Home / Opinion / The budget sidesteps geostrategic risks

Both the budget document and the Economic Survey have painstakingly detailed risks that endanger the Indian economy and can disrupt growth and employment impulses. Yet, the budget seems to contain very little—by way of either allocations or strategic intent—to mitigate these risks. The focus seems to be on surmounting immediate electoral challenges and neutralizing near-term policy distortions like demonetization.

Both Union finance minister Arun Jaitley and his chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian see major risks emanating from the external sector. Jaitley’s budget lists multiple Fed rate hikes likely in 2017, commodity price uncertainty (especially crude prices) and “…signs of increasing retreat from globalization of goods, services and people, as pressures for protectionism are building up". The Economic Survey also underlines the last two risks.

Given these clear and visible risks, it would be fair to expect defensive action, especially in areas of India’s strengths. The budget small print belies that belief.

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Start with this year’s Economic Survey, which identifies clothes and shoes as ideal candidates for low-skill, high-employment manufacturing potential and for occupying crucial trade space being vacated by China. The survey also finds India has competitive advantage in these two items despite myriad challenges—such as domestic labour laws and tax structure, or the duty preferences enjoyed by competing countries in key buyer markets.

Given the Survey’s clear strategic direction, check out allocations for the commerce and industry ministry under the expenditure budget. Jaitley and his team have allocated only Rs0.01 crore to the Footwear Design and Development Institute, compared with Rs109.99 crore in 2015-16 and Rs25 crore in 2016-17. The institute provides skilled human resources and technology development to the leather and footwear industry. The Indian leather development programme (ILDP) gets a higher allotment of Rs500 crore, compared with Rs235 crore in 2015-16 and Rs400 crore in 2016-17. But then the ILDP focuses on improving the raw material base for leather units and the Survey actually shows non-leather footwear has achieved higher exports than leather footwear.

This is not the only mismatched allocation in the commerce ministry. There’s a token entry of Rs0.50 crore against the project development fund, which the ministry created with the Exim Bank to promote Indian private sector investments in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (commonly referred as CLMV nations) as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East" policy. The creation of the fund was announced by Jaitley in his second budget in February 2015. There are, of course, no follow-up remarks in subsequent budgets.

The budget documents are littered with such examples. The geo-economic strategy, drawing from Modi’s repurposed foreign policy, betrays an excessive strategic reliance on select developed countries which could be a risk. The readout from the White House after US President Donald Trump’s brief telephone conversation with Modi reiterates that the US “…considers India a true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world." While these “challenges" remain undefined, Trump’s recent trade policy announcements now renders this alliance vulnerable. While it might be too early to declare doomsday, India needs a hedging strategy which includes exploring alternative markets.

And, yet, the budget sidesteps this obvious alternative. Take the example of Chabahar port in Iran, to which India has attached great geostrategic significance. The port offers India a land bridge to Afghanistan and Central Asian markets that bypasses Pakistan, and can become an alternative route to north Europe via Russia. Unfortunately, India continues to drag its feet on Chabahar, even though India and Iran started discussing it in 1997 and signed the first agreement in 2003 as part of the Delhi Declaration. This was further consolidated through a Trilateral Transit and Transport Corridor agreement signed during Modi’s visit to Iran in 2016.

ALSO READ: India and Iran slow to develop port as China builds rival hub

Chabahar port has been allotted only Rs150 crore under the ministry of external affairs, compared with Rs100 crore in 2016-17. One could argue that since the project is being executed by special purpose vehicle Indian Ports Global Pvt. Ltd, a joint venture between Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and Kandla Trust, it might make sense to identify capital allocation to these two ports. The two ports have been allotted Rs1,850.30 crore and Rs393.90 crore for 2017-18, against Rs562.38 crore and Rs130.18 crore, respectively, during 2016-17. But there’s a catch: Both amounts have been listed under the head “IEBR", or internal and extra budgetary resources, which means the government will not contribute any money and the two ports will have to generate these amounts from profits, loans and equity. Importantly, both ports are also implementing significant expansion plans (the JNPT’s plans include two new container terminals, two dry ports in Wardha and Jalna, and a special economic zone, among other things) and it is moot how much funds they can spare for Chabahar.

Is India going deliberately slow on Chabahar, given the Trump administration’s recent statements and executive order against Iran? India’s on-now, off-now engagement with Iran may have pushed the country closer to China through a joint military cooperation agreement and possible One Belt, One Road connectivity. The budget lost an opportunity to make some critical course corrections.

Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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