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09 December, 2014

Rolling out of reforms

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Pressure is mounting on the Narendra Modi government from domestic and foreign business interests to roll out economic reforms promised by the Bharatiya Janata Party in its election manifesto.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said last week the Indian economy had shown signs of a turnaround and imbalances had lessened. It forecast that the economy, which registered a growth rate of only 5.3 per cent during the July-September quarter, could go up to 6.6 per cent in 2013-16 and to 6.8 per cent in 2016-17.

These rates are by no means too modest in the context of current global conditions. However, the Indian government is eager to push the rate up to the eight per cent level achieved before the global meltdown of 2008. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Parliament a few days ago that the government was committed to go ahead with reform measures “to take India back to the original potential of eight per cent economic growth”.

The Western economies have a stake in accelerated growth of the Indian economy since it will boost their own recovery plans. On its part, the Indian government is looking forward to infusion of fresh foreign capital to expand economic activity and generate jobs. The rub lies in some local laws which both domestic and foreign investors consider a stumbling block.

The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report ranked India at 142nd among the 189 countries surveyed. This meant a decline from last year when it was at the 140th place. The Prime Minister has reportedly set for himself a highly ambitious goal of putting the country among the top 50.

An action plan drawn up by the Confederation of Indian Industry, with the help of the consulting firm KPMG, contains a set of proposals to make India the “best place for doing business”. It envisages, among other things, rationalisation of the tax regime, easing of land acquisition process and streamlining of procedures for investment approval and provision of utilities.

Some proposals, like the one regarding e-filing of applications, will certainly help cut red tape, reduce corruption and improve efficiency. Some are couched in euphemistic terms. An example is the proposal for creation of an appropriate labour development ecosystem. It talks of 44 Central laws, many of which are old and outdated and impose a heavy compliance burden, and says there is urgent need to realign them to new economic needs. This is a scarcely disguised plea to scrap laws that protect the workers against exploitation.

The OECD’s prescription for curing the economy’s ills also includes many of the CII-KPMG proposals but it presents them in a wider context giving the impression that it is sensitive to the needs of the workers and other weaker sections of the society. It asks the government to boost manufacturing jobs by simplifying labour laws, improving access to education and improving the business climate. It also proposes increasing female economic participation and improving access to quality healthcare.

The proposals of CII and OECD are not new. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had seriously considered similar proposals but could not go ahead with them because of strong opposition not only from the Left parties but also some of its own partners.

Soon Modi will have before him yet another set of proposals drawn up by a World Bank team, which is now in India. It comprises experts on trade and competitiveness practices and was sent by Bank president Jim Yong Kim at Modi’s request to suggest measures to improve the business environment.

The team was reportedly holding discussions with public and private sector stakeholders in New Delhi and Mumbai on the reform initiatives and discussing various reform options and feasibility of their implementation. Its recommendations are bound to be on the same lines as those of the CII and OECD.

Parliament is now in session, and the government may try to push some reform proposals through it. However, major reforms must wait till the budget session which begins in February.

With a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, the BJP has more elbow room than the Congress had. However, it is in a minority in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, and needs the support of other parties to push any changes in law. Some of the reform proposals may require changes in the Constitution, for which a two-thirds majority in both houses is necessary. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 9, 2014.

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