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Published on: Feb. 13, 2023, 2:36 p.m.
Is the Rs13.7 lakh crore capex bet enough?
  • Sitharaman’s fiscal math is being projected as more credible and devoid of creative numbers; Photo: Sekhar Ghosh

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

Nirmala Sitharaman’s fifth budget, and the current government’s final, full-fledged one before elections to nine state assemblies this year and general election next year, was expected to be overtly political aimed at winning over an electorate that could get choosy. However, it goes to her credit that the budget makes an attempt at protecting macro-economic stability by resisting the temptation for populism and remaining committed to the fiscal reduction path announced two years ago. With a budgeted capital expenditure of Rs10 lakh crore and an effective capex of Rs13.7 lakh crore, which is 4.5 per cent of the GDP, the strategy is meant to support the economy amid high inflation and a challenging global environment. 

“This will be almost three times the outlay in 2019-20,” Sitharaman said in her budget speech. “This substantial increase in recent years is Central to the government’s efforts to enhance growth potential and job creation, crowd-in private investments and provide a cushion against global headwinds”. 

The strategy is also meant to generate jobs – an area where the Modi government has been found wanting. On the face of it, the increase in capital outlay should automatically create construction jobs. However, job creation depends on how much of the capital outlay is translated on the ground.

Budget 2023-24 has a slew of employment-friendly initiatives like the 100 critical transport infrastructure projects for last and first mile connectivity to ports, coal, steel, as also fertiliser & food grain sectors. After agriculture, construction is the biggest employer in India. Similarly, MSMEs, which will benefit from the Rs9,000 crore under the credit guarantee scheme under which they can get loans up to Rs2 crore without collateral security, can now ramp up their operations and hire more manpower.

The budget was presented amid the looming shadow of the Adani meltdown. Stock markets soared only to fall, caught in the swirling controversy over allegations surrounding the Adani group. But, by and large, the budget was well received by the BJP’s cadres and the public at large.

Many constraints hobble the making of a budget in any year. The overall size of the budget itself is constrained in India by the relatively low tax to GDP ratio (11.7 per cent in 2021-22). A greater tax to GDP ratio enables the government to cast a wider fiscal net and become less reliant on borrowing. This particular budget had to factor in adverse global and geopolitical circumstances. Yet, it would appear that Sitharaman has made the best of a bad situation.

What stands out in the budget as a policy exercise is the focus on doables like infrastructure that could serve as a medium for growth and employment, policies to enable green or environmentally sustainable growth (like replacing polluting vehicles) and rationalisation of direct taxes.

 Wooing middle class, rich

The finance minister has targeted the middle class, particularly the salaried, who are traditional supporters of the BJP but had felt unacknowledged during the last four years. There’s nary a BJP MP these days, who does not tell you in Parliament that anybody with a taxable income below Rs7 lakh per annum would now have to pay no income tax under the new IT regime.

More importantly, North Block bureaucrats claim that this move could also free up some money in the hands of those earning just under Rs60,000 a month for spending and also directing money from tax-focussed saving instruments to discretionary spending or investment in the markets.

  • Road to growth: Highways gets a massive Rs1.62 lakh crore; Photo: Sanjay Borade

In a similar move, the FM has offered significant relief to the super-rich as well. This is a section, which has been oiling the BJP’s electoral machine. For those with annual incomes above Rs5 crore, surcharge will come down from 37 per cent to 25 per cent. 

These concessions are simultaneously aimed at pushing the IT payees towards a zero exemption, new tax regime which has so far found just 50 per cent takers. Clearly, Sitharaman has realised that the new personal tax regime introduced three years back was not finding satisfactory traction so far and, hence, there was a need to incentivise individuals for them to step out from the exemption era. 

There is also a new sense of practicality about the budget also. Its framers are not obsessed either with reforms in difficult areas – land, labour, farm – where the NDA government has met with limited success. There is no talk of big-ticket disinvestment target because of uncertainties in the market. The ongoing financial year would be the fourth consecutive year in which that the Modi government has been unable to achieve the budgeted disinvestment target. 2023-24 will be the same. So, goodbye to the privatisation of Bharat Petroleum (BPCL) and IDBI Bank, two public sector banks, and two state-owned general insurance companies.

Slowdown pangs

The government is now likely to take a shot at divesting Rashtriya Ispat Nigam and choose one among three suitors, Tata Steel, JSW Steel and (hold your breath!) the Adani group. The other divestments which may be attempted are Shipping Corporation, BEML, NMDC Steel and Pawan Hans.

The government’s logic appears to be that the Indian economy is anyway expected to slow down in 2023-24, compared to 2022-23, and in sync with the global slowdown. The Economic Survey has projected a baseline GDP growth of 6.5 per cent for the coming year. While India will still continue to be one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world, the 2023-24 output will be in line with its medium-term potential growth rate (IMF estimate) of 6 per cent.

Some economists, however, fear that the government may be over-estimating the growth prospects for the next year. The budget has projected a nominal growth rate of 10.5 per cent for 2023-24; and only if the average retail inflation for the year is assumed to be 4 per cent, does the real growth rate turn out to 6.5 per cent (nominal growth rate minus inflation). RBI has projected inflation in the first half of this year itself to be 5.2 per cent.

If the trend continues in the second half, then the GDP figure could be close to 5 per cent, which the likes of Raghuram Rajan, former RBI governor, have predicted. However, even if the average inflation in the second half is 4 per cent, the full year average turns out to be 4.5 per cent, more than what the government is projecting.

Keynes to the fore

So, it would appear, India should forget the days when 8 per cent GDP growth was the norm. Also, in the absence of private investment, the best way to boost the economy’s long-term prospects is to pump-prime public investment. The Keynesian formula is an old and tested one.

  • High capex actually works like a social welfare scheme for the government

    Pranjul Bhandari, Chief India economist, HSBC

It goes like this: If government spending increases, and all other spending components remain constant, then output will increase. Keynesian models of economic activity also include a multiplier effect; that is, output changes by some multiple of the increase or decrease in spending that caused the change. If the fiscal multiplier is greater than one, then a one rupee increase in government spending would result in an increase in output greater than one rupee. Hence, the capital expenditure bet of Rs10 lakh crore.

Complementing the capex push, Sitharaman has allowed states to raise up to Rs1.3 lakh crore through 50-year interest free loans. States will have the discretion to spend the sums as they like, but a part will be conditional on spending for the specific national objectives, including the scrapping of old government vehicles, urban planning reforms and actions, financing reforms in urban local bodies to make them creditworthy for municipal bonds, construction of housing for police personnel above or as part of police stations, and on the state’s share of capital expenditure of central schemes. 

The effective capital expenditure (which includes grants to states) is budgeted at Rs13.7 lakh crore for the next year, almost 13 per cent higher than in 2022-23. This, Sitharaman hopes, will bring growth, and also jobs. 

Demand spurs

The huge allocation to Railways (Rs2.4 lakh crore next year, compared with Rs1.59 lakh crore in 2022-23), roads and highways (Rs2.7 lakh crore in 2023-24, compared with Rs2 lakh crore this year) and housing (PM Awas outlay hiked 66 per cent to Rs79,000 crore), will not only spur demand for heavy equipment, cement, steel and other commodities, but also generate more employment.

Officials hint that this is probably a reason why the government has reduced the MGNREGA outlay by a third to Rs60,000 crore, a signal to part of the workforce which migrated to the hinterlands to return to employment-intensive sectors including housing and construction and contact-service industries like hotels and restaurants.

But large capex comes at the cost of welfare. There have been significant cuts in major schemes and no investment hikes in key sectors like healthcare and education. The Budget estimate for expenditure on rural development in 2023-24 is pegged at Rs2.38 lakh crore, a marginal 0.1 percentage point increase when measured as a proportion of overall expenditure at 5.3 per cent, compared with the 5.2 per cent in the previous budget estimate.

When viewed against the revised estimate, the outlay is a good 0.6 percentage point lower. Food subsidy too has been sharply pared down. At Rs1.97 lakh crore, it is almost 5 per cent lower than the 2022-23 budget estimate and a steep 31 per cent down from the revised estimate. 

