You Have Heard the Good News About GDP, Here’s the Slightly Better News

The gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the period October to December 2020 were declared earlier in the day today. GDP is a measure of economic size of a country.

The good news is that the Indian economy is back on the growth path. It grew by 0.41% during the period. While the growth rate itself isn’t great, it comes on the back of six months of a covid led economic contraction. And that’s clearly good news.

But this bit most of you who follow the economy closely on the social media, must have already heard by now. So, let me give you some better news than this good news.

The Indian GDP is measured in two ways. One way is by adding up private consumption expenditure (the money you and I spend buying up things), government expenditure, investment and net exports (exports minus imports). If we leave government expenditure out of the GDP, what remains is the non-government GDP, which forms a bulk of the GDP. In the October to December period, it formed around 90.3% of the GDP.

For the GDP to grow on a sustainable basis, this part needs to grow. Given that the government is a small part of the Indian economy, it can only create so much growth by spending more and more money.

The non-government part of the GDP grew by 0.58% during October to December 2020, after contracting significantly during the first six months of the financial year.

What this tells us is that the private part of the economy recovered quite a bit during the period without the government trying to pump up economic growth. The government expenditure during the period was down by 1.13%. This is the slightly better news I was talking about.

The private consumption expenditure, which forms a major part of the non-government part of the GDP contracted by 2.37%, after having contracted much more, during the first six months of the financial year. This tells us that the consumers are gradually coming back to the market even though some apprehension still prevails. This apprehension is probably more towards going out and spending money in the services part of the economy.

The other important part of non-government GDP is investment. It grew by 2.56% during October to December, which is the best in a year’s time. For jobs to be created, this growth needs to be sustained in the months to come.

The other way of looking at size of the economy is to add up the value added by the various sectors. Of this, the services sector, from hotels to real estate to banking to trade to broadcasting to transport to public administration, form nearly half of the economy. And if economy has to get back on track, it is these sectors that need to get back on track. The services sector grew by 0.98% during the period, though this was better than the contraction seen during the first six months of the year.

Agriculture was the standout sector and it grew by 3.92% during the period. In fact, October to December is the biggest period for agriculture during the year and the sector has done well during its biggest quarter. On the other hand, manufacturing grew by 1.65%.

What this tells us is that the economy is gradually coming back to where it was before covid. It is worth remembering here that even before covid the Indian economic growth was slowing down. All in all, the real challenge for the Indian economy will start in the second half of the 2021-22, once the base effects of the covid led economic contraction are over. As I have said in the past, the economic growth rate during the first half of 2021-22 will go through the roof, but that will be more because of base effect than anything else.

Nonetheless, even with this recovery during the second half of the financial year, the Indian economic growth is expected to contract by 8% during 2020-21. This figure has been revised upwards. The Indian GDP was earlier expected to contract by 7.7% during the year.

The main reason for this lies in the revision of the government expenditure expected during the year. As per the first advanced estimate of the GDP for 2020-21 published in early January, the government expenditure for 2020-21 was expected to be at Rs 17.48 lakh crore. In the second advanced estimate published today, it has been revised to Rs 15.87 lakh crore, a cut of 9.2%.

From the looks of it, the central government is trying to cut down on the targeted fiscal deficit of Rs 18.49 lakh crore for 2020-21. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

Modi’s Rs 2.5 lakh cr Asset Sale Plan Needs a Transparent Approach

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a target of monetising 100 government-owned assets across sectors. As he said: “We have a target of 100 assets from oil, gas, airport, power, which we plan to monetise. This has the potential for investment opportunities of Rs 2.5 lakh crore.”

This is in continuation of the idea that the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had presented in her budget speech on February 1, 2021. As she had said:

“Idle assets will not contribute to Atmanirbhar Bharat. The non-core assets largely consist of surplus land with government Ministries/Departments and Public Sector Enterprises. Monetising of land can either be by way of direct sale or concession or by similar means.”

Hence, a lot of this idle assets are government owned land or will involve land in some form or other. This is a good and an innovative idea which some of the previous budgets lacked.

Many large Indian cities have a lot of government land lying idle while the cities on the whole are stretched for land. Hence, freeing up some of this land and earning some money in the process is a good idea.

Let’s look at this greater detail pointwise.

1) If you are the kind who likes walking around India’s big cities, you would definitely see a lot of government land lying unused bang in the middle of cities. Close to where I live in central Mumbai is the Bicycle Corporation of India, in one of the by lanes of Worli. In the one and half decades I have walked past the company, I haven’t seen any economic activity happening. Peepul trees now grow from the walls.

This is land bang in the middle of Mumbai, some of the most expensive real estate in the world, lying unused. This is criminal to say the least. Another great example of unused real estate are all the MTNL offices, all across Mumbai and Delhi.

The Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC) in the city of Ranchi where I was born and raised, has acres and acres of land lying unused, while the city itself hardly has any land going around. This is land that has been lying unused for decades and needs to be put to some use.

2) It’s not just the big cities that have all this excess land lying unused. Even a place like Ooty, has acres and acres of land lying unused thanks to the Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Company Ltd., which is largely not functional. There are quite a few such public sector enterprises which are no longer relevant, all across the country.

Given this, one of the first things that the government needs to do is to make an inventory of all this land and put it up in the public domain on a website. It needs to do so with all the other assets that it plans to monetise as well.

Of course, this inventory is not going to be made overnight and will take time. But it is important that this is done in the most transparent way, given that corruption/crony capitalism and land/asset sales, almost go hand in hand.

This is even more important because the government considers this route as an important source of revenue in the years to come. As the finance minister said in the budget that over the years the government hopes to earn more money “by increased receipts from monetisation of assets, including Public Sector Enterprises and land”. Hence, getting the process right is very important.

This becomes even more important given that there will be great opposition to the process from those who benefit from the status quo and even otherwise. The government selling its assets to raise money to do other things is not seen as a good thing. Hence, even a hint of corruption or any other controversy can threaten to derail the entire process, something the government cannot afford at this point of time.

3) In cases where the land was taken from state governments to start a public sector enterprise, it is important that the land be returned to the state government and let the state government decide what it wants to do with it. In the years to come, state governments will also be running short of money to meet their expenditure.

Also, this is the right thing to do. The state government can also use the land to attract more investment into their state. In some cities where there aren’t enough public parks, some land can even go to develop such infrastructure. The aim shouldn’t be to maximise the money earned all the time, but maximise the general well-being.

Again, this is something that will need some amount of thinking and the government’s thinking on this should be clear and out in the public domain.

4) There is another factor that needs to be kept in mind here. Real estate prices in most big Indian cities have remained and continue to remain high. One of the major reasons for this lies in the fact that the land prices remain expensive across Indian cities. Hence, it is important that some of this land be sold to build affordable housing. Only if land prices come down, will home prices come down.

And by affordable housing I mean homes which can be sold profitably in the range of Rs 10-20 lakh per unit and not affordable housing as the way the RBI defines it, which isn’t really affordable housing at all, but just a fancy moniker to help banks meet their priority lending targets.

Other than helping people buy affordable homes to live in, the real estate sector has the ability to create a large number of jobs very quickly. It also has the capability to have a multiplier effect across many other sectors. Building real estate requires cement, sand, steel, bricks, pipes, etc., and so on. Once real estate has been built in, moving into a home requires its own set of purchases. Buying homes also gives a fillip to the home loan business. And of course, people living in homes they own, enhances general well-being.

5) Finally, it is important that the money earned through this route be used for a specific purpose and not just for bringing down the fiscal deficit, which has ballooned to Rs 18.49 lakh crore or 9.5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) this year. Even in 2021-22, the fiscal deficit target has been set at a high Rs 15.07 lakh crore or 6.8% of the GDP. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends and is expressed as a percentage of the GDP.

It is important that money coming from land sales be allocated towards specific infrastructure projects, preferably in the very state where land is being sold. This will make it easier to sell this idea to the state governments, whose cooperation is very necessary to make this idea a reality.

To conclude, the monetisation of excess government land in particular and other assets in general, is a good idea. Having said that, it needs to be executed in a proper process driven and transparent way.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on Firstpost on February 2, 2021.

Why RBI is Doing Dhishum Dhishum With Bond Market

I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody. – James Carville.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is unhappy with the bond market these days. Well, it hasn’t said so directly. A central bank rarely does. But a series of newsreports across the business media suggests so. (Oh yes, the RBI also leaks when it wants to).

The bond market wants the RBI to pay a higher yield on the government of India bonds it is currently issuing. The cost of the higher yield will have to be borne by the government of India, something that the RBI doesn’t want.

And this is where we have a problem (don’t worry I will explain this in simple English and not write like bond market reporters or experts tend to, for other bond market reporters and other bond market experts). Government bonds are financial securities which pay an interest and are issued by the government in order to borrow money.

Let’s try and understand this issue pointwise.

1) The government’s gross borrowings for 2020-21, the current financial year, had been budgeted at Rs 7.8 lakh crore. In May 2020, after the covid pandemic broke out and the tax collections crashed, the number was increased to Rs 12 lakh crore. The final borrowings are expected to be at Rs 12.8 lakh crore. In 2021-22, the gross borrowings of the government are expected to be at Rs 12.06 lakh crore.

Hence, over a period of two years, the government will end up borrowing close to Rs 25 lakh crore. It isn’t surprising that the bond market wants a higher rate of return or yield as it likes to call it, from government bonds, given that the financial savings in the country will not expand at the same rate as government borrowing is expected to. Also, there is no guarantee that the government will stick to borrowing what it is saying it will borrow. That’s a possibility the market is also discounting for.

2) Take a look at the following chart which plots the 10-year bond yield of the government of India. A 10-year bond is a bond which matures in ten years and the return on it on any given day is the per year return an investor will earn if he buys that bond on that day and holds on to it until maturity.

Source: www.investing.com

As can be seen from the above chart, the 10-year bond yield has largely seen a downward trend since January 2020, though since January 2021 it has gradually been rising. As of the time of writing this, it stood at 6.14%, having crossed 6.2% on February 22.

Media reports suggests that the RBI wants the yield to settle around 6%. The bond market clearly wants more. This explains why in the recent past bond auctions have failed with the bond market not buying bonds or the RBI refusing to sell them at yields the bond market wanted.

3) The question is why does the bond market now want a higher rate of return on bonds than it did in 2020. There are multiple reasons for it. Bank lending has largely collapsed during this financial year and has only improved since October. Between March 27, 2020 and January 29, 2021, the overall bank lending has grown by just Rs 3.34 lakh crore, with almost all of this lending carried out during the second half of the financial year.

This forms around 27% of the deposits of Rs 12.3 lakh crore that banks have managed to raise during the period. Clearly, the banks haven’t been able to lend out a large part of their fresh deposits.

Hence, it has hardly been surprising that a bulk of the bank deposits have been invested in government bonds. During the period Rs 6.94 lakh crore or 56% of the deposits have been invested in government bonds. Along with banks, other financial institutions have had few lending/investment opportunities, leading to a lot of money chasing government bonds, which has led to lower returns on them.

Over and above this, the RBI has flooded the financial system with money by cutting the cash reserve ratio (CRR) and by also printing money and buying bonds (something it refers to as open market operations), thereby driving down returns further.

4) What has changed now? The budget expects India to grow by 14.4% in nominal terms (not adjusted for inflation) in 2021-22. Even in real terms (adjusted for inflation), India is expected to grow by at least 10%. This basically means that bank and other lending will pick up. At the same time, the government borrowing will continue to remain high at Rs 12.06 lakh crore. Hence, there will be more competition for savings in 2021-22 than has been the case during this financial year, given that savings are not going to rise suddenly. Hence, yields or returns on government bonds need to go up accordingly. QED.

5) There is another point that needs to be made here. Thanks to the RBI wanting to drive bond yields and interest rates down, there is excess liquidity in the financial system right now. Lending to the government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. If lending to the government becomes cheaper, interest rates on everything else also tends to go down.

