Is the new Russian approach towards China and India, vector for a multipolar world order? Will the new Davos – gathering between vanity fair and summit of the mightiest – in future take place in Kyrgyzstan – Central Asian country surrounded by the most prosperous and promising powers?
The last months of 2014 were marked by a series of significant bilateral agreements and summits involving Russia, India and China. According to many international analysts, the research of better relations with the two Asian giants by Moscow represents another further step towards global transformation from an unipolar order ruled by United States to a multipolar one.
A key point in order to analyze the fundamental reasons of Moscow’s approach towards China and India is connected to difficulties emerged in the last year with European Union and United States. Complications in Russia-West relations are clearly exemplified by the Ukrainian imbroglio.
However, it’s also necessary to dwell on long-term strategic interests of the countries involved. Despite the current shaky situation of Eastern Europe and Middle East, generally speaking Beijing and New Delhi look at Russia as a reliable partner with whom it’s fundamental continue to dialogue, cooperate and trade. China-Russia dialogue is growing from mid-nineties, while Indian strategic relationship with Moscow is heir of the one established during Cold War with Soviet Union. Moreover, it should not to be underestimate the fact that Russia, India and China are already actively cooperating in other multilateral organizations, such as BRICS forum (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), and have the opportunity to develop new platforms for political, economic and military cooperation, for example within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The strategic triangle Russia-India-China (RIC), taken into account difficulties of relations especially considering Indo-Chinese bond characterized at the same time by cooperation and competition, could therefore be an interesting model of dialogue in the new multipolar world order.
The strengthening of Russian-Chinese cooperation
Regarding the close relationship between China and Russia, it is possible to consider latest agreements on energy co-operation, taking into consideration that improvements of this relation have been underway for about two decades after the fall of Soviet Union. It can be argued that Russian-Chinese partnership is based on three basic pillars, key points of Chinese foreign policy: peace, cooperation and development, to which it’s possible to add mutual profit for both sides and “win-win strategy”.
Milestone of last year improvements in bilateral relations was May 2014 agreement worth $ 400 billion, which concerns pipeline Power of Siberia and the sending of 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia to China. The sale of gas will not begin immediately because natural gas fields in Eastern Russia require infrastructural improvements as well as connecting pipelines have yet to be installed. However, according to agreements the sending of natural gas through the eastern route will be operative from 2018.
Russia and China have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the western route, which could guarantee to China further 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year. The main important consequence of these agreements is that they could transform China in the largest consumer of Russian gas. An aspect that should not be underestimated in a consideration of medium-long term is that China could become the main market of Russian energy resources as a whole, overcoming Europe. In 2012 Russian exports of natural gas towards Europe totaled $ 66 billion and accounted for more than 10% of total Russian exports. In the diversification of its exports, Russia could find in Chinese market a viable alternative to Europe, while the latter should find clear alternatives such as shale gas from United States reducing its energy dependence from Russia.
At the same time, there is an important strategic advantage for Beijing because it would receive resources through land. This would be a major transformation of Chinese energy supplying, considering that currently resources destined to China are transported by sea through the Strait of Malacca, controlled by United States, and through areas characterized by tensions and territorial disputes (South and Eastern China Sea).
Becoming a fundamental energy partner of China, Russia would be also a competitor of United States since Chinese territory is one of the most advantages markets for Washington’s exportations of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Energy sector represents the most important area in which Russian-Chinese cooperation could further develop: for example Rosneft has offered a 10% stake to Chinese authorities for the project of joint exploitation of Vankor oil field in Eastern Siberia, Rosneft’s third-largest onshore production subsidiary. This deal would represent the most substantial Chinese equity participation in Russia’s onshore oil industry to date. Furthermore, it will be offered a representative office to China in the board of the same project, while Moscow would offer the sale of oil from Vankor’s field with payments in Yuan, a move that would exemplify a challenge to international dollar system and its role as reserve-currency in the world.
