The Elephant That Became a Tiger: 20 Years of Economic Reform in India

Presentation at IMF, July 20, 2011

A foreign exchange crisis in 1991 induced India to abandon decades of inward-looking socialism and adopt economic reforms that have converted the once-lumbering elephant into the latest Asian tiger. India’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate has averaged over 8 percent in the last decade, and per capita income has shot up from $300 to $1,700 in two decades. India is reaping a big demographic dividend just as China starts aging, so India could overtake China in growth in the next decade.

When the reforms began in 1991, critics claimed that India would suffer a “lost decade” of growth as in African countries that supposedly followed the World Bank-IMF model in the 1980s. They warned that opening up would allow multinationals to crush Indian companies, while fiscal stringency would strangle social spending and safety nets, hitting poor people and regions. All of these dire predictions proved wrong. Indian businesses more than held their own, and many became multinationals themselves. Booming revenue from fast growth has financed record government spending on social sectors and safety nets, even if these areas are still dogged by massive corruption and waste. Still, poverty is down from 45.3 percent in fiscal year 1994 to 32 percent in fiscal year 2010, and the literacy rate is up from 52.2 percent to 74 percent in two decades, India’s fastest improvement ever. Several of the poorest states have doubled or tripled their growth rates since 2004, and their wage rates have risen by over 50 percent in the last three years.

However, India continues to be hampered by poor business conditions and misgovernance. Almost a quarter of Indian districts have recorded some sort of Maoist violence, and corruption is a major issue. India ranks very low on ease-of–doing-business indicators. Rigid labor laws prevent Indian companies from setting up large factories for labor-intensive exports, as in China. Both governance and economic reforms are needed, but progress on the former lags far behind, is thus more urgent, and can help sustain and promote economic reform.

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Growth vs Social Justice: a Flawed Debate

Presentation at IMF, April 28, 2011

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Socialism Kills

The Human Cost of Delayed Economic Reform in India

As the world approaches the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism, it is worth investigating the costs borne by countries like India that did not become communist but drew heavily on the Soviet model. For three decades after its independence in 1947, India strove for self-sufficiency instead of the gains of international trade, and gave the state an ever-increasing role in controlling the means of production. These policies yielded economic growth of 3.5 percent per year, which was half that of export-oriented Asian countries, and yielded slow progress in social indicators, too. Growth per capita in India was even slower, at 1.49 percent per year. It accelerated after reforms started tentatively in 1981, and shot up to 6.78 percent per year after reforms deepened in the current decade.

What would the impact on social indicators have been had India commenced economic reform one decade earlier, and enjoyed correspondingly faster economic growth and improvements in human development indicators? This paper seeks to estimate the number of “missing children,” “missing literates,” and “missing non-poor” resulting from delayed reform, slower economic growth, and hence, slower improvement of social indicators. It finds that with earlier reform, 14.5 million more children would have survived, 261 million more Indians would have become literate, and 109 million more people would have risen above the poverty line. The delay in economic reform represents an enormous social tragedy. It drives home the point that India’s socialist era, which claimed it would deliver growth with social justice, delivered neither.

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