The Economic Survey is the flagship annual document and a vital intellectual resource. It is an indispensable guide on the performance, challenges, and prospects of the Indian economy. As the recent document of 2021 states in its preface, it is “a collaborative effort of all ministries, departments of Govt of India, prodigious resource base of the Indian Economic Service Officers, valuable inputs of researchers, consultants and think tanks, both within and outside the Government, and the consistent support of all officials of the Economic Division, Department of Economic Affairs”.
With this kind of resourcefulness and value, the Economic Survey ideally should have found reflection, in some way or the other, in the annual Budget. However, its imprints in the Budget or post-Budget discourses are conspicuous by their absence.
In any case, with only a one-day gap between the release of the Survey and the presentation of the annual Budget, one wonders how the Budget could be a beneficiary of the insights of the Economic Survey.
As it is, the discussions, debates and narratives surrounding the Economic Survey are very short-lived, of a day or two only. Some coverage in the news and electronic media, and the Chief Economic Adviser (CEA), the architect of the document, giving interviews, is all the attention the Survey gets during the time. The fervour of the big Budget presentation on the following day, obviously, is high enough to overwhelm everything, including the Survey.
A Tight Window Between the Survey & Budget
Given the new ideas and perspectives the Survey brings to the fore, there is a strong case for its release at least one month prior to the presentation of the Budget. It should preferably be released on 1 January every year, when we can welcome the New Year with some new ideas.
The time gap between the release or presentation of the Survey and the Budget will serve the following purpose:
There shall be sufficient time to contemplate and deliberate on the themes in the Survey before the Budget buzz.
The intervening time would afford finance mandarins to consider if some of the insights of the Survey could be used in the immediate Budget process. The Budget may incorporate some of the suggestions/ ideas by tweaks in the existing schemes, some course correction, or rolling out of fresh initiatives.
The Budget can at least acknowledge some key findings in the Survey in the speech and demonstrate an intent to take those forward later.
The Budget presentation can also use/mention some words and phrases, generally coined in the Survey so creatively, to show appreciation.
All this would not only help enhance the credibility and respectability of the Survey but demonstrate, on the part of the government, that the Survey is not just an ornamental, esoteric or stand-alone document, or that the institution of the CEA is not ceremonial.
Needless to mention, the acknowledgements and appreciations would also motivate the bright young team who put in their painstaking efforts in compiling mammoth statistical data, analysing patterns/trends and deriving intelligent and actionable inferences.
Not Just an Ornamental Document
Though many brilliant ideas and findings have been brought forth by the Surveys in the recent past, we observe that they either did not find due recognition/seriousness, or the wisdom was not fully optimised at the government and public policy level.
The 2017 Economic Survey, for instance, found how dominant our internal migration is and its role in our economy. Thanks to its study on the movement of people through railways, we had a revelation on the magnitude of inter-state and intra-state migration. The learnings should have prompted us to frame suitable policies on migrant labourers in time and might have been well placed to handle the migrant labour crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2018 Economic Survey dealt with a unique issue of meta-preference for boys in our society. It highlighted the new challenge of “unwanted girls”, in addition to “missing girls”. Though the challenge is being addressed in a broad manner by way of gender-specific government schemes, not explicitly acknowledging the work and taking it forward by way of specific/concrete policy measures or public debate to tame the prejudices can be detrimental.
While the 2019 Economic Survey placed the theme of the “virtuous cycle” of savings, investment and exports, the Survey of 2020 sensitised us on the need for strengthening the “invisible hand of the market” and supporting it with a “hand of trust”.
It will serve us well if these themes find adequate articulation and traction in our economic policy.
In the recent Survey of 2021, there is a remarkable chapter on the apparent bias and subjectivity in India’s sovereign ratings. This calls for intense discussion and follow-ups in all global fora.
Clearly, the use-value of the Survey is high. Yet, giving the Survey its due and leveraging its insights would largely depend on the space we give for discourse and deliberations around them and the willingness of the top mandarins of the government to respect the ideas graciously and make full use of them, wherever possible.
(The writer is a Board Member of a finance company. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)