Sunday, August 17, 2014

Economic Independence of India: Need for Multiple Regulators, Three Missions and Three Objectives

As India celebrates the season of sixty seventh anniversary of Indian Independence, there is a new hope and aspiration, which is reflected by the President Shri Pranab Mukherjee who said in his customary pre-Independence Day speech, that the twenty first century belongs to India. The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, reinforced the message while unfurling the national flag at the Red Fort on the Independence Day with a call to make India strong with economic growth and social equity. A cornerstone of the new aspirations will need to be economic independence for the country. This has a connotation greater than non-independence on economies of other nations. True economic independence means the emergence of a policy structure that rests on the logic of economic growth and social equity than on dogmas like self-reliance or maximizing foreign direct investment (FDI).

True economic independence happens when every adult in every family has a productive and earning job, whether through agriculture, manufacturing or services. The Prime Minister has given a number of inspirational slogans ever since he took office; these could verily serve as credos of development for a New India. Some of these are; ‘Skills, Scale and Speed’, ‘Per Drop, More Crop’, ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’, ‘Come, Make in India’, ‘Zero Defects, Made in India’, ‘Reduce Imports, Maximize Exports’, ‘Zero Defect (of Product), Zero Effect (on Environment), and other exhortations are reflective of Modiji’s passion to develop India as an economic power. To these, if ‘Zero Unemployment, Productive Deployment’ gets added as the exhortation that is translated gainful realization through tangible action it could lead to micro level wealth creation. The issue with economic development is that there tend to be no easy solutions. A holistic approach is needed to make things work for true economic independence.
From licensor to regulator
One of the first tenets of economic liberalization of the 1990s was that licensing stymies industrial and economic development. The two decades of liberalization has demonstrated how unshackling of industries and businesses can lead to unleashing of growth. Two caveats are, however, necessary.  Firstly, growth cannot be fuelled only by continuous removal of licenses or liberalization of investment caps. All said and done, there would continue to exist sectors of strategic importance where licensing or investment controls would be in play. Barring a few such strategic sectors (defence, multi brand retail, railways, insurance and banking, oil and gas, mining, for example), all the rest are probably free of licensing and investment controls but are still anemic in growth for various reasons. Secondly, free market economy does not by itself guarantee non-cartelization nor does it by itself prevent exploitative economics (real estate, for example). There must be an oversight role for the governments, particularly in a huge democracy like India where the disparities in wealth, education and health are three of the most galling pain points.     
At a conceptual level, the governments must move from being licensors to regulators. Regulation commonly is seen as taking care of customer interests through good business practices including pricing. Truly effective regulation goes deeper, with an approach and guidance that ensures quality, innovation and competitiveness. Each of this is an important parameter that must be defining in its essence. National regulatory bodies should have expertise to monitor how various industrial and business sectors are performing in terms of the three parameters and periodically issue guidelines, rules and regulations to course-correct the erring or sub-optimized industries. Regulators, who will be industry specific need to matrix with three pan-industry commissions on each of the three parameters mentioned above; quality, innovation and competitiveness. Three national expert commissions can be conceptualized as discussed below.

Three national missions
Quality, of the product and process, is the key to make India global manufacturing hub. From a situation where the quality standards are derived from the developed world, India must be able to set global quality standards. Looks unbelievable? In the 1950s, setting global quality standards appeared infeasible for Japan and in the 1970s for Korea. Yet, today Japan and Korea lead in quality. Why not, therefore, India? If the Indian industry and talent pool is seen to deliver quality, India would automatically become a global manufacturing hub. For that, the existing base must be developed to reach and set higher standards of quality. A National Quality Mission would be well in order.
Innovation, of the product and process, is the engine of growth. Innovation leads to new products and processes as well as continuous improvement in existing ones. Innovation is commonly seen as a result of research. However, innovation, as with quality, is a matter of mindset. An inventive mindset is required to foster innovation as much as laboratories are required to convert ideation into innovation. For a resource scarce country like India, innovation lies in doing more with less; for example, more crop per drop. The ability to identify sources, uses and forms of innovation is a characteristic of successful nations such as Japan and Korea. India requires a continuous scan of product and process landscape to drive innovation; a National Innovation Mission would help.   
Many times, competition is misconstrued as competitiveness. Competition is simply presence of more players in the industry, which it is hoped will lead to each firm excelling over one another offering improved products or services to customers (it is a hope, not a given!) . Competitiveness, on the other hand, is the ability of a company to excel over the others in the industry in terms of products or services to the customers (it is a demonstrated competency, not a hope!). Mere competition, however high it is, does not guarantee competitiveness; in fact, excessive fragmentation affects viability. Indian airline industry and domestic pharmaceutical industry are examples. Competitiveness builds on quality and innovation with management and leadership processes that assure business growth and sustainability. A National Competitiveness Mission would identify appropriate technical and managerial perspectives.

