Mr Jaitley’s Search for a One-Handed Economist

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010
Give me a one-handed economist,” quipped the American president Harry Truman, many years back. “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand…on the other’.”

The finance minister Arun Jaitley is currently probably going through the one-handed economist phase as well. There has been a huge debate going on, in the media, whether the government should relax the fiscal deficit target of 3.5% of gross domestic product for the next financial year i.e. 2016-2017, when it presents its budget later this month. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

Economists, as usual, are divided on it. Some like the idea of government spending more in order to revive the slow economic growth (or so they like to believe). Others have been highlighting the negative consequences of the government spending more.

This has left Jaitley, who has no background in either finance or economics, and was a part-time politician and a full-time layer, until few years back, confused. As he recently said: “I’ve been consulting all shades of opinion. This is the first time I’ve come across people holding sharply divided views. Each one has a strong argument in his favour.”

The Chief Economic Adviser to the finance ministry, Arvind Subramanian, has been in favour of the government spending more. In the Mid-Year Economic Analysis released in December 2015, Subrmanian had suggested that in a scenario of lower than expected economic growth (as measured by the real/nominal GDP growth) “if the government sticks to the path for fiscal consolidation, that would further detract from demand.” Further, “consolidation of the magnitude contemplated by the government… could weaken a softening economy”. Fiscal consolidation is essentially the reduction of fiscal deficit.

The finance minister Arun Jaitley had talked about fiscal consolidation in the two budget speeches he has made till date in July 2014 and February 2015. In the first speech he said that the government is aiming to achieve a fiscal deficit target of 3% of gross domestic product(GDP) in 2016-2017.

In the speech he made in February 2015, he postponed this target by a year and said that the government will achieve a fiscal deficit of 3.5% of GDP in 2016-17; and 3% of GDP in 2017-18.  Now there is pressure on the finance minister to abandon the fiscal deficit target of 3.5% of the GDP set for 2016-2017, from one set of economists and the industry.

The trouble is another set of economists does not agree with this. Economist Arvind Panagariya, who happens to be the vice chairman of the NITI Aayog said in January 2016: “I personally don’t think we should be tinkering with the deficit as a percentage of GDP.”
Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, has also been an advocate of the government sticking to a path of fiscal consolidation. He reiterated the same in a recent speech as well as the monetary policy statement released last week.

One of the interesting points that Rajan made was that India’s overall fiscal deficit position has deteriorated. As he said: “The consolidated fiscal deficit of the state and centre in India is by far the largest among countries we like to compare ourselves with; presently only Brazil, a country in difficulty, rivals us on this measure. According to IMF estimates (which is what the global investor sees), our consolidated fiscal deficit went up from 7 percent in 2014 to 7.2 percent in 2015. So we actually expanded the aggregate deficit in the last calendar year. With UDAY, the scheme to revive state power distribution companies, coming into operation in the next fiscal, it is unlikely that states will be shrinking their deficits, which puts pressure on the centre to adjust more.”

One reason why government’s numbers are different from IMF numbers is because the government of India under-declares its fiscal deficit. How does it do it? The government recognises the disinvestment of shares in public sector units as a revenue rather than as a financing item.

As economist Rajeev Malik of CLSA put it in a recent column in the Mint: “India tends to under-report its fiscal deficit because it counts divestment and other asset sales as revenue rather than a financing item, as is practised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thus, the FY16 budget deficit target—adjusted for divestment—was actually 4.4% of GDP, not 3.9% as officially reported.”

Rating agencies remain strangely silent on this self-serving approach,” Malik validly points out.

What complicates the situation further is that the government follows the cash accounting system and only acknowledges expenses once payment has been made. This has led to a situation where subsidy payments to Food Corporation of India(FCI) and fertilizer companies remain unpaid. The money has been spent by FCI and the fertilizer companies but remains unpaid by the government, and hence is not acknowledged as an expenditure.

The question is where does FCI get this money from? It borrows from the financial market. Why does the market lend money to FCI? It does that because it knows that it is effectively lending money to the Indian government. Hence, this subsidy expenditure has already been incurred by the government but has not been accounted for.

As economist M Govinda Rao put it in a recent column in The Financial Express: “In fact, the cash accounting system hides the real fiscal deficit which is much higher as substantial subsidy payments to Food Corporation of India and fertiliser companies are yet to be disbursed.”

While Jaitley may keep debating whether or not to abandon the fiscal deficit target that he set previously, he needs to tell us clearly what is India’s real fiscal deficit. If that means that he doesn’t get around to meeting the target.

Getting back to Rajan, the RBI governor also raised the question, whether the extra economic growth that will come in because of the government abandoning its fiscal deficit target and spending more, be worth it.

