A short history of Indian economy 1947-2019: Tryst with destiny & other stories23 min read . Updated: 14 Aug 2019, 11:43 PM IST
Reflecting on what shaped economic policy and the transition to millennial India, Mint brings you a curated history of the economy since 15 August 1947
Independence brought dreams of not just individual, but also economic, social and political freedom. Seventy-two years later, these ideals have undergone a transformation as India seeks to join the $5 trillion club. Reflecting on what shaped economic policy and the transition to millennial India, Mint’s editors bring you a curated history of the economy since 15 August 1947. In a snippety, easy-to-read format, we examine the influences of each era—socialism, post-socialism, liberalization and after. Mint’s Short History of the Indian Economy since 1947 gives you a glimpse into the making of a billion aspirations and opportunities.
An ancient land has a new beginning as a country facing monumental tasks
India’s independence was in itself a turning point in its economic history. The country was hopelessly poor as a result of steady deindustrialization by Britain. Less than a sixth of Indians were literate. The abject poverty and sharp social differences had cast doubts on India’s survival as one nation. Cambridge historian Angus Maddison’s work shows that India’s share of world income shrank from 22.6% in 1700—almost equal to Europe’s share of 23.3%—to 3.8% in 1952. As former prime minister Manmohan Singh put it: “The brightest jewel in the British Crown" was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income at the beginning of the 20th century.
India’s economic model: the state’s primacy over individual enterprise
Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s development model envisaged a dominant role of the state as an all-pervasive entrepreneur and financier of private businesses. The Industrial Policy Resolution of 1948 proposed a mixed economy. Earlier, the Bombay Plan, proposed by eight influential industrialists including J.R.D Tata and G.D. Birla, envisaged a substantial public sector with state interventions and regulations in order to protect indigenous industries. The political leadership believed that since planning was not possible in a market economy, the state and public sector would inevitably play a leading role in economic progress.
The very first budget, and the defence of fiscal federalism
Alawyer, economist and politician who served as independent India’s first finance minister, R.K. Shanmukham Chetty tabled the country’s first Union budget in Parliament on 26 November 1947. He was also India’s delegate to the World Monetary Conference at Bretton Woods in 1944, a consequential gathering of economists towards the fag end of World War II which set up the global financial architecture that governs the world to this day. In the Constituent Assembly, Chetty made several interventions in defence of fiscal federalism, an issue which would prove significant for his home state of Tamil Nadu in the decades ahead.
Planning, commissioning, executing the programme to hasten growth
India set up the Planning Commission in 1950 to oversee the entire range of planning, including resource allocation, implementation and appraisal of five-year plans. The five-year plans were centralized economic and social growth programmes modelled after those prevalent in the USSR. India’s first five-year plan, launched in 1951, focused on agriculture and irrigation to boost farm output as India was losing precious foreign reserves on foodgrain imports. It was based on the Harrod-Domar model that sought to boost economic growth through higher savings and investments. The plan was a success, with the economy growing at an annualized 3.6%, beating the target of 2.1%.
The free-market proponent who cried wolf on policy—but was proved right
Astudent of the libertarian economist F.A. Hayek, B.R. Shenoy was an influential early advocate of free market liberalism. In a celebrated dissent note, he warned that the second five-year plan’s dependence on deficit financing to promote “heavy industrialization" was a recipe for trouble. Government control over the economy would undermine a young democracy, he said. Shenoy was proved right when India faced an external payments crisis a year after the plan period began. He was also critical of the Nehru government’s penchant for import substitution. Though ignored in his lifetime, his ideas outlived him and became part of India’s mainstream economic doctrine.
The man who gave India modern statistics and the swadeshi spirit
The second five-year plan (1956-61) laid the foundation for economic modernization to better serve India’s long-term growth imperatives. Launched in 1956, it was based on the Mahalanobis model that advocated rapid industrialization with a focus on heavy industries and capital goods. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis was perhaps the single most important individual in directing Indian development planning. He was the chief adviser to the commission from 1955, founded the Indian Statistical Institute, and is considered the father of modern statistics in India. The Mahalanobis plan was, in a way, an invocation of the spirit of swadeshi or self-reliance.
After throwing off the yoke of the British Raj, the licence Raj begins
The second five-year Plan and the Industrial Policy Resolution 1956 (long considered the economic constitution of India) paved the way for the development of the public sector and ushered in the licence Raj. The resolution set out as national objective the establishment of a socialist pattern of society. It also categorized industries into three groups. Industries of basic and strategic importance were to be exclusively in the public sector. The second group comprised industries that were to be incrementally state-owned. The third, comprising mostly consumer industries, was left for the private sector. The private sector, however, was kept on a tight leash through a system of licences.
Bad stock and the story of India’s first big financial scam
More than 60 years ago, a debate in the Lok Sabha exposed a nexus between the bureaucracy, stock market speculators, and small businessmen. The subject was the Mundhra scandal, free India’s first big financial scam, raised by Feroze Gandhi, Nehru’s son-in-law. Gandhi had found evidence that under governmental pressure, Life Insurance Corporation had bought fraudulent stock worth ₹1.24 crore—the largest investment the public-sector entity had made in its short history—in six companies owned by Kolkata-based Haridas Mundhra, without mandatory consultation with its investment committee. It led to the resignation of then finance minister T. T. Krishnamachari.
From Bhakra-Nangal to Bhilai, the temples of a modern India
Nehru identified power and steel as the key bases for planning. He described the 680ft Bhakra multi-purpose project on the Sutlej river in Himachal Pradesh as the new temple of a resurgent India. The politics of big dams aside, the huge Bhakra-Nangal dams are among several hydel projects India built to light up homes, run factories, and irrigate crops. The second plan set a target to produce 6 million tonnes of steel. Germany was contracted to build a steel plant in Rourkela, while Russia and Britain would build one each in Bhilai and Durgapur, respectively. The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Atomic Energy Commission were the other “modern temples".
The onset of economic troubles and the death of a nation builder
The quest to quickly industrialize had caused a large reallocation of funds away from the farm sector. Agriculture outlay was nearly halved to 14% in the second Plan. Food shortages worsened, and inflation spiked. Imports of foodgrains depleted precious foreign exchange reserves. Chakravarti “Rajaji" Rajagopalachari, a one-time-friend-turned-critic of Nehru, was a staunch proponent of economic freedom. He fell out with Nehru on the question of excessive state involvement in the economy. On 27 May 1964, Nehru died, but, despite criticism then and in later years, he had cemented his legacy as a modernizer.
It took a war hero to rethink the direction of India’s policymaking
Lal Bahadur Shastri, a minister without portfolio in Nehru’s cabinet, succeeded him as prime minister on 9 June 1964. The war with China had exposed India’s economic weakness. Chronic food shortages and price rise convinced him that India needed to move away from centralized planning and price controls. He renewed focus on agriculture, accepted a larger role for private enterprise and foreign investment, and trimmed the erstwhile Planning Commission’s role. India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1965 war gave him the political capital to consider economic reforms of the kind that took place 25 years later, P.N. Dhar wrote in Indira Gandhi, The ‘Emergency’ And Indian Democracy.
After the Green Revolution, the shift towards an Evergreen Revolution
Shastri’s focus on food security arose from the fact that in the 1960s, India was on the verge of a mass famine. Food aid imports from the US, on which the country was reliant, were beginning to hit India’s foreign policy autonomy. That was when geneticist M.S. Swaminathan, along with Norman Borlaug and other scientists, stepped in with high-yield variety seeds of wheat, setting off what came to be known as the Green Revolution. Swaminathan is now an advocate for moving India towards sustainable development. He champions environmentally sustainable agriculture, sustainable food security and the preservation of biodiversity. He calls this an “evergreen revolution".
Getting the bread and butter of the dairy business right
Following the success of the Green Revolution, Shastri turned his attention to the dairy sector, particularly the cooperative movement in Gujarat’s Anand, led by Verghese Kurien. He helped Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers’ Union Ltd expand its work, ushering in the White Revolution. In the years that followed, the government’s Operation Flood led to a rapid increase in milk production. Self-sufficiency in the dairy sector was achieved entirely through the cooperative movement, which has spread to more than 12 million dairy farmers across the country. Decades later, Amul, the brand started by cooperative farmers in Anand, remains a market leader.
A shaky economy forces annual plans in place of the five-year plan
India suspended five-year plans briefly, drawing up annual plans between 1966 and 1969 instead. This was done as the country was not in a position to commit resources over a longer period. The war with China, the below-par growth outcomes of the third Plan, and the diversion of capital to finance the war with Pakistan had left the economy severely weakened. The vital monsoon rains had once again played truant during the 1966-67 season, worsening food shortages and causing a sharp spike in inflation. The constant need to import foodgrains or seek foreign aid also posed a serious risk to India’s political economy.
The state’s takeover of banks opens a new account
The 1960s was a decade of multiple economic and political challenges for India. Two wars had caused hardships for the masses. The death of Nehru and Shastri in quick succession had caused political instability and triggered jockeying for power within the Congress. Indira Gandhi’s rupee devaluation had led to a general price rise. The result? Congress returned to power with a truncated majority after the 1967 general elections and the party lost power in seven states. In response, Gandhi nationalized 14 private banks on 20 July 1969. The main aim of the move was to accelerate bank lending to agriculture at a time when big businesses cornered large chunks of the credit flow.
The effect of making political gains from economic moves
Gandhi’s draconian move, aimed at aligning the banking sector with the goals of socialism, had made her the darling of the masses. Bank nationalization helped boost farm credit and lending to other priority sectors. Financial savings jumped as banks were made to open branches in rural areas. Without competition, however, the lenders became complacent. Further, politically-influenced lending decisions led to crony capitalism. These banks competed to please their political bosses, instead of focusing on project appraisals. Today, state-owned banks are creaking under a nearly ₹10-trillion mountain of bad loans, which represent about 90% of the total dud loans.
Indira Gandhi’s move on the rupee and the effect it had on Gulf nations
On 6 June 1966, Indira Gandhi took the drastic step of devaluing the Indian rupee by a sharp 57%. The rupee fell to 7.50 per US dollar from 4.76. This was done to counter India’s significant balance of payments crisis. The country’s apathy to foreign investments and neglect of the exports sector meant that it ran constant trade deficits. The devaluation aimed to boost exports amid limited access to foreign exchange. Instead, it accelerated inflation and drew wide criticism. India’s move had implications for other countries as well. Oman, Qatar and the UAE, which used the Reserve Bank of India-issued Gulf rupee, had to come up with their own currencies.
The Janata years: Demonetization 1.0 and the exit of Coca-Cola
Angry Indians punished Indira Gandhi for imposing Emergency. The Janata Party came to power after the 1977 elections. Prime Minister Morarji Desai withdrew the legal-tender status of ₹1,000, ₹5,000 and ₹10,000 banknotes in a crackdown on illicit wealth. The legalization of strikes, outlawed by Gandhi, and reinstatement of trade unions affected economic activity. George Fernandes, the symbol of resistance during Emergency, was made industries minister. He insisted IBM and Coca-Cola comply with the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act that mandated foreign investors cannot own over 40% in Indian enterprises. The two multinationals shut their India operations.
Indira Gandhi returns, this time with a reformist bent of mind
Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 after the Janata Party government, riddled with inherent contradictions, unravelled. Gandhi, a left-leaning populist until the 1970s, initiated big-ticket economic reforms in order to secure an International Monetary Fund loan. The sixth five-year plan (1980-85), in essence, pledged to undertake a string of measures aimed at boosting the economy’s competitiveness. This meant the removal of price controls, initiation of fiscal reforms, a revamp of the public sector, reductions in import duties, and de-licensing of the domestic industry, or in other words ending the licence Raj.
