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Long lockdowns and the status of Indian MSMEs

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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.

Professor and Head University Department of Political Science B.N. Mandal University, Madhepura

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No let-up in Indian farmers’ protest due to subconscious fear of “crony capitalism”

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The writer has analysed why the farmers `now or never’ protest has persisted despite heavy odds. He is of the view that the farmers have the subconscious fear that the “crony capitalism” would eliminate traditional markets, abolish market support price and grab their landholdings. Already the farmers have been committing suicides owing to debt burden, poor monthly income (Rs. 1666 a month) and so on.”Crony capitalism” implies nexus between government and businesses that thrives on sweetheart deals, licences and permits eked through tweaking rules and regulations.

Stalemate between the government and the farmers’ unions is unchanged despite 11 rounds of talks. The farmers view the new farm laws as a ploy to dispossess them of their land holdings and give a free hand to tycoons to grab farmers’ holdings, though small.

Protesters allege the new laws were framed in secret understanding with tycoons. The farmers have a reason to abhor the rich businesses. According to an  a  January 2020 Oxfam India’s richest one  per cent hold over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70 per cent  of the country’s population. India’s top nine billionaires’ Inc one is equivalent to wealth of the bottom 50 per cent of the population. The opposition has accused the government of “crony capitalism’.

Government has tried every tactic in its tool- kit to becloud the movement (sponsored y separatist Sikhs, desecrated Republic Day by hoisting religious flags at the Red ford, and so on). The government even shrugged off the protest by calling it miniscule and unrepresentative of 16.6 million farmers and 131,000 traders registered until May 2020. The government claims that it has planned to build 22,000 additional mandis (markets) 2021-22 in addition to already-available over 1,000 mandis.

Unruffled by government’s arguments, the opposition continues to accuse the government of being “suit-boot ki sarkar” and an ardent supporter of “crony capitalism” (Ambani and Adani). Modi did many favours to the duo. For instance they were facilitated to join hands with foreign companies to set up defence-equipment projects in India. BJP-ruled state governments facilitated the operation of mines in collaboration with the Ambani group  just years after the Supreme Court had cancelled the allotment of 214 coal blocks for captive mining (MS Nileema, `Coalgate 2.0’, The Caravan March 1, 2018). Modi used Adani’s aircraft in March, April and May 2014 for election campaigning across the country.

“Crony capitalism” is well defined in the English oxford Living Dictionaries, Cambridge and Merriam –Webster. Merriam-Webster defines “crony capitalism” as “an economic system in which individuals and businesses with political connections and influence are favored (as through tax breaks, grants, and other forms of government assistance) in ways seen as suppressing open competition in a free market

If there’s one”.

Cambridge dictionary defines the term as “ an economic system in which family members and friends of government officials and business leaders are given unfair advantages in the form of jobs, loans, etc.:government-owned firms engaged in crony capitalism”.

A common point in all the definitions is undue favours (sweetheart contracts, licences, etc) to select businesses. It is worse than nepotism as the nepotism has a limited scope and life cycle. But, “crony capitalism” becomes institutionalized.

Modi earned the title “suit-boot ki sarkar” when a non-resident Indian, Rameshkumar Bhikabhai virani gifted him a Rs. 10 lac suit. To save his face, Modi later auctioned the suit on February 20, 2015. The suit fetched price of Rs, 4, 31, 31311 or nearly four hundred times the original price. Modi donated the proceeds of auction to a fund meant for cleaning the River Ganges. `It was subsequently alleged that the Surat-based trader Laljibhai Patel who bought the suit had been favoured by being allotted government land for building  a private sports club (BJP returns ‘favour’, Modi suit buyer to get back land, Tribune June21, 2015).

Miffed by opposition’s vitriolic opposition, Ambani’s $174 billion conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. Categorically denied collusion with Modi’s government earlier this month. Reliance clarified that it had never done any contract farming or acquired farm land, and harboured no plans to do so in future. It also vowed to ensure its suppliers will pay government-mandated minimum prices to farmers. The Adani Group also had clarified last month that it did not buy food grains from farmers or influence their prices.