China aims to invest in Asian infrastructural sector with the ambitious objective to create a complex network of high-speed railways, pipelines, ports and optical fibers cables that could link Chinese cities to neighboring countries and beyond; in this case two projects could be cited, the Silk Road Economic Belt through Eurasia and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road trough East and South China Seas and Pacific and Indian Oceans. These projects could effectively link Europe to Asia-Pacific. Some components of these plans are already under construction, especially in Central Asian republics, but Chinese intentions are to create more links with Russia, Iran, Middle East, Turkey, Indian Subcontinent, South-East Asia and Europe.
The current Asian political scenario, considering these Chinese infrastructural projects, is then characterized by the consolidation of a strategic cooperation between Russia and China, a factor confirmed at the end of the last meeting between APEC countries (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), hosted by Beijing (November 10th – 11th, 2014). This strategic cooperation has been further emphasized by visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in Beijing few days after APEC summit. From all these meetings and subsequent agreements emerged the prospect of an alliance based on common economic, military, political and energy interests in order to share development and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. This cooperation could also appear to some extent as a political response to NATO’s containment of Russia and US pivot strategy finalized to rebalance of power in Asia-Pacific. This particular kind of interpretation focused on Washington’s concerns is founded analyzing Eastern Europe’s tensions and sporadic diplomatic clashes for the economic control of East and South China Seas.
China looks favorably to economic consequences arising from its cooperation with Russia. The international situation and concerns related to strategic issues have created the conditions for a strengthening of teamwork between Russia and China so that Moscow could defend its interests and Beijing could maintain globally a balance of power. It is possible that this kind of collaboration could go further, making the two countries interdependent and able to reinforce relationship in other sectors (agriculture, aerospace, defense and information technology). Russia and China have already a consolidated business relationship worth approximately $ 100 billion and at the same time China could support Moscow to deal with the effects of Western sanctions on its finances. Beijing would continue to invest in Russian bonds and make direct investments in Russia. China is currently in the position to do so, given the availability of foreign exchange reserves (more than $ 4,000 billion).
Additionally, as demonstrated by the visit of Russian Defense Minister Shoigu to Beijing the Russian-Chinese cooperation will be strengthened in other fronts such as that of the military cooperation, which could be implemented considering common concerns related to cited US Pivot to Asia. As announced by Shoigu during 2015 there will be Russian-Chinese joint naval exercises not only in the Pacific, but also in the Mediterranean Sea.
This is a deliberate long-term Russian strategy to leave behind cooperation with Europe and United States or is a merely tactic searching a revitalization of relations with the West? It’s likely that Russia contemplates strengthening of partnership with Beijing as a useful alternative to relationship with Europe, but also to counterbalance US role in Asia-Pacific. However, the whole scenario is more multifaceted, given the complexity of Sino-US relations and the economic interdependency between Washington and Beijing. Tensions between Russia and West could be exploited to its advantage by China. Given the all picture, another point to consider is in fact that China does not intend to completely sever its relations with Washington coming to a strategic rivalry between blocks typical of Cold War period. The complexity of Sino-American relations is evident, given the value of economic cooperation and common concerns on various global issues (Islamic terrorism, the future of Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear issue and agreements on global warming). The current global context is not characterized by the presence of ideological opposing blocs, but can be rather be described as an evolving multipolar system characterized by power centers interdependent with an increasingly significant role of Asian countries.
The long-term synergy between India and Russia
After China, Moscow may look to other alternatives to Europe for its natural resources exportations, considering a strengthening of relations with Japan, South Korea and India.
In the specific case of India, the Sino-Russian energy pact could be followed by a similar cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi. Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of India in charge from last May 2014, is searching to improve relationships with many global and regional actors, like United States, China and Japan. Russia is another important partner, to which current India’s government looks with deep attention in a changing international environment. At the same time it’s thanks to Vladimir Putin that from the end of nineties Russia-India strategic partnership had new force after the fall of Soviet Union.
