Reforms: Putting the horse before the cart

Sequencing is important, but it may be better to have reforms, regardless of their order, than not have anything at all.

The reform process that started around 1992 has some interesting characteristics that have not been adequately focussed upon. Encompassing a vast canvas, the sequencing of reforms has often been interesting the stage getting set post-facto instead of the other way around. Or, what might be called the `cars first, roads later’ principle. This is quite the norm for the Indian economy. Thus, modern cars are made in India but run on roads that are pathetic, even in the metros.

Such is also the case with private airlines. The Government is ready to provide anyone the licence to fly in India, but has done little

vis-à-vis

the infrastructure in terms of runways or handling facilities. The idea seems to be that the infrastructure will get developed, pushed by the demand for improved facilities. The approach is to encourage the tail to wag the dog. But this approach creates its own dynamics. One is that the softer aspects of reforms get taken up first, while the hard decisions get postponed. Also, in this approach alternative assets are created even when existing ones are not fully used. This creation of alternatives that change or reduce the importance of existing institutions/enterprises happens in two ways.

Public or Private Sector as Catalyst

One is the creation of a public sector alternative to the private sector operators that are inadequate or persist with outdated technology. Two examples come to mind. One, the creation of the NSE and, two, setting up of public sector car company Maruti. In both cases, the private entities were forced to change and compete and the overall environment improved vastly. For the reverse that is, encouraging private assets to change public institutions illustrations abound airlines, telecom, oil, insurance, mutual funds and so on. Here, the assumption is that once private industry comes in, the competition will improve the functioning of the public sector. This works up to a point but beyond that there is only resort to poaching of capable and experienced people from the public sector.

Second, this method forces the involved or affected groups to either find alternatives or just accept the changes. For instance, technology and connectivity that created stock market trading screens across the country rendered thousands of sub-brokers, arbitrageurs, odd-lot and floor dealers redundant without creating any alternative avenues for them.

Why, even the regional stock exchanges were rendered redundant and with that many of their members lost their main activity. Of course, in this case the affected group was better off and could cope. But the same may not be the case with other sectors where the people involved may be relatively aged or are not very well educated. One criticism of the reforms process is that it has not been a systematic and well-thought-out plan with set milestones. But such a criticism pre-supposes that identical approaches are possible in all situations. The real reforms story may be a saga of improvisations and adjustments based on feedback in a system like ours.

Regulatory issues

One of the important aspects of the reforms process is regulatory issues and creating a suitable regulatory framework for a large number of activities and enterprises. The Indian mindset is still of the administrator himself being the regulator. But there must be a separation of regulation and administration.

The EPFO (Employees Provident Fund Organisation) is a classic case of the fund manager being the regulator too. In recent times, the Reserve Bank of India has been moving away from being a mere administrator of banks by withdrawing its officials from bank boards to focus on regulation. The Railways is also both an operator and a regulator as also the National Highways Authority of India. The Airports Authority of India is both a regulator and operator; the Director-General Civil Aviation regulating only safety and technical aspects.

Hence, reforms can be categorised into: One, where the public sector provides the push to change private entities. Two, where new private companies offer challenges to public sector units. Three, where the reform is initiated from the latter end; this also includes reforms through processes such as Special Economic Zones, wherein the affected party is large and alternative livelihood issues are not adequately addressed. Four, where reforms are attempted with the operator and the regulator as a single entity.

As in categorising of efficient markets in financial literature, the efficiency of the reforms can be gauged by the time gap in attaining the new equilibrium. One can try to measure the time it takes to have improved or new airports after the permission granted to new airlines. The shorter the time taken for a system to stabilise, higher the marks for that piece of reform. The Government perhaps thinks that putting the cart before the horse may be better than not doing anything at all. It may be correct, for it is important that there is a horse as otherwise where would the cart alone take the nation? Particularly on the potholed roads. Nowhere.

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