Mr Jaitley, Depositors Don’t Have a Union, It’s Easy to Take them for a Ride

Fostering Public Leadership - World Economic Forum - India Economic Summit 2010


The finance minister, Arun Jaitley is at it again, demanding lower interest rates. As he said, late last week: “Now, whether domestic savings are only to be used by such instruments which give you a higher return and create an interest regime which is extremely costly and makes the economy sluggish, or higher returns are to be got from such instruments as funds, bonds, shares.”

Jaitley further said: A lot of them have also an element of secured investment in them which can give people a very respectable return itself.”

Normally, Jaitley’s statements on interest rates  in the past have been as straightforward as, I demand lower interest rates. But this time around, he has made a long and a convoluted statement, which basically means the same.

So what Jaitley is saying here is that people save money with banks. The interest rates on bank fixed deposits are high. Given that interest rates on bank fixed deposits are high, the interest rates on bank loans are high. Since interest rates on bank loans are high, people and companies are not borrowing, and this makes the overall economy sluggish.

Hence, people should be investing their money in mutual funds, bonds and shares that finance projects and economic activity.

This is what happens when people make statements without looking at numbers. In fact, growth in retail lending carried out by banks in 2015-2016, has been the highest since 2009-2010. So clearly retail lending is growing at a very robust pace. The so called high interest rates on bank lending, clearly hasn’t had much of an impact on this front.

DatesRetail lending growth
March 20, 2015 to March 18, 201619.40%
March 21, 2014 to March 20, 201515.50%
March 22, 2013 to March 21, 201415.50%
March 23, 2012 to March 22, 201314.70%
March 25, 2011 to March 23, 201212.90%
March 26, 2010 to March 25,201117.00%
March 27, 2009 to March 26, 20104.10%
Source: Sectoral Deployment of Credit Data, RBI


The problem has been in bank lending to industry. The lending growth to industry in 2015-2016 slowed down to around 2.7 per cent. In comparison, it grew by more than 23 per cent, during the go go years between 2009 and 2011. But a lot of that lending was to crony capitalists.

Banks have not been lending to industry, because of all the bad loans that they have accumulated on the lending to industry, in the past. Also, many corporates continue to be heavily leveraged, even though things did improve a little in 2015-2016.

As the RBI Financial Stability Report released in late June points out: “An analysis of the current trends in debt servicing capacity and leverage of ‘weak’ companies [defined as those having interest coverage ratio (ICR)<1]was undertaken…[It] indicated some improvement in 2015-16. The analysis shows that 15.0 per cent of companies were ‘weak’ in the select sample as at end March 2016, compared to 17.8 per cent in March 2015. The share of debt of these ‘weak’ companies also fell to 27.8 per cent of total debt in the second half of 2015-16 from 29.2 per cent in the second half of 2014-15. However, the debt to equity ratio of these ‘weak’ companies increased to 2.0 from 1.8.”

Interest coverage ratio is the ratio of the earnings before interest and taxes of a company during a period divided by the interest that it needs to pay on its accumulated debt during the same period. This basically reflects the ability of the company to finance its debt. An interest coverage ratio of less than one basically means that the company is not making enough money to be able to repay the interest on its accumulated debt.

The RBI categorises these companies as weak companies. The proportion of these companies fell to 15 per cent as on March 31, 2016, in comparison to 17.8 per cent earlier. Nevertheless, these companies still had around 27.8 per cent of the total bank debt. Further, their debt to equity ratio deteriorated to 2 from 1.8.

Given that many companies continue to be highly leveraged along with the fact that they are not making enough money to be able to service their accumulated debt, it is but natural that banks do not want to lend to these companies.

The purpose of any bank is not to get the economy going by lending. It is to lend money to customers who are likely to return it. At the same time, they need to charge an adequate rate of interest, which basically takes the credit risk (or the chances of a default) of customers into account.

Also, Jaitley’s statement seems to suggest that corporates are just waiting to borrow money and expand. And the high interest rates of banks are stopping them from doing so. The data clearly suggests otherwise.

As per the Order Books, Inventories and Capacity Utilisation Survey (OBICUS) survey carried out by the RBI, for the period October to December 2015, the capacity utilisation of 1,058 manufacturing companies which responded to the survey, stood at 72.5 per cent. This was slightly better than the period July to September 2015, when it had stood at 71.4 per cent.

But on the whole capacity utilisation continues to be low. More than one fourth of manufacturing capacity is still not being used. In fact, the situation is even worse than this in some sectors. As Manasi Swamy of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy points out in a research note titled Why should manufacturers invest more?: “Large manufacturing industries like cement, steel, sponge iron and aluminium worked at an estimated capacity utilisation of 65 per cent or lower in 2015-16. Automobile companies too have enough capacity to meet any increase in demand. The passenger cars industry is running at 63 per cent capacity utilisation level, two-wheelers at 76 per cent, commercial vehicles at as low as 37 per cent and tractors at 63 per cent. Capacity utilisation levels in industries like paper and textiles are also quite low.”

Over and above this, the return on capital employed for the manufacturing sector has fallen from 11.7 per cent in 2006-2007 to 3.8 per cent in 2014-2015, Swamy points out. In this scenario it is safe to say that industry is also not interested in borrowing more to expand. They may welcome lower interest rates because that will help them service their existing debt in a better way. But that is another issue altogether.

Also, Jaitley seems to suggest that investing in stocks and mutual funds leads to entrepreneurs being able to raise capital. This doesn’t hold true anymore. Public issues these days are basically about investors trying to sell out their stakes in companies. It is rarely about entrepreneurs funding expansion by selling shares. These investors can be venture capitalists, private equity firms or even the government.

Further, banks raise deposits to give out loans. And these loans are also helpful for the economy. If retail lending is growing at close to 20 per cent, it is benefiting vehicle companies, consumer durable companies, as well as real estate companies. What about that? How is that not helping the economy?

Also, the basic question that Jaitley needs to answer is that if the Indian economy grew by 7.6 per cent in 2015-2016, how is the economic growth sluggish? The finance minister cannot have it both ways. When he wants to project the government in good light he says, India is the fastest growing major economy in the world. When he wants lower interest rates and show the RBI in a bad light, he says the economic growth is sluggish.

Another point I wanted to make is that the government can play a huge role in bringing down interest rates further. Currently, the difference between fixed deposit interest rates and the interest rate offered on post office small savings schemes is anywhere from 40 to 160 basis points. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. Banks compete with post office schemes when it comes to taking on deposits and cannot keep cutting interest rates on deposits beyond a point.

Further, I think Mr Jaitley must clearly not have forgotten all the ruckus that was created when the government tried to cut the interest rate on the Employees Provident Fund(EPF) by 5 basis points to 8.7 per cent. This would have meant that contributors to the EPF would have got a lower interest of Rs 50 less per lakh, during the course of the year. To break it down further, it would have meant a lower interest of Rs 4.5 per month per lakh, for those who contribute to the EPF. The government couldn’t even push this through.

The current interest rate on EPF is 8.8 per cent. This is close 100-180 basis points higher than the interest rate on fixed deposits, without taking into account that interest rate on fixed deposits is taxed, whereas interest on EPF is tax free. Why should there be such a huge difference in interest rates? How about some fairness on this front Mr Jaitley?

Of course, those who contribute to EPF are an organised lot and can create a lot of hungama if the government decides to cut the interest rate. The same cannot be said for a normal depositor who is placing his money in the bank in the hope that it grows in the years to come. The depositors do not have a union and hence, it’s easy to take them for a ride.

The column was originally published on the Vivek Kaul Diary on July 13, 2016


EPF issue: Why protests against rate cut show cussedness of trade unions


The interest on the Employees’ Provident Fund(EPF) for the year 2015-2016 has been set at 8.7%.

The Central Board of Trustees(CBT) of the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation(EPFO) had proposed an interest of 8.8%, when they had met in February earlier this year. The ministry of finance finally decided on an interest rate which is 10 basis points lower at 8.7%, than what the Trustees of EPFO had proposed. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.

