Finance Minister Arun Jaitley today promised reforms in labour, land acquisition and insurance laws and expressed readiness to look at privatisation of some loss-making public sector companies.
Asserting that the country needed to doggedly pursue the reforms agenda despite challenges, he maintained that reform is the art of possible but it cannot be just “one sensational idea”.
There could be hundred things which could be done but the focus would be on what can be done immediately as part of the reform process, he said kicking off the two-day India Economic Summit here organised by Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
He also noted that India was off the global radar for 2-3 years and the retrospective taxation was “one bad idea” that damaged the economy.
Referring to the need for labour reforms, Jaitley said: “Some aspects of the labour laws in India can certainly be improved and rationalised.
“This is an area where we will have to have a much larger consideration… Some people will certainly have reservation on this issue. Will I be able to immediately get it passed in Parliament? I am not in a position to comment,” he said, adding that the government needs to convince people that a flexible policy will create more jobs.
The government has already introduced some labour reforms in Parliament which will be discussed in the upcoming session.
On land acquisition laws, Jaitley said the government is looking at changing some “illogical provisions”.
“There are some illogical provisions (in Land Acquisition Act) like land cannot be used or acquired under this law for private hospitals and schools… There are some factors in it, which certainly require a re-look,” he said answering questions from the WEF Chairman Klaus Schwab.
On privatisation and opening up more sectors such as insurance to foreign investors, Jaitley said the last time Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA was in power, it followed a liberal model.
The Minister pointed out that the government’s decision to further open defence and railways to foreign investment is evoking interest from investors.
“If the initial experiment succeeds, we can open up a lot more,” the Minister said, adding the government was open to international participation in the infrastructure sector.
He expressed hope that the long-pending Insurance Amendment Bill, that seeks to raise FDI in the sector from existing 26 per cent to 49 per cent, will get Parliament nod in the upcoming Winter Session.
On disinvestment, Jaitley said, “This time, there will be divestment as some important public undertakings are on the verge of closure. But on foreign investment, decisions will be made sector-wise, keeping in mind the requirements of Indian economy and the appetite of the political system for reform.”
On a question about subsidies, Jaitley said petrol and diesel prices have already been de-controlled, and an expenditure management commission has been appointed to look into rationalisation of subsidies.
Nevertheless, he said, subsidies will not be eliminated completely as some sections of Indian economy and people will always need support.
Recalling the steps taken by the NDA government to deal with coal block allocation problems, Jaitley said, as a result “the element of discretion in the hands of the state has almost disappeared and hence once you take decision of these kinds (it will) eliminate the possibility of corruption, collateral consideration or crony capitalism as you call it.”
The investors, he added, could look for a system “which is fair. Not a system on which they have to entirely depend on the largesse of politicians and ministers.”
Similar reforms, he said, would be undertaken for allocation of natural resources and other minerals.
Terming reforms “as a long journey”, Jaitley said some people expect that the second generation of reforms in India really need one or two big bang ideas, but “that probably is not the answer”.
The Minister said that merely undoing wrongs of past would not cure all problems. “So we began on a journey and I believe that the pit was reasonably deep. And therefore, rectifying it will require a lot of time”.
Elaborating on steps to deal with corruption and crony capitalism, Jaitley said those who administer the country would have to change their mindset.
“We are attempting (to change the mindset)”, he said, adding that the decisions taken by the new government in the last five-six months were aimed at eliminating any possible discretion.
Noting that crony capitalism was witnessed in the past allocation of natural resources like coal blocks and spectrum, Jaitley said the new government came out with an ordinance on coal with a view to end discretion and introduce fairness in allocation of the fuel.
When asked whether he was satisfied with the pace of reforms, Jaitley said, “I am quite satisfied with the beginning that we have made…in the next few months … I think the effects within the country would also start showing.”
“There are bound to be some hurdles, one need not get unnecessarily upset about them. There are a lot (of things) within the present political framework and the government’s framework that can be done…but one thing that is clearly borne in mind is that no steps should be taken that sends contrary signals.
“Therefore with all kinds of ideas, big and small, one has to pursue in one direction and that’s what the present government is trying to do and I am quite certain that its only a matter of time that the ground results start reflecting on the cumulative effects of these steps,” he added.
Regretting that India fell from the global radar in the last two to three years, Jaitley said currently there was a considerable amount of buzz and investors were watching the developments in the country.
“They are now about beginning to get convinced that India would be once again a place to invest in. Those within India who were looking outside are probably reconsidering their decision,” the Minister said.