Economic Reforms in India since 1991: Has Gradualism Worked? by Montek S. Ahluwalia* India was a latecomer to economic reforms, embarking on the process in earnest only in 1991, in the wake of an exceptionally severe balance of payments crisis. The need for a policy shift had become evident much earlier, as many countries in east Asia achieved high growth and poverty reduction through policies which emphasized greater export orientation and encouragement of the private sector. India took some steps in this direction in the 1980s, but it was not until 1991 that the government signaled a systemic shift to a more open economy with greater reliance upon market forces, a larger role for the private sector including foreign investment, and a restructuring of the role of government. India’s economic performance in the post-reforms period has many positive features. The average growth rate in the ten year period from 1992-93 to 2001-02 was around 6.0 percent, as shown in Table 1, which puts India among the fastest growing developing countries in the 1990s. This growth record is only slightly better than the annual average of 5.7 percent in the 1980s, but it can be argued that the 1980s growth was unsustainable, fuelled by a buildup of external debt which culminated in the crisis of 1991. In sharp contrast, growth in the 1990s was accompanied by remarkable external stability despite the east Asian crisis. Poverty also declined significantly in the post-reform period, and at a faster rate than in the 1980s according to some studies (as Ravallion and Datt discuss in this issue). However, the ten-year average growth performance hides the fact that while the economy grew at an impressive 6.7 percent in the first five years after the reforms, it slowed down to 5.4 percent in the next five years. India remained among the fastest growing developing countries in the second sub-period because other developing countries also slowed down after the east Asian crisis, but the annual growth of 5.4 percent was much below the target of 7.5 percent which the government had set for the period. Inevitably, this has led to some questioning about the effectiveness of the reforms. Opinions on the causes of the growth deceleration vary. World economic growth was slower in the second half of the 1990s and that would have had some dampening effect, but India’s dependence on the world economy is not large enough for this to account for the slowdown. Critics of liberalization have blamed the slowdown on the effect of trade policy reforms on domestic industry (for example, Nambiar et al, 1999; Chaudhuri, 2002).1 However, the opposite view is that the slowdown is due not to the effects of reforms, but rather to the failure to implement the reforms effectively. This in turn is often attributed to India’s gradualist approach to reform, which has meant a frustratingly slow pace of implementation. However, even a gradualist pace should be able to achieve significant policy changes over ten years. This paper examines India’s experience with gradualist reforms from this perspective. We review policy changes in five major areas covered by the reform program: fiscal deficit reduction, industrial and trade policy, agricultural policy, infrastructure development and social sector development. Based on this review, we consider the cumulative outcome of ten years of gradualism to assess whether the reforms have created an environment which can support 8 percent GDP growth, which is now the government target. Savings, Investment and Fiscal Discipline Fiscal profligacy was seen to have caused the balance of payments crisis in 1991 and a reduction in the fiscal deficit was therefore an urgent priority at the start of the reforms. The combined fiscal deficit of the central and state governments was successfully reduced from
Montek S. Ahluwalia is at present Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, Government of India. Prior to this, he was working as Director, Independent...
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