The path to higher growth lies in promoting manufacturing through transparent governance and better infrastructure, not in increasing foreign investment in retail trade, insurance and other service sectors

Slowdown in the growth of gross domestic product (GDP), a virtual stagnation in industrial production and the risk of losing investment grade rating by international rating agencies like Standard and Poor's has rattled the government, industry and policymakers. The dominant view — as expressed by influential members of the government and other policymakers — favours the introduction of major liberalisation policies aimed at facilitating the entry of foreign direct investment (FDI) in service sectors like retail trade, insurance, legal and other services as a means of reversing the slowdown. In my opinion, such an approach is flawed. Sustained growth is not possible without a healthy and growing manufacturing sector; attracting FDI in the services sector would at best play only a minor role. Indeed, India's overdependence on the service sector and the neglect of its manufacturing sector is partly responsible for the deceleration in growth. Results from most research studies show that for India, the service sector cannot be the engine for a sustained growth of income and employment. Like China, India should also concentrate on the manufacturing sector, for, in the long run, the growth of the service sector would also depend on the manufacturing base.

Real constraints

Research studies, by and large, zero in on two sets of constraints that stand in the way of the development of Indian manufacturing sector: physical and government infrastructure. These two are, in a way, related and could reinforce each other. In the last few years, India has not invested sufficiently in physical infrastructure like electricity, roads, ports and railways. This has resulted in huge shortages in electricity supply relative to demand, leading to long hours of load shedding, power holidays and even closure of several manufacturing units. Some of the large enterprises have opted for captive electricity generating plants, resulting in high costs and making their products globally non-competitive. Small and medium enterprises cannot afford captive power units and they are the main victims of power shortage.

Likewise investments in roads and railways have been inadequate, hampering the development of the manufacturing sector by increasing the cost of transportation. The presence of corruption and bad governance has made the situation worse. It is common knowledge that only a fraction of the investments on roads and other infrastructure projects actually reach the targeted projects as the leakages are large. This leads to the second set of constraints for manufacturing growth, namely, governance infrastructure.

Numerous studies show a strong relationship between good (corruption free) governance and investment climate. In the current globalised investment and trade regime, the same set of variables influences both foreign and domestic investment. At present, faced with 0.1 per cent growth rate in the industrial sector, the government is planning to offer interest rate and fiscal incentives to reduce costs and stimulate investment. In this context, it is important to note that corruption is also like a tax that pushes up the costs — the only difference being the sums collected through bribes do not go to the government but to private individuals. Thus, given the high levels of corruption, merely reducing interest rates might not be effective in making Indian enterprises more competitive.

High levels of corruption, in addition to pushing up costs, also adversely affect the quality of investment. It is now fairly well established that corrupt countries mainly receive investments from other corrupt countries, which does not result in technology transfer leading to global competitiveness. Thus, bad governance affects both the quantity and quality of investment. Moreover, even medium sized Indian enterprises are now investing in other countries and import products from their foreign units into India. Last year, the FDI outflow from India was more than 60 per cent of the FDI inflow into India. Newspaper reports indicate that this year FDI outflows from India could be equal to or even exceed FDI inflows into India. Indian enterprises find it difficult to do business in the current Indian environment and prefer to set up units in other countries and import the products into India. Furthermore, while the manufacturing sector dominates Indian investments abroad, foreign investments in India are mainly in the service sector, construction activities and real estate. This alarming situation cannot be reversed without major reforms that target good governance and removal of corruption.

Scams and reforms

In the last few years, major scams have broken out in resources sectors that are mainly owned by the government — like real estate, mining and ores, and spectrum.

Quite a lot of individuals who have obtained government permission to enter and exploit these resource sectors have amassed billions of rupees. In other words, under the existing business environment, the path to amass wealth is not through manufacturing but through exploitation of resources under government ownership. This needs to change. It is alleged that as a result of these scams, decision-making in the government has come to a standstill as bureaucrats are afraid to take decisions. It is strange that officials have been vested with many discretionary powers which they now rightly refuse to exercise. Corruption mainly takes place where important discretionary powers are vested with the decision maker and where rules are not clear-cut and decision making is not transparent. The way out of the mess is to reform the decision-making process by making it transparent and rule-based and by drastically reducing the discretionary powers of officials. So far, despite brave declarations of intent, no serious attempt has been made in this direction of administrative reforms.

In addition to administrative reforms, the government should also introduce rules and laws to drastically discourage cash transactions and cash holdings. Corruption cannot be reduced so long as cash transactions dominate. Newspapers frequently report police and income tax raids and the discovery of huge amounts of cash kept at home, offices and lockers. Subsequently, in many instances, the cases are dropped as the individuals succeed in explaining the source of their cash holdings. In this context, it is vital to introduce laws that discourage cash transactions. Drastic situations need drastic remedies. To discourage cash transactions, the government could place a limit on cash transactions. For example the government could declare that any transaction, say, above Rs. 5000 should be a bank or credit card transaction and not a cash transaction. This will bring huge expenditures on items like consumer durables, hotels and resorts under bank transactions and increase accountability. Likewise, the government could place a limit to cash holdings at homes, offices and lockers. The limit could be as low as one or two lakh rupees.

To conclude, a high growth rate for the Indian economy cannot be sustained without a vibrant and growing manufacturing sector. A policy aimed at GDP growth based mainly on attracting investment in the services sector will not succeed. Moreover, a thriving manufacturing sector is vital for employment generation. Under these circumstances, reforms should be aimed at good governance, transparent and time bound decision-making, reduction of currency transactions and holdings, and the rule of law.

(The author is Honorary Professor of Economics, Madras School of Economics. nssiddharthan@gmail.com)

More In: Lead | Opinion