A stronger Indo-Russian energy relation could significantly change the political equilibriums of Asian continent. This kind of cooperation would be focused on natural gas and in particular in the importation by India of LNG, despite the need of infrastructural improvements in Indian and Russian territories. Since India has limited reserves of natural gas, it would be for New Delhi a concrete opportunity to diversify its energy supply and a necessary provision in order to support economic growth and meet rising domestic demand of energy resources. However energy collaboration could also involve Russian oil.
Nevertheless, there are a number of political issues that could hinder Indo-Russian energy cooperation. Russia negative relations with Western countries represent a counterproductive aspect for India and an expected tightening of Western sanctions against Russia linked to Ukrainian situation could affect the activity of certain Indian public companies with interests in dealing with Russian counterparts, such as Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and Bharat Petroleum (BP). ONGC’s interests to drill shale oil in Siberia could be delayed because sanctions against Moscow make it more problematic to work with US counterparts, given the fact that last September 2014 Washington banned its companies from supporting exploration and productive activities in deep water, Artic offshore and shale projects in Russia. This problematic situation could affect ONGC’s activity because it has contracted US firm Liberty Resources to drill four wells in the Bazhenov shale formation in Siberia, a project that now could be interrupted. ONGC has also a 20% stake in the Sakhalin 1 project in Russia and is in consultations with Rosneft over a stake in two east Siberian oil fields and it could look out for alternative solutions for drilling in the Bazhenov.
GAIL company, the nation’s largest natural gas distributor,has recently signed several agreements with some US corporations, for example the pact with US-based WGL for buying about 2.5 million tons of gas for twenty years. GAIL may incur therefore in problematic situations in the case of business activity with Russian firms, for example Gazprom held discussions with GAIL for deliveries also of Russian LNG.
While it’s true that India has other public companies that haven’t developed agreements outside of the Subcontinent and could benefit from an effective Indo-Russian energy cooperation, United States see adversely the developments of New Delhi-Moscow relations. Washington has publicly expressed its disappointment in the aftermath of the positive 15th Indo-Russian bilateral summit held last December in New Delhi, arguing that this is not a good time “to make business with Russia as usual”.
New Delhi has not approved Western sanctions against Russia, but at the same time it has not yet recognized Crimea as an effective part of Russia, though refusing to criticize openly Moscow. At this particular juncture it’s clearly emerging an Indian intention to maintain a substantial strategic autonomy and a difficult balance position in its approach towards United States and Russia. Though, it’s at the same time clear that Washington has used and will continue to apply sanctions to commercial activities related to energy sector as a political tool to isolate opponents (for example Iran in the past for nuclear issue and Russia today for Ukrainian situation),pressuring its allies (for example India) to stop commercial activities with these antagonists States that have to change a specific political behavior according to Washington strategic calculus. Iran’s case of few years ago is emblematic: New Delhi as a result of US pressure supported sanctions against Tehran regarding nuclear issue, partially spoiling Indo-Iranian traditional good cooperation. If it is true that in that case sanctions had United Nations assent and India is against unilateral sanctions, it is certainly not to be underestimated US irritation towards India’s attempts to improve relations with Russia.
At the last Indo-Russian bilateral summit the two countries signed twenty agreements – seven intergovernmental and thirteen commercial – including a strategic vision for a peaceful cooperation in the use of atomic energy. In summary, agreements have concerned energy sector, fields of technology and innovation and they promoted a wide-ranging engagement in commercial activities, considering the use of national currency for bilateral trade. According to Vladimir Putin’s statements, Russia will support India in the construction of twelve nuclear power plants after the positive results related to Kudankulam nuclear power project and the oil company Rosneft will start to send ten tons of oil per year. Russian authorities offered to build in India one of the most advanced Russian helicopters and it will speed up the implementation of the joint project for the fifth-generation fighter jet. Russia aims also to participate in the plan for the realization of Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and facilitate the process of India’s accession to SCO. However, trade is declining and it’s equal to $ 11 billion; for a comparison, Indo-Chinese bilateral commerce is about 70 billion, while Sino-Russian stands around 100 billion. In this sense, negotiations to promote a free trade agreement between India and Eurasian Union could be seen as a measure suitable to boost bilateral commerce. It’s also important that the project for North-South Transport Corridor (involving Russia, India and Iran) would be effectively implemented since the intentions of a commerce network that could integrate South Asia, Iran, Central Asia and Russia. The geographical distance between India and Russia is significant, but last bilateral summit showed willingness in both sides to overcome this particular difficulty. The basic idea is to encourage a transformation of bilateral cooperation in a much better quality, observing also the international framework and supporting the development of a collective, balanced and inclusive security in Asia-Pacific, considering the legitimate interests of all States in a region led by the respect of international law.
