“JUST” learning to live during the pandemic!

Vijay Yadav* is a small time vegetable and fruit vendor who has been carrying out his business in Mumbai since 2 decades now.  Ever since the lock down, in our apartment complex, he is one of the suppliers of fresh vegetables and fruits. Twice a week, we place order over WhatsApp to him and he delivers the same at the parking lot of our building. He informs us the due amount on WhatsApp and we pay the amount due to him through Google Pay.

22nd Aug, 2020 was Ganesh Chaturthi. Due to the current pandemic situation, we couldn’t go to the local market for Pooja related shopping (different types of Flowers, Garland…) on the eve of the festival. When we were wondering what to do, Meena*, our regular flower seller informed us to our pleasant surprise that she will home deliver whatever flowers and items we need and asked my wife to send the list over WhatsApp. On the 21st evening, the list was delivered at our ground floor. She informed us the amount and we made the payment to her through PayTM.

On 22nd Aug was also our Avani Avittam (Janeu changing ceremony) for which our regular Cheenu vaadhyar (bhatji) sent us the YouTube link to join him. From home, we completed the rituals and promptly sent the Acharya sambavana thro Google Pay.

In between we had to consult for a routine ailment with our Homeopath doctor.  We did the same over phone. He said he will send the medicines to our house within 1 hour. He has a tie up with Swiggy and the medicines were delivered at our doorstep. The doctor gave his UPI id for transferring his fees, which we did.

What is common in all these? It is that we and the other parties involved were able to carry on with life even during the lock down period without stepping out of our place, fairly smoothly. And if you look at it closely, this was made possible through a combination of Smart phones, Bank accounts (to which we could transfer the money) and more importantly the UPI platform through which we could transfer money real time into bank accounts of beneficiaries.

It was Dr. Arvind Subramanian, Ex-Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India who in his 1st Economic Survey document coined the term – “The JAM Trinity” and said that the potential of Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile phone could be harnessed to plug subsidy leaks and ensure a more targeted delivery to those needy.  This was the beginning of Modi’s 1st term during which, the government gave a huge push to opening Bank accounts for the poor through the Jan Dhan Yojana and also advocated the use of Aadhaar for identifying the needy.  However, in the aftermath of Covid-19, I would tweak the JAM Trinity and say that it is the “Quad of JUST” which is helping to keep the bottom of the pyramid afloat during the pandemic.

If you look at the examples I have provided at the beginning, you would realise that even with the unexpected strike of the pandemic, what has been sustaining at least some fraction of the economic activity is a combination of

J (Jan Dhan Accounts) – through which we could transfer money to beneficiaries who are not so privileged like Domestic helps, small time vendors and so on.

U (UPI Platform) – without which money transfer to bank accounts through mobile wallets like Google Pay or PayTM for example, couldn’t be so easy and swift.

S (Spectrum) – as in the advent of 4G which has made data usage cheap and ubiquitous in India

T (Technology) – Without which all these would not have been possible at all.

In this four, I would like to focus on the UPI bit. United Payment Interface (UPI) developed by National Payments Corporation of India was launched in India in April 2016. But it was post the Demonetisation that UPI as a tool got its fillip in terms of adoption and usage. Just look at the numbers. From just 21 banks who were part of UPI in 2016 when it was launched, today it is more than 140. The transaction volumes have grown exponentially from 2.06 mn. in Dec 2016 to 1.49 bn. in July 2020. And in terms of revenue, it has gone up from Rs. 13.17 crore to Rs. 29.05 Lac crore in the same period!!

It’s been so much of a runaway success that Google (which is part of the UPI through its GPay product) has written to US Federal Reserve Board urging it to build a similar faster payment service platform in the US citing the case study of UPI.

As documented very well by Shankkar Aiyar in his book, The Accidental India, in post Independent India, almost all of the successful economic transformations happened as an answer to a crisis. Similarly, the success of UPI in India also, could be pointed towards the cash payment crisis situation that resulted due to Demonetisation in November 2016. While Demonetisation might not have yielded the originally intended objective of the government namely to suck out the black money from the system, I feel that it has delivered or still delivering other positive outcomes.

Among the top is the formalisation of the economy which is a Work in Progress. The huge success of UPI has made conducting business smoother and easier even during lock down times even for the micro business community. At the same time, the added benefit is the expansion of the formal economy where less and less transactions happen through cash.

The last few months ever since the pandemic struck, have been testing times for any country and its economy.  It’s my feeling that after the initial complete lock down phase of two months, Indians have accepted the reality and have started looking at ways and means of getting on with their lives even without any dole from the government in the form of cash support. Purely from the stand point of micro businesses, they have all tried to adapt their business models to at least survive and stay afloat. Accepting orders through WhatsApp, doing home delivery and equipping themselves with online payment options are some of these adaptations. And these may very well stay even after the pandemic is over. In that sense, while the media commentary (when not busy with Sushant Singh’s death that is) could be around doom and gloom due to Covid in India, the common man has learnt to live during the pandemic with the “Quad of JUST” and will to survive.

Postscript: Way back in November 2016, in the aftermath of Demonetisation I had written a post titled Cash Mukt Bharat (Read here) where I had fantasised of an India where cash transactions have reduced completely by 2025. We are in 2020. Looks like many things mentioned in that post have already become a reality.  Amen.

*All names changed.

Pic courtesy: Yourstory.com

Packaging of the Package!

In India, in the past few days, most Indians or at least the urban folks have been hooked on to the television by 4.00 p.m. every day. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a grand announcement of ushering in an Atmanirbhar Bharat with an economic package of Rs. 20 Lac Crore, not just the devil, hope was also in the detail. So, it was left to the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to announce the details that would not belie the hopes of millions of Indians.

In India today and probably the world over, if one has to depend on the media commentary to make up one’s mind on an issue, it is virtually impossible. On any topic, the tone of the commentary and its conclusion can be guessed without even reading the piece or watching the full clip, by just looking at the author’s name or the medium carrying it. These days, very rarely you get to read a piece that gives a balanced opinion on a topic, the two or more sides of it, the pros and cons and possibly the positive and negative impact.  So, even to the slew of announcements the finance minister has been making, the reactions have been on predictable lines. The pro-government media/authors have been only praising the initiatives while those opposing have only picked up holes in the announcements. Balanced commentary is increasingly becoming as oxymoron.

It is under these circumstances that I feel, any government today needs to be super-efficient in its communication, so that it has the intended impact on people.  The usually communication savvy Modi Sarkar, has been found wanting particularly in these dire times, when it is utmost critical to bring in comfort and then confidence to the public at large. I will explain why and will try my best to provide a balanced view.