As Rajan said: “Perhaps Brazil offers a salutary lesson. Only a few years ago, the world was applauding the country’s thriving democracy, its robust economic growth, and the enormous strides it was making in reducing inequality. It grew at 7.6 percent in 2010…Paradoxical as it may seem, Brazil tried to grow too fast. The 7.6 percent growth came on the back of substantial stimulus after the global financial crisis.”

In fact, India tried the same strategy in the aftermath of the financial crisis, with the government coming up with a substantial economic stimulus. While this lifted the economic growth for the next few years, it led to a huge increase in corporate debt and high inflation, the aftermaths of which the country is still facing.

The column originally appeared in the Vivek Kaul Diary on Equitymaster on February 8, 2016

FDI debate: Why Sushma should get the stupid-statement award

sushma swaraj
Vivek Kaul
It’s that time of the year when awards are given out of for the best things and possibly the worst things of the year. And the award for the most stupid statement of the year has to definitely go to Sushma Swaraj, the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha.
During the course of the debate on the government decision to allow foreign direct investment into multi-brand retailing or what is more popularly referred to as big retail, she said: “Will Wal-Mart care about the poor farmer’s sister’s wedding? Will Wal-Mart send his children to school? Will Wal-Mart notice his tears and hunger?”
These lines sound straight out of a bad Hindi movie of the 1980s with dialogues written by Kadar Khan. Yes, Wal-Mart will not care about the poor farmer’s sister’s wedding. Neither will it send his children to school. And nor notice his tears and hunger simply because its not meant to do thatThis is because Wal-Mart is a selfish company interested in making money and ensuring that its stock price goes up, so that its investors are rewarded.
The same stands true for every Indian company which is into big retail (be Tata, Birla, Ambani or for that matter Big Bazaar). No company, Indian or foreign, into big retail or not, is bothered about the tears of the farmer. And neither is the government.
Let’s look at some other things that Swaraj went onto say. “The remaining 70 percent of the goods sold in these supermarkets will be procured from China. Factories will open in China, traders will prosper in China while darkness will befall 12 crore people in India,” she declared.
Already a lot of what is sold in India comes from China. Around three weeks I went around several electronic shops in Delhi trying to help my mother choose a refrigerator. Almost all Indian brands had compressors which were Made in China. If one takes the compressor out of the equation what basically remains in a refrigerator is some plastic and some glass. And all that is Made in India.
My television set which is a Japanese brand is also Made in China. A leading Indian electrical company buys almost all the irons that it sells in India from China and simply stamps its brand name over it.
A lot of pitchkaris that get sold around the time of Holi and diyas and electronic lighting that get sold around the time of diwali are also Made in China. As a quote from a story that appeared in The Times of India story earlier this year went “It seems that ‘Made in China’ has researched our festivals and sensed the need of the customers. For the past 10 years, the business of local sprinklers is decreasing due to stiff competition with Chinese sprinklers. We are facing huge loss, plastic powder through which the pichkaris are prepared locally are bought at Rs 100 per kg while at the same time, there is no subsidy or relaxation on the name of festival,” shared Bihari Lal, a local manufacturer and trader of sprinklers.” Chinese made colours also available during Holi.
And none of this has been brought to India by Wal-Mart. It was brought to India largely by Indian entrepreneurs and traders, a lot of whom form the core voting base of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and also fund the party to a large extent.
Made in China has become a part of our lives whether we like it or not and it will continue to remain a part of our lives, with or without Wal-Mart. If Wal-Mart does not supply us with Made in China goods, the Indian entrepreneurs and retailers will surely do, primarily because Chinese goods are cheaper than the Indian ones. Hence, what Swaraj wants us to believe is already happening with no Wal-Mart in sight.
The other point that comes out here is the ability of Wal-Mart to source stuff from China. This is not rocket science. Indian retailers can also do the same thing. As Rajiv Lal of the Harvard Business School told me in an earlier interviewIf Wal-Mart is operating in Brazil there is nothing that Wal-Mart can do in Brazil that the local Brazilian guy cannot do. If you want to procure supplies from China, you can procure supplies from China as much as Wal-Mart can procure supplies.”
Swaraj also talked about predatory pricing that Wal-Mart would resort to. “These supermarkets introduce predatory pricing. At first, they will introduce such low prices, that will finish the rest of the market. Then when the customer has no other choice, they will keep hiking prices and looting the people,” she said.
This statement is also misleading As Rohit Deshpande of the Harvard Business Schoool told me in a recent interaction that I had with him “ For a company like Wal-Mart historical strategy is fairly easy to understand. It is to make a major branded product available cheaper. So you will have a wider assortment of branded product than any of their competitors that’s the first thing. The second thing is that they have private label. They keep increasing the percentage of their private label within each of their broad categories. So the consumers get trained to come to the store because they can find an assortment of branded products. And once they become loyal to your store then they find that they can make price comparisons within the store and they end up buying your private label. And then your margin is really so much better. It’s a strategy that has worked well for Wal-Mart.”
