Can India grow faster again

Written by Nirvikar Singh | Updated: Aug 19 2013, 16:50pm hrs
Indias slowdown is partly a result of its own policy missteps, and not just global conditions. These factors suggest that India can grow at 8% a year, even in the current economic climate.

Indias growth has slowed dramatically from the global boom years. What can it do to recover Was the period before the financial crisis just a temporary, lucky window for India, now gone forever The rich world is saddled with debt. An emerging market slowdown, partly a result of the industrialised countries own slowdown, and partly due to internal structural issues in China and elsewhere, is the latest shadow looming over Indias growth prospects. Is the gloom escapable

There are possibilities for hope. Much as I dislike the idea of Indian exceptionalism, in this case it may be warranted to some extent. Most importantly, India is by far the poorest of the BRIC group, and probably one of the poorest of the more amorphous emerging market designation. That means it has more room to grow. It is quite far from having to worry about any so-called middle-income trap, that might be an issue for China and Brazil. Secondly, Indias demographics give it an opportunity that does not have to be sabotaged by a global slowdown. Thirdly, Indias slowdown is partly a result of its own policy missteps, and not just global conditions. These factors suggest to me that India can grow at 8% a year, even in the current economic climate. How can this be achieved

The need to create productive employment at a very large scale is obvious. This is more complicated than just giving away money for rural make-work programmesthat is just a transfer scheme for redistribution-cum-income insurance. India needs to create more new businesses and allow existing ones to expand more easily, and in employment-friendly ways. Clearly, labour market reform is needed, and it is not as difficult as it is made out to be. The core problem is political acceptability, and a grandfathering scheme, where existing employees are protected, but new ones in new firms, or certain classes of old ones, are allowed to be employed under more flexible conditions.

Next, the focus of new business creation should be in second and third tier cities and towns. These are best placed to absorb rural labour most efficiently and flexibly. To make this work, strengthening urban infrastructure at this level is criticalthis means empowering urban local governments, increasing their capacity and incentives to raise revenues and build and manage new infrastructure. It also needs continued development of rural roads.

Another way in which India is somewhat different is in its geography. This geography actually makes it easier to develop internal supply chain networks, again provided that the internal infrastructure is in place. Currently, a wholesale review of Indias transportation sector is under wayhopefully its recommendations will be the basis for reform, not just in physical infrastructure for internal movement of goods, but also in the institutional infrastructure of regulation and taxation that often inhibits the development of internal production networks.

India also needs to think about patterns of production. Japan certainly grew by becoming an exporting powerhouse after World War 2, but it also produced for its domestic market. Durable goods industries making appliances and cars for domestic consumers were crucial to Japans inclusive growth. India is poorer, bigger and more heterogeneous than Japan. On the other hand, technology has made it easier to set up new industries (smaller-scale factories, for example), to manage production, and even to innovate inside a technology frontier that has itself been pushed out at an incredible rate. The key to inclusive growth is domestic production of consumer goods that are affordable to large numbers of Indian consumersnot just watches and bicycles, but mobile phones, kitchen appliances, energy generating devices and more.

This last point suggests that the idea of Track 1 and Track 2 reforms, so clearly articulated recently by economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, may be dominated by a reform agenda that integrates the need for growth with inclusion, and goes beyond mere redistribution or trickle down.

To support the growth path outlined above, there are three crucial areas where the national government needs to focus, beyond basic health and literacy. First is a large-scale, effective set of vocational training programs: there has been much talk on this front and little achievement. The private sector probably needs to be incentivised to make something happen quickly. Second, the government needs to fix the mess in electric power generationthis is well-documented as a prime constraint on growth. My earlier calculation suggested over a percentage point of growth is lost each year.

Third, and most difficult, the national government needs to overcome its own corruption and inefficiency by devolving responsibility and authority to the states, and from there down to cities. Old fears of national disintegration are no longer valid. Political power at the centre can be just as well sustained through sustained economic betterment, as opposed to short term handouts. Political parties at the national level need to understand that this is possible. A future Indian spring can be a true blossoming, or it can be like the Arab one so far.

The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz