NEW DELHI: The government on Thursday hastily recalled an order drastically reducing interest rates on small savings schemes like post office deposits and public provident fund, with finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman attributing it to ‘oversight’.
The rollback was seen to be a political decision as the rate cut coincided with the crucial second phase of elections in West Bengal, which is the top source of small savings deposits on a gross basis. Also, most phases of the ongoing assembly elections are still to roll out and the cuts were seen to hurt traditional savings choices, particularly among senior citizens.
Sources, however, said the order was issued due to some communication gap. On Wednesday evening, the FM’s office was looking into a global report on gender gap and had sought data on women depositors and Sukanya Samridhi scheme. With the file cleared by the “competent authority”, a reference to officials, the message did not percolate clearly and the order slashing rates was issued around 8 PM. Sitharaman was briefed about it late night and she tweeted early Thursday, holding back the decision.
As a result, interest rates, which were to fall by as much as 1.1 percentage point will remain unchanged up to June, Sitharaman said, less than 12 hours after her ministry had slashed them — a move which would have seen returns on PPF fall to the lowest level in almost 47 years.
The government has been facing criticism for not cutting taxes on petrol and diesel and deciding to tax interest earned by private sector employees on annual provident fund contributions of over Rs 2.5 lakh. Besides, falling interest rates, returns on fixed deposits barely cover inflation, which in any case has remained elevated due to food prices. Banks have been arguing for aligning small savings rates in line with their deposit rates.
Given the wide user base, decisions to alter rates are taken after consultations at multiple levels in the government. This time, the need to reduce rates was seen to be greater as bank deposit rates had dropped in line with the Reserve Bank of India’s policy rates but small savings rates had been left unchanged since April 2020, although they are to be reset every quarter. The measures were also seen in sync with efforts to make finance less costly for the private sector borrowers.
“Every government has the right to frame policy the way it wants. It is assumed that the decision has been arrived at after due diligence with every angle being examined. Changing a policy within 12 hours indicates either a lack of application of mind in the original decision or extraneous considerations leading to a reversal. It doesn’t reflect well on the ministry.”
But the step seemed to have been pushed through without adequately weighing the overall impact on savers as well as the broader political economy. Small savings and provident fund are seen to be safe instruments that not only help the middle class build a retirement corpus but also take care of post-retirement needs through products such as senior citizens’ savings schemes.
In April, at the start of the last financial year, the government had slashed interest rates by up to 1.4 percentage points.