Economic Reforms in India since 1991 India was a latecomer to economic reforms, embarking on the process in earnest only in 1991, in the wake of an exceptionally severe balance of payments crisis. The need for a policy shift had become evident much earlier, as many countries in East Asia achieved high growth and poverty reduction through policies which emphasized greater export orientation and encouragement of the private sector.
India took some steps in this direction in the 1980s, but it was not until 1991 that the government signaled a systemic shift to a more open economy with greater reliance upon market forces, a larger role for the private sector including foreign investment, and a restructuring of the role of government. In 1980s growth was unsustainable, fuelled by a buildup of external debt which culminated in the crisis of 1991.
In sharp contrast, growth in the 1990s was accompanied by remarkable external stability despite the East Asian crisis. Poverty also declined significantly in the post-reform period, and at a faster rate than in the 1980s according to some studies. In the following paper, five major areas are covered by the reform program: fiscal deficit reduction, industrial and trade policy, agricultural policy, infrastructure development and social sector development.
Savings, Investment and Fiscal Discipline Fiscal profligacy was seen to have caused the balance of payments crisis in 1991 and a reduction in the fiscal deficit was therefore an urgent priority at the start of the reforms. The combined fiscal deficit of the central and state governments was successfully reduced from 9. 4 percent of GDP in 1990-91 to 7 percent in both 1991-92 and 1992-93 and the balance of payments crisis was over by 1993.
The fiscal failures of both the central and the state governments have squeezed the capacity of both the center and the states to undertake essential public investment. High levels of government borrowing have also crowded out private investment. Unless this problem is addressed, the potential benefits from reforms in other areas will be eroded and it may be difficult even to maintain the average growth rate of 6 percent experienced in the first ten years after the reforms, let alone accelerate to 8 percent.
Reforms in Industrial and Trade Policy Reforms in industrial and trade policy were a central focus of much of India’s reform effort in the early stages. Industrial policy prior to the reforms was characterized by multiple controls over private investment which limited the areas in which private investors were allowed to operate, and often also determined the scale of operations, the location of new investment, and even the technology to be used.
The industrial structure that evolved under this regime was highly inefficient and needed to be supported by a highly protective trade policy, often providing tailor-made protection to each sector of industry. The costs imposed by these policies had been extensively studied (for example, Bhagwati and Desai, 1965; Bhagwati and Srinivasan, 1971; Ahluwalia, 1985) and by 1991 a broad consensus had emerged on the need for greater liberalization and openness. A great deal has been achieved at the end of ten years of gradualist reforms.
Industrial Policy Industrial policy has seen the greatest change, with most central government industrial controls being dismantled. The list of industries reserved solely for the public sector — which used to cover 18 industries has been drastically reduced to three: defense aircrafts and warships, atomic energy generation, and railway transport. Industrial licensing by the central government has been almost abolished except for a few hazardous and environmentally sensitive industries.
The requirement that investments by large industrial houses needed a separate clearance under the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act to discourage the concentration of economic power was abolished and the act itself is to be replaced by a new competition law which will attempt to regulate anticompetitive behavior in other ways. Industrial liberalization by the central government needs to be accompanied by supporting action by state governments.
Private investors require many permissions from state governments to start operations, like connections to electricity and water supply and environmental clearances. They must also interact with the state bureaucracy in the course of day-to-day operations because of laws governing pollution, sanitation, workers’ welfare and safety, and such. A recently completed joint study by the World Bank and the Confederation of Indian Industry (Stern, 2001) found that the investment climate varies widely across states and these ifferences are reflected in a disproportional share of investment, especially foreign investment, being concentrated in what are seen as the more investor-friendly states (Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) to the disadvantage of other states (like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal). Investors perceived a 30 percent cost advantage in some states over others, on account of the availability of infrastructure and the quality of governance.
These differences across states have led to an increase in the variation in state growth rates, with some of the less favored states actually decelerating compared to the 1980s (Ahluwalia, 2002). Because liberalization has created a more competitive environment, the pay off from pursuing good policies has increased, thereby increasing the importance of state level action. Infrastructure deficiencies will take time and resources to remove but deficiencies in governance could be handled more quickly with sufficient political will. Trade Policy
Trade policy reform has also made progress, though the pace has been slower than in industrial liberalization. Before the reforms, trade policy was characterized by high tariffs and pervasive import restrictions. Imports of manufactured consumer goods were completely banned. For capital goods, raw materials and intermediates, certain lists of goods were freely importable, but for most items where domestic substitutes were being produced, imports were only possible with import licenses. The criteria for issue of licenses were nontransparent, delays were endemic and corruption unavoidable.
The economic reforms sought to phase out import licensing and also to reduce import duties. Import licensing was abolished relatively early for capital goods and intermediates which became freely importable in 1993, simultaneously with the switch to a flexible exchange rate regime. Import licensing had been traditionally defended on the grounds that it was necessary to manage the balance of payments, but the shift to a flexible exchange rate enabled the government to argue that any balance of payments impact would be effectively dealt with through exchange rate flexibility.
Removing quantitative restrictions on imports of capital goods and intermediates was relatively easy, because the number of domestic producers was small and Indian industry welcomed the move as making it more competitive. It was much more difficult in the case of final consumer goods because the number of domestic producers affected was very large (partly because much of the consumer goods industry had been reserved for small scale production).
Quantitative restrictions on imports of manufactured consumer goods and agricultural products were finally removed on April 1, 2001, almost exactly ten years after the reforms began, and that in part because of a ruling by a World Trade Organization dispute panel on a complaint brought by the United States. Progress in reducing tariff protection, the second element in the trade strategy, has been even slower and not always steady. As shown in Table 3, the weighted average import duty rate declined from the very high level of 72. percent in 1991-92 to 24. 6 percent in 1996-97. However, the average tariff rate then increased by more than 10 percentage points in the next four years. In February 2002, the government signaled a return to reducing tariff protection. The peak duty rate was reduced to 30 percent, a number of duty rates at the higher end of the existing structure were lowered, while many low end duties were raised to 5 percent. The net result is that the weighted average duty rate is 29 percent in 2002-03.
Although India’s tariff levels are significantly lower than in 1991, they remain among the highest in the developing world because most other developing countries have also reduced tariffs in this period. The weighted average import duty in China and southeast Asia is currently about half the Indian level. The government has announced that average tariffs will be reduced to around 15 percent by 2004, but even if this is implemented, tariffs in India will be much higher than in China which has committed to reduce weighted average duties to about 9 percent by 2005 as a condition for admission to the World Trade Organization.