The New Economic Policy 1991
When economic historians set to write the chequered history of Indian economic development, they are bound to bifurcate the development process into the pre- and the post-liberalization periods. The new economic policy (NEP) adopted at the flag end of the last century—with its constituents of liberalization, privatization and globalization—brought about momentous changes not only in the Indian industries but also in the mindset of the people who began to relish their newly found freedom from licensing, controls, inspection raj, import substitution and the insulated economy syndrome.
Soon after taking over as the Prime Minister of India in 1985, the youthful and charismatic Rajiv Gandhi outlined a series of measures in the economic policy his government would pursue. Even earlier, during the fag end of Indira Gandhi’s regime, a number of changes was sought to be introduced in the economic policy of her government after the gradual realization in political and bureaucratic circles that the lethargy and sluggishness of the economy could be undone and its growth accelerated only if a new orientation was given to the economic policy pursued by successive governments. As a result, a set of changes was slowly but steadily introduced. However, these changes acquired the status of a NEP only after Rajiv Gandhi came to power. The recipe suggested then was improvement in productivity, absorption of modem technology and better utilization of the existing capacity.
In early 1991, a major economic crisis occurred in the country the like of which people had never experienced since Independence. The problems of the economy which assumed crisis proportions did not develop suddenly but had accumulated over several years. The cavalier macro-management of the economy during 1980s led to large and persistent macroeconomic imbalances; the widening gap between the revenue and expenditure of the government resulting in growing fiscal deficits had to be met by heavy internal borrowing. Further, the large and steadily growing deficits in the balance of payments had to be financed by borrowing from abroad. As a result of this attempt to live beyond means, the economy was pushed into a deep economic crisis.
The Gulf crisis in the late 1990s sharply accentuated the already prevalent macroeconomic problems. There was also political instability in the country at that juncture. The price situation too was alarming with the rate of inflation rising to 11.2 per cent per annum in terms of consumer price index. The most disquieting feature was that the prices of food items rose substantially, shortages of consumer goods became the order of the day, adding a scare to the scarcity of goods, all of which caused serious concern. These mounting strains in the economy came to a breaking point in 1991 due to the Gulf oil crisis. The balance of payments position was on the brink of disaster and by late June 1991, the level of foreign exchange reserves dropped to precarious levels which were not sufficient to finance imports of even ten days. The rupee depreciated by 26.7 per cent against the US dollar. Foreign lenders were unwilling to fund India any further and were insisting on devaluation of the rupee and opening up of the economy.
The crisis made economic reforms absolutely necessary. The country was on the verge of defaulting on international financial obligations and the situation warranted immediate policy action to save the situation. In May 1991, the government had to lease 20 tonnes of gold out of its stock to the State Bank of India to enable it to sell the gold with repurchase option after six months. In addition, the Reserve Bank of India was allowed to pledge 47 tonnes of gold to the Bank of England and Bank of Japan to raise a loan of USD 600 million. In response to the crisis situation of 1990–91, the government decided to introduce economic policy reforms founded on macroeconomic stabilization and structural reforms. While stabilization deals with demand management (Control of inflation, fiscal adjustment, balance of payments adjustment), structural reforms deal with sectoral adjustments designed to back the problems on the supply side of the economy—trade and capital flows reforms, industrial deregulation, disinvestment and public enterprise reforms and financial sector reforms.
Early Crisis Management Measures: Trendsetters of the Reform Process
The immediate priority of the government was to stabilize the economy, bring its growth to its normal track and to win back the confidence of masses in the country and the international financial community. This required a number of hard decisions to be taken by the government. Most of the crisis management effort was indicated in the Union Budget 1991–92 presented in July 1991 and regarded as a landmark budget. The crisis management measures focused largely on fiscal correction, industrial decontrol and balance of payments and laid the foundation for the subsequent reform process.