So for this strategy to work Wal-Mart has to ensure that they stock private label goods (basically their own brands) which are cheaper than other brands. Hence, Wal-Mart might decide to stock it’s own brand of soap which is lets say cheaper than Lifebuoy. For this strategy to work their own goods will have to be cheaper than other branded goods. Hence, it can’t keep increasing prices and keep looting people as Swaraj wants us to believe. Indians aren’t exactly idiots.
Also, if you have visited any of the big retail shops over the years you would have realised that these shops have been increasing the number of private label brands that they sell. As of now this is largely to limited to things like pulses, noodles, sugar etc. The point is that big retail in India is following the same strategy that Wal-Mart does worldwide.
The other interesting point that comes up here is that Wal-Mart is able to offer low prices primarily because of two things. One is the fact that it gets its real estate cheap because it typically sets up shop outside city limits. And two is the fact is the homogeneity of the population when it comes to consumption.
A typical Wal-Mart in the United States is situated outside the city, where rents are low. But such a strategy may not work in India. “It’s not easy to open a 150,000 square feet store in India. That kind of space is not available. They can’t open these stores 50 miles away from where the population lives. People in India don’t have the conveyance to go and buy bulk goods, bring it and store it. They don’t have the conveyance and they don’t have the big houses. So it doesn’t work,” explained Lal.
This is something that marketing guru V Kumar agreed with when I interviewed him sometime back. “Even if Wal-Mart is there in every place, the way they are located is typically outside the city limits. So only people with time, motivation and a vehicle, will be able to go and buy things. And the combination of these three things is very rare.”
The other factor as to why Wal-Mart may not be able to offer very low prices in India is because there is no homogeneity when it comes to consumption behaviour leading to a situation where the company may not have the same economies of scale that it does in other parts of the world.
As Kumar told me “Does the country as a whole consume common things or there are regional biases? In a country like Brazil people eat similar foods that every retailer can sell.” In India clearly things are different. “In India between South, East, West and the North, there is so much heterogeneity that you need localised catering and marketing. So consumption behaviour varies therefore unless you are willing to carry heterogeneous products in each of the locations it is tough,” said Kumar.
The point I am trying to make is that Wal-Mart is not such a big fear that it was made out to be by Swaraj. They do make their mistakes as well. As Deshpande told me “They have had hiccups in the interest of scale and cost efficiency. They have sometimes pushed products that did not make sense for the local market. An example, I believe it was in Argentina, where Wal-Mart, around July 4(the American independence day) had a lot of American flags shipped into their stores.
Pankaj Ghemawat, the youngest person to become a full professor at Harvard Business School makes an interesting point in his book Redefining Global Strategy. As he writes “When CEO Lee Scott (who was the CEO of Wal-Mart from 2000 to 2009) was asked a few years ago about why he thought Wal-Mart could expand successfully overseas, his response was that naysayers had also questioned the company’s ability to move successfully from its home state of Arkansas to Alabama…such trivialisation of international differences greases the rails for competing exactly the same way overseas at home. This has turned out to be a recipe for losing money in markets very different from the United States: as the former head of the company’s German operations, now shut down, plaintively observed, “We didn’t realise that pillowcases are a different size in Germany.””
Wal-Mart had to pull out of South Korea as well in 2006.
Hence, Swaraj could have clearly done some better research before making one of the most important speeches of her career. She could have read the recent column that P Sainath wrote in The Hindu , where he talks about Chris Pawelski, an American farmer and the onions that he produces.
As Sainath writes “While the Walmarts, Shop Rites and other chain stores sell his (i.e. Pawelski’s) kind of onions for $1.49 to $1.89 a pound, Pawelski himself gets no more than 17 cents. And that’s an improvement. Between 1983 and 2010, the average price he got stayed around 12 cents a pound. “All our input costs rose,” he points out. “Fertiliser, pesticide, just about everything went up. Except the price we got.” Which was about $6 a 50-pound bag. Retail prices though, soared in the same period. Distances are not the cause. The same chains sell cheap imports from Peru and China, driving down prices.”
The other interesting point that Sainath makes it that companies even dictate the size of the onions he produces. As Sainath writes “Pawelski held up the onion. “They want this size because they know you won’t use more than half of one of these in cooking a meal. And you’ll throw away the other half. The more you waste, the more you’ll buy.” The stores know this. So wastage is a strategy, not a by-product.”
Such examples on Wal-Mart and other big retail chains are not hard to find. A Google search throws up plenty of them. A speech against the negative effects of big retail should have been full of such examples instead of saying things like whether Wal-Mart will be bothered by farmer’s sister’s wedding. 

