The call for India’s Union Budget 2021 — India, the seventh-largest country and the most populous democracy in the world has been tested on many fronts during the past year 2020. With the global outbreak of COVID-19 followed by the nationwide lockdown gripping the Indian economy, the cash strapped government struggled to offer relief, primarily to the most vulnerable sections of our Indian society and to the urban poor. The complete shutdown of the economic activities led to unemployment with many people quitting their jobs and leaving cities that they had begun to call home. This aggravated the already persistent problem of dealing with the growing nuclear disturbances with the wealthier neighbour on the horizon.
In these unprecedented times, when the common citizens are adapting to the new normal and life is returning to normalcy, the eyes of the entire nation will be stuck at the national television and channels on February 1, 2021, when the union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be presenting the Union Budget for the upcoming financial year 2021-22. This will be the first time ever since the release of independent India’s first budget on November 26, 1947 that the government has decided not to print the Budget documents following the protocols of COVID-19. Hence all the MPs will be receiving soft copies of the Budget and Economic Survey of FY 2021-22.
Speaking about Union Budget 2021-22 set to be presented in the Parliament on February 1, 2020, FM Sitharaman said-
“100 years of India wouldn’t have seen a Budget being made post-pandemic like this”
The Union Budget 2021-22 will make it quite imperative for the government to come up with a comprehensive strategy for the revival of the Indian economy against the backdrop of an economic contraction of 7.7% (Mint, 2021). Therefore all the stakeholders hold great expectations from the release of the budget hoping that it provides a boost to the economic growth. While the investments in social sectors like health, education, medical infrastructure, Research and Development (R&D), inculcating better skills to manage the use of technology in medicine is going to be important, challenges in the livelihood pattern ought to be seen in a broader canvas with the changed perspective on skill development.
Tax and FDI reforms: Impetus to the insurance industry
During the past several years, there has been a tendency of low insurance penetration in health insurance that has acted as a cause of worry for the common citizens. Following the shortage of healthcare insurance funds in the light of COVID-19, it becomes imperative for the industry experts to believe that the Union Budget 2021 should be leveraged in such a way to mitigate the distress of individuals and industry to some extent.
It is being speculated that the reforms in two key spheres- tax and foreign direct investment (FDI) can be undertaken and discussed at length under the Union Budget 2021. The provisions should be made for enhancing the limits of insurance under section 80C and 80D that will encourage consumers to opt for health life insurance (Mint, 2021).
Further, the GST payable currently on the insurance premiums must be reduced by the government thus making life insurance affordable to the vulnerable sections of the society. Such tax reductions and incentives will prove to be successful in the long run by ensuring insurance penetration in India.
Liberalisation in the FDI regime is extremely important in order to attract additional capital to expand the business in the economy and ensure substantial insurance penetration into India. Therefore, there is a growing need that the government should liberalise the current FDI regime by raising the FDI limits to 74% from the current limit of 49% of paid-up equity capital (Mint, 2021). This would in turn support the disinvestment programme of the government. The reduction in the FDI limits will prove to be an impetus to the expanding insurance industry of India thereby providing opportunities to the investors to fetch higher returns on the assets and capital.
Another important recommendation has to be made in the form of treating annuity income as tax-free income which will encourage higher uptake of annuity policies and better financial security during the old age years. This recommendation is significant for a country like India, which has a history of limited social security measures.
Work from home: A time to rethink the income tax allowances
The global outbreak of the novel COVID-19 in the month of March has drastically changed the working landscape for the organisations globally. This shift in the working landscape has put in several companies to provide enabling infrastructure such as furniture (like tables, chairs etc), printers, high-speed internet connectivity, stationery etc for providing ease to the employees working at their residences.
For the smooth conduct of the work at their respective places, the organisations are providing a fixed allowance to the employees in order to meet the expenditure incurred on furniture and digital infrastructure. The governments have to work in tandem with these organizations and ensure the efficient provision of exemption and deductions for the allowances which are reimbursed by the employer to employees who are working from their respective homes. The Union Budget 2021 should also incorporate a similar approach as well thus reaping the benefits of evolving a new digital working landscape.
The Education sector: Seeking an array of Expectations
With just a fortnight left for the release of Union Budget 2021-22 by the Ministry of Finance, the experts are in lieu of several expectations in the education sector from the Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Here is the discussion on the top five expectations for the education sector in Budget 2021 (Economic Times, 2021).
Use of Technology in Education
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, there was an increasing use of technology in education as the schools and academic institutions were shut down. The Finance minister should provide some relief to the education sector in terms of reduction in GST and subsidy on the education loans which are granted for both formal as well as skill-based learning. The focus should also be on the provision of the appropriate flow of ed tech-focused funds into the education sector that will enable the mid-size tech start-ups inside the campuses in raising the money for better and faster experiences using technology in education.