  • First up, the intention of the government not to get bogged down by Covid, but use it as an opportunity to re-define strategic priorities for the country is welcome. To that extent, Modi’s speech on the 12th May, was pretty much on point. There was a vision and though delayed, a financial economic package to the tune of Rs. 20 lac crore,  which are both commendable.
  • The details of the package were to be released in the next few days which is what happened in the last few days, beginning 13th Feb and ending today.
  • The announcements do reveal that the government has done a lot of homework and that probably explains the delay in the unveiling of the package. Having said that, there has been issues with the content and form.
  • First the content.
    • The government in its wisdom chose to use this opportunity not to just announce the economic stimulus package but also address long pending reforms and amendments in laws which is appreciable.
    • Globally, there is an Anti-China mood and having a strategic game plan to take advantage of the changing winds is important. So, some of the measures announced I believe, are in that direction which augurs well for the country.
    • While few may understand that some measures are meant for short term remedy and others are meant for long term transformation, most of us cannot make the distinction.
    • It would have been better if the Government had broken down the announcement into two parts.
      • The first one, to just focus on the immediate short term stimulus/support measures that will “comfort” the ailing strata of the society. This announcement was the one which was widely and eagerly expected. So, what is in it for the MSMEs whose businesses have suffered badly, the urban and poor workers who are left without work and wages, and the farmers who have lost their income?  In this regard, some of the initiatives like the expanded MSME credit facility even without collaterals, free ration to the poor including those without ration cards and the Additional MGNREGA allocation are greatly appreciable.
      • There has been all around pressing calls for cash transfer to the poor as the panacea for the migrant crisis that has unfolded. The government’s view is that, it believed in empowerment rather than entitlement as a route to support poor at this stage. Also, there is a view that money transfer may lead to longer lines in front of liquor shops. There are no doubt, merits in these arguments. But, considering the current acute distress situation, it would have been good if, the government opted for cash transfer to Jan Dhan accounts of women for the next six months.  That would have addressed the lack of money and the alcohol problem in one bullet.
      • The second part could have been reforms and parliamentary actions that are more strategic that will give “confidence” to investors – domestic and foreign.  Muddling all these and choosing to announce major and a lot of minor initiatives together, has resulted in a problem of comprehension.
      • On each of the days of announcement, Twitter and WhatsApp groups were buzzing with more questions than answers, as to what all these actually meant the Aam admi. If the urban elite couldn’t make out that, how do we expect the poor who are expecting some immediate succour desperately from the government to comprehend what is in it for them?
      • If restricting the announcement to the top four or five big “new” initiatives would have reduced the stimulus to Rs.15 lac crore or something, so be it. That is better than creating a Shock and Awe with a huge amount and eventually leaving the public to just count the zeroes in it for the rest of the year.
  • Second the form.
    • In India, most of us suffer from what I call as the “More Points in Power point” syndrome. We feel that if there are more points in the slide, it is always better. In the corporate world, this syndrome translates itself into “More strategies”, More Key Actions”, “More priorities”, More slides, More everything!
    • In this case, the government too being a victim of this syndrome, ended up re-hashing many old initiatives, repeating stuff which have already been announced in the last budget. For example, the “One Nation One Ration Card” initiative was first announced if I am right in 2016. Stuff like reforming the Essential Commodities Act etc. have been touched upon in the past budget speeches.

The result is that, the Finance Minister ended up making her third budget speech for this year, the only difference being, it was in tranches. From the government’s point of view, this would have helped in deflecting the headlines for a week from the migrant crisis and other related bad news. But, I am not sure if the budget speech type announcements have helped in either “Comforting” the needy or building “Confidence” among the business community!

When marketing Guru Philip Kotler first talked of the P’s of marketing, he just referred to 4 P’s – Product, Price, Place and Promotion.  As marketing evolved, more P’s like Positioning, People and Packaging got added over a period of time. In the modern retail world, packaging got a lot of prominence due its influencing role at the point of sale. In today’s era of political communication too, I believe, even an economic or a stimulus package needs to be “Packaged” properly to reach its desired outcome.

Lest we forget, Narendra Modi has been the maiden recipient of the Philip Kotler Presidential Award.

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

COVID-19 aftermath – Time to revive two flagship programmes of GOI

If there is one quote which has been oft repeated by commentators of all hue in the past few weeks as the world grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, it is this. Winston Churchill’s “Never let a good crisis go to waste”! As India locked itself down in its fight against Corona Virus, the lessons for future are many. And indeed it must learn those and never let this crisis go to waste, once things settle down. In India, we have a tendency to move on quickly from natural disasters and other calamities without learning the lessons and putting them to practice for future.

In the context of COVID-19, once we are out of the crisis completely, two programmes of the central government which were launched with much fanfare in the 1st term of Modi Sarkar but which lost steam or didn’t take off the way they were envisaged come to mind. It’s time to revive them and re-launch them with added rigour. And in the aftermath of the Corona virus pandemic, I do believe that the chances of them now doing well have got better.

On the 15th of August, 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, it caught the imagination of the public by and large. “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019,” declared the Prime Minister. This was the first time, cleanliness entered public discourse since Independence. Immediately after the launch, there was an air of excitement and flurry of activities. I remember voluntary groups and public carrying out weekend shramdaan to clean up the neighbourhood. Celebrities did their bit by participating in symbolic photo ops with brooms to spread the message of cleanliness.

What started off very well, soon started losing steam with the typical Indian attitude of laxity creeping in, after the initial enthusiasm.  From the government perspective, we also saw that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan from the original goal of a “Clean India” by 2019, moved to making India “Open defecation free” by 2019!  So, accordingly the focus turned towards building toilets across the country and giving the poor access to toilets even in the remotest of villages.  In his address to the parliament in Jan 2019, the President announced that over 9 crore toilets were constructed across the country under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan program and that the coverage of rural sanitation went up from less than 40% in 2014 to 98% in 2019.  While these are commendable data points, we were not close to becoming a clean and hygienic country by Oct 2019, as envisaged by the Prime Minister when he kicked off the programme.

While not taking any credit away from the government for pursuing this initiative, I have always maintained that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning and more cleaning but, reducing the need for cleaning in the first place. That essentially means developing instinctive disciplinary traits and attitude toward cleanliness like for example, the Japanese.  This calls for a huge attitudinal change among us as we are by and large happy to keep our own four walls clean while not being concerned about littering in public.

It is undisputable that COVID-19, in the last few weeks has increased awareness of self-hygiene as well as community hygiene in a big way in India. Use of sanitisers hitherto seen as a “NRI tantrum” while in India, has now got into the collective conscience of India. I do believe that thanks to social media like WhatsApp, the ills of a pandemic like Corona Virus have reached the nook and corner of India and hence messages concerning the need to maintain cleanliness may be received with more seriousness than before.  By the end of 2019, looking at the way the programme sort of petered out, I concluded that a “Clean India” may be a few decades away when the current student generation with more awareness from childhood stages take to public cleanliness more seriously.  However, now I feel that COVID-19 has given us a great opportunity to reach our goal of a “Clean India” probably a few years earlier and it is important that we as a country seize this opportunity.

Weeks or months later when we get over the COVID-19 crisis, the governments – Centre, States, local municipalities and panchayats should step up the gas on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan once again.  The government must use all the communication machinery at its disposal to build up on the Corona Virus messaging of “washing hands” to start talking about keeping one’s surrounding absolutely clean and safe to prevent further epidemics like this. We should move from friendly nudges to slapping heavy fines for offences like littering in the open, urinating on the side of the roads, Open defecation when toilets are available in the vicinity and spitting on the roads and walls. We must remember that making India a “Clean India” is not just the look out or job of the government of the day but is in the hands of the public. So, as a society, we must not let this good crisis go waste on the hygiene front and make our march towards a “Clean India”!

“Make In India” is another flag ship programme launched by Modi Sarkar way back in September 2014 with a view to give boost to the manufacturing sector in India with an eye on creating lakhs of jobs. Initially conceived to cover 16 industries, the scope was expanded later to include 25 identified industries. Five years hence, when one looks at the outcome of the programme, it’s a mixed bag. “Make In India” has seemingly done well in mobile phone and allied manufacturing with around 268 units producing phones and related accessories in India as of November 2019. This was just 4 in 2014. We are now the 2nd largest manufacturer of mobile phones in the world.  But beyond mobile phone manufacturing, other electronic manufacturing has not taken off in India as yet.  We are nowhere close to the objective set of making manufacturing contribute to 25% of our GDP. With the economic slowdown in the last few quarters and the disruption due to COVID-19, the outlook for manufacturing looks even bleaker.

