Excerpts from Manmohan Singh's historic budget speech on July 24, 1991
GN Bureau | July 23, 2016
‘At the edge of precipice’
2. The new Government, which assumed office barely a month ago, inherited an economy in deep crisis. The balance of payments situation is precarious. ... There has been a sharp decline in capital inflows through commercial borrowing and non-resident deposits. As a result, despite large borrowings from the IMF in July 1990 and January 1991, there was a sharp reduction in our foreign exchange reserves. We have been at the edge of a precipice since December 1990 and more so since April 1991. The foreign exchange crisis constitutes a serious threat to the sustainability of growth processes and orderly implementation of our development programmes. Due to the combination of unfavourable internal and external factors, the inflationary pressures on the price level have increased very substantially since mid-1990. The people of India have to face double digit inflation which hurts most the poorer sections of our society. In sum, the crisis in the economy is both acute and deep. We have not experienced anything similar in the history of independent India.
3. The origins of the problem are directly traceable to large and persistent macro-economic imbalances and the low productivity of investment, in particular the poor rates of return on past investments. There has been an unsustainable increase in Government expenditure. Budgetary subsidies, with questionable social and economic impact, have been allowed to grow to an alarming extent. The tax system still has many loopholes. It lacks transparency so that it is not easy to assess the social and economic impact of various concessions built into its structure. The public sector has not been managed in a manner so as to generate large investible surpluses. The excessive and often indiscriminate protection provided to industry has weakened the incentive to develop a vibrant export sector. It has also accentuated disparities in income and wealth. It has worked to the disadvantage of the rural economy. The increasing difference between the income and expenditure of the government has led to a widening of the gap between the income and expenditure of the economy as a whole. This is reflected in growing current account deficits in the balance of payments.
5. The balance of payments situation is most difficult. The current account deficit, which was about 2 per cent of GDP for several years, is estimated to be more than 2.5 per cent of GDP in 1990-91. These persistent deficits, which were inevitably financed by borrowings from abroad, have led to a continuous increase in external debt which, including NRI deposits, is estimated at 23 per cent of GDP at the end of 1990-91. Consequently, the debt service burden is estimated at about 21 per cent of current account receipts in 1990-91. These strains were stretched to a breaking point on account of the Gulf crisis last year. The balance of payments has lurched from one liquidity crisis to another since December 1990. The current level of foreign exchange reserves, in the range of Rs.2500 crores, would suffice to finance imports for a mere fortnight.
6. The price situation, which is of immediate concern to the vast mass of our people, poses a serious problem as inflation has reached a double digit level. During the fiscal year ending 31st March 1991 the wholesale price index registered an increase of 12.1 per cent, while the consumer price index registered an increase of 13.6 per cent. The major worrisome feature of the inflation in 1990-91 was that it was concentrated in essential commodities. The prices of these commodities rose inspite of the three good monsoons in a row and hence the three successive bumper harvests. Inflation hurts everybody, more so the poorer segments of our population whose incomes are not indexed.
‘Be prepared to make necessary sacrifices’
7. There is no time to lose. Neither the Government nor the economy can live beyond its means year after year. The room for maneuver, to live on borrowed money or time, does not exist any more. Any further postponement of macroeconomic adjustment, long overdue, would mean that the balance of payments situation, now exceedingly difficult, would become unmanageable and inflation, already high, would exceed limits of tolerance. For improving the management of the economy, the starting point, and indeed the centre-piece of our strategy, should be a credible fiscal adjustment and macro-economic stabilisation during the current financial year, to be followed by continued fiscal consolidation thereafter. This process would, inevitably, need at least three years, if not longer, to complete. But there can be no adjustment without pain. The people must be prepared to make necessary sacrifices to preserve our economic independence and restore the health of our economy.