In order to make online education accessible to each and every student, the GST on online education should be cut down to 5% from 18% in the upcoming Budget 2021 (Economic Times, 2021). The experts are looking at the more announcements especially in reference to New Education Policy 2020 with a primary focus on the K12 segment. The collaborative approach should be adopted wherein the government and private institutions can come forward in order to scale up the coding education. Thus increasing the contribution of education in the lives of students across the nation.
National Education Policy 2020
The NEP 2020 marked the historic turn of events in the education sector. The vision laid by the government in the form of mandates in NEP 2020 will play a significant role in achieving the inclusive education system. There has to be a concrete implementation plan for the NEP 2020 in the Union Budget 2021 to further ensure focussed investment in Edu-tech companies.
In the Union Budget 2021, the central government must ensure to reduce the expenditure limit of 85% to obtain tax exemption of 75% (Economic Times, 2021). Further, the academic institutions having good NAAC score should be allowed to retain the additional 10% of the funds received by them for providing education loans to the students. Such a provision will prove to be successful in providing funds to students that cannot provide collaterals to obtain loans in the long run.
Restoring the trust of India’s upset farmers
With the farmers’ agitation still in place, the Union Budget 2021-22 will have to address the problems in agriculture with a more comprehensive and practical approach. The promise of doubling farmers income by 2022 made by the then finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her last year budget would require annual growth of 15% in the real income of the farmers till 2022. The Union Budget 2021-22 will therefore have an action to increase the allocation of Central government to schemes like on irrigation, rural roads, warehousing and storage facilities. Moreover, the new Acts are likely to supplement the working of mandis and will not replace them. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) will continue with no substantial changes. This will reorient the expenditure of the government in the right direction to restore the lost trust of farmers.
Weaving a way for healthcare innovations
While the country is still struggling to deal with the pandemic, the state of health infrastructure in some of the developed economies has raised an alarm across the globe. This pandemic has reflected on the structure of the healthcare sector in India. Keeping in view the last year allocation of Rs 69,000 crore to the healthcare budget, some of the key considerations for the Union Budget 2021-22 are listed below:
- The centrally funded hospital and medical college have to be established in each Indian district. This will change the landscape of healthcare in India by ensuring effective and quality healthcare facilities to citizens.
- The National Healthcare Audit Authority (NHAA) should be set up and funded which will provide the facility of audit functioning of all the healthcare institutions in the country.
- The Ayushman Bharat Yojana, also known as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) should be expanded to include all the taxpayers.
The gap in the accessibility and affordability in healthcare facilities is enabling local technology-driven innovations that will facilitate the delivery of medical devices within the country. This gap and provision need to be addressed in Budget 2021 with a special focus on the equitable allocation of the funds for healthcare delivery, healthcare equipment, healthcare infrastructure and healthcare innovations by means of start-ups.
Hospitality sector: Looking for a fair deal in Budget 2021
The travel and tourism sector is the worst-hit sector due to COVID-19 pandemic. The structural financial reforms are needed to ensure the pathbreaking recovery of the sector in the upcoming Union Budget 2021. The experts of the sector are in the view of revitalising the famous Incredible India campaign in accordance with the year 2023 when India will be hosting the G20 summit. The current GST structure of wellness and medical tourism should be restructured so that there is an infusion of funds into the tourism businesses.
The Federation of Association in Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH) has proposed the setting up of a National Council of Chief Ministers to be headed by the Prime Minister as well as the Tourism Minister. This Council should be placed in the concurrent list and be a subject matter of both Central and State government. Further, the incidence of taxes on tourism earnings should be cut down to zero per cent. The current Service Exports from India Scheme (SEIS) of 10% to all the foreign exchange earnings in tourism be made in place for the next 5 years in order to ensure the post-covid recovery (Sinha, 2021).
The country holds immense potential for promoting domestic tourism. The Indian organisations and business houses should be encouraged to promote domestic MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and events) by offering them 200% income tax expense benefits to those Indian organisations who are a part of domestic MICE in India. For conserving the rich cultural heritage of our country, there is a need to establish a Natural and Cultural Heritage Restoration Fund with a backup of at least Rs 2000 crore that will encourage sustainable tourism around each horizon of tourism.
A secured comprehensive mechanism is required to secure the future travel plans for the travel agents and tour operators who are affected by the pandemic thus restoring the higher growth in the travel and tourism sector.
