India’s Macroeconomics

(NB This is one of a set of articles that include “India in World Trade & Payments”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Fallacious Finance”, “Indian Money & Credit”, “Indian Money & Banking”, “Against Quackery”, “Indian Inflation”, “Monetary Integrity and the Rupee”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc., as well as “Mistaken Macroeconomics” etc. See My Recent Works, Interviews etc on India’s Money, Public Finance, Banking, Trade, BoP, Land, etc (an incomplete list) )

India’s Macroeconomics

Real growth has steadily occurred because India has shared the world’s technological progress. But bad fiscal, monetary policies over decades have led to monetary weakness and capital flight

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article

January 20 2007

Anyone wishing to understand India’s macroeconomics today must seek to grasp how Government expenditure and taxing behaviour have become related over decades to Government’s rapid creation of paper-money and bank-deposits. Even those policy-makers who have caused this phenomenon (notably our present PM during his long career as the top economic bureaucrat, as well as his many acolytes and foreign and domestic flatterers) seem to have failed to grasp this. Thus they may be unlikely to identify let alone carry out the key political task facing India today, which is to transform the feeble existing state corroded by corruption and waste into a robust modern one with public institutions of a quality meeting or exceeding world standards.

Government expenditure in a democracy is supposed to be representative of real public needs. But democracy is everywhere imperfect, and spending tends to follow instead the pattern of special interest groups, i.e., who has how much organised lobbying power in the polity. “Whatever can be rescued from useless expenditure is urgently required for useful”, said JS Mill. How can public spending be made more productive (or less unproductive) by cutting waste, fraud and abuse, and instead better alleviate mass ignorance, poverty and destitution? And how can there be reduced chance of a collapse of confidence in public institutions, especially currency and the banks as has happened in other countries at different times? These are central questions for serious macroeconomic policy-making in India today. In fact, it is likely the Indian people are at present both over-taxed and under-taxed: we are over-taxed by the corroded, corrupt wasteful polity that has actually arisen, while we are under-taxed relative to the fiscal and monetary needs of a robust modern democratic polity yet to exist.

India has shared the technological progress the world economy witnessed in the 20th Century. Private ingenuity, enterprise and business acumen at all scales of operation are manifest in countless examples across the country every day. Real economic growth has taken place steadily as a result, and there is no doubt average levels of health, education, and material well-being have improved almost everywhere ~ often despite government action, sometimes thanks to it. Our legendary population has grown mainly due to lowering of mortality rates via better health, nutrition and awareness, causing longer life-spans than ever before. Our village festivals, market-towns and city-streets are filled with bustling shops with busy people and merchandise, while large concrete buildings are being built everywhere by invisible builders. There is no apparent lack of a potential basis for taxation of private resources for public uses in the country.

At the same time, monumental problems of absolute poverty, ignorance, destitution and inequality remain obvious to the naked eye everywhere in India, affecting hundreds of millions of citizens. A rare candid Government study said: “It does not require clever tools of measurement to demonstrate that there are millions of children in India who are totally deprived of any education worth the name. And it is not as if they are invisible, remote, and therefore unreached. They are everywhere in the cities: on the streets, wiping cars at traffic junctions, picking rags in mounds of waste; in the roadside eateries; in small factories, as cheap labour or domestic help; at ‘home’ completing household chores. In the villages again they are everywhere, responding to the contextual demands of family work as well as bonded labour.” (India Education Report, 2002, p. 47). Such and similar children, their parents and kith and kin constitute the hundreds of anonymous millions of India today.

Less than 30 million people are employed in the “organised” sector, about 18 by government and 12 by the “organised private sector”. Even if four dependents are assumed for each, that hardly makes 15% of the whole population of one billion people today. So while there may be some 150 million people in India who in one way or another engage with the “organised sector”, there may be 850 million who do not ~ reminiscent of Disraeli’s “Two Nations” of Dickensian England.

