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Indian Economy at 75: Much Progress But Lingering Doubts Over Development Model

The 'growth at any cost' strategy has been at the expense of the workers and the environment.
A man walks at the seafront as scattered clouds are seen over Mumbai's skyline, India, June 10, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?

The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition?

Follow us for the next few days to get a rounded view of India@75.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

India at 75 is a mixed bag of development and missed opportunities. The country has achieved much since Independence but a lot remains to be done to become a developed society. The pandemic has exposed India’s deficiencies in stark terms. The uncivilised conditions of living of a vast majority of the citizens became apparent. According to a report from the Azim Premji University, 90% of the workers said during the lockdown that they did not have enough savings to buy one week of essentials. This led to mass migration of millions of people, in trying conditions, from cities to the villages, in the hope of access to food and survival.

Generally, technology-related sectors, pharmaceuticals and some producing essentials in the organised sectors have done well in spite of the pandemic. So, a part of the economy is doing well in spite of adversity, but incomes of at least 60% of people at the bottom of the income ladder have declined (PRICE Survey, 2022). The great divide between the unorganised and organised parts of the economy is growing. The backdrop to these developments is briefly presented below.

Structure and growth of the economy

In 1947, at the time of Independence, India’s socio-economic parameters were similar to those in countries of South East Asia and China. The level of poverty, illiteracy, inadequacy of health infrastructure were all similar. Since then, these other countries have progressed rapidly, leaving India behind in all parameters.

In 1950, agriculture was the dominant sector with a 55% share of GDP which has now dwindled to about 14%. The share of the services sector has grown rapidly and by 1980 it surpassed the share of agriculture and now it is about 55% of GDP. The Indian economy has diversified producing ‘from pins to space ships’.

Agriculture grows at a trend rate of maximum of 4% per annum while the services sector can grow at even 12% per annum. So there has been a shift in the composition of the economy from agriculture to services and this accelerated the economy’s growth rate. The average growth rate of the economy between the 1950s and the 1970s was around 3.5%. In the 1980s and 1990s it increased to 5.4% due to the shift in the composition. There was no significant acceleration in the growth rate of the economy in the 1990s compared to the 1980s. This rate again increased in the period after 2003 only to decline in 2008-09 due to the global financial crisis. Subsequently, the rate of growth has fluctuated wildly both due to global events and the policy conundrums in India.

FILE PHOTO: A labourer carries a sack of onions at a wholesale market in Kolkata, India, December 14, 2021. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

There was the taper tantrum in 2012-13 which cut short the post-global financial crisis recovery. Demonetisation in November 2016 adversely impacted growth. That was followed by the structurally flawed GST. These policies administered shocks to the economy. Then came the pandemic in 2020. The economy’s quarterly growth rate had already fallen from 8% in Q4 2017-18 to 3.1% in Q4 2019-20, just before the pandemic hit.

1980-81 marked a turning point. Prior to that, a drought would lead to a negative rate of growth of agriculture and of the economy as a whole. For instance, due to the drought in 1979-80, the economy declined by 6%. But, that was the last one. After that, a decline in agriculture has not resulted in a negative growth rate of the economy. The big drought of 1987-88 saw the economy grow at 3.4%. After 1980-81, the economy has experienced a negative growth rate only during the pandemic which severely impacted the services sector, especially the contact services.

Employment and technology related issues

Agriculture employs 45% of the workforce though its share in the economy (14%) has now become marginal. It has been undergoing mechanisation with increased use of tractors, harvester combines, etc., leading to displacement of labour. Similar is the case in non-agriculture. So surplus labour is stuck in agriculture leading to massive disguised unemployment.

India’s employment data is suspect. The reason is that in the absence of unemployment allowance, people who lose work have to do some alternative work otherwise they would starve. They drive a rickshaw, push a cart, carry head load or sell something at the roadside. This gets counted as employment even though they have only a few hours of work and are under employed. So, India is characterised by disguised unemployment and under employment.

Recent data points to growing unemployment among the educated youth. They wait for suitable work. The result is low labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India (in the mid-40s) compared to similar other countries (60% plus). It implies that in India maybe 20% of those who could work have stopped looking for work. No wonder for a few hundred low grade government jobs, millions of young apply. The gender dimension of unemployment and the low LFPR is worrying with women the worst sufferers.

These aspects of inadequate employment generation are linked to automation and the investment pattern in the economy. New technologies that are now being used in the modern sectors are labour displacing. For instance, earlier in big infrastructure projects like, construction of roads one could see hundreds of people working but now big machines are used along with a few workers.

Further, the organised sectors get most of the investment so that little is left for the unorganised sector. This is especially true for agriculture. Thus, neither the organised sector nor agriculture are generating more work. Consequently, entrants to the job market are mostly forced to join the non-agriculture unorganised sector, which in a sense is the residual sector, where the wages are a fraction of the wages in the organised sector. The unorganised sector also acts as a reserve army of labour keeping organised sector wages in check.

