India’s Great Delay: From Son of India to Make in India

make in india

The great filmmaker Mehboob Khan’s last film release was Son of India. The movie released in 1962 and Khan died in 1964.

The movie is now more or less forgotten except for the song: “nanha munna rahi hoon desh ka sipahi hoon”. The song was a regular feature during the propaganda driven days when Doordarshan was the only TV channel in town and Chitrahaar one of the few entertaining shows that one could watch during the course of a week.

The song was shown regularly on Chitrahaar and given that, perhaps a whole generation grew up listening to it. One of the lines in the song is: “naya hai zamana nayi hai dagar, desh ko banaoonga machino ka nagar”. Loosely translated this means that “in this new world we will make India a nation of machines and factories”.

Fifty two years after the 1962 release of Son of India, Narendra Modi was elected as the prime minister of India in May 2014. Modi gave the call of Make in India in August 2014, echoing sentiments of the nanha munna rahi hoon The Make in India website when it was first launched defined it as “a major new national program designed to transform Indiainto a global manufacturing hub.” (I can’t find this line on the website anymore).

The question to ask here is what went wrong during the intervening period between 1962 and 2014? Why are we still talking about aiming to build factories and a vibrant manufacturing sector more than half a century later?

TN Ninan has an answer in his excellent new book The Turn of the TortoiseThe Challenge and Promise of India’s Future. As he writes: “Size helps preserve India as a democracy—it is too big and too complex for any person to so dominate the whole land as to render the law and institutions ineffective, or at least to do so for any length of time.”

While size has helped Indian democracy it has also led to policy errors, which shouldn’t have been made. As Ninan points out: “Successful small countries find it easy, indeed necessary, to focus on export markets because their internal markets are too small to support scale production. But India is big enough to offer the potential of a large domestic market; inevitably, that became the focus of policy.”

The countries of South East Asia also started with import substitution (or producing only for the domestic market) but quickly moved their focus towards exports.

India continued to favour import substitution for much longer and this had its repercussions. “The difference between exporting units and those with a domestic market orientation is that the former have to be competitive, the latter not necessarily so. In India’s case, the inward focus became so pronounced that the country became an economic prison, functioning behind high protective walls. It is therefore evolved into a market for mostly shoddy, usually overpriced goods that would not sell anywhere except countries that were similarly starved of quality goods, such as the Soviet Union, which at one stage was India’s largest trading partner,” writes Ninan.

This put us back in the manufacturing race. And we are still trying to get the manufacturing revolution going. In fact, one of the visions of the Make in India programme is “enhancing the global competitiveness of the Indian manufacturing sector.”

What this tells us is that India is trying to come to the manufacturing party a little too late in the day. Nevertheless, this perhaps remains the only formula for pulling out India’s poor from poverty. And this is only going to happen if the ease of doing business is improved and the inspector raj is done away with, in the days to come.

As Mihir Sharma writes in Restart—The Last Chance for the Indian Economy: “The Indian state is run for its nice, kindly Inspectors, and not for workers or entrepreneurs”. And this needs to be corrected.

The rules and regulations that any manufacturer needs to follow are simply humongous. As Ninan writes: “A policy statement issued in 2011(two full decades after 1991) recognized that the average manufacturing company has to comply with seventy laws, face multiple inspections and file as many as 100 returns in a year. Bear in mind that these returns were being filed (or not filed) by small and medium enterprises that accounted for 45 per cent of manufacturing output and 40 per cent of merchandize exports.”

This is something that the Modi government has improved on after coming to power last year, by introducing self-certification, nonetheless a lot remains to be done on this front.

To conclude, the ball is now in Modi’s court. It took India nearly 70 years to decisively vote for a non-Congress party to power. Modi has the majority to get things done. If he doesn’t, chances are the Congress might be voted back to power. And there can be no bigger tragedy than that.

(Vivek Kaul is the writer of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on Oct 20, 2015

An important economic lesson for India from the East India Company

When it comes to reading non-fiction nothing excites me more than reading books on economic history. Last month, I finished reading a fabulous book Why Nations Fail—The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.
The book has a few sections on India which make for a very interesting reading. It deals in some detail with the business model of the English East India Company.

Over the years, the English monarchy raised money in what could be called fairly innovative ways, at that point of time. One such way was by granting monopolies under the garb of developing national industry.

One such company, which was granted a monopoly, was the English East India Company that had been formed toward the last years of the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. On Decem­ber 31, 1600, the Queen granted the company the Royal Charter for a period of 15 years.

Interestingly, the English East India Company, which even had Elizabeth I as one of its shareholders, was the first limited liabil­ity company in the world. The liability of the shareholders of the company was limited to their investment in the company. If the company failed, the debts of the company would not be divided among the investors.

