The budget speech is an excellent platform to present big ideas even as the details about a government’s tax and spend plans are made public.
One big idea has already been decided in the Congress election manifesto. Pranab Mukherjee will almost surely chalk out a plan to provide food security to the poor: 25kg of cereal a month for every poor family at a subsidized Rs3 per kg. Food security seems likely to be the flagship scheme of the new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, just as guaranteed rural jobs was the big one for its predecessor.
Ilustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Another big plan worth pursuing would be a huge housing push. The obvious way to do this is to increase tax breaks for home ownership and reform urban land laws. But the government should go beyond this with an ambitious programme of public housing in existing urban centres and build new cities.
Such a housing plan will serve two purposes. First, there is the social benefit. India is rapidly and inevitably urbanizing, but most immigrants are forced into slums by high land prices. The private sector is now taking a few tentative steps to build small and affordable homes. But that will not be enough. India does not just need better housing and infrastructure in its existing cities. It needs new cities.
Second, there is the economic benefit. Building homes can trigger demand in many other industries and create jobs. There is enough research to show that construction has deep linkages with the rest of the economy and is also a great source of unskilled jobs.
In that sense, a huge programme of public investment in housing will more than match the benefits from social security schemes such as the one for rural jobs or the proposed one for food security.
In this context, it is worth remembering an old slogan from the socialist 1970s: roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter). The new UPA government has already made clear its commitment to roti (the proposed food security law). The kapda part of it is being taken care of by economic growth, if we take kapda as a proxy for all sorts of consumer goods. That leaves makaan, where there is huge unmet demand.
Manmohan Singh surely knows that a leader has to be part prophet and part plumber: inspiring stakeholders with a vision, while also paying attention to routine details. A programme of public housing would go down well with the millions forced to live in slums even as it helps stimulate demand for cement, steel and the like.
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