As of February 23, the excess liquidity in the financial system stood at Rs 5.7 lakh crore. This is money which banks have parked with the RBI.

On February 5, the RBI governor, Shaktikanta Das, had said: “A two phase normalisation of the cash reserve ratio (CRR) – which I am going to announce – needs to be seen in this context.”

The banks need to maintain a certain proportion of their deposits with the RBI. It currently stands at 3%. In April 2020, the RBI had cut the CRR by 100 basis points to 3%. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. With the banks having to maintain a lower proportion of their deposits with the RBI there was more liquidity in the financial system, which helped drive down yields and interest rates.

Now the RBI wants to increase the CRR in two phases. Assuming it wants to increase the CRR to 4%, this means that more than Rs 1.56 lakh crore (using data as of February 23) will be pulled out of the financial system by banks and be deposited with the RBI, in the months to come.

The bond market is discounting for this possibility as well, even with Das saying: “systemic liquidity would, however, continue to remain comfortable over the ensuing year.” What this basically means is that the RBI will continue to carry out open market operations by buying bonds and pumping money into the financial system as and when it deems fit.

Having said that, the overall liquidity in the financial system will go down, simply because once the RBI withdraws more than Rs 1.56 lakh crore through raising the CRR, it isn’t going to pump in the same amount of money back into the system, through open market operations, simply because then there would have been no point in increasing the CRR.

6) If your head is not spinning by now, dear reader, then you are clearly a bond market veteran. (Now isn’t the stock market so much simpler). Basically, the RBI is trying to play two roles here. It is the government’s debt manager and banker. At the same time, it also has the mandate of maintaining the rate of consumer price inflation between 2-6%. And at some level these objectives go against each other.

As the government’s debt manager, the RBI needs to ensure that the government is able to borrow at lower rates. In order to do that the RBI now and then floods the system with more money and drives down rates.

The trouble with flooding the system with more money in an economy which is recovering from a huge economic shock, is higher inflation as there is the risk of more money chasing the same amount of goods and services. Of course, with the manufacturing sector having a low capacity utilisation, they can always start more machines and pump up more goods, and ensure that inflation doesn’t shoot up. But the risk of inflation is there, given that money supply (M3) as of January 29, had gone up by 12.1%, year on year.

Over the years, there has been a lot of debate around whether the RBI should continue being the debt manager to the government or should that function be split up from the central bank and another institution should be created specifically for it, with the RBI just concentrating on managing inflation. I guess, in times like the current one, this suddenly starts to make sense.

7) Okay, there is more. The yield on the 10-year US treasury bond has been rising and as I write it has touched 1.33% from around 0.92% at the end of 2020. A major reason for this lies in the fact that the bond market is already factoring in the plan of the newly elected American president Joe Biden to spend more money in order to drive up economic growth.

Of course, with bond yields rising in the US, there is bound to be an impact everywhere else, given that the American government bond is deemed to be the safest financial security in the world. This has added to further pressure on the yields on the Indian government bonds.

8) After the finance minister presented the budget, the bond market realised that the government has huge borrowing plans even in 2021-22 and that even this financial year it would borrow Rs 80,000 crore more than the Rs 12 lakh crore it had said it would.

Accordingly, the 10-year bond yield moved up from 5.95% on January 29 to 6.13% on February 2, a day after the budget was presented. The RBI carried out open market operations worth Rs 50,169 crore between February 8 and February 12, on each of the days, to increase the liquidity in the financial system and push the yield below 6% to 5.99% on February 12.

But the yields have gone back up again and stand at 6.14% at the point of writing this. Interestingly, the yields on state government bonds have almost touched 7.2%.

Clearly, the bond market has made up its mind as far as yields are concerned. The way out of this for RBI is to print more money and buy more government bonds and drive down yields. Of course, this needs to be done regularly and by following a certain routine.

That’s the trouble with printing money. A major lesson in economics since 2008 has been that printing money by central banks leads to printing of more money in the time to come, given that the market gets addicted to the easy money.

Let’s see how the RBI comes out of this predicament, given that it has promised an “accommodative stance of monetary policy as long as necessary – at least through the current financial year and into the next year”.

9) We aren’t done yet. Other than being the debt manager to the government and having to manage the consumer price inflation between 2-6%, the RBI also needs to keep a look out for the dollar rupee exchange rate.

During the course of this financial year, the foreign institutional investors have brought in $35.4 billion to invest in the stock market. When they bring money into India they need to sell their dollars and buy rupees. This increases the demand for the rupee and leads to the rupee appreciating against the dollar.

When the rupee is appreciating against the dollar, the RBI typically sells rupees and buys dollars, in order to ensure that there is enough supply of rupees going around. In the process, the RBI ends up building foreign exchange reserves and it also ends up pumping more rupees into the financial system, thereby increasing the money supply, and pushing up the risk of a higher inflation.

Over and above this, the open market operations of buying bonds and cutting the CRR, this is another way the RBI ends up pumping money into the financial system. All this goes against its other objective of maintaining inflation.

One dollar was worth Rs 74.9 sometime in mid-November 2020. It has been falling since then and as I write this, it stands at Rs 72.4. What this means is that in the last few months, the RBI has barely been intervening in the foreign exchange market.

This brings us back to the concept of trilemma in economics, which the RBI seems to have hit. Trilemma is a concept which was originally expounded by the Canadian economist Robert Mundell. Basically, a central bank cannot have free international movement of capital, a fixed exchange rate and an independent monetary policy, all at the same time. It can only choose two out of these three objectives. Monetary policy refers to the process of setting of interest rates in an economy, carried out by the central bank of the country.

This explains why the RBI is letting the rupee appreciate, in order to ensure free movement of capital (at least for foreign investors) and an independent monetary policy. Let’s say the RBI kept intervening in the foreign exchange market in order to ensure that the rupee doesn’t appreciate against the dollar. In this situation, it would have ended up pumping more rupees into the financial system and thereby risking higher inflation in the process.