India’s tax-revenues are raised in proportion of about 30% direct to 70% indirect, where the same ratio for an advanced economy like the USA is about 90% direct to 10% indirect. A mere 10 million income-tax returns are received in a given year in all of India. The masses are being taxed, perhaps heavily, though they are mostly unaware of what is being indirectly extracted out of their household budgets through ubiquitous archaic systems of Customs and Excise. From long before the British arrived in India, there was a tax on salt via government monopoly, and long after MK Gandhi’s march to the Arabian Sea to produce salt freely, indirect taxes bear down invisibly upon the masses of democratic India today. Nicholas Kaldor approved the current system in 1956 but by 1959 had retracted and recommended widespread direct taxation instead, which has never happened. Kaldor’s best known Indian student is today PM of the country.

Also, everyone’s holdings of monetary assets in India have been taxed by inflation, without people realising it except for a continual feeling or memory of the dwindling value of the rupee and other paper assets. Government debt, the quantity of money and general price-level of real goods and services (the inverse of the price of money) have been on exponential growth paths, most conspicuously since the compulsory government take-over of banks in the early 1970s, though origins reach back to the start of pseudo-socialist “planning” in the 1950s (see graph).

When transparent visible taxation cannot be proposed and voted for in the “real” economy because it needs too much political effort or insight, governments resort to invisible, undemocratic means of taxing the public’s monetary resources by the subterfuge of inflating currency and bank deposits. Inflation has everywhere raised real resources for governments too weak to administer proper tax systems or resist the onslaught of organised pressure-groups in incurring public expenditure.

Taxation via inflation “does not require detailed legislation, and can be administered very simply. All that it requires is to spend newly created notes. The resulting inflation automatically imposes a tax on cash balances by depreciating the value of money” (Cagan). A routine means of meeting a government’s deficits can become “use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money”, either directly by paying its creditors “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose”, or indirectly by paying its creditors “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”, issuing money to that amount in exchange for government debt (Dalton). Because public memories are short and economic models and data unavailable to ordinary people, a large scope exists for governments to extract real resources by inflation before “money-illusion” comes to be dispelled. Briefly, such has been how India’s continuous budget-deficits have been financed ever since Independence – made possible with impunity because our rulers have also kept our currency from being internationally convertible (except for themselves).

These quite subtle facts remain practically unknown to the Indian public whose lives and those of future generations are deeply affected by them, though in recent decades elite elements like bureaucrats, academics, military officers, businessmen, politicians etc with better information and access to resources have sensed monetary weakness in the country and exported their adult children and savings abroad expeditiously. The sphere of knowledge and concerns of most people are so close to needs of their own survival that they make easy prey for the machinations of others with better information or access to resources. This may help explain why we, who for more than a century and a half have seen a vast political awakening take place and can take pride in having a free press and the world’s largest electorate, at the same time have had our political life and public institutions wracked by enormous corruption, fraud and venality, enfeebling the political economy by widespread cynicism and loss of confidence, and inducing capital flight abroad on the part of a vapid elite.

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On Land-Grabbing

ON LAND-GRABBING

Dr Singh’s India, Buddhadeb’s Bengal, Modi’s Gujarat have notorious US, Soviet and Chinese examples to follow ~ distracting from the country’s real economic problems

By SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, Jan 14 2007

AT a business meet on 12 January 2005, Dr Manmohan Singh showered fulsome praise on Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as “dynamic”, “the Nation’s Best Chief Minister”, whose “wit and wisdom”, “qualities of head and heart”, “courage of conviction and passionate commitment to the cause of the working people of India” he admired, saying “with Buddhadeb Babu at the helm of affairs it appears Bengal is once again forging ahead… If today there is a meeting of minds between Delhi and Kolkata, it is because the ideas that I and Buddhadebji represent have captured the minds of the people of India. This is the idea of growth with equity and social justice, the idea that economic liberalization and modernization have to be mindful of the needs of the poor and the marginalized.”

