Against Quackery

Against Quackery

 

 

First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, September 23 2007, The Statesman September 24 2007

 

by

Subroto Roy

 

 

Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms; the Communists have been appeased or bought; the BJP is incompetent

 

 

WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.

 

 

The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc. The extremely expensive “nuclear deal” with the USA is merely one example of such interest group politics.

 

 

Nuclear power is and shall always remain of tiny significance as a source of India’s electricity (compared to e.g. coal and hydro); hence the deal has practically nothing to do with the purported (and mendacious) aim of improving the country’s “energy security” in the long run. It has mostly to do with big business lobbies and senior bureaucrats and politicians making a grab, as they always have done, for India’s public purse, especially access to foreign currency assets. Some $300 million of India’s public money had to be paid to GE and Bechtel Corporation before any nuclear talks could begin in 2004-2005 ~ the reason was the Dabhol fiasco of the 1990s, a sheer waste for India’s ordinary people. Who was responsible for that loss? Pawar-Mahajan-Munde-Thackeray certainly but also India’s Finance Minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, and his top Finance Ministry bureaucrat, Montek Ahluwalia ~ who should never have let the fiasco get off the ground but instead actively promoted and approved it.

 

 

Cost-benefit analysis prior to any public project is textbook operating procedure for economists, and any half-competent economist would have accounted for the scenario of possible currency-depreciation which made Dabhol instantly unviable. Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia failed that test badly and it cost India dearly. The purchase of foreign nuclear reactors on a turnkey basis upon their recommendation now reflects similar financial dangers for the country on a vastly larger scale over decades.

 

 

Our Government seems to function most expeditiously in purchasing foreign arms, aircraft etc ~ not in improving the courts, prisons, police, public utilities, public debt. When the purchase of 43 Airbus aircraft surfaced, accusations of impropriety were made by Boeing ~ until the local Airbus representative said on TV that Boeing need not complain because they were going to be rewarded too and soon 68 aircraft were ordered from Boeing!

 

 

India imports all passenger and most military aircraft, besides spare parts and high-octane jet fuel. Domestic aviation generates near zero forex revenues and incurs large forex costs ~ a debit in India’s balance of payments. Domestic airline passengers act as importers subsidised by our meagre exporters of textiles, leather, handicrafts, tea, etc. What a managerially-minded PM and Aviation Minister needed to do before yielding to temptations of buying new aircraft was to get tough with the pampered managements and unions of the nationalized airlines and stand up on behalf of ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who, after all, are mostly rail or road-travellers not jet-setters.

 

 

The same pattern of negligent policy-behaviour led Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in an unprecedented step to mention in his 2007 Union Budget Speech the private American companies Blackstone and GE ~ endorsing the Ahluwalia/Deepak Parekh idea that India’s forex reserves may be made available to be lent out to favoured private businesses for purported “infrastructure” development. We may now see chunks of India’s foreign exchange reserves being “borrowed” and never returned ~ a monumental scam in front of the CBI’s noses.

 

 

The Reserve Bank’s highest echelons may have become complicit in all this, permitting and encouraging a large capital flight to take place among the few million Indians who read the English newspapers and have family-members abroad. Resident Indians have been officially permitted to open bank accounts of US $100,000 abroad, as well as transfer gifts of $50,000 per annum to their adult children already exported abroad ~ converting their largely untaxed paper rupees at an artificially favourable exchange-rate.

 

 

In particular, Mr Ratan Tata (under a misapprehension he may do whatever Lakshmi Mittal does) has been allowed to convert Indian rupees into some US$13,000,000,000 to make a cash purchase of a European steel company. The same has been allowed of the Birlas, Wipro, Dr Reddy’s and numerous other Indian corporations in the organised sector ~ three hundred million dollars here, five hundred million dollars there, etc. Western businessmen now know all they have to do is flatter the egos of Indian boxwallahs enough and they might have found a buyer for their otherwise bankrupt or sick local enterprise. Many newcomers to New York City have been sold the Brooklyn Bridge before. “There’s a sucker born every minute” is the classic saying of American capitalism.

 

 

The Sonia-Manmohan Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.