Modi-Ambani-Adani nexus

Like Modi, both Adani and Ambani hail from the western Indian state of Gujarat, just, who served as the state’s chief for over a decade. Both the tycoons are reputed to be Modi’s henchmen. Their industry quickly aligns its business strategies to Modi’s nation-building initiatives. For instance, Adani created a rival regional industry lobby and helped kick off a biannual global investment summit in Gujarat in 2003 that boosted Modi’s pro-business credentials. During 2020, Ambani raised record US$27 billion in equity investments for his technology and retail businesses from investors including Google and Face book Inc. He wants to convert these units into a powerful local e-commerce rival to Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Inc. The Adani group, which humbly started off as a commodities trader in 1988, has grown rapidly to become India’s top private-sector port operator and power generator.

Parallel with the USA

Ambani and Adani are like America’s Rockefellers and Vanderbilt’s in the USA’s Gilded Age in the second half of the 19th century (James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: a Journey through India’s New Gilded Age).

Modi government’s tutelage of Ambanis and Adanis is an open secret. Kerala challenged Adani’s bid for an airport lease is. A state minister said last year that Adani winning the bid was “an act of brazen cronyism.”

Threat of elimination of traditional markets

Farmers who could earlier sell grains and other products only at neighbouring government-regulated wholesale markets can now sell them across the country, including the big food processing companies and retailers such as WalMart.

The farmers fear the government will eventually abolish the wholesale markets, where growers were assured of a minimum support price for staples like wheat and rice, leaving small farmers at the mercy of corporate agri-businesses.

Is farmers’ fear genuine?

The farmers have a logical point. Agriculture yield less profit than industry. As such, even the USA heavily subsidies its agriculture. US farmers got more than $22 billion in government payments in 2019, the highest level of farm subsidies in the last 14 years, and the corporate sector paid for it. The Indian government is reluctant to give a permanent legal guarantee for the MSP. In contrast, the US and Western Europe buy directly from the farmers and build their butter and cheese mountains. Even the prices of farm products at the retail and wholesale levels are controlled by the capitalist government. In short, not the principles of capitalization but well-worked-out welfare measures are adopted to sustain the farm sector in the advanced West.

Threat of monopsonic exploitation

The farmers would suffer double exploitation under a monopsony (more sellers less buyers) at the hands of corporate sharks.  They would pay less than the minimum support price to the producers. Likewise, consumers will have to pay more because the public distribution system is likely to be undermined as mandi (regulated wholesale market) procurement is would eventually cease to exist.

Plight of the Indian farmer

The heavily indebted Indian farmer has average income of only about Rs. 20000 a year (about Rs. 1666 a month). Thousands of farmers commit suicide by eating pesticides to get rid of their financial difficulties.

A study by India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that more than half of farmers in India are in debt. More than 20,000 people involved in the farming sector died by suicide from 2018-2019, with several studies suggesting that being in debt was a key factor.

More than 86 per cent of India’s cultivated farmland is owned by small farmers who own less than two hectares of land each (about two sports fields). These farmers lack acumen to bargain with bigger companies. Farmers fear the Market Support Price will disappear as corporations start buying their produce.

Concluding remarks

Modi sarkar is unwilling to yield to the farmers’ demand for fear of losing his strongman image and Domino Effect’. If he yields on say, the matter of the farm laws, he may have to give in on the Citizenship Amendment Act also. Fund collection in some foreign countries has started to sustain the movement. As such, the movement may not end anytime soon. Unless Modi yields early, he would suffer voter backlash in coming elections. The farm sector contributes only about 15 per cent of India’s $2.9 trillion economy. But, it employs around half its 1.3 billion people. 

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Brighter Future Waits Ahead

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Our footprints on the sands of time are about to be washed up by the next wave. We need to set out new paths, urgently, after all, the real power of wisdom not hidden in knowing it all; but in not knowing enough. Because whatever we may think of our mastery of our own crafts is in reality achieving ‘mastery’ as an acknowledgment of arriving at a point of not knowing enough therefore continuous hunger and craving to search for bigger answers. Otherwise, just a few experts would have been enough for the world. Observe how after two millennia passed, we still have not figured out achieving grassroots prosperity, diversity, tolerance and equalities.

