The Long Reads on The Long Road To Breaking Free

Last week marked the 75th anniversary of our Independence. A lot of reflective essays were written to mark this special occasion, and some of them made for excellent reading.

But as a student of economics, I haven’t found anything better than a fantastic essay written by Niranjan Rajadhakshya in the Livemint. It makes for excellent reading, and there is enough material in there to keep students busy for years, let alone a semester. And I simply cannot do justice to the entire article in one blogpost.

So what we’re going to do is that we’re going to spend this entire week going through this article at our own leisure. I’ll give a broad overview today, and we’ll explore some of the finer nuances in the other four blogposts to come this week.

Let’s begin with the title itself. I don’t know if the choice of headline was intentional, and it is usually the case that the headline is not chosen by the author of the piece. But that being said, surely this is a nod to an excellent book written by Vijay Joshi? I, at any rate, interpret it as such, and strongly encourage you to read the book if you haven’t done so already.

Most essays would have begun with a nod, at the very least, to Pandit Nehru’s speech on Independence Day. It remains an excellent speech, and worth a re-read (or re-listen, if you so prefer). But Niranjan begins his essay with a quote from Sardar Patel instead, underlining the need for an economic regeneration in India’s case.

What might this entail? Niranjan highlights four major problems:

  1. Stagnation of economic output
  2. A chronically underfunded state
  3. A dire food situation
  4. A narrow industrial base centered around a few large cities

For each of these things to improve, Niranjan says, we needed a structural change in the way the Indian economy functions.

  1. People needed to move from farms to factories
  2. Almost consequentially (my interpretation, not Niranjan’s statement), we needed more urbanization
  3. And finally, we needed to move from household enterprises to formal enterprises

Why are these changes necessary in order to bring about a structural change in the Indian economy, and why is a structural change deemed necessary? These are excellent questions to ask if you are a student of economics. And the answer to these questions is a great way to begin your journey into the world of development economics.

But very simply put, here are the answers:

  1. Farms alone would not be able to generate the kind of surpluses necessary to raise the incomes of Indians, and certainly not as fast as was required.
  2. Try plotting per capita incomes for nations versus their rates of urbanization.
  3. Reflect on each of the figures in this paper (read the whole thing if you can, but please do look at all the figures)

Reflect on two paragraphs, which I will excerpt here without additional comment:

The famous dissent of economist BR Shenoy provided four red flags. First, the heavy dependence on deficit financing to build industrial capacity would lead to balance of payments pressures. Second, the focus on capital goods rather than wage goods for mass consumption would be inflationary, as people employed in new industries would get money incomes but nothing to spend them on. Third, high taxation to finance the plans would weigh on citizens. Fourth, increasing government control of the economy would eventually harm Indian democracy.

In his landmark budget speech in July 1991, Manmohan Singh cogently argued that the balance of payments crisis was a symptom of a deeper malaise: macroeconomic imbalances, low productivity of public sector investments, loopholes in the tax system, indiscriminate protection that had weakened the incentive to export, lack of domestic competition, a weak financial system that was not allocating capital efficiently, lack of access to the latest technology, and much more. The great achievement of 1991 was not each reform in isolation, but the rollout of a comprehensive reform programme where different parts complemented each other.

Was it any surprise that the 1970’s were a lost decade? Was it any surprise that Amitabh Bachchan was an angry young man in the 1970’s? What if the budget of 1991 instead happened to be the budget of 1978 instead (or even earlier, now that we’re dreaming)?

To say nothing of the future! Niranjan ends his essay with four challenges that await us in the future:

  1. India needs to develop more, and develop more equitably at the same time? Is that possible, especially while remaining a political democracy?
  2. Jobs! Niranjan speaks of our inability to create quality jobs for the millions who are now leaving agriculture, but the problem is even more urgent, because not enough people are able to leave agriculture in the first place!
  3. What of energy? How are we looking to anticipate the problems that will inevitably crop up, and start thinking about how to deal with them?
  4. And Niranjan ends on what I interpret to be a quasi-pessimistic note by asking where we will find ourselves in 1947. The reason I find it to be a quasi-pessimistic ending is because if the answer to this question isn’t clear by now, that ought to worry all of us. It certainly worries me.

We’ll take a look at the first two decades, roughly speaking, of India post independence tomorrow, using this excellent column as a reference. See you tomorrow!