 

 

Why have Indian foreign currency reserves zoomed up in recent years? Not mainly because we are exporting more textiles, tea, software engineers, call centre services or new products to the world, but because Indian corporations have been allowed to borrow abroad, converting their hoards of paper rupees into foreign debt. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s international balance of payments and are not like tax-resources available to be spent by Government; India’s reserves largely constitute foreign liabilities of Indian residents. This may bear endless repetition as the PM and his key acolytes seem impervious to normal postgraduate-level economics textbooks.

 

 

Other official fallacies include thinking India’s savings rate is near 32 per cent and that clever bureaucratic use of it can cause high growth. In fact, real growth arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population ~ mostly despite not because of an exploitative parasitic State. What has been mismeasured as high savings is actually expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system caused by runaway government deficit-spending.

 

 

Another fallacy has been that agriculture retards growth, leading to nationwide politically-backed attempts at land-grabbing by wily city industrialists and real estate developers. In a hyperinflation-prone economy with wild deficit-spending and runaway money-printing, cheating poor unorganised peasants of their land, when that land is an asset that is due to appreciate in value, has seemed like child’s play.

 

 

What of the Opposition? The BJP/RSS have no economists who are not quacks though opportunists were happy to say what pleased them to hear when they were in power; they also have much implicit support among organised business lobbies and the anti-Muslim senior bureaucracy. The official Communists have been appeased or bought, sometimes so cheaply as with a few airline tickets here and there. The nonsensical “Rural Employment Guarantee” is descending into the wasteland of corruption it was always going to be. The “Domestic Violence Act” as expected has started to destroy India’s families the way Western families have been destroyed. The Arjun-DMK OBC quota corrodes higher education further from its already dismal state. All these were schemes that Congress and Communist cabals created or wholeheartedly backed, and which the BJP were too scared or ignorant to resist.

 

 

And then came Singur and Nandigram ~ where the sheer greed driving the alliance between the Sonia-Manmohan-Pranab Congress and the CPI-M mask that is Buddhadeb, came to be exposed by a handful of brave women like Mamata and Medha.

 

 

A Fiscal U-Turn is Needed For India to Go in The Right Economic Direction

 

Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it.

 

 

Rule of Law

 

The first time Dr Manmohan Singh’s name arose in contemporary post-Indira politics was on 22 March 1991 when M K Rasgotra challenged the present author to answer how Dr Singh would respond to proposals being drafted for a planned economic liberalisation that had been authorised by Rajiv, as Congress President and Opposition Leader, since September 1990. It was replied that Dr Singh’s response was unknown and he had been heading the “South-South Commission” for Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, while what needed to be done urgently was make a clear forceful statement to restore India’s credit-worthiness and the confidence of international markets, showing that the Congress at least knew its economics and was planning to take bold new steps in the direction of progress.

 

 

There is no evidence Dr Singh or his acolytes were committed to any economic liberalism prior to 1991 as that term is understood worldwide, and scant evidence they have originated liberal economic ideas for India afterwards. Precisely because they represented the decrepit old intellectual order of statist ”Ma-Bap Sarkari” policy-making, they were not asked in the mid-1980s to be part of a “perestroika-for-India” project done at a foreign university ~ the results of which were received, thanks to Siddhartha Shankar Ray, by Rajiv Gandhi in hand at 10 Janpath on 18 September 1990 and specifically sparked the change in the direction of his economic thinking.

 

 

India is a large, populous country with hundreds of millions of materially poor citizens, a weak tax-base, a vast internal and external public debt (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), massive annual fiscal deficits, an inconvertible currency, and runaway printing of paper-money. It is unsurprising Pakistan’s economy is similar, since it is born of the same land and people. Certainly there have been real political problems between India and Pakistan since the chaotic demobilisation and disintegration of the old British Indian Army caused the subcontinent to plunge into war-like or “cold peace” conditions for six decades beginning with a bloody Partition and civil war in J&K. High military expenditures have been necessitated due to mutual and foreign tensions, but this cannot be a permanent state if India and Pakistan wish for genuine mass economic well-being.

 

 

Even with the continuing mutual antagonism, there is vast scope for a critical review of Indian military expenditures towards greatly improving the “teeth-to-tail” ratio of its fighting forces. The abuse of public property and privilege by senior echelons of the armed forces (some of whom have been keen most of all to export their children preferably to America) is also no great secret.

 

 

On the domestic front, Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991.

