Debate around the Growth of the Indian Economy!

Few weeks ago, the GDP numbers for the 1st quarter of this fiscal year for India were published. As per that, the Indian economy grew by 20.1%. In the following days, there were columns, Op-Eds and Social media commentary on whether it was a good quarter or not. Since “Neutral media” is an Oxymoron, depending upon the leanings of the media, the economic performance was either branded “historic” or “pathetic”. There are no surprises here and we have now learnt to live with the media spin on all issues.

Along with the media, the tribe of “Neutral Economists” is also on the wane.  Depending upon their political affiliation, the first quarter performance was touted to be “record breaking/highest ever” or “worst/shocking” in decades by reputed economists.  Therefore for an Aam Admi, it is difficult to judge what actually the situation is. And the truth as in many situations may be somewhere in between.

I am no economist but as an ardent follower of the Indian economy, I tried to make sense of the numbers and the trends thereof and this is what I find. I would like to hear the opinion of the readers as well on my hypothesis.

In isolation, a GDP growth of 20.1% is of course very good. But, we should not forget that this is at the back of a low base of -24.4% same Quarter last year. In that sense, some of the commentary from pro Government circles that this growth is massive and is earth shattering etc. is immature.  At the same time, commentary from the opposition side comparing this with GDP rate pre-Covid and claiming that actually it is lower than what it was two years ago is equally immature. And this is why.

First, the reality is, on a trend line after a massive negative growth of 24.4% in Q1 last year and growing marginally by 1.6% in Q4, a growth of 20.1 in Q1 this year shows that the economy is indeed recovering and the recovery is V-shaped to be precise. This is certainly to be happy about.

Second, we must keep in mind that during Q1 this year, we got caught by a massive second wave which again put several curbs on the functioning of the economy, which was as such firing at much lower levels than before. So, among the eight buckets which contribute to the GDP namely Manufacturing, Construction, Agriculture/forestry & fishing, Mining & Quarrying, Electricity/Gas/ Water & other utilities, Trade/Hotels/Travel & Communication, Finance & Real Estate and Public administration, Defence & other services, it is obvious that a couple of engines are not firing at all. It is therefore natural that when you compare with the pre-Covid situation, the GDP in absolute numbers will be lower. This however does not take away the fact that with the easing of restrictions, the economy is obviously recovering.

Third, let us take a look at the monthly GST collection numbers for the past couple of years.  The average monthly GST collection figure in 2018-19 was Rs. 98,114 Cr. and the average in the 1st four months of 2021-22 is Rs.113,333 Cr. 2018-19 was pre-Covid, normal times and these four months are right in the midst of Covid. And compared to Rs. 101,818 Cr. monthly average last year. So just a cursory glance shows that the economy is on the mend clearly this year.

Here, I would like to dwell into a larger point and thereafter a question.

I would presume that GST collections represent transactional activity in the economy with respect to both goods and services. We are all aware that post the pandemic all “Contact” based sectors have been severely affected. This includes the likes of Travel, hospitality, Wining and Dining (all these for business and pleasure), impulse shopping, recreation and entertainment of all sorts and other human touch related services (salons, spas…). While the Software industry per se has not got affected due to Covid with “Work from Home” filling in well, the ecosystem around it has been significantly disrupted. This includes transportation, catering, real estate, utilities, other discretionary spending and stuff.

As common public, our shopping is mostly restricted to what is required. We travel only when it is utmost required.  The “Festival economy” which is big in India has been crippled since last April.  So my question is, when transactions around goods and services have been curtailed, how is it that the monthly GST collections have shown a growth over 2018-19? (Pre-pandemic period)

There are can be two inferences from this trend:

First, if the monthly GST collection is showing such a robust 15% growth (over 2018-19) even during the pandemic times, once we are done with the pandemic and when all the cylinders start firing, we are looking at an exponential growth in monthly GST collection figures. (Even adjusting for inflation)

Second take away is, either with whatever limited avenues left to us, we are consuming much more than average or there is a significant shift towards formalisation of the economy. I would like to believe in the latter. I don’t think we are consuming more than what is required. However, certainly our purchasing patterns have changed. Due to the pandemic imposed curbs, it is possible that our dependence on the neighbourhood mom and pop stores have come down and we have got used to the convenience of door delivery for everything.

As a personal example, pre-Covid, we used to buy vegetables and fruits from our neighbourhood bhaiya. Once lock down struck, this shifted to a vegetable vendor who was arranged by our apartment complex for door delivery. Here, payment was through G-pay/PayTm etc. Now in the past few weeks, the same vendor is now part of an E-Commerce aggregator called Bhajiwala.com! Bhajiwala.com, I am sure is within the ambit of GST and hence clearly part of the formal economy! My view therefore is, the benefits of GST implementation which we were all looking forward to is beginning to accrue and will be more visible when we are out of the pandemic.

It was widely believed that once GST is implemented, it will add 1-2% to the annual GDP. I now believe that once the pandemic is over and when economy starts firing in all cylinders like before, the bump due to GST could be in excess of 2% because of the increased formalisation of the economy is the last 2/3 years. This I am talking about even after the pent up demand effect.  That should put the naysayers of the GST to rest.

Though we cannot take the stock markets as a real indicator of the state of the economy thanks to its fickle and speculative nature, probably the markets are seeing into the future as above which others are not.  Which is why the markets have been on fire since the last few months even in the midst of the pandemic.

In conclusion, I would like to say that yes, the high growth in Q1 is due to the low base effect.  Yet, it is a significant milestone and pointer towards a robust economic recovery. It is certainly one to be cheered upon if not celebrated upon as yet.  Acche Din are around the corner!

Pic Courtesy: The Economic Times

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.

India’s Vaccination Conundrum!

Delhi, India’s capital reported around 1600 new cases yesterday with the test positivity rate dropping to 2.5% from a high of 35% in April. Mumbai, the commercial capital reported around 1300 new cases yesterday. In the 1st half of April, the daily cases were averaging 10000 plus.  Both these cities are under near complete lockdowns and the reduction of activities has helped to bring the case load down. Elsewhere in India, many cities and towns are still showing a worrying trend and the respective authorities have imposed circuit breakers and I am certain the numbers there will also show a decreasing trend in the coming weeks.

Now with the decrease in the case load in Mumbai, already there is a clamour to “Unlock” so that business activities can resume. In Delhi, the Chief Minister has said that if the cases continue to drop for another week, his government will start the process of unlocking. As we saw in the past, when the lockdowns are eased, there is a chance that the case load goes up. It is a vicious cycle of numbers going up and down with locking and unlocking. Hence, at this point of time, the only option we have, to break this cycle is to rapidly vaccinate majority of the population.

India’s vaccination program thus far has only flattered to deceive. The programme kicked off on the 16th Jan, 2021. It is now over 5 months and yes, we have administered over 18 crore doses but, the coverage has only been 3% of the population. If we continue at the same pace, we will take years to cover the total population by which time, wreckage on all fronts due to Covid will be humongous. It is clear as daylight that we have to up our ante on the vaccination front as of yesterday.

This is where the government’s overall planning on the vaccination program begs all kinds of questions.   During the initial phases of the program that was meant to cover health workers and later senior citizens, one thought that the program was proceeding smoothly. However, it was during the 2nd phase – that of citizens over the age of 45 commenced, the whole program started falling apart. From a phase of vaccine hesitancy we quickly moved to vaccine shortages. And this was happening exactly at the time when the second wave Covid numbers were hitting the roof on a daily basis.

A panic struck government facing fire from all directions on a single day opened up the vaccination program whereby it allowed vaccine makers to sell 50% of their stock to states and private sector. And in another bizarre move, it opened up the vaccination to 18+ age group with a caveat that this will not be sponsored by the Central government.  Bizarre, because the opening up happened when there were no sufficient stocks to cover the 45+ age groups adequately.

Today as far as vaccination is concerned, there is a strange situation. As I mentioned earlier, there is less vaccine hesitancy among people. There is a good awareness and urge amongst many to get the vaccination done. However, due to the shortages, we are back to the good old “IRCTC” days. The tyranny of OTPs, slowly loading site and the fastest finger first routine are back. Those who are not IT savvy, have to make the daily trips to the centre and try for walk in jabs and of course deal with big lines there, that too during Covid times. The Cowin portal which at the outset is impressive is a gate keeper today. And for some strange reason it is available only in English language!

As I have written in my earlier posts, as far as Covid is concerned, there have been many unknowns. The magnitude of the second wave came as a big surprise and caught all of us in the back foot. I have argued that no government in the world could have planned and smoothly handled a wave which is 3X and 4X times the peak of the previous wave in terms of hospitalisation requirements. On this, the barrage of excessive criticism on the Indian Government has been a bit unfair and we should cut the government some slack on this.

Having said that, where the Government and here I mean the Central Government, has been found wanting is on the vaccination project front. In this project, there were lesser or no unknowns. Data of the population, the production capacities of the indigenous vaccine makers were all available right in front. Yet, we did not move on securing enough stocks of the doses for vaccination. It is not clear if it is executive decision making or bureaucratic sloth that has landed us in this situation. Either way, we missed the bus.

While the important aspect of arresting the second wave is in progress, the Central Government must shift its priority to bringing the vaccination program back on track. We are now seeing that the program of state governments procuring vaccines directly is not taking off. In response to the global bids floated by the Municipal Corporation in Mumbai (BMC), only suppliers of Sputnik have quoted. And there again, with the stringent supply conditions of the tender, I doubt any supply will happen in the near future!

Therefore, the onus is on the Central Government to ensure sourcing of the required doses of vaccines required to vaccinate at least 70% of the population by end of this year. That would mean making available over 160 crore doses from now till December. In a recent press conference, the government put out a table that said that the Production/Availability of vaccines from August to Dec is 216 crore doses. With this availability picture, has the central government placed the orders on the vaccine makers already at least for the approved ones? Are the approval process for the other vaccines on queue put on fast track? Has the government assessed the working capital requirements of the indigenous vaccine makers and committed the same? Is the supply chain secured for the production of the vaccines as per capacity? IS work happening on the Cowin site to make it more citizen friendly?

If the answers are yes, we have learnt from the past mistakes. If No, we have decided to live “Ram Bharose”.

Image Courtesy: Amul