This is where, COVID-19 could provide a window of opportunity to India in next five to ten years. COVID-19 which erupted from China with the industrial province of Wuhan as the epicentre, has ended up disrupting the global economy in more ways than one. When the virus spread was around China in the month of February, the talk was about how the global supply chains particularly in the Automotive, Pharma and electronics sectors have been disrupted. With the contagion now spreading alarmingly all over the world, COVID-19 could emerge as the single largest cause and effect on the global economy in many years. It is estimated that the global GDP could shrink by 2% this year.

The COVID-19 crisis has hastened the shift of global supply chains out of China actively a move, which gathered momentum in the height of US-China trade war last year and increasing labour costs in China over the last few years.  As we saw in reports, the Japanese government has announced support to companies shifting production from China back to Japan. Korean companies are reportedly exploring options with India to expand their capacities. The US and EU will eventually follow suit.

For India, this is a great opportunity to tap into this shift out of China.

It is good to see the Indian government sensing the opportunity and looking to further the cause of Make in India. Just recently, we saw a package of incentives being announced for the Electronics manufacturing industry with a focus not just on finished goods production but also developing downstream production units. Similarly package was cleared by the cabinet on the 21st March for incentivising production of chemicals and raw materials that go into bulk drugs production.  Initially these moves may help in softening our own dependence on China for imports of electronics and pharma goods but over a period of time will give a boost for exports once the ecosystem in put in place. So far so good. But these are not enough. Making India a part of global supply chains requires a well-co-ordinated (between Centre and states) 360 degree action plan to launch Make in India 2.0 in the light of COVID-19 that covers diplomatic, economic, commercial, human resources and even marketing front. This also requires changes in some of our laws (for example land acquisition) that can make ease of doing business a reality on the ground.

COVID-19 crisis is panning out in front of us as we speak. While we fight the health and immediate economic after effects of the same, it’s time to work on re-launching “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0” and “Make in India 2.0” in a couple of months and not let this crisis go waste.

Dear India, make 2021 the next 1991!

COVID-19: Turning the crisis into an opportunity!

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. What started off as an outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province of China is now a pandemic that has spread in more than 130 countries worldwide as we speak. In India too, the number of people who have detected positive has been multiplying by the day. Most of the state governments are waking up to the reality and state after state have been shut down.

In this sombre time, it may not sound so appropriate to talk about tapping opportunities that may arise. But then, one of the key jobs of strategic experts in counties is to always look beyond the obvious, see ahead of today and tomorrow and peep into the future.  In India, if such experts do that, they will see a window to turn this crisis into a long term, game changing opportunity.

Few weeks ago, when Corona virus had not spread like it is today, other than the human calamity, discussions were about how global supply chains have been disrupted due to the outbreak in China. Today, with China controlling the spread quickly using strong arm action and with the virus spreading all over, discussions around supply chain disruption have receded.  The focus today is around containing the spread as country after country have found people inflicted by the virus. However, when the dust and storm around the pandemic settles down in a few months, policy makers and industry experts will start pondering over putting all manufacturing eggs in the Chinese basket. De-risking from China for future would be top in the agenda.  Already, we are beginning to see some noise in that direction.

For countries and manufacturing companies, de-risking from China is nothing new. Many of them started doing it ten years ago when China, in the back of around 10% GDP growth for few years in a row from 2003 to 2011, was on fire as an economy. High economic growth also means increase in wages which shot up from CNY 750 in 2007 to CNY 2420 in 2018! Coupled with raising wages was the non-availability of skilled labour. A factory manager in Shanghai way back in 2012 told me that after the Chinese New year holidays, half the workforce would not return as they would end up joining companies which are located in provinces with higher minimum wages and with more overtime potential. Invariably mobile phones and other high demand product manufacturing units would suck up a lot of skilled manpower leaving other production units to scramble for trained manpower.

The logical option was to expand facilities out of China, if not to shift the entire production. Many Japanese companies who had put up factories in Thailand, Malaysia and later in China went and invested in Vietnam. It was a golden opportunity for India to have tapped that wave in that period. But we missed. Vietnam in spite of not boasting of very high skilled manpower but with relatively low labour cost managed to take advantage of the Japanese expansion plans. I was told that companies used to travel to interior Vietnam provinces and literally call out in the streets with microphones like in the feudal days as part of recruitment drive for factories!

India with its low labour cost and abundance of skilled manpower, still couldn’t feature in the agenda of companies looking at de-risking from China. And there are many reasons for the same.

It’s a myth that foreign companies just go by low labour cost when they try to invest in manufacturing facilities outside of their existing country bases. What they look for is whether the entire manufacturing eco-system is in place. China showed the world as to how to put that kind of eco-system in place that includes availability of low cost land in plenty, abundant skilled and low cost labour, low interest rate regime, tax benefits/holidays, access to ports, high quality infrastructure in the form of roads, highways, airports and sea ports, access to vendor base (this is particularly critical for Electronics and Automotive production) and more importantly what I call as the “hygiene factor”.  And this is the comfort factor which expatriates develop for the country where they want to set up production.

In India, we do not attach much importance to this while planning but, in my experience this becomes the key, tilting factor when choosing between options. If the team of expats who spend time in the country looking at options, do not feel comfortable about being able to lead a decent quality of life, they would never recommend that country. We should not forget that when a large production facility is set up, there will be hordes of expats who will be spending time during the project set-up phase and also later at supervisory/managerial roles when the unit is up and running.

That’s why I would not squabble if our governments spend money and resources to put their best face forward when foreign leaders visit here. For, many a times, there is a delegation of corporate chiefs who accompany these leaders and it is important that they carry a good impression of India as a country when they visit. In a Japanese company I worked earlier, the decision to invest in India which was lingering around for a while was finally taken when the group Chairman visited India and got impressed seeing the campus and Golf course of Infosys in Bengaluru!. I am talking of 2005 and fortunately the traffic situation then wasn’t as bad as it is today!

Coming back to the hygiene factor, this includes availability of good international schools, safety for women, availability of their country cuisines and even stuff like “Not a dry state” or “No Beef Ban”…!

In the wake of COVID-19, it is my belief that India must put its best foot forward in pitching itself as a robust manufacturing destination to the world which is looking at options.  And for this the government must move on a “Mission” mode quickly and activate “Make in India 2.0”!  We may not be able to scale up the economies of scale of China but then we are not looking at China completely. Our pitch must be to position India as an augmenting base.

Compared to the 1st decade of this century when India missed the opportunity when companies were de-risking, I believe that we now stand a better chance overall and hence it’s worth taking a shot now. Our roads and highways infrastructure is getting better though it’s a work in progress. We can now boast of world class airports in all the metro cities. The ports infrastructure have improved leaps and bounds and our customs clearance processes have smoothened.  We could still do much better on the “Ease of Doing business” front, though!

Ergo, I do believe that with a focussed approach towards getting companies to invest in setting up production facilities in India, India can be a good option for companies contemplating to de-risk from China. For India, which is in desperate need of a boost to the economy, nothing works like expansion in manufacturing as it increases direct and indirect jobs.

Author and Economist Shankkar Aiyyar in his book, The Accidental India has documented how in India every landmark game changing event since independence happened as a response to a crisis. Going by that track record, we are in the throes of another crisis with COVID-19 and hopefully we will come up with a response that is game changing!

The last booster shot for the Indian economy came in the beginning of this millennium and that was due to a global threat of a bug! The Y2K phenomenon opened the flood gates for the Indian Software industry and helped erect a pillar for our economy called the “Services”! Twenty years hence, now, a virus could provide the booster shot for the economy if India gets its act together. That of getting the manufacturing ecosystem in place and tap the opportunity which could present itself in the coming months. It’s not easy. But then its not impossible either.

Howdy Economy?

“Howdy” is in the air in India these days! With Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to address the global Indian audience from the NRI platform at Houston, which has been branded as “Howdy Modi”, this American slang has got into the Indian vocabulary!  But, in India, ever since the 1st Quarter poor GDP results were out, the commentariat has been asking just one question “Howdy Economy?” Because, Indian economy is believed to be in ICU where the Chief Doctor was not giving much attention!

In India, the time tested tradition has been to undertake reforms when there is a crisis. Economist and Author Shankkar Aiyyar explains this beautifully in his book – “Accidental India” with back stories behind every single historic economic initiative of post independent India. The bottom line being, we take such drastic steps only when push comes to shove!

It looks like the latest decision of the government to slash corporate taxes drastically in one go from 30% to 22% is one such initiative which will have a lasting positive impact on the economy but which was taken when the answer to Howdy Economy question was very, very feeble. Naysayers notwithstanding, simplifying the tax structure, eliminating the myriad exemptions and having a reasonable low rate is a welcome move. It will make the industry competitive, make it more profitable, attract both foreign and domestic investments thereby have a trickle-down effect on the economy.

I saw some commentary that, this is more of a long term treatment and not an answer to the short term woes. Indeed yes. There is no silver bullet that can get the economy growing at 8% and more. It needs a combination of measures that are short term and long term. My belief is that, irrespective of the condition of the economy, a simple and low corporate tax structure was anyway required to grow the economy from the 8% levels we were couple of years ago, to 10%. With the economy struggling at 5% levels, the crisis like situation galvanised the government into action. Finally, the progressive reduction in corporate tax from 30% to 25% which was promised by the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in the 2015 budget has been executed by his protégé Nirmala Sitharaman. She has done it in one stroke and has gone a step further reducing the rate to 22%.

While the reduction in corporate taxes is a supply side reform, steps are required in the demand side as well. With the transition to the GST regime, the government has less flexibility to announce stimulus like in the past where excise duty or Sales tax cuts used to be announced to boost demand and consumption. In the present GST regime, the GST council has to take a call on the same and make those adjustments. Some of the announcements on GST rate reduction on hotel tariffs are in this direction.

With the reduction of corporate taxes, there is a loud clamour for reduction on the personal taxes front. Experts keep saying that this will put more money in the pockets of the salaried class which will make them spend more. I am not too sure of this. In the past, whenever there has been some personal income tax slab changes and effective rate reduction, we hardly came to know of the savings or reduction. And I don’t think anyone then consciously went to spend the money saved! Of course, it is more of a mood lifter and gives a feel good effect to the salaried class. Beyond that, I am not sure if a personal income tax rate reduction will boost the consumption in the short run which is what experts claim!  Nevertheless, as I have opined in the past, simplification and reduction of tax rates is essential.  This will also remove the peeve that there is now too much gap between the corporate and personal income tax rates!

One positive signal from the last few weeks is that the Government is listening.  In today’s world, any government of the day can choose to ignore the mainstream media. However, it cannot afford to ignore popular opinion which manifests in social media. As someone said, in India, we have as many economists as we have cricket experts! But the good part is, thanks to social media, apart from the secluded voice of the commentariat, there is an opening for “People like us” to give our opinions.

Ever since the tax cut announcements, there has been much discussion and debate as to whether it is right, whether it is sufficient, whether it is too little – too late, if it is pandering to corporates and so on. And if things can turn around quickly? With the festive season coming up in India, it is all about signalling and lifting the spirits and mood. When there is bad news which usually reaches us through the media, even if we are not directly connected to it, we all start talking about it, isn’t it? I refer to this as the economy suffering from “Headlines syndrome”! So similarly, when there is positive cheer emanating from even a single but important decision like this, it has a ripple effect. So, I hope this corporate tax cut move leads to such positive ripple effect in the coming days! And the answer to “Howdy Economy?” becomes loud and cheerful in the coming days!

Postscript:  In my earlier posts, I had said,

As a purely short term stimulus, any capacity building in manufacturing industry by way of new factories, expansion of plants,.. should be provided with tax relief”

And

With respect to taxation, “In simple terms, the mantra should be lower tax rates with no or very few genuine exemptions

Glad both these found resonance with the government and have been implemented!

Turning the GDP (Gross Disappointing Product) tide!

Many years ago on my visit to China, I found most of the newspapers there giving a lot of attention in their front pages to decline in GDP, tapering of FDI into China and other such economic issues. In a blog post that visit, I rued that in India, our media doesn’t still focus on economic Roti, Rozgaar issues but spend disproportionate amount of columns on mundane political news and views. For the past few months, it has been good to see in India too, the media at last waking up to the slow down blues in the economy.  For more than a year or so, the entire country was pre-occupied with the Modi re-election issue and everything else did not matter.

Since the re-election of Narendra Modi and his government that too with a majority better than last time, the euphoria and the resultant expectations have been very high.  However, the party has been cut short by the bad news coming in on the economic front, day in and day out. There was a great opportunity for this Government with a new face as the Finance minister to have seized the opportunity when she presented the Union budget on the 5th of July and fire the economy. The budget was a decent one but one that was devoid of Out of box, bold ideas which would set the economy on fire. In doing away with the brown brief case and opting for the bahi kaatha, Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget was a ritual breaker but, was not a path breaker! Hence, ever since the budget, there has been quite a few negative reactions as manifested in the tanking of the markets, depreciation of the rupee and a massive FPI pull out!

The initial reaction of the Government to these reactions were in expected lines that our economy was still resilient, one of the fastest growing and hence no need to panic. However soon enough, with bad news emerging on the Automotive sector first and then even on FMCG, the Government was forced into action and from then on we have been seeing a slew of measures, cabinet decisions and sops to revive the economy. Q1 GDP at 5% turned out to be the last straw.  Coinciding with the Q1 GDP results, the Government announced the merger of PSU Banks as a way forward in banking reforms. Economy was finally on top of the news cycle and the Government’s attention, Kashmir notwithstanding!

It was widely expected and hoped that some of the important initiatives of the Modi Sarkar in the 1st term like the thrust on Highways construction, massive investments in improving Railways infrastructure, improving air connectivity to the smaller towns, making electricity available to the last village and so on would start yielding results in terms of improving economic activity and fuel growth in the country. Added to this, Modi Sarkar has been constantly increasing outlays on MGNREGA in every budget. Why these measures have not started yielding results on the ground both in terms of economic growth and job creation is mysterious. It may be a good idea for the Chief Economic Advisor to come out with a White paper on the outcomes achieved for the massive outlays in Modi Sarkar 1.0.

In the back of all these, the question becomes, are the measures so far announced by the Government enough to resuscitate the economy? The reversal of some of the proposals in the budget are certainly welcome moves but those just contain the damage.  And the other measures like opening up of FDI and so on are necessary but not sufficient to get us back to where we were last year (8%) and then hit our dream goal of 10% GDP growth which increasingly is becoming a pipedream.