A higher inflation would have forced the RBI to start raising interest rates in an environment where the economy is recovering from a huge shock and the government is looking to borrow a lot of money. This would have led to the RBI losing control over its monetary policy. Clearly, it didn’t want that. (For everyone wanting to know about the trilemma in detail, you can read this piece, I wrote in September last year).

10) Finally, an appreciating rupee has multiple repercussions. People like me who make some amount of money in dollars, get hit in the process. (I would request my foreign supporters to keep this in mind while supporting me. Okay, that was a joke!)

Further, it makes imports cheaper, going against the entire narrative of atmabnirbharta being promoted right now. If imports become cheaper, the local products will find it even more difficult to compete. Of course, cheaper imports is good news for the consumers, given that the main aim of all economics is consumption at the end of the day.

An appreciating rupee also hurts the exporters as they earn a lower amount in rupee terms, making it more difficult for them to compete globally. And all this goes against the idea of promoting Indian exports and exporters to become a valuable part of global value chains and boosting Indian exports.

To conclude, and I know I sound like a broken record (millennials and gen Xers please Google the term) here, there is no free lunch in economics. That’s the long and short of it. All the liquidity created in the financial system to drive down yields on government bonds to help the government borrow at lower rates, is having other repercussions now. And there isn’t much the RBI can do about it.

Of course, if the bond market keeps demanding higher yields, the RBI’s dhishum dhishum with it will get even more intense in the days to come . If you are the kind who gets a high out of these things, well, continue watching this space then!

Why the Price of Petrol is Racing Towards Rs 100 Per Litre

If there are two things that get people of this country interested in economics, they are the price of onion and the price of petrol racing towards Rs 100 per kg or litre, respectively.  Currently, the price of petrol is racing towards Rs 100 per litre in large parts of the country. In fact, in some parts, it has already crossed that level.

So, what’s happening here? Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) Take a look at the following chart, which plots the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil since January 2020.

Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell.
*February price as of February 18, 2021.

What does the above chart tell us? It tells us that as the covid pandemic spread, the price of oil fell, falling to a low of $19.90 per barrel in April 2020. It has been rising since then. One simple reason for this lies in the fact that as the global economy recovers, its energy needs will go up accordingly and hence, the price of oil is going up as well.

The other reason has been the massive amount of money that Western central banks have printed through the beginning of 2020. Oil, as it had post 2008, has emerged as a hard asset of investment for many institutional and high-networth investors, leading to an increase in its price. As of February 18, the price of the Indian basket of crude oil stood at $63.65 per barrel, having risen by close to 220% during the current financial year.

2) Now let’s look at the average price of the Indian basket of crude oil over the years.

Source: Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell.
* Up to January 2021.

What does the above chart tell us? It tells us that the Narendra Modi government has been very lucky when it comes to the price of oil, with the oil price on the whole being much lower than it was between 2009 and 2014.

In May 2014, when Modi took over as the prime minister, the price of oil averaged at $106.85 per barrel. By January 2016, it had fallen to $28.08 per barrel.

Even after that, the price of oil hasn’t touched the high levels it did before 2014, in the post financial crisis years, which also happened to be the second term of the Manmohan Singh government.

A major reason for this lies in the discovery of shale oil in the United States. In fact, as Daniel Yergin writes in The New Map – Energy, Climate and the Clash of Nations: “In the autumn of 2018, though it was hardly noted at the time, something historic occurred: The United States overtook both Russia and Saudi Arabia to regain its rank as the world’s largest oil producer, a position it had lost more than four decades earlier.” This has been a major reason in the lower price of oil over a longer term.

The question that then crops up is why hasn’t petrol price in India seen low levels? The answer lies in the fact that between 2014 and 2021, the taxes on petrol, in particular central government taxes have gone up dramatically.

In short, the central government has captured a bulk of the fall in oil prices. Now when the oil price has gone up over the course of this financial year, the high-price of petrol has started to pinch.

3) Take a look at the following table. It plots the price of petrol in Delhi as of February 16, 2021 and in March 2014.

Source: https://iocl.com/uploads/priceBuildup/PriceBuildup_petrol_Delhi_as_on_16_Feb-2021.pdf
and https://www.ppac.gov.in/WriteReadData/Reports/201409231239065062686Snapshot_IOGD_MAR.pdf.

The above table makes for a very interesting reading. As of February 16, the price of petrol charged to dealers was Rs 32.1. Over and above this, the central government charged an excise duty of Rs 32.90 per litre on petrol. Add to this a dealer commission of Rs 3.68 per litre, and we are looking at a total of Rs 68.68 per litre.

On this the Delhi state government charged a value added tax of 30% or Rs 20.61 per litre. This leads to a retail price of petrol of Rs 89.29 per litre. Given that the state government charges a tax in percentage terms, the higher the price of petrol goes, the more tax the state government earns. The vice versa is also true.

Let’s compare this to how things were in March 2014. The price of petrol charged to dealers was Rs 47.13 per litre, much lower than it is today. On this, the central government’s tax amounted to Rs 10.38 per litre. The dealer commission was Rs 2 per litre.

Adding all of this up, we got a total of Rs 59.51 per litre. On this, the Delhi state government charged a value added tax of 20%, which amounted to Rs 11.9 per litre and a retail selling price of petrol of Rs 71.41 per litre. Interestingly, the state government’s tax was more than that of the central government at that point of time.

4) The above calculations explain almost everything. In March 2014, the price of petrol at the dealer level was higher than it is now, but the retail selling price was lower. Both the central government and the state government have raised taxes since then.

The total taxes as a percentage of dealer price now works out to 167% of the dealer price. In March 2014, they were at 47.3%. It is these high taxes which also explain why petrol prices in India are higher than in many other countries.

Of course, a bulk of this raise has come due to a rise in taxes charged by the central government. As mentioned earlier, the central government has captured a bulk of the fall in price of oil.

5) The calculation shown here will vary from state to state, depending on the value added tax or sales tax charged by the state government and the price at which petrol is sold to the dealers. States which charge a higher value added tax than Delhi will see the price of petrol reaching Rs 100 per litre faster than Delhi, if the price of oil continues to rise.