From its formation in 1600 and up until 1688 “the East India Company enjoyed a government-sanctioned monopoly over the trade with Asia”. As Acemoglu and Robinson write: “In 1688 some of the most significant imports into England were textiles from India, calicoes and muslins, which comprised about one-quarter of all textile imports. Also important were silks from China. Calicoes and silks were imported by the East India Company.” Calico is essentially a plain-woven textile made from unbleached and often not fully processed cotton. (Source:

India was the largest producer and exporter of textiles in the world at that point of time. “Indian calicoes and muslins flooded the European markets and were traded throughout Asia and even eastern Africa. The main agent that carried them to the British Isles was the English East India Company,” write the authors.

Things started to change in the late seventeenth century when the English textile producers started to grow bigger and became economically and politically more powerful. They wanted imports of cheap Indian textiles (calicoes) taxed or to even be banned. In fact, the wool industry managed to lobby the Parliament, which passed legislations in 1666 and 1678, making it illegal for an individual to be buried in anything other than a woollen shroud. This reduced competition that English textile producers faced from Asia in general and India in particular.

The lobbying continued and in 1701 the Parliament decreed: “All wrought silks, bengals and stuffs, mixed with silk or herba, of the manufacture of Persia, China, or East-India, all calicoes painted, dyed, printed, or stained there, which are or shall be imported into this kingdom, shall not be worn.”
This basically made it illegal in England to wear silks and calicoes produced in Asia. Nevertheless, it was still possible to import these textiles from India and other parts of Asia in order to re-export to other parts of the world.

This loophole (from the point of view of English textile manufactures) was finally plugged in. After December 25, 1722, it became unlawful “for any person or persons whatsoever to use or wear in Great Britain, in any garment or apparel whatsoever, any printed, painted, stained or dyed Calico.” This basically ensured that textile imports were no longer a competition for British manufacturers.

Further, the calicoes were the East India Company’s most profitable item of trade. It forced the company to change its business model as well. As Acemoglu and Robinson write: “In the eighteenth century, under the leadership of Robert Clive, the East India Company switched strategies and began to develop a continental empire…[It] first expanded in Bengal in the east…[It] looted local wealth.”

This had a huge impact on the Indian textile industry at that point of time. “This expansion [of East India Company] coincided with the massive contraction of the Indian textile industry, since, after all, there was no longer a market for these goods in Britain. The contraction went along with de-urbanization and increased poverty. It initiated a long-period of reversed development in India. Soon, instead of producing textiles, Indians were buying them from Britain and growing opium for the East India Company to sell in China,” write Acemoglu and Robinson.

So what is the relevance of this history in this day and age? The simple point is that it is very important for a country to make things if it wants to make economic progress or even stay at the level it currently is. Once the East India Company started getting into the empire building business, the Indian textile industry quickly collapsed. This collapse reversed economic development for a long time to come. And from making textiles for exports, we quickly moved on to producing opium.

In fact, as Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang writes in Bad Samaritans—The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & the Threat to Global Prosperity: “History has repeatedly shown that the single most important thing that distinguishes rich countries from poor ones is basically their higher capabilities in manufacturing, where productivity is generally higher, and more importantly, where productivity tends to grow faster than agriculture and services.”

If this background is taken into account it becomes very clear as to how important the idea of “Make in India” really is. In fact, India’s trade with China clearly shows that enough is not being made in India.

As analyst Akhilesh Tilotia of Kotak Institutional Equities points out in a June 2015 report titled Making China make in India: “India’s trade deficit against China accounts for over a third of its trade deficit. India’s trade relationship with China is skewed significantly towards imports: 13% of all Indian imports are from China even as only 4% of Indian exports head to China.” Trade deficit is the difference between imports and exports.

In fact, as Tilotia writes this deficit would be a good starting point for ‘Make in India’. As he writes: “Of India’s imports from China over the past three years, more than half came from three categories: (1) electrical machinery and equipment, (2) nuclear reactors, boilers, machinery and mechanical appliances and (3) organic chemicals. Between these three heads, India imports more than US$30 bn of goods annually. The overall list makes for an impressive starting list for ‘Make in India’ though it is, of course, easier said than done.”

