Wanted – Reforms on “Kaizen” Mode!

In the last few days, newspapers and online portals have been filled with nostalgic Op-Ed pieces on how the 1991 reforms happened as we celebrate 30 years of the reforms. These pieces by some of them who were part of “reforms team” then and other commentators often talk about the circumstances in which the reforms were unleashed, how the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao weathered the political storm in taking some bold steps and how the then Finance minister Manmohan Singh and his team went about implementing them finally.

Yes, the “1991 reforms” was a significant event in our post Independent political history and in terms of impact on the ground, probably the most significant. Though it was not realised then, the reforms package helped to change gears of the country which was stuttering at a modest pace of growth all along, while the rest of the world was galloping.  It also helped lift millions of Indians out of poverty in the next 20 years.  So, it is apt that we give due recognition to the process and the people behind it and celebrate with much enthusiasm.

As a country, we are in a phase where we need the next reforms momentum. One that will define our growth trajectory for the next 30 years. In that sense, we need to now move on from living in past glory of what the 1991 reforms delivered and initiate the next cycle of reforms. So, what could they be? A reform is defined as a change brought in an existing system to make it better. Therefore there are reforms that result in incremental changes, thereby incremental benefits and there are reforms that are big which result in monumental changes and thereby impact. 1991 reforms can be grouped in the latter category.

 In the last 20 years, since the Vajpayee regime till now, it’s not that there have not been reforms of the big impact category in our country. But they have been few and far between. In the issue of reforms, I would like to see the glass as half empty. What we need is the next bust of reforms one shot that will change the course of our country forever and for the better. And if at all there is an opportune ‘muhurat’ for the same, it is this. Because when we come out of Covid hopefully very soon, we need to not just recoup the lost two years but get back to an irreversible high growth trajectory.  And for that, we need a whole set of big bang reforms that need to be unleashed ASAP. And I will group them in the following critical areas:

  1. Ease Of Doing Business: While we continue to say that we have improved our ranking on the Ease Of Doing Business front from before, those of us on the ground very well know that India continues to be a complex country to do business in and with. And the issue of “Central” subjects and “State” subjects adds complexity to the whole thing.  To put this in perspective, we have 1536 Acts, 69233 Compliances and 6618 filings to comply with for our businesses in our present regulatory environment.  There have been bits and pieces effort in states to remove/amend rules and regulations in the last few years. But these are just incremental changes and do not move the dial. What we need is a complete review of the existing rules and regulations across all states that include Central laws and state laws and a wholesale repeal of all the frivolous ones.
  1. Labour: This is connected to the “Ease Of Doing Business” but has scope beyond that as well in terms of ensuring competitiveness and achieving productivity as well. A paper I read on Labour Reforms mentioned that labour laws in India constitute 30% in terms of acts and 47% in terms of compliances in our regulatory framework! In terms of numbers, it is 463 labour Acts, 32542 labour Compliances and 3048 labour filings! Not that the existing regulatory environment has benefited the labour so far. The current labour laws cover only 9% of India’s employee base! So, there is an express need for simplified labour laws that will help the industry to grow while remaining competitive, will be fair to the employees while empowering them while bringing a majority of the labour force in its ambit.
  1. Infrastructure: It is undisputable that the general infrastructure in India has grown leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. There are two ways of looking at this. If we compare with where we were in the past, then of course, things are certainly better. If we look outwards and compare with our peers, then we will realise that we have still a long way to go in basic infrastructure. It is also a fact that with respect to infrastructure we are always in a perennial “catch up” and “Work in Progress” mode. And I will explain this with an example. In 2005, in the Nagoya city of Japan, a new airport was thrown open just to coincide with the World Expo that happened in that city. When I visited Nagoya in that year, I was appalled to find the new airport almost empty though, it was witnessing almost 4-5 times the normal traffic on account of the Expo. Compared to the old airport, the new one was huge and I was told then that this airport was now built forecasting for next 30 years of traffic growth so that they don’t have to meddle with this for a long time. Now, this is the approach required for infrastructure projects. However in India, we build projects based on today’s situation and by the time the project is completed, it is already bursting at its seams. The new Bengaluru Airport is an example of this. Inaugurated in 2008, it had to launch its expansion by 2011 within just three years! Most of our highway projects are planned like this. That’s why I say that the grudge towards the bullet train project in India based on today’s situation is ill informed. By now, we should have kicked off at least eight bullet train projects, not one.  Unlike in the past, financing for infrastructure projects is no longer a concern. There are global multi-lateral agencies backed by developed countries willing and waiting to fund viable infrastructure projects in a country like in India which offers potential and returns.  In the area of Infrastructure, we need drastic reforms in our planning method and execution. And that brings me to the next critical area.
  1. Land: Most of our infrastructure projects get stuck or go through inordinate delays due to the issue of land availability aka land acquisition. This is an indeed complex issue but we need to study best practices in other developing nations and come up with a new method that is fair to all and makes the process easy and less time consuming. The present Land Acquisition bill in its form needs urgent reform.

There are other areas too where reforms are the need of the hour and I will continue with those in Part – 2 of my blog next week.  But my focus remain on areas related to economic growth. To part conclude this piece, I would like to say that “Reforms” are a continuous process. And so continuous improvement of what we do is required. Going back to the Japanese way, they call it the “Kaizen” approach in management.  In India, we need Reforms on “Kaizen mode”!

