Pulse of the matter



The Economic Survey of 2015-2016 is a lovely document which goes into great detail on what is wrong with India on the economic front and offers good workable solutions to solve these problems.

One of the points that the Survey makes is regarding the Indian agriculture becoming cereal centric. The reason for this lies in the fact that the government procures rice and wheat from the farmers at the minimum support price(MSP). While the government announces an MSP for 23 crops, it largely buys only rice, wheat and some cotton. For sugarcane there is an MSP like engagement where the government fixes prices and the sugar mills are legally obligated to buy sugarcane from the farmers at that price.

As the Survey points out: “In principle MSP exists for most farmers for most crops, it’s realistic impact is quite limited for most farmers in the country. Public procurement at MSP has disproportionately focused on wheat, rice and sugarcane and perhaps even at the expense of other crops such as pulses and oilseeds.”

This has effectively led to a situation where the government has large stocks of rice and wheat much above the buffer stock norms. But it also leads to a situation where there are frequent spikes in the price of pulses. In the recent past the price of tur dal (or pigeon pea) had touched Rs 200 per kg. Elections have been lost in the past on onion prices going up and given this, elections can easily be lost in the future with price of pulses going up.

Importing pulses is really not a solution because India is the number one producer as well a consumer of pulses in the world. As the Survey puts it: “Given that India is the major producer and consumer of pulses, imports cannot be the main source for meeting domestic demand.”

This means that the farmers need to be incentivised to produce pulses and at the same the yields on pulses also need to go up. The question is how can the government incentivise farmers to produce pulses and wean them away from producing rice and wheat.

As the report titled Price Policy for Kharif Crops—The Marketing Season of 2015-2016 points out: “A pertinent question arises as to why farmers are not wholeheartedly diversifying towards oilseeds and pulses. Based on Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices’s interaction with a wide spectrum of farmers and also based on field visits, it emerged that farmers need a backup plan in the form of reasonably strong procurement machinery to be put in place to fall back upon when the prices fall below minimum support price.”

Along these lines, the Economic Survey recommends a “strengthened procurement system” for pulses. And the good part is that the finance minister Arun Jaitley has gone ahead with this suggestion in the budget.

As Jaitley said in his budget speech: “Effective arrangements have been made for pulses procurement… Incentives are being given for enhancement of pulses production. Rs 500 crores under National Food Security Mission has been assigned to pulses.”

Also, the government has plans of creating a buffer stock for pulses like it has for rice and wheat. As Jaitley said during his speech: “A number of measures have been taken to deal with the problem of abrupt increase in prices of pulses. Government has approved creation of buffer stock of pulses through procurement at Minimum Support Price and at market price through Price Stabilisation Fund. This Fund has been provided with a corpus of  Rs 900 crore to support market interventions.”

Given the current structure of the agricultural economy these are steps in the right direction. With the government buying more pulses at the minimum support price, it will incentivise more farmers to grow them, improving the total production of pulses. This is very important given that pulses are a huge source of protein for vegetarians.

The other big problem with pulses is that most of it is grown on unirrigated land. As the Economic Survey points out: “In contrast, a large share of output in wheat, rice and sugarcane – in Punjab, Haryana and UP – is from irrigated land. In water scarce Maharashtra, all sugarcane is grown on irrigated land.

Meeting the high and growing demand for pulses in the country will require large increases in pulses production on irrigated land, but this will not occur if agriculture policies continue to focus largely on cereals and sugarcane.” A better procurement policy for pulses will help in increasing production.

Further, pulses have a low yield. In fact, the yield in India is lower than other key pulse producing countries like Brazil, Myanmar and Nigeria, which have better yields than that in India. Madhya Pradesh which is the main state producing pulses, has a yield of 938 kg per hectare. In comparison, China has yield of 1550 kg per hectare.

