For the past three decades, the Indian economy has grown impressively, at an average annual rate of 6.4 percent. From 2002 to 2011, when the average rate was 7.7 percent, India seemed to be closing in on China — unstoppable, and engaged in a second “tryst with destiny,” to borrow Jawaharlal Nehru’s phrase. The economic potential of its vast population, expected to be the world’s largest by the middle of the next decade, appeared to be unleashed as India jettisoned the stifling central planning and economic controls bequeathed it by Mr. Nehru and the nation’s other socialist founders.
But India’s self-confidence has been shaken. Growth has slowed to 4.4 percent a year; the rupee is in free fall, resulting in higher prices for imported goods; and the specter of a potential crisis, brought on by rising inflation and crippling budget deficits, looms.
To some extent, India has been just another victim of the ebb and flow of global finance, which it embraced too enthusiastically. The threat (or promise) of tighter monetary policies at the Federal Reserve and a resurgent American economy threaten to suck capital, and economic dynamism, out of many emerging-market economies.
But India’s problems have deep and stubborn origins of the country’s own making.
The current government, which took office in 2004, has made two fundamental errors. First, it assumed that growth was on autopilot and failed to address serious structural problems. Second, flush with revenues, it began major redistribution programs, neglecting their consequences: higher fiscal and trade deficits.
Structural problems were inherent in India’s unusual model of economic development, which relied on a limited pool of skilled labor rather than an abundant supply of cheap, unskilled, semiliterate labor. This meant that India specialized in call centers, writing software for European companies and providing back-office services for American health insurers and law firms and the like, rather than in a manufacturing model. Other economies that have developed successfully — Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and China — relied in their early years on manufacturing, which provided more jobs for the poor.
Two decades of double-digit growth in pay for skilled labor have caused wages to rise and have chipped away at India’s competitive advantage. Countries like the Philippines have emerged as attractive alternatives for outsourcing. India’s higher-education system is not generating enough talent to meet the demand for higher skills. Worst of all, India is failing to make full use of the estimated one million low-skilled workers who enter the job market every month.
Manufacturing requires transparent rules and reliable infrastructure. India is deficient in both. High-profile scandals over the allocation of mobile broadband spectrum, coal and land have undermined confidence in the government. If land cannot be easily acquired and coal supplies easily guaranteed, the private sector will shy away from investing in the power grid. Irregular electricity holds back investments in factories.
India’s panoply of regulations, including inflexible labor laws, discourages companies from expanding. As they grow, large Indian businesses prefer to substitute machines for unskilled labor. During China’s three-decade boom (1978-2010), manufacturing accounted for about 34 percent of China’s economy. In India, this number peaked at 17 percent in 1995 and is now around 14 percent.
In fairness, poverty has sharply declined over the last three decades, to about 20 percent from around 50 percent. But since the greatest beneficiaries were the highly skilled and talented, the Indian public has demanded that growth be more inclusive. Democratic and competitive politics have compelled politicians to address this challenge, and revenues from buoyant growth provided the means to do so.
Thus, India provided guarantees of rural employment and kept up subsidies to the poor for food, power, fuel and fertilizer. The subsidies consume as much as 2.7 percent of gross domestic product, but corruption and inefficient administration have meant that the most needy often don’t reap the benefits.
Meanwhile, rural subsidies have pushed up wages, contributing to double-digit inflation. India’s fiscal deficit amounts to about 9 percent of gross domestic product (compared with structural deficits of around 2.5 percent in the United States and 1.9 percent in the European Union). To hedge against inflation and general uncertainty, consumers have furiously acquired gold, rendering the country reliant on foreign capital to finance its trade deficit.
Economic stability can be restored through major reforms to cut inefficient spending and raise taxes, thereby pruning the deficit and taming inflation. The economist Raghuram G. Rajan, who just left the University of Chicago to run India’s central bank, has his work cut out for him. So do Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also an economist, and the governing party, the Indian National Congress. These steps need not come at the expense of the poor. For example, India is implementing an ambitious biometric identification scheme that will allow targeted cash transfers to replace inefficient welfare programs.
India can still become a manufacturing powerhouse, if it makes major upgrades to its roads, ports and power systems and reforms its labor laws and business regulations. But the country is in pre-election mode until early next year. Elections increase pressures to spend and delay reform. So India’s weakness and turbulence may persist for some time yet.
Arvind Subramanian, a senior fellow at both the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Center for Global Development, is the author of Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance.