Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

The Political Economy of GST

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 6th September 2017

India welcomed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on 1st July 2017, sixty-three years after France first adopted it. In his parliament speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “GST marks the economic integration of India.” It is expected to unify India through the creation of a single market for goods and services as the GST slogan aptly captures: ‘one nation, one market, one tax’. Moreover, it is expected to increase the tax base in India where less than 1 per cent of people pay income tax and close to 90 per cent of the workers are in the informal sector. Both these perceived benefits, according to the government, are expected to accelerate India’s economic growth by making it easier to do business and increasing public investment (financed through increased tax revenue).

The second volume of Economic Survey 2016-17 released earlier last month – another first for India – argues that the introduction of GST partly contributed to “optimism about the medium term”. One hopes that the optimism is well founded and not ‘irrational exuberance’, to borrow Robert Shiller’s phrase. Was the introduction of GST aimed at raising tax compliance by simplifying the indirect tax structure with the aid of information technology? Or, did it aim to structurally reform the Indian economy with a view of increasing employment and reducing inequalities? There is also another important question to pose: is a uniform tax a good policy move in an economy like India where the intra-state and inter-state differences are significant?

Amidst his discussion on inequality, Thomas Piketty rightly writes in Capital that “Taxation is not a technical matter. It is preeminently a political and philosophical issue, perhaps the most important of all political issues.” Hence, it is important that the political economy of GST is rendered transparent. After the introduction of GST, several Indian states have lost their autonomy in public policy owing to a reduction in their tax revenue because the GST subsumes state taxes such as the value added tax (VAT), sales tax, and luxury tax. [The service tax belonged to the centre.] In fact, as GST is a destination tax, Tamil Nadu, a manufacturing state, had opposed it because of a potential revenue loss of around Rs. 9,270 crore. Additional reforms are necessary to ensure that the state’s economic policies are not throttled.

If simplification of the tax structure was a central goal, the four tax slabs of 5%, 12%, 18%, and 28% do not make sense. However, if the government has an additional goal of influencing consumer choices, different tax slabs make sense. Yet, our current GST tax structure eludes easy interpretation. For instance, why should pens be taxed at 18% and now cost more? And why should sanitary napkins be taxed at 18% and now cost more? There appears to be no obvious economic or social logic behind this classification.

On looking closer, the GST classification for goods and services appears to be based on the ‘ability to pay’ principle and therefore progressive in spirit. Hence, non-AC train travel is GST exempt while AC train travel is taxed at 5%. Similarly, while non-AC hotel services are taxed at 12%, the services in AC hotels attract a tax of 18%. From the perspective of the consumer, it is indeed the case that those who consume ‘luxuries’ (e.g., services in Five-star hotels and restaurants) have to pay a higher GST than those who consume ‘necessaries’ such as education and health services. But how are the producers affected?

During the VAT regime, handmade products were tax exempt but they are now taxed at different rates in the GST regime. If one adopts the sole principle of ‘ability to pay’ in the matter of taxation, taxing handmade products might not seem to economically unjust. As a government official put it, “a machine-made shawl is priced at Rs 500 and a handmade one at Rs 5,000. If a person can shell out so much for a handmade item, they might as well pay a higher tax on it.” This is a good example of myopic thinking because we need to ask what happens to the handloom sector (employment and wages) once the market price rises.

As I write this, a meeting has been organised to protest the taxing of handmade products. The problem is aptly captured in this statement by one of its organisers: “Handmade products such as khadi saris are already expensive as compared to machine-made products. With imposition of GST, a khadi sari has become costlier.” It is elementary economics that this can lower demand for handmade goods and negatively affect employment in this sector. India’s recycling sector has also been adversely affected due to GST implementation.

Economic policies or reforms cannot afford to be short-sighted either intentionally or out of ignorance. The second volume of the Economic Survey proudly states that the GST regime has formalised the informal textile and clothing sector. But at what cost?

It is true that the big firms will benefit from lowered transaction costs and will be able to enjoy an increased volume of inter-state business. Small firms mostly buy their inputs and sell their output within their own state. In short, the lower transaction costs benefit big firms.

While around 160 countries have implemented GST, its effects have been varied. In Malaysia, household consumption reduced after the implementation of GST; in Australia, the burden of GST was more on the poor than the rich; whereas the weaker sections of the populace benefited from GST in Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

To conclude, while ‘one nation, one market, one tax’ sounds alluring, it presupposes an economically homogenous nation and a uniform market for commodities and labour. Is one tax justified in India, which has several many different labour markets, each with its own ‘equilibrium’ price? Or do our policy makers think that imposing ‘one tax’ can transform India into a single market? Just like demonetisation, the GST is yet another bad economic ‘reform’ with detrimental impacts on India’s poor and vulnerable.