Some of the early major steps taken to manage the crisis were the following:
- Fiscal correction aimed at reducing fiscal deficit by about INR 77.00 billion in 1991–92 ( Compared to 1990–91);
- Announcement of the new industrial policy in July 1991 seeking to deregulate the industry with the view to promoting the growth of a more efficient and competitive industrial economy;
- Abolition of industrial licensing for all industrial projects except 18 industries of high strategic and environmental importance and with high import content. About 80 per cent of the industries were delicensed;
- MRTP Act amended to eliminate the need for prior approval for large companies for capacity expansion and diversification;
- Nine areas in basic and core industries earlier reserved for public sector were opened to private sector;
- Limit of foreign equity holding raised from 40 per cent to 51 per cent in a wide range of priority industries;
- Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) established to negotiate proposals from large international firms and expedite clearances of the investment proposals;
- Rupee devaluation by 18 per cent during 1–3 July 1991, supported by a standby credit of USD 2.3 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a 20 months period, negotiated in October 1991;
- Negotiation of structural adjustment loan of USD 500 million from the World Bank in April 1992 and a loan totalling Special Drawing Rights (SDR) of 1.3 billion from the IMF between January–September, 1991;
- Introduction of India Development Bond Scheme and Immunity Scheme for repatriation of funds held abroad in October 1991, under which more than USD 2 billion was mobilized during 1991–92;
- Bringing back of gold earlier pledged to the Bank of England and Bank of Japan;
- Continuance of the measures of import control and credit squeeze;
- Administered licensing of imports replaced by freely tradable import entitlements (called Exim scrips) linked to export earnings. The measure was expected to introduce self-balancing mechanism in India’s foreign trade;
- Introduction of liberalized exchange rate management system (LERMS) under which a dual exchange rate system was established, one rate being effectively floated in the market; and
- • Import licensing in most capital goods, raw materials, intermediates and components eliminated. Advance licensing system considerably simplified.
As pointed out above, the initial series of measures set the tone for the future economic reforms—many of the measures mentioned above were continued to form a part of the on-going reform process.
The Three Pillars of Economic Reforms
The on-going process of economic reforms reflects an economic philosophy of the government, which expresses faith in the market forces and freedom of enterprise. It accepts the fact that government intervention and controls scuttle the spirit of private enterprise and inhibit growth. It further accepts, though tacitly, that there is too much of presence of the public sector in the economy and it must be reduced according to the managerial capacity of the government and be run on commercial lines to be viable. Finally, the philosophy recognizes India as an integral part of the world economy which must adjust itself to the changing circumstances abroad. Such a philosophy, when implemented, consists of three parts, namely, liberalization, privatization and globalization which are not distinct but interrelated in many respects. Let us discuss these components in detail.
It is the process of liberating the economy from the various regulatory and control mechanisms of the state and of giving greater freedom to private enterprise. Liberalization, therefore, is not the same as decontrol, which is a narrow concept and is a part of liberalization. Decontrol, in fact, is essential for liberalization and may also require necessary legislative changes for legal sanction and effectiveness. In the process of economic reforms, liberalization has taken place in almost all the major sectors of the economy including industry and services, infrastructure, banking, capital market, taxation and external sector covering foreign trade and investments in international financial transactions.
Liberalization has taken multiple forms as listed below:
- Freedom from locational requirements and government clearance.
- Freedom to access capital market to public sector undertakings.
- Corporatization of departmental and public undertakings.
- Permission to corporations for buyback of shares.
- Increase in the investment ceiling of small-scale enterprises.
- Liberalization of tax provisions for selected sectors.
- Freedom to banks to enter the insurance sector.
- Shifting of products and industries from administered price mechanism.
- Freedom to transfer licenses and assets.
- Removal of restrictions on movement of products and sale and purchase of assets.
- Reduction in state pre-emption of loanable funds through fall in banking reserve ratios (CRR and SLR).
- Conversion of excise system from specific to ad valorem rates and adoption of the system of value-added tax.
- Simplification and rationalization of tax rate structures and procedures.
- • Tax exemptions, holidays and concessions.
Liberalization allows greater room for flexibility which reduces cost and saves time for business enterprises. The external constraints on business planning and strategy formulation go down thereby increasing efficiency and competitiveness.
Privatization, both as a philosophy and a process, expresses faith in the market system and its forces. Privatization is not merely the transfer of ownership of government or publicly owned assets into private hands, it also refers to a process in which major economic decisions concerning production, exchange, distribution and consumption are entrusted to the market forces and decisions are taken by a large number of individual and private economic units. Marketization is, therefore, an integral part of privatization.
Privatization entails freedom to own and operate business assets and take independent business decisions. This generally generates competition in the market and the market mechanism takes care of the allocative function in the economy. Such a freedom is, however, hardly perfect or complete. There are many imperfections and asymmetries built into the private enterprise system, which warrant government or public policy intervention through regulation. Privatization programmes have been undertaken in a number of both developed and developing countries and have taken one or more of the following forms:
- Divesture—the sale of equity in full or part—of public sector units to private companies and individuals.
- Denationalization of the previously nationalized enterprises and their sale to the original or new owners.