It is obvious that the government’s resolve to stay the course on fiscal consolidation, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic had led it to spend more even as revenue receipts dipped amid the unprecedented economic contraction, left Sitharaman with little leeway on the expenditure front. She had decided that the government would concentrate its resources on increased public outlays on infrastructure and investment – and so it was.

Construction gambit

Hence, the attempt at reviving the construction sector becomes obvious. This is where the maximum number of non-formal wage jobs were created in the boom years in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s tenure. “High capex actually works like a social welfare scheme for the government,” points out Pranjul Bhandari, chief India economist, HSBC. “It creates capacity for extra jobs in the short-term as pressure on infrastructure increases. Moreover, rural households are receiving a larger chunk of their income from construction these days as compared to agriculture.”

  • None

    The budget announcement of a 33 per cent increase in capex to R10 lakh crore, amounting to 3.3 per cent of the GDP, is misleading

    Pronab Sen, India’s former chief statistician

However, Pronab Sen, India’s former chief statistician, says that the budget announcement of a 33 per cent increase in capex to R10 lakh crore, amounting to 3.3 per cent of the GDP, is misleading. He says a substantial part of this increase in capex has happened by reducing the capex of PSUs. Second, the Rs1.3 lakh crore going to the states as 50-year loans may not be an increase in capex but simply a change in the source of its funding. Third, some of this Rs10 lakh crore may not be capex at all depending upon how BSNL and BPCL utilise the Rs83,000 crore, which is 8.3 per cent of the Rs10 lakh, allocated to them.

It’s quite possible these two companies may utilise this as budgetary support rather than capex. Fourth, Sen says that it’s almost certain that perhaps up to 50 per cent of the Rs2.4 lakh crore allocation to the railways and the R1.62 lakh crore for highways may not be used at all and could return to the government. Sitharaman will have to disprove Sen’s thesis of scepticism.

 Private sector’s role?

Also, to get the economy really moving, the private sector will have to step in decisively. The private sector has held back for nearly a decade, even after corporate and bank balance sheets have healed from the debt excesses and demand destruction due to the global financial crisis and the policy paralysis in the UPA government’s tenure. Another reason the private sector has not been investing is that domestic demand has remained constrained during the Modi government’s tenure, including in the years preceding the pandemic.

Recently, inflation has shrunk people’s spending power. There’s also been a fair bit of policy flip-flop and uncertainty. By signalling continuity and consistency of the capex-pushing approach now, the budget seeks to address some of these concerns. But it won’t happen over the coming year. Rashesh Shah, chairman and CEO, Edelweiss group, expects real greenfield capex, which will create new jobs, to start from 2024.

The capex push plan is not without risk. The former FM, Pranab Mukherjee’s reckless push for growth in the second UPA government’s tenure, even after providing a sizeable capex push, sowed the seeds of fiscal stress. He presided over a regime of high inflation which the RBI had to combat by raising repo rates. Inflation is always painful – a regressive tax on the vulnerable. But rising interest rates also hurt investment by the private sector.

In his last budget in March 2012, Mukherjee proposed tax policies, including retrospective amendments, which frightened away foreign investors, including relatively long-term ones such as private equity funds. The timing was awful as India was on the verge of running up its largest ever current account deficit and needed to be mindful of foreign investment.

Unlike Mukherjee’s capex gamble, Sitharaman has budgeted a lower fiscal deficit for 2023-24. The budget estimates no slippages in the fiscal deficit from the target she set two years ago: 6.4 per cent of GDP for 2022-23 and 5.9 per cent for 2023-24. (The budget is to take the fiscal deficit to under 4.5 per cent of GDP by 2025-26.)

Pressure for freebies

However, as the general election approaches, the FM will have to resist pressures to give in to demands for freebies. For instance, in December 2018, the government buckled under pressure following the farmers’ agitation and the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, under which an income support of Rs6,000 per year is provided to all land holding farmer families, was announced outside the budget just a few months before the 2019 election. In Maharashtra, ruled partly by the BJP, deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis has hinted at reverting to the Old Pension Scheme for government employees, which will entail more fiscal burden on the state.

