In my last column (An Indian Spring? FE, August 22, http://goo.gl/hwW9cw), I raised the possibility of India descending into an Egypt-like situation. It probably will not get that bad, since India’s recent history and its societal makeup are sufficiently different. But there is one large commonality—a 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, http://goo.gl/8E9iwS) I listed some steps that India’s 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 India’s (RBI’s) 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 rupee’s 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