India's Pandora’s Box is now being opened

Foreign Direct Investment will help some of India, but won't correct growing inequalities.

Last Friday, the Indian government announced big bang reforms signalling that the Indian economy is now wide open for business. The landmark decision includes allowing 49 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in aviation, raising the FDI cap in the media industry to 74 per cent and most pertinently allowing 51 per cent FDI in the sector of multi-brand retail. This means the Tescos and Walmarts of the world can now set up shop in India.

In the lead up to the high octane announcements the ruling party at the centre - the Congress - that leads a coalition government which rather tellingly goes by the moniker of UPA 2 (United Progressive Alliance; "2" to indicate its second term) was reeling under the vertiginous impact of "Coalgate" – a scam unearthed by the national auditor, the CAG (the Comptroller and Auditor General). Suggestive of crony capitalism, the government "gifted" coal mining permits to private players fleecing the national ex-chequer to the tune of £33bn. The new wave of economic liberalisation policies is a laudable attempt to take the spotlight off the scam. The policies are also a damage limitation attempt by a floundering government to counter allegations of inertia in national and foreign publications. The unflattering foreign reviews unsurprisingly hurt most.

The new measures were explained by India’s Commerce and Industry Minister, Anand Sharma, in an "exclusive" on India’s premier news channel, NDTV. He said the reforms, in particular, those in multi brand retailing were what India needed. Let’s set the record straight here. Which India was the minister referring to? If we look at India’s 1.2 billion population as a pyramid, at the apex sit 1.2 million affluent households. They tend to live in India’s top eight cities. Approximately 300 million people are middle class. It is the base of the pyramid that comprises the biggest section in terms of the number of people – at least 700 million people consisting of 114 million families. This is nearly 60 per cent of the country’s population. They include "struggling India" and "destitute India"; those for whom making needs meet is a daily battle and those who are below the poverty line. Surely, the minister was not referring to this chunk of the Indian "market"? They simply do not have the purchasing power for a Carrefour or a Walmart. Their everyday grind absorbs them, survival overwhelms them. Conspicuous consumption does not feature on their agenda of preoccupations. Neither will the big retailers be counting them in. It is a mutual disaffection.

A strong argument in favour of FDI in mammoth retail is that it will generate employment. Surely, it will. But we can’t let the question lie there. We must ask, for whom? Will it source employees from the unskilled, illiterate vegetable vendors who, akin to a capillary network, are spread across the length and breadth of the country? Operating at the point of delivery to the grocery shopper, they are the lifeblood of India’s unorganised grocery sector. Succinctly asked – will the giant retailers employ from the displaced workforce? If the big chains simply usurp their livelihoods what will become of their families entirely dependent on their incomes? Or are they simply not part of this narrative? In which case let’s be clear – in the way FDI is being sold it isn’t for the appeal of the Indian imagination but of a sliver of the Indian imagination.

Since the first wave of economic deregulation reforms in 1991 (ironically passed by the incumbent Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he was finance minister) select segments of India have unequivocally prospered. Even a cursory look at the 2G spectrum scam and "Coalgate" make clear the benefits accrued to the political brass and to the corporate sector. The famous Indian middle class has also expanded. And on a recent visit to South Kolkata, in the vicinity of an upmarket supermarket, the prosperity of urban sprawl was also plain to see. An open garbage dump heaved and street urchins ran around it. A friend plaintively remarked "garbage dumps are flourishing too". The brush of 1991 painted some of India gold, the other parts left to fester into elision.

Will the brush of the 2012 reforms paint India differently? In the "spillover" effect of the big foreign companies operating in India, there will be benefits to be had. The promises of improved supply chain infrastructure and the elimination of middlemen (how the middlemen will be redeployed is another matter) have been reiterated over and over. The headlines of the "in-favour" rhetoric relay thus - more FDI will drive consumption, manufacturing, economic growth and GDP. But for the holistic temperature of the development of a nation the Gini Coefficient and the Human Development Index are more apposite thermometers – and on both counts, unlike the growth index, India’s score is not reassuring. Also, if we put to the test the theory of how gigantic foreign retailers will encourage Indian manufacturing by citing the example of the "Walmart effect" on American manufacturing – then the prognosis is slim. The bottomline is this: it will certainly help "some" of India, but it is definitely not the panacea to India’s most pressing woes.

 

Members of The Indian National Association of Street Vendors shout anti-government slogans during a protest against Foreign Direct Investment. Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle