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High Government Debt

6th February, 2024 POLITY AND GOVERNANCE

High Government Debt

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  • New governments inherit legacy burdens, setting the tone for future fiscal policies.

Debt Trends Under Modi Government:

  • End of second term sees public debt exceeding 80% of GDP.
  • Debt-GDP ratio fluctuated, peaking at 88.5% in 2020-21 before easing to 81% in subsequent years.


Understanding Public Debt:

  • Government debt encompasses outstanding domestic and foreign loans, plus other liabilities.
  • Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) law aimed at reducing debt-GDP ratio to 60% by 2024-25.

Debt Escalation:

  • Centre's outstanding debt rose above target, doubling from Rs 90.84 lakh crore to Rs 183.67 lakh crore.
  • Interest payments surged as debt levels escalated.

Causes of Debt Surge:

  • Covid-induced disruptions led to increased borrowing to fund public health and social safety net expenditure.
  • Gross fiscal deficit surged from 5.8% in 2018-19 to 13.1% in subsequent years.

Comparative Global Trends:

  • International debt levels soared post-pandemic across major economies.
  • Modi government increased public investments in infrastructure, widening deficits.

Debt Management Strategies:

  • FRBM Act's deficit targets largely abandoned; new fiscal consolidation path adopted.
  • Fiscal consolidation aims for deficit-to-GDP ratio of "below 4.5%" by 2025-26.

Challenges and Solutions:

  • Need for combination of fiscal consolidation and economic growth to tackle debt woes.
  • Nominal GDP growth and inflation play crucial roles in managing debt-GDP ratio.

India's approach to debt management amidst the legacy of Covid-induced challenges will shape its fiscal trajectory in the coming years.


The Debt-to-GDP ratio is a fundamental metric used by economists, policymakers, and investors to assess the financial health and sustainability of a country. It compares a nation's total debt to its gross domestic product (GDP), providing insights into its ability to manage and repay its debt obligations relative to the size of its economy.

Calculation: The Debt-to-GDP ratio is calculated by dividing a country's total debt by its GDP and multiplying the result by 100 to express it as a percentage. Mathematically, it can be represented as:


  • High Ratio: A high Debt-to-GDP ratio suggests that a significant portion of a country's economic output is devoted to servicing its debt. This may indicate fiscal strain, as it could lead to difficulties in meeting debt obligations without resorting to additional borrowing or austerity measures.
  • Low Ratio: Conversely, a low Debt-to-GDP ratio indicates that a country's debt burden is relatively small compared to the size of its economy. This may signal fiscal health, as the country has more room to maneuver in managing its debt and may be less vulnerable to economic shocks.

Key Factors Influencing Debt-to-GDP Ratio:

  1. Economic Growth: Faster GDP growth can help lower the Debt-to-GDP ratio by increasing the denominator (GDP), making the debt burden more manageable.
  2. Government Fiscal Policy: Government spending and taxation policies directly impact both debt levels and GDP growth rates, influencing the Debt-to-GDP ratio.
  3. Interest Rates: Changes in interest rates affect borrowing costs, influencing the trajectory of a country's debt accumulation and its Debt-to-GDP ratio.
  4. Financial Market Conditions: Access to international capital markets, investor confidence, and credit ratings influence a country's borrowing costs and its ability to manage its Debt-to-GDP ratio.

Policy Implications:

  • Sustainability: Policymakers aim to maintain a Debt-to-GDP ratio at a sustainable level, ensuring that debt remains manageable over the long term without hindering economic growth.
  • Investor Confidence: High levels of debt relative to GDP may erode investor confidence, leading to higher borrowing costs and potential financial instability.
  • Fiscal Discipline: Monitoring and managing the Debt-to-GDP ratio requires prudent fiscal policies, including balanced budgeting, debt reduction strategies, and investments in productive sectors to stimulate economic growth.

In conclusion, the Debt-to-GDP ratio serves as a critical indicator of a country's fiscal health and sustainability. It provides valuable insights for policymakers and investors to assess risk, make informed decisions, and promote economic stability and growth.

