What's holding India back?
posted on Friday, October 03, 2008 01:02 AM
Failure to reform a bloated civil service is putting the country's huge economic achievements at risk
“THE tiger is under grave threat,” India's finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, intoned at one point in his budget speech on February 29th. He was referring to the stripy animals that prowl the country in declining numbers. But India's tigerish economy, which has grown by 9% a year on average over the past three years, is itself under threat.
In many ways India counts as one of liberalisation's greatest success stories. For years, it pottered along, weighed down by the regulations that made up the licence raj, producing only a feeble “Hindu” rate of growth. But over the past 15 years it has been transformed into a far more powerful beast. Its companies have become worldbeaters. Without India's strength, the world economy would have had far less to boast about.
Sadly, this achievement is more fragile than it looks. Many things restrain India's economy, from a government that depends on Communist support to the caste system, power cuts and rigid labour laws. But an enduring constraint is even more awkward: a state that makes a big claim on a poor country's resources but then uses them badly.
The state's cage
It is not unusual for a country's bureaucrats and politicians to be less efficient than its businesspeople; and the Indian civil servant, with his forms in triplicate, has been a caricature for so long that it is easy to forget the impossibility of many of the jobs involved. But India's 10m-strong civil service is the size of a small country, and its unreformed public sector is a huge barrier to two things a growing population needs. The first is a faster rate of sustainable growth: the government's debts and its infrastructure failings set a lower-than-necessary speed-limit for the economy. The second is to spread the fruits of a growing economy to India's poor. By the government's own admission, most development spending fails to reach its intended recipients. This is bound to stir up resentment - and risks causing a backlash against business.
Like his prime minister, Manmohan Singh, Mr Chidambaram is by instinct a liberal and a reformer. He is remembered for his “dream budget” of 1997, which cut both taxes and tariffs - and helped spur today's boom. The new budget is his government's final one before it calls a fresh election, probably later this year. He gave an assured performance, doling out money freely and leaving voters appeased, opposition parties stumped and bondholders unruffled. But the budget also confirmed several sad truths about how little reform the government has made during the good years.
Take the public finances. The government is predicting a budget deficit of 3.1% for the current fiscal year and 2.5% next. But these numbers are artificially low. They omit the states' deficits and also most of the cost of fertiliser and fuel subsidies (which all told add another 3.5% of GDP). Other big emerging markets have been less complacent, leaving India in the worst fiscal shape of the lot.
If growth slows, so will tax collection - and India's vigour may be ebbing already. Growth of 9% now looks more like a cyclical peak than a permanent achievement: bottlenecks throughout the economy mean it cannot go faster without setting off inflation. The effects of overheating became clear in an inflationary scare early last year. Growth has since slowed a tad, to 8.4% in the year to the fourth quarter, thanks partly to the intervention of a nervous central bank. India cannot absorb a lot more foreign capital without worrying about stockmarket turbulence or the strength of the rupee. Much of the foreign money it has attracted has gone into inflating share prices or just accumulated unproductively in foreign reserves.
The government's other boast is to have fostered “inclusive growth”. In his budget, Mr Chidambaram duly handed out extra money to a long list of worthy schemes, from school meals to rural road-building. But as he himself conceded, outlays and outcomes are not the same thing. Standing between the two is an administrative machine corroded by apathy and corruption. The government's subsidies fail to reach the poor, its schools fail to teach them and its rural clinics fail to treat them.
Mr Singh made administrative reform a priority when he took office in 2004, and he duly set up a commission to look into it. But even the finance minister admits that most of its deliberations have been academic. The civil service is expected shortly to be awarded a huge pay rise, which will be swiftly embraced, along with tougher performance standards, which will be studiously ignored. One indication of officials' resistance to change is Mr Chidambaram's new proposal to erase the debts of 30m small farmers. This loan waiver may be costly (over 1% of GDP) and crude, but it has one big virtue: it transfers money to relatively poor people at the stroke of a pen, bypassing the cumbersome machinery of the state.
Unleash peepul power
Reform has not completely petered out. The government has called for more independent scrutiny of public programmes and better monitoring of the money it hands out to some 1,000 schemes. It also plans to experiment with “smart cards” for the poor that could cut out bureaucratic middlemen. But administrative reform needs to go deeper than this - if only to prevent the public sector throttling economic growth.
The government's debt burden leaves it short of money for infrastructure. It is reluctant to free banks, pension funds and insurers to serve the market better, because it needs them to buy its bonds. The miserable record of its social spending deprives firms of well-nourished, well-schooled workers, and saps the political will for reform. State governments are left scrabbling to appease rural disgruntlement rather than investing in efforts to lift the productivity of land and labour.
The tiger may be the animal most Indians associate with their private sector; but a more apt symbol is the peepul (sacred fig) tree. Revered by many Indians, the peepul has a habit of making room for itself, poking up through roads, sometimes smothering its rivals. India's dynamic private sector has shown a similar skill. But if the next government again flunks reform, it could be the peepul itself that is smothered.