India’s Economic Sovereignty Day

S Narendar

July 24th, 1991.  It was on this day the powerful chains controlling the Indian economic elephant were removed by prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Without much fanfare, not even a ministerial press conference, the Industry Ministry he was in charge of, announced the abolition of Industries (Development and Regulation Act 1951.All licencing of new industries, barring a few sectors put in a negative list , was removed. The ‘licence-permit raj’ of nearly 40 years had ended, marking the beginning of massive economic reforms and the movement of EODB or ease of doing business.  

The Indians born after this date, generally referred to as the Liberalisation era children, do not know what it was like if anyone wanted to start any   business-small or big under the IDRA. It was the mother – goddess of a web of restrictive laws and regulations constricting innate Indian enterprenuership. The following would  give a glimpse of how the government controls worked. 

 Before this date, if one set out  to be an entrepreneur, wanting to make something in India,  the person  had to first obtain  a hard to get a licence  from the  government to start any business. Then he had to apply to the government for approval for importing machinery and equipment, if they were not available in India, and that was the case in most instances. The entrepreneur’s wait got further extended if he chose to import technology as the person had to satisfy official regulators that the technology was unavailable in India. A further hurdle had to be crossed if the person had to buy the equipment or technology abroad. That was because he/she would be required to obtain a rarely given foreign exchange permit.

The most difficult license to get was when an industrialist wanted to raise capital from the stock market. It was the government that decided how much capital he/she could raise, what to produce and how much to produce. A whole range of bureaucratic institutions such as the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission, Directorate General of Technology and Development, Import and Export Controller and a host of others could at any time interfere with any entrepreneurial activity. A government appointed committee (Hazari committee) in the 1960s had revealed that a handful of business houses with political connections had managed to corner a large number   of the industrial  licences in order to block competition, but had made no investment for production of licenced goods, thus creating shortages and a sellers’ market. 

 In the early ‘80’s, Texas Instruments, then the world’s leading makers of calculators and electronic business machines, wanted to start their production in India, in the so- called special economic zone at Santa Cruz, Bombay. After a wait of 18 months, the Indian licensing authority permitted them to make less than 5000 machines, because in the official mindscape that was the size of the expected market for calculators, officially regarded as a non-essential item. This tale of woe was narrated to the Finance Minister of India, V.P Singh ( I was present as  a foreign news reporter) who was visiting Hongkong for an Investors’ conference in 1984. An   NRI from   Hongkong narrated his experience of operating an export production unit in the Santacruz EPZ. According to him, it took him weeks to import vital components going into an electronic product and before he was allowed to export anything from this dedicated EPZ, he had to grease the hands of  several customs officials. On the contrary, his  export-import firm in Hong Kong  was able to import an item  required for making   any electronic equipment all the way   from Latin America and his final product with the imported part fitted in,  he was able  to export to Australia in a matter of five days .

The official policy did not allow soaps, detergents, radio or TV sets to be marketed under foreign brands, as part of a severe import substitution and ‘self- reliance ‘ (self -denial? ) policy. Most consumer durables production was reserved for the small- scale industries which did not have the scale and technology advantage. But in an economy of shortages, the consumer had little choice. Typical of the prevailing mindset was the declaration in a government budget (1970) that refrigerators and air conditioners (even bread ), were ‘luxuries‘ deserving prohibitive  taxes. The Electronic media advertising of such products and jewellery   was banned as part of shunning items of conspicuous consumption. Only public sector companies could be named in government -controlled news media, not private companies. Investment bankers and stockbrokers did not have free access to economic and financial news from across the globe under an official restriction. And, there were a host of other such policies ostensibly to promote domestic entrepreneurship.

Decades later India was and is being celebrated as the centre for manufacturing innovations and global IT hub. The foreign exchange reserves that hovered around a few million dollars in 1991, requiring  India  to pledge its gold reserves for staving off a default in paying interest on foreign loans,  and  meet the cost of  importing  essential goods like POL, has grown to  about $300 billion. After the opening up of the economy   by scrapping IDRA and other bold steps, India showed that it could grow annually at  8-9%  and close the economic gap with  China. This new India now   gets invited to the international high table such as the G-7.  It caused the coining of acronym-BRICS or Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, exciting (for a while) investors and marketers, as these economies were perceived as potential engines of global economic growth. 