Narendra Modi has recently affirmed the importance and priority assigned to Moscow in the strategic calculus of New Delhi, claiming that Russia will remain the most important partner of India in defense sector. The Indian government is also interested to enhance cooperation with Russia in spite of sanctions sponsored by Washington. However, it is important to underline that Modi is keen to have stronger defense ties with US – the main partner in the sector of arms imports in recent years during Manmohan Singh government – although it’s not possible at this moment to replace Russia’s role. At the same time Moscow is looking to Pakistan, which could become a strategic military partner of Russia. Another aspect is that Russian-Chinese partnership could be seen with concern by New Delhi: Russian technologies and systems are now exported also to China, not only to India, and a rising Chinese power could transform Asian balance of power, pushing India towards United States.
Nevertheless,India seems interested to promote a deep cooperation with Russia, which could aspire to become one of the countries most concerned in governmental campaign “Make in India” launched by Modi and designed to accelerate the economic growth of the country and particularly to support the Indian manufacturing sector by attracting foreign direct investment. In this case the nature of Indo-Russian cooperation could be transformed by purchaser-consumer structure to joint manufacturing partners.
The recent meeting between Putin and Modi, as well as summits and agreements between Russian and Chinese authorities are particularly important for the period in which they occurred, few months after the inauguration of a new government in India andwith the specter of a “New Cold War” between West and Russia, though the use of the term “Cold War” in order to describe the current standoff of US-Russian relations is not totally correct.
There are different expectations from Russian government that new course in India will fortify Indo-Russian partnership and many signals go in this direction; as well as it could be possible a strategic alliance with China, considering many fields of joint cooperation. The world order is changing and Western countries should take into account the complex network of relations involving Russia, India and China and other Asian countries. These regional powers are no longer only spokesman of an emergent world seeking voice in an anachronistic international system, considering for example India and China aspirations to reorganize board of United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Furthermore, Russia, India and China are not only characters of multilateral forums such as BRICS or G-20, but they are already proponents of deep bilateral relations and bearer of new systems of payment in international trade, considering the use of national currencies than could potentially change future global balances of power. These are clear exemplifications of the emergence of a multipolar world order.
Bangladesh’s Graduation: A Ray of Hope for India’s Garment Industry?
Authors: Ms. Prerana Manral and Mr. Shreyansh Singh*
A report was released by the World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 8th highlighting the implications of graduation of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) on their trade participation. By virtue of their status as LDCs, these countries enjoy access to international support measures such as development financing, preferential market access, technical assistance etc. WTO also obliges LDCs with certain carve outs such as Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) to increase their participation in global trade. The LDCs are graduated to developing country status if they meet the threshold levels for at least two of the three indicators i.e. Gross National Income (GNI), Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) for two consecutive triennial reviews. Interestingly, in 2018 Bangladesh became the first country to meet the thresholds for all the three indicators and if it meets these thresholds again for the second triennial review in 2021, it will be eligible for graduation in 2024.
In such a scenario, Bangladesh will lose some of the benefits provided to LDCs by developing and developed countries like the preferential market access which presently accords Bangladesh a competitive edge over Indian products. One of the key labor-intensive sectors which contributes significantly to the exports of both Bangladesh and India is garments industry. In 2009, both the countries almost had an equivalent share in the world market, however in 2018 India was left far behind Bangladesh. India’s total garment exports stood at 21 billion USD whereas Bangladesh’s exports were at 40 billion USD in 2018.
Bangladesh’s garment sector, due to its LDC status, currently enjoys a duty-free access to markets of Europe and other developed countries. Specifically in EU markets, goods from Bangladesh are covered under “Everything But Arms” (EBA) preferential arrangement which provides zero percent duty on all the products except arms and ammunition. On the other hand, India loses out due to 9% average tariff on garments under the Standard GSP scheme of EU. Further, under the SAFTA and APTA Agreements, India also provides similar duty-free market access to LDCs which along with the removal of quantitative restrictions has exponentially increased Bangladesh’s garments exports to India leading to a tough time for the domestic industry even in the internal market.
The major markets for India and Bangladesh garment exports are the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan. Trade estimates of garment products clearly show that India’s export in terms of value is significantly less than that of Bangladesh. Since 2010, India’s total share of exports grew by 9.4% whereas Bangladesh’s exports skyrocketed by 141% in these markets. The major reasons behind Bangladesh’s exemplary export performance are tariff exemptions and lower wage labor market which provides impetus to narrowly beat its competitors in the international market. The analysis done in the report reveals that 70% of Bangladesh’s overall export is covered under LDC-specific preferences.
At this juncture a possible graduation of Bangladesh will lead to termination of such preferential access granted exclusively to LDCs which may provide an opportunity for Indian exporters to grab a larger share. However, to maximize the gains arising from this development India needs to prepare a robust action-plan. Firstly, low cost inputs such as cheap power, land and raw materials will have far-reaching effects in enhancing the export competitiveness. Secondly, India should focus on mass scale production of garments in order to achieve economies of scale to bring down its cost of production. Presently, the production is limited majorly to small-scale enterprises which lack capital intensive technology. This in turn negatively affects the quality and time of production which are crucial factors in tapping the domestic and international markets. The improvement in these parameters would help Indian exporters to move up the value chain in terms of creating brand value for its superior quality products. Another overdue policy action could be cutting the import duties on high-quality machinery required for better production. In addition to this, a fiscal stimulus is required to boost the ecosystem in wake of Covid-19 pandemic.
Lastly, to offset the preferential access enjoyed by its competitors such as Vietnam, Bangladesh etc. India should identify its partners and strategically negotiate FTAs for lower tariffs and Non-Tariff Measures (NTMs) to obtain better market access for Indian exports. Needless to mention, India will only be able to reap the benefits arising from Bangladesh’s graduation (due in 2024) if it sows the right seeds today. Effectuating such policies especially at a time when corporate taxes are slashed to match that of India’s competitors along will definitely send a positive signal for investment in the sector from the top global garment companies.
*Authors are Research Fellows at Centre for WTO Studies, Indian Institute for Foreign Trade. Views expressed are personal.
Post-Pandemic Economies and Environment
The cleaner air in cities, the burgeoning biodiversity and dramatic shift to less pollution-intensive lifestyle across the globe indicate the scope of the environmental improvement that can be achieved in just days. This is what we need to adhere to navigate the current pandemics:COVID-19 and environmental degradation. The environmental issues as we know do not seem to wait for a more convenient time, we therefore must deal it and Covid-19 pandemic concurrently. It is a very fatal disease and has incited urgent response all over the world. The governments, businesses and industries have been forced to deal with the pandemic in an unprecedented way.
According to the experts, this pandemic has provided us with the opportunities to deal with other crises also. We can take a transnational leap towards a sustainable society that produce minimum wastes and emissions. How we deal with current pandemic will also set our environmental trajectory for the centuries to come. The changes in our behaviour that we are experiencing nowadays and some of which may instilus permanently have a far-reaching impact on the environment. Our consumption and travel patron are more responsible: driving less car, attending online meetings rather than taking flights. Equally, it indicates that considerable dent on emissions and wastes products can be made without disturbing too much economic growth.