The article originally appeared on on December 5, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Sonianomics will put India on the path to disaster

Vivek Kaul
Sonia Gandhi must be having the last laugh, at least when it comes to economic reforms and their salability among Indian politicians. “Maine kaha tha, Mamata nahi manegi(I had told you Mamata will not agree),” she must be telling the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh these days. “Par aap zidd par add gaye(But you became rather obstinate about the entire thing),” she must have added.
Whether this government survives or not remains to be seen but economic reforms will now be put on the backburner, that’s for sure. Also, the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance(UPA) will start preparing for elections (early or not that doesn’t really matter). And given that Sonia Gandhi’s form of “giveaway everything for free” economics will come to the forefront again now.
The various Congress led governments, since India attained independence from the British in 1947, have always followed this form of economics. As Sunil Khilnani writes in The Idea of India “The state was enlarged, its ambitions inflated, and it was transformed from a distant, alien object into one that aspired to infiltrate the everyday lives of Indians, proclaiming itself responsible for everything they could desire: jobs, ration cards, educational places, security, cultural recognition.”
When someone is responsible for everything, the way it usually turns out is that he is not responsible for anything.  A major reason for the economic and social mess that India is in today is because of the various Congress led government trying to be responsible for everything.
This is going to increase in the days to come with Sonia Gandhi’s pet projects of the right to food and universal health insurance being initiated. It need not be said that the projects will help spruce up the chances of the Congress party in the next Lok Sabha election.
These are populist giveaways which have existed all through history. As Gurucharan Das writes in his new book India Grows at Night Populist giveaways have always been a great temptation. Roman politicians devised a plan in 140BCE to win votes of the poor by offering cheap food and entertainment – they called it ‘bread and circuses.’”
But even with that, the idea of right to food and health for all, are very noble measures and difficult to oppose for anybody who has his heart in the right place. Nevertheless, the larger question is where will the government get the money to finance these schemes from?  As P J O’Rourke, an American political satirist, writes in Don’t Vote! It Just Encourages the Bastards “We’re giving until it hurts. That is, we’re giving until it hurts other people, since we’re giving more than we’ve got.” 
The fiscal deficit target of Rs 5,13,590 crore or 5.1% of the gross domestic product(GDP), for 2012-2013 will be breached by a huge amount. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends. This will happen primarily because of the subsidy bill going through the roof (as the following table shows).

SubsidesApr-July 2012Apr-July 2011Increase over last yearbudget estimate% of budget estimate


















