On deaf ears

Another way the government purports to help the poor is to subsidise grain and fuel, selling them at controlled prices through "ration shops" to the poor. Some propositions, Mr Basu writes, seem obvious with a little thought, but far from obvious with a lot of thought. Price controls are one of them. It seems clear at first blush that one can cushion the poor from the vagaries of the market by regulating the prices of basic necessities, like food, fuel and fertiliser. But a good economic adviser knows better. Mr Basu points out that ration-shopkeepers divert much of the subsidised grain on to the open market, adulterating the remaining grain with gravel. Reetika Khera of the Centre for Development Economics in Delhi has found that in some states, when market prices rise the poor paradoxically get less subsidised grain, because so much is diverted. It would be better, Mr Basu argues, to give the money to the poor directly, through food, fertiliser or fuel coupons, which they could spend anywhere they please.

Has his boss heeded any of this advice? The government recently decided to raise the price of urea, a fertiliser. Mr Mukherjee also increased import duties and production taxes on fuel. This will help him reduce the central government's fiscal deficit to 5.5 per cent in the next fiscal year, down from 6.7 per cent this year. It also prompted the opposition and some of the ruling coalition's own allies to walk out in the middle of his speech. Thanks to these measures, fuel prices will be higher -- but no freer. Shortly before the budget an expert committee headed by another economist urged Mr Mukherjee to liberalise the prices of petrol and diesel. In his budget Mr Mukherjee left that decision to his cabinet colleague at the petroleum ministry. The government's economic advisers, both in the finance ministry and outside it, may not be pleased by this dodge. But at least one of them should not be surprised by it.

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