 

 

The Madhava Menon Committee on criminal justice policy in July proposed a Hong Kong model of “a single high-tech integrated Criminal Justice complex in every district headquarters which may be a multi-storied structure, devoting the ground floor for the police station including a video-installed interrogation room; the first floor for the police-lockups/sub-jail and the Magistrate’s Court; the second floor for the prosecutor’s office, witness rooms, crime laboratories and legal aid services; the third floor for the Sessions Court and the fourth for the administrative offices etc…. (Government of India) should take steps to evolve such an efficient model… and not only recommend it to the States but subsidize its construction…” The question arises: Why is this being proposed for the first time in 2007 after sixty years of Independence? Why was it not something designed and implemented starting in the 1950s?

 

 

The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size.

 

 

Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.

 

 

Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.

 

 

 

Government accounts


Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future.

 

 

There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.

Posted in Accounting and audit, asymmetric information, Banking, Big Business and Big Labour, BJP, Communists, Congress Party, Deposit multiplication, DMK, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economics of Public Finance, Governance, Government accounting, Government Budget Constraint, Government of India, India's Big Business, India's savings rate, India's stock and debt markets, India's 1991 Economic Reform, India's aviation, India's balance of payments, India's Banking, India's Budget, India's Capital Markets, India's communists, India's corporate governance, India's corruption, India's Democracy, India's Economic History, India's Economy, India's Energy, India's Exports, India's Families, India's Foreign Exchange Reserves, India's Foreign Trade, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's Industry, India's inflation, India's Judiciary, India's Land, India's Macroeconomics, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's nomenclatura, India's political lobbyists, India's Politics, India's Polity, India's pork-barrel politics, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, India's Reserve Bank, India's State Finances, India's Union-State relations, India-Pakistan peace process, India-US Nuclear Deal, Indira Gandhi, Inflation, Interest group politics, Mamata Banerjee, Manmohan Singh, Mendacity in politics, Non-Resident Indians, Pakistan, Balochistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Political corruption, Political cynicism, Political Economy, Political mendacity, Political Philosophy, Politics, Pork-barrel politics, Power-elites and nomenclatura, Public Choice/Public Finance, Public property waste fraud, Rajiv Gandhi, Reason, Redeposits, Singur and Nandigram, Sonia Gandhi, Unorganised capital markets, Welfare Economics. 2 Comments »

An Open Letter to Professor Amartya Sen about Singur etc

A letter to Prof. Sen

First published in The Statesman 31 July 2007, Editorial Page Special Article

Professor Amartya Sen, Harvard University

Dear Professor Sen,

Everyone will be delighted that someone of your worldwide stature has joined the debate on Singur and Nandigram; The Telegraph deserves congratulations for having made it possible on July 23.

I was sorry to find though that you may have missed the wood for the trees and also some of the trees themselves. Perhaps you have relied on Government statements for the facts. But the Government party in West Bengal represents official Indian communism and has been in power for 30 years at a stretch. It may be unwise to take at face-value what they say about their own deeds on this very grave issue! Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are many candid communists who privately recognise this dismal truth about themselves. To say this is not to be praising those whom you call the “Opposition” ~ after all, Bengal’s politics has seen emasculation of the Congress as an opposition because the Congress and communists are allies in Delhi. It is the Government party that must reform itself from within sua sponte for the good of everyone in the State.

The comparisons and mentions of history you have made seem to me surprising. Bengal’s economy now or in the past has little or nothing similar to the economy of Northern England or the whole of England or Britain itself, and certainly Indian agriculture has little to do with agriculture in the new lands of Australia or North America. British economic history was marked by rapid technological innovations in manufacturing and rapid development of social and political institutions in context of being a major naval, maritime and mercantile power for centuries. Britain’s geography and history hardly ever permitted it to be an agricultural country of any importance whereas Bengal, to the contrary, has been among the most agriculturally fertile and hence densely populated regions of the world for millennia.

Om Prakash’s brilliant pioneering book The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal 1630-1720 (Princeton 1985) records all this clearly. He reports the French traveller François Bernier saying in the 1660s “Bengal abounds with every necessary of life”, and a century before him the Italian traveller Verthema saying Bengal “abounds more in grain, flesh of every kind, in great quantity of sugar, also of ginger, and of great abundance of cotton, than any country in the world”. Om Prakash says “The premier industry in the region was the textile industry comprising manufacture from cotton, silk and mixed yarns”. Bengal’s major exports were foodstuffs, textiles, raw silk, opium, sugar and saltpetre; imports notably included metals (as Montesquieu had said would always be the case).