  • The revenue estimates in the budget do not assume buoyancy greater than 1 for the coming financial year

    T.V. Somanathan, finance secretary

There is another catch, which Sitharaman will have to be mindful about. The government’s debt burden is high, and the debt’s affordability is weak. The debt is budgeted at 58.8 per cent of GDP for 2021-22, but the revised estimates suggest it will be lower at 57 per cent of GDP. The government borrows at nearly twice the cost that governments in advanced economies can borrow at. It’s, therefore, important that the government’s debt burden is quickly stabilised relative to nominal GDP.

Or the sustainability of government debt will come into question, creating macro-economic pressures. Interest repayments on government debt are projected to increase by 14.8 per cent in 2023-24, on top of 16.8 per cent this year. The public debt-to-GDP ratio will thus have to be brought down in order to pare down debt servicing costs and free up funds for other essential expenditures. 

Credible math claim

Unlike the jugglery of her many predecessors, including P. Chidambaram’s before the 2014 election, Sitharaman’s fiscal math is being projected as more credible and devoid of creative numbers. Tax collections are estimated conservatively and projected to keep pace with GDP growth and inflation in 2023-24. GDP growth plus inflation, or nominal GDP growth, is assumed at 10.5 per cent, a safe assumption, given the difficulty of predicting what new challenges, recessions, or slowdowns the global economy may pose.

The tax collections may actually grow faster, as they have this year. Direct taxes have 23.5 per cent in the first eight months of 2022-23. Indirect taxes have grown by 8.6 per cent. Sticking with her trademark conservative approach on tax collection estimates, no change in revenues as a percentage of GDP in 2023-24 is budgeted from the 11.14 per cent this year.

How has the FM budgeted for higher capital expenditure? Officials point out that with global fertiliser prices easing, savings on the subsidy bill are estimated at 0.7 per cent of GDP in 2023-24, compared to 2022-23. The savings will go into the higher capex. Savings adding up to about 0.5 per cent of GDP estimated on non-subsidy, non-interest repayments current expenditure will be ploughed to meet the fiscal consolidation target. 

Disinvestment may have been budgeted modestly to bring in Rs51,000 crore next year. With the coming months being littered with so many elections, it will indeed be difficult to sell off government assets and even meet this target. However, PSUs may be called upon to pitch in with dividends. PSU dividends, including from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), are budgeted at Rs48,000 crore in 2023-24.

The fiscal deficit budgeted at Rs17.8 lakh crore will be funded in a workman-like manner. The borrowing requirements are budgeted at Rs15.4 lakh crore, lower than what the market was expecting. This includes higher borrowings through the small savings route (Rs4.7 lakh crore in 2023-24 against Rs4.4 lakh crore in 2022-23). As the liquidity situation is quite tight presently for the banking system, the government will borrow more from small savers.

For this, a new one-time small saving scheme for women has been announced. The maximum amount that can be deposited in the Senior Citizen Savings Scheme (SCSS) has been doubled to Rs30 lakh, and in the Monthly Income Account Scheme has been more than doubled to Rs9 lakh for a single account and Rs15 lakh for joint account.

  • With an allocation of Rs2.4 lakh crore the Railways is expected to drive growth in the country

New schemes

Like with every other budget, there are schemes and announcements for different sections of the population and sectors, where progress has been tardy. The PM Vishwakarma Kaushal Samman (PM VIKAS) is aimed at traditional artisans and craftspeople who work with their hands using tools. Assistance, including financial support and social security, to help improve the quality, scale and reach of their products and integrate them with the MSME value chain was announced.

Similarly, a ‘Mangrove Initiative for Shoreline Habitats & Tangible Incomes’ or ‘MISHTI’, aimed at undertaking mangrove plantation along the coastline and on salt pan lands leaves the funding to a “convergence between MGNREGS and a compensatory afforestation fund”. 