The bold economic reforms, meaning opening up of the economy  to the private sector and foreign direct investment, as some of Rao’s critics point out, was undertaken for averting a financial crisis  caused by severe  balance of payments imbalance. The difference between Rao’s government and predecessors   was that latter in similar situations went to the International Monetary Fund for a bail out. They accepted the IMF loan conditions requiring the government to reduce its controls over the economy. But at the first sign of easing of the crisis, the predecessor governments reverted to their old ways. Prime Minister Rao, on the other hand, swiftly  to address the root causes of the recurring financial problem by removing the government controls over  businesses .Further,  he  gave political backing to his finance minister, Dr Manmohan Singh to implement fiscal and taxation reforms, and unprecedented changes in Export-Import policies by the commerce minister Chidambaram. 

Writing about the government’s  totally unexpected bold measure of abolition of the Licence Raj, the Financial Times of London wrote: “One of the most fragile governments in India’s history has, paradoxically, started to make the bold economic policy changes that not even Rajiv Gandhi’s ostensibly the more stable administration could (not)  risk.” 

Although prime minister Narasimha Rao’s five -year tenure witnessed policy reforms across most of the economic sectors, he chose not to be the voice and the face of those vital policy impulses. This was not just part of his political strategy to deflect criticism of reforms away from himself. This was more due to his deep conviction that the rushing economic reforms which were likely to put at a disadvantage large sections of the people could destabilise both the   core reforms underway and the democratic political system. Very early in his tenure,1991, he told the World Economic Forum, an assembly of wealthy investors, that economic reforms and globalisation should work for the building of a more humane and caring society Revisiting  the same forum in 1994, Rao  propounded his ‘middle-path’,  that simultaneously  allows market orientation of the economy ,while offering government  protection to  the poor and others who were likely to bear a bigger economic  burden due to the change. From mid-1992, he  substantially increased  the expenditure on Rural Development, asked for setting up a National Renewal Fund for assisting workers who were likely to be affected by disinvestment, made the school midday meal programme a  national central scheme, put in place EAS or Employment  Assurance  Programme that later became MNREGA. He cautioned against sudden withdrawal of farm subsidies. It was his government that laid the groundwork for the national highways programme   by setting up NHAI and paved the way for prime minister Vajpayee to take it forward. The thrust was on employment intensive sectors such as food processing linked to modern agriculture, infrastructure. EODB or the ease of doing business in India is a work in progress that was begun with the scrapping of IDRA. In prime minister Narasimha Rao’s own words, the direction of economic change had been set and irreversible, but the pace could vary.

The prime minister’s own Congress party was unhappy with the opening of the economy. The left parties and BJP  and sections of industry and business were not only critical of Rao’s economic reforms but also had launched a campaign opposing India’s entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), requiring changes in several outdated laws like the Indian Patent Act, Copy Rights Act, Indian Telegraph Act. As the prime minister’s information adviser, I was  concerned about    

 I did suggest that he should appoint a separate industry minister so that there is a buffer between the criticism of the Industrial and Investment policy,especially  prime minister. Rao’s unexpected response was that if he were to appoint a separate minister, the latter would try to make his role more important by controlling industry. He added: ‘I want industry to be important, not this ministry or the minister.’ After holding this portfolio for 3 years, he did induct an Industry minister (K.Karunakaran, then Kerala leader ). Soon after taking office, the latter wanted FIPB to be placed under his ministry and showed reluctance to carry out further deregulation and opposed steps for disinvestment in government owned companies.

It was prime minister Rao who gave the call for economic reforms with a human face, meaning protection for large sections of poor and rural people who were likely to be adversely affected in the short term by economic reforms, including globalisation. He went before the WEF or the World Economic Forum and argued against demands by rich countries for unrestrained globalisation of emerging economies like India. Some 20 years later, the same WEF was forced to recognise the wisdom of prime minister Narasimha Rao’s words in the face of protests against globalisation  that had made the rich richer and the poor, poorer. The WEF meeting at DAVOS in 2010, after the global financial crisis, said in its report that economic globalisation should be ‘inclusive’ (not leave the poor behind).

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