With such support of a Congress Prime Minister (as well as proximity to Pranab Mukherjee), Mr Bhattacharjee could hardly have feared the local Congress and Trinamul would pose any threat in the 2006 Assembly Elections despite having more potential voters between them than the CPI-M.

Dr Singh returned to the “needs of the poor and the marginalized” at another business meet on 8 January 2007 promising to “unveil a new Rehabilitation Policy in three months to increase the pace of industrialisation” which would be “more progressive, humane and conducive to the long-term welfare of all stakeholders”, while his businessman host pointedly stated about Singur “land for industry must be made available to move the Indian manufacturing sector ahead”.

The “meeting of minds between Delhi and Kolkata” seems to be that agriculture allegedly has become a relatively backward slow-growing sector deserving to yield in the purported larger national interest to industry and services: what the PM means by “long-term welfare of all stakeholders” is the same as the new CPI-M party-line that the sons of farmers should not remain farmers (but become automobile technicians or IT workers or restaurant waiters instead).

It is a political viewpoint coinciding with interests of organised capital and industrial labour in India today, as represented by business lobbies like CII, FICCI and Assocham on one hand, and unions like CITU and INTUC on the other. Business Standard succinctly (and ominously) advocated this point of view in its lead editorial of 9 January as follows: “it has to be recognised that the world over capitalism has progressed only with the landed becoming landless and getting absorbed in the industrial/service sector labour force ~ indeed it is obvious that if people don’t get off the land, their incomes will rise only slowly”.

Land is the first and ultimate means of production, and the attack of the powerful on land-holdings or land-rights of the unorganised or powerless has been a worldwide phenomenon ~ across both capitalism and communism.

In the mid-19th Century, white North America decimated hundreds of thousands of natives in the most gargantuan land-grab of history. Defeated, Chief Red Cloud of the Sioux spoke in 1868 for the Apache, Navajo, Comanche, Cheyenne, Iroquois and hundreds of other tribes: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept any except one: they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

Half a century later, while the collapse of grain prices contributed to the Great Depression and pauperisation of thousands of small farmers in capitalist America in the same lands that had been taken from the native tribes, Stalin’s Russia embarked on the most infamous state-sponsored land-grab in modern history: “The mass collectivisation of Soviet agriculture (was) probably the most warlike operation ever conducted by a state against its own citizens…. Hundreds of thousands and finally millions of peasants… were deported… desperate revolts in the villages were bloodily suppressed by the army and police, and the country sank into chaos, starvation and misery… The object of destroying the peasants’ independence…was to create a population of slaves, the benefit of whose labour would accrue to industry. The immediate effect was to reduce Soviet agriculture to a state of decline from which it has not yet recovered… The destruction of the Soviet peasantry, who formed three quarters of the population, was not only an economic but a moral disaster for the entire country. Tens of millions were driven into semi-servitude, and millions more were employed as executants…” (Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism).

Why did Stalin destroy the peasants? Lenin’s wishful “alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry” in reality could lead only to the peasants being pauperised into proletarians. At least five million peasants died and (Stalin told Churchill at Yalta) another ten million in the resultant famine of 1932-1933. “Certainly it involved a struggle ~ but chiefly one between urban Communists and villagers… it enabled the regime to obtain much of the capital desired for industrialization from the defeated village… it was the decisive step in the building of Soviet totalitarianism, for it imposed on the majority of the people a subjection which only force could maintain” (Treadgold, 20th Century Russia).

Mr Bhattacharjee’s CPI-M is fond of extolling Chinese communism, and the current New Delhi establishment have made Beijing and Shanghai holiday destinations of choice. Dr Singh’s Government has been eager to create hundreds of “Special Economic Zones” run by organised capital and unionised labour, and economically privileged by the State. In fact, the Singur and Nandigram experiences of police sealing off villages where protests occur are modelled on creation of “Special Economic Zones” in China in recent years.