Lack of a living wage

To boost profits, the organised sector is increasingly, employing contract labour rather than permanent employees.  This is true in both the public and private sectors. So, not only the workers in the unorganised sector, even the workers in the organised sector do not earn a living wage. Thus, most workers have little savings to deal with any crisis. They are unable to give their children proper education and cannot afford proper health facilities. Most of the children drop out of school and can only do menial jobs requiring physical labour. They cannot obtain a better paying job and will remain poor for the rest of their lives.

The Delhi socio-economic survey of 2018 pointed to the low purchasing power of the majority of Indians. It showed that in Delhi, 90% of households spent less than Rs 25,000 per month, and 98% spent less than Rs 50,000 per month. Since Delhi’s per capita income is 2.5 times the all India average, deflating the Delhi figures by this factor will approximately yield the all India figures. So, 98% of the families would have spent less than Rs.20,000 per month, and 90 per cent less than Rs 10,000 per month. Effectively implying that 90 per cent of families were poor in 2018, if not extremely poor (implied by the poverty line). During the pandemic, many of them lost incomes and were pauperised and forced to further reduce their consumption.

Unorganised sector invisibilised

In the unorganised sector labour is not organised as trade union and therefore, unable to bargain for higher wages, when prices rise. It constitutes 94% of the work force and has little social security. No other major world economy has such a huge unorganised sector. No wonder when such a large section of the population faces a crisis in their lives, the economy declines, as witnessed during the pandemic. India’s official rate of growth fell more sharply than that of any other G20 country.

Policy makers largely ignore the unorganised sector. The sudden implementation of the lockdown which put this sector in a deep existential crisis points to that. The micro sector has 99% of the units and 97.5% of the employment of MSME and is unlike the small and medium sectors. The benefits of polices made for MSME sector do not accrue to the micro units.

Invisibilisation of the unorganised sector in the data is at the root of the problem. Data on this sector becomes available periodically, called the reference years. In between, it is assumed that this sector can be proxied by the organised sector. This could be taken to be correct when there is no shock to the economy and its parameters remain unchanged.

A worker pours molten iron from a ladle to make automobile spare parts inside an iron casting factory in Ahmedabad, India, January 31, 2019. Photo: Amit Dave

Demonetisation and the flawed GST administered big shocks to the economy and undermined the unorganised sector. Its link with the organised sector got disrupted.

The implication is that the unorganised sector’s decline since 2016 is not captured in the data. Worse, the growth of the organised sector has been at the expense of the unorganised sector because demand shifted from the latter to the former. It suited the policy makers to continue using the faulty data since that presented a rosy picture of the economy. This also lulled them into believing that they did not need to do anything special to check the decline of the unorganised sector.

Policy paradigm shift in 1947

Growing unemployment, weak socio-economic conditions, etc., are not sudden developments. Their root lies in the policy paradigm adopted since independence.

In 1947, the leadership, influenced by the national movement understood that people were not to blame for their problems of poverty, illiteracy and ill-health and could not resolve them on their own. So, it was accepted that in independent India these issues would be dealt with collectively. Therefore, government was given the responsibility of tackling these issues and given a key role in the economy.

Simultaneously, the leadership, largely belonging to the country’s elite, was enamoured of Western modernity and wanted to copy it to make India an `advanced country’. The two paths of Western development then available were the free market and Soviet style central planning. India adopted a mix of the two with the leading role given to the public sector. This path was chosen also for strategic reasons and access to technology which the West was reluctant to supply. But, this choice also led to a dilemma for the Indian elite. It had to ally with the Soviet Union for reasons of defence and access to technology but wanted to be like Western Europe.

Both the chosen paths were based on a top down approach. The assumption was that there would be trickle down to those at the bottom. People accepted this proposition believing in the wider good of all. Resources were mobilized and investment made in creation of big dams and factories (called temples of modern India) that generated few jobs. They not only displaced many people but trickle down was minimal.

The Indian economy diversified and grew rapidly. An economy which for 50 years had been growing at about 0.75% grew at about 4% in the 1950s. But, the decline in the death rate led to a spurt in the rate of population growth. So, the per capita income did not show commensurate growth and poverty persisted. Problems got magnified due to shortage of food following the drought of 1965-67 and the Wars in 1962 and 1965. Naxalite movement started in 1967, there was BOP crisis and high inflation in 1972-74 due to the growing energy dependence and the Yom Kippur war. Soon thereafter there was political instability and imposition of Emergency in 1975. The country went from crisis to crisis.

Planning failed due to crony capitalism. The prevailing political economy enabled the business community to systematically undermine policies for their narrow ends by fuelling the growth of black economy.

The failure of trickle down and the cornering of the gains of development by a narrow section of people led to growing inequality and people losing faith in the development process. Different sections of the population realised that they needed a share in power to deliver to their group. Every division in society – caste, region, community, etc. – was exploited. The leadership became short-termist and indulged in competitive populism by promising immediate gains.

The consensus on policies that existed at independence dissipated quickly. Election time promises to get votes were not fulfilled. For instance, PM Morarji Desai said that promises in the Janata Dal manifesto in 1977 were the party’s programme and not the government’s. Such undermining of accountability of political process has undermined democracy and trust and aggravated alienation.

