New Delhi: In his first interview after presenting the Budget for 2010-11, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee explained his agenda for the economy. The time has come “for India to think big and act bigger on the global stage”, Mukherjee said. Edited excerpts:
If I was to use adjectives such as resilient, safe, predictable—would those be acceptable to you as a definition of today’s Budget?
You know it’s very difficult for me to define the Budget from others’ point of view, but surely I wanted to convey a message and if somebody asks me to define the Budget, I would like to say that, yes, it conveys a message because my fiscal policies, my developmental allocations, they go hand in hand. While I have enhanced the allocation considering that it is (a) priority sector, for example agriculture, I have also tried to give fiscal concessions in the form of either exemption of customs duty or excise duty to ensure that agriculture develops. But three basic objectives I had: One was that we must come back to the path of higher growth trajectory; second, we must move on the path of fiscal consolidation; and, third the inclusive growth, which is the article of faith so far as United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is concerned....
You opened this Budget speech by saying that it shouldn’t just be a statement of income and expenditure but you wanted to dwell on the vision statement as well. Was this learning from the last time where there was some criticism of the fact that you dwelt too much on the minutiae of the Budget and the vision thing was lacking?
You are correct to some extent... I could have become just a pedestrian looking at the concerns in hand, completely ignoring the broad approach each one would like to have to reach the goal... (But) I thought that... the time has come when India must not only think big but act in a bigger manner, so that it can take its rightful place in the comity of nations.
On petroleum pricing, you hiked the tax, which is fine—that is one way of increasing petrol prices. Would it not have been possible for you to articulate how you intend to deregulate oil prices?
It is true. But as far as deregulation is concerned, it is an act. Frankly speaking, it is not the policy matter. In our context it has assumed a policy dimension. But frankly speaking, economically it is an action of the government. Before 2004 actually deregulation was there and that is why I have mentioned it.
It is your government which actually regulated a deregulated practice.
...if you look at a paragraph which I have mentioned in my Budget speech.., my colleague, the minister of petroleum and natural gas, will address this issue (of deregulation). I had mentioned that issue, the government appointed a committee. Kirit Parikh committee’s recommendations are available with the government and they will do this.
I think that is where a little bit of a disappointment comes in because you sort of kicked the ball away.
I could have.
On the other issue of goods and services tax now, while it’s a big move, it involves states and Constitutional amendments. You used very caveated language; these are phrases which allow a way out if something doesn’t happen, so is there any doubt in your mind?
I would not say that I have a doubt in my mind but what I will say is that when I am concerned with 28 states and I’m concerned with the consensus which had to be marked amongst the various stakeholders, I should not assume that everybody will fall in line... the area of divergence has been narrowed down substantially, the area of convergence has expanded but still there are certain areas which we shall have to work on.
There are certain areas where the action has been delayed inordinately, the insurance Bill, let’s say. Your government took a decision in 2004, we are sitting in 2010; that Bill hasn’t gone through and that didn’t find any mention in terms of how you or your government intend to address it. It’s the same thing for the pension and banking Bills.
It is because of certain reasons... there is a problem in respect of the insurance Bill, the banking Bill and the pension Bill.
What was the problem?
The problem was that we didn’t have a numerical majority in both houses of Parliament without the support of the Left and other ally parties; that was one basic reason, that’s why even after the introduction in 2004 we couldn’t proceed further because after all the legislation is to be passed by Parliament.
Are we then saying that this is on the backburner?
I am not saying that. On all these three Bills, we are working and it will be possible to have it. Here I am little more positive because after all we ourselves have enhanced our strength from 147 to 207 today (in the Lok Sabha)...
Until the land acquisition Bill is passed, infrastructure is not going to move at the desired pace that this country needs. What is the government doing there?
That we are discussing because it was to be introduced, but one of our coalition partners expressed some concerns. So we are addressing those issues and I think it would be possible to get it passed.
I come to one more thing which I am sure you and the ministry must be very concerned about, the way inflation has come back in the economy.
We will have to deal with the supply side and the supply side bottlenecks are to be removed. That is why many proposals which I have indicated in my Budget speech and also formulated...are to improve the supply side.
I agree there are cyclical factors but there is an endemic factor and that is low productivity; you need a new agricultural policy, you have been the most comprehensive reformer in the country. The fact is all our reforms have been concentrated in trade, industry and investment; in agriculture we have continued to have perhaps the most regulated sector that really needs a new deal.
I entirely agree with you that we not only require a new deal, we require another Green Revolution. If we shift the same technology which is available to us, which has brought the first Green Revolution in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, if I physically can shift it to the eastern part—Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, eastern UP—then I can have adequate production at least in the medium term; for the long term our productivity has to be increased.
One of the last issues that I wanted to address today—and that is an issue that exercises the mind of the international community a lot when one talks to them—and this is the India versus China economic comparison. In 1978, as you would know, the GDP of both countries was the same. In fact, India was ahead, India had more roads, India had more railways, in several areas India was ahead of China. In 30 years they have become four times our size. Where has our policy lagged?
We were too late. They began (economic reforms) in 1978, we started in 1991...There is a systematic difference between the two systems, how they operate. It is easier in the Chinese system to implement the decisions than in our system.
Allow me to join in on that issue—the first 30 years of our democracy we outstripped China so democracy is not a weakness.
It is a strength. Democracy is a strength because democracy helps you to sustain your progress and development, but at the same time in the decision-making process, it is slow. Please remember that.
But do you at least consider that it is now imperative for India to, it is easy for a lot of Indian thinkers and leaders to say we are not in a race, we are not competing, but the fact is that you are competing in the world?
The fact of the matter is it is not a question of joining the race or being in competition. The fact of the matter is I require minimum 10% growth to improve our conditions... to eradicate poverty, I require minimum 10% growth for a period of (the) next 10 years. This is a compulsion. Today I am producing 234 million tonnes of grain. In the next 10-15 years I will have to double it. There is no way because we have to feed our own people. Requirement of food and food security—it essentially means production, procurement, distribution.