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Never Mind Europe. Worry About India

The economic slowdown in India is one of the world’s biggest economic stories, but it is commanding only a modicum of attention in the United States.

Bombay Traffic
Neil Beer | Photodisc | Getty Images
Bombay Traffic

It may not even look like a slowdown because by developed standards, India’s growth — estimated by the International Monetary Fund at 6.9 percent for 2012 — is still strong. But a slowdown it is: the economy has decelerated from projected rates of more than 8 percent, and negative momentum may bring a further decline. The government reported year-over-year growth in the October-through-December quarter of only 6.1 percent.

What is disturbing is that much of the decline in the growth rate is distributed unevenly, with the greatest burden falling on the poor. If the slower rate continues or worsens, many millions of Indians, for another generation, will fail to rise above extreme penury and want. The problems of the euro zone are a pittance by comparison.

China commands more attention, but Scott B. Sumner, the Bentley College economist, has pointed out it is India that is likely to end up as the world’s largest economy by the next century. China’s population is likely to peak relatively soon while India’s will continue to grow, so under even modestly optimistic projections the Indian economy will be No. 1 in terms of total size.

India also is a potential force for energizing the economies of Bangladesh, Nepal and, perhaps someday, Pakistan and Myanmar. The losses from a poorer India go far beyond the country’s borders; furthermore, the wealthier India becomes, the stronger the allure of democracy in the region.

Why is India’s economic growth slowing? The causes are varied. They include a less than optimal attitude toward foreign business and investment: recall the Indian government’s reversal of its previous willingness to let Wal-Mart enter the retailing sector. The government also has been assessing retroactive taxation on foreign businesses years after incomes are earned and reported. Another problem is the country’s energy infrastructure, which has not geared up to meet industrial demand. Coal mining is dominated by an inefficient state-owned company and there are various price controls on both coal and natural gas. Over all, the country does not seem headed toward further liberalization and market-oriented reforms.

These problems can be solved. More troubling are the causes that have no easy fix.

Agriculture employs about half of India’s work force, for example, yet the agricultural revolution that flourished in the 1970s has slowed. Crop yields remain stubbornly low, transport and water infrastructure is poor, and the legal system is hostile to foreign investment in basic agriculture and to modern agribusiness. Note that the earlier general growth bursts of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were all preceded by significant gains in agricultural productivity.

For all of India’s economic progress, it is hard to find comparable stirrings in Indian agriculture today. It is estimated that half of all Indian children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.

Another worry is that India’s services-based growth spurt may have run much of its course. Call centers, for example, have succeeded by building their own infrastructure and they often function as self-contained, walled minicities. It's impressive that those achievements have been possible, but these economically segregated islands of higher productivity suggest that success is achieved by separating oneself from the broader Indian economy, not by integrating with it.

India also has one of the world’s most unwieldy legal systems, and one that seems particularly hard to reform. On the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, the country ranks 132 out of 183 listed countries and regions, behind Honduras and the West Bank and Gaza, and just ahead of Nigeria and Syria. One undercurrent of talk is that the days of “the license Raj” have returned, referring to the country’s earlier subpar economic performance under a regime of heavy government regulation.

On the positive side of the ledger, the country retains a population with remarkable talent, energy and entrepreneurship. It has worldwide networks of trade and migration, and world-class achievements in entertainment and design, among numerous other strengths. Nonetheless, the previous pace of progress no longer seems guaranteed.

India may not be alone in this slowdown. There is a more general worry that the grouping of disparate giants known as the BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China — has, for some reason, lost much of its previous momentum. Last year Brazil grew at only a 2.7 percent rate, down from 7.5 percent, and Chinese and Russian G.D.P. growth are slowing too, to an unknown extent and duration. In the past, many countries engaged in catch-up growth have suddenly slowed and hit plateaus, although economists do not have firmly established theories as to when and why this happened. In any case it remains a real danger.

In the short run, we often focus on headlines, elections and fights between personalities and political parties. But the world is shaped by deeper structural forces, such as resources, technologies, demographics and economic growth rates.

We ignore India’s troubling trends at our peril.

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