Getting India back on track

Written by Nirvikar Singh | Updated: Sep 13 2013, 09:59am hrs
In my last column (An Indian Spring FE, August 22,, I raised the possibility of India descending into an Egypt-like situation. It probably will not get that bad, since Indias recent history and its societal makeup are sufficiently different. But there is one large commonalitya surplus of young people relative to decent jobs. That basic mismatch between demographics and economic opportunity can drive substantial waves of social unrest. One only has to think back to the early and mid-1970s to realise that India, for all its democratic resilience, is not immune to severe social and political instability. In an earlier column (Can India grow faster again FE, August 19, I listed some steps that Indias leaders need to take in the medium run: effective vocational training, removing constraints on electric power generation, and more devolution to the states and to cities. But before that, there is a short run crisis facing the country. Here are my thoughts on how to turn things around quickly and effectively.

The immediate problem is a crisis of confidence. This is partly what has driven the plunge in the rupee, although the strength of the US and European economies has also contributed to the rupee depreciation. The erosion of confidence has been gradual, with multiple instances of government corruption and fiscal and monetary policy mistakes over the last couple of years. Fixing this will not be easy. The measures undertaken so far have smacked of panic: sudden promises of relaxing foreign direct investment caps, a grab bag of import controls, and derailing financial markets to curb speculators. All these measures, in my view, simply reaffirm the view that the government is adrift and that troubles will continue. The latter two types of measures also go against the basics of a coherent economic reform strategy, which should be built on promoting well-functioning markets in a global setting.

With respect to the rupee, the Reserve Bank of Indias (RBIs) initial response of trying to reduce speculation by making short-term borrowing harder simply sabotaged the working of short-term credit markets, and had no effect on offshore traders. Markets became thinner and more volatile. Instead, if RBI wants to prevent further overshooting downwards of the rupees value, it should follow an assertive and transparent (but feasible) intervention policy (something along the lines suggested by Kaushik Basu, announcing a schedule of intervention). Given what has happened, it may be mostly too late. One thing RBI should do is to raise its policy rate, as other emerging economies have been doing. Yes, this could further slow down growth, but the short run benefits of an interest rate hike, in terms of stabilising expectations about inflation and currency depreciation, seem to make this a worthwhile option. Reversing such rate hikes is easy and quick, and they do not have the deleterious impacts of unexpected changes in the rules governing the functioning of markets.

With respect to the current account deficit, what the government needs to do is to use the opportunity of the rupee depreciation to push exports. The obvious areas are in information technology and related services, tourism, and possibly some kinds of consumer goods (including apparel, health and beauty items, and processed foods). Essentially, Indias products are suddenly a bargain, but some rapid and concerted marketing efforts are required to make sure that rich world consumers take advantage of these bargains. Indias embassies and missions abroad should be going into overtime, working with Indian businesses to seize the opportunity presented by the fallen rupee. Promoting exports, while more work and slower to take effect than restricting imports, will have a much larger medium term benefit. One of the easiest, most immediate opportunities is promoting foreign tourism, since the supply constraints are less problematic.

On the domestic front, the politics of the looming national election make progress difficult, but if the government were to push harder to reach a grand bargain on the goods and services tax (GST), convincing the array of opposition parties that they will all benefit from a broader, more robust tax system, this would provide the prospect of a corrective on the fiscal front. My reading of some of the crisis of confidence is that it was driven by the governments attempts to raise revenue through ad hoc, discretionary and retroactive measures, in turn driven by the need to reduce the fiscal deficit. But those policies hurt confidence, growth and government revenues, just the opposite of what was desired.

The three examples I have suggested are policies that signal that the government is in charge, and is capable of providing leadership to the country. In contrast, most of the governmental responses to the crisis so far have seemed to signal desperation, weakness and lack of control. Much of the recent Indian policy debate has been reduced to finger pointing (evil speculators, heartless global capitalists, incompetent and venal politicians) and crying over spilt milk. It does not have to be so, and Indias leadership has to act as if it is worthy to lead in these challenging times.

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