However, according to International Renewable News Agency (IRENA), for the long-run substantial reduction in the emissions of the toxins, huge and lasting changes are needed in the way how energy is produced and consumed. Though China and India two major growing economies, observed 25% and 30% reduction respectively during the months of lockdown. However, a shift towards low-emission society cannot be accomplished only via individual choices instead it involves reimagining the ways our urbane centres are built and organised, how roads are laid out so that moving without cars become easier, how provisions for walking, cycling and public transport is mad. There is a need for complete overhauling theway we grow, manufacture, trade, consumes and the way we travel.
Cities of Western Europe have been leading this transition by introducing innovative infrastructure projects: Milan has allocated 35 Km street for pedestrians and cyclists; Brussels has created 40km of a new path for cyclists and France has subsided cycling. Also, the Mayor of London started taking measures to build a car and buses free streets and bridges. Similarly, many cities are working on the circular economy where wastes are minimized through reuse and recycling. Following the footsteps of these cities, Pakistan also needs to devise pro-environmental urbane policies and mobility models.
Many studies such asYaron Ogen, 220 and Dario Caro, 220 indicate a strong link between COVID-19 death rate and an increase in emissions. Especially in North Italy and Spain, the high death rate from COVID-19 is seen to be associated with high air pollution in cities. Curtailing the pollution, therefore, would reduce general health burden and prevent any future pandemic may not prove to be so lethal. It has been learnt from the pandemic that early actions to contain the virus were more effective than trying to deter when the virus has spread. The same is also true for the environmental issues as Prof. Stern of Brentford claimed in 2006 that “countries needed to spend 1% of their GDP to stop greenhouse gases rising to dangerous levels. Failure to do this would lead to damage costing much more, the report warned – at least 5% and perhaps more than 20% of global GDP”.
Eventually, it is time for governments to forge with the private sectors to produce a sustainable economy. After this pandemic is over, the businesses, the industry, and individuals would plead to governments for state support. The governments should have an agenda of a sustainable economy while pouring money into the economy as aid packages. Governments should use this opportunity and must take a long view to utilize the stimulus packages. To an extent, the impact of COVID-19 on the environment is the functions of a kind of fiscal stimulus will be adopted in post-pandemic. Ideally, we should avoid a post-2008-09 financial crisis when fiscal measures of China government boosted the emissions by 6% (World Bank,2020). Rather, a more successful model of South Korea should be borrowed where stimulus package of 2008 included investment in natural conversation, energy efficiency, renewable energies, and sustainable transportations.
The COVID-19 virus is a global issue that requires a global response asall states are sharing data, experiences, equipment, and resources to deal with this pandemic. This same spirit of international collaboration is needed to produce the viable solution of the environmental issues. An inclusive global programme collaborated by rich and poor nations that ensures sustainable production can ensure low-emissions economies across the globe. The post-pandemic economies should be navigated in a way that protects people and planet and avoids any ecological destruction that leads to viral diseases. This pandemic can be taken as a mandate to build a new world from its broken parts.
Long lockdowns and the status of Indian MSMEs
Recently, when the Government of India decided to classify institutions as Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) they were trying to set up an incentive structure to usher a new era of growth. The incentives announced are in the form of attractive cheap loans, fewer compliance standards, tax benefits, and host of other freebies. The intended scheme wanted to keep growing — from Micro to Small and Small to Medium, and the support system and put the nation on a path of self-sufficiency .
Change of classification criteria
In fact, the businesses are classified as Micro, Small, or Medium depending on the kind of investments they were making in plant and machinery and if we made investments of up to 5 Crore, then we are as a Small enterprise. But what happens when business is booming and there’s an incentive for us to invest and expand. Well, without government intervention, we’d have lapped up this opportunity no questions asked. But now, we have to consider the downside. Because, as our transition from being Small to Medium, we’ll forego a few benefits. Benefits that might not want to cede. Here likes the dilemma because when we try and deceive the government into thinking we are a Small enterprise when in fact we are not and we will have to do is to keep making the investments we need, but figure out ways to hide the investments on our accounting books. That means the government will now have to spend additional resources in physically verifying your claims. In effect, the incentives that were designed to help MSMEs grow and become self-sufficient have now turned “perverse”. A move that was meant to promote investment and foster growth is now yielding terrible unintended consequences stifling all progress.