6) Of course, the governments can bring down the price of petrol by cutting taxes. In fact, four state governments have cut taxes providing some relief to oil consumers. But any substantial relief can be provided only by the central government. The trouble is that tax collections have fallen this year. Only the collection of excise duty has gone up by 54% to Rs 2.39 lakh crore, thanks to the higher excise duty charged on petrol and diesel.

The interesting thing is that the excise duty earned from the petroleum sector has jumped from Rs 99,068 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 2.23 lakh crore in 2019-20. The government has become addicted to easy revenue from taxing petrol and diesel. This year its earnings will be even higher than in 2019-20.

7) The central government also fears that if it cuts the excise duty on petrol and diesel, the state governments can step in and increase their value added tax, given that like the centre, they are also struggling to earn taxes this year.

Also, what needs to be kept in mind here is that the central government doesn’t share a good bit of what it earns through the excise duty on petrol and diesel with the states. This is because a bulk of the excise duty is charged in the form of a cess, which the central government does not need to share with the states.

Let’s take the overall excise duty of Rs 32.90 per litre of petrol currently. Of this, the basic excise duty is Rs 1.40 per litre and the special additional excise duty is at Rs 11 per litre. The road and infrastructure cess is at Rs 18 per litre (also referred to as additional excise duty) and the agriculture and infrastructure development cess is at Rs 2.50 litre. Clearly, the cess has a heavier weight in the overall excise duty.

8) One reason offered for the high price of petrol is low atmanirbharta or that as a country we have to import more and more oil than we did in the past. In 2011-12, the import dependency was 75.9%. This jumped to 77.6% in 2013-14 and has been rising since. In April to December 2020, this has jumped to 85%.

The explanation offered on this has been that oil companies haven’t carried out enough exploration activities in the past. Let’s take a look at the numbers of ONGC, the government’s biggest oil production company (or upstream oil company, as it is technically referred to).

The total amount of money spent by the company on digging exploratory wells in 2019-20 stood at Rs 4,330.6 crore. This had stood at Rs 11,687.2 crore in 2013-14. Over the years, the amount of money spent by ONGC on exploration has come down dramatically. This explains to some extent why the crude oil production in India has fallen from 37.8 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 30.5 million tonnes in 2019-20, leading to a higher import dependency.

Of course, not all exploration leads to discovery of oil, nevertheless, at the same time unless you explore, how do you find oil.

The reason why ONGC’s spending on exploration has fallen is primarily because the company has taken on a whole lot of debt over the past few years to finance the acquisition of HPCL and a majority stake in Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation’s (GSPC) KG Basin gas block. The money that ONGC borrowed to finance the purchase of HPCL from the government was used by the government to finance the fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a company earns and what it spends.

The borrowing has led to the finance costs of the company going up from Rs 0.4 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 2,823.7 crore in 2019-20. The cash reserves of the company are down to Rs 968.2 crore as of March 2020 from Rs 10,798.9 crore as of March 2014.

All this explains why the price of petrol is racing towards Rs 100 per litre. At the cost of sounding very very very cliched, there is no free lunch in economics. Somebody’s got to bear the cost.

It will be interesting to see if the central government continues to hold on to the high excise duty on petrol and diesel (whatever I have said for petrol applies for diesel as well, with a different set of numbers) leading to  a high petrol and diesel price and lets these high rates feed into inflation in the process.

Keep watching this space.

Why Farmers Still Don’t Trust the Government

Chintan Patel and Vivek Kaul

In a recent column, the veteran editor Shekhar Gupta wrote that Indian politics is now clearly divided along economic lines, with the BJP + being ‘unabashed backers of private sector’ and others in the opposition being ‘freshly dyed-in-red socialists’.

While definitive statements on politics of the day are rarely totally correct, they can always be placed in a certain context. Let’s take the case of farm laws pushed very hard by the current union government and passed by the Parliament.

While there is no denying that economic reforms in agriculture are the order of the day, there is also no denying that the way these laws have been drafted and pushed through the Parliament, it makes the union government look like unabashed backers of the private sector, which in a democracy isn’t possibly a good thing.

In the same column, Gupta quoted the former finance and home minister, P Chidambaram’s view on the union budget, presented at the beginning of this month. Chidambaram, as Gupta quoted him, said: “It was a Budget… addressed to the one per cent of Indians who owned 73 per cent of national wealth.”

Of course, Chidambaram’s party, the Congress, which largely governed India up to 1996, with a few brief interludes in between, and then again from 2004 to 2014, has been responsible for a lot of this inequality.

If we were to take a leaf out of Gupta’s book and make a definitive statement, what the Congress practiced for many years was bad socialism and what the BJP is currently practicing in case of the new farm laws, and as we shall see in this piece, is bad capitalism.

But before we get around to doing that we need to go back in history a little.

The State of the Indian Farmer

Up until the mid 1960s, India was dependent on wheat imports, primarily from the United States. In order to set this right, the union government of the day promoted the green revolution. To encourage the farmers to grow a certain kind of wheat, the government provided price support, in the wheat-growing areas of Punjab and Haryana by buying wheat through the Food Corporation of India (FCI).

This essentially convinced the farmers to grow the specific kind of wheat that the government wanted it to, given that there was a ready buyer for it. This procurement of foodgrains initially started with the noble motive of helping the farmers who were taking part in the initial phase of the Green Revolution

Gradually, the FCI started procuring rice as well and thereby encouraged farmers to grow rice in the semi-arid region of Punjab as well as Haryana. In that sense, policies formulated to usher in the green revolution in the 1960s have long become outdated. They promote wrong cropping patterns that are neither environmentally optimal nor responsive to demands of the population. This has also led to depletion of ground water in large parts of Punjab and Haryana.

Thanks to the green revolution and the procurement infrastructure that developed because of it, India now overproduces foodgrains and does not produce enough of other food items, for which there is demand.

As of February 2021, the FCI had a total stock of rice and wheat amounting to 561.93 lakh tonnes. While the total stock that needs to be maintained as of January 1 every year, including the operational stock and the strategic reserve, amounts to 214.1 lakh tonnes.

