Economy India minister says economic reform a ‘long journey’

India minister says economic reform a ‘long journey’

India World Economic Forum
India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (L) and World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab attend a session at the India Economic Summit 2014 at the World Economic Forum in New Delhi

Reforming India’s flagging economy will be a “long journey”, the country’s finance minister told foreign investors on Wednesday, playing down the prospect of “big-bang” changes.

Arun Jaitley warned there were no quick fixes for India’s economic problems, telling delegates at the India World Economic Forum that reform was not “really about one or two big-bang ideas”. 

Instead, the government would “consistently pursue the reform agenda and doggedly move in one direction”, he said.

Critics have accused the right-wing government elected in May of a lack of boldness in pushing for foreign investment and eliminating regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles to doing business.

The government has launched some reforms to overhaul byzantine labour rules, hoping to turn India into an industrial power like China to find jobs for its burgeoning young workforce.

But they have been mostly low-level changes. The labour law amendments, for instance, are mainly to reduce onerous red tape rather than to tackle stiff hire-and-fire rules.

On Wednesday Jaitley said the government was open to privatising some loss-making state-run firms. He said this was a “better alternative” to closing them, without naming any.

He also said the government was looking at auctions for other natural resource sectors on top of the already announced sales of coal blocks. 

The government has already freed prices of widely used diesel from state control in what analysts called a positive move.

Foreign investors deserted the country in droves under the previous left-leaning Congress government, discouraged by a series of corruption scandals as well as India’s notorious red tape.

But in recent months the stock market has reached record highs amid optimism that the new government will put the economy back on track for brisk growth.

“People have started looking again at India, which had fallen off the global radar in the last two to three years. There’s a certain amount of buzz,” Jaitley said.

The new government is seeking to spur the economy which expanded last year by 4.7 percent — nearly the lowest rate in a decade and half the growth seen during India’s boom a few years earlier. 

Economists say eight to nine percent is the minimum needed to employ the millions of job-seekers entering the market annually.

At the same time, the government is trying to tame stubborn inflation that has kept interest rates high and dampened investment and consumer spending.