Nearly one month after the landmark 2014 Lok Sabha election, India waits for newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make good on his election promises. During his campaign, former Chief Minister Modi vowed to catalyze economic growth, curtail corruption, and defend the poor, a platform that surely helped him earn the largest margin of victory in the country’s history. Now, in the face of slowing economic growth and rising income inequality, Modi is expected to apply his development prowess for the rest of India.
The answer is simple: subsidy reform.
Since India’s independence from Britain, subsidies have had a major presence in India’s budget. India’s 2014-2015 interim budget estimated $21.2 billion in subsidies for food and petroleum alone. Until Modi’s election, this trend showed no sign of changing.
Next month, the Modi government is set to unveil its first budget, the first likely indicator of Modi’s fulfillment of campaign promises. Recently, Mr. Modi has hinted that his economic policies and corresponding budget will be unpopular with India, most likely due in part to the diminishing role of petroleum and agriculture subsidies.
India is host to a myriad of subsidies. From petroleum to education, India even subsidizes Muslim citizens to make the Haj. Of these, some of the most controversial are food subsidies. Within this broad scope, there are subsidies for fertilizer, irrigation, and electricity as well as in-kind food subsidies. The Government of India has barely reformed its food subsidy policy since the mid-1970s, with the exception of the 2013 National Food Security Act. The National Security Act provides food to two-thirds of India’s population, though only 22% live beneath the poverty line.
Designed with combating poverty in mind, subsidies are expected to boost production and increase efficiency while bolstering India’s recently declining growth rates. However, in reality, the inverse is true. Indian subsidies in agriculture are distributed unequally across the states. For example, the states of Assam and Madhya Pradesh, receive disproportionate agricultural subsidies, with the former receiving 600 rupees per agricultural person and the latter receiving 40 rupees per agricultural person. Both states, with active agricultural sectors, receive unequal subsidies for their efforts, leaving Madhya Pradesh to be one of the country’s more prosperous states and Assam one of the least developed.
Further, it is unlikely that in-kind food subsidies even reach India’s poorest. As early as 1985, the public distribution system was responsible for a mere 15% of the allocations meant for the poor, a track record that has worsened over time.
Though it may seem that business-centric Modi has neglected the poor in lieu of increasing foreign investment and freeing the labor markets, the new Prime Minister ’s policy reforms could be a key to reducing poverty. In a recent speech to Parliament, Modi alluded to administrative changes to increase the efficiency of the state-run Food Corporation of India. These reforms could come in the form of a nation-wide cash transfer system that could increase distribution efficiency and restore foodstuffs to market prices. With demonstrated effectiveness in neighboring Indonesia, cash transfers allow more targeted assistance and more effective poverty reduction. Though it is unlikely that Modi will eradicate subsidies altogether, it is clear that he is dedicated to their reform.
For better or for worse, Narendra Modi’s victory is a sign for changing times in Indian politics. The Modi government’s new budget is expected to be introduced in early July, but the transition from planning to implementation will be a challenge. Parliament must review and approve the budget, meaning that the Modi’s budget could be met with opposition before it even reaches the Rajya Sabha. Though scaling back subsidies and bolstering growth are ambitious, the greater obstacle could be a lack of political will.