Clearly, there is a problem of over production and over storage here. It also means that the government ends up over buying rice and wheat, which it doesn’t really need and which then sits in the godowns of FCI and rots.

On the other hand, India isn’t growing enough of something like pulses. While the per capita production has improved in the recent years, it is still not anywhere near where it used to be in the mid 1960s. In 2019-20, the per capita production of pulses stood at 16.9 kg, up from 13.6 kg in 2014-15, but still nowhere near a production of 25 kg per capita in 1964-65.[i]

The over production of rice and wheat doesn’t just lead to underproduction of other agricultural crops, it creates other problems as well. (In order to get a good overview of the other problems, please click here to read a piece one of us wrote in September 2020, when the farmer protests were just about starting).

We wouldn’t be over-stretching if we say that there is a huge problem in the way agriculture is currently practiced in this country. And if Indians, and not just India, has to progress, the Indian agriculture system needs to be set right. The farming laws in their current state are not going to achieve that.

In 2020, farmers formed around 41.5% of India’s workforce but contributed only  around 15-16% of India’s economic output. This basically means that farmer incomes are abysmal. The average household income of farmers was Rs 6,427 a month as per the Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Household 2013 – with farmers in some states making much lesser than the average. To give a sense of the state-wise skew on this figure, the income for Punjab was Rs 18,509, for Haryana it was Rs 14,434 (the top two) and that for Bihar it was just Rs 3,557. An average household in India has five members.

This data is on the slightly older side. One thing we can do is to adjust it for inflation between December 2013 and December 2020. The rural inflation as measured by the consumer price index between these two time periods stood at 4.4% per year. Assuming that the farmer incomes have grown at this rate per year, then the average household income of farmers stands at Rs 8,688 per month.

Of course, and as we have seen above, there are variations around the average income across the states, but even with that, the farming income is low. In this backdrop, it is clear that the status quo in Indian agriculture is untenable. Policy-makers face a stiff task of inducing changes in cropping decisions whilst improving farmer incomes.

There is also the promise of doubling farmer incomes by 2022, which was first made Prime Minister  Narendra Modi at a rally in Bareilly on February 28, 2016 and reiterated by Arun Jaitley in the budget speech next day.

The New Farm Laws

On September 27, 2020, President Ram Nath Kovind approved three Farm Bills (which were passed in the Lok Sabha on September 17 and in the Rajya Sabha on September 20). These laws are seemingly an attempt to achieve the twin objectives of raising farmer incomes and modifying cropping pattern. These laws are as follows:

1) The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 (which the farmers refer to as the APMC Bypass Act ) creates a mechanism allowing the farmers to sell their farm produces outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs). Any license-holder trader can buy the produce from the farmers at mutually agreed prices.

2) The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020 (referred to as Farmers Contract Act hereafter) seeks to create a legal framework for contract farming in India, wherein farmers can enter into a direct agreement with a buyer to sell the produce at predetermined prices through verbal or written contracts.

3) The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 is an amendment to the existing Essential Commodities Act, deregulating storage limits on items such as cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions and potatoes, except in extraordinary situations.

Farmer groups across the nation have opposed the new laws and brought their protest to the streets, and the ensuing stand-off with the union government has gone on for several months now. While protests against the farm laws have happened all across the country, the main sustained protest has happened on the borders of Delhi, leading many commentators to say that this is primarily a protest of large farmers of North India.

There is no denying that large farmers have the most to lose and are maybe driving this movement, nevertheless, at the same time it needs to be said that large protests typically tend to happen around the seat of power.

As veteran editor and economy watcher TN Ninan wrote in a recent column: “ Much of the action in the French Revolution was centred on Paris.” The same thing happened when the Bolsheviks led by Vladmir Lenin took over the strategic locations in the Russian capital of Petrograd (now known as Saint Petersburg). Hence, Delhi will remain symbolic in the same sense.

In this piece, we look at the different arguments put forth by those who are opposing these laws and try to figure out how much sense they make. We also look at the overall issue of agricultural reforms. Let’s take a look at these pointwise.

1) A chief concern of farmer groups opposing these laws is that the new laws herald a change in policy which will lead to a roll-back on government procurement of foodgrains and minimum support prices (MSPs). The government declares MSPs for 23 crops every year, but it primarily buys rice and wheat directly from farmers at the MSP. In the recent past, it has also bought pulses and oilseeds to promote their production.

Apprehensions regarding the dismantling of the MSP regime explain the mass mobilization of farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western UP – areas with high government procurement of grains, due to historical reasons of the union government wanting to promote the green revolution in the country.

While the new legislation itself is silent on the MSP, the government has repeatedly given assurances that procurement and MSPs will continue. But these assurances in isolation haven’t been enough to placate farmer fears. There are multiple reasons for the same.

As NITI Aayog’s occasional paper titled Raising Agricultural Productivity and Making Farming Remunerative for Farmers published in December 2015, points out: “There is a need for reorientation of price policy if it is to serve the basic goal of remunerative prices for farmers. This goal cannot be achieved through procurement backed MSP since it is neither feasible nor desirable for the government to buy each commodity in each market in all region.”

This paper essentially had the philosophical underpinnings on which the new farm laws are based.

Also, if the government purchases and the MSP are done away with, there will be further danger of free power, fertiliser subsidy etc., being done away with as well. This is something that farmers who benefit from these things, wouldn’t want.

Secondly, if the idea is to promote private corporate trade in agriculture over a a period of time, then it is but natural for the government to gradually get out of the sector. That is how liberalisation of any sector has worked over the years. Hence, the government’s assurance on MSP and procurement haven’t carried much weight with the farmers.

On the flip side, the rice and wheat which the FCI buys directly from the farmers, it distributes through the public distribution system or ration shops as they are more popularly known, at a very low price to meet the needs of food security.