This hasn’t gone down well with the trade unions and they have decided to protest. Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union closest to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, given its affiliation to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS), has decided to hold protests across the country.

As its general secretary Virjesh Upadhyay told PTI: “BMS strongly condemns the cut in EPF interest rates and will hold demonstrations at EPF offices on April 27,” Sangh general secretary said, adding, the Fund is managed by the Central Board of Trustees (CBT), an independent and autonomous body.”

Other trade unions have also come out strongly against the move. But the entire thing is quite bizarre. The question is what are they protesting about? It seems the ministry of finance’s decision of cutting down the interest rate offered by 10 basis points to 8.7%, from the 8.8% proposed by the CBT of EPFO, hasn’t gone down well with the unions.

As AK Padmanabhan, board member of the CBT of EPFO and the president of Centre for Trade Union Congress told The Indian Express: “It’s unusual that after the CBT recommendation, the finance ministry has decided to cut interest rate.”

Maybe, the move is unusual, but are the trade unions also totally jobless? Allow me to explain. How much difference does the 10 basis point cut actually make? On a corpus of Rs 1 lakh, it makes a difference of Rs 100.

Also, the interest rate paid on EPF in 2014-2015 and 2013-2014 was 8.75%. In comparison to that, the interest for 2015-2016 will be lower by Rs 50 per lakh.

Is it worth protesting on something like this? What are the trade unions actually trying to achieve by doing this? Or since they are trade unions, they need to protest against everything?

Also, don’t the trade unions know that 8.7% interest being paid on EPFO, is the highest interest rate being offered by the government across all its schemes? It is sixty basis points more than the 8.1% per year interest currently being offered on the Public Provident Fund and the National Savings Certificate(NSC).

It is ten basis points more than the 8.6% on offer on the Senior Citizens’ Savings Scheme and Sukanya Samriddhi Account Scheme. Even the senior citizens who typically get paid more otherwise, are being paid lower than the interest being paid on EPF. So what are the trade unions protesting about?

The government is trying to move the country towards a lower interest rate regime. Fixed deposit rates are down by more than 100 basis points in the last one year. In comparison, the EPF interest rate has been slashed by just 5 basis points. Further, interest earned on fixed deposits is taxable. Interest earned on EPF is not.

If all these reasons are taken into account, the planned protests of the trade unions essentially look very hollow.

Also, what is the government trying to achieve by cutting the EPF interest rate by 10 basis points? In an ideal world, the government would have wanted to cut the EPF interest rate much more, to bring it in line with the other prevailing interest rates. But given all the hungama that has recently happened whenever the government has tried to bring any change to the EPF, it basically wasn’t in the mood to take on any more risk.

Having said that a 10 basis point cut in the EPF interest rate essentially achieves nothing.

Further, it needs to be asked, why a provident fund as big as EPF is, is not professionally managed? As on March 31, 2015, the EPFO managed funds worth Rs 6.34 lakh crore in total. Provisional estimates suggest that in 2015-2016, the EPFO saw Rs 1.02 lakh crore being invested in the three schemes that it runs. Of this around Rs 71,400 crore was invested in the EPF. This means as on March 31, 2016, the EPFO managed funds worth Rs 7.36 lakh crore in total.

This is a huge amount of money. The question is why is this money not being professionally managed. The CBT of EPFO essentially comprises of the labour minister, a few IAS officers, a few businessmen and a bunch of trade union representatives. Which one of these categories of people has some the expertise to manage investments?

Further, why does a committee need to meet to decide on an interest rate for EPF? Why can’t it simply be declared on the basis of returns on the investments made? Why can’t returns on EPF investments be declared on a regular basis? Why is there so much opaqueness in the entire process?

The only possible explanation is that if things do become transparent, then the trade unions controlling the CBT of EPFO, will essentially become useless. When it comes to transparency, it’s the same story everywhere.

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

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on April 26, 2016

Coal India unions are blackmailing the nation. Modi govt must call their bluff


Starting yesterday (i.e. January 6, 2015) five trade unions representing the workers of Coal India have gone on a five day strike. The strike is backed the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, which is the labour union affiliated to the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Sangh parivaar.
The unions are essentially demanding that the government should not disinvest its shares in Coal India and at the same time they don’t want any private participation in the coal sector in the country. In December 2014, the government had re-promulgated the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance. This ordinance allows the auctioning of coal blocks. The ordinance also has an enabling provision for commercial mining of coal by private companies.
This is something that has not gone down well with the unions. “A consensus has emerged among the unions after the government showed arrogance over re-issuing the ordinance without consultations with the trade unions,” Jibon Roy of Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU), told the Financial Express. The Indian National Trade Union Congress, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) are the other three trade unions backing the strike.
Reports in the media suggest that the strike has been effective and the production of coal has come down dramatically. A news-report filed by the Press Trust of India suggests that “out of the total production of 1.5 million tonnes a day, nearly 75 per cent has been hit.” Another report by Bloomberg puts the figure at a much lower 50%.
Coal India produces 80% of the nation’s coal. A major portion of this coal is supplied to thermal power plants. As the Bloomberg news-report points out: “Of the 100 power plants that run on local coal, 42 had supplies of less than seven days as of 1 January, according to the power ministry’s Central Electricity Authority. Twenty of these plants had less than four days of stock.”
What this means is that if the strike continues for five days the inventory levels of the power plants will fall further and that may lead to a power crisis. The unions understand this and are using this as a negotiating tool with the government. A Press Trust of India report points out that Yasar Shah, the minister state for Power in Uttar Pradesh, said the state may face electricity crisis if the strike by coal workers extended longer.
The question to ask here is are the points on which the unions have gone on a strike valid enough? Or are they simply resorting to blackmail?
The government needs to auction coal blocks/mines because the Supreme Court in September 2014 had cancelled the allocation of 204 out of the 218 blocks that various governments since 1993 had allocated to private companies for captive consumption.
The idea, as the Economic Survey of 1994-1995 pointed out, was to “encourage private sector investment in the coal sector, the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, was amended with effect from June 9, 1993, for operation of captive coal mines by companies engaged in the production of iron and steel, power generation and washing of coal in the private sector.” This allowed private companies engaged in the production of iron and steel, power and cement to own coal blocks for their captive use.
The Supreme Court cancelled these allocations and in its decisions said that the “the entire exercise of allocation…appears to suffer from the vice of arbitrariness and not following any objective criteria in determining as to who is to be selected or who is not to be selected.”
Given this, the government now needs to auction these coal blocks. So, its just following a decision made by the Supreme Court. The trade unions by opposing this are essentially going against a decision made by the Supreme Court.
The trade unions are also protesting against the decision of the government to allow private companies to commercially mine coal. Why has the government made this decision? For the simple reason that Coal India is not producing enough coal to meet the demand.
As per estimates made by the Geological Survey of India, India has third largest coal reserves in the world of 301.56 billion tonnes. Nevertheless, we still need to import coal. Why is that the case?
Coal India produced 323.58 million tonnes of coal in 2004-2005. In 2013-2014, it produced 462.42 million tonnes of coal. The rate of production has increased at an average annual rate of 4.05%. During the same period, the total amount of coal imports has increased from 28.95 million tonnes to 171 million tonnes, at an average annual rate of 21.8%.
So what India needs is more coal. Coal India hasn’t been able to increase its rate of production at a rate which matches the rate of increase in demand for coal. Given this, it is common sense that more companies need to be allowed to produce coal, whether they are run by the government or they are privately run, doesn’t really matter.
Further, should the government be thinking about the more than 120 crore Indians as a whole or about around 3 lakh employees of Coal India who do not want private participation in the coal sector? The decision is a no-brainer. India needs more coal whether the unions representing the workers of Coal India like it or not.
It also needs to be pointed out that when it comes to paying its workers, Coal India is doing a good job. During the year 2010-2011, the total employee benefit expenses (salary, wages, allowances, bonus, leave travel encashment, contribution to PF, gratuity etc.) of Coal India amounted to Rs 19,851.78 crore. The company had an average manpower of 3,90,243 individuals during the course of the year. This means that the average amount of money that Coal India paid a single employee in 2010-2011 was at Rs 5,08,703.
In 2013-2014, the total employee benefit expenses amounted to Rs 27,769.43 crore. The average manpower during the course of the year had fallen to 3,52,282. This means that the average amount of money that Coal India paid a single employee in 2013-2014 mounted to Rs 7,88,273. This means that an average Coal India employee has seen a jump in payment of 55% over a period of four years, which is not bad by any stretch of imagination. Workmen make up nearly 85% of the employees of Coal India.
What these points clearly tell us is that the trade unions of Coal India are essentially blackmailing the nation and nothing more. The government needs to call their bluff even if it leads to some pain in the short term.

