In India a budget to be proud of

July 6, 2009

The free marketers are crying foul. In his budget speech on Monday, Minister of Finance, Pranab Mukherjee disappointed them by not detailing a plan for allowing foreign investment in the insurance sector, for privatization of public sector companies and of education.

Even as Mukherjee was making his budget speech, the Sensex of the Bombay Stock Exchange dropped.

To a large extent, big business led to its own disappointment by its euphoria after the re-election of the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Share prices soared on the stock markets as investors believed that the UPA, freed of its dependence on the Left parties, would now pursue a reformist agenda.

The term “Reformist” has usually been defined by business and the pro-business media in terms of free market policies that liberalize cross-border capital flows, open new sectors to private investment, and make labor markets more flexible (read ease out labor unions).

The evening after Mukherjee’s speech, the pro-business The Wall Street Journal is making a spectacle of itself, claiming interestingly that Mukherjee’s budget was ” a pretty dreadful spectacle”. Newspapers are expected to report and analyze, and not espouse causes, but that is a subject for another post, another time.

What industry and media like the WSJ mis-understood is that the Congress party, which is the main partner in the coalition government, has traditionally had a stand of its own on social policy, which is social democrat and far from pure capitalist.

Mukherjee used the budget speech to remind viewers that India was protected from the global financial meltdown because its large banks are government controlled and did not expose themselves to speculative activity, and stocking up on CDOs. He credited his former leader, the late Indira Gandhi, for nationalizing the banks when she was Prime Minister of the country.

By his focus on inclusiveness, on rural development, on expanding the economy through stimulus spending, Mukherjee has sent out a strong signal that social democracy is not dead in India.

By refusing to privatize education, and by in fact making a budgetary allocation for new IITs, Mukherjee is making the point that Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru’s strategy to spend on education and research as core competencies is still relevant.

Mukherjee’s budget in fact creates the opportunity for the emergence of more people from out of the pale of poverty, into becoming beneficiaries (and consumers) of the economic boom. The question is; will foreign investors decided this is a good market opportunity for them ? Or will they continue to demand what seems to be quite impossible in a country that is moving to its social democractic roots ?

There is some concern about the deficit in the budget, but at times of economic crises, deficit financing and government spending is the way out to stimulate the economy and create jobs. The challenge for Mukherjee is to rein in inflation when it happens, by a reduction of the deficit, and other appropriate fiscal measures.

There are also issues such as the implementation of the programs that aim to bring India’s vast rural poor into the mainstream of economic development. There will undoubtedly be leakages, corruption, and some of the money will not reach the target group.

But unbridled capitalism won’t solve that problem. Civil society and good politics can.

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India needs English education for all

July 1, 2009

Education is the way out of economic backwardness for India’s large number of poor. Needless to say access to capital at reasonable rates, subsidies, health and other services are as important.

In this post my focus is on education. A number of state governments are enforcing state vernacular languages as the medium of education with scant regard to the relevance of this education in the job market.

They forget that India would not have emerged as an outsourcing hub but for a quirk of history, the decision by the British to introduce English as the language of education in the country.

We should be equally concerned about protecting our local culture and language. The McHomogenization of Indian culture is not at all desirable. But the classroom may not be the place for the protection of culture at this stage of India’s economic development.

The Wall Street Journal in this article has argued that the denial of English education to the masses is in a sense a form of domination, to keep the people subjugated.

“In fact, much of the political class remains opposed to English medium education supposedly because they fear the loss of local culture and language,” WSJ writes. It’s more believable that it’s because an ill-equipped population of voters is a malleable population of voters,” it added.

In the state of Goa in western India, a majority of the people backed Konkani as the mother tongue of the state, because it was the language spoken by most people But when it came down to the implementation of the language as a medium of education, parents fought back in favor of English.

They had by then realized that the official language issue had helped Konkani protagonists to perpetutate their roles as culture czars and educationists.

These protagonists re-wrote the language in the name of standardization, and expected children to learn a language that was by now quite different from what they had been used to speak at home. The script was also different.

Clearly there is a need to separate the politics of language from the relevance of a particular language in the new economic scheme of things. The education system, whether we like it or not, is geared to producing people suitable for employment in our factories and offices.

A few of us may have some discomfort about this mechanistic and production oriented metaphor of education. But to India’s poor, this is right now probably the only education that is relevant.


Information on WSJ shall be free, says Rupert Murdoch

November 14, 2007

News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch said yesterday that he intends to make access to The Wall Street Journal’s website free, dropping subscription fees in exchange for anticipated ad revenue, according to this report from the Associated Press.

The proposal by the Wall Street Journal follows similar moves by other top newspapers including The New York Times which made its paid content called Times Select free to all online readers.

All these publications seem to have got the message that as readers move online, they are going to be less willing to pay money for reading news, if only because the news choices are so many on the Web. The option for these newspapers is to add more readers by offering content free, and look to advertising to make up for subscription income. But newspapers like WSJ will have to strike a balance between appealing to a broad audience while retaining their current focused readers. Too much advertising on a site can also put off readers.

Online advertising will also have to progressively replace revenue from print editions, as it is expected that more readers will move online. That and growing competition from non-traditional online media are make-or-break challenges for the newspaper industry.

Data available from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) in Arlington, Virginia suggests that advertising in print is on the decline. Spending for print ads in newspapers in the second quarter of this year totaled US$10.5 billion, down 10.2 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to a NAA release in August.

However whatever advertising is moving away from print editions of newspapers is not necessarily going to their online sites.

Advertising expenditures for newspaper Web sites increased by 19.3 percent to US$796 million in the second quarter versus the same period a year ago, according to preliminary estimates from the NAA.

This sounds great in isolation. But the newspapers that saw a decline of about US$1 billion in advertising in the second quarter, witnessed an increase of less than $200 million in advertising from its online properties.

As a result, total advertising expenditures at newspaper companies were $11.3 billion for the second quarter of 2007, an 8.6 percent decrease from the same period a year earlier, according to NAA.

The NAA puts down the reduced advertising revenue for newspapers to cyclical swings in the U.S. economy, as well as structural changes in the businesses of major advertisers, which continue to affect print advertising revenue.

In the long-term, online sites like YouTube, and news and opinion sites, set up by former journalists and also by experts on specific topics, could compete for eyeballs and advertising revenue with traditional newspaper web sites. Some of the new media sites have built strong online reputations and brands that down the line could be as strong as that of online editions of mainline newspapers.