Source: Controller General of Accounts, Deutsche Bank. In rupees crore

As is clear from the table the subsidies on oil, fertilizer and food for the first four months of this have been much higher than the previous year. Also four months into the year the subsidies are already more than 50% of the amount targeted for the year. Like the food subsidy for the year has been targeted at Rs 75,000 crore. During the first four months subsidies worth Rs 46,400 crore have already been offered. Unless the government controls this, the spending over the remaining eight months of the year will definitely cross the targeted Rs 75,000 crore. This will increase the overall spending of the government and thus the overall fiscal deficit, which is in the process of reaching dangerous proportions.
As I have stated in the past at the current rate the fiscal deficit of the Indian government could easily surpass Rs 700,000 crore or 7% of the GDP. (you can read the complete argument here). Now add the right to food and universal health insurance to it and just imagine where the fiscal deficit will go. And that means the scenario of high interest rates and high inflation will continue in the days to come.
But that’s just one part of the argument. Those in favour of subsidies and a welfare state have often given the example of the greatest western democracies (particularly in Europe) which have run huge welfare states with the government taking care of its citizens from cradle to grave. An extreme example of such a welfare state is Greece.
Greece categorises certain jobs as arduous. For such jobs the retirement age is 55 for men and 50 for women. “As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, musicians…” write John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper write in Endgame – The End of the Debt Supercycle and How it Changes Everything.
But the Western democracies became welfare states only after almost 100 years of economic growth. “Western democracies had taken more than a hundred years of economic growth and capacity building to achieve the welfare state,” writes Das. And given this India is indulging in “premature welfarism”. “A nation with a per capita income of $1500 cannot protect its people from life’s risks as a nation with a per capita income of $15,000 could. It came at a cost of investment in infrastructure, governance and longer-term prosperity,” adds Das.
That’s one part of the argument. In order to finance these programmes the government will have to run huge fiscal deficits. This means that the government will have to borrow. Once it does that it will crowd out borrowing by the private sector and thus bring down the investment in infrastructure and hence longer term prosperity.
There is no example of a premature welfare state in the history of mankind rising its way to economic prosperity. An excellent example of a country that tried and failed is Brazil.  India is making the same mistakes now that Brazil did in the late 1970s.
As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations Inspired by the popularity of employment guarantees, the government now plans to spend the same amount extending food subsidies to the poor. If the government continues down this path, India might meet the same fate as Brazil in the late 1970s, when excessive government spending set off hyperinflation and crossed out private investment, ending the country’s economic boom…the hyperinflation that started in the early 1980s and peaked in 1994, at the vertiginous annual rate of 2,100 percent. Prices rose so fast that cheques would lose 30 percent of their value by the time businesses could deposit them, and so inconsistently that at one point a small bottle of sunscreen lotion cost as much as a luxury hotel.”
Inflation in such a scenario happens on two accounts. First it happens because people have more money in their hands. And with this they chase the same number of goods, thus driving up prices. The second level of inflation sets in once the government starts printing money to finance all their fancy welfare schemes.
As far inflation is concerned things have already started heating up in India. As Das writes “The Reserve Bank warned that wages, which were indexed against inflation in the employment scheme (the national rural employment guarantee scheme), had already pushed rural wage inflation by 15 per cent in 2011. As a result, India might not gain manufacturing jobs when China moves up the income ladder.”
Other than inflation, giving away things for free has other kinds of problems as well. With states giving away power for free or rock bottom rates, the state electricity boards are virtually bankrupt. As Abheek Barman wrote in a recent column in the Economic Times Most of the power is bought by state governments, through state electricity boards (SEBs). These boards are bankrupt. In 2007, all SEBs put together made losses of Rs 26,000 crore; by March last year, this jumped to a staggering Rs 93,000 crore. Just two SEBs, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, account for nearly half this amount. To cover power purchase costs, the SEBs borrow money. Today, the total short-term debt of all the SEBs has soared to a mind-boggling 2,00,000 crore. Many states would buy as little electricity as possible, to avoid going deeper into the red.” (You can read the compete piece here). So the farmer has free electricity but then there is no electricity available most of the time.
Das writes something similar in India Grows at Night. Punjab’s politicians gave away free electricity and water to farmers, and destroyed state’s finances as well as the soil (as farmers overpumped water); hence, Haryana supplanted Punjab as the national’s leader in per capita income.”
Other than this a lot of things given away for free by the government are siphoned off and do not reach those they are intended to. It would be foolish on my part to assume the politicians in this country (including Sonia Gandhi and of course Manmohan Singh) do not understand these things. But as Das writes “But neither the ‘do-gooders’ nor the Congress party was deterred by the massive corruption in the supply of diesel, kerosene, electricity and cooking gas as well as in ‘make work’ schemes and food distribution. Politicians felt there were still plenty of votes there.
But these votes will come at the cost of economic progress. No country in history has got its citizens out of poverty by giving away things for free. Countries have progressed when they have created enough jobs for its citizens. And that has only happened when the right investments have been made over the years to build infrastructure, industry and human skill.
So the votes for the Congress will come at the cost of economic prosperity for the country. In the end let me quote a couplet written by Allama Iqbal: “Na samjhoge to mit jaoge ae hindustan waalo, tumhari daastan bhi na hogi daastano main” ( “If you don’t wake up, O Indians, you will be ruined and razed, Your very name shall vanish from the chroniclers’ page” – Translation by K C Kanda in Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry: Text, Translation, and Transliteration).
The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s love for urdu poetry is well known. It is time he went back to this couplet of Allama Iqbal and tried to understand it in the terms of all the problems that will come along with the premature welfare state that his party has created and is now trying to spread it further.
The article originally appeared on September 20, 2012 on
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Why food prices will continue to remain high in the coming years