What has not helped is the fact that the yield has more or less remained flat. In 2007-2008, 826 kg of tur dal was produced per hectare. By 2013-2014, this number had risen to only 859 kg per hectare, at a rate of less than 1% per year (around 0.7% to be precise).

As Dharmakirti Joshi and Dipti Deshpande economists at Crisil Research point out in a research note titled Every third year, pulses catch price-fire: “Pulses account for about 20% of area under foodgrain production, but less than 10% of foodgrain output. Also, over time, production of pulses has failed to catch up with demand. Output has grown less than 2% average in the last 20 years, while acreage has grown even lesser at 0.8%. Not surprisingly, yield rose only 0.9%.”

In order to improve yields, either more pulses need to be grown under irrigated areas, or the unirrigated areas need access to irrigation. The second option will take a lot of time to achieve. Given this, it is important that farming of pulses is encouraged in areas which have access to irrigation. And that is precisely what Jaitley has tried to do with this budget.

There may be lot that is wrong with Jaitley’s budget, but he has got it right when it comes to pulses.
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared in The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle on March 2, 2016

Elections with tur dal tadka

Dal prices have been on fire. The bureaucrats and politicians have been caught napping once again. In the recent past, tur dal prices have crossed Rs 200 per kg. The prices of other major pulses have also crossed more than Rs 100 per kg.

The governments (central as well as state governments) have gone on an overdrive and blamed the hoarders for the price rise, as they have often done since the 1960s. A statement released by the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution late last week pointed out that 74,846.359 tonnes of pulses have been seized from hoarders after 6,077 raids.

It is not surprising that the central government wants to push down the price of various pulses in general and tur dal in particular, given the on-going state assembly elections in Bihar. Media reports suggest that the high dal prices have become an election issue in Bihar, with leaders of both the NDA and the Nitish+Lalu+Congress combine accusing each other of not doing enough to control dal prices.

But is hoarding the really the only reason for high prices? The ministry of agriculture publishes a document titled Commodity Profile for Pulses. This document dated March 2015 had clearly pointed out that the total production of various kinds of dal would fall by 6.8% to 18.43 million tonnes in 2014-2015. The production had stood at 19.78 million tonnes in 2013-2014.

The production of tur dal was expected to be at 2.75 million tonnes, a fall of 13.2%.  The production for 2013-2014 had stood at 3.17 million tonnes.

The Commodity Profile for Pulses dated September 2015, revised these numbers. The total production of dal was revised to 17.2 million tonnes, a fall of 13% from 2013-2014. The production of tur dal was revised to 2.78 million tonnes, a fall of 12.3% from 2013-2014.

The point here is that the government knew at the beginning of this financial year that the production of tur dal in particular and total dal production as a whole, had fallen in 2014-2015. It was but logical that hoarders would get into the fray.

This possibility should have been tackled at that point of time. By the time the government woke up to this possibility it was too little and too late. The damage of escalating dal prices had already been done.

Further, imports have been bandied around as a solution to the escalating prices. In a press release dated October 19, 2015, the ministry of consumer prices, food and public distribution stated that the “government would further import 2000 tonnes of Tur dal and 1000 tonnes of Urad dal and tender will be floated by MMTC immediately.”

As mentioned earlier the production of tur dal has fallen from 3.17 million tonnes in 2013-2014 to 2.78 million tonnes in 2014-2015. Also, a poor monsoon this year may also have had an impact on tur production. Tur is mainly grow during the kharif season and a very small portion of the total area under production has access to irrigation. The monsoon this year was at 86% of its long period average.

So what does this mean? The production of tur dal during the course of 2014-2015 was around 0.4 million tonnes lower than 2013-2014. In an article in The Indian Express Professor Ashok Gulati of ICRIER estimates that the yearly consumption of tur dal in India is in the region of 3.3 to 4 million tonnes. Trying to plug this huge gap between falling production and consumption by importing a few thousand tonnes of tur dal is not going to help much.

