The publication of the Annual Economic Survey, just before the Union Budget, is a much-awaited event. Giving a snapshot of the Indian Economy together with a SWOT analysis, every word of the Survey is precious for serious students of economics. Painstaking research, unbiased statistics and unmatched scholarship ensure that the Economic Survey remains of interest to economists and politicians long after the corresponding year’s Budget is forgotten. The Economic Survey of 2016-17 summarised this desiderata in the following words: “It (Economic Survey) must possess a rare combination of gifts …. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside its regard. It must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, its authors as aloof and incorruptible as artists, yet sometimes as near to earth as politicians.”
The current Economic Survey, however, makes no such pretensions. We get a hint of the direction that the Survey would take, at the very beginning, in the Preface itself, where the authors declare: “The foresight of our collective vision to battle this pandemic became evident when policy insights and implementation at the Centre, State and local level converged to initiate a V-shaped economic recovery. This spirit resonated in the recent Team India’s victory in Australia where their resilience to rebound from 36 all out to winning the Test series was a V-shaped performance indeed!”
This self-congratulatory statement assaults one’s sensibilities, because the V-shaped recovery of the Indian economy, alluded to by the Survey, is visible only to Government economists, and the Indian cricket team is unlikely to have gotten their fighting spirit from the economic decisions of the Government. Moreover, on principle, an academic publication should refrain from reaching a conclusion without marshalling the necessary facts.
The current Economic Survey appears to be designed not only as a SWOT analysis of the Indian economy but with a view to provide justifications for some recent decisions of the Government. For example, the Survey starts with the chapter “Saving Lives and Livelihoods amidst a Once-in-a-Century Crisis.” Running into forty pages, the entire chapter is a spirited defence of the 68-day lockdown (mentioned wrongly as a 40-day lockdown on page 15). The chapter lists the ‘reformative’ laws enacted during the lockdown and goes on to wax eloquent about the far-sighted policies of the Government which have set the stage for a ‘Vshaped recovery.’
For good measure, an entire table “Illustrative Timeline of Consultations/Recommendations for Agricultural Reforms,” unrelated to the topic at hand, details the occasions on which farming reforms were discussed at various fora or were mentioned in documents. The entire chapter, however, does not have a single word to say about the human cost of the lockdown, particularly the privations suffered by migrant workers, casting a doubt on its fairness. The Survey also ignores inconvenient facts like the exponential increase in the wealth of the super-rich in India during the lockdown, when the nation’s wealth and the resources of the poor had declined steeply.Then, there is a chapter in the Survey “Does India’s Sovereign Credit Rating reflect its fundamentals? No!” that almost weaves a conspiracy theory against the three major Credit Rating Agencies, S&P, Moody’s and Fitch. To buttress the theory of bias of Credit Rating Agencies against emerging economies like India, the authors quote the example of China, whose Sovereign Credit Rating was downgraded the moment it became the world’s third largest economy. While the Survey devotes considerable space to prove that the low credit ratings did not reflect the situation on the ground, thankfully no motive has been attributed to the Credit Rating Agencies for their parsimonious assessment. According to the Survey, the low credit ratings have affected FPI inflows in debt and equity instruments. With the high investment by FPI turning the Indian stock market virtually into a den of speculators, we are probably better off with a poor credit rating! Thus, the Survey’s prescription of asking the Credit Rating Agencies to change their methodology to award a proper Sovereign Credit Rating to us, would be nothing more than good optics.
The Economic Survey unabashedly favours economic growth over distributive justice, ignoring the fact that in recent times, the fruits of our progress have gone disproportionately to the rich and in fact, the spending power of the poor has declined sharply, as borne out by the “Key Indicators: Household Consumer Expenditure in India” survey conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO), which found that the average monthly spending by an individual fell to Rs 1,446 in 2017-18 from Rs 1,501 in 2011-12, i.e. by 3.7 per cent. In fact, in rural India monthly spending on food in 2017-18 was Rs 580, a nearly 10 per cent decline from Rs 643 in 2011-12.
Also, the Survey ignores the findings of contemporary studies like the Oxfam study “India: Extreme inequality in numbers” which concluded that the top 10 per cent of the Indian population holds 77 per cent of the total national wealth and that the rich were getting richer with 73 per cent of the wealth generated in 2017 going to the richest 1 per cent. Again, disturbingly, the Economic Survey completely ignores the lopsided growth of the Indian economy in the aftermath of Coronavirus pandemic – the Oxfam study goes on to state that post-lockdown the wealth of most Indian billionaires increased dramatically while the Indian economy shrank by 23.9 per cent in the first quarter, with a loss of 2.1 crore salaried jobs till August.
Another chapter “Regulatory Forbearance: An Emergency Medicine, Not Staple Diet!” discusses the problem of bank NPAs holistically but ends up putting the entire blame on the RBI for continuing the policy of permitting banks and financial institutions to continue operating even after their capital was severely depleted (termed regulatory forbearance by the Survey), long after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 was over. The analysis of the problem is sharp and a proper roadmap is given on how to end the current phase of regulatory forbearance but the authors’ insistence on holding the then RBI Governor, Raghuram Rajan solely responsible for the present NPA crisis dents the credibility of the Survey because it was Rajan who put an end to the policy of regulatory forbearance and paid the price for it.
The chapter on healthcare “Healthcare takes Centre Stage, Finally!” is insightful. After studying the problems in providing proper healthcare to the entire country, the authors conclude that “information utilities that help mitigate the information asymmetry can be very useful in enhancing overall welfare” and suggest the setting-up of a robust regulator for the healthcare sector. However, in the chapter “JAY Ho: Ayushman Bharat’s Jan Arogya Yojana (JAY) and Health Outcomes” the authors seem to suggest that PM-JAY is the panacea for all our healthcare problems. No attempt is made in the Survey to reconcile this apparent contradiction or to suggest how these two streams of healthcare could be profitably aligned. The Survey has tried to prove that PM-JAY has influenced the child health parameters in a number of States, which appears suspect, given the fact that PM-JAY was launched on 15 August 2018, and till the beginning of the current financial year only registrations for PM-JAY had been done.Some chapters, particularly, the ones on process reforms and innovation display both original thinking and a deep understanding of the Indian economy. The Bare Necessities Index (BNI) proposed by the Economic Survey is capable of measuring the availability of the minimum specified quantities of basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, water and sanitation, that are necessary to prevent ill health and undernourishment. Unquestionably, BNI would be a useful instrument for quantifying the economic and social well-being of the poor. On the whole, the Survey disappoints neither the student nor the seasoned economist in its erudition.
Also, the understanding and vision of the Economic Survey is priceless. The Survey would have been a document fit to be cherished by posterity, if only it had not obscured its insights and scholarship by taking a one-sided stance to mount an ex-post facto defence of the Government’s decisions