The year was 1983 and as a six year old on my way to school I saw posters of this movie called Hip Hip Hurray. The movie had a special connection with the city of Ranchi, where I was born and brought up in. A major part of the movie had been shot in schools in Ranchi (not my school though) and to my knowledge it remains the only Hindi film to be shot in the city till date.
The story of the movie was set around a school football team and its inspiring coach (played by Raj Kiran, who has since disappeared). The script and the lyrics for the movie were written by Gulzar, with the songs being set to tune by Vanraj Bhatia. (This song from the movie, sung by Bhupendra and Asha Bhonsle is an absolute gem and so is this lovely Yesudas number).
The movie also happened to be the first directorial venture of Prakash Jha. Jha made a couple of art films more and disappeared from the scene, concentrating on documentaries instead. He returned to the Hindi film industry with Madhuri Dixit starrer Mrityudand in 1997. Since then he has directed movies like Gangaajal, Apharan, Raajneeti and Aarakakshan. As their names suggest all these movies had a lot political content in them. Given this Jha has never been far from controversies. His latest film Chakravyuh is set around the problem of naxalism. And given that controversy couldn’t have been far behind.
The movie has a song with the line: “Tata, Birla, Ambani aur Bata, sab ne hai desh ko kaata”. The song is a reflection of the deep hatred and mistrust Indians have towards big businesses and people who run them (though Bata can hardly be called a big business anymore. But it still remains one of India’s most recognisable business brands).
It is safe to say this mistrust of businesses started during the late sixties and early seventies once businessmen started to get too close to politicians. This was necessary for them if they wanted to survive in the era of “license permit quota raj” that Jawahar Lal Nehru had initiated and Indira Gandhi spread.
As Dilip Chitre wrote in the May-June 1972 edition of The Quest magazine “Mrs Gandhi…has suppressed the industrial private sector in the cruelest fashion. The suppression is in the form of controls which place in the hands of bureaucracy the power of tools of permits and licenses.” (Source: The Best of Quest, Tranquebar)
This meant that businessmen needed to be close to the Congress(Indira) which ruled the nation as well as the bureaucrats. As Chitre wrote “Since in India, today political power is directly transferrable into economic power, manipulative entrepreneurs in every sphere of activity are drawn towards the ruling party. This may not prevent Mrs Gandhi from pursuing a misadventurous economic policy. It only means that her policies will continue to benefit those corrupt entrepreneurs who regard politics as the only industry which offers the best monetary gains in India today.”
Thus emerged the unholy nexus between big business and politics in India. The other thing that happened was that the income tax rates went through the roof. This ensured that businessmen did not declare a major portion of the profits they made leading to a swelling black money economy in India.
This benefitted politicians as well because this black money helped finance their election campaigns. “Even election funds come from the swelling reservoirs of black money. It is black money which is the grease that makes every wheel in Indian public life move. The higher the taxes, the greater will be the incentives to avoid or evade them…The new class is here to stay and it will co-operate with capitalist speculators, feudal chiefs controlling the rural co-operatives, millionaire smugglers and corrupt top executives. These are the only beneficiaries of the parallel economy and they comprise, by and large, the Establishment,” wrote Chitre.
Due to the “license permit quota raj” was born a deep distrust for big-business in the minds of Indians. C Rajagopalachari, India’s second and last governor general, was the first to use the phrase license permit quota raj to describe the socialist economy that Nehru had created and Indira Gandhi spread.
As Gurucharan Das writes inIndia Grows At Night “Rajaji (C Rajagopalachari)…was the first to describe Nehru’s socialist economy as a ‘license permit quota raj’ in the late 1950s. When a reporter suggested that corruption had increased because Indians, not the British, were ruling, Rajaji had quickly retorted that corruption was less matter of culture and more about economic incentives. Socialist controls sent out the wrong signals to human beings on how to behave. Yes, culture mattered but culture would quickly change if the incentives changed.”
Things finally started to change around in 1991 once the Indian economy started to be opened up and the license permit quota raj was gradually done away with. It unleashed big business from the web of socialist control and economic growth followed. But the reputation of big business other than the likes of the Infosys, Wipro and TCS, still remained shady in the minds of the average Indian. As big businesses benefitted, reforms came to be associated more with them. This made reforms a perpetual hard-sell to the average Indian.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently wrote in theIndian Express “One reason reform does not have as large a social base is that reform has come to be associated with reform for the big boys. We can debate the merits of FDI in retail. Even if its net benefits are uncertain, the fears it ignites are highly exaggerated. Making that a priority over other reforms may send out sound signals to other investors. But it reinforces the idea that you have to be big and organised to get a hearing. Despite two decades of reform rhetoric, small and medium business in India still feels trapped in the clutches of the state.” (you can read the complete piece here)
This is something that Das backs up with examples in his book. As he writes “Here was another irony. While the speed of trucks had risen 50 per cent thanks to four and six-lane highways, truckers were still mired in the old inefficiencies…Many municipalities in India continued to levy octroi because this medieval tax was their only source of revenue.”
