India reconnected with the global economy three decades ago. The Indian economy had begun to gather pace around 1980, after at least a decade of stagnation in living standards as economic growth barely kept pace with the rise in population.
The growth spurt was accompanied by tentative changes in fiscal, monetary, trade, tax, exchange rate and industrial policies in the 1980s. However, the policy reforms of that decade were within the boundaries of the earlier system of economic management. July 1991 saw India shift to a new paradigm under a minority government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose centenary year begins this week.
In his landmark budget speech on 24 July 1991, Manmohan Singh as finance minister said that the severe balance of payments crisis that had taken India close to international default earlier that year was not a temporary funding crunch, but the symptom of a deeper malaise. The underlying problems he identified included macroeconomic imbalances, low productivity of public sector investments, loopholes in the tax system, indiscriminate protection that had weakened the incentive to export, lack of domestic competition, a weak financial system that was not allocating capital efficiently, lack of access to the latest technology, and much more.
A web of interconnected reforms were launched to tackle these problems. Many debates on the impact of it have focused on the growth trajectory before and after the reforms. There is no denying that the average annual growth rate in the 1990s is no different from the momentum of the 1980s. India moved to a higher growth trajectory only after the year 2000, and continued on that path after 2010, despite an economic slowdown before the pandemic struck.
Critics use this record to argue that the impact of the 1991 reforms was overrated. A better way to examine the impact is not by looking at just the rate of economic growth, but also its sustainability. The initial growth spurt of the 1980s was not sustainable, and India ended the decade with a terrible balance of payments mess plus raging inflation. Economic growth since 1991 has been far more stable.
One simple indication of this is the external account. Independent India had a severe balance of payments crisis almost once every decade: 1957, 1966, 1981, 1990. There has been no comparable crisis over the past 30 years, despite a scare in 2013.
Economists with a structural bent of mind used to argue that Indian economic growth has been held back by four major structural constraints: domestic savings, foreign exchange, food and aggregate demand. What has happened to each of them over the past three decades?
The short answer: all four macroeconomic constraints have eased after 1991. The domestic savings rate to fund domestic investments has undoubtedly come down since the peak it hit in 2008, but is still almost eight percentage points higher than the average of the 1980s. The availability of foreign exchange is no longer a major worry, and the occasional balance of payments surpluses in recent years show that India receives more international savings that it can absorb.
The food constraint had already begun to ease after the Green Revolution. India now has excess food stocks as a buffer against sudden shocks to farm production, though this macroeconomic reality does not mean that every Indian household has food security. The aggregate demand constraint—or what was once called the home market problem— meant that there was not enough domestic demand for industrial goods because of high poverty levels. Rising incomes as well as exports have eased this as well.
This potted history of how the structural constraints have eased is not to suggest that they are no longer a worry. A more realistic view would be that they are no longer as dominant as before, and the 1991 reforms played a big part in loosening these structural constraints that had dominated Indian economic thinking for many decades.
In fact, there are newer structural constraints on the horizon. The health and education crises during the pandemic have underlined inadequate investments in human capital. India still does not have adequate state capacity and regulatory capacity for a $3 trillion economy. And ecological stress as well as climate change will create new forms of constraints on sustainable economic growth. A new set of policy responses will be needed.
The implicit goal of the 1991 economic reforms was to create a new economy that had learned the right lessons from the success stories of East Asia. “Our longer-term objective is to evolve a pattern of production which is labour-intensive and generates larger employment opportunities in productive, high-income jobs, and reduces the disparities in income and wealth between rural and urban areas,” Manmohan Singh had said in his 1992 budget speech.
That transformation remains incomplete. In fact, the inability to generate enough jobs in formal enterprises has led to the proliferation of informal employment on the one hand and political pressure to use fiscal resources for subsidies or income support rather than on the creation of public goods. It is now worth repeating a question that this has been asked before: Is India moving in the direction of Latin America rather than East Asia?