India just published its most explicitly pro-markets policy document in history

Finance minister Arun Jaitley has tabled an emphatic Economic Survey in Parliament.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley has tabled an emphatic Economic Survey in Parliament.
Image: Reuters
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Each year, the Economic Survey offers a snapshot of the economy and a glimpse into the government’s thinking on important policy matters. Along with the budget, it is the most important annual statement on policy made by the government of India.

This year, the Economic Survey tabled by finance minister Arun Jaitley in Parliament earlier today, is an emphatic statement. It is the first policy document in modern India that has explicitly pitched for a market-based economy and for the government to work on an enabling regulatory framework. It goes to the extent of saying that market failure should be demonstrated before the government considers stepping into any sphere of economic activity.

If this document is any indication, the Narendra Modi government intends to usher in an unprecedented policy push towards a markets-based economy and away from the welfare-centric approach favoured by all the previous governments, including the earlier governments led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) .

Since the mid-1990s, Economic Surveys have pitched for many reforms—of the labour market, real estate market, agriculture, the food economy and the subsidy regime. But none have set out a case for the market economy in such explicit terms as this one has.

Consider this: a chapter titled Issues and Priorities has a section called Foundations of a Market Economy. The opening paragraph says: “The biggest challenge today is improving state capacity suitable for a market-based economy. A long-term, careful and systematic effort is required for undertaking institutional change.” This is perhaps the closest a government can come to in moving away from a socialist legacy which has got enshrined in the Constitution. The Preamble to the Constitutions describes India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic (the words socialist and secular were inserted in 1975).

And mull on this: “In a market economy, the economy thrives because the state interferes only when there is ‘market failure’, i.e. monopoly power, asymmetric information or externalities.” The Survey argues that any restrictions on private activity must be “part of a known and predictable regulatory regime unlike now where a lot of restrictions—well intentioned as they are—are not part of a stable framework.”

That is probably a veiled reference to the retrospective amendment of tax laws by the previous government, an issue that has been making foreign investors extremely jittery. It could just as well be interpreted as a reference to the ruling BJP’s opposition to foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. One of the first actions that the BJP government in the state of Rajasthan did was to rescind the earlier Congress government’s decision to allow FDI in retail. There are differing schools of thought within the ruling BJP on economic matters.

Though the Survey speaks about the state intervention in the case of market failures, it insists on credible and strong grounds for such intervention. “Before a state intervention is initiated, it is important to demonstrate that there is a market failure. It should be shown that an intervention will solve the market failure. Further, the costs to society of government intervention should be outweighed by the benefits.” The significance of this is underlined by the fact that even a reformist government like the present one thinks it fit to impose stockholding limits on potatoes and onions and clamp down on exports when prices of these vegetables started heading north.

Will these issues influence the budget that is to be presented tomorrow?

Many of the issues that need to be addressed in order to lay the foundations of a market economy are not within the scope of the Union budget—they relate to other ministries and to state governments (state-level regulations do more to hamper economic freedom). Within the BJP itself there is a group that is not in favour of a genuinely free market economy; it prefers to protect domestic business against foreign competition.

How much of the prescriptions in the Economic Survey will be carried out by the government? This depends on the degree of consensus that differing factions within the BJP can reach. In the past, Economic Surveys have made bold and reformist suggestions. The governments of the day have not always closely followed the policy recommendations.

But as the Survey points out, this government may not have the luxury of inaction. Setting up legal and regulatory frameworks for a market economy is one of the three key measures it recommends to revive investment (the other two are ensuring a low and stable inflation rate and fiscal consolidation). There is hope, then, that this government will move—slowly—in the direction of a real market economy.