Why Farmers Still Don’t Trust the Government

Chintan Patel and Vivek Kaul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of the Indian Farmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Farm Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is the net learning from all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is One Chinese Story that Narendra Modi Needs to Listen to

Deng_Xiaoping
The Chinese economic growth story started in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping taking charge of the Chinese Communist Party. Interestingly, Xiaoping did not hold any official post. Nevertheless, he was looked upon as the Supreme Leader of China between 1978 and 1992.

Most accounts of China’s astonishing double digit growth for close to three decades give credit to Xiaoping for initiating Chinese economic growth and pulling out millions of people out of poverty in a very short period of time.

History when it gets written is built around the idea of Great Men doing great things. But things are never as simple as that.

As Matt Ridley writes in The Evolution of Everything: “If you examine closely what happened in China in 1978, it was a more evolutionary story than is usually assumed. It all began in the countryside with the ‘privatisation’ of collective farms to allow individual ownership of land and of harvests. But this change was not ordered from above by a reforming government.”

In the village of Xiaogang, 18 farmers came together. They despaired the dismal production of their farms under the collective system. And they did not like the fact that they had to beg for food from other villages. Given this, one evening they gathered together to figure out what they could do. This was at a time when even holding a meeting was considered a serious crime.

As Ridley writes: “The first, brave man to speak was Yen Jinchang, who suggested that each family should own what it grew, and that they should divide the collective’s land among the families. On a precious scrap of paper he wrote down a contract that they all signed…The families went to work on the land, starting before the official’s whistle blew each morning and ending long after the day’s work was supposed to finish.”

And this soon stared to show results. “Incentivised by the knowledge that they could profit from their work, in the first year they grew more food than the land had produced in previous five years combined,” writes Ridley.

Of course, the local communist party bosses soon came to know. The regional communist party chief intervened to save Yen and at the same time recommended that the same experiment should be copied elsewhere as well. “This was the proposal that eventually reached Deng Xiaoping’s desk. He chose not to stand in the way, that was all. But it was not until 1982 that the party officially recognised that family farms could be allowed – by which time they were everywhere,” writes Ridley.

The economic incentives of private ownership rapidly transformed farming in China and industry soon followed. While the Communist Party still continues to rule the country, the economic success of China wasn’t built on socialism. And there is a thing or two that Indian politicians can learn from this, given their obsession with socialism.

Private firms are normally better at running businesses than the government. This is something that politicians including prime minister Narendra Modi need to understand. As TN Ninan writes in The Turn of the Tortoise—The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future: “The last quarter century’s experience has shown that when the private sector is asked to provide telecom services, run airlines and airports, build and run ports, undertake banking, distribute electricity and even undertake water supply, the result is usually (though not always, for there is no shortage of private banks and airlines that have failed) a substantial improvement on what, the government was doing until then.”

This is basically means two things. One is that the government should be getting out of all the businesses that it has been trying to run for all these years. This is a point that I have often made in the past. There is no point in the government running more than 25 banks. There is no point in the government running a phone company or an airline for that matter.  It does not serve any purpose.

As Ninan writes: It is a matter of regret that Narendra Modi, who got elected on the promise of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, has shown no taste for radical change or minimizing government…The government system continues to run loss-making airlines and hotels, three-wheeler units and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam.”

Also, in its effort to do everything, the government doesn’t pay adequate attention to many important areas. As Ninan writes: “There is too little of government attention paid to core areas like law and order, education and health—too few judges, too few teachers who teach, too few hospital beds; also too few trade negotiators and too few policemen, especially those with proper training. It should be obvious that there are many things that the state does inadequately or badly, and many tasks that the state has needlessly taken on itself.”

The second point here is that the government should be encouraging entrepreneurship in all possible ways. One point against entrepreneurship are India’s multiple labour laws. But they may not be as much of a problem as they are made out to be.

It is often argued that Indian entrepreneurs do not expand beyond a certain point because it is very difficult to fire workers once they have been taken on. The Chapter VB of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, makes it very difficult for companies with 100 employees or more, to fire an employee without the permission from the government. This, it is argued, prevents entrepreneurs from expanding.

Economist Pranab Bardhan makes an interesting point in Globalisation, Democracy and Corruption: “It is not clear that the rigid law on retrenchment is always the binding constraint on manufacturing expansion. Take the highly labour-intensive garments industry, for example. A combined dataset [of both the formal and informal sectors] shows that about 92 per cent of garment firms in India have fewer than eight employees…Labour law cannot discourage an eight-employee firm from expanding to an 80-employee firm since Chapter VB of the Industrial Disputes Act does not kick in until the firm reaches the size of 100 employees.”