For example, Chinese police on 6 December 2005 cracked down on farmers and fishermen in the seaside village of Dongzhou, 125 miles North East of Hong Kong. Thousands of Dongzhou villagers clashed with troops and armed police protesting confiscation of their lands and corruption among officials. The police immediately sealed off the village and arrested protesters. China’s Public Security Ministry admitted the number of riots over land had risen sharply, reaching more than seventy thousand across China in 2004; police usually suppressed peasant riots without resort to firing but in Dongzhou, police firing killed 20 protesters. Such is the reality of the “emergence” of China, a totalitarian police-state since the Communist takeover in 1949, from its period of mad tyranny until Mao’s death in 1976, followed by its ideological confusion ever since.

Modern India’s political economy today remains in the tight grip of metropolitan “Big Business” and “Big Labour”. Ordinary anonymous individual citizens ~ whether housewife, consumer, student, peasant, non-union worker or small businessman ~ have no real voice or representation in Indian politics. We have no normal conservative, liberal or social democratic party in this country, as found in West European democracies where the era of land-grabbing has long-ceased. If our polity had been normal, it would have known that economic development does not require business or government to pauperise the peasantry but instead to define and secure individual property rights and the Rule of Law, and establish proper conditions for the market economy. The Congress and BJP in Delhi and CPI-M in Kolkata would not have been able to distract attention from their macroeconomic misdeeds over the decades ~ indicated, for example, by increasing interest-expenditure paid annually on Government debt as a fraction of tax revenues (see Table). This macroeconomic rot originated with the Indira Gandhi-PN Haksar capriciousness and mismanagement, which coincided with the start of Dr Singh’s career as India’s best known economic bureaucrat.

Hypocrisy of the CPI-M

Hypocrisy of the CPI-M

Political Collapse In Bengal: A Mid-Term Election/Referendum Is Necessary

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, January 9 2007, www.thestatesman.net

By Subroto Roy

For the 1991 Assembly elections, I happened to draft the West Bengal Congress’s election manifesto although I was not then or ever a member of that or any other party. There was no Trinamul but its future leader had made her jibe of there being watermelons who were red inside and green outside, aptly in case of a few senior leaders. The manifesto quoted George Orwell’s denunciation of communist ruling classes, and was so hard-hitting that the CPI-M’s Sailen Dasgupta came out with a statement he had never read a Congress manifesto that had been so harsh on them; privately, I took that to be a compliment though the Congress of course lost the election. There is no one in Bengal who does not want to see Bengal prosper, and the most candid vigorous political conversation is necessary to discover what in fact is true and what ought or not to be done.

Democratic norms

The functioning of the Basu-Bhattacharjee CPI-M is quite utterly amazing. It deserves to be called such because of the seamless transfer of power that occurred between the two men in November 2000. The Chief Minister in a parliamentary democracy is supposed to have the confidence of the House, yet when Jyoti Basu stopped being CM and anointed Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to succeed him, not even a perfunctory vote of confidence was asked for in the House ~ a fact I brought to the attention of the-then editor of The Statesman who agreed with me it signified the CPI-M’s contempt for the parliamentary institution they have been ruling over for decades. By contrast, there is already talk in Britain of an early general election as soon as Gordon Brown takes over from Tony Blair.

It is the same contempt for democratic parliamentary norms that Mr Bhattacharjee and company reveal today in pushing through their diabolical plan to acquire farmers’ lands on behalf of their businessmen friends.

All of 37% of those voting in the 2006 Assembly Elections voted for the CPI-M. By contrast, 41.2% voted for Trinamul and Congress together. Add also the 11.4% of those who voted for the Forward Bloc, RSP and CPI all of whom though part of the Left Front have been opposing the CPI-M on this cardinal issue. That constitutes prima facie evidence that a majority of 52.6% vs. 37% of voters may oppose the CPI-M’s present course of action. Mr Bhattacharjee heads a Government that is supposed to act not merely in the interest of members or groups of his own party or those who have flattered or financed it, but everyone in West Bengal including those who voted against the CPI-M as well as those who did not vote at all.

