India’s long road to prosperity
Martin Wolf is impressed by an analysis of what the world’s largest democracy must do in order to thrive
by: Martin Wolf    
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India could do far better. That, in a sentence, is the conclusion of Vijay Joshi’s superb book. Joshi is an Indian economist who has spent most of his professional life at Oxford university. In this penetrating account of the past and present of Indian economic development, he casts a bright light on the prospects ahead. If India’s aim is to become a high-income country in the next generation, its economic, social and political performance needs to improve dramatically.

The good news is that there is room for improvement on many fronts. The bad news is that the obstacles to the needed improvement are huge. Worse, many emanate from the failures of the state and the political processes that guide it. Yet, as Joshi also notes, “The two fixed points in the socio-political setting of the Indian state’s development policies are that the country is a democracy, and an extremely diverse society.” The challenge is to improve performance within the constraints of these realities.

The success of Indian development matters, for at least three reasons: India will soon be the most populous country in the world; it is already far and away the largest democracy; and, above all, despite progress in the last three decades, between 270m and 360m Indians still lived in dire poverty (on slightly different definitions) in 2011 (that is, between 22 and 30 per cent of the population). If extreme poverty is to be eliminated from the world, it must be eliminated in India.

While the focus of India’s Long Road is on the economy, its analysis is appropriately comprehensive. It considers the post-independence growth record, the failure to create remunerative employment, the excessive role of publicly owned enterprises, the poor quality of Indian infrastructure and the inadequacy of environmental regulation. The book also analyses the successes and failures of macroeconomic management, the appalling quality of government-provided education and healthcare, the need for a better safety net for the poor, the long-term decay of the state, the prevalence of corruption and the role of India in the world economy.

In covering all these issues, Joshi combines enthusiastic engagement with the detachment of a scholar who has passed much of his life abroad. No better guide to India’s contemporary economy exists.

Over the past 70 years, India’s growth has shown two marked accelerations. The first followed independence in 1947. The second followed the economic liberalisation that began in the 1980s and accelerated dramatically after the balance of payments crisis of 1991. In the first period, growth averaged 3.5 per cent a year. In the second, it rose to 6 per cent (4 per cent per head). Unfortunately, after a further acceleration in the first decade of the 2000s, growth has slowed once again. The principal explanation for this recent slowdown is a marked weakening of investment by an over-indebted private sector.Joshi argues that India could provide a basic income to all by diverting resources wasted on subsidies.

So what should be the goal for the decades ahead? Joshi describes it simply as “rapid, inclusive, stable, and sustainable growth . . . within a political framework of liberal democracy”. More precisely, if incomes per head could grow at 7 per cent a year, India would achieve high-income status, at the level of Portugal, within a quarter of a century.

Only three economies have achieved something close to this in the past: Taiwan, South Korea and China. It represents an enormous challenge that cannot be met with the current “partial reform model”. The basic flaw of that model, argues Joshi, “is a failure to put the role of the state, and the relation between the state, the market, and the private sector, on the right footing”. The state, in brief, does what it does not need to do and fails to do what it does need to do.

It is no longer enough for the state merely to get out of the way, important though that still is in crucial areas. Among these is the labour market, whose huge distortions and inefficiencies have turned the demographic dividend into a demographic disaster.

Thus, in the 10 years from 1999 to 2009, India’s workforce increased by 63m. “Of these, 44 million joined the unorganized sector, 22 million became informal workers in the organized sector, and the number of formal workers in the organized sector fell by 3 million.” This is a social catastrophe. It is due not only to labour-market distortions, but to a host of constraints on the creation, operation and, not least, closure of organised and large-scale businesses.

Yet India also needs an effective state able to supply the public goods, public services and competent regulation on which an efficient economy depends. Unfortunately, that is not what now exists. All international surveys give India a very low rank for the efficiency and honesty of the state and the ease of doing business. Joshi argues that while the economy is more dynamic and the quality of policy has indeed improved since the 1980s, the quality of the state has deteriorated in many respects.

Among the many failures is the waste of state resources on inefficient subsidies that, though often given in the name of the poor, actually go to the better off. Indeed, one of the most original and persuasive aspects of the book is the argument that it would in principle be possible to provide a basic income to all Indians sufficient to lift everybody out of extreme poverty merely by diverting resources wasted on grotesquely costly subsidies. Yet, to take just one example, state governments continue to bribe farmers with free power, at the expense of a reliable electricity supply.

Will prime minister Narendra Modi be the new broom that sweeps all these cobwebs away?

Alas no. His government’s performance is “mixed at best”. It has some achievements. But it has shown insufficient energy in tackling both the immediate problems of inadequate private investment, excessive debt and feeble banks, and the longer-term problems of dreadful education, lousy healthcare, weak infrastructure, corruption, regulatory incompetence, excessive interference and government waste.

A great opportunity for radically improved performance is being missed. This is not bad just for the Indian economy. There is a real danger that if the economy fails to perform as needed and desired, the governing Bharatiya Janata party will find itself increasingly attracted to its “dark side” of communal and caste division. That way lies not just economic failure, but possibly the destabilisation of Indian democracy, one of the great political achievements of the post-second world war era.Those who care about the future of this remarkable country and indeed the future of democracy itself must hope that Modi gets this right. If they want to understand what he needs to do and why, they should first read this book.

India’s Long Road: The Search for Prosperity, by Vijay Joshi, Oxford University Press, RRP£22.99, 360 pages

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