During Modi Sarkar 1.0, the Government leveraged well on the windfall it had from the crude prices and not passing on the entire benefit to the consumer to “manage” the economy with heavy public investments. The hope was that gradually the private investments will pick up once the sentiments change. But unfortunately, due to the NPA and the overall banking crises, it did not fire up the economy so much but, just kept the wheels of the economy going. Now, under the current circumstances however, continuing of public expenditure alone may not be sufficient. The recent red herring on the increasing debt of NHAI may in fact become a dampener here. For India as a country, the next few months are supposed to be very high on economic activity with the impending festival season. And the fact that the monsoons have been bountiful for most parts of the country notwithstanding the floods in some parts, there is still hope even for this year.

So, in order for the economy to fire up, ways and means have to be found for increasing private investments and individual spending/consumption. I am no economist but here are some thoughts:

To get private corporate investments going:

  • Modi Sarkar should bite the bullet and announce 100% FDI in Multi Brand Retail. Though India as a country missed the retail bus 10 years ago, it is still not late. Some of the global retail majors may not be as bullish today as they were a decade ago on India due to our policy flip flops and the current industry shift to E-Commerce. But still considering the country’s size and the potential it offers, India is still an exciting market for say specialised vertical retail stores. In announcing this, we should do away with the myriad sourcing conditions and allow the retail water to find its own level. Retail gives fillip to low end jobs, manufacturing industries as well as commercial real estate.
  • Copy the STPI (Software Technology Parks of India) strategy that helped in boosting the software industry in India in the 90s and come up with a similar framework for boosting Electronic hardware manufacturing in India. This will help India in becoming a preferred country for those who are looking at alternatives to China. Again we are late in this game and today Vietnam has emerged as an alternative to China for low cost manufacturing. But still considering the long term view, I believe we still have opportunities here.
  • Every Government recognises the potential of Tourism as an industry to provide jobs and improve economic growth. However, to unleash and unlock the true potential of India, we need massive capacity building in hotels, recreation facilities, connectivity and infrastructure. Government should provide time bound tax cuts for investments to private sector in this area to targeted locations in India which need infrastructural boost. The tax cuts must be linked to time bound completion of projects.
  • As a purely short term stimulus, any capacity building in manufacturing industry by way of new factories, expansion of plants,.. should be provided with tax relief.

To improve consumption and spending:

  • Holiday season is upon us. Provide relief on Income tax to individuals for money spent on holiday travel and stay in select locations in India which require boost on tourism (Uttaranchal, North East, Leh for example) with a cap of say Rs. 1 Lac. This will motivate public to take vacations and boost tourism in certain locations which have potential, decent infrastructure and connectivity but are untapped. Usually this has a spiral effect. When more people throng these places, automatically investments start pouring in for development.  For every 3 years, the locations can be changed in order to make it widely spread.
  • On the real estate front, today the supply is high and the demand low. This is mainly because the property rates are artificially pegged high and the home loans still high. This jinx needs to be broken. Though I have seen the Government announcing a slew of measures in the past few years, the housing market has not taken off. Considering the fact that the private real estate lobby is not going to cut prices ever, there is a need for the Government to intervene and disrupt the market. Like in countries like Singapore, Malaysia,.. Government must float either own companies or joint ventures to construct affordable housing in a massive scale and allot to citizens who do not own a single house in a transparent manner. The Government can offload its equity and then exit after say 20 years from these companies once the overarching objectives are reached. This will also disrupt the existing real estate industry and make it fall in line in terms of pricing and best practices, both of which are found wanting in the current scheme of things.

To revive the “animal spirits” in the Indian economy. Animal spirits are related to the points mentioned above i.e. both consumer and business confidence. I have put this separately as there are some low hanging fruits here which can be taken:

  • Sell Air India as of day before yesterday!
  • Get going on “Actual” disinvestment of Public Sector units already identified as non-strategic. Identify another Arun Shourie to make this happen in this term!
  • It is not enough to merge PSU Banks but to offload equity, get professional management and turn them to “HDFC Banks”!
  • Today many of the Government’s grand projects are stuck or going slow due to land acquisition issues. Identify the issues and fix them by bringing about the necessary changes in the Land bill!
  • Use the current crisis of job loss to build consensus around Labour reforms. Adopt the “GST council” approach for labour reforms. Today all state governments will eagerly come on board considering the pressure all states have on generating jobs.

As I write this blog, I am seeing that the Finance Minister is addressing a press conference. This is her 3rd one in the last 2 weeks. Glad to see the Government demonstrating the needed sensitivity to the economic situation and willingness to take steps. Our only urge is that instead of incremental small steps, we need big leaps.

Only that will ensure we turn the tide over Gross Disappointing Product and achieve real Gross Domestic Product rates quickly!

Agenda for Modi 2.0!

Dear Mrs. Sitharaman,

First things first. Congratulations on becoming the finance minister of the country. Ever since you have taken over, there has been a flurry of unabated, unsolicited advice on what you should do and should not, in the upcoming budget. I was extremely reluctant to add to that already long list. But then your extremely gracious and earnest tweet the other day, welcoming all suggestions and inputs changed my mind.  Being from Trichy as well, I could see the “Trichy Tehzeeb” in that request!  Hence this piece, with my wish list not just from the budget but overall from the Modi Sarkar 2.0 from an economic agenda point of view.

I am not an Economist. I am just a keen and informed observer of Indian politics and a well-wisher of our country. So, my points may or may not stand the scrutiny of economists but hopefully will pass muster with the readers of this post.   I promise that I am not going to repeat a lot of stuff which has already been suggested by the erudite in their pieces.  So, here we go:

  • First up, the positive effects of implementation of GST and the kicking off of several infrastructural projects from the 1st term will start bearing fruits in the coming 2/3 years. So, I suggest that the 5 year term till May 2024 be divided into 2 parts – First 3 years till 2022 and the second 2 years till 2024. Take all the tough decisions in the 1st part and use the 2nd to stabilise things.
  • Second, in Modi 1.0, there have been quite a few hits but some misses too. In the 2nd term, on the back of a solid mandate, Team Modi should play on the front foot with confidence, while at the same time leaving alone deliveries outside the stumps and negotiating short pitched deliveries and bouncers with alacrity. In governance parlance, this means implementing even the not so populist decisions with confidence and not getting muddled in unwanted distractions.
  • Third, please request the economic ministries to come up with a list of things to be done to rev up the economy which is stuttering. Divide this list into 3.
    • 1 – Low hanging fruits which don’t need legislative backing
    • 2 – Which need bills to be amended, passed in the parliament
    • 3 – which need the states to take action

Get going on this list systematically. Have a target of 60 days to accomplish everything in the 1st list. This will give a clear message to all stake holders that this government is not the one to rest in its electoral success laurels!

  • Fourth, you are now in Japan and there is a lot we could learn from the Japanese in terms of going about things. One of the things I learnt from working in a Japanese company is “Prioritisation”! As Indians, we tend to focus on 100 things at the same time and spreading ourselves extremely thin. This was one grudge I had on Modi 1.0 which embarked upon so many projects simultaneously like Make in India, Skill India, Stand up India, Digital India, Smart City project, Ujwala programme and so on. If you closely measure the success, it is only the programmes which had focus like Ujwala, Rural electrification, Rural housing that met with success. In Modi 2.0, I would suggest that the Government takes up a maximum of 2 or 3 projects at a time, focus on the delivery with finite timelines and then move on to the next set of 2/3 ideas. This is what Japanese do.
  • Fifth, in India we have been talking of linking outcomes to outlays. But seldom has the same been acted upon. So, in the coming budget presentation on the 5th of July, please do not announce plain outlays but outlays that can be linked to quantifiable  outcomes.
  • Sixth, we usually see that in the budget, there are many outlays which are just carried forward year after year with a % increment or a % cut. For example, since 2013, money from Central Budget has been allocated to Nirbhaya fund to support initiatives towards ensuring women safety. One really doesn’t know how this fund is being utilised and after 5 years what this fund has achieved. This is just one example. In every budget, there are many sundry allocations like this. Please review item-wise outlays in the last 3 budgets,  respective outcomes achieved and allocate outlays in the coming budgets only if they make sense.
  • Seventh, considering the state of the economy, there is a need to mobilise resources to generate income and keep fiscal deficit under check. As Prime Minister Modi has been talking of “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance” one way of mobilising resources is by Government exiting many businesses that are no longer strategic in nature and monetising those assets. In Modi 1.0, in every budget, we had an item called “Proceeds from disinvestment” and this was achieved by making some PSUs like LIC pick up shares from the disinvested PSUs. During NDA-1 under Vajpayee, there was a clear focus on “Real” Disinvestment with a full-fledged ministry and a determined minister like Arun Shourie doggedly pursuing it. UPA did away with this and since then Modi 1.0 included, there has been no serious disinvestment in the country. I suggest that Modi 2.0 take this up seriously. A functional ministry named as “Monetisation of PSU Assets” (since disinvestment is seen as a bad word) should be formed. I also add that the proceeds from this monetisation be parked in a separate account and used for welfare schemes. By this, any criticism of the move can be countered by demonstrating that the proceeds of the same are being used for social welfare. A creative way needs to be found for accounting like this.
  • Eighth, in Modi 1.0, there was a big push towards infrastructure projects like highways and roads which was really commendable. The same should be continued with additional vigour. However, as admitted by Nitin Gadkari the pace of the projects could have been faster but for complex land acquisition issues. This is a big issue even today. In the 1st term, after initial belligerence, the government chickened out of the much needed amendments on the Land Acquisition bill. I remember Modi taking this up with rigour in 2014 basically because all the states identified certain provisions in the existing Land Acquisition bill as impediments for timely closure of infra projects.  Since the states are equal stake holders in this issue, please have discussions with a fresh outlook, strike a consensus and pass the amendments to the bill smoothly in both houses of the parliament. Renaming this as “Land Partnership bill” or something like that instead of the negative sounding Land Acquisition bill will help too to remove the negative connotation around this!
  • Ninth, taxation in India is still complex. GST implementation was a landmark Tax reform. I am sure there is a road map towards further simplifying the same with reduced tax slabs and simplifying procedures. Now, in this term please focus on Direct taxes. I hope that the panel working on overhaul of this will submit their recommendations quickly and your government should adopt the same ASAP. In simple terms, the mantra should be lower tax rates with no or very few genuine exemptions. Some of the exemption clauses we have are weird and defy all logic. For example the current clauses we have for LTA exemptions for salaried. Applicable for 2 years in a block of 4 that being calculated from the year 1986 and so on!!! Someone needs to do a Zero based hard look at all the existing exemptions for personal and corporate taxation and do away with most of them which don’t make sense in this day and age!
  • Tenth and the last one. On the 5th July when you leave your office for the parliament to present the budget, your team will hand over a brand new brown brief case which will have the budget speech. You and your team will pose with that brief case for the cameras and then you will read out the budget speech from the bunch of documents. And here’s what I suggest. Please, please do away with this brief case and the papers. Instead, amble along in style, pose for cameras with your hands “free” and as you rise to present the budget in the parliament hall, download the speech from the ministry’s secure server and project it in a large screen. Doing away with the rambling, long speech that would be just uber cool, while at the same time giving a push towards Prime Minister’s “Digital India” dream!

Pic Courtesy: Livemint

Jet Airways – Positioning lessons from its crash landing!

On Wednesday last week, as I was queuing up to board an Air India flight to Delhi, I could see the tarmac at the Mumbai airport lined up with idling aircraft of Jet Airways, whose operations was being cut down by the hour. Eventually, by evening the airlines shut down its operations completely, albeit “temporarily” as per the company’s statement. And in a twinge of irony, the last flight was a Jet Connect flight from Amritsar to Delhi that landed in Mumbai in the wee hours of Thursday.  I say “in a twinge of irony” because one of the reasons for the airline to get caught in turbulent weather, was its many experiments in positioning wrongly so, trying to compete with budget/low-cost airlines with Jetlite, Jet Connect and so on, when it hit financial air pockets way back in 2009 and later.

Unlike this generation, people born before the pre-liberalisation took their 1st flights when they started working! So did I. Way back in the early 1990’s for the initial few years, it was all Indian Airlines for work related trips. Though Indian Airlines in that period wasn’t bad, when Jet Airways burst into the scene, post opening of the sky along with other private airlines like East-West, Damania, Modiluft and so on, it brought in a whiff of fresh air. I remember vividly those times. The airports with inadequate infrastructure to handle the explosion of airlines and traffic, by and large resembled railway terminus’s and bus stations with multiple loud announcements of arrivals, departures and boarding calls.  “Chaotic” was an oft-repeated description of airports, then.

Amidst all the initial slew of private players, only Jet survived. It is clear that Naresh Goyal, the original promoter of Jet Airways had mastered the one core competency that mattered to excel in business in India – that is of “managing the environment”! But, I must admit that apart from managing the environment, Goyal could get another aspect of business right. That is of managing customer needs and experience well.

In those initial days, –  I am referring to the mid 90’s, Jet Airways experience was really out of the world,  particularly for frequent flyers. You could tele-check in and get your favourite leg space seats without much of an issue. Upgrade vouchers could actually be used to upgrade to business class even at the airport while checking in. There was a wide variety of meal options apart from just Veg and Non Veg. In fact for breakfast, in Vegetarian, they used to have South Indian and North Indian choices!  Dinners were 3 course meals. Hot and cold towels were provided even to Economy passengers! You could redeem your award tickets without much fuss and disappointment. In the initial few years, one needn’t pay even the taxes for award tickets (That changed pretty soon). With fares almost same as of other airlines, there was no reason unless otherwise the flight was full, to look at alternative airlines! I can say that from a user perspective, it was truly a golden era for Jet Airways!

The golden run for the airline continued in the 1st decade of this century, but with conditions attached. This was when it became a market leader by way of market share and leadership pangs started catching up. But still, due to its superior service and its On-time record, it was business travellers’ first resort.

The advent of low cost or budget airlines in the scene in India somewhere around 2006, must be one watershed moment in the history of Jet Airways. Captain Gopinath, the founder of Air Deccan redefined airline business in India with his no frills, low-cost offering exemplified by R.K.Laxman’s “common man” as the brand mascot. By lowering air fares to the extent of making it cheaper than train fare, Gopinath ushered in a whole set of middle class travellers into flying. In doing so, Gopinath with Air Deccan became of subjects of case studies in B-schools. The whole landscape of air traffic changed so fast in that period that, Air Deccan with its mindless pricing strategy, ended up disrupting itself and few other airlines on the way.