So what is stopping these firms from expanding? “The binding constrains on the expansion of that eight-employee firm may have to do with inadequate credit and marketing opportunity, erratic power supply, wretched roads, bureaucratic regulations etc. There are good statistical studies by some economists which show that states with more rigid labour laws have had lower industrial growth and that labour laws can be a constraint. But these studies do not show that they are the only or even the main constraint,” writes Bardhan.

What this tells us very clearly is that the Modi government should work towards removing these binding constraints. This will allow entrepreneurship to flourish. That will lead to more jobs, better pays, higher spending and in the process, higher economic growth.
The column originally appeared on Vivek Kaul’s Diary on January 11, 2016

Mr Modi, govts can’t do everything

narendra_modi
Various Indian governments over the years have tried to run many businesses but have been unsuccessful at doing the same. In fact, the trend continues even now, despite the fact that one of the key promises made by Narendra Modi in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections last year was “minimum government maximum governance”. But this promise like a few others now seems to have taken a backseat, around eighteen months after Modi was sworn in as the prime minister of the country.

Like the previous governments, the Modi government also wants to do many things. But is that possible? As veteran journalist TN Ninan writes in The Turn of the Tortoise—The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future: “Governments have tried to do great many things, from running watch and scooter factories to making shoes—all unsuccessfully. They continue to try and run airlines, telecom companies, hotels and banks—all of which have found it difficult to compete with private competitors, losing ground to the latter when they come on the scene.”

There is a fundamental problem in the government trying to run businesses. The economist Friedrich Hayek called it the knowledge problem. He explained it in a seminal article called The Use of Knowledge in Society which was published in the September 1945 issue of the American Economic Review.
In this article Hayek wrote: “The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”

Hayek further wrote: “The economic problem of society…is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.”

What does this mean in simple English in the context of governments usually being bad at business? The knowledge required to run a business successfully is dispersed among many individuals and not concentrated with a central authority like a government. As Matt Ridely writes in The Evolution of Everything: “The knowledge required to organise human society is bafflingly voluminous. It cannot be held in a single human head”.

This is a basic point that governments tend to forget when they decide to be present in all kinds of businesses, like is the case in India. And whenever this happens, businesses lose money and need to be subsidised by the government.

Take the case of Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd which offers internet and telephone services in Mumbai and Delhi. For the financial year ending March 31, 2015, the company’s income was at Rs 3,400 crore. Its expenditure on the other hand stood at a much higher Rs 5,284 crore.

Or take the case of the government owned airline Air India. The company has accumulated losses of Rs 20,000 crore. Every year, we hear that the airline is planning to turn profitable over the next few years and gets more money from the government in the process.

More than the money losses, these companies are distractions for the government. They get more government attention than they deserve and in the process other more important things tend to get ignored.

As Ninan writes: “There is too little of government attention paid to core areas like law and order, education and health—too few judges, too few teachers who teach, too few hospital beds; also too few trade negotiators and too few policemen, especially those with proper training. It should be obvious that there are many things that the state does inadequately or badly, and many tasks that the state has needlessly taken on itself.”

The tragedy is that no Indian politician seems to believe in focussing on the few important things and leaving out the rest. And this includes Narendra Modi as well. His promise of “minimum government and maximum governance,” like a few other things that he had promised, is turning out to be an electoral jumla at the very best.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on Nov 18, 2015

The success of Make in India will lead to more jobs in services and not manufacturing

make in india
This column is essentially an extension of the column Devanshu Sampat wrote for The 5 Minute Wrapup on November 13, 2015. In this column Sampat talks about the challenge automation will create for the Make in India programme.

As he writes: “The costs of robots fall every year. At the same time, their complexity is on the rise. It won’t be long before cheap robots will be catering to the needs of a wide range of manufacturing firms.”

This Sampat believes “will prove to be major challenge to the government.” “Will ‘Make in India’ be successful if a large number of people remain unemployed despite a manufacturing revolution?” he asks.

As I have said in several previous columns, nearly 13 million Indians are expected to join the workforce every year. This trend will continue up to 2030. Given this, the government needs to create an environment in which jobs are created, in order to accommodate this workforce at a fast speed.

With automation and robots taking over manufacturing the number of new jobs being created will come down. And this will mean trouble for the Make in India programme given that ultimately it’s a job creation programme.