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

The column originally appeared on
on Jan 7, 2015

Cleaning up the mess: Why the unions of Coal India are becoming increasingly irrelevant


Vivek Kaul

It’s always about timing. If it’s too soon, no one understands. If it’s too late, everyone’s forgotten – Anna Wintour

For their threats to be credible it is important that the trade unions get their timing right. Gurudas Dasgupta, the general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, has clearly got the timing all wrong, in trying to derail the government’s initiatives for sorting up the mess in the coal sector.
The government has promulgated an ordinance which will give it the power to e-auction coal blocks. The Supreme Court in a decision given in September 2014 had cancelled the allocation of 204 out of the 218 blocks that various governments since 1993 had allocated to companies for captive consumption.
These blocks will now be auctioned. And this hasn’t gone down well with Dasgupta and other trade union leaders who have threatened to protest and possibly even go on a strike. Dasgupta said that the government decision on coal blocks is “a backdoor entry for taking over the entire coal sector by the private corporates”.
Jibon Roy, the general secretary of the All India Coal Workers Federation (AICWF) said that “to protest against the enabling provision and proposed e-auction, the workers would stage nationwide dharna on November 5 to 7.”
The decision to allot coal blocks to private players for captive consumption was made in 1993. The idea, as the Economic Survey of 1994-1995 pointed out, was to “encourage private sector investment in the coal sector, the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973, was amended with effect from June 9, 1993, for operation of captive coal mines by companies engaged in the production of iron and steel, power generation and washing of coal in the private sector.”
This allowed private companies engaged in the production of iron and steel, power and cement to own coal blocks for their captive use. Hence, if a coal block had been allocated to a power plant, the coal produced needed to be passed on to the power plant.
In 1993, the government allocated only one coal block. Until 2002, the government had allocated only 19 coal blocks in total. The allocation of coal blocks picked up since 2003. During that year 20 coal blocks were allocated. A considerable number of these blocks were allocated to private companies for captive consumption.
The question is why are the trade unions protesting now? The allocation of coal blocks to private companies had been on for a while. The government has decided to go in for an e-auction of the coal blocks after the Supreme Court cancelled most of the allocations that had been made. Hence, only the method of allocation has changed and not its purpose. So why are the trade unions protesting now?
Further, the process of auctioning is transparent, unlike the earlier “screening committee” method of allotment which was fairly opaque as well as arbitrary, leading to crony capitalists gaining in the process. Also, the government has decided to hand over the money raised from the auction to the state government where the coal block is based. Why have the unions got a problem with all this?
The government has also said that sometime in the future it will allow private companies to commercially mine coal. Currently only the government owned Coal India is allowed to do that. The trade unions are bound to have a problem with this. As Dasgupta put it “We strongly protest and call upon the government to reverse the decision as there is an enabling clause in the Ordinance which gives rise to concerns and apprehensions of sweeping privatisation of coal sector.”
This, Dasgupta said could lead to “serious industrial disturbances,” and added that allowing private companies to commercially mine coal would jeopardise “national interest” and weaken Coal India.
Let’s look at this statement of Dasgupta in detail. Coal India had an average manpower of 4,76,577 individuals in 2004-2005. Since then the number of employees has constantly come down. In 2013-2014, the average manpower stood at 3,52,282. The number has fallen further, and as on August 31, 2014, it stood at 3,39,769 individuals.
Hence, between 2004-2005 and 2013-2014, the total manpower of Coal India came down by 26% and the unions haven’t been able to do anything about that. During the same period, the total production of coal went up by 43% from 323.58 million tonnes to 462.42 million tonnes.
So, the coal production went up despite the number of employees coming down.