The global recession of 2008 and the cost consciousness that ensued among corporates world over, brought the curtains down on the party of the expensive, premium priced, full service airlines. In India, it meant Jet and Kingfisher who were truly premium, full service airlines at that time. This is where, I feel Jet was caught in the wrong foot. When it started losing market share to low-cost air lines and new entrants like Indigo, Go Air, Spicejet… Jet decided to pursue its own “budget airline” strategy which in my mind was a big mistake. Extending the brand is a trap which many companies fall into, with their eyes wide open.  Here, Jet Airways, hither to a market leader with a full service offering and impeccable service reputation, decided to extend its brand and launch a budget airline called Jetlite and then later Jet Connect. At the outset, it seemed like a smart strategy to prevent losing market share to the newly launched low-cost carriers, that too in those prevalent muted global economic conditions.

In the process, what happened was a systematic dilution of the brand equity of Jet Airways and all it stood for. In the name of cutting costs, service offerings were trimmed. It was no longer a frequent flyer’s delight. Service started falling apart. I started seeing the writing on the wall sometime in 2011/12. You could never get a seat of your choice even when you web checked in early! Choice of food became limited. For a flight taking off at 7.30 pm, instead of dinner, a snack meal was beginning to be served! Even the After mint (post meal mouth freshener) which was served in Jet Airways in the beginning, which became so popular that it was sold in super markets and stores as Jet Mukhwas suddenly disappeared from the in-flight meal. Here, I must add that I have seen many passengers asking for extra sachets of the same and hoarding them to their homes!  Award ticket redemption process now online, became a farce. There were just few seats for award tickets in a flight and you would never get them. If you redeem award tickets for your family, seldom you will get confirmation of the same while you book. Upgrade vouchers became just pieces of paper because upgrades were limited to few fares.

In the midst of all this, Jet’s financial woes only multiplied. A mistimed acquisition of Sahara Airlines only worsened the situation. Few quarters back, realising its original mistake of taking the budget airline route, Jet jettisoned its low-cost brands and decided to stick to just its full service offering. Considering the fact that global economy had revived, I thought that it was a wise move and hoped that Jet will soon be back to its glory!  Well, it did not. The low-cost hangover continued. The pricing was of full service. But the service was of budget airline! Can you imagine as recently as in Feb, on a 5 and a half hour flight from Mumbai to Singapore, there were no personal screens and one had really sleep through to kill time? And my co-passenger who requested for a glass of water got it after reminding the crew for the same at least 3 times! And of late dinner served in Jet Airways resembled more like junk street food! And I can only say that Jet’s frequent flyer programme – Jet Privilege which was once upon a time really world-class, is a pale shadow of its former self! Jet Privilege was such a strong brand that Goyal hived that off as a separate entity and monetised it. Even that infusion didn’t help to improve the user experience, though. Keeping the financial troubles aside, I was of the opinion that Jet was sinking as a brand anyway! And the culprit was its positioning! Was it a full service airline with offerings of a budget airline or was it a budget airline that was overpriced??

What if, had Jet continued to stay the course of a full service airline?

What if, in that period when low-cost airlines were mindlessly cutting prices, had Jet focused on “business value flyers” and on superior service?

What if, had Jet went after bottom line instead of preserving market share in that turbulent economic period?

So many what ifs! As I said, in hindsight, pontification is easy. But this hold lessons for companies for the future. After all, business cycles repeat themselves.

Having said that, singling out Jet is also a tad unfair. Airline business globally is a tough business to wade through. One that requires continuous infusion of Capex and which sucks up huge Opex. Only airlines that have thrived are those protected by state monopolies or those who have got their positioning and cost efficiencies correct. In India, the woes of Airline industry have been compounded by high taxes, fluctuating fuel prices, high interest rates and crony capitalist policies. In the history of Airline Industry, Jet is only the latest to bite the dust. Before, we had East-West, Modiluft, Damania, Air Deccan, Sahara, Kingfisher, Alliance Air and myriad other smaller airlines which all exited the scene in one pretext or the other! And we all know how Air India has managed to pull through while being in ICU for so many years.  And it is also clear that the other airlines are all clutching at straws and managing to stay afloat. That must really beg some critical policy related questions among the policy makers in India. While on the one hand trying to expand air travel to smaller towns in India, is the current Aviation policy regime really business friendly?

Seeing an Indian brand, which was once upon a time close to world-class fold up, is really unfortunate. Hope wisdom and luck prevails and we soon see Jet get its Jetwings of yore!

Image courtesy: https://www.thenational.ae

In #2019, no TINA but be wary of TAIL!

As 2018 winds down and we step in to 2019, for India, it is just not another new year. Mid of 2019 is when we will have the Lok Sabha polls that will determine if Narendra Modi will get another shot at being the Prime Minister. In my memory, I cannot recall of any individual who has come for so much scrutiny as an elected representative. And whose re-election is being discussed and debated so intensely in the country. First up, blame it all on the social media and its growing tentacles!

The fact that a government’s performance is coming up for such a rigorous appraisal itself, augurs well for our country. It should be like that. I only hope that this appraisal business isn’t selective and not just reserved for Modi Sarkar! If I think as to why this government has come under such a close assessment, I realise that it should blame itself for the same.

Did we have any other government in the past that

Set targets for itself on many fronts?

Which announced the targets and put them out in public domain?

Which tracked the actual delivery against the targets and presented them for everyone to see and comprehend easily that too mostly on real-time basis?

Today we know, not just what this government’s targets are for rural electrification, construction of highways, building targets, opening of bank accounts so on and so forth but also where it stands in terms of achievement. One look at the https://transformingindia.mygov.in/performance-dashboard/ site gives us an update on a real-time basis. It is not that governments in the past did not set targets for themselves. But all these targets were usually in terms of outlays announced in the Annual Budget speeches and seldom one would know what the final outcomes were. Between the outlays and outcomes, the India story remained in tatters. I guess not any more.  So, if people keep remembering the promises made and get disappointed if some of the promises have not been met fully or adequately, blame it on the Government’s efforts of putting out data in the open which makes it possible to compare achievements Vs goals easily.

In comparison to the upbeat mood in 2014 and 2015, today the mood in the country is more sombre. Even the most loyal fans of Modi have realised that probably he chewed more than what he could swallow. Five years are just not enough to turn around and solve all the ills of the country. That too when the global economy is facing one headwind after another! But then, as a country we had our own share of misses. Right when the economy was getting back on track in 2015/16 from the throes of policy paralysis and negative vibes and was poised for a leap, this government let loose the Demonetisation devil on the economy.  This set the economy back by 2 years to get back on track. That we didn’t fully collapse and managed to grow the economy at a slower pace nevertheless, would be a miracle, academicians would pore over in the years to come!

Before the effects of Demonetisation could subside, this government went ahead with the introduction of GST which according me is the biggest Tax reform in Independent India. Irrespective of the critics who take on this government on the “not so perfect” GST, I maintain that it was extremely creditable on the part of Modi Sarkar to launch the GST without further delaying, on the 1st of July 2017. In India, in aspects of meeting deadlines, we Indians follow religiously and rigorously the Theory of Elasticity which says solid materials deform under the application of external force and regain their original shape when the force is removed. So, in the quest of a perfect, ideal GST, if this government had deferred the launch, who knows, perhaps we will still be talking of “introducing the GST” in the upcoming budget!  Against that, today we already have a thriving GST which is now going to complete 2 years! The introduction of GST will remain this government’s biggest achievement when its history is written.

