Maharashtra’s Money: Those Who Are Part Of The Problem Are Unlikely To Be A Part Of Its Solution
first published in The Statesman April 24 2007, Editorial Page
by Subroto Roy
Mr Percy Mistry, according to the World Bank’s official chronology, worked there with Moeen Qureshi, and S Javed Burki. Mr Qureshi was doyen of Pakistani bureaucrats in Washington and something of a king-maker back home, briefly becoming Pakistan’s PM himself; Mr Burki briefly became Pakistan’s Finance Minister and is an author in the book Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy created by WE James and myself in the 1980s in the USA. Although Mr Mistry claims no special expertise about India’s monetary economy or public finances, he was appointed by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to head an official committee that has given an opinion on a crucial monetary issue facing the country today, namely, the rupee’s convertibility. Mr Mistry apparently authored the report but resigned before its release, making it unclear who is responsible for its contents.
Mr Mistry has glossed over India’s present fiscal circumstances, said nothing of the limitless waste, fraud and abuse of the public purse the Sonia-Manmohan Government have been indulging in (like their Vajpayee-Advani predecessor) yet declared the rupee should be freed in 2008 ~ telling Business Standard a convertible rupee will allow people like “Ratan” and “Kumar” to raise capital in India for their foreign purchases, and not have to go to London as they must do now, poor things. All this in a report purporting to be a plan to make Mumbai an “international financial centre”, which is a different subject altogether.
Mr Mistry thus becomes a certifiable member of the “Dream Team” of Dr Singh, Mr Chidambaram, Mr Montek Ahluwalia, Mr Deepak Parekh and their big business/big labour/big media friends across political parties. Dreaming involves constructs in which normal logic and facts have no place. In the waking world, India is a labour-rich, capital-scarce country where wages are lower and interest-rates are higher respectively than in labour-scarce, capital-rich Western countries; hence India will be importing not exporting capital. In the real world too, Mumbai is not an off-shore island-resort outside India (like the so-called SEZs are going to be from a legal standpoint) but happens to be located in Maharashtra, whose public finances urgently require hard investigation and sober thought.
Now there used to be a “Bombay State” coinciding with the old Bombay Presidency plus “princely states” plus Marathi-majority districts of MP and Hyderabad and excluding Kannada-majority districts to Mysore. On May 1 1960, after much agitation, this became the new States of Gujarat and Maharashtra. There was talk of making Bombay city a Union Territory but the Marathis would have none of it. In fact, within a few weeks, Maharashtra reverted to calling itself “Bombay State” and it was not until the end of the year the Government of India officially declared it must be called Maharashtra.
The same quest for, or confusion about, cultural and political identity continues in recent times and may be at the root of the Shiv Sena’s erratic political behaviour which rocks Maharashtra politics so frequently. “Bombay” may be “Mumba Bai” or “Mumba Devi” but it had not been a Marathi town any more than Calcutta had been a Bengali town. Bombay’s traders and businessmen descended there while it developed after the decline of Surat, where the British initially came to trade in the 17th Century. Modern Bombay retains some of its “all-India” character and even today you cannot make money in its markets unless you speak Gujarati. Marathi-speakers have tended to wish Maharashtra was “Maratha-rashtra” reminiscent of the great Shivaji Bhonsla (1627-1680) but others have read the name only as “Great State”.
This continuing identity crisis had its most devastating costly impact through the Dabhol-Enron fiasco. As recently as March 4 2007, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said frankly “We could not generate a single megawatt of electricity in the last 10 years due to the Enron issue”, adding demand for electric power had been growing in the State at 10% per annum.
Indeed, before the 2005-2006 nuclear or any other deal could be contemplated with the Americans, the US-India Business Council, the American business lobbyist (and recent guest and soon-to-be host of the CPI-M’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharya), insisted India pay up fully for the Dabhol-Enron fiasco. Maharashtra and its sovereign guarantor the Government of India, duly paid out at least $140-$160 million ($14-$16 crore) to each General Electric and Bechtel Corporation in “an amicable settlement”. It was only then that Dr Manmohan Singh could be hosted in the White House and in turn play host to President George W. Bush.
Without entering the intricacies of the fiasco, it may be still asked who was responsible. And in retrospect the finger must point both at the Mahajan-Munde BJP/ Thakeray-Joshi Shiv Sena, and at the Sharad Pawar Government and Manmohan-Montek Union Finance Ministry at the time. The BJP-Shiv Sena declared an intent to “throw Enron into the Arabian Sea” and thus vitiated the atmosphere with the Americans. Americans are shrewd and practical people in commercial matters and accounted for such contingencies in their deal-making, tidily earning their money anyway, winning the arbitration awards in due course. Maharashtra’s identity confusion was exemplified by Rebecca Mark having to visit Bal Thakeray before a policy flip-flop could be permitted.
If the basic technical cause Enron’s electricity became too expensive was that it was denominated in dollar prices and the rupee depreciated rapidly during and after the deal-making, then the financial responsibility for the fiasco must be ultimately traced to India’s Finance Minister in the early 1990s, namely Dr Singh, and his chief acolyte and Finance Secretary Mr Ahluwalia. Maharasthtra is not a sovereign country, and it was the Union Finance Ministry’s responsibility to oversee the necessary cost-benefit and project appraisal analyses, and these if properly done would have accounted for exchange-rate depreciation scenarios. It is no wonder the World Bank later refused to finance the project because they had done their studies better. The same kind of cavalier unprofessional attitude in spending scarce foreign moneys earned by India’s public has been displayed now more than a decade later by the Manmohan-Montek duo, though on a vastly larger scale, in regard to the planned purchase of nuclear reactors from Russia, the USA etc on a turnkey basis.
Maharashtra may be a Great State but its public finances are in as great a shambles as any other. The table for 2003-2004 (before the Enron payments were made) reveals the very high continuing public indebtedness, and the same pattern as the budgets of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh described in these columns earlier. A closer look would reveal, e.g., that Rs 814.36 crore (Rs. 8.14 billion) were spent in collecting Rs1,205.97 crore. (Rs. 12.05 billion) of “Vehicle Tax”! There is much that Mumbai’s and Maharashtra’s and India’s citizens have to ponder over and act upon before serious thought can be put to restoring the integrity of India’s money. In that process, those who have been part of the problem are unlikely to be part of its solution.