So what is the way out? The socialist mind-set of India’s politicians will look at it in a way where they may want to make it mandatory for businesses to hire and employ a certain number of people depending on the size of a firm.

To be honest I haven’t heard of such suggestions being made up until now but I won’t be surprised if such suggestions are made in the years to come, if the Make in India programme starts to fail due to automation and various other reasons.

Also, it is worth remembering here that any businessmen will automate if he can. A businessman is a capitalist and he works for ‘more’ profit and if there is an opportunity to make more profit he will try to cash in on it. And stopping that behaviour isn’t the best possible way to operate.

Further, given India’s surfeit of labour laws which make the business environment even more challenging, automation may be the best way out for any businessman.

Having said this, the question that arises here is that why should we expect the manufacturing industry to solve India’s employment problem? This is a fair question to ask. A straightforward answer for this lies in the fact that every country that has gone from being a developing country to becoming a developed one, has gone through a manufacturing revolution. India is possibly an exception to this, given that we have had a services revolution before a manufacturing one.

Nevertheless, even with automation we should not be so worried. TN Ninan in his book The Turn of the Tortoise—The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future offers a very interesting perspective on the basis of his interactions with some leading industrialists.

Take the case of RC Bhargava, the chairman of Maruti Suzuki, India’s leading car maker. As Ninan writes: “The chairman of Maruti Suzuki says, in response to a question on the greater automation that exists in newer car plants, that car factories should not be expected to solve India’s employment problem.”

So what about job growth? “If job growth is to come, according to Bhargava, it will have to be in associated areas—manning petrol pumps or maintaining and repairing vehicles, which are service sector jobs and don’t compare with high paying factory jobs.”

Bhargava also points out that every third car bought in India is not driven by the owner but a hired driver. Data from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) points out that 2.6 million cars were sold in India in 2014-2015. If every third car is being driven by a driver as Bhargava talks about, then that means 8.5 lakh new jobs for drivers were created just in 2014-2015. And that is a substantial number.

The broader point is that even though manufacturing jobs may not grow, the setting up of new factories will lead to an increase in jobs in services. As Ninan writes: “The ratio of non-factory to factory jobs in the car industry is said to be 7:1. The head of another car company puts the figure at 16:1. Other manufacturers of engineering goods endorse the view that shop-floor employment in the engineering goods sector is unlikely to grow rapidly because of steadily increasing automation as well as gains in productivity.”

Ninan also recounts an interaction with Jamshyd Godrej, chairman and managing director of Godrej & Boyce, the diversified engineering company. Godrej “recalls a time early on when the majority of his company’s employees worked in the factory.” Now, the number of employees working outside the factory are four to five time the number of employees working in the factory.

The moral of the story, as Ninan puts it is “Success in quite a lot of manufacturing sectors, therefore, leads to employment growth in services, not manufacturing. Not that it should matter, since incomes will be better in both than in agriculture.”

In this scenario, it is important that the government realises that the success of Make in India, should not depend on the number of manufacturing jobs it ends up creating. Even if it does not create manufacturing jobs, it will create jobs in services.

Hence, the government should keep working towards a better ease of doing business environment. The labour laws need to be simplified. The physical infrastructure needs to improve. The roads, railways and ports need to improve. The contracts need to be honoured. A bankruptcy law needs to be in place. The courts need to function well.

The simple things need to be done well.

(The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on November 17, 2015)

IDBI Bank’s privatisation will be a test case for Modi govt

IDBI-Bank-Careers-Mumbai-3

Several news items in the last few days seem to suggest that the Narendra Modi government has plans of privatising IDBI Bank. A newsreport in The Economic Times talks about a “high-level committee headed by the cabinet secretary that will oversee strategic divestments”. The report also said that the “the first proposal likely to be examined by the panel will be the sale of the government’s stake in IDBI Bank to convert it to a private bank.”

The minister of state for finance Jayant Sinha had hinted at something similar last week when he told the media that “we’ll consider transforming IDBI Bank in a manner similar to the way Axis Bank was done.”

IDBI Bank is among the bigger public sector banks. It is the fifth biggest public sector bank in terms of market capitalisation. It is the seventh biggest in terms of total assets. But it’s the tenth biggest in terms of net profit.

The gross non-performing assets (bad loans) of the bank have been going up over the years. As of March 31, 2009, they stood at 1.38%. By March 31, 2015, they had jumped to 5.9% of total assets. Over and above this, the bank also had restructured assets (where the tenure of the loan or the interest on the loan has been changed in favour of the borrower) worth Rs 20,900 crore as on March 31, 2015.   The number had stood at Rs 3,100 crore as on March 31, 2009.