The short term pains inflicted by these 2 moves (Demonetisation and GST) to the small and medium businesses combined with the government’s failure to address the Banking crisis at the beginning of its term have led the BJP to the situation where it is today.  In its strong hold states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the party’s support base has been dwindling. On the contrary, the Congress which seemingly had no hope of a revival till mid-2017, has smelt blood and is hoping to deprive Modi of a second term and a shot at history.

In India today, in the main stream media and also probably social media, the obituary of Modi Sarkar is being written on a daily basis. As per me, it is too early to write off Narendra Modi in the context of 2019. In spite of his government’s misses in terms of promises and more importantly the delivery of Achhe Din, his personal credibility as a leader who is keen to deliver, is intact. I do believe that there are those who are disappointed with him. But they are still not disgusted with him. Yet.  My personal feeling is that they would like to give him another chance.  The same states which voted out the BJP recently could very well see voting for Modi in the Lok Sabha polls!

Apart from this factor of Modi’s personal charisma, there is another important factor at play. People like to call it the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. I don’t believe that there are no alternatives to Modi. In fact, we have many. We have the spectre of a Rahul Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister, if a Congress led UPA front emerges as the biggest. Or else it could be toss between a Mamata Banerjee or a Mayawati or a Chandrasekhar Rao or any other leader depending upon how many seats they win, as part of a coalition which will be cobbled together post the elections. In all these cases, a leader of the party with 30-40 MPs would head the coalition of 10-15 parties with each party playing the “I am indispensable” card!

This Mahagathbandan where, parties will oppose each other in one state but will come together in another state is only a Maha”cut”bandhan who want their share of power and the perks that come with it. I believe that people are smart enough to understand and realise that Modi Sarkar might have disappointed but will still probably vote for him not because of TINA but being weary of TAIL – The Alternative Is Lousy!

In the past, we saw many Accidental Prime Ministers as we didn’t sight TAIL properly! Hope 2019 is different. On that hopeful note, wishing India a momentous 2019!

Cartoon courtesy: Satish Acharya

Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

It’s just about a week since the Annual Union Budget – supposedly the most important policy statement for any Government in power, was tabled in the parliament in India.  In these days of extremely limited attention span, the news and noise around the Budget are already done and dusted. The media has already moved on from analyzing the Budget to debating if an MP’s loud cackle is acceptable parliamentary behavior and if the PM’s witty riposte to that, will pass the test of a Nehru or a Vajpayee in parliamentary decorum! The only remaining nugget about the Budget I see in the media in the last couple of days is, as to who won the TRP war on the Budget day! For the television media, the annual Budget presentation is another TRP generating event in the annual calendar and hence the whipped up frenzy and hoopla around it.

For the past 20 years, I have also been a victim of the annual cacophony called the experts’ analysis of the Budget and in the same breath, culprit in doing my own analysis and critique. Over the last few years, it started dawning upon me that slicing and dicing the Budget and trying to evaluate the same as good, bad or average is an exercise steeped in foolhardiness. And so, this year apart from a cursory look at the highlights in the evening of the Budget day, I spent little time in that direction.

This distancing has nothing to do with this year’s Budget and its contents but on the way “we”, as a country carry out the discourse around the Budget. When I say “we”, this includes the Government, the Opposition, the political parties, the media, the Industry, the commentators and folks like us.  For years, I have been seeing that the reactions to the Budget proposals have become extremely predictable. The ruling party members give a huge thumbs up to the Budget and usually follow it up with head line making epithets. (Path breaking/Visionary,…)  While the finance minister is presenting the Budget, any announcement of outlay which is seemingly bigger than that of last year is welcomed with huge thumping of the desks by the treasury benches. The Opposition parties usually criticize the Budget calling it Inflammatory (if taxes are raised), Anti poor (if subsidies are cut), “What about implementation?” (If outlays are increased) and so on! And for other political parties, the famous Mile’s maxim applies – “where they stand on the Budget depends on where they sit” in the parliament. The Industry usually in front of cameras always give a 12 out of 10 to any Budget!  The media provides a ball by ball update on the stock markets as the Budget presentation goes on, as if the entire nation’s well-being depends on how the stock market reacts to the Budget on that day!  And we all know that the stock market yo-yos on the Budget day, without proper understanding of the provisions and settles down few days later.  The media commentators present a typically “On the one hand, on the other hand, having said that,..” analysis replete with clichés and Budget equivalent of Shastri’sms the next day in their columns. And with the advent of social media, Budget day in India is a Kaun Banega Economist? competition with you and me donning the hat of economists to hail/trash the Budget based on the outlay proposals and our own prejudices!  All this repeated itself this year as well.

In the din, what is completely missed is an analysis and report of the outcomes of the previous year Budget outlays. Budget after Budget, finance ministers announce crores and crores for initiatives and programmes. But as a tax payer, we never get to know the outcomes of those outlays. 13 years after the then finance minister P. Chidambaram spoke of “outlays versus outcomes” in his Budget speech of 2005-06, no mechanism is still in sight to measure the same. Take for example one such announcement in the last year Budget, which I clearly remember. The finance minister had announced that allocation under MNREGA was being increased to Rs. 48,000 crore from Rs 38,500 crore which was meant to be the highest ever allocation in all these years. And this was supposed to provide rural jobs, alleviate poverty in rural areas by improving rural incomes and at the same time end up building assets as well. One year hence after this historically high outlay, maybe I missed, but do we know exactly know what happened to this Rs. 48,000 crores? And this is just one outlay. A regular Budget speech is replete with outlays like this and more.

Another glaring example is the Nirbhaya fund. Announced among thunderous thumping of desks in the 2013 budget by the then UPA Government following the heinous Delhi incident, over 90% of the funds remain unused. Does that mean that rapes against women have declined? This is a classic case of an outlay not yielding the desired outcome and still being provided for, year after year!

My disenchantment with the Annual Budget exercise stems from this gap. Of celebrating outlays without knowing what the outcomes were! In the finance minister’s Budget speech a review of the past year is usually limited to the GDP growth rates and projected fiscal deficits against the targets. Even these get revised when the actual numbers come out some time in May/June and very few of us take notice.  The Annual economic survey does cover some of the trends but I don’t think even that covers specifically the results of the previous year’s outlays.

For a developing economy like India, we need more transparency. We should not be pushed to use instruments like RTI to just understand outcomes and expenditures!  And hence here are my suggestions:

  • In the start of the Budget session, before the Budget for the next year is presented, have a day to present the outcomes for the previous year’s outlays. Tell the people what worked and what didn’t. This will help to justify increase or cut outlays for the next year.
  • Typically our parliament has 3 sessions. In these sessions, have each of the ministry provide an update on the progress of the initiatives, programmes, outlays and status of outcomes announced in the year’s Budget. If not for all, have this mandatory for all key industries.

In Delhi circles, I hear that this government of Narendra Modi is a “Dashboard” government. In the sense, the PMO expects weekly/monthly/quarterly dashboard on their ministry’s accomplishments from all the ministries.  Why not extend this “Dashboard” governance to the parliament and get ministers to showcase their ministries’ performance to the people?

Even the media and the commentariat must devote time to analysing outcomes of previous outlays and bring it to the fore rather than just talking of the new outlays!

Thumping of desks by MPs and celebrating outlays on the Budget is passé.  Aim must be to let people celebrate outcomes by voting for you at the hustings!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)