Impact of High Government Debt

The impact of high government debt can be significant and wide-ranging, affecting various aspects of the economy, society, and governance. Here are some of the key impacts associated with high government debt:

  • Interest Payments: High government debt necessitates larger interest payments, diverting resources away from other critical areas such as infrastructure, education, healthcare, and social programs. This can lead to a crowding-out effect, where public spending on essential services is constrained, potentially hindering long-term economic growth.
  • Borrowing Costs: High levels of government debt can result in higher borrowing costs as lenders demand higher interest rates to compensate for the increased risk of default. This can further exacerbate the debt burden, making it more challenging for governments to service their obligations and potentially leading to a debt spiral.
  • Reduced Fiscal Flexibility: High government debt limits fiscal flexibility, constraining policymakers' ability to respond effectively to economic downturns or emergencies. With limited room for maneuver, governments may be forced to implement austerity measures, such as spending cuts or tax increases, which can adversely impact economic growth and social welfare.
  • Investor Confidence: Excessive government debt levels can erode investor confidence, leading to higher risk premiums and reduced access to capital markets. This can trigger financial market volatility, currency depreciation, and capital flight, undermining economic stability and investor trust in the government's ability to manage its finances.
  • Inflation and Currency Depreciation: Persistent high government debt levels may fuel inflationary pressures and currency depreciation, especially if monetary authorities resort to printing money to finance deficits. This can erode the purchasing power of citizens, reduce real incomes, and undermine macroeconomic stability.
  • Inter-generational Equity: High government debt burdens future generations by passing on the costs of current consumption to future taxpayers. This inter-generational transfer of liabilities can create social tensions and exacerbate inequality, as younger generations may bear the brunt of fiscal austerity measures and debt servicing costs.
  • Credit Rating Downgrades: High government debt levels increase the risk of credit rating downgrades, which can further raise borrowing costs and deter investment. A downgrade in credit ratings can signal fiscal distress, leading to capital outflows, increased borrowing costs for businesses and households, and a loss of confidence in the economy.
  • Long-Term Growth Implications: Persistent high government debt can impede long-term economic growth by crowding out private investment, reducing productivity, and constraining innovation and entrepreneurship. This can hinder the economy's ability to generate sustainable employment opportunities and improve living standards over time.

In summary, high government debt can have profound and detrimental effects on economic stability, fiscal sustainability, investor confidence, and inter-generational equity. Addressing and managing high government debt levels require prudent fiscal policies, effective debt management strategies, and structural reforms to promote fiscal discipline, enhance economic growth, and safeguard long-term prosperity.


Addressing high government debt requires a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach. Here are some potential solutions:

  • Fiscal Consolidation: Implementing measures to reduce budget deficits and achieve fiscal sustainability is crucial. This may involve cutting government spending, increasing revenues through tax reforms, and improving efficiency in public expenditure.
  • Debt Restructuring: Renegotiating debt terms, extending maturities, or refinancing debt at lower interest rates can alleviate immediate repayment pressures and reduce borrowing costs.
  • Economic Growth Stimulus: Promoting economic growth through investment in infrastructure, education, healthcare, and innovation can expand the tax base and boost government revenues, easing the burden of high debt levels.
  • Debt Repayment Plans: Developing and adhering to a clear debt repayment plan to gradually reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio over time can restore investor confidence and improve fiscal credibility.
  • Monetary Policy Coordination: Coordination between fiscal and monetary authorities is essential to ensure that monetary policy supports fiscal consolidation efforts without compromising price stability and financial market integrity.
  • Structural Reforms: Implementing structural reforms to enhance productivity, competitiveness, and economic resilience can foster sustainable growth and reduce reliance on debt-financed stimulus measures.
  • Public Asset Management: Leveraging public assets, such as infrastructure projects or state-owned enterprises, through privatization or public-private partnerships can generate revenue to reduce debt levels.
  • Debt Management Strategies: Adopting prudent debt management practices, such as diversifying sources of financing, optimizing debt portfolios, and establishing contingency plans for debt servicing, can mitigate risks associated with high government debt.
  • Transparency and Accountability: Enhancing transparency in public finances and strengthening institutional frameworks for fiscal governance and accountability are essential to rebuild trust in government institutions and restore investor confidence.
  • Social Safety Nets: Implementing targeted social safety nets to protect vulnerable populations from the adverse effects of fiscal consolidation measures can help maintain social cohesion and mitigate potential social unrest.
  • International Cooperation: Engaging in dialogue and cooperation with international organizations, creditors, and multilateral development banks can facilitate access to financial assistance, debt relief initiatives, and technical expertise to address high government debt.
  • Long-Term Planning: Developing and implementing long-term fiscal sustainability frameworks and contingency plans to manage fiscal risks and ensure inter-generational equity are essential for safeguarding future prosperity.

In conclusion, addressing high government debt requires a combination of fiscal discipline, economic growth strategies, debt management measures, structural reforms, and international cooperation. By adopting a comprehensive and coordinated approach, governments can effectively manage high debt levels, restore fiscal sustainability, and promote long-term economic stability and prosperity.

Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act

The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act is a significant legislation enacted by the Government of India in 2003 with the aim of institutionalizing fiscal discipline, promoting transparency and accountability in fiscal management, and achieving long-term fiscal sustainability. The FRBM Act was passed to address concerns regarding India's growing fiscal deficit and public debt levels, which were seen as potential threats to macroeconomic stability and sustainable economic growth.

