Rational Expectations: New energy in reforms, but…

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Updated: November 20, 2015 1:29:27 AM

...talk of conciliation with Vodafone stinks of arm-twisting—Vodafone needs the IPO, so has to settle case

Though there are obvious shortcomings in each solution, what is encouraging is that a lot of solutions/reforms appear to be coming together, leading to talk of whether acchhe din are finally here as far as reforms are concerned.Though there are obvious shortcomings in each solution, what is encouraging is that a lot of solutions/reforms appear to be coming together, leading to talk of whether acchhe din are finally here as far as reforms are concerned.

Figuring out critical pain points and identifying workable solutions is both time-consuming and difficult, so it was always known the serious reforms would take time—more so since this was being done in an environment of slowing global growth and, with India Inc’s balance sheets completely shot, at a time when PPP had crawled to a halt as had private investment in general. Though there are obvious shortcomings in each solution, what is encouraging is that a lot of solutions/reforms appear to be coming together, leading to talk of whether acchhe din are finally here as far as reforms are concerned.

One big fly in the ointment, revealed by revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia’s tweets on Wednesday, is the finance ministry appearing to be coercing Vodafone into settling its 8-year old R20,0000-crore tax case, since it is clear the government has no intention of either scrapping the retrospective tax or of giving the case to the AP Shah committee to examine. To be sure, as Adhia tweeted, it was Vodafone that approached the finance ministry, but since there is already an arbitration case on, the only logical reason why the telco would want conciliation is because it is not certain how long the arbitration will take and whether an award will ever be honoured. Keep in mind,

Reliance Industries has arbitrations going on for over 4-5 years—the government has delayed both the Vodafone and Cairn arbitration quite a bit already—and in the White Industries case, the award given in 2002 has still not been implemented. Vodafone India needs the IPO badly since it will need $2-3 billion at least each year in replacement capex, so it makes sense for Vodafone Plc to want to settle the case.

The fragile nature of private investments, including in PPP, was known when the BJP came to power last year, so the government was advised to step up public investment by cutting wasteful subsidies using Aadhaar and to fix the investment climate in oil/gas and telecom, two areas where there was appetite for investment and where the balance sheets of the top players were in relatively good shape.

After several mis-steps, there appears to be some course correction. While the spectrum caps are a bad idea, the government is moving in the direction of adopting a wider definition to include spectrum auctioned—even if not bought—which will make life a bit easier for telcos; there is some work on the critical harmonisation of bands and in putting together the next round of spectrum auctions.

The government got it horribly wrong when it junked the Rangarajan formula to move towards market-pricing and when it failed to announce a suitable premium formula for deep-water gas exploration, but the plan it announced a few days ago to move to market pricing for future discoveries is a step in the right direction. It will come to naught unless the principle is applied to discovered-but-not-commercialised fields with 13-15tcf of gas, but it signals the government is also ready to relook its subsidy model for fertilisers and electricity.

The UDAY plan to fix chronic losses in state electricity boards (SEBs), announced the day the Bihar elections were over, can be criticised for giving too long a rope to the states, but telling states they have to fund their SEBs is the right way to go. Many of the assumptions made look heroic and power minister Piyush Goyal will have to monitor this 24×7 and, more important, the government must show the resolve not to coerce PSU banks into lending to SEBs again.

A lot of work has been done on crop insurance, prodded no doubt by the articles of FE columnist Ashok Gulati, and once this is cleared, there can be a sea change in the picture of farm distress. The government, of course, has been very lethargic on farm reform where, ironically, the dividend would have been the highest. Not only has no move been made to disband FCI operations and move towards cash subsidies, little has been done to reform agriculture markets in states run by the BJP—Maharashtra’s Vashi mandi continues unreformed and Haryana and Punjab levy the highest taxes on farm produce. If subsidies were to be shifted from per crop right now to per acre—a beginning could be made in BJP states—Indian agriculture would truly get on to the fast track.

Progress on Aadhaar-linking of subsidies has been hamstrung by the courts, but there is some movement here—while states like Andhra Pradesh have made good progress in linking PDS shops to Aadhaar, a period of 12-18 months is being talked of for doing this across the country. If so, that would be impressive, though there is little point creating all those Jan Dhan accounts if cash transfers are not made—that will not only free up cash being blocked in FCI holding so much grain, it will remove the artificial boost given to just cultivating wheat and rice since that is all FCI ever procures.

A good push was given to defence FDI by making approvals automatic up to 49% levels and in removing the need for Cabinet Committee on Security clearances beyond that, but unless actual defence contracts are cleared, much of this is irrelevant. In the same vein, while clearing the Coal India stake sale on Wednesday was a good idea, the government will be woefully short of its target unless it starts selling the SUUTI shares or its stake in HZL/Balco; and from the looks of it, the only strategic disinvestment that is going to happen is in a few hotels, not in any big PSU.

That, presumably, is because the Modi government, unlike the Vajpayee one, is not a great believer in privatisation. Nor, sadly, is it a great believer in markets. Which is why its moves on liberalising gas prices are so hesitant, and why it made no moves to cut LPG/kerosene subsidies along the lines of what the Congress did for diesel, and why it keeps blaming hoarders for prices rising and wants to conduct raids instead of recognising the role of the poor monsoon.

Right now, our best bet in terms of the reforms being talked about in electricity and railways, or in getting more roads built and rolling out Aadhaar or crop insurance, is the Modi reputation for detail and project implementation.

But growth won’t pick up beyond a point unless private investment comes back in a big way—it fell from 28.1% of GDP in FY08 to 26.2% in FY12 and 22% in FY14, and the public sector doesn’t have the money to fill this gap. That means more attention will have to be paid to genuinely fixing tax cases, figuring out how to equally distribute risk between the public and private sector in PPP projects—despite Wednesday’s roads package, PPP is deader than a dodo—to moving towards market prices in areas like fertilisers and petroleum products, bringing telecom levies to realistic levels, getting away from policies that dictate where airlines must fly, doing away with old-style sourcing norms or the kind of ambiguity being practised in the case of both e-commerce and multi-brand retail or the organised attack seen in the case of Nestle’s Maggi.

That’s a tall ask from any government, more so in a very difficult global and local economic environment, but for it to work the government cannot be in campaign mode all the time. For starters, it cannot be fighting with the Opposition all the time, nor can it be at loggerheads with industry—they are all partners in the same journey.


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