In fact, the global market for pulses is not very big. In 2014-2015, India imported a total of 4.6 million tonnes of dal, of which 0.58 million tonnes was tur dal. A little over half of India’s tur dal imports came from neighbouring Myanmar and the remaining came from Africa. Also, it is worth mentioning here that India is the biggest producer of tur dal in the world. So imports really cannot help beyond a point.

Further, pulses are an important source of proteins especially for vegetarians. In this scenario as per capita income goes up, the demand for pulses will continue to go up.

As the 2013-2014 annual report of ministry of consumption, food and public distribution points out: “demand for pulses has been increasing steadily mainly due to increase in population and preference for enhanced protein requirements in food.”

A discussion paper titled Taming Food Inflation in India released by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) in April 2013 and authored by Ashok Gulati and Shweta Gulati refers to the same reason. As it points out: “[The] study finds that the pressure on prices is more on protein foods (pulses, milk and milk products, eggs, fish and meat) as well as fruits and vegetables, than on cereals and edible oils, especially during 2004-05 to December 2012. This normally happens with rising incomes, when people switch from cereal based diets to more protein based diets.”

This trend of increased consumption of proteins has been around for a while. What all this clearly tells us is that the government failed to see this crisis coming, even though the data as well as the trend suggested it very clearly.

Further, the trend of increased protein consumption will continue, as people earn more and eat better. This can be only solved by producing more pulses within the country.

The government of India actively procures wheat and rice through the Food Corporation of India and other agencies. This creates its own set of problems. As the CACP report points out “Assured procurement gives an incentive for farmers to produce cereals rather than diversify the production-basket.”

The economic incentive the way it is currently structured encourages farmers to produce more of rice and wheat and not other crops. This is something that needs to be set right.

In the short run, the good news is that the area on which pulses have been sown in this kharif season has gone up to 11.6 million hectares from 10.3 million hectares last year.

As far as tur dal is concerned the area under production has gone up by 4% to 3.74 million hectares. While the number is higher in comparison to 2014-2015, it is not as high as earlier years. Between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014, the number varied between 4.42 million hectares and 3.90 million hectares. The yield in 2010-2011 was 655 kg per hectare. This had jumped to 813 kg per hectare in 2013-2014.

With an increase in area under production, prices are likely to fall a bit in the days to come. Nevertheless, if dal prices in general and tur dal prices in particular, need to come down dramatically in the years to come, then the yield as well as area under cultivation need to go up. And this is easier said than done.

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

The column originally appeared in The Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle on October 28, 2015

Mr Jaitley, for war on black money, make political funding digital and through cheques. No cash.

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010
By September 30, 2015, those who had black money hidden abroad had to declare it to the government. On this “declared” black money, the government will charge a tax of 30 per cent and a penalty of 30 per cent.

From the numbers that have been put out by the ministry of finance, and the fact that in the last one year the government has spent a huge amount of political capital on it, it’s clear that the effort to unearth black money that has moved abroad has been a complete flop.

During the compliance period offered by the government, 638 declarants declared assets and income amounting to`4,147 crore. There is perhaps more black money hidden just in Lutyens’ Delhi. Given that the government is levying a 30 per cent tax and 30 per cent penalty on this money, the total revenue collected from this effort would be `2,488 crore. This is not even a drop in the ocean of black money in this country.

In response to these poor collections, finance minister Arun Jaitley wrote on his Facebook page: “The bulk of black money is still within India. We thus need a change in national attitude where plastic currency becomes the norm and cash an exception. Being seized of this problem, the government has been working with various authorities in order to incentivise this change. The opening of a large number of payment gateways, Internet banking, payment banks and the emerging reality of e-commerce will prompt the use of banking transactions and plastic money rise significantly.”

With the rise of plastic money, the hope is that the total amount of black money generated in the Indian financial system will go down. With plastic money it is fairly easy to keep track of transactions and hence tax them.  While this may or may not happen, there is a simple thing that Mr Jaitley and the Modi government can do to kickstart their war against domestic black money.