Black economy and policy failure

The black economy has grown rapidly since the 1950s with political, social and economic ramifications. Even though it is at the root of the major problems confronting the country, most analysts ignore it.

It undermines elections and strengthens the hold of vested interests on political parties. The compromised leadership of political parties is open to blackmail both by foreign interests and those in power. When in power it does the bidding of the vested interests. So, the black economy controls politics and to retain power it undermines accountability and weakens democracy.

Black economy controls politics and corrupts it to perpetuate itself. The honest and the idealist soon are corrupted as happened with the leadership that emerged from the anti-corruption JP movement in the mid-1970s. Many of them who gained power in the 1990s were accused of corruption and even prosecuted. Proposals for state funding of elections will only provide additional funds but not help clean up politics.

It is at the heart of the shortage of  resources for development, low tax to GDP ratio, policy failure, poor investment productivity and growing criminalisation in society.

Policy paradigm shift in 1991

Failure of policies led to crisis after crisis in the period leading up to 1990. The blame was put on the policies themselves and not the crony capitalism and black economy that led to their failure. The policies prior to 1990 have been often labelled as socialist. Actually, the mixed economy model was designed to promote capitalism. At best the policies may be labelled as state capitalist and they succeeded in their goal. Private capital accumulated rapidly pre-1990. The Iraq crisis of 1989-90 led to India’s BOP crisis and became the trigger for a paradigm change in policies in favour of capital. The earlier more humane and less unequal path of development was discarded.

In 1991, a new policy paradigm was ushered in. Namely, `individuals are responsible for their problems and not the collective’. Under this regime, government’s role in the economy was scaled back and individuals were expected to go to the market for resolving their problems. This may be characterised as `marketisation’. This brought about a philosophical shift in thinking of individuals and society.

These policies have promoted `growth at any cost’ with the cost falling on the marginalised sections and the environment, both of which make poverty more entrenched. So, the pre-existing problems of Indian society have got aggravated in a changed form.

Poverty is defined in terms of the `social minimum necessary consumption’ which changes with space and time. Marketisation has changed the minimum due to promotion of consumerism and environmental decay imposing heavy health costs especially the poor.

The highly iniquitous New Economic Policies (NEP) are leading to an unstable development environment. The base of growth has been getting narrower leading to periodic crisis.

Weakness in knowledge generation

Why does the obvious not happen in India? No one disagrees that poverty, illiteracy and ill health need to be eliminated. In addition to the problems due to black economy and top down approach, India has lagged behind in generating socially relevant knowledge to tackle its problems and make society dynamic.

India’s weakness in knowledge generation is linked to the low priority given to education and R&D. Instructions in Institutions of learning are based substantially on `rote learning’ which does not enable absorption of knowledge and its further development. So, education is no more about the joy of learning and expanding one’s horizon.

In spite of policy initiatives regarding education, like, the national education policy in 1968 and 1986, there is deterioration. This is because policy is in the hands of bureaucrats, politicians or academics with bureaucratised mindset. So, policies are mechanically framed. Like the idea underlying much of education policies is that `standards can be achieved via standardisation’.

The GDP data indicates that the Indian economy is projected to contract for the first time in nearly 40 years as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Photo: Reuters

Learning requires democratisation. So, institutions need to be freed from the present feudal and bureaucratic control. Presently, institutions treat dissent as a malaise to be eliminated rather than celebrated. Courses are sought to be copied from foreign universities. JNU is told to be like Harvard or Cambridge. This is a contradiction in terms; originality cannot be copied. Courses copied from abroad tend to be based on the societal conditions there and not Indian conditions. That goes against the idea of generating socially relevant knowledge. Gandhi had said that Indian education system is alienating and for many it still is.

Learning is given low priority because ideas are sought to be borrowed from abroad. So, the rulers have little value for institutions that could generate new ideas and inadequate funds are allotted to them and to education iin general.


India is a diverse society and the Indian economy is more complex than any other in the world. This has posed serious challenges to development in the last 75 years but undeniably things are not what they were. The big mistake has been to choose trickle down policies that have not delivered to a vast number of people who live in uncivilised conditions. Poverty has changed its form and the elite imply that the poor should be grateful for what they have got. They should not focus on growing inequality, especially after 1991, when globalisation entered the marketisation phase which marginalises the marginals.

The growth at any cost strategy has been at the expense of the workers and the environment. This has narrowed the base of growth and led to instability in society – politically, socially and economically. The situation has been aggravated by the recent policy mistakes – demonetisation, flawed GST and sudden lockdown. The current war in Ukraine is likely to lead to a new global order which will add to the challenges. The answer to `why does the obvious not happen’ in India is not just economic but societal. Unless that challenge is met, portents are not bright for India at 75.

This paper is based substantially on Indian Economy since Independence: Persisting Colonial Disruption, Vision Books, 2013 and Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis: Impact of Coronavirus and the Road Ahead, Penguin Random House, 2020.

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