Indian finance minister pledges land, tax reforms

Indian finance minister pledges land, tax reforms
India's Finance Minister Jaitley speaking during the India Economic Summit 2014

NEW DELHI - India will push ahead with tough land acquisition and tax reforms aimed at boosting investment and kickstarting the economy, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said on Sunday.

He added that changes were needed to existing legislation to speed up the process of buying land for industrial use, a contentious issue in India which has long delayed projects.

"Some changes may be necessary (to the Land Acquisition Act)," Jaitley said at an economic forum in New Delhi.

"We will first try to reach a consensus and if that is not possible we will go ahead and take the decision," he said.

Although the right-wing government has introduced smaller initiatives since taking power in May, critics say it has lacked the boldness needed to eliminate regulatory hurdles to doing business as it seeks to attract crucial investment.

The comments came as Prime Minister Narendra Modi expanded his government on Sunday, appointing 21 new ministers, in a bid to step up the pace of promised economic reforms.

Jaitley, who suffers from ill health, is expected to lose the defence portfolio in Sunday's reshuffle, allowing him to concentrate on the tougher reforms. The portfolios will be announced late Sunday or early Monday.

The Indian economy expanded last year by a near-decade low of 4.7 per cent - half the scorching pace seen during the country's boom a few years back.

Land acquisition is a politically charged issue, which has delayed many projects, sometimes for years, including construction of a $12-billion plant by South Korean steel giant POSCO in eastern India.

The law, passed last year by the previous Congress government, seeks to compensate farmers and tribals who sell their land for industrial projects, but business claims it has made the task more difficult.

Any changes will have to go through parliament where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lacks a majority in the upper house and must rely on support from allies.

In another move likely to boost business sentiment, Jaitley said talks with stakeholders on a long-awaited national goods and services tax (GST) to ramp up inter-state commerce were in advanced stages.

A single tax regime, which would scrap the multiple levies paid by companies at state and federal level, would also require legislation passed through parliament.

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