In the wake of assembly polls in five states of the country, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Wednesday managed to evoke diverse reactions from the media and political leaders alike through his Budget presentation for the year 2017-18. While some hailed the tax rebates and higher infrastructure spending, a few questioned the push given to rural sector growth, affordable housing and small companies.
Establishing the rationale behind the decisions taken and offering a blueprint for the upcoming years, Jaitley said this was aimed at enhancing the spending in the 'successful stories' of the previous years and encashing on their development.
"Our weakness is in the private sector. Banks are still struggling. In order to keep up with this, I needed to spend more. Now, in order to spend more, do I just need to increase the schemes? Or spend more on the areas that have yielded better results in the past few years? Hence, the first area that deserved spending was rural agriculture. So, I do a large part of spending there - in irrigation, roads, rural housing, farm sector insurance. The second area - keep continuously increasing spending in the social sector," he said.
"The third area - in a big way, concentrate on the infrastructure, out of which Rs. 2.5 lakh crore have been given to transportation. So, you enable movement in the nation. In railways, out of the Rs. 1,31,000 crore, the budget is giving Rs. 55,000 crore to it. Now, that puts a question on Railways itself but, it was a necissity since railways is a very importarnt part of our life. So, telecom, highways, ports, smart cities, rural roads - these are all success stories that are emerging and I had to build up on these stories," he added.
Jaitley also said the government has gone hard against tax evaders and people who make a mockery of the Indian legal and financial system.
He said, "The second thing that weighed on my mind was what the country and economy need today. I gave a very honest data in my presentation that we are a non tax-paying nation. So, the burden of this comes on the tax payer and the evader. So, I go high on the evader. I must give relief to this man. At the same time, I want to make paying tax an attractive option for the evader."
"Also, post demonetisation, I want to give the MSME sector a boost. So I extend that exemption unconditionally to 96 percent of India's companies. I give relief to the housing sector as well," he added.
In a unique move to weed out corruption and black money from the political system in the country, Jaitley announced the maximum amount of money that can be donated to political parties in cash would be Rs. 2000. Jaitley explained how the move can be useful in curbing black money.
"The donor will get a reduction. The donee will get the exemption. If you're getting the donation by cash, the maximum you can get from a person is Rs. 2,000. If they do it by cheque, a notified bank would be issuing bonds. So, it'll only be white, clean money. These bonds can be given to a party. The bonds will be redeemable within a short period of time," he said.
Jaitley added, "These bonds will be bearer in character. We did this because in the past, people have preferred cash payment in order not to disclose their identity. And this status quo hasn't worked. So, this needed to be changed. If the party or person doesn't comply with this, they lose the exemption."
Though the Economic Survey, tabled by Jaitley, a day before made a strong case for Universal Basic Income for India, Jaitley begs to differ.
"The difficulty that I see is India's politics is yet to mature. And, in a politics, which is not mature, you'll have a demand coming - continue the existing set of subsidies and give universal basic income which is not possible. Because, the Universal Basic Income is an alternate to the current structure of subsidies," he said.
Comparing his regime with that of the United Progressive Alliance's (UPA), Jaitley said, "It's better to err on the right side. The UPA government had a big Budget Expenditure but the actual expenditure was always 1 lakh crore lesser than that. In the last two years, I have restored the sanctity of the budget. So this year when I end, I end 70,000 cr higher in Indirect Taxes and correspondingly higher Direct Taxes. So, with the increased amount of taxes on March 31, my revised estimates will be higger than the expected estimates."
Answering allegations that the government hasn't done anything in particular to increase employment opportunity for the youth, the Finance Minister quipped the various provisions in the budget will surely help create more jobs.
"There are so many provisions in the budget that will defintely help towards creating new employment opportunities, be it the investment in infrastructure, or MSME sector," he said.
Earlier in the day, presenting the General Budget proposals for 2017-18 in Parliament, Jaitley said the major thrust of his fourth budget is on stimulating growth, relief to middle class, affordable housing, curbing black money, promoting digital economy, transparency of political funding and simplification of tax administration.
Jaitley outlined the government's overarching agenda: 'Transform, Energise and Clean India'.
The government's emphasis will be on implementing all these proposals for the benefit of the farmers, the poor and the under privileged sections of the society, the finance minister said.