This has happened due to two reasons. Coal India was overstaffed and has not been filling up the posts of retiring employees. Further, over the years Coal India has been extracting more and more coal by outsourcing work to private contractors. Between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014, the contractual expenses of Coal India jumped by 47.9% to Rs 7,812.71 crore. These expenses came in third after salaries and and provident fund expenses of employees.
A major part of coal is now extracted through outsourcing to private contractors. The private contractors don’t have to pay their employees as much as Coal India does to its workers, and hence coal is extracted at cheaper rates than it would be if employees were to do the job.
Over and above this, what is interesting is that some of the subsidiaries of Coal India, which have the least number of employees, produce most of its coal. Take the case of Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd. As on August 31, 2014, it employed
22,206 individuals or 6.5% of the total number of people working for Coal India. During the course of 2013-2014 it produced 114.34 million tonnes of coal or nearly one fourth of the coal that was mined by Coal India.
Or take the case of Northern Coalfields Ltd. The company employed 16,515 individuals as on August 31, 2014 or around 4.86% of the total number of people working for Coal India. In 2013-2014, it produced 72.11 million tonnes of coal or around 15.6% of the total coal produced by Coal India.
This is primarily because these companies have taken to outsourcing. Also, the coal mines of Northern Coalfields are highly mechanised. Now let’s compare this to Eastern Coalfields Ltd, which employs 70,191 individuals or around 20.7% of the Coal India total. In 2013-2014, it produced just 36.25 million tonnes or 7.8% of the coal produced by Coal India. The same was the case with Bharat Coking Coal, which employed 17% of total Coal India employees but produced only 7.4% of coal that was produced.
One reason for this is that a lot of mines run by Eastern Coalfields and Bharat Coking Coal are underground mines, where the technology used to mine coal is still very labour intensive.
Also, the trade unions are stronger in this part of the country (Eastern Coalfields is head-quartered at Sanctoria in West Bengal and Bharat Coking Coal at Dhanbad in Jharkhand, but right on the Bengal border) and that is another reason why these companies employ so many people to produce a minuscule amount of coal in comparison to other subsidiaries of Coal India.
Dasgupta feared that recent moves of the government were “a backdoor entry for taking over the entire coal sector by the private corporates”. But as far as coal mining is concerned that has already happened. Dasgupta and others of his ilk should have started protesting many years back. This protest has come too little too late. It is interesting nonetheless to observe that the contractual expenses of Eastern Coalfields have risen by 117% since 2009-2010.
Coal India has privatized a major part of coal mining and is reaping in tremendous benefits because of the same. As on March 31, 2014, it had cash and bank balances amounting to Rs 52,389.93 crore.
The number would have been greater than Rs 70,000 crore had the company not been forced to give a dividend of close to Rs 20,000 crore to the government to help control the fiscal deficit. The fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
It needs to be pointed out that the country needs more coal right now than what is being produced. Despite having the fifth largest coal reserves in the world of 301.6 billion tonnes, India was the third largest importer of coal in 2013-2014 at 104.7 million tonnes. What this tells us is that Coal India, which produces most of the coal produced in the country, hasn’t been able to keep pace.
In fact as of last week 64 out of 103 power plants had a coal inventory of less than a week. Between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014, the rate of coal production of Coal India increased at a minuscule rate of 1.76% per year.
To conclude, it is important that India produces more coal. For this, the monopoly of Coal India needs to be broken and private players (including foreign players) need to be allowed to commercially mine coal.
As Dasgupta said allowing private players would “weaken” Coal India. That is precisely what needs to happen, for the country as a whole to produce more coal. The comparable example for this is what happened after private telecom players were allowed to offer services. Despite the scams and the controversies that have happened over the years, the tele-density increased big time. Why shouldn’t that happen in the coal sector as well? Maybe Dasgupta has an answer for that.

