In an interview where he paints a bleak and disturbing picture of the state of the economy, India’s former chief statistician professor Pronab Sen has said that we can identify the problems that are retarding growth but we don’t know how to tackle them.
Worse, professor Sen says he is not sure if the government has diagnosed the problems because it has not spoken about them and its silence can be variously interpreted. Consequently, he says that India will miss the RBI’s target of 7.2% growth for this financial year and that it will growth will only come in somewhere around 6-6.5%.
However, he points out, in real terms growth will actually be just 4% which, he adds, is at least 2.5% below the growth India needs to create jobs for its population. This means, professor Sen points out, we can boast of being the fastest growing economy but it’s equally true that we are considerably falling short of the rate of growth we need (6.57%) to create sufficient jobs for our people which, in turn, will boost consumption and spending and create incentives for investment.
In these circumstances, professor Sen said that first quarter growth of FY23 at 13.5% is clearly disappointing.
In a 42-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, professor Sen, who is currently the country director of the International Growth Centre, identified two critical areas where the Indian economy faces serious problems about which we are not sure what we should do.
The first is the MSME sector which, he added, has undoubtedly shrunk in size over the last two years. The problem is not a question of encouraging and helping existing MSMEs so much as creating the environment for new MSMEs to emerge. The specific problem is that the informal credit line on which they depend has dried up and we don’t know how to revive that credit line. The government does not have a clear way of doing so.
And, the problem afflicting MSMEs, professor Sen says, is the reason why manufacturing has only grown year-on-year by 4.8% and why joblessness and unemployment are an increasing concern. Most jobs are created by MSMEs or the wider unorganised sector and that seems to have stopped or, at least, is not happening in sufficient measure.
The second problem professor Sen identified is the critical services sector of trade, hotel, transport, communication and broadcasting services, which represent 30.5% of employment but is still 15.5% below pre-pandemic levels. Once again, he said we don’t know what we need to do to boost this sector back to pre-pandemic levels. He pointed out that many MSMEs work in this sector and its future is, therefore, directly linked to MSMEs.
Professor Sen also pointed out that the global situation will not be of much help to India. Interest rates are likely to remain high and exports, which have been a support to the economy until recently, will face problems in markets like Europe and America and, therefore, fail to provide the boost to growth they have previously given. However, he believes oil prices could come down.
He believes India is clearly locked into a K-shaped recovery and the arms of the K are moving further and further apart.
Whilst scoffing at commentators and newspapers that have called for broad-based reforms, without identifying what they would be, professor Sen said that the key reform needed would be credit lines that would service MSMEs and provide funds for new MSMEs to start up.
Two other subjects covered in this interview include India’s euphoric response to the fact it has overtaken Britain and become the world’s fifth largest economy which, he says, is true but hides the fact that in per capita terms, Britain is over 20 times better off, and it also hides the fact that a very substantial percentage of the Indian population lives in dire poverty.
The second subject is the use of foreign exchange reserves to shore up the falling rupee. Professor Sen believes the RBI should allow the rupee to depreciate and only use reserves to curb volatility.