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Sep 4, 2015

The Make in India lesson I learnt when I bought a television set

make in indiaVivek Kaul

Yesterday’s edition of The Times of India had a very interesting newsreport. As per the newsreport: “Data available with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) shows that over 60% of the recently registered products are “Made in China.””
These include products like mobile phones, printers, power adapters, notebooks, tablets and so on. What this tells you clearly is that a vast majority of electronic products that we buy in India are not made in India, but in China.
Interestingly, the last time I bought a television set few years back, it came with a weird looking plug—something that I had never seen before. It wouldn’t fit into the electrical socket at home. It took a helpful neighbour to solve the problem. He told me that I would need a converter to fit the plug into the socket. The converter cost me Rs 25 and left me wondering that why did a company which sold a product worth Rs 15,000 inconvenience its customers for something worth Rs 25? Maybe marketing professionals can throw some light on that.
Last year when I bought a smart phone a similar experience awaited me. But this time around I was prepared and as soon as the smart phone was delivered at home (I had ordered it online), I went out and bought a converter, which cost Rs 20 this time around.
As you must have figured out by now, dear reader, both the products were made in China. Not just technology products which are made in China are flooding the Indian market. There are other products as well. As The Times of India newsreport referred to earlier points out: “There are a vast majority of goods — from electricity bulbs and thermometers to Ganesha and Laxmi idols — where the government is yet to have domestic standards resulting in unregulated entry of Chinese product.” Even Rakhis are now made in China. Indeed, this has been a worrying trend for sometime now.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward—no country has gone from developing to developed without the expansion and success of its manufacturing sector. As Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang writes in 
Bad Samaritans—The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & the Threat to Global Prosperity: “History has repeatedly shown that the single most important thing that distinguishes rich countries from poor ones is basically their higher capabilities in manufacturing, where productivity is generally higher, and more importantly, where productivity tends to grow faster than agriculture and services.”
And the Indian manufacturing sector cannot flourish with products being made in China. For a while there was great hope that India does not need to go through a manufacturing revolution to pull its citizens out of poverty. And that the information technology led services revolution would do that trick. But services by their very design have certain limitations.
As Chang writes: “There are certainly some services that have high productivity and considerable scope for further productivity growth—banking and other financial services, management consulting, technical consulting and IT support come to mind. But most other services have low productivity and, more importantly, have little scope for productivity growth due their very nature (how much more ‘efficient’ can a hairdresser, a nurse or a call centre telephonist become 
without diluting the quality of their services?).”
So, where does that leave us? Over the last few years the education infrastructure that has been built to feed trained individuals into the services sector has been huge. As Akhilesh Tilotia writes in The Making of India: “An analysis of the demand-supply scenario in the higher education industry shows significant capacity addition over the last few years: 2.4 million higher education seats in 2012 from 1.1 million in 2008.” In 2016, India will produce 1.5 million engineers. This is more than the United States (0.1 million) and China (1.1 million) put together.
The number of MBAs between 2012 and 2008 has also jumped to 4 lakh from the earlier 1 lakh. As Tilotia writes: “India faces a unique situation where some institutes(IITs,IIMs, etc.) are intensely contested while a large number of the recently-opened institutes struggle to fill seats…With most of the 3 million people wanting to pursue higher education now having an opportunity to do so, the big question that should…be asked…are all these trained personnel required? Our analysis seems to suggest that India may be over-educating its people relative to the current and at least the medium-term forecast requirement of the economy.”
What this means is that a large number of people going in for higher education will find it difficult to find jobs which are commiserate with the kind of money they have paid for their education, after they pass out. And they will not be the only ones having a tough time. India is adding nearly 13 million people to the workforce every year. And enough jobs are not being created.
This is something that the latest economic survey points out: “Regardless of which data source is used, it seems clear that employment growth is lagging behind growth in the labour force. For example, according to the Census, between 2001 and 2011, labor force growth was 2.23 percent (male and female combined). This is lower than most estimates of employment growth in this decade of closer to 1.4 percent. Creating more rapid employment opportunities is clearly a major policy challenge.”
And these rapid employment opportunities will be created only if more and more products are made in India and not China. For products to be made in India, major labour reforms need to happen.
A report in The Indian Express seems to suggest that the government is working on this front. It is planning to make amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. The government is also planning to: “codify the Central labour law architecture wherein the labour ministry plans to merge all 44 Central legislations into four codes on labour laws — one each on wages, industrial relations, social security and safety & welfare. Apart from industrial relations and wages, other codes are likely to be released during the course of the year.”
Let’s see how far is it able to go with this. 

