A version of this piece was first published in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link).
The road to hell is paved with good intentions—and nobody knows that better than India’s poor. There can be no better intention than removing poverty but, for more than half a century, a well-intentioned and bloated state has only perpetuated it with misguided policies and regulations. And New Delhi still hasn’t learned from these mistakes. The Indian government is soon to embark on perhaps the grandest waste of taxpayers’ money yet: the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill.
The REGB, recently passed in parliament with unanimous support across political parties, is supposed to provide 100 days of work in a year to every rural household across the country that wants it. This is expected to cost Rs. 40,000 crore (around US$ 9.1 billion), which amounts to 1.3% of GDP. And by some estimates, costs may reach four times that figure. The bill is in line with the rhetoric of the Congress-led coalition government, which came into power last year disdaining the liberalization policies of the preceding BJP government, and promising to introduce “reforms with a human face.”
The problem is that there is no evidence that the Indian Government is capable of properly implementing any social welfare plan. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi remarked in 1987 that only 15% of the money spent by the government actually reached its rightful recipient. The rest was wastage. Similar distribution schemes–such as the Public Distribution System and the 1976 Employment Guarantee Scheme in the state of Maharashtra–fell victim to inefficiency and corruption, and have all failed to achieve their stated objectives.
These failures have much to do with the the vast Indian bureaucracy, which is designed in such a way that inefficiency is inevitable, and corruption likely. Bimal Jalan, a former governor of India’s central bank, put it succinctly recently when he pointed out that “the most important problem in governance and administration of projects or schemes launched with great hopes is the involvement of a large number of agencies and ministries in decision-making and implementation. It is also common experience that these multiple agencies do not work in unison to resolve any administrative issue.”
Whatever money does make it through all the confused bureaucracy is prone to being siphoned away at the end of the line, where local distribution is meant to take place. The recently passed Right to Information Act, a welcome move that is supposed to increase transparency by forcing the government to make its paperwork available to anyone who wants to see it, can only be of limited help. Most of the country does not even know about it, or would not dare to use it against an oppressive local government.
The REGB will also have economic consequences. Labor markets could be distorted at local levels if the wages paid by the scheme are more than the local rate decided by the market. If the government runs short of funds and makes drafts on private savings held by banks, interest rates could go up. Then there’s the obvious fact that the money spent on this scheme could certainly be put to better use somewhere else. New Delhi could use it to build much-needed infrastructure like roads, ports and power installations, enabling greater participation in the economy and generating more sustainable employment.
The key to generating employment lies in less government intervention, not more. The government needs to reform India’s archaic labor laws, whose inflexibility hampers industrial growth as well as employment. In a variety of repressive ways, firms are not allowed to enter into free contracting, and cannot manage their workforces according to market conditions. In theory, labor laws are supposed to protect workers from being fired, but in practice such laws discourage industrial units from being set up, and hamper entrepreneurship and industrial expansion. The effect is that employment is far lower than it would have been in a free market.
India also needs to shut down its “License Raj,”–the oppressive web of regulations that acts as a massive disincentive to entrepreneurs and businessmen. It is no coincidence that India ranks 118th on the Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom Index, and 127th on the UNDP Human Development Index. Economic freedom and development go hand in hand, and India could have done as well in manufacturing as it has in services had its entrepreneurs been given the freedom to set up businesses without having to apply for myriad licenses, bribe numerous officials, and sometimes spend years in the process. Increased entrepreneurship and industrial growth would have been far more effective than the REGB in generating long-lasting employment.
India’s 58 years since independence have been ones of lost opportunity, with a waste of human capital and millions of lives lost to needless poverty. Successive Indian governments have made all the right noises about reducing poverty, and then followed all the wrong policies. Sadly, the REGB looks like more of the same.