The thinking in the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government that the realty industry should grow on the strength of economy and not on largesse or quick-fix solutions is reflected in its reform-driven two year term, which has put the the beleagured sector on the path of long-term sustained growth.
The real estate fraternity had started warming up to Modi-led BJP in the run up to 2014 general elections, looking up to the saffron party as a saviour in the wake of the policy paralysis in the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government UPA-2). And the party has not belied those expectations after coming to power.
The real estate-friendly interim budget, presented by the NDA government within three months of gaining power in May, 2014, clearly reflected its concern and priority to stimulate real estate growth.In a landmark policy initiative, the budget addressed the long pending demand of liberalising FDI in real estate and construction sector. The FDI norms were relaxed for built up area and capitalisation, with a view to help developers, especially mid-size and small ones to have better access to FDI, in turn boosting affordable housing.
The relaxation of FDI norms had a salutary effect on the fund flows to the cash strapped real estate sector, with PE investments touching record 4.8 billion dollars in 2015.The government has further enhanced PE capability to tap foreign money by permitting foreign investment in Alternate Investment Funds and doing away with distinction between various kinds of foreign funding.
In a far reaching complimentary policy initiative, the government has set the stage for making real estate investment trusts (REITs) operational by removing all hurdles like capital gains tax and dividend distribution tax. REITs that are new instruments of investment pooling, may well prove to be a boon for retail investors, ensuring safe and profitable investment and at the same time proving to be a lifeline for fund-starved developers.
Fully realizing that urbanisation significantly contributes to national GDP, with a UN study putting the contribution of existing urban areas to 60 per cent of GDP, the government launched the ambitious mission to develop 100 smart cities with investment of Rs 7,060 crore. And as infrastructure is key to urbanisation and economy, the government in line with its vision,gave top priority to infrastructure development.
In its first full-fledged budget, an investment hike of over Rs 70,000 crore for infrastructure and allocation of Rs 22,000 crore for housing and urban development was made. And in this year's budget, a record allocation of Rs 2.31 lakh crore was made for roads, highways and railways, besides establishing Rs 4000 crore National Investment and Infrastructure Fund. In the last two years, real estate has got a big connectivity boost with record highway construction of 6,029 km in a year and commissioning of 4,800 km of broad gauge railway track in the last two years.
In line with its mission of "Housing For All", the government's focus has been on affordability.In order to bring prices of homes within the reach of masses, the government has been giving impetus to affordable, low cost housing by way of incentives to developers and home buyers.For this, a provision of Rs 4,000 crore was made to National Housing Bank, besides bringing housing for economically weaker sections (EWS) and slum redevelopment under CSR.
A series of tax reforms were initiated in this regard.In its very first budget, the government raised home loan interest exemption limit and income tax exemption limit by Rs 50,000 each.An additional rebate of Rs 50,000 per annum on housing loan for first time home buyers in affordable segment was provided in this year's budget. To provide fillip to affordable housing, 100 percent service tax exemption was given to developers undertaking affordable housing.
Under the Income Tax Act, they have also been allowed deduction from the gross income of an amount equivalent to 100 percent of profits. Slum redevelopment is included under corporate social responsibility norms with 100 percent tax deduction. Rental housing market is also provided boost with hefty increase in HRA deduction.
Mortgage reforms undertaken by the government are also aimed at giving push to affordable housing. Interest subsidy of 6.5 per cent is provided to EWS loans and corporate tax for 2017-18 for companies with below 5 crore turnover, has been lowered to boost housing finance companies (HFCs) focusing on low-cost housing.
Besides effecting interest rate cuts amounting to 150 bps, the RBI has introduced marginal cost of funds-based lending rate (MCLR) for faster transmission of rate cuts to home buyers. To provide further relief to property buyers, especially home buyers, the government undertook biggest reform through Real Estate Regulation Act (RERA), that ensures fair and transparent property transactions with effective redressal mechanism, thereby protecting the interests of property buyers and boosting the confidence of foreign investors.
RERA will also pave the way for infrastructure status to real estate, which in turn will ensure cheap and easy credit for the sector. All these reforms and policy measures have ensured that speculators responsible for artificially hiking the prices are out. And as a result of that, the market has turned end- user driven, with price stability.
The government's reformist policy initiatives are largely aimed at increasing transparency in real estate transactions, the lack of which has been a major deterrent for foreign investors to invest in Indian real estate. The rampant use of black money, clouding transparency, has also been keeping foreign investors away.
To check this menace and to boost investor sentiment, the government passed Benami Transaction Prohibition Bill, along with steps to check influx and circulation of black money.The government has been focusing on creating policy environment that's predictable, transparent and fair for boosting the confidence of foreign investors. In this regard, the government has made it easier for foreigners and NRI investors to invest in Indian real estate, by doing away with unnecessary restrictions on flow of NRI and foreign capital.
Notwithstanding all these highs, there has been some lows also. As the government lacks adequate strength in Rajya Sabha, it has been unable to push through key reforms like GST Bill and Land Acquisition Bill. The government could not fix the Land Acquisition Act enacted by the earlier UPA government, that has made land acquisition more difficult, time consuming and expensive.
Due to the opposition faced by the government, it has now given up on it and left it to the states to adopt their own land acquisition acts. However, with regard to GST Bill that seeks to bring in national value- added tax structure, bringing down prices, pushing up demand and kickstarting investment cycle, the government looks determined to get it passed in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament.
The government has also not been fully successful in fast tracking project clearances to ensure ease of doing business. It has however made systems online and transparent to speed up environmental clearances. It is also credited with enacting Bankruptcy Law, a vital piece of reform aimed at ease of doing business by fast tracking resolution of insolvency disputes. But the government is yet to initiate Single- window mechanism to speed up project sanctions and check project delays- the biggest bane of real estate.
There is also a challenge for the central government to see that states effectively adopt RERA in the stipulated time frame. Real estate is currently passing through the transition phase and while commercial real estate has already recovered from slowdown, residential real estate is well on the path of recovery. And with all the right policy initiatives by the reform- oriented government, real estate is heading for a healthy and sustained growth.
(02.06.2016 - Vinod Behl is editor, Realty Plus, a leading real estate monthly. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)