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on May 6,2015

Rahul Gandhi’s latest jai kisan rhetoric doesn’t quite work

rahul gandhiRahul Gandhi 2.0 is angry-and this anger is making him take ‘potshots’ at the Narendra Modi government almost every other day. Okay, I know it is politics. And I know that he is not angry. And I know that he is trying to rediscover himself. And I know that he is trying to ensure that the party of his ancestors doesn’t become totally irrelevant in the days to come.
Rahul’s latest jibe at the Modi government came yesterday when he said in Punjab: “Does the farmer not make in India?…Your government did nothing when hailstorms destroyed their crop?”
This after he had told a farmers’ rally in New Delhi earlier this month that: “We[i.e. the Congress led UPA government] increased the MSP of wheat from Rs 540 to Rs 1400…The MSP has not changed, no benefit to farmers.”
These statements are in line with the dole based politics and economics practised by the Congress party over the years. The trouble is the country has had to pay a huge cost for this. Allow me to explain. 

The MSP is the price at which the government buys rice and wheat from the farmers, through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and other state government agencies. The MSP of rice was increased rapidly by the Congress led UPA government starting in 2007.
Between 2007 and 2014, the MSP of rice jumped up from Rs 580 per quintal to Rs 1310 per quintal, an increase of 12.34% per year. In case of wheat, the MSP started increasing from 2006 onwards. Between 2006 and 2014, the MSP of wheat jumped up from Rs 650 per quintal to Rs 1400 per quinta, an increase of around 10.1% per year.
The Table 1 shows the buffer stocks and the strategic reserves that the FCI needs to maintain at various points of time during the course of the year. 

Table 1

Now look at Table 2 which shows the stocks that FCI maintained at various points of time in 2014. A comparison of both the tables clearly tells us that FCI is stocking significantly more rice and wheat than what it is required to do. Interestingly, after the Narendra Modi led NDA government came to power, FCI has been going slow on procurement. In the earlier years the FCI was stocking even more than what it currently is. 

Table 2

As on 



Total (in lakh tonnes)

Jan 1, 2014




April 1, 2014




July 1, 2014




Oct 1, 2014





What the comparison of the two tables clearly tells us is that as the MSP prices have been increased, more and more rice and wheat have landed up with the government than what is required by it to run its various food programmes. In fact, the data clearly shows that before 2008 FCI bought as much rice and wheat as was required to maintain a buffer as well as a strategic reserve.
During and after 2008, the purchase of rice and wheat simply exploded. The reason for this is fairly straightforward. In the financial year 2008, the MSP of wheat was raised by 33.3%. In the financial year 2009, the MSP of rice was increased by 31.8%. And this led to farmers producing more rice and wheat in the years to come. This rice and wheat landed up with the government. FCI did not have enough space to store these grains and that explains why newspapers regularly carried pictures of rice and wheat rotting in the open, even though food inflation was rampant
The MSP policy run by the Congress led UPA government has now led to a situation where Indians farmers are producing more rice and wheat than what is required. In fact, influenced by this steady increase in the price of rice and wheat states like Punjab and Haryana, which have a water problem, are growing huge amount of rice and wheat. These crops are huge water guzzlers. Further, farmers are not growing enough of vegetables and fruits, where the prices have increased at a fast pace.
Also, when the government becomes dole oriented that leaves little money for it to do other things. At the end of the day there is only so much money that even a government has. As an editorial in The Financial Express points out: “This year, the government plans to spend around Rs 2.3 lakh crore on the food economy, including the food subsidy, and a very small fraction of this is for either crop insurance (imagine what that would do for farmers right now) or for creating irrigation facilities (imagine what that would do when the monsoon fails).”
Rahul Gandhi yesterday talked about the government not doing anything for the farmers after the hailstorms destroyed their crops. His government was in power for ten years what did they do on the crop insurance front? Why was the entire focus of the Congress led UPA government in making the farmer dependant on the government?
Interestingly, Rahul’s mother Sonia has written to the food minister Ram Vilas Paswan seeking a relaxation in the quality of wheat that the government buys from the farmers. As per the current regulations FCI does not buy wheat with a moisture content of greater than 14%. The Times of India reports Paswan as saying that: “permitting more moisture content beyond this level would mean the grain would be unfit for human consumption.” The newspaper also reports a food ministry official as saying: “There is no procurement of grains with more moisture content than the permitted limit. The procurement is being done as per the food safety standard law.”
This is a fair point. The government can’t be procuring wheat which is unfit for human consumption. Also, there is something majorly wrong in the state of the nation, where more than 65 years after independence, the main opposition leader suggests that the government buy wheat which is essentially not fit for human consumption.
This scenario would have never arisen if a crop insurance policy that covered a major section of the farmers had been in place. Who is to be blamed for this? Narendra Modi who came to power only 11 months back? Or the Congress party run by the Gandhi family which has been in power in each of the decades since independence? The answer is obvious.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Apr 30, 2015

