Land, Labor and Capital

A very long extract to begin with today, because it just is that important:

The first tentative economic reforms began after Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980. Political scientist Atul Kohli has written of how she made her peace with Indian business houses. The licence raj was eased. Taxes were reduced. VP Singh presented a reformist budget in 1985, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. Manmohan Singh helmed the seventh five-year plan. It focussed on technology, productivity and efficiency. The Reserve Bank of India allowed the rupee to gradually depreciate in a bid to promote exports.
The growth spurt in the 1980s was supported by a large increase in fiscal deficits as well as international borrowing. It was unsustainable. The road to the 1991 crisis lay ahead. The macroeconomic crisis—in the midst of political and social instability —was a turning point. The duo of PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh abolished industrial licensing, slashed import tariffs, opened up the financial sector, attracted foreign capital, fixed public finances and made the rupee convertible on the current account. 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.
The development state was replaced by the regulatory state. The government was no longer the main vehicle of investments. That job was handed over to the private sector, while new regulators were set up or empowered to ensure markets functioned well in a wide range of areas.

The entire column is excellent – that’s why we’ve spent four days (and counting) on it. But it is awe-inspiring to see how concisely and yet how thoroughly Niranjan has spoken about the 1991 reforms in three short paragraphs. Shruti Rajagopalan and her excellent colleagues at the Mercatus Center have an entire website dedicated to the events of 1991 and what came after, and I would strongly encourage you to spend a lot of time on it.

If you are younger than thirty years today and are reading this, you need to understand why you are able to read this today. You need to understand how the Indian economy changed enough for me to be able to write this blog in addition to all of what I do to earn my daily bread, and you also need to understand how your own income (or that of your family’s) went up enough to be able to afford the device that you are using right now to read this. To say nothing of the job/business that paid for this device- both the device and the job likely wouldn’t have been available prior to 1991.

I hope to write more about how the 1991 reforms changed lives on the ground for those of us who were around in the 1990’s and the early 2000’s. In all my classes, I tell my students that they have a secret superpower that they should make full use of. This secret superpower is called TMKK. It stands for Toh Main Kya Karoon? In English, that means ‘so what should I do?’, although a more accurate translation would be ‘so why should I care?’.

Consider this sentence once again: “The duo of PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh abolished industrial licensing, slashed import tariffs, opened up the financial sector, attracted foreign capital, fixed public finances and made the rupee convertible on the current account.”

Especially as a young student, you should absolutely be asking TMKK. How did the life of the average Indian change because industrial licensing was abolished? So what if import tariffs were abolished? What could I buy and consume that I could not earlier? How did opening up the financial sector help ordinary folks who were around in the 1990’s? What changes in the lives of ordinary citizens when India finds herself able to attract foreign capital?

You get the drift. I suspect most folks nod along when they hear us economists rhapsodize about 1991, without really getting what was in it for them. But they need to know. One, to better understand why exactly 1991 was so important, and second, to realize how fragile our economic freedom is, and to do our utmost to preserve it in the years/decades to come.

In their book, Tryst with Destiny, Bhagwati and Panagariya speak about how far India has come since 1991. And it really has come a long way! But they also speak about the need to have sustained and accelerated growth from here on in (the book was published about a decade ago). And they say that this needs two kinds of further reform.

Track I reforms are all about accelerating and sustaining growth, while making it even more inclusive, while Track II reforms are about making redistribution even more broad-based and effective. And they make the point that while 1991 was a great start to Track I reforms, there is a long, long way to go:

If truth be told, India is far from done on Track I reforms for two broad reasons. First, the potential for growth remains grossly underexploited. The economy remains subject to vast inefficiencies. Removing these inefficiencies not only offers the opportunity to arrest the recent decline in growth but to push the economy to a double-digit growth trajectory. Second, the poverty reduction that directly results from growth, in terms of enhanced wages and employment opportunities per percentage point of growth, can be increased: we can get a larger bang for the buck.

Panagariya, Arvind; Bhagwati, Jagdish. India’s Tryst With Destiny . HarperCollins Publishers India. Kindle Edition.

Every single economics student is taught, sooner or later, about the three factors of production: land, labor and capital. The link I have added here mentions a fourth, but let’s keep things simple for now. And I find it instructive to think about what Bhagwati and Panagariya choose to talk about in Part II of their book. This section of their book is about accelerating, widening and deepening what they refer to as Track I reforms, and the these are the first three sub-sections:

  1. Labor laws
  2. Land Acquisition
  3. Infrastructure

That is to say, even now, a full 75 years after India’s Independence, it isn’t as easy as it should be to utilize land, labor and capital to the fullest extent possible. You may agree or disagree with their solutions to these problems, but I would argue that the diagnosis is spot on.

The Indian economy is freer today than it was in 1990, and that is really and truly awesome. But it isn’t free enough, and much more work remains to be done.

Quite what this work is, and how to best go about it, is the journey that we need to undertake on the long road to breaking free.

And if this challenge excites you, well, like it or not, you are a student of the Indian economy – welcome to our tribe!

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