Budget aims to not only improve the health of Indians but also that of the economy
In an interview after presenting the Union Budget, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaiftey called his massive healthcare programme officially titled ‘Ayushman Bharat’ as ‘ModiCare’ with an obvious reference to Barack Obama’s signature policy of ‘Obamacare’. This programme, that will reach 500 million Indians, will give health coverage of up to ~500,000 to these poor families. This, of course, will be an expensive welfare scheme but given the over- all health of the population, this singular aspect of the Budget is its most significant measure.
The Budget had several other noteworthy aspects, such as increased sup- port for farmers when it came to Minimum Support Price (MSP) as well on infrastructure spending. And, thanks to Goods and Services Tax, the minutiae of the Budget has come down a lot. However, India’s ‘middle classes’, rather the tax-paying class of India, that considers themselves ‘middle class’, were left very disappointed because the Budget brought little relief in terms of income tax cuts. While most small and medium business owners would be happy that the Government increased the size of companies that would pay a lower rate of corporate tax, the increase in the education and health cess, which will be used to fund the massive roll out of the healthcare programme, and fund several schemes in education as well as a whole host of new institutions announced in this Budget and Budgets past would lead to a higher outflow. The massive increase in infrastructure spends, thanks to several big ticket projects, such as the ‘Bharatmala’ road network, the ‘Sagarmala’ port network and the Mumbai- Ahmedabad high-speed rail project along with upgrades of the Mumbai and Bangalore suburban rail networks, is welcome and will bode well for India in the long run.
But India’s massive investment in healthcare, both at a preventative level with more medical colleges being developed as well as the new health insurance scheme, will do much to make India a healthier country. Indeed, a healthier population will payoff in the long run. As incidents across the country have visibly demonstrated, the overall condition of healthcare infrastructure across the country is in shambles. Far too many children have died for lack of proper incubators and oxygen. Several preventable diseases are killing millions across the nation and one guesses the major reason for the insurance scheme is to prevent the crippling financial conditions that many families in India face when a loved one falls ill. Earlier decisions by this Government, such as those to cap costs of medical devices, have shown the commitment this Government has to rein in spiraling medical costs. The fact that the Government has recognized the continuing danger of Tuberculosis in India is also welcome and the allocation towards this disease should be incentive for an army of Indian scientists who have working towards vaccine-treatable cores.
And even though a new medical education Bill has several flaws, which must be corrected, there is also a recognition about how rotten to the core the Indian medical education has become. New Government-sponsored medical colleges, with the Government aiming at one in every three districts, will also lead to distributed healthcare, instead of the massive concentration of healthcare facilities in major metropolitan areas. In this quest, however, the Union Government must be supported by States, and the model implemented in Delhi through neighbourhood clinics can be a good model to adopt, especially for smaller States.
The lack of any income tax benefits, particularly with regards to the slabs, is because there is a feeling that not enough Indians pay tax and it is true that far too few Indians pay enough tax. The Government has also revised its fiscal deficit targets, possibly encouraged by global ratings agencies, that indicated that small increases would not impact India’s sovereign rating. This obviously encouraged the spend-spend-spend theme of the Budget and with a clear indication that the overall economy would pick up this year and lead to better tax revenues. But on a slightly negative note, long-term capital gains Tax on share trading has come as a slight let down for India’s trading classes. But while the markets were stung for a few minutes, the overall tepid reaction to the Budget indicates that it had become routine, as well as the impact of the Goods and Services Tax, which has led to a more collaborative indirect tax structure.
But it is clear that this Budget was geared towards rural India, both in terms of healthcare, farmer support, employment through infrastructure build outs, rural housing and more. Clearly, the agrarian distress, which has been the subtext in several recent elections, such as in Gujarat and which will be a major issue in the big States going to the polls later this year starting with Karnataka and the major States in the Hindi-heartland in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, are worrying Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet. The results in the Alwar and Ajmer bypolls, which gave the seats by huge margins to the Congress, should be worrying for Modi, his electoral maven Amit Shah and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia. And things are not much better in Madhya Pradesh where the BJP swept both in 2013 and 2014, there have been several farmer protests as agricultural incomes have stagnated. This was made evident in the Economic Survey released a few days ago and with rural voters still forming a bulk of the electorate in India, the Budget was on expected lines.
And one of those expected lines is as some are predicting a winter 2018 election alongside the elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The noises coming from the Government on simultaneous elections has been made by Modi and Shah for a while and even the President indicated that in his speech at Parliament opening. A winter 2018 election, six months ahead of the schedule, would make for an interesting contest particularly with Opposition unity being discussed at length. Will this Budget pay electoral dividends to the BJP? That remains to be seen but Modi and Jaitley have kept the voter in mind.