(photo credit: narendramodi.in)
Later today when the Chinese supremo savours Khakra (a snack) and toasts PM Modi over a glass of aam-ras (the juice of raw mangoes), on the carefully grassed banks of the Sabarmati river, the symbolism of the location will not be lost on him.
What was till recently a sludge filled, trickle, has been transformed into a full water body. What was only a repository of nostalgia is now a kingdom of dreams and hope illustrating that India has shaken-off its somnolence of the past decade and is ready to Samba. The Sabarmati saga shows that we too can execute Chinese style development- large dams like-Narmada, regulating the water supply; city development projects, like the Sabarmati redevelopment scheme and more recently the ambitious Ganga re-development project. All this, in the face of stiff opposition from the usual bug-bears of large development: environmental fundamentalists who, rather academically, advocate strongly against channeling a river, or indeed doing anything which changes its natural flow.
As the bonhomie gets lubricated by Chaas (buttermilk) PM Modi must drive home the point that India has arrived, by politely refusing the expected Chinese offer of US$ 100 billion in financial support (to trump the Japanese offer of US$ 35 billion) for sundry projects. India is not up for sale to the highest bidder. Such bilateral support comes tied with numerous strings including the compulsory use of Chinese contractors. Japanese credit is the same. Whilst the terms of credit are deceptively attractive, there is no open international competition in the award of contracts. This loads the cost of the contract in present value terms far more than the discount on the interest rate offered.
The losers are usually the tax payers of the country providing the credit and the citizens of the country receiving the credit. The first because such “cheap” credit is funded out of the government budget of the donor country. The second because it is the citizens of the recipient country and users of such projects, who will bear the higher lifecycle cost of “gold plated” projects or the supply of low quality and shoddy goods. The winners are industry and business on both sides of the border, who gain by executing such projects. So expect to see an unholy alliance of Chinese and Indian business, loudly applauding the availability of such bilateral credit.
It doesn’t end there. Babus on both sides of the border will also raise a rousing cheer. The sole job and raison d’etre of our Department of Economic Affairs, within the Ministry of Finance, is to “negotiate” such bilateral credit lines. The Chinese (and the Japanese) have counterpart departments negotiating the supply of such credit. So that is another unholy alliance which undermines the financial autonomy of the country.
For many years, our babus have been used to touring the World Capitals with a begging bowl. None of them ever consider how incongruous it looks to assert our rightful place in the UN Security Council on the one hand, whilst simultaneously looking for some “rice” to fill the bowl.
It is time we changed that. The sustainable budget deficit of the Union Government is around US$ 400 billion. A lot of the existing debt is long term and the fiscal space available for new borrowings is limited. We should not fill the narrow window currently available with “nominally cheap but actually expensive” bilateral credit sources. It is just not worth the erosion of our international perception as a resilient stand-alone economy which seeks and gets credit on commercial terms. The key to financial strength is to spend only on projects which have high rates of economic and social returns and to avoid cost overruns. Money well spent is always rewarded by the financial markets through cheaper costs of borrowing.
Getting money cheap and then wasting 25% of it, which is the standard economic loss of non-competitive bids, does not impress financial markets as a viable strategy because it does not enhance our ability to service the credit.
If we need a bullet train or a super highway or high speed tracks linking our Five Big Metros then let us fund them through a mix of foreign commercial credit and foreign direct investment. That is the cheapest finance available today. Both sources also come with strict oversight on expenses and project management.
As the two supremos dip Bhakri (wheat flat bread) into the Kadhi (tangy sauce) Modi should move to the second agenda item and probe the extent to which the Chinese want to collaborate with India in international commercial ventures, in third countries between their companies and our own Navratnas (premier Indian State Owned Enterprises) and Indian private entrepreneurs. Both sides could learn from such collaboration.
Indian business communities in Africa and East Asia are hamstring by the crushing impact of Chinese competition. If collaboration can replace competition, both China and India benefit. After all, the best business venture is a monopoly, like a single toll bridge across a river. We should emulate the developed world, which advocates competition in overseas markets for their goods and services but hang on to quasi monopolies in their own domestic market.
More creatively, can we form an Indo-Chinese multi-national to promote renewable energy internationally? As a tangible target, what about announcing that by 2019, (1) both supremos would switch from the cars they drive in today, to electric cars and (2) their respective official homes and offices in New Delhi and in Beijing would be powered solely by Renewable Energy solutions manufactured through Indo-China cooperation.
As they scoop up the Kansar (a dessert) PM Modi should broach the third pillar of India-China partnership; a gas pipe line running from Turkmenistan/Iran through Pakistan to India and onto Southern China. Gas is critical to India’s energy plans. It is key to improve air quality in urban areas; provide a clean cooking fuel; power our city generators and reduce the incentive to use fire-wood as a fuel in our villages. Of all the commercial fuels, gas and hydro based energy have the most characteristics of a public good. Both generate the least negative externalities in energy supply. On the supply side, Iran is a traditional friend of both India and China. China has an increasingly dominant position in Pakistan which can facilitate safe passage for the pipeline. Their traditional policy of setting up Pakistan as a counter to India is now questionable in the face of Islamic terror and China’s own problems with Islamic communities in their North West. There is a commonality of interest in accessing gas from Iran. It should be pursued boldly using the plurilateral (Iran-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh-China) approach.
Great leaders are those who go beyond the narrow limits drawn by their babuish advisors. PM Modi and President Xi both have the mandate and the time to establish their credentials. They should start by making this point in Delhi.