on. We then edited the reactions of the ordinary people and without editorializing presented a composite programme with differing views which was later broadcast in the night.

Technology and the political milieu have changed the coverage of the Union Budget presentation today. News channels carry the budget speech of the Finance Minister live and the major points are scrolled. We could also see the nation’s prime Minister almost throughout the speech enthusiastically thumping the desk. Now, the discussions on the budget would go on endlessly on the news channels.

One decided to write this column on the budget though one was a bit circumspect as economics is not one’s forte. However the Vox Pop experience on budget on radio has prompted to attempt this piece after speaking to a cross section of people. One did speak to very ordinary people, mostly people who do odd jobs near one’s apartments ; spoke also to people on phone to get their views to cover some aspects of the budget.

Many of the people working in the unorganized sector who have no idea of income tax or insurance were oblivious of the so called insurance or other sops. Most of them do not even know what a budget is and how it impacts their lives. Their refrain was that they had nothing to do with the budget, “if the government wants to give us something that’s welcome”. Many of them also have no hope and trust in governments and one of them questioned about the 15 lakh rupees supposed to have been put in their bank account according to an electoral promise during the 2014 general election campaign.

After explaining about the Rs.3000 monthly pension scheme to those in the unorganized sector who earned less than Rs.15000 a month one tried to elicit reactions which were mixed. The Finance Minister had announced that the mega pension scheme Pradhan Mantri Shram-Yogi Yojana would help 10 crore workers! Rickshaw pullers, agricultural and construction labourers, domestic workers etc. joining the scheme at the age of 29 need to contribute Rs.100 a month till the age of 60 and those joining the scheme at 18 years have to contribute just 55 to be eligible to get a monthly pension of Rs.3000 after the age of sixty. The government of course would contribute an equal amount every month. While some of the respondents were very happy with the scheme, others had questions about the collection process etc. fearing the typical bureaucratic problems they may face. Whatever that may be, many believe that this pension scheme may be a boon to a large number of workers in the unorganized sector who have nothing to fall back upon once they retire.

A political observer with a wonky sense of humour commented that the stand- in effervescent Finance Minister smiling like a Cheshire cat exhibited his leather briefcase containing the “interim budget” papers appeared too clever and that was evident in the budget. The budget according to this respondent was more political than making economic sense; trying to buy votes in the forthcoming election by offering tax benefits etc. He however said that there was nothing illegitimate about it. Arguments that with just about two months to go for general elections it should only be a ‘Vote on Account’ he felt, do not break any parliamentary convention as there is also no bar on a presenting such a budget, he added.

What about the new tax concessions or lowering of tax rates in the light of the general impression that has been created on those in the slab below Rs. 5 lakh? A salaried employee earning Rs.45000 was euphoric and said that he won’t have to pay any tax this year as per the new budget announcements. Another gentleman explained that his interpretation was incorrect. A former senior income tax official pointed out that budget is always for the next financial year and the scheme of ‘rebate’ announced by the Finance Minister and the increase in standard deduction of Rs. 10,000 would not come into effect immediately but in the next assessment year 2020-2021 ie. the financial year from 1 April, 2019 to 31 March 2020. He also said that this benefit is only for salaried employees and no one is going to get any immediate benefit. For this, after the general elections of May, 2019, a new government has to come to power; its new Finance Minister has to prepare and present a new budget in which the proposed changes in the tax regimen will be effected. It is left to the new government and its Finance Minister to decide whether these proposed changes need to be implemented or not; may be the new government and Finance Minister may even better the concessions! So, most people who thought the new budget would immediately give them a bonanza of tax concessions have to wait and that’s exactly a clever ploy of a promise in this pre election budget.

The proposal in the new budget of offering the first of three equal installments of Rs.2000 to farmers before the elections is a clear case of buying the voters, a respondent said. He also added that the money offered is a pittance-just Rs.17 a day. A ruling party follower was elated as this would benefit poor farmers and the Rs.75,000 crore earmarked for it was a great step. An opposition supporter called this a clear instance of overstepping the contours of parliamentary propriety.

A senior journalist raised many issues. He was critical of the naming of various welfare schemes after “Pradhan Mantri”. Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana has been there since long, one countered. How is it that now there are over 40 yojanas or schemes like Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana[PMJAY] Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana

[ PMSBY], Pradhan Mantri Mudra Loan Yojana[PMMLY] etc.? He also questioned whatever has happened to the employment scene. Hasn’t the unemployment situation in the country arrived at by the Chief statistician,[ a copy leaked out to a newspaper] stated that it is the worst in four and a half decades? The data however was rejected by the government on the ground that “it was not approved”. No wonder the acting head and another unofficial member of the committee just resigned! The journalist questioned the government’s role in hiding or ignoring data on various socio-economic issues. He further questioned the efficacy of the government’s much touted Pradhan Mantri Mudra Loan Yojana which lent Rs.50,000, 5 lakh and 10 lakh for people to start some income generating project. The government’s claim of these recipients of loans generating jobs is too farfetched and how many jobs can someone who invests Rs.50000 generate, asked the journalist.

The unemployment situation in the country was again a major issue raised by some of those who were requested to give their views about the budget. Detractors of government policies were quick to mention that the promise of new jobs for two crore people is far from achieved and the new budget does not have any means for creating more jobs. Supporters point out that with the economy booming, jobs would naturally increase.