Jibe specialist Rahul Gandhi needs to understand why ‘Make in India’ matters

rahul gandhiVivek Kaul

In his new avatar, Rahul Gandhi, the current vice president of the Congress Party and successor to the throne that has been kept warm for him over the last ten years, has become a jibe specialist.
His latest jibe has been at the ‘Make in India’ programme. “The prime minister talks about ‘Make in India’. No one does more ‘Make in India’ than the farmers of Punjab. They have made this country stand (on food grains production),” the Gandhi family scion, who recently returned from a 57 day foreign sojourn,
told the media earlier in the day today (April 29, 2015).
This potshot was uncalled for, simply because no nation has gone from being a developing country to becoming a developed country without the support and the rapid expansion of its manufacturing sector, which is what the ‘Make in India’ programme is all about.
As Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang writes in
Bad Samaritans—The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & the Threat to Global Prosperity: “History has repeatedly shown that the single most important thing that distinguishes rich countries from poor ones is basically their higher capabilities in manufacturing, where productivity is generally higher, and more importantly, where productivity tends to grow faster than agriculture and services.”
India has failed to latch on to a manufacturing revolution. The services industry was India’s big hope. But services by their very design have certain limitations. As Chang writes: “There are certainly some services that have high productivity and considerable scope for further productivity growth—banking and other financial services, management consulting, technical consulting and IT support come to mind. But most other services have low productivity and, more importantly, have little scope for productivity growth due their very nature (how much more ‘efficient’ can a hairdresser, a nurse or a call centre telephonist become
without diluting the quality of their services?).”
Also, for the services sector to flourish a strong manufacturing sector is required because that is where the demand comes from. Hence, as Chang puts it: “This is why no country has become rich solely on the basis of its service sector.” This is something that Rahul needs to understand.
India needs a strong manufacturing sector which it currently lacks. The reason is simple. Only a vibrant manufacturing sector can create enough jobs for the 13 million Indians who enter the workforce every year. The ‘Make in India’ programme is a step in that direction.
In his interaction with the media Rahul further said: “When the poor do ‘Make in India’, is it not ‘Make in India’? Is it something else?” What does this statement even mean?
Rahul’s concern for agriculture may be genuine, but a simple point he needs to understand is that there way too many Indians dependent on farming. Agriculture forms around 18% of the gross domestic product and employs more than 50-60% of Indians, depending on which estimate you trust.
Only 17% of who work on farms survive only on money they make from their farm. Everyone else does some extra work. As Mihir Sharma writes in
Restart—The Last Chance For the Indian Economy: “Our agriculture simply does not earn enough; and it has too many people…We no longer need to ensure that enough food is grown; for decades, we have been growing enough food. The country that invented granaries cannot build enough to store its vast stockpiles of grain; and yet we plant and harvest more.”
A major reason for this has been a rapid increase in the minimum support price(MSP) of wheat and rice, during the Congress led UPA government. The MSP is the price at which the government buys rice and wheat from the farmers, through the Food Corporation of India(FCI) and other state government agencies. Rahul told a farmers’ rally in New Delhi earlier this month: “We increased the MSP of wheat from Rs 540 to Rs 1400…The MSP has not changed, no benefit to farmers.”
But what the Gandhi family scion does not realize is that this rapid increase in MSP has led to other major problems. As Sharma writes: “It distorts the choices that farmers make—those who should be finding ways to grow vegetables, which grow more expensive every year, are instead growing wheat we no longer need.”
It has also led to a situation where a state like Punjab which is essentially a semi-desert is growing a large amount of rice through the extensive use of underground water. This has led to water table falling rapidly over the years.
Given these reasons, Rahul Gandhi needs to get his economics right. The country has suffered enough over the decades for the
garibi hatao politics of the Congress party. Sadly, Rahul and Congress continue to practice the garibi hatao politics of doles. What we need now are jobs and more jobs. And those jobs can only be created through the rapid expansion of the manufacturing sector.
This bit of wisdom is nothing new. It was known nearly 300 years back as well. As Chang writes: “[Robert] Walpole [the first British prime minister] knew this nearly 300 years ago, when he asked George I[the British King at that point of time] to say in the British Parliament: ‘nothing so much contributes to promote the public well being as the exportation of manufactured goods and the importation of foreign raw material.’”
Being in the opposition, Rahul obviously needs to criticize the government. The ‘Make in India’ programme in its current form is a little more than a marketing slogan. If this slogan needs to be turned into a reality, there is a lot more that needs to be done—from improving the ease of doing business to labour sector reforms. Nothing much seems to be happening on these fronts.
Why can’t Rahul criticize this for a change? It might just turn out to be a real reinvention than the forced “angry young man” image that he seems to have adopted in the recent past.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on Apr 29, 2015