- Franchising of public sector services to designated private sector units.
- Licensing of technology of public sector units to private enterprises on annual royalty linked to output.
- Government withdrawal from a particular field of production or service to be occupied by the private enterprises. Withdrawal may be by way of voluntary closure of public sector units.
- • Privatization of management in which the government retains ownership but management is entrusted to private hands through lease or management contracts.
Privatization has been the second important pillar of economic reforms in the country. It has been greatly aided by the liberalization process in a number of areas and has taken a variety of forms. Some of these are:
- Disinvestment of the public sector.
- Opening up of a number of core sectors, earlier reserved for public sector, to private investment (such as roads, ports, insurance, power, transmission, international data gateways and telecommunications).
- Market-related rates for 364-day treasury bills.
- Freeing of deposit rates of banks subject to ceilings. Freedom to banks to determine their own prime lending rates in consonance with market trends.
- Freeing of a number of products from administered price mechanism.
- • Contracting out of a number of services by public sector units (such as catering in railways) to the private sector.
Most of the above measures can be counted both on the sides of privatization and liberalization. Nevertheless, together, these represent marketization of the economy in which free and private enterprise has a larger role to play in the economic system.
Globalization is the third pillar of the structure of economic reforms. It is the process of movement from a closed economy to an open economy. The scope of globalization is wide. It is a process of global integration of products, technology, labour, investment, information and even cultures. It tends to narrow down international differences in prices, wage rates and interest rates. Globalization of business basically takes place through international trade, foreign investment, joint ventures, international licensing, franchising and sub-contracting, international horizontal and vertical integration of industries, strategic alliances, international market sharing arrangements, advertising and information exchange. International banking and revolution in information technology greatly help in globalization of economies. International education and tourism facilitate globalization of cultures and languages. Globalization has its own costs, risks and challenges, which have to be managed.
Share of foreign trade in national income (called foreign trade orientation) is a commonly used measure of globalization though a more comprehensive measure would be the value of international transactions as a proportion of total transactions in the economy. A policy favouring globalization with a belief in the gains from trade expresses desirability of the foreign investment in complementing the domestic investment for growth. A globalizing economy symbolizes the confidence of the international community in it. Globalization opens new business opportunities, encourages competition, provides spin-off advantages, enhances knowledge and helps develop strategic vision. Necessary safeguards, however, have to be provided to reduce its adverse effects in the form of dumping, external dependence, erosion of economic sovereignty, deterioration of terms of trade and balance of payments.
Globalization, apart from economic reforms in the country, is the result of internal economic compulsions, external pressure from the international community particularly from such transnational institutions as the IMF, World Bank and the WTO and the trend towards globalization in a number of developing countries. The progress in the direction of globalization has been slow and has taken through trade liberalization and friendly policies towards the foreign investment. Measures towards globalization have taken the following forms:
- Reduction in the scope of restrictive canalized trade.
- Increase in the limit of foreign direct investment (FDI) in a number of areas.
- Permission to exporters to keep foreign exchange accounts abroad to finance trade transactions.
- Creation of FIPB as a separate body to study and clear FDI proposals.
- Sustained reduction in the custom duty rates on a number of import items.
- Free import of a large number of items through open general licence (OGL).
- Reduction or elimination of quantitative restrictions (QRs) on a number of import items.
- Simplification, rationalization and standardization of a number of export-import procedures and documentation.
- Increase in the number of areas for automatic approval to FDI proposals.
- Wide range of facilities and incentives to export-oriented units (EOUs), export processing zones (EPZs) and special economic zones (SEZs).
- Permission to foreign institutional investors to trade in government securities and treasury bills.
- Replacing the restrictive Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) with a more liberal Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA, 1999).
Industry and Labour Strategy
The industry and labour strategy aims at removing regulatory obstacles to industrialization, introducing greater competition, seeking greater participation of foreign capital and improving labour environment. The implementation of industry and labour strategy has taken the following forms:
- Deregulation of industry and greater scope and freedom to private enterprise.
- Disinvestment in the public sector and public sector operations on commercial lines.
- Increase in foreign equity share to attract FDI in a wide range of industrial activities.
- Permission to reputed Indian companies to tap and float equity capital abroad.
- Competitive market structures for capital-intensive infrastructure industries.
- Sustained growth in productivity for international competitiveness.
- Withdrawal of the power of financial institutions to convert loans into equity.
- Raising the competitiveness and viability of the small-scale industries.
