Many of us have always felt that there is a lot of hoopla over the annual budget. What we need instead is a vision, a long-term framework. When that happens the yearly budget becomes a progress chart and a review document. . In fact, it might make sense to carry out a budget exercise once in two years, as governments can make changes and announcements all through the year. We are unsure if any country other than India makes such a huge fuss over this annual ritual.
This article is not directed at the finance minister; instead, it is a missive to the prime minister, and we do hope someone passes it on to him. This is about sweeping reforms that would give us a new sensible deal.
Policy decisions are made on an ongoing basis instead of relying on the action template articulated in the budget speech. We have three areas on which the government should begin action if it wants to leave positive footprints on the sands of time.
Governments are not elected to run businesses; they are elected to govern us. The government must be only in four spaces: health care, primary education, law and order, and foreign affairs. It must get out of everything else and thus be able to focus on the core issues for which it has been elected.
First up is health care. The rise of private hospitals was due to the failure of the public sector to attract quality doctors and state-of-the-art health care facilities. There was also a sense of lack of ownership. No one is suggesting hospitals should not make profits. But they should charge fair sums because, given the expensive medical bills, it is difficult for the common man to afford it. In our country, the medical profession comes closest to the work of God. It is the profession of trust.
While the government can run hospitals of the AIIMS variety, it must also focus on Ayushman Bharat. Modelled after Obama Care, it is a step in the right direction. But it must be extended to the whole of India. How the government wants to do this is a topic for another day.
One, it could allocate from its budget, insurance premium to insurance companies. Two, it could look at using blockchain in health care, where AI evaluates and processes the claim, ensures that the right person has been treated for the right ailment, and directly releases payment to the hospitals. Towards that, the government issues health coins worth Rs 5 lac to each family that gets debited when an expense is incurred in a hospital. All of this could reduce the dependence on insurance companies and the attendant cost. A CSR angle can also be brought in this regard. There must be a set of people, namely the elderly, differently-abled, and healthcare workers, for whom health care should be completely free.
Among other things, the government should improve the ratio of doctors and paramedics to the aggregate population. It must work towards reducing the price of medicines and procedures, and standardise them. One significant aspect is the growing recognition of mental health. It’s only minimum to expect that the state has a more substantial role in improving its own people’s health.
Second, primary education in our country has been a source of significant disappointment. The quality of resources deployed is not fit enough to build our future. There is no distinction between urban and rural India on this point. The reports by Pratham underscore the point that upper class students do not know what significantly lower class student ought to know.
Even as India celebrates being a young country and believes that it will benefit from the demographic dividend, it is equally important to realize that the demographic advantage may actually turn out to be a ticking time bomb unless the young population is skilled and thus gainfully employed.
Here is a long-overdue suggestion. There are several corporation schools with massive land banks and infrastructure. The government should look at a public-private partnership with people who have a history of philanthropy. Imagine if some of these foundations can do wonders in few pockets, mainly the region they represent. Why can’t that be legitimately leveraged for geographical expansion? Let the private player run the school under a yardstick you lay down and agree upon, and over the next 15 years, we will see a dramatic improvement in our primary education.
A third area to look at is what we call Return-of-Tax. There is very little gain by giving badges for prompt filing of tax returns. We agree that many see it as a feel-good factor, but it doesn’t do much beyond that. While the government in the technology space particularly in the Income Tax stream has done a lot of work, what we suggest is different. A citizen pays tax from the time he joins his first job to when his career gets over at 65 or so. While he would have saved a lot, or maybe hasn’t, he has paid a large amount of tax for sure. Upon his reaching a certain age, say 65 or 70, the government should cease taxing him, and instead, based on the aggregate amount of tax he has paid in his life, pay say at the rate of 5 per cent each year to him and on his demise to his spouse. We are not even suggesting a return on tax but interest on the tax. Of course, one can tweak the programme over time. Given the technology available, it is easy to get this data that we may call a tax passbook. This would actually even enthuse the citizen to pay taxes as some form of retirement corpus.
It’s no one’s case that the whole tax revenue should be pushed back to the taxpayer’s pocket. These are the men and women who have helped you build your roads, ports, airports, and other infrastructure. They need to be taken care of in their old age. If the government does not show the moral sign, how do you expect civil society should do it? Additionally, it would act as an inbuilt incentive for an enhanced level of compliance, which would augment the overall revenue collection.
If there is no precedence for this in the world, create the priority. The first year after the pandemic is the time to start thinking out of the box. The writers are chartered accountants.