Three national objectives
There are three beliefs that inhibit the genuine embedding of the three principles of quality, innovation and competitiveness in emerging economies, and these need to be countered by the three expert missions. The first is a sense of false correlation between the product level and quality level. It may be presumed, for example, that a Mercedes Benz E series car is one of higher quality than a lower end popular car. Such thinking leads manufacturers and consumers equate specifications with quality, which is not necessarily right. Each product needs to be designed, manufactured and delivered with a purpose in mind, and quality represents fitness for the purpose as expressed through specifications. The functionality, design principles and quality levels form a total ecosystem, which must be continuously elevated. Whatever be the level of product, the level of quality cannot be compromised. A smart phone and a feature phone are both bound by respective quality parameters as would a blacktopped road and concrete road would need to be. The National Quality Mission would need to embed Quality as a national mindset.    

The second is a belief in generational lag, in products and processes, and in social and industrial infrastructure, almost as if it is a matter of destiny for emerging economies. Domestic governments and consumers as well as foreign investors and corporations believe that the latest technologies must first get embedded in the advanced countries before they can be offered, developed or manufactured in an emerging nation. As a result of this belief, which is driven by technological protectionism of innovating countries and the economic weakness of follower countries, emerging nations tend to be in a perpetual catch-up game in respect of innovation. The National Innovation Mission must continuously explore where, why and how India should leapfrog in innovation rather than be just content with followership.
The third is a belief that competitiveness is a firm level concept, and government has only fiscal policies to improve or reduce competitiveness. As Porter’s study on comparative advantage of nations showed (Michael E Porter, The Competitive Advantage of Nations), certain nations tend to become good, and internationally competitive, in certain industries or businesses relative to others. Governments in India, Centre and States, can integrate infrastructure developmental initiatives with industrial development initiatives as well as social development initiatives to generate competitive advantage at firm level and comparative advantage at national level. The freight corridors that are being developed with Japanese investment could be combined with Indo-Japanese industrial clusters and social communities that provide free flow of technologies and goods and services between India and Japan. The same could be accomplished in multiple manners with multiple nations, in diverse product lines. The National Competitiveness Mission must analyze and integrate the several public, private initiatives to generate national comparative advantage.
Challenges as opportunities
Modiji has exhorted to minimize imports and maximize exports. India imports 80 percent of its crude requirements. India also imports gold, and most of the sophisticated plant and machinery for a wide range of industries. It may therefore look impossible to minimize imports. However, if value added export platform is adopted as the basis, all imports can be exported as value added products; for example, gold as ornaments, and even crude as diesel and petrol, at least to the neighboring nations. Sophisticated plant and machinery may be assembled at site with local content rather than imported as complete built units. This, in turn, requires confidence that the Indian industry is at its pinnacle on quality, innovation and competitiveness.
Skill, Scale and Speed have helped China achieve exactly this, as Shri Narendra Modi aptly observed. China’s acquired expertise in telecom gear, smart phones, fermentation and bullet trains are striking examples. For India to be up to speed on this platform, governments and industries should backward integrate to the fullest extent, in a complete sense. There is certainly utility in indigenously producing new generation products even if in imported equipment, compared to import of the products. However, the full utility accrues when the equipment is also indigenously produced. India, a nation of 1.3 billion people, has now global scale demand levels for a range of products and, therefore, for plant & machinery for such products. It requires holistic planning and execution to recalibrate India on a global scale. The paradigm of industry specific national regulators, and quality, innovation and competitiveness specific national missions have the potential to help translate all of the Prime Minister’s powerful principles into national wealth with social equity.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 17, 2014

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