This is a condensed version of a talk I gave at National Public School, Indira Nagar, Bengaluru on August 11th. I thank the students for posing interesting questions. 

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Posted in Economic Policy, Economics, India, Macroeconomics | No Comments »

Urbanization in India: What does it mean?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 26th August 2011


In the recent past, there have been a lot of discussions and commentaries on the merits of urbanization in India. In addition to this, we also hear about the poor, rather pathetic, living conditions of migrants who work in urban spaces, there are pressing environmental concerns especially regarding air and water pollution, public transport is in a disarray, etc. The latter concern has led to the rise of ‘new’ areas of learning and research such as urban studies, urban economics, urban ecology, urban sociology and urban planning. These are extremely important areas of learning considering the fact that urban centers attract both labour and capital. This blog post tries to understand some economic issues relating to the process of urbanization that is taking place in India. In particular, we seek to understand the limits of urbanization and in the process we try to know what it means to achieve economic growth.

According to the World Bank, “Urbanization is not a side effect of economic growth; it is an integral part of the process.”  McKinsey states that “Urbanization is critical to India’s development.” Further, Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India notes that “It is important to note that the contribution of urban sector to GDP is currently expected to be in the range of 50-60 percent. In this context, enhancing the productivity of urban areas is now central to the policy pronouncements of the Ministry of Urban Development. Cities hold tremendous potential as engines of economic and social development, creating jobs and generating wealth through economies of scale. They need to be sustained and augmented through the high urban productivity for country’s economic growth. National economic growth and poverty reduction efforts will be increasingly determined by the productivity of these cities and towns.”

From the above excerpts, some important assumptions (or rationales) for promoting urbanization can be understood.

(1)    Economic growth is synonymous with urbanization.

(2)    India has to urbanize in order to attain economic growth and development.

(3)    Urban spaces need to be promoted because they generate about 50% of the Indian GDP.

(4)    Cities are potential engines of economic and social development.

 Economic growth

In a macro sense, economic growth refers to the sustained growth in national output – GDP. However, for policy purposes it is important to look at per capita GDP. This is a proxy for looking at how much on income an average person possesses. The objective of economic growth (and economics) is to ensure that all individuals are employed (who seek work), have adequate food, have access to drinking water, transport, etc. In no way should we consider the objective of increasing GDP to be our aim. It is a necessary means to an end- better life.

Urbanization is understood as an increase in the population of urban spaces. This also means that there is a growth in employment, capital inflow, infrastructure, etc. In turn, such large increases in population will result in an increased pressure on resources – water, space, housing, transportation, office space, air, etc. Communication seems to be the only one which has relatively negligible supply problems.

Given this, how can the Central Government or Planning Commission argue that urbanization is the way to go forward? This means – fatten urban spaces and neglect rural areas! Both, as we know, are not desirable. Fattened urban spaces will present a whole new set of issues to tackle with; neglecting rural areas will mean that agriculture and those dependent on agriculture (around 60% of India) will not be encouraged. Clearly, this does not increase the well being of majority of Indians. More importantly, it is illogical and unwise to argue that urbanization is (or leads to) economic growth. Yes, it leads to economic growth, but only in a very superficial manner and not in any substantive way.

India: Rural and Urban

As per Census 2011, 69 % of Indians live in rural areas and only 31 % in urban spaces. It seems to be the case that the policy makers are interested in improving the “urban spaces”. This does not necessarily include improving the living conditions of the majority of Indians. It is strange how language plays a dividing role too: urban habitats versus rural areas! It is true that the urban sector contributes roughly around 50% of India’s Net Domestic  Product (NDP). The remaining comes from rural India which comprises majority of the populace. As for agriculture, rural areas contribute 94% (for the year 2004-05) of total agricultural output. So, if urban areas are targeted at the cost of rural areas, those employed in agriculture, which is a very difficult occupation, are going bear the brunt.

It is strange that the Government and policy makers (including private think tanks) argue that cities are potential engines of economic growth, when 60% of Indians depend on agriculture for their livelihood which is mainly located in rural areas. This tendency of policy making to favour any method which just boosts the numerical value of GDP without any qualitative change must be stalled. By qualitative change, I refer to improvements in quality of life – food, shelter, education, water, health and so on.

According to a recent paper (July-August 2011) by Gilles Pison in Population & Societies, India is expected to become the most populous country by 2050 and will overtake China. Yes, we have heard that India has been blessed with the demographic dividend; but we must remember that it is no dividend unless there are employment opportunities, and they should not just be in urban spaces. This paper also notes that India records the highest number of deaths under age one – 13,96,000.

Hence, the Planning Commission has considered it imperative that the next 5 Year plan will include urbanization as a key challenge. This, however, is a myopic strategy and especially because of the neglect of agriculture. In addition, employment generation should be the key challenge. Jayati Ghosh also argues in a similar fashion in a recent article of hers. She points out that “The number of urban settlements has increased from 5161 in 2001 to 7935 in 2011, an increase of 54% that dwarfs the 32% growth in urban population.” This means that urban statistics have swelled up because of a reclassification and not mainly because of rural-urban migration. This key information poses further problems for policy makers; actually, it poses problems only for the ‘concerned’ policy makers!


To sum up, it would be disastrous to formulate policies which targeted the urban spaces at the cost of rural areas. The objective of economic policies must be to improve the well-being of the people and not to increase the percentage of GDP by a few points! In fact, even in France and Europe, when the process of urbanization began in the early 18th century, agriculture was neglected. However, a group of economists known as Physiocrats argued that agriculture cannot and should not be neglected as it will lead to a downfall of the economy (see more). It is time that we realized the interdependence present in the economy between rural and urban areas and also high time we acknowledged the significance of creating employment opportunities to the majority of the population.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Demographic Dividend, Demography, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, Employment, Francois Quesnay, GDP, India, Macroeconomics, Political Economy, Poverty, Richard Cantillon, Unemployment, Urbanisation | 10 Comments »

Economic Survey of India 2010-11: A Critical Look

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 28th February 2011

The Union Budget is presented based on the Economic Survey conclusions and recommendations. Therefore, the Economic Survey becomes a crucial document to examine and interpret. This time as well, the hands of its architect remain quite visible. Like the previous attempt, there is an increased use of economic theory – game theory, mechanism design, rational choice theories, etc – which provide support to various policy recommendations. According to this economic architect, all solutions are to be found in incentives. If the right incentives are provided, then economic and political governance will be smooth like that of the most competitive market. Agreed! What commonsense and insights from various social processes tell us is that individuals have heterogeneous preferences and what is an incentive for one might be poison for another. This blog post will examine some of these suggestions in detail (from Chapters 1 and 2 of Economic Survey 2010-11). In particular, the suggestions examined below will be those which have been favoured or disregarded based on arguments drawn from (neoclassical) economic theory.

Fiscal policy

Economic Survey 2010-11 assures the reader that India has recovered from the global financial crisis because of the high growth rates. For all practical purposes, this information indicates that we can now call for fiscal consolidation or lowering of the fiscal deficit. The usefulness of the government is over; let market forces function peacefully now without any government intervention!

“With clear evidence of economic recovery in 2009-10 as indicated by the Advance Estimates of the GDP, the Budget for 2010-11 resumed the path of fiscal consolidation with a partial exit from the stimulus measures.”

It is at the same time interesting and worrying to see this sort of rhetoric. Such rhetoric rests on the following premise: the opportunities for investment are limited (read: scarce) and the entry of the government will crowd out private investment. Surprisingly, this neoclassical idea, which is much promoted in our academic textbooks, fail to point out the fallacy of composition on which this argument is based. This argument does not recognise the interdependence in an economy. Wages generated from government jobs are not only used to purchase goods and services from the government sector. In fact, the wages and salaries generated by the government sector are spent in consuming goods and services produced by the private sector. It is certainly time policy makers understood the benefits of crowding in effects of government intervention. The expenditure, one should look for, is mainly in social services – education, health and employment.


Agriculture has been identified to be critical for macroeconomic stability and growth; although services sector is our potential growth engine. This can be read as: agriculture needs to grow at a level which will enable (the favourite word of the economic architect) the service sector to grow. Agriculture is carried out by majority of our fellow Indians (around 60 %) and it provides us food and raw materials. Our economic architect argues:

“The rise in prices of agricultural produce would in part help incentivize production; the moot question remains what proportion of the rise accrues to the producer and what proportion gets appropriated by middlemen. The creation of more direct farm-to-fork supply chains in food items across the country would be critical in incentivizing the farmer with higher producer prices and at the same time would lower the prices for end-consumers.”

Why are middlemen always blamed? Are they not the ones who aid production? Who exactly are these middlemen? Be that as it may, what is clear is that the middlemen have often more power (economic and social) than the actual producers. Majority of the farmers are forced to sell their product immediately after harvest owing to debt obligations. In addition, the (small) farmers do not benefit from the price rise because they do not have adequate storage facilities. As a matter of fact, even the Government only stores certain food grains in its godowns. Vegetable and fruits are not procured by the government. The undue emphasis placed on incentives by our economic architect is of concern. For one, production can only be carried out if the farmers have sufficient capital to purchase inputs. In India, the phenomenon of inter-linked markets is common in agriculture. That is, the same person provides credit as well as inputs to the farmers, thereby enjoying a very strong bargaining position over the farmer. Now, when our economic architect recommends FDI in retail food because they incentivise production, he is being blind to the production conditions of Indian agriculture. This can exacerbate the plight of the Indian farmer by making him/her subject to the contracts of the foreign firms. In this scenario as well, the farmer, owing to his/her weak bargaining power will never be able to enjoy higher prices. But yes, this could mean a lowering of prices for our urban consumers!

