The gross domestic product (GDP) growth numbers for the July-September quarter, the lowest in 26 quarters, are no surprise. Most analysts had — belatedly — forecast the bad news. It is now clear that if the government does not get its act together by Budget day, two months from now, a quick recovery from the current depths should not be expected. The economy is on a cusp from where it can swing either way. Nirmala Sitharaman is on test.
If we get past the schadenfreude with which many analysts greet the Modi government’s mounting economic problems, for being self-inflicted, even critics will have to address the question: What should the government do? For starters, it should stop whistling in the dark. The global slowdown is not the primary cause of India’s problems, or the gap with China’s growth numbers (6 per cent for the same July-September quarter) would not have risen as it has. Nor would Bangladesh be growing at more than 7 per cent. Next, there is no point quibbling about whether this is just a slowdown or a full-blown recession. When growth drops precipitously from 7.0 per cent to 4.5 per cent in four quarters, it is for all practical purposes a recession.
Don’t expect the quick turnaround that many analysts were forecasting until recently. The current quarter’s numbers may be no better than the last one’s if one goes by the story in the steady trickle of data, and the full year will see the slowest growth since Narendra Modi came to power on the promise of double-digit growth and achhe din (good days). The government has so far been the fastest-growing part of the economy. But with the deficit target for the full year having been crossed in seven months, this cannot continue. The Index of Industrial Production continues to bear grim tidings, as do the output numbers on the core sector. Electricity consumption has slumped, diesel consumption is going nowhere, the trade numbers point to shrinkage, and manufacturing continues to stagnate or fall across key sectors. There is no good news on either the consumption or industrial front.
While every downturn has a cyclical element to it, and there is some evidence of the automobile slump bottoming out, the fact is that much of the growth in reported bank credit is not going to industry, even as the scale of loan write-offs accelerates. Non-banking financial companies are unable to pick up the slack, having seen a sharp shrinkage in their credit flow. Companies are still de-leveraging their balance sheets. Till that process reaches near-completion, don’t expect fresh investment.
While we wait for some of these cyclical factors to play themselves out to a receding horizon that stretches now to three or four quarters into the future, deeper structural issues wait to be addressed. Agriculture has to deal with the fundamental issue of poor productivity and inadequate domestic demand (in part a result of stagnant rural wages). The government’s tax revenue base is shot through with holes, and no one seems to know how to fix the good and simple tax’s problems. The strength of services exports keeps the rupee pegged at a level at which manufacturing exporters find themselves unable to compete in export markets. Reform of the public sector is a coat that hangs yet again on the peg of what happens to the employees of unviable firms. Finally, as one business leader after another capitulates — from an Ambani to a Ruia, and from a Thapar to a Subhash Chandra — the capacity of India’s famed entrepreneurs to lead a growth charge is increasingly in question.
The best advice one can give is that this is a crisis that should not be wasted. The Modi government has acted so far as though it can ignore the bad economic news and coast along on its political and social agendas. It would be a pity if it continued to do that. A crisis is when a government can expect people to make some sacrifices for the larger good. The danger of doing nothing is that growth of 6 per cent or less becomes the norm, not the unacceptable.