However, schemes like MISHTI need to be taken with a pinch of salt. When the rural sector’s mainstay employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) itself increasingly being starved of budgetary support, it is hard to fathom how the new initiative to protect and regenerate the ecologically sensitive mangroves will be funded.

The decrease in MGNREGS outlay comes at a time when the rural economy is still to regain vigour from the ravages of the pandemic, the fallout on incomes from the uneven distribution of last year’s monsoon rainfall, and the relatively greater impact of high food inflation on hinterland households.

There were announcements also for tapping the large jobs-creation potential in tourism. While schemes aimed at protecting the incomes of the vulnerable and promoting job creation can’t be criticised, if the delivery mechanisms can be sorted out, the initiatives could prove helpful. However, the superior way is to take the markets approach rather than the government schemes approach. For that, investing in human capital and reducing barriers to doing business will have to be the principal policy goals.

Claim and counter claim

Sitharaman and her team insist that the budget calculations are devoid of creative numbers. Tax collections are estimated conservatively and projected to keep pace with GDP growth and inflation in 2023-24. The tax collections may actually grow faster, as they have this year. Direct taxes have grown 23.5 per cent in the first eight months of 2022-23. Indirect taxes have grown by 8.6 per cent. Sticking with her trademark conservative approach on tax collection estimates, there is no change in revenues as a percentage of GDP in 2023-24 budgeted from the 11.14 per cent this year.

The budget pegs tax revenue at Rs33.6 lakh crore, which is 10.4 per cent higher than the Rs30.4 lakh crore projected in the revised estimates for 2022-23. “The revenue estimates in the budget do not assume buoyancy greater than 1 for the coming financial year,” says T.V. Somanathan, finance secretary. “Gross taxes are expected to grow by the same 10.5 per cent, by which we have estimated the GDP to grow, which is slightly lower than the figure implied by the Economic Survey”.

How has she budgeted for higher capital expenditure, then? The Centre’s two big-ticket expenditure items – food and fertiliser – are tipped to drop sharply in the coming fiscal year (2023-24) after rising in a big way in 2022-23. This is largely owing to the abolition of extra free food grain distributed as part of the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) and the cooling of international fertiliser prices.

According to budget documents, in 2023-24, the Centre expects its food subsidy to drop to around Rs1.97 lakh crore, which is 31.28 per cent lower than the revised estimates (RE) of 2022-23, while fertiliser subsidy is projected is dip to about Rs1.75 lakh crore, which is 22.25 per cent less than the budget estimates of 2022-23.

  • BPCL: goodbye to privatisation?

The savings have been used to budget for the higher capex. Savings adding up to about 0.5 per cent of GDP are estimated on non-subsidy, non-interest repayments current expenditure. Those have been ploughed into the fiscal consolidation target. About Rs1 lakh crore is expected from disinvestment and dividends from PSUs.

Bridging the deficit

How will the fiscal deficit budgeted at Rs17.8 lakh crore be funded? The borrowing requirements are budgeted at Rs15.4 lakh crore, lower than what the market was expecting. This includes higher borrowings through the small savings route (Rs4.7 lakh crore in 2023-24, against Rs4.4 lakh crore in 2022-23). 

As the liquidity situation is quite tight at present for the banking system, the government will borrow more from small savers. For this, a new one-time small saving scheme for women has been announced. She has also announced a new one-time small saving scheme for women. The scheme will be called Mahila Samman Saving certificate, which will be available till March 2025 and offer a fixed rate of interest at 7.5 per cent. Under this scheme, a deposit of up to R2 lakh can be made either in the name of a woman or a girl child for a maximum of a two-year tenure. 

To break free from the small size of the budget constrained in India by the relatively low tax-GDP ratio, Sitharaman has also tried to widen the tax net by providing the incentives of lower rates if individual income taxpayers opt to give up exemptions. However, this calls for individual taxpayers to give up exemptions such as on housing rent and housing loans, which are long-term decisions. 

Road she travelled

It is striking how far down the road the lady who once worked as a senior manager (R&D) in PwC, London, has travelled. Starting as a combative spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, she evolved into a staunch loyalist of Modi and has been rewarded with key portfolios like defence and finance in his two governments. In 2019, Sitharaman became the second woman FM to have presented the budget after Indira Gandhi, who had presented the budget for 1970-71.

