25 years of Economic Reforms
670 pages; Rs 999
Curating 31 essays into a story on India’s economic reforms can be a giant yawn. But Rakesh Mohan, a videshi economist and a veteran of four major government committee reports, is up to the challenge.
THE PLUMBING WHICH CHANGED INDIA
Indians believe that the actions of civil servants determine the future of India. This is an abiding fallacy. The truth is, starting from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, it is politics and political leaders that set the tone, whilst civil servants dutifully follow with the plumbing. This book is not about the broader political economy of reforms. Those stories have been told elsewhere. Instead, this book examines the practices and processes — back-office stuff — that achieved reform objectives. Expectedly, therefore, essays by civil servants and public intellectuals dominate this compilation.
INDIA TAKES CHARGE OF MACRO ECONOMIC STABILITY
C Rangarajan marks 1991 as a watershed moment in the Indian economic history. Montek S Ahluwalia agrees and debunks the J Bradford DeLong (2001) and Dani Rodrik Arvind Subramanian (2004) proposition that the 1991 reform process was overhyped; that merely becoming business-friendly would have been sufficient to yield the maximum value; that external liberalisation was merely genuflecting to the Washington Consensus. He asserts that the reform architecture responded to the local context and was designed for medium-term results. Y V Reddy deconstructs the role of fiscal federalism in stabilising state budgets. Laveesh Bhandari evidences this by citing best-fit policies and programmes innovated by states using these additional devolved resources. Jaimini Bhagwati reviews the process of capital market liberalisation that was key in enabling competitive industries to grow.
USING THE GROWTH DIVIDEND
Top diplomat Shyam Saran traces the post-cold war, benign, unipolar world that gave India breathing room to grow till the 2008 financial crisis. His successor in the foreign office Shivshanker Menon establishes how economic growth engendered new foreign policy options for India — a view endorsed by Martin Wolf, who advocates even greater proactivity in world affairs. Sanjaya Baru links the recalibration of India’s security matrix to the new-found confidence from successful reform. Tarun Das points to the quiet success of Track II initiatives in forging defence and nuclear cooperation. Harsha Vardhana Singh, details how substantive tariff rationalisation opened domestic industry to competition. However incomplete, domestic factor market reform shackled export growth and enhanced the trade deficit. N K Singh and Jessica Seddon illustrate how public and private roles moved from mere co-existence to co-evolution, especially in infrastructure development.
But the benefits from economic reform did not accrue symmetrically. Rakesh Mohan postulates that domestic labour market and regulatory rigidities continue to dull the growth potential in small manufacturing. Ashok Gulati argues that liberalisation of the exchange rate, lower industrial tariff and private investment norms never benefited agriculture due to institutional rigidities. Devesh Kapur documents that enlarged access to education was not accompanied by quality enhancement. Naushad Forbes rues the stagnation of Indian R&D spend as a proportion of gross domestic product and the skew towards science research, rather than technology development, which can constrain innovation. Nachiket Mor et al are sceptical that stepping up private investment alone can result in catching up on health outcomes. Sarwar Lateef argues for deeper governance reforms to benefit the disadvantaged. Vinayak Chatterjee laments that the PPP (public-private partnership) model died because of unrealistic asymmetric expectations between government and private developers.
LISTENING TO THE “ANIMAL SPIRITS”
The voices of the intended beneficiaries from reforms — consumers and domestic suppliers — are jammed into the last segment of the book. Rama Bijapurkar caricatures the new Indian consumer, cannily devouring cheap Chinese goods and luxuriating in retail therapy, financed by the deep pocket of e-commerce start-ups. Gita Piramal points to the churn in private business league tables as illustrative of the competitive forces unleashed by reforms. Omkar Goswami adds that the concentration of business accelerated as companies sought scale economies. Services benefited disproportionately, being less constrained by the continuing hurdles in acquiring land or access to quality infrastructure.
Deepak Parekh narrates how HDFC seized new opportunities in banking and insurance using its core competence in customer-friendly financial services. For Mukesh Ambani, economic reform was instrumental in fulfilling his father Dhirubhai Ambani’s dream of a global scale of operations. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw — a first mover — lucked out. With just Rs 10,000 in her wallet, Biocon grew into a $1-billion listed company by 2004. Sunil Bharti Mittal, a spunky, first-generation entrepreneur, seized every opportunity available to establish India’s first multinational telecom company. If every second American truck has a Bharat Forge axle, Baba Kalyani has economic liberalisation to thank for it. For Narayana Murthy, liberalised import of hardware and current account convertibility alone were enough to make Infosys fly. R Gopalakrishnan recounts how storied firms, like HLL and the Tata group, also restructured and diversified.
INDIA – THE QUINTESSENTIAL REFORM DEBUTANT
T N Ninan describes navigating reforms in India as the impossibility of cooking an omelet without breaking the egg. Vikram Singh Mehta similarly recounts the broad consensus but only for shallow reforms in the petroleum space. Some of this reticence was because of the dharma of coalition politics. This constraint no longer exists. Will the consensus deepen now? And will it now be our time to eat?
Adapted from the author’s book review in Business Standard, August 17, 2017 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/well-begun-is-half-done-117081501123_1.html