And wherever there is a government check post there is also an opportunity to demand a bribe. Das describes one such experience when he ran into a line of trucks. “There was an interminable line of unhappy trucks parked on one side of the road…I pulled across up alongside an idle truck driver, and asked him what was going on. He had been waiting at the revenue check naka for four hours, he said. He was afraid that the bribe on this occasion was going to be double because the Check Sahib’s daughter was getting married. There would be more than half a dozen check posts like this on his journey from Delhi to Mumbai. There would also be police posts to bribe, and a journey of twenty-four hour would take forty-four, half the time lost in queues and in negotiating bribes.”
Indeed, as Das writes, Transparency International reported that in 2005 India’s trucking industry had paid bribes amounting to Rs 22,000 crore. This was roughly equal to what the truck drivers earn annually by the way of salary.
Also the end of license quota permit raj has been replaced by the rise of the inspector raj. Das recounts the story of an entrepreneur friend Navin Parikh who runs a factory near Ajmer, which makes sophisticated parts and equipments for the suppliers to the world’s defence industries. This is how Das recounts Navin’s experience. “‘Not a week goes by,’ Navin said, without an inspector from some department or the other coming for his hafta vasooli, “weekly bribe”. Labour, excise, fire, police, octroi, sales tax, boilers and more – we have to keep all of them happy. Otherwise, they make life hell. More than 10 per cent of my costs are in “managing the system”.” Navin has to deal with on an average seventeen inspectors who have the power to close down his business on one pretext or another.
So reforms have come to be associated with the big boys of business simply because things haven’t changed at all at the lower levels. As per a World Bank study in 2011, India ranked 134 out of 180 countries when it came to the ease of doing business.
What has also not helped is the fact that the reputation of businessmen and politicians has taken a nose dive in the recent past as wave of scams with allegations of crony capitalism has come to light. “The corruption story has also become part of the reform story. Open loot at the top lends credence to the idea that anyone should grab anything from the state that they can,” writes Mehta.
Given these reasons any attempt at economic reform in India doesn’t go down well with the average Indian. This impression of reforms benefitting big business is unlikely to go away in a hurry. Whether the current UPA government is serious about the “few” reforms that it has initiated remains to be seen. Or is just a diversionary tactic to get the attention away from coal-gate.
The only way out is transparency. As Mehta puts it “But more importantly, the real intent behind reform will become more apparent if the state can go towards a rules-based working in its inner core. But as state institutions are being decimated one after the other, it is hard to inspire confidence that we are moving to a transparent rules-based system. This is still a system where, on everything from CBI investigations to company law cases, deals seem possible. When the government says things like environmental clearances will speed up, it is not clear what exactly that means. Is it a harbinger of a new transparent and effective regime or simply more deals? The idea that the state is fundamentally about negotiated quick-fixes has not disappeared.”}
Another reason for reforms being a difficult sell is what economist Vivek Dehejia calls the original sin of 1991. “What makes that more difficult now is what I call the original sin of 1991. I am not the only one who has observed this. What happened from 1991 and thereon was reform by stealth. Reform by the stroke of the pen reform and reform in a mode of crisis, where there was never an attempt made to sort of articulate to the Indian voter why are we doing this? What is the sort of the intellectual or the real rationale for this? Why is it that we must open up? It wasn’t good enough to say that look we are in a crisis,” he told me in an interview I did for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) sometime back. (You read the complete interview here).
Manmohan Singh’s speech to the nation the other day tried to explain the few steps of economic reform the government has initiated over the last ten days. But what he was basically saying like he did in 1991 was that, look we are in a crisis and there is no way out.
Given these reasons, when it comes to serious economic reforms that will benefit India in the years to come, I remain pessimistic.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 24, 2012. http://www.firstpost.com/business/why-reform-is-a-bad-word-in-india-466243.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
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.
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 www.firstpost.com on June 1,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/sonias-upa-is-taking-us-to-new-hindu-rate-of-growth-328428.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])