Privatisation of Public Sector Banks and PSUs
While the previous year’s budget(2020-2021) made way for the bank-led growth, banks are facing the challenge of confounding the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on their balance sheets and focussing on the economic recovery of India. It is expected that the upcoming Union Budget will include the proposal for Bank Investment Company (BIC) which will increase the shareholding of the government in its banks. As a result of which Public sector banks (PSBs) will dominate the banking sector as the major responsibility will fall on them.
The government which is running a high fiscal deficit is in search of alternatives in order to reduce its burden on the Non-Performing Assets (NPAs). it is projected that the gross NPAs will be rising to 16.2% in the first quarter of FY21. the mounting NPAs has to be reduced. The BIC is therefore seen as a first welcoming step signalling the intention of the government to undertake reforms in order to ensure that the performance of PSBs are improved. The upcoming budget could therefore act as a signal by announcing the first step- the re-emergence of the Bank Nationalisation Acts and the State Bank of India Act.
Fiscal deficit targeted at 4% of GDP by FY26
It is expected that the Central government will provide an outline and lay down a road map in the Union Budget 2021 to bring the fiscal deficit down to 4% of GDP by FY 2025-26. This plays an important role in considering the fact that there will be growing demands for expansionary policies for the next 4-5 years. This further means that the government had to deviate from the set medium-term target of around 2-3% of GDP as the recommendations made by the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM).
An opportunity to fund data infrastructure and Artificial Intelligence skills
India has a golden opportunity to lead the next Industrial Revolution which is dominated by Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. The upcoming Union Budget 2021-22 will act as a platform for the Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to unfold the benefits of big data through employment multiplier by means of funding through data science which is subjected to research (Umapathy & Singh, 2021). The integrated pool of the entire national data will be the way forward. The data generators ought to share the unfiltered data with the pool. This step will boost employment, nurture the start-up ecosystem and generate employment in the economy.
Inclusion of Climate-responsive budgeting: A way forward
There is a growing need to recognise the potential of India is working towards a national budget responsive to climate change. Several initiatives have been taken by the leaders worldwide after recognising the significance of efficient fiscal handling of the climate changes in the spheres of planning of domestic public finances. For example, the Paris government has launched the Paris Collaborative on Green Budgeting. In south-east Asia, Indonesia has successfully implemented its climate budget tagging framework in 2016 and leveraged it in 2018.
The state of Odisha in India which is the most disaster-prone state with the highest disaster score in the country has launched its own climate-budgeting based on the experiences of budget lines across the key economic sectors. Gujarat is another Indian state which has worked at length to adopt its own annual climate budgeting framework. However, India lacks such uniformity in the process of integrating all the subnational climate actions with the national climate goals. The state governments need the leadership of the Centre in establishing guidelines for climate-budgeting at the national level and work on climate-related risk planning.
Climate-responsive budgeting will make sure that the future governments in power are financially stable in order to ensure the smooth transition of the economy. Moreover, India has to be ready to act as a responsible host during its maiden G20 presidency on climate change and economy.
Personally, I believe the upcoming Union Budget 2021 will play a crucial role in lifting the Indian economy out of the recession and take significant steps that will focus on post-Covid recovery. Additionally, it is extremely important to concentrate on the forthcoming vision of the upcoming budgets on the threats imposed by climate change. For this, a proper national framework will be required focussing on the contribution of stakeholders from a diverse background including civil society and think tanks.
Economic Times. (2021, January 17). Budget 2021: Expectations of Education Sector. Economic Times. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/union-budget-2021-psb-privatisation-7148097/
Maji, P. (2021, January 15). Budget 2021 expectations. Financial Express. https://www.financialexpress.com/money/budget-2021-expectations-tax-fdi-reforms-to-provide-much-needed-impetus-to-insurance-industry/2171583/
Mint. (2021, January 16). FM holds pre budget meetings with the key stakeholders. mint. https://www.livemint.com/budget/expectations/page-2
Pandey, R., & Priyadarshini, D. (2021, January 16). Budget must take steps towards privatising ownership of public sector banks. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/union-budget-2021-psb-privatisation-7148097/
Sinha, D. (2021, January 18). Budget 2021 Expectations: Travel, Tourism sector expects pathbreaking Union Budget for post-Covid recovery. Financial Express. https://www.financialexpress.com/budget/budget-2021-expectations-travel-tourism-sector-expects-pathbreaking-union-budget-for-post-covid-recovery/2173235/
Umapathy, S., & Singh, R. (2021, January 19). View: Budget 2021 should fund data infrastructure and Artificial Intelligence skills. Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/technology/view-budget-2021-should-fund-data-infrastructure-and-artificial-intelligence-skills/articleshow/80317424.cms