Recently, the Kelkar Committee published a roadmap for fiscal consolidation. The report stresses the need and urgency to address India’s fiscal deficit. A high fiscal deficit – the excess of government expenditure over receipts – can be problematic for many reasons. The fiscal deficit is financed by government borrowing; increased borrowing can crowd out funds available for private investment. High government spending can also lead to a rise in price levels. A full PRS summary of the report can be found here. Recent fiscal trends Last year (2011-12), the central government posted a fiscal deficit of 5.8% (of GDP), significantly higher than the targeted 4.6%. This is in stark contrast to five years ago in 2007-08, when after embarking on a path of fiscal consolidation the government’s fiscal deficit had shrunk to a 30 year low of 2.5%. In 2008-09, a combination of the Sixth Pay Commission, farmers’ debt waiver and a crisis-driven stimulus led to the deficit rising to 6% and it has not returned to those levels since. As of August this year, government accounts reveal a fiscal deficit of Rs 3,37,538 crore which is 65.7% of the targeted deficit with seven months to go in the fiscal year. With growth slowing this year, the committee expects tax receipts to fall short of expectations significantly and expenditure to overshoot budget estimates, leaving the economy on the edge of a “fiscal precipice”.
Committee recommendations - expenditure To tackle the deficit on the expenditure side, the committee wants to ease the subsidy burden. Subsidy expenditure, as a percentage of GDP, has crept up in the last two years (see Figure 2) and the committee expects it to reach 2.6% of GDP in 2012-13. In response, the committee calls for an immediate increase in the price of diesel, kerosene and LPG. The committee also recommends phasing out the subsidy on diesel and LPG by 2014-15. Initial reports suggest that the government may not support this phasing out of subsidies.
For the fertiliser subsidy, the committee recommends implementing the Department of Fertilisers proposal of a 10% price increase on urea. Last week , the government raised the price of urea by Rs 50 per tonne (a 0.9% increase). Finally, the committee explains the rising food subsidy expenditure as a mismatch between the issue price and the minimum support price and wants this to be addressed. Committee recommendations - receipts Rising subsidies have not been matched by a significant increase in receipts through taxation: gross tax revenue as a percentage of GDP has remained around 10% of GDP (see Figure 3). The committee seeks to improve collections in both direct and indirect taxes via better tax administration. Over the last decade, income from direct taxes – the tax on income – has emerged as the biggest contributor to the Indian exchequer. The committee feels that the pending Direct Tax Code Bill would result in significant losses and should be reviewed. To boost income from indirect taxes – the tax on goods and services – the committee wants the proposed Goods and Service Tax regime to be implemented as soon as possible.
Increasing disinvestment, the process of selling government stake in public enterprises, is another proposal to boost receipts. India has failed to meet the disinvestment estimate set out in the Budget in the last two years (Figure 4). The committee believes introducing new channels [1. The committee suggests introducing a ‘call option model’. This is a mechanism allowing the government to offer for sale multiple securities over a period of time till disinvestment targets are achieved. Investors would have the option to purchase securities at the cost of a premium. They also propose introducing ‘exchange traded funds’ which would comprise all listed securities of Central Public Sector Enterprises and would provide investors with the benefits of diversification, low cost access and flexibility.] for disinvestment would ensure that disinvestment receipts would meet this year’s target of Rs 30,000 crore.
Taken together, these policy changes, the committee believe would significantly improve India’s fiscal health and boost growth. Their final projections for 2012-13, in both a reform and no reform scenario, and the medium term (2013-14 and 2014-15) are presented in the table below: [table id=2 /]
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.