It should be made compulsory for political parties to receive donations only through the plastic money route and in the form of cheques. Given that it is so passionate about unveiling the black money in the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party can take a lead on this and start taking in donations only through the plastic money and cheque route, shunning all cash donations.

One bogey that can be raised against this suggestion is about those who do not have a bank account. How will they donate money to a political party if they want to?

The ministry of finance in a press release dated September 4, 2015, had said: “The achievement under Pradhan Mantri Jan DhanYojana (PMJDY) is heading towards saturation. Initial demand for bank accounts was expected to be around 7.5 crore (75 million). However, so far close to 18 crore accounts have been opened. 15.74 crore Rupay Debit cards have been issued.”

If these numbers are to be believed, then most Indians now have access to a formal banking channel. They also have access to debit cards. And this can be used to make donations to political parties as well.

While everyone who has a debit card may not know how to use them currently, it can be easily taught. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has communicated extensively on asking people to give up their subsidised cooking gas cylinders. He can do the same with Rupay debit cards. The government can run ad campaigns around it as well, explaining how these cards are used.

Once donations made to political parties move away from cash, there will be an audit trail. No black money will go into the funding of political parties, breaking the nexus between politicians and those who have black money (read traders and businessmen). Once black money stops political funding, political parties and the government (the present government and the ones to come) are more likely to crack down on domestic black money. Until then they will only make statements because there is no incentive to crack down on black money.

Also, political parties should be brought under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The current government is against this move. In an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court in late August 2015, the Modi government had said: “If political parties are held to be public authorities under RTI Act, it would hamper their smooth internal working, which is not the objective of the RTI Act and was not envisaged by Parliament. Further, it is apprehended that political rivals might file RTI applications with malicious intentions, adversely affecting their political functioning.”

I guess the only reason the government is opposing political parties being brought under RTI is because then people can file an RTI and be able to get the funding details of political parties. And that is something no political party is comfortable with.

At the state level, real estate companies are big financiers of political parties. Real estate is where most black money gets invested. Once political parties are brought under RTI, this nexus can start to unravel as well.

The nation has a genuine problem of black money. The problem is well known. The solutions to it are also well known. The question is, will our politicians do something about it or will they just keep talking about it?

My bet is on the latter. Yours?

The column originally appeared in The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle on Oct 9, 2015

Tackling black money

indian rupees

Vivek Kaul

One of the promises made by the Bhartiya Janata Party(BJP) before the sixteenth Lok Sabha elections was that it will get back all the black money that has left India over the years. This issue really caught the imagination of the voters. After coming to power, the party and its leaders have reiterated that they are still committed to getting back all the black money that has left the Indian shores.
Nevertheless this remains a difficult task given that the money is spread across tax havens all over the world. The economies of tax havens operate on all the money that is stored in their bank accounts, and so they wouldn’t be exactly be bending over their backs to hand over the money back to India. Also, the government needs to decide whether such an operation is feasible or are there better ways of looking at the situation like tackling the black money problem at home rather than trying to get back all the money that has left the Indian shores.
Before we get any further it is important to define what black money is. A ministry of finance white paper published in May 2012 suggests that “There is no uniform definition of black money in the literature or economic theory.” It then goes on to define black money as “ as assets or resources that have neither been reported to the public authorities at the time of their generation nor disclosed at any point of time during their possession.”
In simple English this is money which has been earned but not been declared as an income and hence, no tax has been paid on it. This is precisely how the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) had defined ‘black money’ in its 1985 report on Aspects of Black Economy. The NIPFP defined ‘black income’ as ‘the aggregates of incomes which are taxable but not reported to the tax authorities’.
Black money is generated from a variety of transactions including criminal activity. Nevertheless a major portion of black money is generated through legal activities. The ministry of finance white paper points out a number of reasons as to why people do not declare their entire income. “For example, a factory owner may under-report production on account of theft of electricity which in turn leads to evasion of taxes…Sometimes the procedural regulations can be such that complying with them may increase the probability of further scrutiny and thereby the incidence of the burden of compliance, creating a perverse incentive not to report at all and remain outside the reported and accounted proportion of the economy,” the report suggests.
Of course, this leads to under-declaration of income and lower tax collection by the government.
Further, sometimes culture and social practices also play a role “in deciding the preferences of citizens between tax compliance and black money generation.” In a country where not declaring income is a norm, generating black money may be totally acceptable. India fits this perfectly, with only 3.5 crore individuals out of a population of 120 crore paying taxes.
So, how does the country get rid of this menace? There are no easy answers to such a complex problem. Nevertheless, there has to be a starting point. The finance ministry white paper calls “for political consensus as well as patience and perseverance”.
The political consensus is the starting point. But are the Indian political parties really interested in weeding out black money? The answer is no. Allow me to elaborate.
A study carried out by the Centre for Media Studies sometime in March this year suggested that around Rs 30,000 crore would be spent during the 16th Lok Sabha elections which happened in April and May 2014. Of this amount the government of India would spend around Rs 7,000-8,000 crore, the study suggested. The remaining amount would be spent by candidates and their parties.
Candidates are allowed to spend Rs 70 lakh for fighting a Lok Sabha election in bigger states. For other states the amount varies from Rs 22 lakh to Rs 54 lakh. While officially candidates stay within this limit, unofficially they spend a lot more money, as news reports appearing around election time often point out. The question is where does this money come from? A major part of the Indian elections are financed through black money. Some of this money is essentially black money coming back to India from abroad, particularly from places like Dubai. This money is routed back through the hawala route.
Further, the money that politicians earn through corruption finds its way into real estate. Many real estate companies are essentially fronts for the ill-gotten wealth of politicians. Hence, are the politicians willing to disturb the status quo on this front? Are they willing to carry out reforms in the process of election campaign finance? Or it too lucrative an opportunity to let go of?
A serious effort of tackling black money problem will mean looking into real estate transactions, which generate a significant portion of black money in India. The finance minister Arun Jaitley recently talked about making Aadhar cards compulsory for real estate transactions. While that is a good move, there are certain underlying distortions that need to be set right in the real estate sector, which comprises of close to 11% of the Indian GDP.
The stamp duty to be paid on real estate transactions is close to 5% in many states. This leads to individuals under-declaring the value of the transaction when they are selling the real estate they own. Over and above this there are other transactions costs of searching for a property, registration, commissions to be paid etc. These small things are that need to be improved, if the “real estate” sector is to be made more transparent.
Further, when a fresh purchase is being made from a builder, he usually insists on a significant portion of the total deal value to be paid in cash. This is understandable given that builders are usually fronts for or in partnership with local politicians and politicians cannot be declaring their real incomes.
To conclude, if the black money menace has to be tackled in India, the politicians need to clean up their own acts first. Everything else is just noise.

The column originally appeared in The Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle with a different headline on Nov 8, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