Gerhard Schröder dissolved the German Bundestag in 2005 though his own party held a majority there. He did so merely because his party lost a provincial election and he felt that indicated loss of confidence in it at the federal level also. Such is how genuine modern democracies work. In India to the contrary, we have had notorious misuse of the Constitution when State Governments were dissolved merely because they were ruled by parties opposed to that which had won a Union-level General Election. Even so, India remains a Parliamentary democracy at Union and State levels, and the Government of the day may advise the Head of State to dissolve the House and call for new elections to be held. It may do so even when there is no legal necessity to do so, i.e., even when it is secure with a majority of seats. It may do so because a political necessity has arisen for doing so.

If Mr Bhattacharjee is a genuine democrat, as he wishes to convey an impression of being, he should advise the Governor to dissolve the Assembly because the CPI-M wishes to go to the people to seek a mandate for its plans for the State’s industrialisation and forced acquisition of farm lands towards that end. The Trinamul, Congress, SUCI, Maoists and others including perhaps the CPI, FB, RSP and others will state their opposition, while he, Mr Nirupam Sen and their party will be able to articulate for West Bengal’s voters exactly what they propose to do and why. The CPI-M is adamant its cause is right while the Opposition have been agitating in the streets for months, and miniature civil war conditions now prevail in parts of rural Bengal; worse may be yet to come. There is only one way in a supposedly democratic society like ours to discover what should be done, and that is to dissolve the Assembly and call an election. Both sides will have a chance to articulate their positions to the public, and a vote will be held. There the matter would end. It is the one constructive way forward for the State, and indeed for the nation as a whole. (Alternatively, the Governor could be advised to request the Election Commission to administer India’s first referendum on a single agreed-upon question like “The West Bengal Government’s industrialisation and land-acquisition plan deserves citizens’ support: Yes/No”.)

If an Assembly election comes to be called and the CPI-M falls below a pre-set target of the vote-share, say 33%, or the Left Front below, say, 45%, then Mr Bhattacharjee, even if he commands a majority of seats again, will know he has no mandate and that he must stop and reconsider what he is doing. As I have said in these columns, West Bengal’s main economic problems are financial, having to do with Rs. 92 billion (Rs 9,200 crore) being paid as annual interest on the State Public Debt in 2004, and this may reach Rs 200 billion shortly. Economic development of the State has precious little to do with private businessmen making small cars or motorcycles or putting up buildings for information technology institutes, as Mr Bhattacharjee and his Government have deluded themselves into believing.

CPI-M 2003 statement
Besides its lack of democratic mandate, what surprises most about the modern CPI-M is its sheer hypocrisy. This is a party whose “Central Committee” in June 2003 in Kolkata condemned “non-Left State Governments” for allegedly “giving away thousands of hectares of land either on sale or on lease at throw-away prices to multinational companies and domestic monopolists”, and the Union Government for allegedly issuing “a circular calling for forcible eviction of lakhs of adivasis from the land”. The Basu-Bhattacharjee CPI-M is now clearly hoist with its own petard. Tilak said that what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow. It was not for nothing that he said it. If the CPI-M refers the land-acquisition question to the people in a free and fair election or referendum today, it will set a positive precedent for other States and parties in the country. If instead it pushes forward its current diabolical plans, the example it will have set will be one of initiating a class war in reverse, where the poor shall become poorer and the rich richer. India’s poorest consist of those rural inhabitants without land, and Government would have deliberately contributed to their numbers swelling.

(Author’s Note March 2007: The original article in its first paragraph referred mistakenly to Promode Dasgupta when Sailen Dasgupta had been meant, an error corrected in the next day’s paper.)