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Reforms: The elephant can and will dance

EconomicReforms25YearsOfChange Updated: Jul 25, 2016 14:01 IST

Time was when having an ATM/debit card was a kind of status symbol. Not any longer. ATMs — or automated teller machines — also effectively serve as 24X7 kiosks that dispense cash and offer sundry banking facilities(HT)

In economic analyses, 25 years is a long enough period to fit a trend.

In the summer of 1991 India flew out 67 tonnes of gold to Europe to get $600 million to tide over a dire import payments crisis. In 2011, it was ready to help Europe crawl out of a debt emergency as Greece stared at the prospect of a sovereign default. In 2016, it has become the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

The symbolism is inescapable.

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When, exactly 25 years ago, India unshackled its economy and freed the markets, it set the country on a promising path that hasn’t disappointed. Among its emerging-market peers, India stands out. China’s growth is slowing, letting India overtake it as the fast-growing country, tracking a 7.6% growth rate. Brazil is slipping further into recession. Energy-driven Russia’s economy looks rundown. Far from falling off the BRIC constellation, it’s India that’s sticking up.

The country’s economic transformation, however, is vivid in people’s lives and experiences, not in these macroeconomic comparisons, but in people’s ability to earn and spend, enabling upward mobility for millions of Indians.

Bollywood is an unlikely dipstick for Indian society. Its protagonists until not long ago portrayed an “India that doesn’t exist”, to borrow the legendary Satyajit Ray’s words. Yet, it’s a good place to gauge how money moves, people spend or lifestyles have changed.

Read: Critical phase of reforms in progress now, says Jaitley

In 1991, the best-selling film made Rs 7 crore. Today, most successful films rake in Rs 300 crore. The successful movies of any era are mostly the ones that people can relate to instantly, not necessarily because of state-of-the-art production technology or hype created by modern marketing razzmatazz, but almost always because the stories have a current bearing.

The government’s policy moves cause mood shifts and social change, accentuating prosperity or poverty, provoking love, happiness and anger that show up on the screens.

When the economic reforms were launched in 1991 in a foreign exchange-scarce economy, the hero changed. In Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (1993), Aamir Khan plays a garment exporter.

The Sanjay Dutt-Govinda starrer romantic comedy Haseena Maan Jayegi (1999) came shortly after the new telecom policy of 1999. It set the stage for plunging tariffs and more widespread use of cell phones epitomised in the movie’s hit song “What is your mobile number?”

Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001) depicted the ambitions of contemporary urban youth, willing to take the road less travelled both in professional and personal spheres.

Likewise, for cricket.

Cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar made his debut in 1989, two years before the reforms programme began. By the time he retired in 2013, he became a brand in part due to the 170 million TV households, which provide a concentration of eyeballs advertisers can’t ignore. Especially, when a big chunk of these families are glued to cricket, in whichever form.

Read: Modi under fire as middle-class India still awaits ‘Achhe din’

The average match fee for an international cricketer was Rs 7,000 in 1991. Today, it’s Rs 700,000 a match. Whatever else, these jumps, among other things, reveal people’s ability to splurge money on what economists call discretionary spending, or expenditure on recreational activities.

It is not just about rising disposable incomes. A more open economy has made life more convenient.

Time was when having an ATM/debit card was a kind of status symbol. Withdrawing money from a bank was an hour-long affair. Present your cheque, take a token, wait for the manager to verify your signature, and wait for the person at the teller counter to call out your token number. Getting a loan was even more complex.

Not any longer. ATMs — or automated teller machines — also effectively serve as 24X7 kiosks that dispense cash and offer sundry banking facilities. That also means customers worry less about updating a passbook or make “bank balance” inquiries. Thousands of crores of rupees move across accounts at a click of the jumpy mouse through highly encrypted and secure gateways.

ATMs are at the core of India’s efforts to spread the banking net far and wide. As on March 31, 2016, there were about 212,061 ATMs in India. This roughly translates into about 18 ATMs for every 100,000 people.

Much of this would not have been possible if India did not open up the banking sector to private players in the mid-1990s, which forced staid state-owned banks to become more nimble. In many ways this also illustrates Joseph Schumpeter’s process of “creative destruction”, where relentless improvements and competition result in new products and technologies rapidly replacing outdated ones. Schumpeter considered such “destructive” obsolescence an “essential fact about capitalism”.

There cannot be a better illustration of this phenomenon than India’s telecommunications sector. Two decades ago, when the first services launched, a mobile phone was a luxury. Today your milkman or the kabadiwala (the guy who carries junk from your home with a benign smile every day) or the even the guy who helps you commute in crowed city streets by pulling a cycle rickshaw carries one. In 1995, a basic voice-only mobile cost upwards of Rs 25,000. Today, a smart-phone comes at less than Rs 5,000, making palmtop Net browsing as simple as brushing your teeth or tying your shoelaces.

All has not been that rosy, though. Don’t let the image of razzle-dazzle mislead you.

Nearly one in every four adults did not have a bank account until the launch of the current government’s signature initiative to eradicate “financial untouchability” — the Jan Dhan Yojana — in 2014. In two years, 200 million new accounts have been added with an accumulated deposit base of about Rs 40,000 crore.

Poverty, institutional finance and lack of jobs have a symbiotic relationship. Reaching to backward areas is no longer just a question of throwing food and money at them. There can be no argument over the fact that a productive job is the best form of inclusion. Handouts have a static characteristic and, therefore, cannot match the pace of people’s rapidly expanding aspirations.

“Development”, “governance” and GDP have firmly established their place in the political lexicon. It is now more about individual aspiration, jobs and infrastructure. Social mobility has become important, if not at the cost of social justice.

The census data on India’s youth unemployment only confirm what some experts have been cautioning about. Nearly one in every four, or 24%, of those in the age group 20-24 are looking for jobs. Given the size of India’s population, this translates into millions of youth who join the army of job hopefuls every year.

This raises some serious questions. How many workers will industry and services have to absorb in the next decade? How many will they absorb if they continue creating jobs as they have in the past? How many of the job seekers actually have the required skills or “employability”? These are concerns that India cannot afford to gloss over any longer.

Read: Minimum government, maximum governance: A manifesto for a limited state

In many ways, India presents a policymaker’s paradox. At $2 trillion, India is among the world’s top 10 economies in terms of size of GDP. Yet, by most estimates, India is home to the largest number of extremely poor and impoverished people in world.

In the next quarter century we should be able to conquer this very substantially, if not in full measure. The elephant can still win the race.

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