Amartya Sen: new measures for problems of inequity, welfare
Known and feted internationally for his work on welfare economics, Amartya Sen has been working in India, the US and the UK since the 1970s. In 1998, he received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. He’s long been a critic of India’s model of development that tends to ignore the needs of the bottom of the pyramid. Now a professor at Harvard, his popular books such as The Argumentative Indian made economics accessible to the ordinary reader. He proved that gross national product was not enough to assess the standard of living, a finding that led to the creation of the UN Human Development Index, now the most authoritative source to compare welfare of countries.
In son rise, Rajiv Gandhi takes the mantle, and raises hopes
Rajiv Gandhi, a pilot by training, took over as prime minister after his mother Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984. He was 40 then, and represented the hopes and aspirations of a young India. He recognized the need for economic reform if India were to shed its reliance on foreign aid and loans. He built up a team comprising squeaky-clean politician V.P. Singh, technocrat Sam Pitroda, and market economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia. The 1985-86 budget lowered direct taxes for companies and raised exemption limits for income tax. He is widely credited for ushering in the information technology and telecom revolutions in the country.
A small car that drove the rise of a new middle class and consumption
In 1983, the first Maruti car rolled off the assembly line in Gurgaon. Prime minister Indira Gandhi handed over its keys to Delhi’s Harpal Singh that November. It was a project mired in controversy—conceptualized by Indira’s son Sanjay, but so ridden with flaws that the government finally signed a joint venture with Suzuki of Japan to produce the vehicle. It was a real people’s car—fuel efficient, affordable and easy to drive, a far cry from the clunky cars Indians were used to till then. The Maruti 800 and the demand for it signalled the rise of a new Indian middle class. It would take 20 years for a similar revolution to disrupt aviation—courtesy Air Deccan.
Hostile takeovers meet their match in connected families
India has never encouraged hostile takeovers, with its businessmen, regulators and the government working in tandem to prevent them. As the Indian government relaxed capital markets in 1982-83 to get more foreign money, particularly from non-resident Indians, London-based Lord Swraj Paul acquired significant shares from the open market in domestic chemical manufacturing company DCM Shriram and engineering group Escorts. The families of the promoters had very small holdings, but their influence in the circles that mattered was large. So, they managed to stave off Paul’s hostile takeover. It’s a pattern that’s been seen often since.
Bhopal: the danger and reality of large industrial accidents
The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy brought to the fore the real possibility of industrial accidents on a massive scale and the importance of regulatory oversight. At the centre of this tragedy—the effects of which are still felt by the local population—was the US-based Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemicals. On the night of 2 December, at least 40 tonnes of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the plant, killing at least 4,000 people and permanently disabling thousands more. The then chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, managed to flee India in controversial circumstances. The victims, meanwhile, were given a pittance in damages.
The fiscal deficit as a permanent feature on India’s economic map
Acritical feature of the Indian economy has always been its high fiscal deficit—an outcome of the government spending more than its income. Much of the government spending is on servicing interest cost of borrowings; defence; pensions; subsidizing food, fertilizer and fuel consumption; and schemes directed at housing, poverty, health and cleanliness. A large portion of the government’s capital remains locked up in its own companies and holdings, which it is unable to sell. The Indian economy, thus, continues to suffer from good capital chasing bad, and a lack of political will to implement bold reforms.
The economist with policy ideas ahead of their time
The first Asian woman to get a PhD in Economics from Harvard back in 1960, Padma Desai is best known for a critique of India’s erstwhile planned economy. Her early 1970s book, co-authored with husband and fellow economist Jagdish Bhagwati, on India’s industrial and trade policies had a profound impact on professional thinking and policymaking in India in the 1970s. Manmohan Singh, after becoming prime minister in the 2000s, would go so far as to say: “When in 1991 our government undertook sweeping reforms in our industrial and trade policies, we were only implementing ideas that Jagdish and Padma wrote about two decades earlier."
The golden moment that brought down the last pillars of socialist India
The signs pointing to India’s 1991 economic crisis, its worst ever, were long evident. The country, for the first time, had to sell 20 tonnes of gold to investment bank UBS on 30 May that year to secure a $240 million loan. It pledged gold three more times after that sale, shipping 46.8 million tonnes of the yellow metal to secure $400 million in loans from Bank of England and Bank of Japan. All this gold was repurchased by December that year. The Narasimha Rao-led government with Manmohan Singh as finance minister took over on 21 June 1991 and launched a raft of economic reforms, including the dismantling of the licence Raj.
