Pragoti editorial team's Subhanil Chowdhury delves into the cause of the layoffs in the Indian economy amidst the slowdown and argues for public expenditure and investment that will put purchasing power in the hands of the people as the way out. An earlier article on the same issue by the author can be found here .
On November 3, the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh urged the Indian industries, not to cut jobs. He said, “While every effort needs to be made to cut cost and raise productivity, I hope there will be no knee-jerk reaction such as large scale layoffs, which may lead to a negative spiral.” Things are however not turning out as advised by the economist PM.
Job loss in the Indian Economy
Already, we have seen that the performance of the Indian corporate sector has been adversely affected. The results of the second quarter for this fiscal year show that the aggregate profit growth for the corporate sector as a whole has come down. The main reasons for such decline in profits being rise in interest costs and raw material prices. In the wake of such decline in profits, the Indian corporate sector had to cut down on costs. In this regard, retrenchment of workers was thought to be an effective way of cutting costs. The move by Jet Airways to retrench 800 workers was done primarily on the basis of the above thinking on the part of the Jet management. However, due to much public outcry and political pressure, the Jet management had to withdraw its decision. This was however only the beginning of the story. Almost all the sectors of the economy have resorted to job cuts or a cut back in the production in order to cope with the economic crisis. We give some of the major decisions of job cuts or production cuts on the part of the Indian corporate sector in the wake of the financial crisis.
(The above data is taken from: More Companies Opt to Trim Man Hours, Cut Production, Business Line, 8 November 2008)
Why Such Job Loss?
The question that naturally arises is what accounts for such across the board and massive lay-offs in the Indian economy? There are several reasons for this. Firstly, as has been already mentioned, job cuts is a way of reducing costs to the companies, which they are resorting to in the wake of rising interest and raw material costs. However, the malaise goes deeper than this. This is evident from the fact that not only has there been a job cut, but many companies have been forced to suspend or reduce production in the recent times. This points to the fact that the companies are trying to reduce their capacities. Such reduction in capacity utilization is symptomatic of the fact that there is not enough demand in the economy. For example, for the auto manufacturers like TATA Motors or Ashok Leyland, there is just not enough buyers to buy their products. In this context, to carry on production will only result in accumulation of inventories, which these companies do not want- hence the decision to suspend production in their plants. As far as the steel sector is concerned, the biggest demand from steel in India comes from the construction and the real estate sector. Now, in the wake of the financial crisis, the realty sector has been substantially adversely affected. As a result the demand for steel in the country has been hit. Moreover, since the crisis is global in nature, there is not even enough external demand for steel, which can compensate for the drop in the domestic demand. In the absence of demand for steel, the companies have been forced to cut back on production.
The case of the textile sector is particularly worrying. This is because this sector employs a very large number of people. Moreover, the people who are particularly losing their jobs in the textile sector are those workers who are daily wage earners. The question is why such severe job cuts are being witnessed in the textile sector. One of the major sources of demand for the textile sector is the external demand. In other words, there is a strong export demand for the Indian textile sector. In 2006-07, the textile exports comprised of 12.9% of the total exports from India. (Economic Survey, 2007-08, Chapter on External Sector). Now, with the global financial crisis and the impending recession in the advanced capitalist countries, there has been a slow down in the export demand for Indian textile sector. With such decline in the demand for the Indian textile sector, there have been severe job losses.
Lessons for the Prime Minister
The economist Prime Minster needs to learn proper lessons from this. His argument to industry not to retrench workers is nothing short of a hogwash. This is because, as the Finance Minister and now the Prime Minister of the country, Dr. Singh has presided over a systematic entrenchment of the Indian economy into the logic of the market. Today, the organized sector employment growth rate has reached minimal level, with the employment in the Public sector turning negative. (Economic Survey, 2007-08). On top of this, there is the new mantra of labour market flexibility supposedly to increase the efficiency of the Indian industries. These are nothing but euphemism for doing away with whatever little social security that the workers have in this country. Now, when the workers have been subjected to the tyranny of globalization, Dr. Singh is now paying lip service to them, on the eve of the elections.
