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The logic of a pre-budget Economic Survey was given by, of all the people, Jawaharlal Nehru! In 1958, standing in for T.T. Krishnamachari and presenting, in his own words, a “pedestrian budget", he surveyed the prevailing economic conditions “with a view to giving the background against which the budgetary policies for the coming year have to be viewed". A context for the policy decisions and the financial allocation to different sectors.

More than 50 years on, public investment is no longer the prime mover, especially if you keep public enterprises out, which anyway are not part of the budget. There is a plethora of data sources and quarterly data is available on almost all macroeconomic variables, including gross domestic product (GDP), which was the sole preserve of the Economic Survey till a few years ago. In addition, there is detailed monthly and weekly information. In fact, there is not a single number in the Economic Survey that is new. Also, the nature and quality of state intervention has changed fundamentally from control to regulating and catalysing.

For all these reasons, the Economic Survey needs to be designed and drafted differently. It has grown in content, but not evolved in concept since it was first presented. As such it fails to analyse the new realities because it operates in an old framework.

To start with, the Economic Survey, despite the holistic name, is essentially a government survey. The problem with this is that despite all the changes, it continues to see the government as synonymous with the economy and not just as one part of it. What this has meant is that even after two decades of being a market economy, the Economic Survey produced by the government is market and private sector agnostic!

The Economic Survey needs a new analytical framework within which it can assess how the key stakeholders—households, private corporates, small enterprises, investors (both domestic and foreign), organized/unorganized labour and, of course, government—have performed and how they have been affected by the various events, including policy changes that unfolded in the course of the year. Not a laundry list of sectors and sectoral issues as it is now without any reference to the players and the participants.

Given this new framework and approach, the dynamics of the household sector that contributes 70% of domestic savings or that of the private corporates and enterprises that contribute 70% of the domestic investment in the economy will be better analysed. Equally, a large part of the analytics will have to be on the process of financial intermediation within the system and how efficiently it is being done.

This will axiomatically and organically lead into an analysis of the markets: product markets, labour markets, commodity markets and financial markets. In each of these markets, there is either a market failure or a structural imperfection. It is this that needs to be analysed and understood.

Seen thus, the most important deficit faced by the economy will turn out to be that of raw material, followed by infrastructure, then skills. The fiscal deficit and the current account deficit will succeed, not precede, these in terms of their growth disruption impact.

Similarly, the most contentious and significant role of the state at this point of time, the regulatory role—the failure of which is the source of all scams—must be discussed integrally as well as prominently.

In such a framework, sector issues will get analysed in relation to the systemic risks that they carry: For instance, the functioning of mortgage markets matters not only for where and how people live, but also for macroeconomic stability and the effects of monetary policy. Or, to understand and leverage the opportunities offered by the demographic dividend, it is necessary to analyse labour markets, healthcare spending and pension systems in close connection with the public expenditure policy and sustainability and the economy’s growth potential.

Indeed, the value and integrity of the Economic Survey has to emerge from its assessment and not its recommendations. It has to introduce new perspective to national policy dilemmas and debates.

These changes in substance must be embellished by stylistic changes. The Economic Survey has to move away from being third person, onerous, factual and boring to being engaging, interesting and innovative. A lead can be taken from the annual economic report of the German federal ministry of economics.

This should not be difficult considering that a widely published academic is in charge of the survey. Considering that he has moved from the dense and unreadable Revealed Preference of Government in 1980 to the highly engaging An Economist’s Miscellany in 2011, this should be quite simple!

Haseeb A. Drabu is an economist, and writes on monetary and macroeconomic matters from the perspective of policy and practice. Comments are welcome at haseeb@livemint.com

Also Read |Haseeb A. Drabu’s earlier columns

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