Our Policy Process:
Self-Styled “Planners” Have Controlled India’s Paper Money For Decades
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, Feb 20 2007
Three agencies of the Executive Branch of our Government have controlled the country’s fiscal and monetary processes. The most glamorous is the Planning Commission, a nominated agency of the Government of the day without constitutional status but which has informally charged itself with articulating national and provincial preferences on public spending. It has overshadowed in impact and prestige the Finance Ministry or Treasury, which normally would design the budget, raise taxes, run the fiscal machinery and be accountable to Parliament (the Legislative Branch) via the person of the Finance Minister. In turn, the Finance Ministry owns and controls the Reserve Bank, effectively placing India’s paper money and bank deposits at the discretion of New Delhi’s purported “economic planners”.
In addition, the Finance Commission is charged with articulating a suitable allocation of public resources between the Union and States, setting some medium-term parameters of federal finance. And the Comptroller & Auditor General is supposed to assess effectiveness of Government behaviour: the “high independent statutory authority..… who sees on behalf of the Legislature that … money expended was legally available for and applied to the purpose or purposes to which it has been applied.” “Audit … is the main instrument to secure accountability of the Executive to the Legislature …. The fundamental object of audit is to secure real value for the taxpayer’s money” (Indian Government Accounts & Audit, 1930).
Weakness of Parliament
In parliamentary government, the whole Executive Branch is accountable to and the agent of the Legislative Branch. But the utter weakness of our Parliament over decades has led its institutions, including the C&AG, to be run roughshod over by the Government of the day. The Finance Commission, being a temporary and transient body, can hardly take on the entrenched bureaucracy the Planning Commission has become.
This unconstitutional subservience of policy-making to the Planning Commission began when the first planners said on December 7 1952: “The raison d’etre of a planned economy is the fullest mobilisation of available resources and their allocation so as to secure optimum results …. There is no doubt that the RBI, which is a nationalised institution, will play its appropriate part in furthering economic development along agreed lines”. When Jawaharlal Nehru as free India’s first prime minister chose to himself lead the “Second Plan”, the fate of India’s paper money was sealed. “Insofar as government expenditure is financed by central bank credit, there is a direct increase in currency in circulation”. That May 14 1956 statement marked the last mention for the next 43 years of India’s money during the process of articulating India’s public expenditure priorities.
The Reserve Bank has indeed behaved “along agreed lines”. While superficially presiding over currency, banking and foreign exchange, it has been legally and practically a department (with some 75,000 employees today) of the Finance Ministry. Since the vast bulk of customer deposits are held by nationalized banks owned and managed by the Finance Ministry, India has had practically a “one-tier” banking system on the old USSR model.
The “Ninth” and “Tenth” Planning Commissions included not only Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee but also his Finance and Foreign Ministers as members. It was not our Reserve Bank but such persons, including the prominent official (now in post-retirement service) Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who declared on April 5 1999 in the “Ninth Five Year Plan” that a “viable monetary posture” was “to accept an average inflation rate in the region of 7 per cent per annum, which would justify a growth rate of money supply (base money) of 16 per cent per annum”. Recent money supply growth rates under the Sonia-Manmohan Congress have been near 19%-21%, and inflation properly measured may be well above 10%.
In Western countries, it would be normal procedure for an acceptable level of inflation to be decided upon, followed by monetary and fiscal targets being set in view of what is statistically expected by way of real economic growth, since growth is mainly a result not of Government behaviour but of spontaneous technological progress and increase in productivity. By contrast, our “planning” process has allowed unconstrained fiscal expenditure to emerge out of chaotic and unconstrained nationwide politics on the sure-fire assumption that budget deficits are going to be “paid for” by money-printing (and hence by invisible taxation of the paper assets of an unknowing public).
For a PM and Finance Minister to sign off on fiscal-monetary targets during the “planning” process commits the entire Executive Branch to it. Reversing or even critically discussing such intentions would require nothing less than a Parliamentary Vote of No-Confidence, which itself would require public dissemination of economic models and data exclusively available to the Executive Branch, whether or not the Executive Branch is aware of it. Public exhortations and rhetoric then follow from politicians, bureaucrats and their businessman friends as to how much real growth needs to occur in order for inflation not to be above a given level!
The cart is thus squarely placed in front of and not behind the buffalo. If exhortations are not met by reality it is typically said ~ in bureaucrat-speak that avoids accountability ~ “slippages” occurred due to outside factors like rainfall, American business cycles or perhaps, now, global warming and AIDS.
Indeed because the upside-down nature of this process has likely not been grasped even by politicians, bureaucrats and establishment economists participating in it, let aside Parliament or the public, it hardly seems a conscious or deliberate “macroeconomic policy” at all, but rather an outcome of habitual, ritualistic routines taking place year after year for decades. And India’s financial press and TV media, instead of soberly seeking facts, have tended merely to flatter top politicians and bureaucrats, as is the wont of businessmen to do.
War finance, not peace
The structure of incentives and information has become such that no one in government, academia, international credit-rating agencies or elsewhere, is able to effectively point out that fiscal intentions expressed in a “Plan” may be infeasible, inflationary or generally unwise. This includes the IMF and World Bank who lead India’s creditors in Western financial markets, and whose staff are generally uninterested in the countries they work on except to make sure loans received are large and repayments timely (as their personal livelihoods depend on such factors). But a brave anonymous squeak can be found hidden in thousands of pages of “Tenth Plan” verbiage dated December 21 2002 ~ that it is all being “financed almost entirely by borrowing …. India’s public finance inherits the consequence of fiscal mismanagement in the past.” Efforts of one recent Governor to carve out a modern independent role for the Reserve Bank have apparently gone in vain, and he too has been co-opted as a Government spokesman in retirement.