This impasse has been created by the votaries of neo-liberal reforms in the country. Over the last few years, the Government has self-imposed strict limits to fiscal expenditure as a result of following the policies of globalization, the FRBM Act being one example. Instead of ensuring proper expenditure on the part of the Government aimed at uplifting the conditions of the poor what has been done is providing sops to the corporate sector, in the form of tax exemptions. This has allowed the corporate sector to rise to dominance in the Indian economy. At the same time, the demand for the products, primarily high end, of the corporate sector has been provided by the debt financed consumption of the middle class and the rich. Now, with the financial crisis, the banks are becoming less forthcoming in providing such easy debts to the middle classes. That is why there has been consistent demand on the part of the press as well as other stakeholders to reduce the interest rates on housing and other loans, in order to again stimulate the debt financed consumption. In fact, the Finance Minister compelled the Public Sector Banks to reduce their rates. This route of stimulating demand is however problematic because of the following reason. What is essentially done through this lowering of interest rate is to neglect putting more purchasing power to the majority of the people and lure the middle class to consume, thereby keep the demand in the economy afloat. What is missed is the fact that such soft loans in return may give rise to sub-prime loans in the Indian economy, which can cause serious problems for the banks. Already it has been seen that the largest credit card issuer, ICICI Bank has shown flat profits and significantly enhanced loan loss provisions. The second largest credit card issuer, the State Bank of India’s SBI Cards, posted net losses in the past two quarters. On December 31, 2007, its non-performing assets, or credit card debt that could not be collected by the company, stood at 16.28 per cent. This is likely to have grown since then. (Now, the Credit Card Crunch, Jayati Ghosh, Frontline, November 8-21, 2008).
Who Pays the Price?
In this context one of the most important issue is the asymmetry in the impact of the boom and the bust. When India was growing at a very high speed riding the boom, lakhs of farmers committed suicide in the country, the employment rate declined, the rate of decrease in the poverty rates, even according to official estimates declined, children remained malnourished and millions died of curable diseases. At the same time however, India produced the largest number of billionaires, shopping malls and luxury hotels for the rich, high profile jobs for the English speaking elites. In other words, during the boom in India, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer.
Now, the signs of the impending slow down in the Indian economy are global in origin. It is the speculators in the Wall Street who have manufactured this global crisis riding on greed and free market ideology. And who suffers the consequences of this in India? We have already seen that 7 lakh people have already lost their jobs in the textile sector alone, majority of them being wage earners. Factories of TATA are being shut down, investment projects are being postponed, production is being cut-the sufferers in all this are the working people, whose jobs are at stake, whose salaries, job security and other benefits are at stake.
One might actually argue that the riches are also losing out. It is reported that the collective wealth of India’s wealthiest have fallen by $212 billion. Still, the net worth of Ambani is $20.8 billions in a country where 77% of the people live on less than Rs 20 per day. Moreover, this loss in the wealth that is being reported in the financial press is more of a notional loss than any original erosion in their asset position. This is because this loss is based on the valuation of the paper assets (stocks) of the industrialists, which have indeed decreased in the market.
As far as the middle classes are concerned, yes there have been losses for this section of the population. The option of high consumption on the basis of soft loans has also dried out to a significant extent. This however might be transitory since the banks are already easing out different rates. A section of the white collared people has also lost their jobs. What is noteworthy however is the response of the media as well as the establishment to this problem of the middle class. Only 1900 people were sacked by Jet Airways, which was indeed a terrible thing, and the entire media cried foul over it. Today 7 lakhs poor people have lost their jobs in the textile sector only. The media is silent on their plight. Thus, it is seen that it is the working people of the country who are mostly paying the price in the aftermath of the financial crisis and its impact on India.
What Can be Done?
What can be done is however very simple. The Indian economy is riddled with large scale poverty and misery particularly in the rural areas. What is needed is Government expenditure in a big way in the economy, putting purchasing power in the hands of the people whose increased consumption can then be a very important source of demand in the economy. This can be done by providing employment to the masses, which will also help in eradicating poverty to a significant degree in India. One step in this regard is to implement the NREGA effectively in rural areas and expand to urban areas. Moreover, government investment should be forthcoming in major infrastructure areas like building roads, railways, hospitals, schools, colleges etc. This will not only generate employment for the masses but act as major social assets in the future. Today, China is already doing it.
The financing for these projects is not an impossible task if one sees it outside the prism of the ideology of neo-liberalism. What is first required in this regard is to do away with the FRBM Act and ensure more Government expenditure by enlarging the fiscal deficit. What is needed is a political will to implement policies for the upliftment of the poor and not merely directed at filling the coffers of the rich.