India relaxes fiscal deficit, cuts taxes to spur growth

MUMBAI (AFP) – India relaxed its fiscal deficit target on Saturday, raising spending and slashing taxes as it seeks to attract foreign investment and increase consumption in the wake of a prolonged economic slowdown.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the changes as part of the country’s annual budget in Parliament, a day after official data showed that Asia’s third-largest economy grew five per cent last year, its slowest expansion since the 2008 global financial crisis.

In a sprawling three-hour speech peppered with references to ancient Indian history and poetry, Sitharaman said the fiscal deficit target for the current financial year was now 3.8 per cent of GDP, up from an earlier 3.3 per cent.

It will edge down to 3.5 per cent next year, she added.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government has been trying desperately to revive the economy, which has flagged for several quarters, with per capita consumption falling for the first time in four decades.

The Finance Minister said Indians earning under 1.5 million rupees (USD21,000) a year could pay lower taxes if they agreed to forego existing exemptions, with a view to raising their purchasing power.

Indian taxpayers are allowed to claim exemptions for a range of expenses, from medical insurance to vacation spending, under a labyrinthine tax regime that Sitharaman has vowed to simplify during her tenure.

Indian commuters crowd the Churchgate railway station in Mumbai, India. India’s government offered relief to taxpayers and vowed to spend billions to double farmers’ incomes, upgrade infrastructure, healthcare and industry to boost the lowest economic growth in a decade. PHOTO: AP

She also announced that companies would no longer have to pay dividend distribution tax, terming it a “bold move meant to attract foreign investors”.

“Wealth creators will be respected in this country … and this government assures taxpayers they will not be harassed,” she said in her second budget speech since Modi won a landslide re-election last May.

The key agriculture sector will receive a cash infusion of 2.83 trillion rupees to help farmers set up solar power units and storage facilities.

Sitharaman said this would enable farmers, many of whom are burdened by crushing debts, to sell power to energy companies.

She also revealed New Delhi was seeking to shed its 100 per cent stake in the country’s largest insurer, Life Insurance Corporation, to generate revenue.

Earlier this week, the government also announced plans to sell its 100 per cent stake in debt-crippled national carrier Air India after an earlier push to sell part of the airline found no takers.

Experts say India’s state-run companies, which manufacture anything from bicycles to contraceptives, are a major drag on the economy due to their unprofitability, barring the government-owned enterprises in the coal sector.

Prime Minister Modi said the budget would “boost income and investment. It will improve demand and consumption and help improve credit flows”.

“It has been created with a focus on the current situation and future requirements of the country,” he added. New Delhi has said it expects the economy to recover soon, pegging growth at 6.0 to 6.5 per cent for the financial year 2020-21.

But analysts and opposition politicians said the budget was too piecemeal and failed to offer a clear roadmap for a possible revival.