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Team Sitharaman: Meet the men who are helping FM prepare Budget 2020

Nirmala Sitharaman | Photo: PTI
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will present her second budget six weeks from now. With economic growth at its lowest in more than six years, and a long-lasting slowdown affecting demand and consumption across sectors, Sitharaman and her budget-team are looking to announce measures and initiatives which will boost growth and activity.

Additionally, after a number of rollbacks following the last budget, the political leadership is also looking to seize back the initiative as the government is being criticised by stakeholders for not being able to manage the slowdown, with multiple agencies, including the Reserve Bank of India, slashing their growth forecasts for the year.

Like any other Finance Minister, Sitharaman will depend on her top team of bureaucrats and advisors to frame and present the budget. Here is a brief look at them: 

Rajiv Kumar (Finance and Financial Services Secretary): As per the norm, being the senior-most of the five secretaries in the Finance Ministry, Financial Services Secretary Rajiv Kumar also holds the designation of Finance Secretary. A 1984 batch officer from the Jharkhand cadre, Kumar is known as the driving force behind the spate of mergers of state-owned banks. The ambitious Rs 2.1 trillion bank recapitalization programme was also announced during his time. The biggest challenge that Kumar has had to deal with is the level of toxic assets in the banking system, and the liquidity crisis in non-banking financial companies. The upcoming 2020-21 Union Budget will be his last, as he is expected to retire at the end of February. Even if he gets an extension, it is likely to be for a few more months, till the Finance Bill is passed.

Ajay Bhushan Pandey (Revenue Secretary): Replacing Hasmukh Adhia was never meant to be easy. And it hasn’t been for Pandey, who is also the chairman of the Goods and Service Tax Network and till recently was heading UIDAI as well. Pandey has come in for heavy criticism for giving unrealistic tax revenue targets for the year. With growth faltering, all the direct and indirect tax projections are now coming undone, and the centre is now unlikely to meet the fiscal deficit target of 3.3 per cent of gross domestic product for 2019-20. It remains to be seen what sort of a positive impact the recent corporate tax cuts have on investment levels by the private sector. Pandey is a 1984 batch Maharashtra cadre officer and is tipped to be the Finance Secretary after Kumar’s retirement. His biggest challenge now is ensuring that states get their due GST compensation before the issue snowballs further.

Atanu Chakraborty (Economic Affairs Secretary): A 1985 batch Gujarat cadre officer, Chakraborty was brought in from Department of Investment and Public Asset Management to repair relationships with regulatory bodies like the Reserve Bank of India and Securities and Exchange Board of India, and with other government departments. These relations had been slightly damaged during the time of his predecessor Subhash Garg, for a number of reasons. Chakraborty till recently held charge of both economic affairs and expenditure. His biggest challenge right now is to ensure that the fiscal slippage remains at acceptable levels, as mandated by the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, at not more than 0.5 per cent. He is also expected to write most of the budget speech.

Tuhin Kanta Pandey (DIPAM Secretary): Known as a young, smart and diligent official, Pandey perhaps faces the greatest test of his career, in form of a steep Rs 1.05 trillion disinvestment target, which is the biggest DIPAM has ever been given. Before the year ends, Pandey has to ensure privatization of Air India, Bharat Petroleum, Shipping Corp, Shipping Corp, and the sale of the centre’s entire stake in THDC Ltd and NEEPCO Ltd to NTPC. He also has to carry out sales of further tranches of the two CPSE equity ETFs and the initial public offerings and offer-for-sales, which are a par for the course. It is imperative that DIPAM has to exceed its target for the third consecutive year to make up part of a shortfall in tax revenues. Pandey is a 1987 batch Odisha cadre officer.

T V Somanathan (Expenditure Secretary): Between 2015 and 2017, Somanathan was in the Prime Minister’s Office looking after the implementation of economic policies. Thus he has the trust of the top political leadership. A 1987 batch, Tamil Nadu cadre officer, his appointment to the post of Expenditure Secretary was announced late last week. As the government grapples with the need to provide stimulus across sectors and unleash capital expenditure to help revive a flagging economy, Somanathan’s role in the budget will be closely watched.

Krishnamurthy Subramanian (Chief Economic Advisor): It is said that Subramanian has been brainstorming with economists and experts in the public and private sector for some big ideas and themes which could find their way in the budget. A proponent of behavioral economics, Subramanian also has a deep understanding of the financial sector and is expected to further drive banking and financial sector reforms. An alumni of Indian Institute of Management Kolkata and University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Subramanian counts Raghuram Rajan as one of his mentors.

Sanjeev Sanyal (Principal Economic Advisor): Sanyal wears many hats: Author, historian, and economist. As PEA, he has been part of negotiations with the RBI and the financial sector on a number of issues, including sector-specific NPAs, and has also been part of a panel on commerce and trade reforms. Sanyal is likely to contribute heavily to the budget as well as the economic survey.

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