IN 2013, when foreign capital suddenly rushed out of emerging markets, India was one of the worst-affected countries. There were plenty of reasons for investors to panic. GDP growth had slumped. The public finances were a mess. And inflation was hovering around 10%. A year earlier a power cut had plunged hundreds of millions of Indians into darkness.
It is a testament to the country’s enduring promise that within a year investors were once again scrambling for a stake in its future—this time tempted by the pro-growth promises of Narendra Modi, who won a resounding victory in elections last May. India’s population rivals China’s in size, but has a far younger complexion. That India is so much poorer in most other regards seems only to add to its allure. Those who missed out on China’s boom might still catch the wave in India.
“Restart” by Mihir Sharma, a columnist for the Delhi-based Business Standard, is a reliable and readable guide to India’s stop-start economy. It is admirably clear on what has to change if India is to taste the high living standards enjoyed in other parts of Asia. Each year 13m Indians join the workforce. Jobs must be found for them. But the giant factories that hummed with baby-boomers in other places are scarce in India, because it is so difficult to do business there.
Mr Sharma applies regular doses of rueful humour as he explains why some of the toughest job-protection laws in the world have ensured that there are few decent jobs in India. The jokes are a necessary feature in a book that contains as many unpalatable truths as this one. They are also a mask for the author’s anger at India’s poverty, at the nation’s failure to match the development of its Asian neighbours and at the self-delusion of its policymakers. “It’s almost as if we genuinely believe all the lies about ourselves we tell foreign investors,” he writes.
Mr Sharma is at his funniest (or angriest) when listing the ludicrous regulations that business must adhere to. Complying with them all is impossible, so officials routinely extort bribes for breaches. Businesses are required, among many other things, to keep an abstract of the 1948 Factories Act to hand. Pass it to a visiting labour inspector, allow him a moment to reflect and “he will find a violation”, notes Mr Sharma. The wisecrack has a painful sting. To avoid a shakedown, businesses stay tiny and inefficient. And India remains poor and woefully short of decent jobs.
Where did India go wrong? Mr Sharma picks the leftward lurch in 1969—when Indira Gandhi nationalised banks to outflank opponents in her own party—as a moment when things shifted. Manmohan Singh’s famed budget of July 1991 was badly flawed because the reforms it contained were incomplete. Mr Singh opened up goods markets to competition but did nothing to free markets for land, labour and capital. A ban on selling farmland to industry remains; labour inspectors can still prey on factory owners; and without a bankruptcy law, capital stays trapped in dying firms. New factories could not readily spring up to compete with imports, and manufacturing has been in relative decline since the mid-1990s.
Mr Sharma thinks factories can still be India’s salvation. But manufacturing-led growth has become harder to pull off. Modern factories use more machinery and less labour than in the past. While India was making half-hearted reforms, China was securing its position in global supply chains. It is now tougher for aspiring nations such as India to break in. It is perhaps for this reason that others look for hope in India’s vibrant services sector. Hindol Sengupta is one such author. His “Recasting India” is a paean to the commercial flair of millions of hawkers and small shopkeepers plying for trade in India. Yet the small-scale service enterprises celebrated by Mr Sengupta are a developmental dead end. They are a sign of economic weakness and not vitality, as Mr Sharma rightly argues. Small traders seem less impressive in other countries only because the best entrepreneurs have been able to grow bigger.
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