No "acche din" for govt finances any time soon

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010Vivek Kaul 

So what do the finance minister Arun Jaitley and the Hindi film industry have in common? They both love the number “Rs 100 crore”. The Hindi film industry cannot stop talking about the films that have done a business of Rs 100 crore or more. Jaitley, in his maiden budget speech, used the Rs 100 crore number 29 times, while making allocations to various government schemes.
This has led a lot of experts to comment that Jaitley has spread himself too thin. Whether that turns out to be the case, only time will tell. Nevertheless, in the budget speech, Jaitley, like finance ministers before him, did not talk about the single biggest expenditure of the government.
The single biggest expenditure of the government of India is debt servicing i.e. the interest that it pays on its debt and the money that it spends in repaying it. Governments all over the world, including the Indian government, spend much more than they earn. This difference is referred to as the fiscal deficit and is financed through borrowing. The money is borrowed for a certain period. During the period a certain amount of interest needs to be paid on it. And at the end of the period, the borrowed money needs to be repaid.
Over the years, the government has been spending more than it has earning. Given this, the fiscal deficit has shot up. In 2007-2008, the fiscal deficit of the Indian government had stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore or 2.6% of the GDP. This had shot up to Rs 5,15,990 crore or 5.7% of the GDP, by 2011-2012. The fiscal deficit projected for 2014-2015 stands at Rs 5,31,177 crore or 4.1% of the GDP.
This increase in fiscal deficit has been financed by a greater amount of borrowing. A greater borrowing has meant that the cost of debt servicing for the government has gone up over the years. In 2009-2010, the total debt servicing cost of the Indian government had stood Rs 2,94,857 crore. The fiscal deficit during the course of that year had stood at Rs 4,18,842 crore. Hence, the ratio of the debt servicing cost to the fiscal deficit worked out to 0.7.
By 2013-2014, the total debt servicing cost had shot up to Rs 5,43,267 crore. As the amount of money borrowed went up, so did the interest that needed to paid on it. And, so did the repayments. The fiscal deficit for the year stood at Rs 5,24,539 crore. Hence, the ratio of debt servicing cost to the fiscal deficit shot up to 1.04.
For the current financial year, the total debt servicing cost has been estimated to be at Rs 6,43,301 crore. Interestingly, in the interim budget presented by P Chidambaram in February earlier this year, the number had stood at Rs 6,74,184 crore. How has the number come down by more than Rs 30,000 crore, that Mr Jaitley did not explain. The fiscal deficit for the year has been projected at Rs 5,31,177 crore. Hence, the ratio of the total debt servicing cost to the fiscal deficit is now at 1.21.
What does this ratio tell us? It tells us that the entire borrowing(and a part of the income) of the government of India is being used to repay past borrowing and to pay interest on it. In simple everyday terms it means that I am using one credit card to pay off what is due on another credit card.
In such a scenario, it becomes very difficult for the government to spend money on other important areas. It also explains to a large extent why Jaitley made so many allocations of just Rs 100 crore. If he had the money, he would have probably preferred a higher amount of allocation. Of course, Mr Jaitley cannot be blamed for this mess which he has inherited from the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
So what is the way out of this financial hole? The revenue receipts of the government(i.e. the money that it earns through tax and non tax revenue) for the year 2007-2008 had stood at 10.2% of the GDP. For the year, 2014-2015, the revenue receipts are at 9.2% of the GDP.
What this tells us clearly is that the revenue receipts of the government have come down and need to go up. How can that be done? The Modi government has been gung ho about getting the black money of Indians stashed abroad back to India. But what about all the black money that is there in the country? Wouldn’t that be easier to recover?
While the intention to get back all this black money from abroad is certainly noble, how practical is it? Also, if the idea is to recover black money then why discriminate between those who have managed to transfer the money abroad and those who haven’t.
The Modi government can borrow an idea or two from what happened in Greece. In order to recover black money, the Greek government used Google Earth to track those who have swimming pools and then cross indexed their address with the amount of tax they are paying. Ideas along similar lines which use information technology extensively in order to identify people who are not paying the correct amount of income tax, need to be come up with.
In the budget speech made in February 2013, 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. What this clearly tells us is that a lot of people are not paying income tax.
In a country where 27,000 luxury cars are sold every year, the number of individuals with a taxable income of Rs 1 crore has to be more than 42,800. These individuals, who include property dealers, doctors, chartered accountants etc., need to be made to pay their fair share of income tax.
Of course, any such move will not immediately lead to results. The way to do is to execute a few pilot projects in different parts of the country and identify the big defaulters and get them to pay the income tax. This should be extensively publicized as well, so as t ensure that other similar people start paying the right amount of income tax.

The piece originally appeared in The Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle dated July 11, 2014 under a different headline.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money: Evolution of the Global Financial System to the Great Bubble Burst. He can be reached at [email protected]