The article originally appeared on on Oct 22, 2014

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

Labour reforms: What Modi’s ‘Make in India’ call can learn from the Bolsheviks

narendra_modiVivek Kaul

I was just joking to a friend during the course of a discussion in early August that soon we will start talking about the Rajasthan model of development. And that seems to have happened sooner than I had estimated.
Business Standard in an editorial titled The Rajasthan Model today (August 19,2014) writes that Vasundra Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan “is single-handedly creating a “Rajasthan model” of development.” This model, the paper goes on to write, differs from other models like the “Bihar model” and the “Gujarat model” in putting “liberal economic reform at the centre of the development strategy”.
Labour reforms are a key part of what seems to be emerging as the “Rajasthan model”. It is well worth mentioning here that the size of the organised work force in India is only around 15.8% of the total workforce (Source:
What’s Holding Back India’s Labour Market Environment? Part 1, Morgan Stanley, August 12, 2014). And this work force which is highly unionised and tends to punch over its weight, has held back the growth of the Indian manufacturing sector.
Before we go any further let’s go back a little in history. Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia abdicated(i.e. relinquished) his throne in early 1917, after a massive revolt broke out. As Alan Beattie writes in
False Economy—A Surprising Economic History of the World “Undermined by Russia’s dismal military failure on the Eastern Front of the First World War, the Tsar abdicated in February 1917 after a massive rolling revolt grew in Petrograd [known as St Petersburg till 1914, changed to Leningrad in 1924 and back to St Petersburg in 1991]…Starting with industrial workers, the rebellion then progressed to thousands of mutinying soldiers. This was a popular uprising but not a communist uprising.”
In fact, the communists were caught napping around the time of the popular uprising. “The ‘Bolshevik’ political grouping led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, which would eight months later take control of the country and become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was taken by surprise. Many of its key members were not even in Russia at the time, giving rise to the faintly comic spectacle of a bunch of revolutionaries hurrying home to catch up with a revolution,” writes Beattie.
Over and above that the Bolsheviks did not have support of people across the length and breadth of Russia. The Socialist Revolutionaries had that support. Nevertheless the Bolsheviks still managed to seize power. What worked in favour of the Bolsheviks was their “increasing control over Petrograd’s ‘soviet’, or workers’ organization, through the months that followed.”
As Beattie writes “They [i.e. the Bolsheviks] watched their rivals punch themselves out and exhaust local popular support by trying to run a provisional government after the February revolution. Amid mounting discontent with the [First World] war, which was still continuing, the Bolsheviks’ October revolution was a special forces assassination of a tottering government, not a pitched battle against the commanding heights of a functioning state.”
In fact, more people were accidentally killed when director Sergei Eisenstein was making a movie on the October revolution than were killed “during the event itself”. The Bolsheviks managed to punch way above their weight because their support was concentrated around Petrograd where the seat of power was, in comparison, the support of the Socialist Revolutionaries was spread across Russia’s vast interior. And given this, as Beattie writes “The Bolsheviks found it amazingly easy simply to dismiss the Constituent Assembly which was supposed to take power and in which the Socialist Revolutionaries had a clear majority, and take control themselves.”
The Indian labour market is similarly placed. The organised labour tends to punch above its weight like the Bolsheviks, primarily because labour laws are rigged in its favour. It is also unionised and the unions ensure that any prospect of labour reform which is beneficial to the overall labour force and not to organised labour, is vociferously opposed.