Vivek Kaul

Buried somewhere in the Reserve Bank of India‘s first quarter review of monetary policy released yesterday is the following paragraph:
The stickiness in inflation, despite the significant growth slowdown, was largely on account of high primary food inflation, which was in double-digits during Q1 of 2012-13 due to an unusual spike in vegetable prices and sustained high inflation in protein items.
In simple English what this means is that despite economic growth slowing down inflation continued to remain high because of high food inflation. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has not seen the last of food inflation and there are several reasons why food inflation will continue to remain high in the days to come.
Below average rainfall: The immediate reason for the food prices continuing to remain is the below average rainfall this monsoon season. As the RBI said in the first quarter review of monetary policy:
During the ongoing monsoon season, rainfall up to July 25, 2012 was 22 per cent below its long period average (LPA). The Reserve Bank’s production weighted rainfall index (PWRI) showed an even higher deficit of 24 per cent. Further, the distribution of rainfall was very uneven, with the North-West region registering the highest deficit of about 39 per cent of LPA. If the rainfall deficiency persists, agricultural production could be adversely impacted.
The availability of water can make a huge difference to the agricultural output in India. Areas fed by canals form only around 40% of the total arable land in India. The remaining 60% are dependent on rains. With deficient rains this year the current khareef crop is likely to be impacted with production not being enough to meet demand. This will lead to food prices going up in the days to come.
Rural India is eating better: The various social schemes being run by the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government have put more money into the hands of rural India. The income of rural India has more than doubled in the last five years. One thing that seems to have happened because of this is that people are eating better than before. Economists are of the opinion that as income of people rises above the subsistence level of $1000 per year, a substantial portion of the new money is spent on food. People eat more and better quality food. At the same time they also move from cereal based diets to more protein based diets. In major parts of the world this means that people start consuming more meat. But India has a lot of vegetarians and hence consumption of other high protein food items like dal, milk and other dairy based products has gone up, pushing their prices up. This is likely to continue in the months and years to come given the social commitment of the current UPA government. If the proposed Right to Food Act goes through you could see a further increase in food prices.
The Japan syndrome: As a densely populated country industrialises, the area under agriculture tends to go down. This phenomenon was first observed in Japan, and has since then been observed in South Korea, Taiwan, and very recently China. As Lester R Brown points out in Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures “First, as a country industrialises and modernises cropland is used for industrial and residential development. As automobile ownership spreads, the construction of roads, highways, and parking lots…takes valuable land away from agriculture…. Secondly as rapid industrialisation pulls labour out of the countryside, it often leads to less double cropping, a practice that depends on quickly harvesting one grain crop once its ripe and immediately preparing the seedbed for the next crop…Third, as incomes rise, diets diversify, generating demand for more fruits and vegetables. This in turn leads farmers to shift land from grain to these more profitable high-value crops.”
This is a long term phenomenon which is clearly playing out in India right now. Just drive around towards the outer limits of the city you live in and you will realize that what was once agricultural land has been taken over to build malls, apartments, offices etc. This leaves less area to grow vegetables, cereals and other crops, pushing up their prices in turn. Depleting aquifers: A huge amount of increase in the irrigation of crops across the gangetic plane, India’s agricultural heartland have substantially depleted the aquifers or the underground water tables. As a report by DWS Investments points out “Dramatic increases in the irrigation of crops across northern India have substantially depleted the region’s groundwater. Between April 2002 and August 2008, aquifers lost a total of more than 54 cubic kilometers per year. That decrease in groundwater is even more than double the capacity of India’s largest reservoir.”
While this data is around four years old there is no reason to believe that the situation could have improved in the last four years. It could only have got worse. This is something that Brown agrees with in his book Outgrowing the Earth. He writes “the extensive overpumping of aquifers in India will deprive farmers of irrigation water and will also reduce grain production”.
Climate change also threatens food security: As the following table points out Indian agriculture has very low productivity when it comes to other parts of the world. Even Bangladesh does better than us when it comes to producing rice.
Comparing productivity of Indian agriculture with the world (kg/ha)
Country Paddy Country Wheat Country Maize
World 4,223 World 2,829 World 5,010
Bangladesh 4,012 China 4,608 Agentina 7,666
Brazil 3,826 Egypt 6,478 Canada 8,511
China 6,422 France 6,256 China 5,151
India 3,303 India 2,704 India 2,440
Indonesia 4,705 Italy 3,568 Italy 9,144
Japan 6,511 Spain 3,470 Turkey 6,838
USA 8,092 United Kingdom0 7,225 USA 9,458
Source: Agriculture Statistics at a Glance /Kotak GameChanger Report
Even this production is threatened now because of rising global temperature which beyond a certain point tends to reduce the amount of crop produced. As Lester Brown told me in an interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) a few years back “For each degree celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, farmers can expect a 10% decline in wheat, rice, and corn yields. Since 1970, the earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius, or roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit.”
As the earth’s temperature rises it has led to glaciers melting. “Nowhere is this of more concern than in Asia. It is the ice melt from glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau that sustain the major rivers of India and China, and the irrigation systems that depend on them, during the dry season. In Asia, both wheat and rice fields depend on this water. China is the world’s leading wheat producer. India is No 2 (The US is third.) These two countries also dominate the world rice harvest. Whatever happens to the wheat and rice harvests in these two population giants will affect food prices everywhere. Indeed, the projected melting of the glaciers on which these two countries depend presents the most massive threat to food security humanity has ever faced,” said Brown.
Cars and people are competing for grains: As the price of oil keeps going up, the world has started to look for alternate sources of fuel to run cars and other forms of transport around the world. One such fuel is ethanol which is made from corn and sugarcane in different parts of the world. In Brazil, a lot of cars run on ethanol, which is produced using sugarcane. So if oil prices go up, ethanol becomes more viable as an alternate fuel. And this pushes up the price of ethanol input, i.e. sugarcane. With lesser sugarcane available to produce sugar, the price of sugar also goes up. The United States uses corn to make ethanol. So oil prices going up leads to corn prices going up as well. As Brown put it “If the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will simply move the commodity into the energy economy. If the price of oil jumps to $100 a barrel, the price of grain will follow it upward. If oil goes to $200, grain will follow. From an agricultural vantage point, the world’s appetite for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The grain required to fill an SUV’s 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. If the entire US grain harvest were to be converted to ethanol, it would satisfy at most 18% of US auto fuel needs.”
Given these reasons the food prices are likely to remain high in the months and years to come. And the Reserve Bank of India can fiddle around with the interest rates as much as it wants to, but there is no way it can control food prices.
(The article originally appeared on on August 2,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

