Of budget, black money and housing

India-Real-Estate-MarketVivek Kaul

Arun Jaitley’s second budget as finance minister was slightly high on the policy front. One of the things that Jaitley talked about was tackling the black money menace in the country. This was the first time anyone from the Modi government has talked comprehensively about the black money within the country. Before this, the entire focus was on getting back the black money which has left the shores of the country. Focusing on black money in the country makes more sense simply because it would be easier to recover.
Jaitley announced a spate of measures in the budget to curb domestic black money (though he announced many more to curb black money leaving the country). He said: “a new and more comprehensive Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Bill will be introduced in the current session of the Parliament…This law will enable confiscation of benami property and provide for prosecution, thus blocking a major avenue for generation and holding of black money in the form of benami property, especially in real estate.”
The finance minister also said that the Income Tax Act would amended to “prohibit acceptance or payment of an advance of Rs 20,000 or more in cash for purchase of immovable property.” How will this provision be implemented remains to be seen.
Further, quoting of the permanent account number(PAN) has been made mandatory for purchase or sale exceeding the value of Rs 1 lakh. This is a good move. In fact, it would have been an even better move if Aadhar cards were made compulsory for real estate transactions, given that it is a tad easier to fudge the PAN card in comparison to the Aadhar card.
The ministry of finance now also plans to use technology to improve tax enforcement. As Jaitley said: “To improve enforcement, Central Board of Direct Taxes(CBDT) and Central Board of Excise and Customs(CBEC) will leverage technology and have access to information in each other’s database.”
The move to leverage technology is very interesting. In the February 2013 budget speech, the then finance minister P Chidambaram had estimated that India had only 42,800 people with a taxable income of Rs 1 crore or more. Contrast this with the fact that more than 30,000 luxury cars are sold in India every year. Both Audi and Mercedes sold more than 10,000 cars in India in 2014.
What this clearly tells us is that a lot of Indians are not paying their taxes properly. And technology can help in narrowing down who these people are.
Income on which taxes are not paid ends up as black money. A lot of black money that is generated finds it’s way into real estate in
benami form. This is the major reason why real estate prices do not fall, despite sales having come to a standstill for a while now.
Further, once black money enters real estate it tends to generate more black money. Consider this—an individual buys a house for Rs 50 lakh, of which he pays 30% or Rs 15 lakh in black. The proportion could be higher or lower depending on which part of the country the individual is in. The black money portion tends to be on the higher side in the national capital territory. The same cannot be said about cities like Bangalore.
Getting back to the example. Let’s say a few years later the price has gone up to Rs 1 crore. The individual now sells the home and gets Rs 30 lakh in black, which is 100% more than what he started with. This amount then finds its way back again into real estate.
This phenomenon has led to a situation where a huge portion of the homes being built are just being built so that investors can hide their black money. This essentially ensures that those who want to buy homes to live in simply can’t afford them. As the latest Economic Survey points out: “The widening gap between demand and supply of housing units and affordable housing finance solutions is a major policy concern for India. At present urban housing shortage is 18.8 million units of which 95.6 per cent is in economically weaker sections (EWS) / low income group (LIG) segments and requires huge financial investment to overcome.” The housing shortage in rural India stands at 43.1 million homes.
A recent report by Liases Foras, a real estate research and rating company, put the weighted average price of a flat in Mumbai at Rs 1.32 crore. For the National Capital Territory the price was around Rs 75 lakh. Even in a smaller metro like Pune, the average price was around Rs 57 lakh.
Most Indians can’t afford these kind of prices. Akhilesh Tilotia in his new book
The Making of India, makes an estimate of the price range at which homes will be affordable: “A large portion of the unmet housing needs are at an economic value of Rs 5-10 lakh. Assuming that households of five members can crowd into space of between 250-400 sq ft, housing stock in the range of Rs 1,250-Rs 4,000 per sq ft will be needed.” What this clearly shows is that homes that are currently being built in cities are way beyond what most people can afford.
And this explains why “real estate and ownership of dwelling” constitute only “7.8 per cent of India’s GDP in 2013-14”. In comparison, as data from the National Housing Bank shows, China was at 20%, Malaysia at 29% and the United States at 81%. This number needs to go up in the years to come. And the only way that is possible is if affordable homes become available.
In order to ensure that the nexus between real estate and black money needs to be broken down, so that builders start making homes for people to live in. Whether Jaitley’s efforts bear some fruit remains to be seen, given that many real estate companies are essentially fronts for politicians to hide their ill-gotten wealth.
The last financial year’s Economic Survey made a very interesting point: “Nearly 30 per cent of the country’s population lives in cities and urban areas and this figure is projected to reach 50 per cent in 2030.” If affordable homes are not built, where will all these people live?

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis dated Mar 3, 2015 

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected]