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A worried nation looks on

A worried nation looks on
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First Published: Thu, Feb 24 2011. 08 38 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Feb 24 2011. 08 38 PM IST
Ahead of this year’s budget, anecdotal evidence suggests that the usual zing is missing in people’s expectations. I asked myself—where has all the excitement and anticipation gone?
I rarely hear those heated water-cooler debates around budget expectations anymore. Is this a sign of indifference? Is the Indian confidence index lowering? A study Synovate India undertook for Mint in the past 10 days—a qualitative study undertaken to get a softer feel around the budget expectations of the common man—confirmed my thoughts.
The expectations this year are, well, a lot more realistic. This may not be pessimism, but instead reflects pragmatism. They seem to be veering around to the point of view that there is only so much the government can do, and hence, there is a need to prioritize. It is an indication of a desire that the promises made should be delivered; hence, restrict their number.
Their foremost expectation is on controlling inflation. While they are convinced and upbeat about the direction of the economy, they are concerned about inflation, often giving way to resentment, fear and anger. With costs of everything increasing every day, who but the common man feels the pinch? The biggest and immediate expectation is for the government to do something to contain inflation.
This is affecting people from all walks of life—from the rural poor, the farmer, to smaller businesses, to housewives who cannot even give their families a meal they love. I am not even talking about the other so-called extra items of people’s lists.
It is also increasing the inequality divide. The rapidly expanding middle class that India was so proud of a few years ago may just become a big illusion if inflation is not compensated for in other ways. This will slow India’s growth; the cycle of misery will continue.
The second expectation is on personal income-tax structure. While lowering tax burden through exemptions sounds great, it’s not the same thing as an increase in salaries or income. Besides, a lot of people do not gain from exemptions. The students we interacted with, however, are excited as they can spend more from their expected salaries on consumption goods.
The third expectation is around infrastructure, especially in critical areas such as healthcare and education. Consumer sentiment begs more traction in these areas. The government needs to do a lot more: faster, better, cheaper.
Similarly, the story in the education sector is also not all rosy either. Initiatives are being applauded but corruption is doing them in. People have little hope of moving out of poverty unless they go private—where fees are higher than household salaries. Free, good and clean education seems to be a distant dream in a country where education has a special status.
How are we to forge ahead if we don’t educate our people to equip themselves better to earn a living and uplift themselves, help them get jobs and not to resort to violence (as they are wont to do because they have gone to school, but hey, where is the golden job!). People expect the government to have a better answer here.
There seems to be a growing regional imbalance. While some parts of the country, mostly cities, are witnessing rapid developments, there are sections of the country that have the requisite physical infrastructure but no electricity flowing through them. Just like there are parts of the country that are not connected by roads, with the nearest school or medical facility 10km away.
Finally, there was also some talk around the environment— people are seeking stricter norms. If not for anything else, for their own health!
To sum up then, there is hope but mixed with apprehension around the way the government will deal with this year’s budget. It’s sad that people don’t feel confident about what their government can do for them. But there is no doubt in people’s minds that the government needs to wake up and smell the coffee—there is no way but to look ahead.
And for this, the government needs to undertake a radical shift in its thinking and prioritize its spending. It needs to do that in areas that matter to the masses and not around what will necessarily bring short-terms votes (oops, gains).
Will this year’s budget give us hope? Or will it be déjà vu again?
The author is head of qualitative research and director of Synovate India. She is also head of Censydiam, Synovate Asia.
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First Published: Thu, Feb 24 2011. 08 38 PM IST