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February 28, 2001                                       Feedback  

    - EXIM POLICY '00



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'We need not be prisoners of dogma and jargon'

I K Gujral

The Budget, as we know, has been presented against the background of a great strain on the nation's finances caused by the Kargil war on one hand and the Gujarat tragedy on the other. This overrides the already enfeebled economy where the fiscal deficit has remained unmanaged, and also the economy as a whole has slowed down.

When I look at the approach of the authors of the Budget I feel that they were looking at next month's elections rather than the challenges that have been confronted. I have a feeling that soon after the assembly elections, both the railway and the main Budget will be revised.

All the same I do wish to say a word of appreciation about the attention given to the infrastructure sector, particularly the promise of reforms in the energy sector. Obviously the government would be worried by the sustained ill-health of almost all electricity boards. No activity can be sustained if the consumer does not pay for what he consumes. The finance minister has said he will insist on 100 per cent metering and also take steps towards the commercialisation of distribution. I have my doubts about his success, but I wish him well.

Similarly, I commend his allocation of resources for building highways and increasing the capacity of major ports. At the same time, he has avoided rationalising the prices of petroleum products, putting off a decision again by a year. Similarly the decontrol of urea prices is far out of sight though this will give some relief to the farming community.

But the government has to finally make up its mind regarding its perception about subsidies.

I am encouraged to see that the Budget gives the needed attention to infrastructure. I wish him success.

I do hope the finance minister will succeed in implementing the downsizing of the government. This was part of the Pay Commission report but was met with resistance from trade unions. The difficulty is about the immobility of our labour force. If a person is thrown out of a job, he only swells the ranks of the unemployed where he does not enjoy any social net. This dilemma is confronted by all policy makers. Therefore, when it comes to implementing, it is not the lack of intentions, but the cruel social reality that stares us in the face.

I also wait for a more comprehensive statement regarding investment in agriculture, education and health. Though broad indications have been given, the devil always hides in details.

I was listening to the Budget speech where the FM has indicated both hope and determination. Hope emanates from the fact that the number of tax-payers have doubled. But more has to be done. The minister has promised strong action so far as evaders are concerned. Let us laud his actions.

I don't think the railways should be privatised. As a matter of fact, I am averse to the wholesale privatisation of the public sector. Let us keep in mind the fact that the public sector is owned by all of us, and not by the government. The broad policy framework should be that the government moves out of the perennially loss-making industries and services that require personalised attention. I think a policy statement is called for, explaining the criteria of privatisation. Under all circumstances, the core industries of our economy and the strategic industries must never be privatised.

The taxation policies must keep in mind the policy priorities. The non-conventional sources, particularly solar energy, must be encouraged and protected. As a matter of fact I am under the impression that the government subsidises solar cookers and solar heaters. I would suggest that this particular case should be brought to the notice of the ministry of non-conventional energy. And some honourable MP of either House can take it up during the debate and bring it to the FM's notice.

The main commitment of the Indian people and the Constitution is to build a socially just society. While doing this we need not be prisoners of dogma and jargon. I therefore feel that at present, our main focus has to be on the plight of the poor who must be pulled out of their destitution as quickly as possible.

I think many more questions will arise in the coming days when various implications of the Budget are spelt out in the Finance Paper.

I K Gujral is a former prime minister of India

Budget 2001

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