Twenty-Five Years of Indian Economic Reform


Economic reforms that began 25 years ago have transformed India. What used to be a poor, slow-growing country now has the third-largest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world with regard to purchasing power parity and is projected to be the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2016 (with 7.6 percent growth in GDP). Once an object of pity, India has become an object of envy. It has been called a potential superpower and the only credible check on Chinese power in Asia in the 21st century. Hence, the United States has backed India for a permanent seat in the United Nations and has persuaded the Nuclear Suppliers Group to exempt India from the usual nuclear nonproliferation rules.

Yet India’s success has been tarnished in several areas. The past 25 years can be largely summed up as a story of private-sector success and government failure, of successful economic reform tainted by institutional erosion. Although many old controls have been abolished, many still continue, and a plethora of new controls have been created in areas relating to the environment, health, tribal areas, and land. What leftist critics have denounced as an era of neoliberalism is better called neo-illiberalism. India remains in the bottom half of countries measured by indicators of economic freedom. Social indicators of education, health, and nutrition have improved much too slowly, and India has been overtaken in some indicators by poorer Bangladesh and Nepal. The delivery of all government services remains substandard. Political interference has eroded the independence and quality of institutions ranging from the police and courts to educational and cultural institutions. India’s economic reforms over 25 years have transformed it from a low-income country to a middle-income one. But to become a high-income country, India must liberalize the economy much further, improve governance, and raise the quality of its institutions.


In 1991 India embarked on major reforms to liberalize its economy after three decades of socialism and a fourth of creeping liberalization. Twenty-five years later, the outcome has been an outstanding economic success. India has gone from being a poor, slow-growing country to the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2016. The World Economic Outlook for 2016 says that the United States and India are the two pillars of strength today that are helping hold up a sagging world economy.1 Once an object of pity, India has become an object of envy among developing countries; it is often called a potential superpower and is backed by the United States for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Yet those successes have been accompanied by significant failures and weaknesses in policies and institutions. The past 25 years of liberalization are largely a story of private-sector success and government failure and of successful economic reform tarnished by institutional erosion. Even as old controls have been abolished, new ones have been created, so what leftist critics call an era of neoliberalism could more accurately be called neo-illiberalism.

The quality of government services remains abysmal, and social indicators have improved much too slowly. The provision of public goods — police, judiciary, general administration, basic health and education, and basic infrastructure — has seriously lagged improvements in economic performance. Political appointees and government interference erode the independence and quality of institutions ranging from the courts and universities to health and cultural organizations. India’s economic reforms have been highly successful in moving the country from low-income to middle-income status, despite little improvement in its institutions and quality of public goods. To sustain rapid growth and to become a high-income country, India will need major reforms to deepen liberalization and build high-quality institutions.


It is difficult for youngsters today to grasp that until 1990, India was famous (or perhaps infamous) as the biggest beggar in the world, seeking food aid and foreign aid from all and sundry. It was hamstrung by a million controls, imposed in the holy name of socialism and then used by politicians to create patronage networks and line their pockets. On attaining independence in 1947, Indian politicians were worried that imperial foreign rule would return in the guise of economic domination through trade and investment.

So India sought “economic independence” to buttress political independence, and that took the form of aiming for economic sufficiency, along with a variation on soviet-style five-year plans. India’s share of global trade fell steadily from 2.2 percent at independence to 0.45 percent in 1985, and that was actually hailed as a policy triumph by Indian socialists. The public sector was supposed to gain the commanding heights of the economy. Nothing could be manufactured without an industrial license or imported without an import license, and those licenses were scarce and difficult to get. Any producers who exceeded their licensed capacity faced possible imprisonment for the sin of violating the government’s sacred plan targets. India was perhaps the only country in the world where improving productivity (and hence exceeding licensed capacity) was a crime.

The underlying socialist theory was that the market could not be trusted to produce good social outcomes, so the government in its wisdom must determine where the country’s scarce resources should be deployed and what exactly should be produced, in what location, and by whom. In other words, the people would be best served when they had no right to decide what to produce and no right to decide what to consume: that was all to be left to a benevolent government.2

In its first three decades after independence in 1947, the Indian economy averaged just 3.5 percent GDP growth, which was derisively called the “Hindu rate of growth.” That was half the rate achieved by the Asian tigers.

Indian socialism reached its zenith in the 1970s, when the banks and several major industries were nationalized. The top income tax rate rose to 97.75 percent, and the wealth tax to 3.5 percent. The Garibi Hatao (Abolish Poverty) slogan of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1969-77) aimed to cut fat cats to size and create a paradise for the poor. In fact, the poverty ratio did not fall at all until 1983.

Meanwhile, the population had virtually doubled since independence in 1947, meaning that the number of poor people virtually doubled in this socialist era. There could scarcely be a crueler demonstration of how policies in the name of the poor could end up impoverishing them even further. GDP growth improved to 5.5 percent in the 1980s because of some very modest liberalization plus a government spending spree. But the spending spree was unsustainable and ended in tears and empty foreign exchange reserves in 1991.3

P. V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister in 1991. The Soviet Union was collapsing at the time, proving that more socialism could not be the solution for India’s ills. Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping had revolutionized China with market-friendly reforms. And so Indian politicians turned in the direction of the market too. India had no Thatcher or Reagan leading any ideological charge. Reform was very pragmatic, with Rao insisting he was pursuing a “middle path” and not a radical transformation. The Indian economy took two years to stabilize but then achieved record growth of 7.5 percent in the three years 1994-97. When the reforms began, all opposition parties had slammed them as a sellout to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But when the outcome was record GDP growth, the objections melted away in practice even if not in rhetoric. Every successive government that came to power continued down the path of economic liberalization, despite some steps backward. The reforms were erratic and half-baked but not reversed.4

The Asian financial crisis of 1997-99 laid India low, yet it proved far more resilient than other Asian nations. Soon after came two droughts (in 2000 and 2002), the dot-com collapse and global recession of 2001, and the huge global uncertainty created in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Indian economy sputtered in those difficult years, and average GDP growth slowed to 5.7 percent in 1997-2003. But then followed the global boom of 2003-8, spearheaded by China, which lifted all boats across the world. India’s GDP growth soared, and it reached a peak of over 9 percent per year in the three years 2005-8.5

The euphoria of those days has now dimmed. Many serious problems arose after 2010-11, such as widespread charges of mass corruption, which led to paralysis in decisionmaking; a collapse of the public-private partnership model for infrastructure; huge bank losses; huge losses from state electricity boards giving massive subsidies and failing to check electricity theft; and major problems in land acquisition, environmental clearances, and other clearances, which led to delays that killed some capital-intensive projects. The economy slowed, and that plus the anticorruption public mood led to the crushing defeat of the Congress Party-led coalition in the 2014 election after a decade of mostly successful rule.

The new government led by Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party has sought to tackle some of the worst problems, and growth has picked up to an estimated 7.5 percent in 2015-16. That growth rate is slower than before, yet China has slowed even more dramatically to 6.5 percent. So India has become the fastest-growing major economy in the world, an unexpected and notable feat, even if it owes more to the slowing of China than to its own acceleration.6

Public anger over corruption and failed government services has risen, so the public mood in India today is far from triumphant. Although India’s position in the world has been transformed beyond recognition in the past 25 years, much reform is still needed, above all reforms in governance, institutions, and the delivery of government services.

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Source: Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar of the Cato Institute. Image courtesy Voice.