A two-step, two-day operation to lower the value of the rupee
The rupee was devalued for the first time by 57% on 6 June 1966 to shore up exports. The move was triggered by the 1965 Indo-Pak war, after which the US withdrew aid to India. The next devaluation, however, proved to be far more eventful: On 1 July 1991, the Reserve Bank of India lowered the value of the currency by 9%, and then by 11% just two days later. This was when the economy was facing its worst crisis, and the country’s foreign exchange reserves could pay for only three weeks of imports. Devaluation is no longer a real option for governments and policymakers as exchange rates are determined by markets. Currency value is now calibrated by the central bank.
Reformist returns as a champion of redistributive economics
Finance minister in 1991, Manmohan Singh became prime minister in 2004 but he was not quite the same reformer. His government launched the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in February 2006 in 200 most backward districts, which was later expanded to cover all rural districts. The scheme aimed to enhance livelihood security by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a fiscal year to every rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. The 10 years when Singh was prime minister were also a time of high growth and expansion of the economy as loan rates softened.
Of bulls, bears and market watchdogs: A cautionary tale
In liberalizing India, investments in the stock market became a means to make a quick buck as well as compensate for falling savings rates—and with this boom came white-collar crime and strengthened regulations. In April 1992, Indians were introduced to the term ‘stock market scam’ when stockbroker ‘Big Bull’ Harshad Mehta was caught using the government bond market to fund his purchases. It was a scam pegged at ₹4,025 crore, and accelerated the rise of the Securities and Exchange Board of India as it exists today. This and subsequent scandals led regulators to tighten the screws, bring more transparency, and use technology to eventually reform Indian markets.
Clubbing together for a fight that didn’t really happen
After 1991, the Indian state tried to shed its diffidence about foreign capital and attract investments. The ‘Bombay Club’, an informal grouping of politically connected, old-school Indian industrialists who felt threatened by deep-pocketed multinationals, sought protection from the government and got some allowances. The club—whose face was Rahul Bajaj—represented a sense of insecurity and a desire for status quo, the struggle between the entrenched and the innovative. But in time, many of those who stridently opposed reforms have built themselves into stronger and bigger companies, competing with global leaders in their segments.
Sowing the seeds for the nation’s economic growth surge
In the Union budget for 1999-2000, then finance minister Yashwant Sinha took forward an idea he had seeded in his 1990-91 budget—disinvestment in public sector enterprises and downsizing the government. “We are making an immediate beginning by abolishing four secretary-level posts through a process of merger and rationalization of central government departments," he said. Till date, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government of which Sinha was a part remains the only one to have carried out privatization of state-owned companies in an upfront manner. Through the 1999-2000 budget, Sinha also rationalized interest rates, stoked the housing boom, and triggered India’s growth surge.
Circumventing the sell-by date of public sector enterprises
Dependent on the support of the Left parties in the Lok Sabha, Manmohan Singh during the first United Progressive Alliance government (2004-2009) had no room to privatize public sector companies. With limited options to raise resources and an ever-expanding social sector budget, Singh resorted to selling 5% to 20% stake in state-run companies through initial public offerings or secondary issues. The government was able to raise funds without selling a majority stake in its firms, while increasing retail participation in the stock market. Now answerable to public shareholders, state-run firms are focusing on improving corporate governance and becoming cost-conscious.
The bellwether as the weather vane for the state of the economy
The rise of the Indian economy is best reflected in BSE’s Sensex, the 30-share benchmark index. The 30 component companies represent all sectors of the economy. From 1,955.29 points in 1991, the year India ushered in economic reforms, the Sensex touched an all-time high of 40,312.07 points on 4 June this year with expectations of big-ticket reforms from a government with a massive majority driving the optimism. Even as rising taxation on capital gains continues to dog the markets, India, a country so far obsessed with cash-driven gold and real estate, is slowly veering towards investing in a formal and organized equity market.