- Equity participation in small scale industries by other industrial undertakings including foreign enterprises up to 24 per cent of their share-holding.
- Development of credible social safety-nets so that the costs of adjustment towards a more competitive and dynamic economy are not borne by labour alone.
Assessment of the Nep
The NEP has been generally welcomed because it has abolished many unnecessary controls which delayed, and in a large number of situations, inhibited investment, both domestic and foreign. It has been increasingly felt that the public sector was not able to accelerate production in the areas reserved for it. It was expected that under the NEP, measures such as purposeful formulation, implementation and monitoring, professionalization and greater autonomy would improve the performance of those enterprises that would still remain in the public sector.
It was argued that restrictions under the MRTP and FERA did not permit Indian big business and foreign multinationals the use of modern technology, particularly hi-tech, to raise productivity and efficiency in Indian industries.
There would be an increase in the organizational efficiency of Indian industry. The emphasis on controlling and regulating monopolistic, oligopolistic, restrictive and unfair trade practices and strengthening of the powers of the Competition Commission would help curb the anti-competitive conduct of these companies by boosting competition all around. And this is the crux of the whole issue of development.
Consumers gain immensely in an open market. They have greater choice of goods, and get better products at cheaper prices.
Finally, the NEP is supply-side economics. Given the climate in which private sector and the multinationals can undertake investment freely, production will get a definite boost. As a result, several Indian companies, especially in information technology and pharmaceuticals, have made their marks in the world market.
Even though critics of the NEP argue that the policy of liberalization and promotion of competition would lead to increase in investment and in supply in an oligopolistic market structure that prevails in India, excessive dependence on market mechanism to channel investment in socially desirable channels may prove to be a failure.
Liberalization of hi-tech imports was the cornerstone of the NEP. The multinationals would not be prepared to transfer their latest technology to production of goods and services in India, but instead may promote only ‘screw-driver industrialization’.
The NEP encourages consumerism among the affluent sections of Indian society instead of marking investment in wage goods and housing which are very essential for raising social and economic welfare. The NEP does not cover agriculture, the most important sector of our economy providing livelihood to nearly 65 per cent of our population.
The NEP seems to have widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Companies have started shedding additional labour, leading to massive unemployment. Closing of several industries that could not stand the intense competition of a free market economy has only made matters worse.
Lastly, the NEP does not seriously attack the problem of poverty in an effective and practical way.
A Balance Sheet of Economic Reforms
As with every reform, Indian reforms too have their pluses and minuses. Since our economic reforms were born out of an impending economic crisis, the thinking among people, the policy makers and the government was in the direction of stabilization of the economy, which has been achieved in a large measure. Nearly two decades of the working of economic reforms has brought about a significant stabilization of the economy.
The growth rate of the gross domestic product (GDP) has averaged to around 6–7 per cent over these years, crossing the barrier of the so-called ‘Hindu Rate of Growth’ (see Table 27.1). Secondly, the country has been able to build considerable reserves of foreign exchange of the order of USD 260 billion and the inflow of these reserves has been steadily increasing. Our external debt has been coming down since we retired some of the high-cost debts. Thirdly, we have been offering lines of credit to some of our neighbours and have even lent to the World Bank. We have never defaulted on our external obligations and have successfully come out of the debt trap. Fourthly, there is another healthy sign; the average export ratio that slumped to 74 per cent prior to the reforms has registered an improvement to 84 per cent during the decade after 1992. Exporters are responding well to sweeping reforms of exchange rate and trade policies. The fears expressed in some quarters that our trade policy would generate a disruptive flood of imports and weaken our economy have been proved unfounded. Liberalization and openness have increased our self-confidence. Indian companies, especially in the information technology, pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors, have established themselves here and abroad. The world at large has been acknowledging albeit grudgingly that India is a knowledge power–house and has the potential to grow as an economic superpower in the years to come.
The Emergence of Corporate Governance
Another significant development of the reform process is the metamorphosis that is taking place in the country’s corporate sector. There is an increasing awareness among corporations to adopt better norms of governance. Since all the shackles of industrial growth such as industrial licensing, restriction on foreign investment and imports have been removed, corporations have come to acclimatize themselves to the changing competitive environment and have started adopting corporate governance to attract foreign investments. Yesterday’s corporate giants who lived off protection and cared little for enhancing share-holders’ value have been dwarfed today by market forces while new players who believe in professionalism and the credo of running business honestly and transparently to increase corporate values are racing to the top. Thus, the need for good corporate governance is being appreciated as a sound business strategy, and as an important facilitator to tap domestic as well as international capital. Moreover, corporate governance also means that corporations show concern not only for their shareholders but also for other stakeholders who include their workers and consumers and the society at large. Protection of environment is another area of their concern in recent times. Increasingly, companies try to act as socially responsible corporate citizens. That Indian corporations, both in the public and private sectors, have contributed more than INR 5.00 billion in cash and kind to tsunami relief is an ample testimony to their newly found social activism.
