20 years since India’s economic reforms

India in the last 20 years has started to reverse the Keynesian-inspired planning that clouded its growth since independence.  A large part of this turnaround was driven by one of Hayek’s students at the LSE, B R Shenoy, whose ideas are now coming into fashion. It is interesting that as the West once more embraces the Keynesian policy options, the East is rejecting it.

This article in honour of Prof Shenoy was co-authored with B Chandrasekaran.

“An Indian will, on average, be twice as well off as his grandfather; a Korean 32 times” said Robert Lucas in a 1985 paper titled On the Mechanics of Economic Development. The Nobel laureate’s figures were based on the 1960-1980 period when India’s per capita income grew at 1.4% per year. In the period from 1992-2002, India’s per capita income grew at 3.7%, and from 2003 to 2010 it grew 6.9% – at this rate an Indian too will be 32 times better off than his grandfather.

August 2011 marks two decades since a high level committee—Narasimham Committee—was setup by government of India to initiate financial sector reforms. The deregulation recommendation by the Narasimham Committee went a long way in improving capital market efficiency – a key ingredient of economic growth. Ideas of free market economics, however, were not new to India. Long before 1991, Prof B R Shenoy had fought a lonely battle to promote free-exchange.

Shenoy warned India about the consequences of “central planning” twenty years before Jagdish Bhagwati and T N Srinivasan told us – in their 1975 book Foreign Trade Regimes and Economic Development: India – “that India’s foreign trade regime, in conjunction with domestic licensing policies in the industrial sector… impaired her economic performance”. Shenoy was the only Indian economist to write a Note of Dissent to the 2nd Nehru-Mahalanobis Five Year Plan (similar to the Soviet Gosplan). In the 1955 Note, Shenoy points out that the 2nd Plan “begins by prescribing the increase in national income which the Plan would set to achieve”.  In other words, the plan begins with a certain growth rate and then goes about figuring out how to gather necessary savings. Shenoy says “the availability of real resources must be assessed first and the investment plan must match it”. This was at a time when Joan Robinson’s view that “It is the rate of investment which governs the rate of saving, and not vice versa” was in fashion.

The government of India and its economic advisors choose to reject Shenoy’s wise remarks. What followed was an unfortunate verification of Shenoy’s theoretical vision. The average per capita income growth for the first five 5-year plan periods was a meager 1.5%. Joseph Schumpeter in his 1910 essay on Leon Walras says “It has become long since manifest who was being judged when the Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques rejected his work”.  Perhaps the same can be said of the government of India’s rejection of Shenoy.

“Is there some action a government of India could take that would lead the Indian economy to grow like Indonesia’s or Egypt’s?” asked Robert Lucas in the mid 80s. In 1991 the government of India took some such actions. And the debate turned ideological, especially with the IMF’s condition-ridden package. Shenoy was the first economist of independent India to lucidly support free-market policies:

Efficient management of business and industrial concerns in a competitive market economy is a highly specialised function…best left to private entrepreneurs.

The reforms were greeted with skepticism at best and outright rejection at worst amongst India’s intellectual class. Arun Ghosh—in an August 1992 Economic and Political Weekly article titled One Year of Narasimha Rao Government: A Balance Sheet—declared “The Narasimha Rao government’s economic policies have not brought any promise of harmony and progress to the Indian economy.” Rather symbolically, the article was on the same page as an advertisement for the Hindi translation of a book titled The Russian Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg. Surprisingly, in the midst of the ideological battle of early 90s, Shenoy’s ideas were not resurrected for intellectual support. S B Mehta wrote in 2001 of  events a decade earlier:

the then Finance Minister was criticized by many that we were mortgaging our sovereignty to IMF. This author wrote to him that he should declare that we were following the policy that Shenoy hinted for twenty long years…. No politician or economist, however, uttered the name of Shenoy… Thus, it seems, we neglected the sound advice of Shenoy during his life-time [and also] when our policies leaned more towards free market.

With his 1931 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Shenoy became the first Indian economist to publish in leading scholarly journal. However, Shenoy is not just a scholar of the past; his ideas are of great relevance today.  Take the debate on corruption, for instance. In February 1975, Shenoy delivered a lecture in Ahmedabad putting forward the thesis that interventionism is the root cause of corruption. And data backs his claim: Transparency International’s perception of corruption index and Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom index are strongly correlated. The 10 least corrupt countries have an average economic freedom index rank of 11, while the average for 10 most corrupt countries is 163!

Shenoy choose to be “right in a minority of one”. As India marks two decades of economic reforms, it is time classical liberals come forward to institutionalize B R Shenoy’s ideas. They say that VKRK Rao, a prominent post-independence Indian economist, “strode like a Colossus over the Social Science disciplines”. He established four institutions: the Delhi School of Economics, the Institute of Economic Growth, the Indian Council of Social Science Research, and the Institute for Social and Economic Change. Shenoy established none. The difference was at least partly because of their respective economic views. Rao was awarded his PhD in 1937 from Cambridge and was a student of Keynes. Shenoy was from the London School of Economics and was highly influenced by the then ‘new’ ideas of F A Hayek. Naturally the government of India loved Rao – a necessary prerequisite for establishing institutions in Gosplan India.

The first round of economic reforms was a matter of necessity, but India still ranks 124 in Heritage Foundation’s 2011 Economic Freedom Index.  Hopefully the much-needed  second round of reforms will be a matter of choice. And a reform by choice will come only if India has institutions promoting ideas of B R Shenoy.  In the long run, ideas must either take the form of institutions or die. And as to the question of where to begin, a chair at the Delhi School of Economics might be a good place.

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4 replies on “20 years since India’s economic reforms”
  1. says: John Spiers

    Rao v Shenoy
    Friedman v Rothbard
    Keynes v Mises
    Luther v Erasmus
    all the way back to
    Confucious v Mo Ti…. of the contending schools, the powers that be will always settle on the system that concentrates power in their hands. As in 1 Samuel 8, the people always clamor to be oppressed.

  2. says: Paul Marks

    Om the questions.

    Mises over Keynes.

    And Erasmus over Luther (remember their debate was over free will – I am not just a libertarian in my politics).

    On First Samuel, Chapter Eight the King James version is still the best (the use of italics is deadly – and these little things are important). The NSRV is, of course, terrible – making it look a if Samuel is warning people that government will liberate their “male and female slaves” (the NSRV loves a literal translation, ripping a word from its historical context, when a literal translation helps undermine things – but it has no time for a literal translation at other times, going for “gender neutral language” and other such, instead).

    If people need a translation in modern language (because they really can not follow 17th century English) they should go for the Jerusalem Bible (the Alaxander Jones edition – not the more recent Henry W. edition)

    Still rant about the Bible over. On to India.

    The economic story of the present in India is a story in two parts.

    There has indeed been a (partial but very important) move away from regulations and government “planning”. And this has produced astonishing results.

    But remember what the Congress Party has done more recently.

    It has committed India to the Welfare State path of the West – free education, income support (and on and on).

    This will produce bankruptcy – as, once introduced, such polices are very hard to repeal.

    Can anyone see the BJP winning a general election if it pledged to repeal these schemes?

    No – I thought not.

    So, sadly, like us – India will go down the road to bankruptcy.

  3. says: Harvey Perry

    I would hope that the government would take note of all the problems related to the “Welfare State” currently in the news throughout Europe and to a lesser degree in the United States.

    History has shown that people will never vote to reduce the welfare/government programs they are receiving but will only vote against something ‘other’ people are receiving.

    Once over 50% of the population becomes receivers, it’s almost impossible to change the system without a total collapse.

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