She will complete a full five years as Union FM by the time this government demits office in May. This is a feat which Yashwant Sinha or Jaswant Singh could not achieve in the Vajpayee government. It matches the record (in presenting five budgets) and tenure of the politically suave Arun Jaitley in Modi 1.0. She is the sixth FM in independent India to present five budgets in a row. Under Sitharaman, India has weathered the Covid pandemic and faced geopolitical upheaval owing to the Russia-Ukraine war.

  • Schemes like MISHTI need to be taken with a pinch of salt?

During her fifth budget presentation, Sitharaman’s speech had the usual sprinkling of traditional-sounding catchwords – amrit kal, amrit dharohar, amrit peedhi, shree anna, saptarishi, panchamrit and PM-pranam – which must have pleased the RSS bosses in Nagpur no end. Terming it the ‘first budget in amrit kaal’, Sitharaman even sounded the poll bugle by emphasising the ruling dispensation’s achievements since 2014, when Prime Minister Modi first assumed office.

Per capita income, she said, had more than doubled to Rs1.97 lakh as a result of the economy’s growth to being the world’s fifth-largest and the government’s efforts to ensure a better quality of living for all. There was an increase in formalisation of the economy and the widespread adoption of digital technologies, especially in the payments sphere, as other significant achievements.

The budget proposals, Sitharaman said, were aimed at actualising a “technology-driven and knowledge-based economy with strong public finances, and a robust financial sector” with an eye on ‘India at 100’.

 Balancing act

Most economists say that the Union budget has turned out to be a balancing act between fiscal consolidation and continuing support for growth. The fiscal math, though optimistic in parts, appears realistic on the whole. Sonal Varma and Aurodeep Nandi, India economists at Nomura, foresee political pressure for counter-cyclical spending, especially given that the current plans suggest revenue expenditure growth of only 1.2 per cent year-on-year in 2023-24.

The government can still meet its 5.9 per cent deficit target, but if growth slows, then it will have to prioritise growth over fiscal consolidation, “For now, the government has projected a growth-oriented budget without rocking the macro boat,” they added.

That just about sums up the latest budget. As for the politics of it, the BJP in any case will be riding on Modi’s shoulders and rhetoric to see it through in the elections. The hard work put in by Sitharaman and her team will then be just a post-script.

  • How will the fiscal deficit budgeted at Rs17.8 lakh crore be funded? The borrowing requirements are budgeted at Rs15.4 lakh crore, lower than what the market was expecting

Incentivising low tax rates

To break free from the small size of the budget constrained in India by the relatively low tax-GDP ratio, Sitharaman has tried to widen the tax net by providing the incentives of lower rates if individual income taxpayers opt to give up exemptions. This calls for individual taxpayers to give up exemptions such as on housing rent and housing loans, which are long-term decisions. 

According to Sanjay Malhotra, revenue secretary, about half of the taxpayers have opted for the new regime, giving up on exemptions, and the number is expected to improve with the incentives announced in the budget. If true, this is a big taxation reform goal within reach. Once the bulk of the tax base has moved to the new regime, the next goal should be to lower the tax floor. At Rs7 lakh income per year, which is many times the per capita income, the tax base is bound to be narrow. Few countries have started collecting income tax floors at such high-income levels, leaving out the bulk of the population. 

The income tax incentives, according to tax experts, will also serve to provide some indexation of tax brackets with inflation, which has been high and eroding spending power. Will the more attractive tax rates stimulate consumption demand? Unlikely, say experts, the sums are likely to be too meagre. It’s more of a relief for high inflation. 

Other initiatives to widen the tax net may also begin to show results in time, especially the use of technology for making tax return filing convenient and tax evasion and avoidance difficult. The tax system, Sitharaman said in her speech, processed more than 65 million returns this year. The average processing period has reduced from 93 days in 2013-14 to 16 days. Remarkably, 45 per cent of the returns were processed within 24 hours.

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