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Two weeks ago, Sanjay Anandaram and I wrote in these pages that India was not making adequate use of digital technology to make life easier for its businesses and citizens. On the latter, we mentioned that it was not just the government, even the private sector was guilty of making life difficult for the public. A reader wrote in corroborating what we wrote.

Consider the case of a well known and highly acclaimed financial conglomerate in the country. It not only opens new bank accounts in a trice, but even before an account is formally opened, its holder typically starts receiving emails on other financial products on offer from the institution. However, the insurance company that is part of the same group has a different attitude when it comes to processing insurance claims. It takes an inordinately long time and the amount of paperwork demanded of its policyholders is seemingly endless.

That the government often sees taxpayers as tax dodgers until proven innocent and that the private sector tends to consider consumers more as a source of profit than the reason for its existence are serious hurdles in the way of India’s economy achieving sustained high growth. If these practices continue, the economic pie will never become as big as it could and should. Only a few businesses will benefit because households have no choice but to use their services.

When so-called excellent companies, considered as such because of their stock price performance, treat customers in a cavalier manner, they end up short-changing not just their consumers but the entire economy. The culture that employees imbibe seeps into their psyche. Even if some of them step out to become entrepreneurs, they practise the art they had learnt while employed.

It brings me no joy, nor does it give me pleasure, to note here, as I have done on several occasions in the past, that India’s private sector is often part of the problem rather than the solution. Whether it is non-performing or fraudulent loans taken from the banking system, about gaming the insolvency and bankruptcy process, or about not paying micro, small and medium enterprises on time, several of India’s large enterprises have an embarrassing track record.

To this, one must add the painful story of food labelling. Sometime in February 2021, this newspaper published a detailed report (bit.ly/3jqBxnq) on how processed and packaged food manufacturers have been stalling efforts on labelling their products with colour codes (green, amber and red) for their fat, salt and sugar content. This stalling has been going on for five years. It is not done yet.

Last week, the newspaper again came out with a fine report (bit.ly/2WuoMzO) on how Indian children simultaneously suffer from obesity and malnutrition. Doctors lament that they are treating pre-teens for fatty livers, decaying teeth and even diabetes because food products do not carry adequate information on their sugar content, and if they do, it’s not easy to see or decipher. Worse, some of these firms conceal data and tout their wares as health foods or drinks. The article cites a former head of the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) on the difficulties that this statutory body has faced in trying to announce standards, let alone enforce them. The amount of pressure that they have faced from businesses is evident from the former FSSAI head’s finessed response.

Obesity and diabetes in children are a national tragedy. We have recently witnessed first-hand the consequences of neglecting health and fitness. The devastation caused by the second wave of the covid pandemic would have been far less severe had it not been for the incidence of diabetes among Indians. An unfit and unhealthy India cannot be an economically prosperous India. The packaged food industry bears a large share of the responsibility for keeping Indians poor and unhealthy.

We must also note with disappointment and dismay the role played (or not played) by industry bodies. Self-governance is all but rare. Most of the time, these industry bodies beseech the government to remove red tape, lower tax rates, provide tax breaks and offer subsidies. When it comes to the Reserve Bank of India, the only direction they want interest rates to go is down, which serves business borrowers well.

Rarely have they stepped up and offered something in return. There is no quid pro quo for the nation, the economy, society and for ordinary citizens in the bargains that businesses and policymakers usually strike, at least with respect to their specific demands. Industry organizations rarely spearhead a campaign on any issue of national significance—such as supporting MSMEs by making large firms pay their bills on time. Or, for that matter, food labelling.

Economists and commentators write copiously on government policies such as subsidies for sugarcane producers, etc. But, mum’s the word on the private sector’s conduct. On matters of national importance, the private sector receives a tiny fraction of the scrutiny that governments face for their acts of omission and commission.

Saving the Indian economy from Indian capitalists is an ongoing and unfinished task. Naively, this columnist hopes that industry organisations will give him a chance to write something very different in a year’s time.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These are the author’s personal views.

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