The restructured assets as well as bad loans of the bank have grown at a fairly rapid rate. This clearly tells us is that the restructured assets are turning into bad loans in the time to come. The bank, like many others, has used the restructured assets route to kick the ‘bad loans can’ down the road.

The accumulation of bad loans has essentially led to a situation where the net profit of the bank has gone nowhere over the last six years. The net profit for the financial year ending March 31, 2009, was at Rs 859 crore. Six years later, the net profit for the financial year ending March 31, 2015, stood at a similar Rs 873 crore.

Flat profits due to an increase in bad loans essentially explains why the bank is seventh largest public sector bank when it comes to total assets but tenth largest when it comes to profit. In fact, flat profits have essentially led to a situation where the return on assets as well as return on equity of the bank have fallen dramatically over the years. The return on assets has halved from 0.6% as of March 2009 to 0.3% as of March 2015. The return on equity has totally collapsed from 12.1% to 3.9% during the same period.

Currently, the government owns 76.5% in IDBI Bank and any serious plan of privatisation would mean the government bringing down its stake in the bank majorly in the time to come. In fact, the government holding in the bank has gone up “from 65.14% in July 2010 to 76.5% in December 2013 by total equity infusion amounting to Rs 5,300 crore”.

There are several reasons why the government should privatise IDBI Bank. First and foremost as I have said in the past, there is no reason that a government should be running 27 public sector banks. There are other more important areas that need its attention.

Second, the return on equity on the government’s investment in the bank has fallen dramatically over the years. At 3.9%, it is lower than even the 4% interest that banks pay on their savings bank account. Hence, the government is not being adequately compensated for the investment risk.

How will privatisation help? As TN Ninan writes in The Turn of the Tortoise—The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future: “The last quarter century’s experience has shown that when the private sector is asked to provide telecom services, run airlines and airports, build and run ports, undertake banking, distribute electricity and even undertake water supply, the result is usually (though not always, for there is no shortage of private banks and airlines that have failed) a substantial improvement on what, the government was doing until then.”

This becomes clear from the fact that in the last financial year (April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015) the private sector banks operating in India made a total profit of Rs 38,219.35 crore. In comparison, the public sector banks made a profit of Rs 37,820 crore.

This despite the fact that the total assets of private sector banks form only around 29.2% of the total assets of public sector banks. Assets owned by private sector banks in India form only 22.6% of the total assets owned by banks in India. Despite this, they are more profitable than public sector banks.

Interestingly, the total profit of public sector banks for the financial year ending March 31, 2013(April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013), had stood at Rs 50,583 crore. Since then it has fallen by 25.2% to Rs 37,820 crore. The profit of private sector banks has jumped by 31.8% (from Rs 28,995.43 crore) to Rs 38,219.35 crore.

Between 2013 and 2015 as the economic scenario has gotten worse, the public sector banks have faltered big time. Meanwhile, the private banks have continued to increase their profits.

IDBI Bank as on March 31, 2015, had Rs 3,56,031 crore worth of total assets. As pointed out earlier it made a net profit of Rs 873 crore during the course of the financial year. Now compare this to Kotak Mahindra Bank which had total assets worth Rs 1,06,012 crore as on March 31, 2015. It made a net profit of Rs 1,866 crore, which was much more than that of IDBI Bank. Similar numbers can be put forward for other private sector banks like IndusInd Bank and Yes Bank as well, in comparison to those of IDBI Bank. These banks are significantly smaller than IDBI Bank but make much more money. [Data sourced from Indian Banks’ Association]

The government’s 76.5% stake in IDBI Bank is currently worth Rs 10,380.6 crore. If it privatises the bank, chances are whatever equity that it chooses to retain in the bank will end up being worth much more than it currently is, in the days to come.

The question is will the government get around to privatising IDBI Bank? The employees of IDBI Bank have called strike on November 27, later this month, to oppose the government’s move to privatise the bank. This shouldn’t stop the government from privatising the bank. The good part is that unlike a systematically important institution like Coal India, the employees of IDBI Bank have a limited nuisance value. Hence, a strike by IDBI Bank is not going to hurt many others. And this should help push through the decision.

Further, the government shouldn’t stop at IDBI Bank. This will be a test case for it on whether it will be able to continue privatising other public sector enterprises in the years to come.

There are many public sector enterprises which the government has no reason to own.

Like Mahangar Telephone Nigam Ltd.

Like Air India.

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