Given that the public distribution system is in place, it will be very difficult for the government to totally get out of the system of declaring MSPs and procuring rice and wheat. Also, the importance of this system has come into focus in the past one year, as the government distributed free rice and wheat through these shops across the country, to negate the negative economic impact of the spread of the covid-pandemic.

Hence, it is highly unlikely that the government will do away with MSPs and procurement, though the level of procurement might come down over the years, with the government only buying as much as it needs to fulfil the needs of food security and not more.

Net net, the system as it exists is likely to change in the years to come. Further, given the way the government pushed the farm laws through the Parliament, it has become difficult for the farmers to trust the government.

2) Other than the MSP issue, there are several other reasons which have farmer groups alarmed.

Central to a bulk of these concerns is the role of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees or APMCs. The new APMC-bypass law does not explicitly call for the closure of existing APMCs (or mandis as they are more popularly known as).  However, it allows private-party transactions between buyers and sellers outside the mandis. Transactions that take place outside the APMCs are not subject to either state cess or state APMC laws.

This effectively creates two parallel marketplaces – one that is highly regulated, and one that is very lightly regulated, if at all. One that is controlled by the state governments and another that is controlled by the union government.

Farmers contend that such an arrangement is effectively a death-knell for the mandis, as non-mandi transactions have been heavily incentivized. They argue that a regulated marketplace within the mandi will be replaced by an unregulated marketplace outside the APMC framework. Transactions conducted outside the APMCs would be no longer regulated in the same way, implying that government officials cannot step in to address irregularities around weighing and measurement of produce and payment disputes.

Now, sarkari interference in a commercial transaction or setting, is mostly viewed as a bureaucratic hurdle by all parties involved. Yet interestingly the prospect of getting rid of this oversight has the farmers concerned implying that their fear of being exploited by buyers and traders in an unregulated setting, outweighs whatever shortcomings there might be in the existing system.

On the flip side, the outside competition should help in driving down the high mandi fees, which exist currently.

Experts who have come out in support of these laws have pointed out that the removal of the APMC cess, removal of barriers of entry for new purchasers and increased competition for crop procurement, which these new laws are likely to bring in, will help drive crop prices higher. So, why then are farmers so resistant to the new unregulated marketplace?

One patronizing line of reasoning, as has been the case whenever reforms are pushed through stealth, is that the farmers are too naive to understand what is really in their best interests, presumably due their ignorance of economics and benefits of free-markets.

The link between reduced regulations and increased prosperity is well established in other sectors in post-liberalized India. That said, discounting the lived experience and opinion of the stakeholders and purported beneficiaries of a given law is unwise.

It is important to note that a large portion of farm trade already occurs outside of APMCs. The chart below shows the proportion of sales across various channels for a list of agricultural commodities. It can be seen that non-APMC transactions feature prominently for most agricultural items.

Source: NSS Report 70th round.
Chart: https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/three-farm-bills.

Let’s take the case of rice and wheat, the two foodgrains primarily bought by the government directly from the farmer. In case of rice (paddy) 63% of the total quantity was sold in local private markets. In case of wheat it was at 25%.

This happens for a host of reasons such as distance constraints, door-step sales to offset past debt, the difference in government procurement infrastructure across different parts of the country, etc.

The best metric of efficacy of any new policy will be its effect on farmer incomes, which are ultimately determined by prices farmers get for their produce. And this is where APMCs play an important role in the price discovery process. Prices for agricultural produce are decided in APMCs by open- auctions or closed-bid tenders.

Thus the APMCs serve as transmitters of pricing information across the market, as sales occurring outside the mandis are influenced by APMC prices as well. Once APMCs become obsolete, as is the fear, how will price discovery happen?  That is one concern raised by farm groups resisting the APMC-Bypass law.

In this sense, there needs to be some level playing field between APMCs and the new markets that are expected to spring up thanks to the new laws.

3) Another concern raised by critics is that the decline of APMCs will lead to fragmented markets and render farmers more vulnerable to exploitation by traders. The APMCs provide a platform for collective bargaining which is only possible with aggregated and coordinated sales. Once sales migrate to private, uncoordinated transactions there is a possibility of monopsonies emerging for each distributed geography pushing sale prices downward.

A monopsony is a market which has a single buyer, giving that sole player an undue advantage on dictating prices. As an example, if Maruti was the only car manufacturer in the country, it would enjoy a near monopsony over the automobile spare parts market. In such thin and fragmented markets, the balance of information and bargaining power will be heavily tilted against farmers, especially ones with small holdings.

While these fears are not unfounded, it should be pointed out that the existing system of price discovery and middlemen has been prone to manipulation by traders and commission agents, much to the detriment of farmers. As Sudha Narayan, a noted agricultural economist points out, even with open auctions, middlemen and traders often collude against farmers to depress sale prices.

Also, it needs to be said here that most of India’s farmers are too small to be dealing with any marketing system on their own. The point being that even in the new markets that are likely to emerge middlemen might continue to be the order of the day.

It is being assumed that buyers who currently buy from big commission agents, will start buying directly from farmers and let go of the middleman. There is a reason why these buyers buy from agents. It is convenient for them to do so. Do they want to take on the headache of building a new system right from scratch? Is it worth their time and money?

These are questions for which answers will become clearer in the days to come. But prima facie given the abysmal ease of doing business in most states, we see no reason why the buyers won’t continue buying from the agents, instead of having to deal with many farmers. This is a point that needs to be kept in mind as well.

For such small farmers to be able to benefit and get a better price for their produce without selling to a middleman, all kinds of other infrastructure is needed. These include everything from more cold storages to improved roads connecting villages to the newer markets that come up, power supply which can be relied upon (so that a cold storage can function like one) and traders who compete to get their produce.

It is worth remembering that arthiyas (commission agents) who buy produce from farmers at APMCs, are locally influential people. Hence, assuming that parallel systems of buying and selling in the form of new trade markets, will come up automatically, is rather lame.

It is worth remembering that many arthiyas are themselves big farmers and can ensure that the system continues to work as it is. They might just move out of APMCs to avoid paying levies (which are very high especially in states of Punjab and Haryana at 8.5% and 6.5%, respectively). Everything else might continue to be the same. This depends on whether creation of new infrastructure is worth not paying the levy.