However, the economic reform is not an unmixed blessing. It has brought in several problems of its own. It was believed that the panacea for all the ills of the overheated Indian economy lay in strengthening the process of liberalization, privatization and globalization. But critics point out that the reforms have focused mostly on industry and that too on corporations and as such it has been too narrow and limited. This industry–primacy strategy has failed to generate employment; the relative neglect of agriculture has further reduced the labour absorptive capacity of the economy, especially when compared to the rate of expansion of labour force. Competition-driven downsizing in industries has only added its own impetus to the spectre of unemployment.
The process of globalization has had other adverse impacts as well on the Indian industry. The Indian enterprises suffer from size disadvantages as they are just pygmies that are dwarfed in the presence of MNC giants. As someone pointed out, ‘The globalization of the Indian economy is like integrating a mouse into a herd of elephants’. Besides, Indian corporations which worked in a protectionist environment for too long and in the absence of competition in a sellers’ market produced and sold shoddy goods while spreading their resources rather thinly over several products and markets now finds the going tough when confronted by huge MNCs with their core competencies and international brands. Added to this is the fact that their cost of capital is much higher than that of MNCs, which make their product prices uncompetitive in international markets.
There are several strictures passed against foreign investment such as unwarranted special concessions extended to foreign investors which deny a level playing field to Indian enterprises, heavy payment of dividends and royalty to their principals abroad, the elitist orientation of production, agreements favouring foreign firms, over import of obsolete technology-based equipment, distortion of economic structure and the political clout they exercise. While many of these criticisms may be true to an extent, the adverse impact of these can be curbed by a proactive and vigilant government prompted by well-informed and well-articulated public opinion.
In the present scenario, we have no choice, economic or otherwise, but to continue the reforms till they bear the fruits of development to benefit all our people. Though there are some harmful effects of liberalization, privatization and globalization, these should be eradicated by proper policy measures. The reforms are now irreversible and, if anything, are likely to continue in future with greater vigour, the problems they have generated notwithstanding. Tables 27.2 and 27.3 provide statistical data relating to the most significant macroeconomic indicators before and after India’s economic liberalization.
Table 27.2 Key Statistics of the Indian Economy
Table 27.3 Gross Domestic Product and its Sectoral Share (At Factor Cost)
27.1. If liberalization does not mean discarding each and every type of control mechanism, what kind of regulatory framework do you recommend at this juncture to make India competitive in world markets?
27.2. Give a critical appraisal of the new industrial policy with special reference to the aim of integrating Indian industry with the world economy.
27.3. Explain the need for liberalization of industrial policy in India. Also evaluate the impact of this policy.
27.4. What policy changes should be made in India’s trade and industrial policies to ensure rapid growth of GDP while maintaining adequate macroeconomic balance?
27.5. What do you mean by liberalization? Assess its impact on the industrial economy of India.
27.6. ‘Rapid industrialization and diversification of the industrial structure have been the twin objectives of industrial policy of India.’ Enumerate.
27.7. Assess the performance of the industrial sector in India since 1991. What are the reasons for the slowing down of the growth momentum after a four year boom in the early 1990s?
27.8. Write a note on the new industrial policy of 1991. In the light of the growth rate achieved after its adoption, do you think the NEP can be justified in every way?
27.9. State the features of NEP, 1991 and give your critical evaluation of it.
27.10. Examine the changes introduced in the new industrial policy of 1991 with respect to industrial licensing and foreign investment.
27.11. Write a note on the new industrial policy of 1991 with respect to public sector and foreign investment.
27.12. Write a critical commentary on the working of the new economic policy.
27.13. What do you understand by inclusive growth? Make your own suggestions as to how this can be realized in a market-driven economy India has adopted in recent years.
27.14. ‘The policy of privatization has been a failure in India.’ Comment.
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27.27. Reddy, Y. V. (2003), Economic Policy in India (New Delhi: UBSPD).
27.28. Reddy, Y. V. (2004), Lectures on Economic and Financial Sector Reforms in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
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