The Union Budget
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The budget process is covered by live TV and extensively by most newspapers each year. Most large companies have their own analysis of the budget. Increasingly, there is an effort by civil society groups to analyse the budget to decipher the allocations to the social sector. All of this is hugely important and indeed necessary for greater scrutiny and analysis by citizens across the country.
But we at PRS have often spoken about the role of Parliament in effectively scrutinising the government. If there is anything that the Parliament must scrutinise carefully each year, it is the budget – because this is the way in which the government expresses its real priorities. Even if the Parliament passes Bills on any subject – right to education, right to health, right to food, etc. – a good measure of the true willingness of the government to implement any of this can be seen by how much money it is willing to allocate to make things a reality.
Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha spoke about the budget process (Times of India, Feb 27th) and has argued that the current process in India is archaic and is in urgent need of an overhaul. He also points that Parliament has little power to change anything in the budget, and argues that this undermines the principles of our Parliamentary democracy. We agree.
On our part, we have produced two documents to help readers understand the budget process better. How to read the union budget and the Union Budget process can both be accessed from our website. And we would greatly appreciate your comments on this and other posts on our blog.
So far, both Houses of Parliament have been witnessing disruptions. At the beginning of the session, 23 Bills were listed for passage, and 20 were listed for introduction. Two weeks in, one Bill has been passed by both Houses, and three others by Lok Sabha. These include Bills dealing with the re-haul of consumer protection laws, regulation of surrogacy, and recognition of transgender persons. Six Bills have been introduced. These include three Bills which replace the Ordinances currently in force, and a Bill to regulate dam safety. In this blog, we discuss the key features of some of these Bills.
Enhancing rights of consumers
The Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 replaces the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. It was introduced in view of the significant changes in the consumer market landscape since the 1986 Act. It introduces several new provisions such as enabling consumers to make product liability claims for an injury or harm caused to them, nullifying unfair contracts which impact consumer interests (such as contracts which charge excessive security deposits), and imposing penalties for false and misleading advertisements on manufacturers, as well as on the endorsers of such advertisements.
The Bill also sets up Consumer Dispute Redressal Commissions (or courts) at the district, state, and national level, to hear complaints on matters related to deficiencies in services or defects in goods. While these Commissions are also present under the 1986 Act, the Bill increases their pecuniary jurisdiction: District Commissions will hear complaints with a value of up to one crore rupees; State Commissions between one and ten crore rupees; and National Commission above 10 crore rupees. The Bill also sets up a regulatory body known as the Central Consumer Protection Authority. This Authority can take certain actions to protect the rights of consumers as a class such as passing orders to recall defective goods from the market, and imposing penalties for false and misleading advertisements.
Recognising transgender persons and their rights
Last week, Lok Sabha also passed the Transgender Bill, 2018. This Bill seeks to recognise transgender persons, confers certain rights and entitlements on them related to education, employment, and health, and carves out welfare measures for their benefit. The Bill defines a transgender person as one whose gender does not match the gender assigned at birth. It includes trans-men and trans-women, persons with intersex variations, gender-queers, and includes persons having such socio-cultural identities as kinnar, hijra, aravani, and jogta. The Bill requires every establishment to designate one person as a complaint officer to act on complaints received under the Bill.
The Bill provides that a transgender person will have the right to self-perceived gender identity. Further, it also provides for a screening process to obtain a Certificate of Identity, certifying the person as ‘transgender’. This implies that a transgender person may be allowed to self-identify as transgender individual, but at the same time they must also undergo the screening process to get certified as a transgender. Therefore, it is unclear how these two provisions of self-identification and an external screening process will reconcile with each other.
Regulating surrogacy and overhauling the Medical Council of India
The Surrogacy Bill, 2017 which regulates altruistic surrogacy and prohibits commercial surrogacy was also passed in Lok Sabha. Surrogacy is a process where an intending couple commissions an eligible woman to carry their child. In an altruistic surrogacy, the surrogate mother is not given any monetary benefit or reward, and the arrangement only covers her medical expenses and health insurance. The Bill sets out certain conditions for both the intending couple and the surrogate mother to be eligible for surrogacy. The intending couple must be Indian citizens, be married for at least five years, and at least one of them must be infertile. The surrogate mother must be a close relative of the couple, must be married and must have had a child of her own. Further, a surrogate mother cannot provide her own gametes for surrogacy.
The surrogate mother has been given certain rights with regard to the procedure of surrogacy. These include requiring her written consent to abort the surrogate child, and allowing her to withdraw from the surrogacy at any time before the embryo is implanted in her womb.
Another key Bill which was listed for passage in Lok Sabha this session but could not be taken up is the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017 (NMC Bill). Several amendments to this Bill were introduced in Lok Sabha last week. The NMC Bill seeks to replace the Medical Council of India, with a National Medical Commission. It introduces a common final year undergraduate medical examination called the National Exit Test which will also grant the license to practice medicine. Only medical students graduating from a medical institute which is an institute of national importance will be exempted from qualifying this National Exit Test. The Bill also gives the NMC the power to frame guidelines to decide the fees of up to 50% of seats in private medical colleges and deemed universities. The NMC may also grant limited license to certain mid-level practitioners connected with the medical profession to practice medicine. The qualifying criteria for such mid-level practitioners will be determined through regulations, and they may prescribe specified medicines in primary and preventive healthcare.
Regulating dam safety
The Dam Safety Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha and applies to all specified dams across the country. These are dams with: (i) height more than 15 metres, or (ii) height between 10 metres to 15 metres and subject to certain additional design and structural conditions. It seeks to provide for the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of specified dams for prevention of dam failure related disasters. It creates authorities at the national and state level to formulate policies and regulations on dam safety and implement them. It also puts certain obligations on dam owners by requiring them to provide a dam safety unit in each dam, among other things.
When the Bill was being introduced, few opposition members raised objections on the grounds of Parliament’s legislative competence to make a law on dam safety which applies to all states. They gave the example of the previous Dam Safety Bill, 2010, which applied only to the states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal who had adopted resolutions requiring Parliament to pass a law on dam safety.
So far the winter session has seen poor productivity with Lok Sabha working for 14% of its scheduled time, and Rajya Sabha for 5%. This is one of the least productive sessions of the 16th Lok Sabha. This is also the last major session before the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. Both Houses will meet tomorrow after the Christmas break. With a packed legislative agenda, it is essential for Parliament to function in order to discuss and deliberate the Bills listed. However, with a limited number of sitting days available in the ongoing session and continued disruptions, it remains to be seen if Parliament will be able to achieve its legislative agenda.
- This post is a modified version of an article published by The Wire on December 26, 2018.
Recently, the Indian Railways announced rationalisation of freight fares. This rationalisation will result in an 8.75% increase in freight rates for major commodities such as coal, iron and steel, iron ore, and raw materials for steel plants. The freight rates were rationalised to ensure additional revenue generation across the network. An additional revenue of Rs 3,344 crore is expected from such rationalisation, which will be utilised to improve passenger amenities. In addition, the haulage charge of containers has been increased by 5% and the freight rates of other small goods have been increased by 8.75%. Freight rates have not been increased for goods such as food grains, flours, pulses, fertilisers, salt, and sugar, cement, petroleum, and diesel. In light of this, we discuss some issues around Railways’ freight pricing.
Railways’ sources of internal revenue
Railways earns its internal revenue primarily from passenger and freight traffic. In 2016-17 (latest actual figures available), freight and passenger traffic contributed to about 63% and 28% of the internal revenue, respectively. The remaining is earned from miscellaneous sources such as parcel service, coaching receipts, and platform tickets.
Freight traffic: Railways majorly transports bulk freight, and the freight basket has mostly been limited to include raw materials for certain industries such as power plants, and iron and steel plants. It generates most of its freight revenue from the transportation of coal (43%), followed by cement (8%), food-grains (7%), and iron and steel (7%). In 2018-19, Railways expects to earn Rs 1,21,950 crore from its freight traffic.
Passenger traffic: Passenger traffic is broadly divided into two categories: suburban and non-suburban traffic. Suburban trains are passenger trains that cover short distances of up to 150 km, and help move passengers within cities and suburbs. Majority of the passenger revenue (94% in 2017-18) comes from the non-suburban traffic (or the long-distance trains).
Within non-suburban traffic, second class (includes sleeper class) contributes to 67% of the non-suburban revenue. AC class (includes AC 3-tier, AC Chair Car and AC sleeper) contributes to 32% of the non-suburban revenue. The remaining 1% comes from AC First Class (includes Executive class and First Class).
Railways’ ability to generate its own revenue has been slowing
The growth rate of Railways’ earnings from its core business of running freight and passenger trains has been declining. This is due to a decline in the growth of both freight and passenger traffic. Some of the reasons for such decline include:
Freight traffic growth has been declining, and is limited to a few items
Growth of freight traffic has been declining over the last few years. It has declined from around 8% in the mid-2000s to a 4% negative growth in mid-2010s, before an estimated recovery to about 5% now.
The National Transport Development Policy Committee (2014) had noted various issues with freight transportation on railways. For example, Indian Railways does not have an institutional arrangement to attract and aggregate traffic of smaller parcel size. Further, freight services are run with a focus on efficiency instead of customer satisfaction. Consequently, it has not been able to capture high potential markets such as FMCGs, hazardous materials, or automobiles and containerised cargo. Most of such freight is transported by roads.
The freight basket is also limited to a few commodities, most of which are bulk in nature. For example, coal contributes to about 43% of freight revenue and 25% of the total internal revenue. Therefore, any shift in transport patterns of any of these bulk commodities could affect Railways’ finances significantly.
For example, if new coal based power plants are set up at pit heads (source of coal), then the need for transporting coal through Railways would decrease. If India’s coal usage decreases due to a shift to more non-renewable sources of energy, it will reduce the amount of coal being transported. Such situations could have a significant adverse impact on Railways’ revenue.
Freight traffic cross-subsidises passenger traffic
In 2014-15, while Railways’ freight business made a profit of about Rs 44,500 crore, its passenger business incurred a net loss of about Rs 33,000 crore.17 The total passenger revenue during this period was Rs 49,000 crore. This implies that losses in the passenger business are about 67% of its revenue. Therefore, in 2014-15, for every one rupee earned in its passenger business, Indian Railways ended up spending Rs 1.67.
These losses occur across both suburban and non-suburban operations, and are primarily caused due to: (i) passenger fares being lower than the costs, and (ii) concessions to various categories of passengers. According to the NITI Aayog (2016), about 77% to 80% of these losses are contributed by non-suburban operations (long-distance trains). Concessions to various categories of passengers contribute to about 4% of these losses, and the remaining (73-76%) is due to fares being lower than the system costs.
The NITI Aayog (2016) had noted that Railways ends up using profits from its freight business to provide for such losses in the passenger segment, and also to manage its overall financial situation. Such cross-subsidisation has resulted in high freight tariffs. The NTDPC (2014) had noted that, in several countries, passenger fares are either higher or almost equal as freight rates. However, in India, the ratio of passenger fare to freight rate is about 0.3.
Impact of increasing freight rates
The recent freight rationalisation further increases the freight rates for certain key commodities by 8.75%, with an intention to improve passenger amenities. Higher freight tariffs could be counter-productive towards growth of traffic in the segment. The NTDPC report had noted that due to such high tariffs, freight traffic has been moving to other modes of transport. Further, the higher cost of freight segment is eventually passed on to the common public in the form of increased costs of electricity, steel, etc. Various experts have recommended that Railways should consider ways to rationalise freight and passenger tariff distortions in a way to reduce such cross-subsidisation.