4) The displacement of trade into the unregulated sphere has another downside. It invisiblizes data. When agriculture sales and storage are not recorded centrally, key data points get lost. Evidence-based policy making requires robust data. Without the availability of data on sale prices, volumes and storage, policy makers could be rendered “blind”, adversely affecting decisions regarding agriculture, food security, and food distribution.

One solution to this problem would be to mandate the recording of all trade outside APMCs be recorded in a central/state registry, especially if the new regulations lead to the creation of new markets with decent infrastructure (as opposed to fragmented, distributed transactions).

5)  Other than profitability, these laws have also been opposed on the grounds of being unduly favourable to corporates. This, as we said at the very beginning, makes the government, look like an unabashed backer of the corporate system.

Section 15 of the Farmers’ Produce Act says “no civil court shall have jurisdiction to entertain any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter, the cognisance of which can be taken and disposed of by any authority empowered by or under this Act or the rules made thereunder.”

Instead, the adjudicating powers are given to Sub-Divisional Magistrates (SDMs) and Additional District Magistrates (ADMs) – both being bureaucrats. This has stoked fears of subversion of justice against the farmer. If there is a small farmer on one side of the dispute and a large or even a medium sized corporate on the other side, whose side is the bureaucrat likely to take? One doesn’t need a degree in rocket science or an advance qualification in computer chip design, to answer this question.

This provision in the new farm laws, which doesn’t allow farmers to take a dispute to a Civil Court, also seems to be in line with the narrative of too much democracy inhibiting economic reforms, that has been promoted in the recent past.

So what is the net learning from all this?

The attitude towards corporates highlights the us-vs-them mentality of farmer leaders and activists. If something is good for big business, it must be bad for them. Their argument is that the “freedoms” offered by the new laws vis-a-vis crop sales or storage already existed for the farmers. The changes introduced by the new farm laws are to essentially unshackle the corporates.

This extreme suspicion of corporates and their profit-making motives is unfortunate and can be attributed to both the legacy of socialist thought in India, the politicians often bad-mouthing businessmen, the less than exemplary behaviour of corporates themselves and instances of exploitative practices by corporates in the past.

A blanket fear of corporate involvement is arguably short-sighted, even if understandable due to past practices. Having a robust supply chain of climate-controlled warehouses and transportation is critical to allowing farmers to tap into larger national and international markets.

One practical way to do this at a substantial scale is to attract investment by large corporates. Corporatization en-masse doesn’t have to mean exploitation of farmers. On the contrary, it can help realize higher incomes, given the correct safeguards and regulatory oversight, which has gone missing in the new laws.

This needs to be communicated as well as demonstrated with a few success stories if such materialize, where deregulation and entry of corporates leads to increased farmer incomes. Once farmers have seen concrete benefits maybe the psychology of distrust against corporate players can be reversed.

As Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah write in,  In Service of the Republic: “ The safe strategy in public policy is to incrementally evolve—making small moves, obtaining feedback from the empirical evidence, and refining policy work in response to evidence.” Of course, moving incrementally goes against the very idea of a government which believes in making big moves and building a huge narrative around it.

Trust is perhaps the core issue that fuels farmer opposition. There seems to be a complete breakdown of trust in the current government from the farmers’ end. The seeds of discontent were first sown by repeated inconsistencies between election manifestos and implemented policies.

Such tendencies are not unique to the current ruling party, but that hardly absolves them of some significant reversals on election promises. Issues that farmers find particularly grating are the inconsistencies in the Modi government’s stance towards implementing the Swaminathan commission recommendations and their reversal on the promise to open 22,000 agriculture mandis for improved market access.

Also, what does not help is the way these laws were pushed through the Parliament, without any discussion being initiated with the farmers. The government got talking with them only after the protests erupted. In this environment, it is hardly surprising that there is low trust.

The government did itself no favours by the manner in which it introduced the new laws. Even if the intent is to benefit farmers by bringing in the new laws, the means employed by the government do not inspire confidence. Constitutional norms of deliberation and debate in the Parliament were circumvented to make sudden, sweeping changes on a state subject, reneging on our federal ethos.

Moreover, the laws were drafted unilaterally, without seeking inputs from farmers – the purported beneficiaries. Circumventing these good-faith practices has furthered suspicions held by detractors that the laws are indeed meant to further corporate interests only. What hasn’t helped is the fact that farmers cannot challenge disputes arising under these news laws, in Civil Courts.

As the American experience of the late 19th century and early 20th century shows, unregulated capitalism only leads to robber barons and huge inequality in the society, which India has enough of already. Hence, bad socialism has now been replaced by bad capitalism.

Farmer protests continue to expose the deep fault lines in our agrarian economy. The response to these laws offer some valuable lessons to politicians and policymakers. For one, it is impossible to predict with certainty the effect of these laws on agriculture prices. The arguments put forth by farmers merit meaningful engagement.

Dismissing their concerns as misguided or malicious smacks of hubris. In a democracy, good leadership and policymaking is as much about means as ends. Transparency, debate and discussions are essential before draft bills become laws. It is essential to engage key stakeholders and socialize any big-bang changes to avoid surprises and minimize disruptions. One can only hope that the political class has the wisdom and grace to recognize their mistakes and learn from them.

But all this involves hard work, which is a tad too much for a government primarily engaged in building narratives and following them up purposefully. Also, by trying to push agricultural reforms through the stealth route and not engaging with the status quo, the government has done the cause of economic reforms a great harm. In the time to come, it will become even more difficult for it to push through any new economic reform, unless it sits and talks this one out with the farmers.

For starters it should offer to do away with some of the most controversial clauses in the new laws which favour the corporates at the cost of the farmers. That can at least be a small start.

[i] https://niti.gov.in/sites/default/files/2019-07/RAP3.pdf and author calculations on data from http://agricoop.nic.in/sites/default/files/FirstEstimate2020-21.pdf. Population of India in 2019 assumed to be 137 crore, using World Bank data.