Budget 2022: An opportunity for govt, Sitharaman to break the pattern

budget 2022 by nirmala sitharaman today
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with ministers of state. Budget 2022 presents Sitharaman with an opportunity to address issues that matter to millions of Indians – jobs, income and the fundamental right to lead a dignified life.

If you ask me to suggest a title for the forthcoming Union Budget 2022-23, I would waste no time wracking my brains to find one. Rather, I would borrow it straight from Daniel Defoe’s 1725 pamphlet, `Everybody’s Business is Nobody’s Business’. And in my opinion, that fits the bill properly.

Many of the readers would find my words cynical, depending on which side of the table they’re on. But there are sufficient reasons to believe that the Union Budget 2022-23 will spring no surprise that may upend the lives of those who live at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. In other words, expecting any big-ticket announcement that will have any meaning for the men and women on the street in the forthcoming Union Budget would be unreasonable. Suffice to say that going by the past experience, the deafening noise in the print, visual and social media surrounding the annual exercise is much ado about nothing.

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Budget 2022 must shun fiscal conservatism

Going by the conversations around the economy, the finance minister is likely to present a Budget that will placate deficit hawks and fiscal fundamentalists by making a fine balancing of the annual accounts of the government. It is also reasonable to believe that some announcements will aim to woo rural voters ahead of the elections to five state assemblies including Uttar Pradesh. Also expect some attractive `headline numbers’ woven around economic growth and employment that will translate into nothing for common folks. We know well that a GDP growth number means nothing for the poor, the deprived and the marginalised.

There will also be plenty of quotable quotes tucked into the Budget speech to keep the media happy. On display will be numbers, colourful graphs and tables to support the view that everything is hunky-dory in the economy and the country is on a fast lane to reach Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25 without explaining how this magic figure will be achieved.

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A run-of-the-mill Budget won’t do

The national economy has shown some resilience through the pandemic. But the reality remains that the disparity in wealth distribution has exacerbated through the pandemic. The Budget speech is likely to miss the shared concern on how to prevent more people from plunging into poverty.

The government could have done a lot to compensate for the vanishing jobs and the consequent income losses suffered by the masses. But its blinkered view of the economy and the emphasis on the importance of balancing both sides of the balance sheets prevented it from coming out with \income-supporting measures to pull people out of poverty amid the most severe healthcare crisis in more than 100 years.

As the finance minister rises to present Budget 2022 on February 1, she has an opportunity to address the issues that matter the most for millions of Indians – jobs, income and their fundamental right to lead a dignified life. Since common prosperity is the avowed goal of this government, the finance minister should ditch the path dependency by presenting a Union Budget to achieve this goal. Since borrowing from the Chinese playbook of common prosperity will enrage the xenophobic, she could easily work out a `Made in India’ playbook to achieve this goal.

There is an opportunity for the finance minister to make Budget 2022 everybody’s business and make history as a national hero and visionary. Over to you, Madam Finance Minister.

(P Vinod Kumar is a Kochi-based economist and columnist. Views expressed are personal.)