Plan or Prosper

Rakesh Wadhwa
The Himalayan Times, 10 Mar 2004

Most people believe that governments must plan. Communist and socialist regimes made planning the centerpiece of their development agenda. India had its five year plans, copied on the basis of central planning by its ally the Soviet Union. Nepal too has its planning commission.

Government it seemed - and still seems to most - is required to plan everything. Government has to plan the savings rate. Government has to plan the growth in population, and family size. Government has to channel investments according to its plan. Government has to plan the food grain output. Government has to plan, plan, and plan - for four decades after independence the government of India planned the production of cement, iron, scooters, cars, fertilizers, electricity, wheat.

Nothing in India could be produced without a license. The government decided that it alone must allocate scarce resources in a planned manner for its people's benefit.

Government also intervened directly to mandate that no private investment would be permitted in TV, airlines, railways, telephones, power stations and that government would exclusively run and plan the production of these goods and services.

The private sector and markets were subjugated. Indira Gandhi referred sarcastically to those who advocated free markets as 'marketwallahs'. In interest of planning India's progress she nationalized the insurance companies and banks.

How successful were these plans? Indian industry was chained and crippled by its planners. Shortages became endemic. People could - at least some people could - satisfy their urgent requirements by buying in the black market. Smugglers satisfied the requirement of goods demanded from abroad.

Government planned the use of foreign exchange. "Perish the thought of private importing", the people were told, "we hardly have enough dollars to buy petrol".

Government of India planned. The economy stagnated. The sub 2% growth rate achieved during that period was dubbed, "the Hindu rate". There was a problem with Hindus, thought the people of India. Inspite of such extensive government planning, if we still can't progress, the reason must lie in our nature and our religion that advocates a belief that life is pre-destined and beyond our control.

All this changed in the early 1990's. Industrial licensing was abolished in one fell swoop by the Narasimha Rao government. What could not be achieved by bureaucrats in over four decades of planning was accomplished by businessmen in a few years when planning became their job.

Shortages of steel, cement, telephones, scooters, and cars vanished. Today, not only do these industries fund their own expansion, they pay huge taxes as well. Foreign exchange reserves have grown from zero to $110 billion and the problem now is how to effectively use all the dollars coming in.

Similar failures of planning became even more apparent in the former Soviet Bloc. Planning by the state doomed the 'evil' Russian Empire. It collapsed overnight. The Berlin wall came down and East Germany disappeared in its rubble.

What is required is not planning by the state, but a complete separation between government and the economy. The role of the government must be minimized, that of the market maximized.

It is not the job of bureaucrats to allocate resources, it is for the consumer guided market to do so. Bureaucrats have no incentive to take correct decisions. If they allocate too few resources for the manufacture of cement, so what, they can always shift the blame to greedy hoarders. If government buys wheat at a price leading to overflowing granaries that serve as food stores for rats, so what, the loss gets to be borne by the taxpayers.

If private companies make mistakes - and they often do - it is they who lose out, not the taxpayer. Businessmen, therefore, have all the incentive to rectify mistakes fast or risk bankruptcy. If they produce too little they leave room for a competitor to come in and bridge the gap. If they produce too much, they run into a loss. They will thus continually struggle to get things right. There is no taxpayer and no currency printing presses supporting their mistakes.

Government, if it is serious about economic progress must shut down its planning office, and leave planning and implementation where it belongs - in the hands of businessmen.