In six years from 2005-06, the Government of India wrote off corporate income tax worth $83.1 billion — more than twice the loss the country suffered in the 2G telecom fraud — in successive Union budgets. The figure has grown every single year for which data are available. Corporate income tax written off in 2005-06 was $ 7.68 billion. In the current budget, it is $ 19.5 billion — an increase of 155 per cent. That is, the nation presently writes off over $53.2 million a day on average in corporate income tax. Oddly, that is also the daily average of illicit fund flows from India to foreign banks, according to a report of the Washington-based think tank, Global Financial Integrity.
The $ 19.5 billion covers only corporate income tax write-offs. The figure does not include revenue foregone from higher exemption limits for wider sections of the public. Nor higher exemptions for senior citizens or (as in past budgets) for women. Just income tax for the big boys of the corporate world.
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s latest budget, while writing off this gigantic sum for corporates, slashes billions from agriculture. As Dr. R. Ramakumar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) points out, the revenue expenditure on that sector “is to fall in absolute terms by $ 1.2 billion. Within agriculture, the largest fall is to be in crop husbandry, with an absolute cut of (close to) $ 1 billion.” Which probably signals the death of extension services, amongst other things, in the sector. In fact, “within economic services, the largest cuts are to be in Agriculture and Allied Services.”
Even Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal would be hard put to defend the revenue losses as notional. For the simple reason that each budget sums up these numbers clearly in tables within a section called ‘Statement of Revenue Foregone.’ If we add to this corporate loan waiver, revenue foregone in customs and excise duty — also very largely benefiting the corporate world and better off sections of society — the amounts are stunning. What, for instance, are some of the major items on which revenue is foregone in customs duty? Try diamonds and gold. Not quite aam aadmi or aurat (common man or woman) items. This accounts for the largest chunk of all customs revenue foregone in the current budget. That is, for $ 10.8 billion. Or well over half of what it takes to run a universal public distribution system (PDS) each year. In three years preceding this one, the customs write-off on gold, diamonds and jewellery totalled $ 21.2 billion.
Of course, this being India, every plunder of public money for private profit is a “pro-poor measure”. You can hear the argument already: the huge bonanza for the gold and diamond crowd was only to save the jobs of poor workers in the midst of a global economic crisis. Touching. Only it didn’t save a single job in Surat or elsewhere. Many Oriya workers in that industry returned home jobless to Ganjam from Surat as the sector tanked. A few other workers took their own lives in desperation. Also, the indulgence for industry predates the 2008 crisis. Industry in Maharashtra gained massively from the Centre’s Corporate Socialism. Yet, in three years before the 2008 crisis, workers in the State lost their jobs at an average of 1,800 a day.
Returning to the budget: There’s also the head of ‘machinery’ with its own huge customs duty concessions. That includes surely, the tens of millions of rupees’ worth of sophisticated medical equipment imported by large corporate hospitals with almost no duty levied on it. The claim of providing 30 per cent of their beds free of charge to the poor — something that has never once happened — is an excuse to dole out these ‘benefits’ (amongst others) to that multi-billion rupee industry. Total revenue foregone on customs duty in the present budget: $ 38.68 billion. (Which does not include export credit-related numbers).
With excise, of course, comes the standard claim that revenues foregone on excise duty translate into lower prices for consumers. There is no evidence provided at all that this has actually happened. Not in the budget, not elsewhere. (Sounds more like the argument now making the rounds in some Tamil Nadu villages that nothing was looted in the 2G scam — that’s the money translating into cheaper calls for the public). What is clearly visible is that the write-offs on excise directly benefit industry and business. Any indirect ‘passing on’ to consumers is a speculative claim, not proven. Revenue foregone on account of excise duty in this budget: $ 44 billion. Clearly more than the highest estimate of the 2G scam losses. (The preceding year: $ 38 billion).
Also fascinating is that the same classes benefit in multiple ways from all three write-offs. But how much does revenue foregone under corporate income tax, excise and customs duty add up to across the years? We have baldly stated budget figures for six years starting 2005-06, when the total was $ 51 billion. To the current budget where it is more than double that sum at $ 102 billion. Add up the figures since 2005-06 and the grand total is $ 472 billion. Not too far from half a trillion U.S. dollars. That is not merely 12 times the 2G scam losses. It is equal to or bigger than the $ 462 billion sum that Global Financial Integrity tells us has been siphoned out of this country and illegally stashed away in foreign banks since 1948 ($ 462 billion). Only, this loot has happened in six years starting 2005-06. The current budget figure for these three heads is 101 per cent higher than it was in 2005-06).
Unlike the illicit fund flows, this plunder has a fig leaf of legality. Unlike those flows, it is not the sum of many individual crimes. It is government policy. It is in the Union budget. And it is the largest conceivable transfer of wealth and resources to the wealthy and the corporate world that the media never look at. Oddly, the budget itself recognizes how regressive this trend is. Last year’s budget noted: “The amount of revenue foregone continues to increase year after year. As a percentage of aggregate tax collection, revenue foregone remains high and shows an increasing trend as far as corporate income tax is considered for the financial year 2008-09. In case of indirect taxes, the trend shows a significant increase for the financial years 2009-10 due to a reduction in customs and excise duties. Therefore, to reverse this trend, an expansion in the tax base is called for.”
Rewind a year further. The 2009-10 budget says the same thing in almost identical words. Only the last line is different: “Therefore it is necessary to reverse this trend to sustain the high tax buoyancy.” In the current budget, the paragraph is absent.
This is the government that has no money for a universal PDS or even an enhanced one. That cuts anyway meagre food subsidies from the largest hungry population in the planet. That, at a time of rising prices and a great food crisis. In a period when its own economic survey shows us that the daily average net per capita availability of foodgrain for the five year period 2005-09 is actually lower than it was in 1955-59 — half-a-century ago.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at: email@example.com.