Bengal did, as you say, have industries at the time the Europeans came but you have failed to mention these were mostly “agro-based” and, if anything, a clear indicator of our agricultural fecundity and comparative advantage. If “deindustrialization” occurred in 19th Century India, that had nothing to do with the “deindustrialization” in West Bengal from the 1960s onwards due to the influence of official communism.

You remind us Fa Hiaen left from Tamralipta which is modern day Tamluk, though he went not to China but to Ceylon. You suggest that because he did so Tamluk effectively “was greater Calcutta”. I cannot see how this can be said of the 5th Century AD when no notion of Calcutta existed. Besides, modern Tamluk at 22º18’N, 87º56’E is more than 50 miles inland from the ancient port due to land-making that has occurred at the mouth of the Hooghly. I am afraid the relevance of the mention of Fa Hiaen to today’s Singur and Nandigram has thus escaped me.

You say “In countries like Australia, the US or Canada where agriculture has prospered, only a very tiny population is involved in agriculture. Most people move out to industry. Industry has to be convenient, has to be absorbing”. Last January, a national daily published a similar view: “For India to become a developed country, the area under agriculture has to shrink, urban and industrial land development has to take place, and about 100 million workers have to move out from agriculture into industry and services. This is the only way forward for bringing prosperity to the rural population”.

Rice is indeed grown in Arkansas or Texas as it is in Bengal but there is a world of difference between the technological and geographical situation here and that in the vast, sparsely populated New World areas with mechanized farming! Like shoe-making or a hundred other crafts, agriculture can be capital-intensive or labour-intensive ~ ours is relatively labour-intensive, theirs is relatively capital-intensive. Our economy is relatively labour-abundant and capital-scarce; their economies are relatively labour-scarce and capital-abundant (and also land-abundant). Indeed, if anything, the apt comparison is with China, and you doubtless know of the horror stories and civil war conditions erupting across China in recent years as the Communist Party and their businessman friends forcibly take over the land of peasants and agricultural workers, e.g. in Dongzhou.

All plans of long-distance social engineering to “move out” 40 per cent of India’s population (at 4 persons per “worker”) from the rural hinterlands must also face FA Hayek’s fundamental question in The Road to Serfdom: “Who plans whom, who directs whom, who assigns to other people their station in life, and who is to have his due allotted by others?”

Your late Harvard colleague, Robert Nozick, opened his brilliant 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia saying: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”. You have rightly deplored the violence seen at Singur and Nandigram. But you will agree it is a gross error to equate violence perpetrated by the Government which is supposed to be protecting all people regardless of political affiliation, and the self-defence of poor unorganised peasants seeking to protect their meagre lands and livelihoods from state-sponsored pogroms. Kitchen utensils, pitchforks or rural implements and flintlock guns can hardly match the organised firepower controlled by a modern Government.

Fortunately, India is not China and the press, media and civil institutions are not totally in the hands of the ruling party alone. In China, no amount of hue and cry among the peasants could save them from the power of organised big business and the Communist Party. In India, a handful of brave women have managed to single-handedly organise mass movements of protest which the press and media have then broadcast that has shocked the whole nation to its senses.

You rightly say the land pricing process has been faulty. Irrelevant historical prices have been averaged when the sum of discounted expected future values in an inflationary economy should have been used. Matters are even worse. “The fear of famine can itself cause famine. The people of Bengal are afraid of a famine. It was repeatedly charged that the famine (of 1943) was man-made.” That is what T. W. Schultz said in 1946 in the India Famine Emergency Committee led by Pearl Buck, concerned that the 1943 Bengal famine should not be repeated following dislocations after World War II. Of course since that time our agriculture has undergone a Green Revolution, at least in wheat if not in rice, and a White Revolution in milk and many other agricultural products. But catastrophic collapses in agricultural incentives may still occur as functioning farmland comes to be taken by government and industry from India’s peasantry using force, fraud or even means nominally sanctioned by law. If new famines come to be provoked because farmers’ incentives collapse, let future historians know where responsibility lay.

