A detached, unhurried reading of Budget 2017 does lead one to conclude that it was not a run of the mill Budget. It was different, both in what it did, and what it did not do. It was a state-of-the-art workmanlike Budget with one flaw—it hesitated to go the full, logical distance in tax reforms. Why? Likely because it is waiting for a near-optimal political and economic moment February next year.
In several articles preceding this Budget, and ever since the demonetisation (DeMo) policy announced on November 8, I have argued that the key post-DeMo goal of the government should be to create a political and economic environment conducive to considerably less creation of black money. I had identified three key areas for policy. First, individual income tax compliance must be made to increase, and as jointly argued with Arvind Virmani, this would not happen unless incentives (carrots) were given to taxpayers for them to come into the tax net and for them to declare a larger fraction of their income. Second, the real estate sector needed to be cleaned up, for it was a major sink for black money. Third, election-funding policies needed to be urgently reformed—this politician-dominated sector is one of the largest black sinks.
On the latter two policy objectives, the Budget has been extraordinarily innovative—especially on election funding. In addition to black money, the other problem plaguing the Indian economy has been the low rate of growth of capital formation (investment) by the private sector. This, I had emphasised, was very likely due to the extraordinarily high rates of taxation of profits in India.
For 96% of firms (all those with turnover less than R50 crore), the corporate tax rate has been reduced by 5 percentage points—from 30% to 25%. This is just not enough, and possibly a major clean-up will be presented in next year’s Budget when (hopefully) a no-exemption corporate tax rate of 18-20% will be implemented for all firms, big and small.
Personal income tax (PIT) rates: Modi-Jaitley have taken a significant step forward by halving the tax rate (from 10% to 5%) for the lower middle-class of taxpayers (earning between R2.5 lakh and R5 lakh). Even taxpayers earning between R5 lakh and R50 lakh will have their tax outgo reduced by R12,500. For those earning between R50 lakh and R1 crore there is a tax surcharge of 10%, and the surcharge for incomes above R1 crore is retained at 15%