To be continued.


30 Years of “1991”!

As I was wondering what to write on this week, I realised that in a few days, half of this year 2021 will be over.  Back in January, everyone thought or rather hoped that we were all done with the “New normal” and soon one will get back to the “Old Normal” in more ways than one. Till March, we were coasting on towards that. Then came the dreaded 2nd wave leaving us literally gasping for breath. And in no time we are back to hoping to see the end of this year.  Just the feeling we had the same time, last year.

And probably 30 years ago in the year 1991.  If 2021 has been a tough year for those who are running the country, I reckon 1991 would also have been so and for a variety of reasons.  When the history of post independent India is written, the year 1991 would feature prominently. Today, the year is associated with the unleashing of economic reforms and liberalisation in India and being crowned as the ‘Year that changed India”. But it has got so many other associations to it, which is what I thought I will write about, when we are in the midst of “30 Years of 1991”!

As 1991 dawned, I was in my 2nd year of MBA course in Bombay. Just as the year commenced, we were witness to the 1st televised war in the Gulf when US attacked Iraq to liberate Kuwait in “Operation Desert Storm”. In India, cable TV was still in its infancy. But we could watch some visuals of the war in “The World This Week” programme which made New Delhi Television (NDTV now) and Dr. Prannoy Roy household names in English speaking households in India.  I must add here that those days as young students we had tremendous appetite for news and current affairs which is seemingly missing in the current generation. Oh yes, that law of diminishing marginal utility! When News is a plenty all around, it finds lesser and lesser interest.

And it was during this war in 1991, that India probably removed its veil of Non Alignment, when the then government under Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar allowed re-fuelling of US Aircrafts in India. The decision had to be soon reversed under immense political pressure eventually in particular from the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress which was supporting the Chandra Shekhar government from outside. Though the war happened in the Gulf, it had its own implications for India as a country. Oil prices sky rocketed pushing the imports bill to hit the roof and plunging the economy into a deeper crisis. And we had a humanitarian crisis to deal with as the Gulf was home to millions of Indians.

In May, I was back in Madras after completion of the course and preparing to return to Bombay after a short break. On the 21st May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumpudur near Madras by a suicide bomber at an election rally. The death of Rajiv Gandhi that too in that most tragic manner shook the nation. Rajiv Gandhi was all set to return as the Prime Minister with the Congress getting a comfortable lead. But his untimely death put the country again in chaos and when the results came, Congress became the single largest party but short of majority on its own.

It is difficult to speculate as to what would have happened to our country had Rajiv not been killed and had he returned as the Prime Minister. It was widely believed that having learnt his lessons from his first stint, Rajiv was a wiser man and with his youth, energy and impatience would have changed the course of the country for the better.

With the loss of Rajiv, P.V.Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister heading a Congress led coalition government. He made Dr. Manmohan Singh his finance minister and between them unleashed a slew of economic reforms that liberalised India. Those were eventful days and day after day, headline grabbing announcements followed.  Dramatic devaluation of the rupee, pledging of the country’s Gold reserves, announcement of the New Trade policy, announcement of the New Industrial policy that would end the licence-permit Raj,  the historic Budget presentation and so on. When all these were happening, one didn’t realise that these will forever change the destiny of India.

Unlike now, when economists and policy experts are in unison singing the praise of the 1991 reforms, back then the reforms were always projected as “Acts in Duress”.  Even among the ruling Congress, there was no consensus on the reforms forcing Dr. Singh to make that famous quote that he walked around with his resignation letter in his pocket.

Elsewhere in the same year, the dissolution of the Great Soviet Union was in rapid progress and by December the entire Soviet Union was formally dissolved that eventually ended the Cold War.  Google also tells me that the World Wide Web was launched to the public in 1991 and Microsoft.com went online, though I have no recollection of these!

Coming back to India, not to be limited to financial problems, in the same year 1991, on June 28th, Kashmiri militants kidnapped the then Executive Director of IOC, Mr. Doraiswamy. He was finally released after a couple of months in exchange of a few militants. I remember this vividly as day after day front page in the newspapers were occupied with this news.

For India, not just 1991 but the next two years were indeed full of challenges that wrecked the country pushing it from one crisis to another.  So, looking back, as a country we came out of all that relatively unscathed as we kept growing to what we are today, though the pace and extent of growth may not be our liking.

30 years hence, in 2021, as a country we have been inflicted hard by a global pandemic that has been hogging everyone’s attention. Our economy has been bruised badly. Lives have been lost and still counting.  Clearly not just India, but globally we have been set back by couple of years if not more.

As we come out of the 2nd wave, a recovery is imminent but not without the potential danger of further waves. We can only hope that this time also we will follow the 1991 cycle.  If you remember, the economy fared poorly in the 1st year of the reform (1991-92) but from 1993-94 after two years, the economy was on a roll.

Going back to 1991, personally for me that was the year when I started my professional career and so along with the country, the year has a personal significance and it will be always etched in my memory.  Where were you in 1991 and what are your memories of that year? Do share in the comments section.