Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to visit Washington in a few weeks, and editorialists and commentators have already started writing about the emerging economic power of India. New Delhi’s decision to start liberalizing its economy in 1991 is touted as a seminal event in India’s history, the moment when it threw off the shackles of Fabian socialism and embraced free markets. It is the stuff of myth—and to a large extent, it is exactly that.
While part of India has benefited from being opened up to foreign products and influences, most of the country is still denied access to free markets and all the advantages they bring. India opened its markets in 1991 not because there was a political will to open the economy, but because of a balance-of-payments crisis that left it with few options. The liberalization was half-hearted and limited to a few sectors, and nowhere near as broad as it needed to be.
One would have expected India’s growth to be driven by labor-intensive manufacturing but, almost by default, it instead came in the poorly licensed area of services exports. The manufacturing sector, ideally placed in terms of labor and raw material to compete with China, never took off. India’s restrictive labor laws, a remnant of the socialist infrastructure that India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, put in place in the 1950s and 1960s, were politically impossible to reform. It remains excruciatingly difficult for most Indians to start a business or set up shop in India’s cities.
This is painstakingly illustrated in “Law, Liberty and Livelihood”, a new book edited by Parth Shah and Naveen Mandava of the Center for Civil Society in New Delhi, which documents the obstacles in the way of any Indian who wishes to start a business in one of India’s big cities. Messrs. Shah and Mandava write: “Entrepreneurs can expect to go through 11 steps to launch a business over 89 days on average, at a cost equal to 49.5% of gross national income per capita.” Contrast the figure of 89 days with two days for Australia, eight for Singapore and 24 for neighboring Pakistan.
But often, even this figure is just a notional one, and entrepreneurs find it next to impossible to get a legal permit to start a business at all. Street hawkers and shop owners in the cities often cannot get a license at all. (Even those who do have to comply with draconian regulations that offer so much discretion to the authorities that corruption is inevitable.) They survive by paying regular bribes to municipal authorities and policemen, which are generally fixed in such a way by this informal market that they can barely survive on what they earn, and cannot expand their business or build their savings. They are trapped in a cycle of enforced illegality and systematic extortion by authorities, which results in a tragic wastage of capital. It serves as a disincentive to entrepreneurship, as well as to urbanization, the driving force of growing economies.
Another disincentive to urbanization is how hard it is for poor people to get legal accommodation in the big cities. In Bombay, for example, an urban land ceiling act and a rent-control act make it virtually impossible for poor migrants to rent or buy homes, and they are forced into extralegal housing. The vast shantytowns of Bombay—one of them, Dharavi, is the biggest slum in Asia—hold, by some estimates, more than $2 billion of dead capital. For most of the migrants who live in these slums, India hasn’t changed since 1991. As that phrase from India’s pop culture goes, “same difference.”
India’s policymakers are aware of these anomalies, but it is an acute irony in India that any proposal to reform the bureaucracy has to first wind its way through the bureaucracy. Arun Shourie, a former disinvestment minister and a respected journalist, wrote in his recent book “Governance” that, “proposals for reforming [the] system are adopted from time to time, and decrees go out to implement the measures ‘in a time-bound manner.’ But in every case, the proposal is put through—some would say, it has to be put through—the same mill.”
It is in the nature of bureaucracies, Mr. Shourie points out, to endlessly iterate. He charts how the apparently simple task of framing a model tender document took the government more than 13 years, as drafts of it circulated between different committees and ministries. Anything even slightly more complicated, and with pockets of political opposition to it, like economic reforms, becomes almost impossible to implement. Dismantling state controls is only possible if there is political will and a popular consensus. None of these exist. On the contrary, there is a popular belief that the economic inequalities in India are caused or exacerbated by free markets.
The socialist left, a natural proponent of such views, believes that free markets are the problem and not the solution. India’s communist parties have blocked labor reform, opposed foreign investment and prevented privatization of public-sector units. They naturally have a vested interest in the “license-permit-quota raj,” as the web of statist controls is called. On all these issues they are supported, surprise surprise, by the religious right.
The Hindu right wing, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, also fears globalization. Its sustenance comes from identity politics, the impact of which is diluted by the opening up of the cultural mindspace to “foreign influences.” If people are busy chasing prosperity and gaining Western liberal values, they will naturally have less time to focus on “the Hindu identity,” and suchlike. Rabble rousers need the masses to be disaffected.
In between the socialist left and the religious right is the Congress, a party which occupies the center of the political space almost by default. Its position on issues is always malleable, and although it is currently the party of government, it leads a coalition that depends on the left for survival. The pace of reforms has not increased since it came to power last year, and is not likely to do so anytime soon. While the world focuses on the metaphorical bright lights of Bangalore, most of the country—indeed, much of Bangalore itself, which has been plagued by power and infrastructure problems recently—remains in darkness.
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