Sonia’s UPA is taking us to new ‘Hindu’ rate of growth

Vivek Kaul

Raj Krishna, a professor at the Delhi School of Economics, came up with the term “Hindu rate of growth” to refer to Indian economy’s sluggish gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 3.5% per year between the 1950s and the 1980s. The phrase has been much used and abused since then.
A misinterpretation that is often made is that Krishna used the term to infer that India grew slowly because it was a nation dominated by Hindus. In fact he never meant anything like that. Krishna was a believer in free markets and wasn’t a big fan of the socialistic model of development put forward by Jawahar Lal Nehru and the Congress party.
In fact he realised over the years looking at the slow economic growth of India that the Nehruvian model of socialism wasn’t really working. This was visible in the India’s secular or long term economic growth rate which averaged around 3.5% during those days.
The word to mark here is “secular”. The word in its common every day usage refers to something that is not specifically related to a particular religion. Like our country India. One of the fundamental rights Indians have is the right to freedom of religion which allows us to practice and propagate any religion.
But the world “secular” has another meaning. It also means a long term trend. Hence when economists like Krishna talk about the secular rate of growth they are talking about the rate at which a country like India has grown year on year, over an extended period of time. And this secular rate of growth in India’s case was 3.5%. This could hardly be called a rate of growth for a country like India which was growing from a very low base and needed to grow at a much faster pace to pull its millions out of poverty.
So Krishna came up with the word “Hindu” which was the direct opposite of the word “secular” to take a dig at Jawahar Lal Nehru and his model of development. Nehru was a big believer in secularism. Hence by using the word “Hindu” Krishna was essentially taking a dig on Nehru and his brand of economic development, and not Hindus.
The policies of socialism and the license quota raj followed by Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv ensured that India grew at a very slow rate of growth. While India was growing at a sub 4% rate of growth, South Korea grew at 9%, Taiwan at 8% and Indonesia at 6%. These were countries which were more or less at a similar point where India was in the late 1940s.
The Indian economic revolution stared in late July 1991, when a certain Manmohan Singh, with the blessings of PV Narsimha Rao, initiated the economic reform process. The country since then has largely grown at the rates of 7-8% per year, even crossing 9% over the last few years.
Over the years this economic growth has largely been taken for granted by the Congress led UPA politicians, bureaucrats and others in decision making positions. Come what may, we will grow by at least 9%. When the growth slipped below 9%, the attitude was that whatever happens we will grow by 8%. When it slipped further, we can’t go below 7% was what those in decision making positions constantly said. On a recent TV show Montek Singh Ahulwalia, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, kept insisting that a 7% economic growth rate was a given. Turns out it’s not.
The latest GDP growth rate, which is a measure of economic growth, for the period of January to March 2012 has fallen to 5.3%. I wonder, what is the new number, Mr Ahulwalia and his ilk will come up with now. “Come what may we will grow at least by 4%!” is something not worth saying on a public forum.
But chances are that’s where we are headed. As Ruchir Sharma writes in his recent book Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles “India is already showing some of the warning signs of failed growth stories, including early-onset of confidence.”
The history of economic growth
Sharma’s basic point is that economic growth should never be taken for granted. History has proven otherwise. Only six countries which are classified as emerging markets by the western world have grown at the rate of 5% or more over the last forty years. These countries are Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong. Of these two, Hong Kong and Taiwan are city states with a very small area and population. Hence only four emerging market countries have grown at a rate of 5% or more over the last forty years. Only two of these countries i.e. Taiwan and South Korea have managed to grow at 5% or more for the last fifty years.
“In many ways “mortality rate” of countries is as high as that of stocks. Only four companies – Procter & gamble, General Electric, AT&T, and DuPont- have survived on the Dow Jones index of the top-thirty U.S. industrial stocks since the 1960s. Few front-runners stay in the lead for a decade, much less many decades,” writes Sharma.
The history of economic growth is filled with examples of countries which have flattered to deceive. In the 1950s and 1960s, India and China, the two biggest emerging markets now, were struggling to grow. The bet then was on Iraq, Iran and Yemen. In the 1960s, the bet was Philippines, Burma and Sri Lanka to become the next East Asian tigers. But that as we all know that never really happened.
India is going the Brazil way
Brazil was to the world what China is to it now in the 1960s and the 1970s. It was one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But in the seventies it invested in what Sharma calls a “premature construction of a welfare state”, rather than build road and other infrastructure important to create a viable and modern industrial economy. What followed was excessive government spending and regular bouts of hyperinflation, destroying economic growth.
India is in a similar situation now. Over the last five years the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance is trying to gain ground which it has lost to a score of regional parties. And for that it has been very aggressively giving out “freebies” to the population. The development of infrastructure like roads, bridges, ports, airports, education etc, has all taken a backseat.
But the distribution of “freebies” has led to a burgeoning fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
For the financial year 2007-2008 the fiscal deficit stood at Rs 1,26,912 crore against Rs 5,21,980 crore for the current financial year. In a time frame of five years the fiscal deficit has shot up by nearly 312%. During the same period the income earned by the government has gone up by only 36% to Rs 7,96,740 crore. The huge increase in fiscal deficit has primarily happened because of the subsidy on food, fertilizer and petroleum.
This has meant that the government has had to borrow more and this in turn has pushed up interest rates leading to higher EMIs. It has also led to businesses postponing expansion because higher interest rates mean that projects may not be financially viable. It has also led to people borrowing lesser to buy homes, cars and other things, leading to a further slowdown in a lot of sectors. And with the government borrowing so much there is no way the interest rate can come down.
As Sharma points out: “It was easy enough for India to increase spending in the midst of a global boom, but the spending has continued to rise in the post-crisis period…If the government continues down this path India, may meet the same fate as Brazil in the late 1970s, when excessive government spending set off hyperinflation and crowded out private investment, ending the country’s economic boom.”
Where are the big ticket reforms?
India reaped a lot of benefits because of the reforms of 1991. But it’s been 21 years since then. A new set of reforms is needed. Countries which have constantly grown over the years have shown to be very reform oriented. “In countries like South Korea, China and Taiwan, they consistently had a plan which was about how do you keep reforming. How do you keep opening up the economy? How do you keep liberalizing the economy in terms of how you grow and how you make use of every crisis as an opportunity?” says Sharma.
India has hardly seen any economic reform in the recent past. The Direct Taxes Code was initiated a few years back has still not seen the light of day, but even if it does see the light of day, it’s not going to be of much use. In its original form it was a treat to read with almost anyone with a basic understanding of English being able to read and understand it. The most recent version has gone back to being the “Greek” that the current Income Tax Act is.
It has been proven the world over that simpler tax systems lead to greater tax revenues. Then the question is why have such complicated income tax rules? The only people who benefit are CAs and the Indian Revenue Service officers.
Opening up the retail sector for foreign direct investment has not gone anywhere for a long time. This is a sector which is extremely labour intensive and can create a lot of employment.
What about opening up the aviation sector to foreigners instead of pumping more and more money into Air India? As Warren Buffett wrote in a letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, the company whose chairman he is, a few years back “The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down…The airline industry’s demand for capital ever since that first flight has been insatiable. Investors have poured money into a bottomless pit, attracted by growth when they should have been repelled by it.”
If foreigners want to burn their money running airlines in India why should we have a problem with it?
The insurance sector is bleeding and needs more foreign money, but there is a cap of 26% on foreign investment in an insurance company. Again this limit needs to go up. The sector very labour intensive and has potential to create employment. The same is true about the print media in India.
The list of pending economic reforms is endless. But in short India needs much more economic reform in the days to come if we hope to grow at the rates of growth we were growing.
To conclude
Raj Krishna was a far sighted economist. He knew that the Nehruvian brand of socialism was not working. It never has. It never did. And it never will. But somehow the Congress party’s fascination for it continues. And in continuance of that, the party is now distributing money to the citizens of India through the various so called “social-sector” schemes. If economic growth could be created by just distributing money to everyone, then India would have been a developed nation by now. But that’s not how economic growth is created. The distribution of money creates is higher inflation which leads to higher interest rates and in turn lower economic growth. Also India is hardly in a position to become a welfare state. The government just doesn’t earn enough to support the kind of money it’s been spending and plans to spend.
Its time the mandarins who run the Congress party and effectively the country realize that. Or rate of growth of India’s economy (measured by the growth in GDP) will continue to fall. And soon it will be time to welcome the new “Hindu” rate of economic growth. And how much shall that be? Let’s say around 3.5%.
(The article originally appeared at on June 1,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])