Here is my NYT column from today, on the recent growth slowdown in India. Excerpt:
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.