Scheme of the Government
So they began working on a proposal to change the classification criteria. They figured that total revenues would be a good metric since claims regarding revenue can easily be verified with the GST Sales data filed at the Goods and Service Tax portal. More importantly, entrepreneurs won’t have to worry about making new investments since the benefits are no longer tied to this metric. But the industry body representing MSEMs is not happy with this development. They lobbied and urged the government to keep the classification criteria intact but when the government finally charged ahead and introduced turnover as an additional criterion. They even expanded the investment limit to ensure MSMEs don’t graduate out of benefits too soon. However, MSMEs in the service sector (IT and stuff) will also be classified along the same lines as their manufacturing counterparts. So no step-motherly treatment for the people in the service industry either. Besides the classification, the government also wants to get the big guns interested in the space. They want Venture Capitalists to walk in and buy ownership in promising upstarts. The plan is simple. Put together a mother fund with 10,000 crores from the government. And then disburse the funds from the mother entity to smaller daughter funds in a piecemeal fashion and try and get other investors on-board these smaller funds. If all goes well, the 10,000 crores from the government should attract an additional 40,000 crores from outside investors (PE/VCs) and this should give MSMEs some much-needed funding support. They are calling it the Fund of Funds.
However, in the present status of pandemic banks don’t want to offer another lifeline by extending new loans considering their own precarious situation. And they most certainly cannot contain the problem; since we are likely to see a spike in defaults owing to the fact that most MSMEs have shut shop completely since the lockdown. And if MSMEs can’t restart operations and fail en masse, we will have a systemic problem on our hands. So a government intervention was inevitable. And the finance minister finally announced 3 lakh crore worth of collateral—free loans for businesses, including MSMEs in a bid to plug the funding gap. If we are in a business with a loan burden on your hands, banks will now extend new loans of up to 20% of the total loan outstanding so that we can restart operations. Now, we’ll have 4 years to repay this loan. Repayment obligations won’t kick in until the end of the first year. The government will stand as our guarantor in case we default and they will compensate the banks in full interest and principal. So technically, banks should be more willing to lend to these institutions now.
Growing importance of agriculture
Around 51 lakh people migrated to agriculture last year and this should be seen positively. In fact, we should actively pursue this endeavour and focus on making farming economically viable. Indian Agriculture, on an aggregate level, has been unprofitable for a good while now. Monsoons are erratic. Irrigation infrastructure still needs work. Warehousing and storage problems still persist. The middlemen skim most of the profit and many farmers work with land parcels so tiny that they can almost never leverage benefits of scale. Meaning we have a small proportion of landowners who run an extremely profitable enterprise while a good chunk of the agrarian population still live below the poverty line. The point is — there’s been very little incentive for people to continue and work the farmland. And as a consequence, many people migrated from rural hinterlands to urban centres en masse.
But now in the pandemic and long lockdown the migration patterns have reversed. There’s now more incentive for India’s labour population to return to agriculture. It’s become prosperous again. First, it is likely that employment did not actually increase in agriculture, but the sector merely absorbed the excess labour as it had no other place to go to. Farmers did not actually call out for more labour. But, family labour landed up in farms when they had no other place to go to. The real estate and construction sector, which is usually a provider of employment to low-skilled farm labourers who try to move out of the labour surplus farmlands, shed 4.6 million jobs between January-April 2018 and January-April 2019. This failure of the construction industry to absorb farm surplus labour is, possibly, the biggest reason why there is an increase in employment under agriculture. A family farm always has scope to absorb some unpaid labour although such additions may not increase any production or profit. There is always an extra patch of the farms to tend to or the need to take the cattle to graze a little farther. Farm work can be spread thinly over available labour and keep everyone “employed” when there is no alternate work available to them.And right now, with the lockdown in place, we are seeing it happen again. People are moving back to agriculture en masse because they have nowhere else to go. The only difference—it’s happening at a scale that almost seems unreal. This migration also has some very real policy implications.
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