The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Uncommon speech for common man

New Delhi, Feb. 18: Finance minister Jaswant Singh will cut short his biggest speech of the year — his maiden budget presentation — which will have almost the entire middle class in India glued to their television sets.

And it won’t be cricket, in more than one sense.

Jaswant Singh will be breaking with a hoary tradition in budget presentation. He intends to skip the boring financials and the nitty-gritty of tax proposals. Instead, he will deliver a shorter speech focusing on what the common man wants to hear from the budget — his proposals for their welfare, his broad plan for new tax slabs and how well off or badly off the government will be at the end of the fiscal. That’s all.

For the rest, the written statements will be laid on the table in the Lok Sabha which members and other interested persons will have to refer to find out the more mundane or technical details such as the tax rate on tobacco, or knitted garments, or black and white television sets.

Singh wants to present a crisp speech lasting a little over an hour where most of part B of the traditional budget speech — given to details of tax measures — will be cut out except for the bare essentials such as tax slabs. While part A where issues which affect various sections of society are spelt out will be refined and made more crisp and attuned to what the common man understands and wants to hear — broad policy on farm sector, welfare services, public distribution system, capital markets etc. Data on last year’s performance will be kept out of the speech.

Right now only the Prime Minister and Singh’s core budget team which includes the finance and revenue secretaries, the chairmen of the tax boards and chief economic advisor are privy to this new scheme of things. All of them have agreed it will be a welcome departure from the usual two-and-a-half-hour long budget speech.

With the difficulties that vice president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat had on Monday when a longish speech by his boss, the President, saw him suffer a cramp forcing him to totter on his feet, the short speech decision should be a welcome one in Parliament where the average age is 50 plus.

The decision on making a shorter budget speech was, however, taken some 20 days back by the core team and was not prompted by Shekhawat’s near fall.

The budget itself will make a fine balance between the harsher tax measures suggested by the Kelkar committee and the watered down, electorate-friendly version recommended by the Rajnath Singh Committee.

The minimum income tax slab is likely to start from Rs 75,000 while standard deduction — a tax setoff facility enjoyed by salaried individuals — will stay. Sops on housing and for the aged will be retained but sops on saving instruments may be curtailed somewhat.

The common man’s concerns will be addressed in the budget as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself wants them to be there.

Vajpayee has directed the finance minister to work on “life time concerns” such as pension plans for the lower middle class, workers’ security net and a relief package for senior citizens into his plans for this year’s budget.

The Prime Minister wants Singh to hurry up with a workable pension-cum-disability cover plan which will cover most white-collar, and the bulk of blue collar India that could be offered as part of the “budget vision”.

He has also insisted that work should be started on a workers’ security net which will help retrain retrenched workers and even loan them small amounts to start life afresh.

Vajpayee is apparently concerned that industrial restructuring has proved costly in terms of jobs lost and this could afford the Opposition an easy poll issue in industrial districts.

Similarly, the Prime Minister has directed that an interest income protection scheme has to be worked out for senior citizens which would allow them to maintain their current standard of living, in spite of falling interest rates and rising inflation. This is likely to be done through an inflation-linked interest income scheme to be unveiled with the budget.

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