Union budget

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The first budget present by Nirmala Sitharaman has no central theme which focuses on economic reforms or giving a boost to employment generation and addressing concerns over economic slowdown in the country. There were expectations of a big economic growth push through either tax cuts or large expenditure programmes even if it meant a rise in the fiscal deficit. But the first time Finance Minister has chosen to be fiscally conservative, opting to play the long-term game, though it could lead to pain in the short term. The only interesting thing she has allowed herself is a big Rs 70,000 crore fresh capital infusion in banks that will spur lending to growth sectors in the economy. It is quite notable that the budget has sought to address the problems that have plagued the Non-Banking Finance Companies (NBFC) space over the last few months and the consequent credit freeze and loss of confidence in the market. Nirmala Sitharaman has comprehensively addressed the important issues of liquidity, solvency and poor governance in the NBFC sector. There are several other reforms that have been announced, but the most interesting is the reiteration of the government’s commitment to strategic disinvestment and the declaration that it is willing to allow its stake to fall below 51% in non-financial Public Sector Units (PSUs). The fresh and new Start-ups can heave a sigh of relief as the angel tax is practically off the table. The central government seems to be moving towards a single identity card for citizens in the form of Aadhaar, which will now be interchangeable with the PAN card. Taxpayers who do not have a PAN card can file returns quoting their Aadhaar number, which effectively can be a substitute for PAN in all transactions. Another reform is the introduction of faceless e-assessment of tax returns taken up for scrutiny. This will eliminate the scope for rent-seeking by officers as there will be no interface between assessee and official. In fact, the assessee will not even know the identity of the officer scrutinising the return. This is an absolutely welcome measure but needs to be closely watched for implementation. The corporate sector has got a minor sop with the turnover limit for the 25% tax bracket being raised to Rs 400 crore per annum from Rs 250 crore. The expectation was that this would be extended to all companies irrespective of their size. It appears that the Centre wants to wait for the finalisation of the Direct Taxes Code, which is being examined by a committee. Real estate companies may have reason to cheer as the generous tax concession for affordable housing may create demand, especially in the smaller metros. The ‘nudge theory’ of economist Richard Thaler, mentioned extensively in the Economic Survey 2018-19 has been put to use by the new Finance Minister to push forward two of this government’s pet themes – increasing digitalisation of money and promoting electric mobility. On the first, there will now be a 2% tax deducted at source when withdrawals from bank accounts exceed Rs 1 crore in a year. This is a commendable measure, but it could lead to genuine problems for businesses such as construction and real estate that are forced to deal in cash for wage payments. Of course, the TDS can be set off against their overall tax liability. The second, and more interesting ‘nudge’, is towards electric vehicles where those taking loans to buy one will get a tax deduction of up to Rs 1.5 lakh on the interest paid by them. But the fact is that there are not too many electric vehicles in the market now. And even for those that are there, the waiting period to deliver one is long. Besides, there is no ecosystem, such as charging points, even in the major cities. In fact, it has to be borne in mind that there are few Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) outlets on many cities and towns other than the metropolitan cities. The government’s hope that this incentive will create a market for e-vehicles that will then lead to the development of the ecosystem will be partially defeated.