West Bengal’s real economic problems have to do with its dismal macroeconomic and fiscal position which is what Government economists should be addressing candidly. As for land, the Government’s first task remains improving grossly inadequate systems of land-description and definition, as well as the implementation and recording of property rights.

With my most respectful personal regards, I remain

Yours ever

Suby

Bengal’s Finances

BENGAL’S FINANCES

First published in The Sunday Statesman February 25 2007, Editorial Page  Special Article, www.thestatesman.net

There is urgent need for calm, sober thought, not self-delusion. Foreign trade, world politics are not what State Governments are constitutionally permitted to do.

By SUBROTO ROY

Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is fond of saying his hoped for industrialization plans will lead to jobs for “thousands” of unemployed young men and women emerging from West Bengal’s many schools, colleges and universities.

Now ever since JM Keynes’s time, economists have understood the phenomenon of unemployment quite well. Some unemployment is voluntary: where someone declines to accept a job at the prevailing wage or chooses leisure instead, e.g. withdraws from the labour-force in order to go to college or care for children or family or be involved in search for a better job. Some unemployment is seasonal, as in agriculture ~ where there often is “overfull” employment at harvest-time. Some unemployment may be frictional or structural, depending on dynamic unpredictable industrial or technological changes. In none of these cases is any large role defined for government investment using public resources, though there can be smaller roles like providing job-information, advice and training.

Keynes himself was concerned with systematic “involuntary” unemployment, where masses of people are willing but unable to find work at the going wage because there has been a general collapse of the market economy, as arguably happened in the 1930s in the Western countries. There has been no such situation in independent India.

And it is important to remember our labour markets are mostly unrestricted by State boundaries: unlike totalitarian China, we do not have internal passports in the country, and Indians are mostly free to work anywhere they wish to. Talk from CPI-M, Congress, BJP or other politicians of alleged Keynesian “multiplier” effects arising from government expenditure is mostly talk. And as for Sonia Gandhi’s “National Rural Employment Guarantee”, to the extent it was argued for at all by Amartya Sen’s disciples like Jean Drèze, the argument was not on Keynesian grounds but of a purportedly more equitable distribution of government expenditure.

What then is the Bhattacharjee Government supposed to be doing?

Chandrababu Naidu started a trend among Chief Ministers flying off to exotic foreign vistas, addressing international conferences and signing memoranda with foreign businessmen. But world politics, international relations and foreign trade are not what Indian State Governments are permitted by our Constitution to be engaged in doing. Nelson Mandela is a great man of history but Jyoti Basu’s Government had no constitutional right or business to gift him five million American dollars of West Bengal public money after he was released from jail in South Africa in 1990 by De Klerk.

Our Constitution is crystal clear that the legitimate agenda of India’s State Governments is something very mundane and wholly unglamorous: State Governments are supposed to be managing Courts of Law; the Police, Civil Order, Prisons; Water, Sanitation, Health; State Debt Service; Intra-State Infrastructure & Communications; Local Government; Liquor & Other Public Sector Industry; Trade, Local Banking & Finance; Land, Agriculture, Animal Husbandry; Libraries, Museums, Monuments; State Civil Service & Administration. In addition, “concurrent” with the Union Government are Criminal, Civil & Family Law, Contracts & Torts; Forests & Environmental Protection; Unemployment & Refugee Relief; Electricity; Education. It is relative to that explicit agenda that State Government performances around the country must be evaluated.

The finances of the West Bengal Government and those of every other State of the Union appear in a condition of Byzantine confusion. Even so, it is not impossible for any citizen to understand them with a little serious effort. The State receives tax revenues, income from State operations (like bus fares, lottery tickets etc), and grants transferred from the Union. Of the State’s total revenues, more than 80% arise from taxation. Of those taxes, about 30% is collected by the Union on behalf of the State in accordance with the Finance Commission’s formulae; 70% is collected by the State itself, and about 60% of whhat the State collects is Sales Tax. On the expenditure side, more than 60% goes in repaying the State’s debts as well as interest owed on that debt. The remainder gets distributed as summarily shown in the table. (What would be revealed at a higher level of detail is that e.g. Rs. 2.63 Bn is spent in collecting Rs. 9.93 Bn of land revenue!) The wide difference between the State’s income from all sources and its expenditures implies the State must then issue new public debt. That typically has been a larger and larger sum every year, greater than the amount of maturing debt being amortised or extinguished. The potentially grave consequence of this will be obvious to any householder, and makes it imperative that calm, sober thought and objective analysis occur about the State’s financial condition and budget constraint. There is no room for self-delusion, especially on the part of the Bhattacharjee Government. We are still paying interest on the money we borrowed to make Nelson Mandela a gift seventeen years ago.