When the world became Indian companies’ corporate oyster
Ten years of economic liberalization unchained Indians, and the first decade of the 21st century reflected that. Thus it came to be that a much smaller Tata Steel acquired the UK-based company Corus for an eye-popping $13.1 billion in 2007. The Aditya Birla Group’s Hindalco Industries Ltd followed this up with a $6-billion buyout of US-based Novelis in 2007. The next year, Tata Motors bought Jaguar-Land Rover for $2.3 billion. Bharti Airtel bought out Zain Africa in 2010, coughing up $10.7 billion. It was an era of multi-billion dollar acquisitions. The frenzy has since ebbed but not the aspirations.
R.H. Patil, the man who tamed the wolves of Dalal Street
In the early 1990s, the Harshad Mehta (pictured) scam had just rocked the country and the Bombay Stock Exchange, now BSE, was under the iron grip of a coterie of powerful brokers. Reforming the country’s capital markets was becoming a dire necessity. Enter Ramachandra H. Patil, who helped set up the National Stock Exchange of India and other institutions that changed the face of India’s capital markets. In his words: “Indian capital market around the early 1990s was akin to the Stone Age." The absence of entry barriers and a tech-driven, computer-based trading exchange, which everyone takes for granted these days, would not have been possible without Patil’s contributions.
The overnight note-ban on an unsuspecting nation
Few announcements by an Indian prime minister have had as long-lasting and wide-ranging an effect as the one made by Narendra Modi at 8pm on 8 November 2016. In his address to the nation, he said ₹500 and ₹1,000 banknotes, amounting to 85% of the currency in circulation by value, were no longer valid. “Today, I will be speaking to you about some critical issues and important decisions. Today I want to make a special request to all of you," Modi said. “To break the grip of corruption and black money, we have decided that the five hundred rupee and thousand rupee currency notes presently in use will no longer be legal tender from midnight tonight."
Going down: the planned demolition of a long-condemned institution
Within eight months of taking over as Prime Minister on 25 May 2014, Narendra Modi replaced the Planning Commission with NITI Aayog (NITI stood for National Institute for Transforming India, in line with Modi’s penchant for acronyms). The Planning Commission was a Soviet-style body that drew up five-year plans for the country and played an advisory role in formulating allocation of central funds to each state. NITI Aayog now serves as the government’s think tank, formulating medium- and long-term strategies and breaking them into year-wise plans after consultation with the states.
Bringing in a code of conduct to help provide for sick promoters
India is a country with sick companies but no sick promoters—the result of a system that hasn’t held the influential promoters of large companies to account. To change that, the Modi government introduced the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (IBC). The code made it possible for lenders to oust errant promoters from a company and hand it over to financially sound owners. The success of the IBC is questionable, but it has created a sense of responsibility among promoters. However, there are still cases of promoters trying to retain control of their companies through the back door and others like Nirav Modi fleeing the country after defaulting on large loans.
The blanket tax regime that made India one country, one market
The Narendra Modi government has put improving ease of doing business high on its agenda. As part of this, in July 2017, it implemented the goods and services tax. India is now one of the few countries to have an indirect tax law that unifies various central and state tax laws. In spite of a lot of teething troubles and the increased compliance burden on companies, particularly traders and small and medium enterprises, the new system has removed tax barriers across states and created a single common market, ensuring a free flow of goods without trucks being halted at borders for payment of interstate levies.
A country beginning to consider startups as a new business model
Over the past decade, a number of startups have mushroomed across India as young entrepreneurs experiment with ideas in digital payments, online retail, on-demand delivery, education, software and more. One of India’s first startups and early unicorns, Flipkart, which was founded by two former Amazon employees in 2007, was valued at over $21 billion when US-based Walmart acquired a 77% stake in it in 2018. The number of unicorns, or new businesses valued at over $1 billion, has also risen every year. The rise of startups has created a new ecosystem of angel and venture funding, and incubators and accelerators—as well as new patterns of consumption in society