Only if our new wisdom understood will we advance or else stay lost at the beaches. Our new world of today needs new words, new vocabulary, and new narratives to allow correctly knitting the tapestries of our miseries and equally weaving strong and fit enough sails for the coming stormy winds of tomorrow. Muffled in the old-fashioned terms of the past, the double-sided, agenda-centric language used today, already lost its authenticity. Today’s language mummified in bandages of political correctness, already tombed intellectualism and spoken words into deprivations, while whatever enunciated as rehearsed acts via teleprompters is still  undecipherable by the global populace. Realities now demand change to honest words to assemble new narratives, to calm restless citizenry to deliver its truthful meaning in bold progressions.

Loudly enunciated are our acceptances of our victory and defeats or we stay silent to our deceptions. There is a brighter future ahead, indeed, but firstly, if we only accept for a moment that our previous attempts on grassroots prosperity creation were failures of sorts, suddenly pandemic recovery appears meaningful. If we also accept our previous trajectory of economic development spanning the last decade was somewhat hit or miss on targets, suddenly, new horizons appear.  If we accept also that all our power-skills and rich-knowledge almost maxed out, suddenly brighter futures start to appear. Because, only when we discover a window, find some empty spaces tumble into voids, and chasms new things start to pour in, new ideas flourish, the processes start as enlightenment for new discoveries to commence. No matter where we stand on this earth, a new world has once again brought us on crossroads to face new transformation for brand new adventures

Our limitations on our performance are true measurements to qualify us to enter the cockpits.  Historians will recognize this pandemic recovery as a very special moment; declare this era as a small blip in the course of human endeavor and a glitch that ‘possibly’ corrected the role of government administration to allow far more talented and upskilled citizenry at helm to advance.  One: The corporate leaderships of technology companies acquired extraordinary smarts many times more powerful over what their own top national political leadership team displays and thus unable to tackle any technology sides of the economy.  Two: Digitized and technologically advanced vertical sectors across 200 nations and 10,000 cities shut out national political leaderships and local institutional administrators as obsolete and unprepared to deal with the required speed of response and execution and therefore losing future control of the national economic drivers of national economy in global jurisdictions. Frequent flyers know a lot about flying city to city but definitely are not certified and qualified pilots to fly jumbos around the world. The power play of the digital economy once enters the ocean of platform economies of the world will become extremely specialized, therefore, unless prepared, nation-by-nation, top political leadership and government agencies will lose grip on all such technology advancement games and become simply spectators. Study crypto-currency deployments, Space travel and satellite transportation, AI and trading games, Jack Ma and China over ruling financial sectors as a start.   

Our mobilization of hidden resources and talents are proof of what we just learned coming out of fog. For the first time in 100 years, globally speaking, a new world emerges; The pandemic has already prepared the humankind to rediscover “the meaning of life” the purpose of “co-existence” while to the poor of the world “re-learn to survive” and to the rich “re learn to create common good”.  Is pandemic germinating our entrepreneurial intellectualism? Is this the kind of transformation humankind has been waiting for over a century? Why is futurism calling for futuristic literacy?

Our billion hungry every night despite two millennia past, we must show our resolve or our negligence will destroy us. The poor of the world; in neglect, misery and almost buried alive, Millionaires anxiously digging their own graves,  now exhausted, Billionaires digging deeper to find their own legacy if any and Trillionaires buying up heavens in the clouds to block other voices.  The Towers of Babylon going half empty, displaying signs of ‘vacancy’ fires of hell at the base only provide gentle warmth to the upper celestial floors of luxury living. Where sweetness is missing in the bitter medicine of our times ignored but candies alone will never cure; the message in the bottle found on the bloody beaches tossed but the noise of fakery drowns us all. Imagine, if we compressed the last two millennia in two minutes. We just evaporated at the last second. Universe did not even notice.

Wondering, what was the possible message in that bottle, if any? 

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Kickstarting the U.S. Economy: A Rebound or Further Inequity?

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The global economy has seen its fair share of peculiarity in recent years; much attributed to the developing economies rather than the stable sovereigns of the world. However, the wave of the pandemic has toppled the conventional trend unlike ever before. Whilst the developing economies gain traction, the European economies are crumbling under the whelming pressure of the pandemic.

The US economy, however, is on its track to rebound at nothing but an accelerated pace that is optimistic as it is sinister. Forecasters have been predicting an economic boom post the pandemic for months yet the claims were rebuffed as overly quixotic. The economic boom is on cards that could contract the surging unemployment rates and could even push the economy towards a prolonged growth trajectory.

The economic recovery is evident from the jump in retail sales all over the US: levels anticipated to bloom further amidst speculations of a hefty aid package advocated by president Biden. Moreover, the FED has predicted a growth of 4.5% in the US output; the highest predicted level of GDP growth in over two decades. The optimism is matched by the leading economists, likes of Goldman Sachs putting a word in their perspective: ‘We [US] are very likely to get a very high growth rate’.

The budding confidence in the economy is majorly linked to the rollout of vaccines. Albeit slow-paced, the vaccination drives are striving hard to meet targets set by the authorities. Coupled with the shift in the government, the national focus is primarily etched in the campaigns to ensure timely inoculation before the virus strikes again.

However, the inoculation would grip over the country for most of the year 2021, keeping the natural order of the country at bay. The economy, thus, is bolstered by Federal aid packages; pouring trillions of dollars in rental packages and unemployment benefits. The resulting is a pile of surplus disposable income which awaits an opportunity to be expended. Given the mounding pressure of recession and health crisis cumulated over the yesteryear, the income would be sufficient enough to suffice under the newfound rental and mortgage reliefs purported by the federal government. Combined with free public transportation, the added monetary value could be utilized as soon as the country bounces back from lockdowns.

The surplus income could further expand if congress approves the magnanimous aid package proposed by the democrats under the plan of president Joe Biden. As vaccinations continue to immunize the population and income blooms within common households, approaching summers could prove to be a haven for the US economy to shine bright. Peak demand for hotels and transport is expected in the second and third quarter of 2021; unemployment is predicted to level down to 4.1% due to surging demand for labour in the HoReCa sector whilst simultaneously kickstarting the dormant business of airlines and smattering of other means of transit.

Even the most experienced economists, however, have pitched reservations to the envisioned rebound of the US economy. The prime facet impeding that prospect is the intermittent campaign of vaccination. The inoculation has been slower than expected and the adverse effects of the jabs have instilled a fear that threatens to further stall the efforts to vaccinate the population. With the ensue of new virus variants in California and irregular vaccination drives, the expected recovery could defer to late 2021 and even 2022. This could make the US vulnerable to the 3rd wave of Covid as per the pattern of cases observed last year.

The political standoff is another factor that could push economic prosperity into despair. The simmering tensions post the impeachment trial of Donald Trump have surfaced over the last two months. The demarcation in the senate is as clear as it has ever been over decades and even the split in the republicans has brewed post the acquittal of Trump. Both parties locking horns this early casts a confusion that stood out in the recent energy crisis in Texas; the federal and state governments bumping heads whilst the state drowned in stark darkness and bitter cold. This disparity paints a bleak picture for the United States given Mr. Trump could stir more instability with the prospect of running the election again in 2024.

The escalating oil prices also indicate a tough road for nearly the entirety of the manufacturing sector of the economy along with any lucrative opportunity to the airline industry in the forthcoming months. As the world still reels from the pandemic, the crush in the oil supply from the US has rendered the valuation at high levels; a contrast to the plummeting prices just last year. The Brent index has surged more than 28% since December 2020, pushing the prices up to as high as $66 per barrel. With the forecasts expecting Brent to further climb up the trajectory and the subsequent production crunch from Russia and OPEC members, oil prices could rise up and beyond $70 per barrel. This price surge, as a result, could convert the booming economy into hyperinflation since the US would continue to rely on imported petroleum until it regains the economic traction to be self-sufficient again. Thus, the pilling income could transition into sky-high prices post the pandemic.

Mirroring the recession of 2001, while the economy started to expand within a year, the unemployment rates remained high for the better part of the decade. Drawing parallels from that period, while the growth is projected to touch the 5.8% mark later in the fiscal year of 2021, a congruent projection could not be made on the front of economic recovery. Although high inflation has never been an issue for the US in the past, unlike the developing nations, sluggish recovery in employment, brimming tensions in the political arena, and irregular inoculation rates could widen the gap of wealth in the country. Inequity, thus, is inevitable as an opportunity cost of growth at the expense of an inflating economy. The affluent strata of the society would reap the benefits much more rapidly than the working class. Whether it would be of long-term virtue or despair: time is the deciding factor for the common citizens of America.

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