8. In the macro-management of the economy, over the medium-term, it should be our objective to progressively reduce the fiscal deficit of the Central Government, to move towards a significant reduction of the revenue deficit, and to reduce the current account deficit in the balance of payments. It is only such prudent management that would enable us to curb the exponential growth in internal and external debt and limit the burden on debt servicing, for the Government and the country, to manageable levels. Indeed, we must make a conscious effort to reduce the internal debt of the Government and the external debt of the nation, so that we rely more and more on our own resources to finance the process of development. During the period of transition, it shall be our endeavour to minimise the burden of adjustment on the poor. We are committed to adjustment with a human face. It will also be our endeavour that the adjustment process does not adversely affect the underlying growth impulses in our economy. We do not have time to postpone adjustment and stabilisation. We must act fast and act boldly. If we do not introduce the needed correctives, the existing situation can only retard growth, induce recession and fuel inflation, which would hurt the economy further and impose a far greater burden on the poor.
9. Macro-economic stabilisation and fiscal adjustment alone cannot suffice. They must be supported by essential reforms in economic policy and economic management, as an integral part of the adjustment process, reforms which would help to eliminate waste and inefficiency and impart a new element of dynamism to growth processes in our economy. The thrust of the reform process would be to increase the efficiency and international competitiveness of industrial production, to utilise for this purpose foreign investment and foreign technology to a much greater degree than we have done in the past, to increase the productivity of investment, to ensure that India’s financial sector is rapidly modernised, and to improve the performance of the public sector, so that the key sectors of our economy are enabled to attain an adequate technological and competitive edge in a fast changing global economy.
THE FINE PRINT
‘Welcome foreign investment’
12. After four decades of planning for industrialisation, we have now reached a stage of development where we should welcome, rather than fear, foreign investment. Our entrepreneurs are second to none. Our industry has come of age. Direct foreign investment would provide access to capital, technology and markets. It would expose our industrial sector to competition from abroad in a phased manner. Cost, efficiency, and quality would begin to receive the attention they deserve. We have, therefore, decided to liberalise the policy regime for direct foreign investment...
13. For the founding fathers of our Republic, a public sector that would be vibrant, modern, competitive and capable of generating large surpluses was a vital element in the strategy of development. The public sector has made an important contribution to the diversification of our industrial economy. But there have been a number of shortcomings. In particular, the public sector has not been able to generate internal surpluses on a large enough scale. At this critical juncture, it has therefore become necessary to take effective measures so as to make the public sector an engine of growth rather than an absorber of national savings without adequate return. This has been widely accepted, but thought and action in this regard are still far apart. To bridge this gap, the portfolio of public sector investments would be reviewed so as to concentrate the future operations of the public sector in areas that are strategic for the nation, require high technology for the economy, and are essential for the infrastructure. In order to raise resources, encourage wider public participation and promote greater accountability, upto 20 per cent of government equity in selected public sector undertakings would be offered to mutual funds and investment institutions in the public sector, as also to workers in these firms. Public enterprises which are chronically sick and which cannot be turned around, will be referred to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR), or to a similar high-powered body to be set up, for the formulation of revival or rehabilitation schemes; a social security mechanism will be created to fully protect the interests of the workers likely to be affected by the rehabilitation packages of the BIFR.
16. While presenting the budget for 1987-88, our former Prime Minister the late Shri Rajiv Gandhi had assured this House that for a healthy growth of capital markets, for protecting the rights of investors and for preventing trading malpractices the Government would set up a separate Board for the regulation and orderly functioning of the Stock Exchanges and the securities industry. Although the Board was set up, legislation to give the Board adequate powers was unfortunately not enacted. This shall now be done forthwith and full statutory powers will be given to the Securities and Exchange Board of India for administering the relevant provisions of the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act and the Companies Act. Transferring these powers from the Controller of Capital Issues and the Government to an independent body would enable it to effectively regulate, promote and monitor the working of the Stock Exchanges in the country. A comprehensive package of reforms relating to trading on the Stock Exchanges, including a system of national clearing and settlement and setting up of a central depository, is also under active consideration.
‘An idea whose time has come’
153. Sir, I do not minimise the difficulties that lie ahead on the long and arduous journey on which we have embarked. But as Victor Hugo once said, “no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” I suggest to this august House that the emergence of India as a major economic power in the world happens to be one such idea. Let the whole world hear it loud and clear. India is now wide awake. We shall prevail. We shall overcome.
(The article appears in the July 16-31, 2016 issue)
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