Key Provisions of the FRBM Act:

Fiscal Targets: The FRBM Act sets specific targets for the central government to reduce its fiscal deficit and revenue deficit over a defined period. Initially, the Act mandated reducing the fiscal deficit to 3% of GDP and eliminating the revenue deficit altogether by specified target years. These targets were subsequently revised to accommodate economic exigencies.

Medium-Term Fiscal Policy Statement: The Act requires the government to present a Medium-Term Fiscal Policy Statement alongside the annual budget, outlining its fiscal policy objectives, fiscal targets, and strategies for achieving them over the medium term.

Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Rules: The FRBM Act empowers the government to formulate and notify Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Rules to operationalize its provisions. These rules provide detailed guidelines on fiscal targets, debt management, revenue mobilization, expenditure rationalization, and fiscal transparency.

Debt Management: The Act mandates the government to manage its debt prudently, ensuring that public debt remains within sustainable limits. It requires the government to progressively reduce its outstanding liabilities as a percentage of GDP.

Fiscal Transparency and Accountability: The FRBM Act emphasizes enhancing fiscal transparency and accountability by mandating the government to publish regular reports on fiscal indicators, debt levels, fiscal risks, and compliance with fiscal targets.

Exemptions and Escape Clauses: The Act allows for temporary deviations from fiscal targets under exceptional circumstances such as national security concerns, natural calamities, or severe economic downturns. However, any such deviation must be accompanied by a credible remedial action plan to restore fiscal discipline within a reasonable timeframe.

Review and Monitoring: The FRBM Act requires periodic review and monitoring of fiscal performance and compliance with fiscal targets. It mandates the establishment of independent fiscal institutions, such as Fiscal Councils or Finance Commissions, to assess fiscal policies and provide recommendations for improvement.

Challenges and Criticisms:

Procyclicality: Critics argue that rigid adherence to fiscal deficit targets under the FRBM Act can exacerbate economic cycles by limiting the government's ability to implement countercyclical fiscal policies during economic downturns.

Revenue and Expenditure Management: The effectiveness of the FRBM Act depends on the government's ability to enhance revenue mobilization, rationalize expenditure, and improve fiscal governance. Weaknesses in tax administration, subsidy management, and public expenditure efficiency can undermine the Act's objectives.

Inter-governmental Coordination: Effective implementation of the FRBM Act requires coordination between the central and state governments to ensure consistency in fiscal policies and adherence to fiscal targets. However, variations in fiscal performance among states and challenges in fiscal federalism can complicate coordination efforts.

Compliance and Enforcement: Enforcement mechanisms and penalties for non-compliance with the FRBM Act are relatively weak, raising concerns about the government's commitment to fiscal discipline and the Act's effectiveness in achieving its objectives.

Effective implementation of the FRBM Act

To ensure the effective implementation of the FRBM Act, here are some concise solutions:

  • Clear Fiscal Targets: Set clear and realistic fiscal targets for reducing the fiscal deficit, revenue deficit, and controlling public debt.
  • Strategic Fiscal Policy: Formulate a strategic fiscal policy focusing on expenditure rationalization, revenue enhancement, and debt management.
  • Enact Fiscal Rules: Establish and enforce Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Rules to operationalize the Act's provisions.
  • Transparency Measures: Enhance fiscal transparency by regularly publishing reports on fiscal indicators, debt levels, and compliance with targets.
  • Medium-Term Planning: Present a Medium-Term Fiscal Policy Statement alongside the annual budget to provide a roadmap for fiscal management.
  • Debt Management Strategies: Adopt prudent debt management strategies to ensure public debt remains within sustainable limits.
  • Independent Monitoring: Establish independent fiscal institutions for monitoring and reviewing fiscal performance and providing recommendations.
  • Capacity Building: Invest in capacity building and institutional strengthening to improve fiscal governance and compliance.
  • Public Awareness Campaigns: Conduct public awareness campaigns to educate stakeholders about the importance and benefits of fiscal responsibility.
  • Stakeholder Engagement: Actively engage stakeholders, including civil society, businesses, and international organizations, in the implementation process.

By implementing these solutions, governments can enhance fiscal discipline, transparency, and accountability, ensuring the successful implementation of the FRBM Act and promoting long-term economic stability and growth.



Q. Examine the disparity in electricity access between rural and urban areas in India despite the Saubhagya scheme's claims of near-universal electrification. Discuss the challenges faced in ensuring quality electricity supply in rural regions and analyze the preference for decentralised renewable energy. Evaluate policy recommendations for sustainable electricity access in rural areas.