The Economic Survey itself talks in many languages
It is well accepted that the authors of the pre-budget Economic Survey are very different from those of the Budget. Journalists with ‘Survey suggests subsidy cut’ headlines have learnt this the hard way when, the day their stories appear, the Budget goes ahead and hikes subsidy payouts. What is less appreciated is that the Survey too is written by different people, and this year is no exception. Sure, there is an overall attempt to make the chapters jell, but you can’t hide the basic differences in approach of different chapter authors.
The Survey’s chapter on Issues and Priorities, for instance, has modern ideas on how to fix the old command-and-control economy. So it talks of using commodity futures and warehouse receipts to modernise the food economy even though senior BJP leaders don’t seem to trust markets, as evidenced by their botched attempts at bringing onions and potatoes under the Essential Commodities Act. When talking of increasing production, it talks of correct pricing, not just for minerals like natural gas but even crops like spinach. While discussing education, the chapter juxtaposes the increasing government expenditure with the low, and falling, education outcomes in the case of government schools. Though not explicitly plumping for education coupons that allow parents to send their children to better private schools, the approach is largely a market-based one. The chapter on Human Development, on the other hand, also uses the same ASER data on education outcomes, but is more old school, driven by targets in terms of the number of schools, enrolment levels, number of toilets, etc. Not surprisingly, it focuses more on these while, it is true, talking of outcome-based assessment of teachers. In the case of MGNREGA, it doesn’t look at the waste, but focuses on making it similar to wasteful programmes like SGRY that Indira Gandhi ran decades ago. Which chapters of the Survey the finance minister reads will be evident a few hours from now.