If genuine labour reform has to happen, it is this ability of the organised labour force to punch above its weight, that needs to be controlled. Let’s take the case of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947. According to this Act any factory employing more than 100 workers needs the permission of the state government, if it decides to lay off a worker. The permission to lay off employees if the situation demands so is difficult to get.
This has led to a situation where firms continue to remain small even when they have an opportunity to grow. It also explains why a country like Bangaldesh manages to export more apparel than India.
Economist Arvind Panagariya in an open letter to Rahul Gandhi in November 2013 wrote that “India exported less apparel than much smaller Bangaldesh and less than one-tenth that by China.” Most Indian apparel firms start small and continue to remain small.
This leads to a situation where they cannot benefit from the economies of scale and hence, cannot compete in the export market. In their book 
India’s Tryst with Destiny, Jagdish Bhagwati and Panagariya point out that 92.4% of the workers in this sector work with small firms which have forty-nine or less workers. Now compare this to China where large and medium firms make up around 87.7% of the emplo
yment in the apparel sector.
Given this, the smallness of the Indian apparel sector, the economies of scale never come into play.
As Panagariya wrote in the Business Standard recently “It is astonishing that Indian laws view a factory of 100 workers as a large, corporate firm. In the United States, any firm with fewer than 250 workers is classified as “small”, while a firm with 250 to 500 workers is classified as “medium”. Even the World Bank, a development institution, defines a firm with 50 to 300 workers as being of medium size, and not large.” This ensures that a firm that starts small, continues to remain small. And this ultimately has an impact on job creation. As Chetan Ahya and Upasana Chachra of Morgan Stanley point out in a research note titled What’s Holding Back India’s Labour Market Environment? Part 1 “All of these ultimately lead to lower job growth. Indeed, the manufacturing sector accounts for only 12.9% of GDP in India (2013) vs. 31.8% in China (as of 2011), 23.7% in Indonesia, 20.5% in the Philippines, and 14.8% in Brazil.”
History tells us that the creation of a strong and robust manufacturing sector is very important for robust economic growth. But in India’s case the system as it stands is rigged in favour of the incumbent large firms and organised labour.
The Industrial Disputes Act also requires the firm to take consent from the workers before modifying an existing job description. “This creates additional rigidities in the use of labour in response to changing market conditions,” write Ahya and Chachra.
Another tricky point is the fact that only 10% of the workforce is required to start a trade union. As the Trade Unions (Amendment) Act, 2001 points out “No trade union of workmen shall be registered unless at least 10% or 100, whichever is less, subject to a minimum of 7 workmen engaged or employed in the establishment or industry.”
This leads to a situation where there is “scope for multiple trade unions in a single factory”. As Ahya and Chachra point out in a note titled
What’s Holding Back India’s Labour Market Environment? Part II dated August 18, 2014, “A company with 700 workers can have 70 trade unions. In most other countries, the requirements for minimum membership for trade unions to be recognized are higher than those in India, reducing the scope for multiplicity of unions.”
In Pakistan at least 20% of the workmen are required for the trade union to be registered. In Bangaldesh the number stands at 30%. Sri Lanka requires a minimum of seven employees for a trade union, but collective bargaining is only allowed if the trade union represents a minimum of 40% of the total employees.
Then there are multiplicity of laws to cope up with. This is primarily because labour law is a concurrent subject and both the central and state governments can legislate on it. As Ahya and Chachra point out “This has resulted in multiplicity of laws, at times with overlapping jurisdictions. Currently there are 44 central laws and about 160 state laws on the subject (ILO, 2013).” It is not rocket science to conclude that it is very difficult for any entrepreneur to follow all these laws.
As Reuters columnist Andy Mukherjee wrote in a recent column “As a textile businessman recently tweeted, if small and mid-sized companies in India followed all existing rules, “your underwear will cost what your jeans cost today”.”
The Rajasthan government has begun chipping away at these laws. One of the changes proposed is that a firm needs to approach the state government when laying off workers only if it employes three hundred or more workers. These are state level changes being made to central government regulation, and hence, they need the assent of the president.
But Rajasthan is just a small part of the overall puzzle. Labour market reforms are needed at the central government level especially if Narendra Modi’s recent “Make in India” call needs to be taken seriously.
Currently, China accounts for 17.5% of the total global manufacturing exports. India in comparison stands only at 1.6%. Labour markets reforms at the central government level are needed if that number has to go up.

The article originally appeared on on August 20, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)