Govt. of W. Bengal’s Finances 2003-2004
Rs Billion (Hundred Crore)
EXPENDITURE ACTIVITIES:
government & local government 8.68 1.68%
judiciary 1.27 0.25%
police (including home guard etc.) 13.47 2.61%
prisons 0.62 0.12%
bureaucracy 5.69 1.10%
collecting land revenue & taxes 4.32 0.84%
government employee pensions 26.11 5.05%
schools, colleges, universities, institutes 45.06 8.72%
health, nutrition & family welfare 14.70 2.84%
water supply & sanitation 3.53 0.68%
roads, bridges, transport, etc. 8.29 1.60%
electricity (mostly loans to power sector) 31.18 6.03%
irrigation, flood control, environment, ecology 10.78 2.09%
agricultural subsidies, rural development, etc. 7.97 1.54%
industrial subsidies 2.56 0.50%
capital city development 7.29 1.41%
social security, SC, ST, OBC, labour welfare 9.87 1.91%
tourism 0.09 0.02%
arts, archaeology, libraries, museums 0.16 0.03%
miscellaneous 0.52 0.10%
debt amortization & debt servicing 314.77 60.89%
total expenditure 516.92

tax revenue 141.10
operational income 6.06
grants from Union 18.93
loans recovered 0.91
total income 167.00
INCOME SOURCES:

GOVT. BORROWING REQUIREMENT
(total expenditure
minus total income ) 349.93

financed by:
new public debt issued 339.48
use of Trust Funds etc 10.45
349.93
From the author’s research and based on latest available data published by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India

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,

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.)

Land, Liberty & Value

LAND, LIBERTY & VALUE

Government must act in good faith treating all citizens equally ~ not favouring organised business lobbies and organised labour over an unorganised peasantry

By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article, December 31 2006,

EVERY farmer knows that two adjacent plots of land which look identical to the outsider may be very different in character, as different as two siblings of the same family. Adjacent plots may differ in access to groundwater and sunlight, in minerals and salts, in soil, fertilisers, parasites, weeds or a dozen other agronomic factors. Most of all, they will differ in the quality and ingenuity of thought and labour that has gone into their care and cultivation over the years, perhaps over generations.

John Locke said: “Whatsoever that (a man) removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property… For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no one but he can have a right to what that once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others” (Second Treatise of Government). Plots of land are as specific as the families that have “mixed” their labour with them. Locke wrote of labour being something “unquestionably” the labourer’s own property; in the same libertarian vein, Robert Nozick opened Anarchy, State and Utopia saying “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”.

But as we recognise the universal sanctity of the individual person and his/her private property, we have to start qualifying it. If you purchase a field, forest or estate through which runs a pathway traditionally used by the public to get from one side to the other then even as the new owner you may not have a right to forbid the public’s use of the pathway. By extension, it is clear the State, the community of which you are a citizen, may approach you and demand there should be and will be a public road or thoroughfare through your property in the common interest. Such is the sovereign’s right of “eminent domain” recognised throughout the world, not only in times of war or natural disaster but also in normal times where private property may be taken for public use. The individual’s right to free use of his/her property is circumscribed as a result.

What may be certainly expected though in all matters is that the State will act in good faith, i.e., that it has conducted proper technical surveys and cost-benefit analyses as well as transparent public hearings, and has honestly decided that the road must be constructed using this route and no other. The doctrine of eminent domain implies that while the right to private property may be basic, it is not absolute, as indeed no right is, not even the right to one’s own life. In India, one key difference between the landmark Golaknath (AIR 1967 SC 1643) and Kesavananda Bharati (AIR 1973 SC 1461) rulings had to do precisely with the former recognising the right to property being fundamental as in our original 1950 Constitution, while the latter consented to the Indira Parliament’s denial of this.

When private property is taken, fair compensation must be paid. For example, the American Constitution says “no private property may be taken for public use without just compensation”. What is just compensation? Typically it would be the “fair market value” — but that must be properly adjudged accounting for the best future use of the land, not merely the historical or traditional past use of the land.

Consider, in a mature urban real-estate market, a plot made vacant because a warehouse located on it has accidentally burned down. What is the value of the plot now? Another warehouse could be built, but other bids could come in too for construction of offices or residential flats or a multi-storey garage. The plot’s value would differ depending on which use it is ultimately put to. And this value would be ascertained by calculating the expected cash flows into the future from each of these possibilities, discounted appropriately to account for the fact the future is less valuable than the present, with the highest value alternative being chosen. That is how a mature private real-estate market works in theory, though in practice there would be zoning and environmental restrictions to account for the traditional nature of the neighbourhood as well as possible pollution by effluent waste etc.

In India, Government departments and ministries have inherited prime urban real estate from British times. Amidst the highest value real estate in Kolkata, Bangalore, Delhi etc. will be found a military camp or flats built for military personnel, having nothing whatsoever to do with furtherance of the nation’s defences today. The appalling state of government accounting and audit of our public property and institutions includes the fact that neither the Union nor State Governments and municipalities have the faintest idea of assets, including real estate, that they own. These public assets are frequently open to abuse by managerially uncontrolled government employees.

Fallacies even more curious seem to be currently at work in Indian policy-making, whether by this or that political party. The “eminent domain” doctrine requires a public purpose to exist for acquisition of private property by the State: e.g. construction of a road, bridge, dam, airport or some other traditional public good which is going to be used by the public. In India as elsewhere, “land reform” did involve taking an absentee landlord A’s land and distributing it to B, C, D and E who worked as peasants on it. But nowhere else outside formerly communist China has land been forcibly taken from peasants B, C, D and E and handed over to this or that private capitalist in name of economic development (in a reverse class war)!

Eminent domain doctrine requires good faith on part of the State with respect to its citizens and that implies treating all citizens’ interests equally – not e.g. favouring an organised business lobby or organised industrial labour over the unorganised peasantry uneducated in the wiles of city people.

Also, there is no reason why Government should be interested in a particular product-mix emerging out of a given private factory (such as the so-called inflation-unadjusted “Rs one lakh car” instead of telecom equipment or garments or textiles). Dr Manmohan Singh’s statement last week that he wishes to see “employment-intensive” industries merely added to Government confusion: from Henry Ford to Japanese “lean business” today, everyone knows the direction of change of technology in the automobile industry has been towards robotics, making modern manufacturing less and less manpower-intensive! The Tatas themselves underwent a major downsizing and restructuring in the last decade, hiving off industries not considered part of their “core competence”.

Traditional agriculture of Singur’s sort represents the most labour-intensive employment-generating kind of rural economy. While such rural life may appear unsatisfying to the urban outsider, there is, as Tolstoy, Rabindranath, Gandhi and others knew, subtle happiness, contentment and tranquility there absent in alienated industrial sprawls. “Surplus” labour occurs in agriculture because of technological improvements in quality and delivery of agricultural inputs as well as new education and awareness (Theodore W. Schultz,Transforming Traditional Agriculture). It is mostly seasonal and all hands are used during the harvest when even urban migrants flock back to help. Industry did not leave Bengal in the 1960s and 1970s because of Mamata Banerjee but because of urban unrest, the culture of gheraos and lockouts, and bad regulations of the labour and capital markets associated largely with Ms Banerjee’s Left Front adversaries.

The basic fiction the Union and State Governments have made themselves believe is that their idea of an industrialisation plan is necessary for economic development. It is not. Real economic problems in West Bengal and elsewhere are financial to do with State budgets. “Debt overhang is there” is how the RBI Governor apologetically put it last week. Interest payments on the West Bengal State public debt consume larger and larger fractions of the revenue: these payments were at Rs 13 Bn in 1995 but grew to Rs. 92 Bn by 2004, and may jump to Rs 200 Bn in the next decade. The communists have been in power thirty years and no one but they are responsible. Making the State’s budget healthy would require tackling the gargantuan bureaucracy, slashing ministerial extravagance (foreign trips, VIP security) etc. It is much easier to hobnob with the rich and powerful while tear-gassing the peasants.