Inflation & employment

The subject of inflation has been dealt with in great detail in Chapter 2 of the Economic Survey 2010-11. In recent times, inflation has affected both the rural and urban consumers. However, as we know, the effect of inflation on the consumers are not equal in magnitude. Consumers who have very less income will be deeply affected by inflation. For instance, the small and marginal farmers are severely impacted when prices rise. Given this plight, the following statement by our economic architect is indeed baffling:

“It may be mentioned that food price inflation during the last financial year was mainly driven by high inflation in pulses, cereals, and sugar due to bad monsoon. The rise in the purchasing power owing to the rapid growth of the economy and inclusive programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) partly might have contributed to the upward trend in inflation.”

First of all, the above statement indicates an inadequate understanding of inflation. Secondly, what about the rising purchasing power of the urban consumers or the employees of BPOs. What makes our economic architect point fingers at those who barely manage a living? If the beneficiaries of NREGA were surviving by barely subsisting before NREGA, their purchasing power would not have risen so much post-NREGA to contrbute, as our economic architect suggests, to inflation. In fact, such statements indicate a gross misunderstanding of inflation, a lack of knowledge of how rural India operates and a insensitivity towards subsistence and livelihood in general.


It is high time that we seriously examined some of the tenets of conventional (neoclassical) economic theory. Today, a lot of students and professors of economics world over are questioning the premises and logic of neoclassical economics. However, we find neoclassical economics still domination in various forms, such as new institutional economics, mechanism design, law and economics, microeconomics etc. Given that some of the foundations of economic theory are in question, it is surprising to see how much our economic architect bases the policy recommendations on such apparent scientific and objective truths!

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Economics, India, Inflation, Macroeconomics, Neoclassical Economics, Political Economy, Unemployment | 2 Comments »

On Disguised Unemployment: Some Issues

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 30th October 2009

This post discusses some of the broad theoretical issues underlying the category of ‘disguised unemployment’. The discussion is made clear by closely examining the hypothesis that Indian agriculture is plagued by the presence of high disguised unemployment.

Let us take a glimpse at the Economics textbook for class XI published by the NCERT. (NCERT 2006, p 131, Indian Economic Development)

“Economists call unemployment prevailing in Indian farms as disguised unemployment. What is disguised unemployment? Suppose a farmer has four acres of land and he actually needs only two workers and himself to carry out various operations on his farm in a year, but if he employs five workers and his family members such as his wife and children, this situation is known as disguised unemployment. One study conducted in the late 1950s showed about one-third of agricultural workers in India as disguisedly unemployed.” (italics mine)

Is disguised unemployment unemployment?

A thought experiment. Suppose A and B are two similar countries – both are equally populated. Now, a study has estimated disguised unemployment in country A to be 30% and in country B to be 10%. This implies that employment in country A is more than that of country B. Should this be of concern? Must we try and reduce disguised unemployment in country A?

If so, what is the basis of ‘disguised unemployment’? Do we see the principle of allocative efficiency present in disguise? Disguised unemployment means that ‘labour’ is ‘inefficiently’ utilised. Attestation of this claim is done by showing the high share of workers employed in agriculture alongside the low contribution of agriculture to GDP.

The first draft of National Employment Policy (2008) reads thus: “Over half the workforce continues to depend on the agriculture even though it accounts for less than a fifth of the total GDP. This implies a vast gap in incomes and productivity between agriculture and non-agriculture sectors. This is mainly due to inadequate growth of productive employment opportunities outside agriculture.” Is employment the need of the hour or is it contribution to GDP? Which variable (employment or GDP) should be the criterion? Why not improve the quality of employment in agriculture? To attain quality, provision of infrastructural support is absolutely essential- credit facilities, good roads and increased railroad connectivity, storage houses, institutions so as to enable the farmers get a ‘decent’ price for their produce, etc.

In 1960-61, the share of agriculture, forestry and fishing in total GDP was 53% (at 1993-94 prices). This came down by around 30 percentage points to 22% in 2002-03. On the other hand, the share of agriculture, forestry and fishing in total employment was 75.9% in 1961; by 1999-2000, it had come down to 59.9%. [The Oxford Companion to Economics in India, ed Kaushik Basu, OUP: New Delhi, 2007, p. 11]

The above discussion attains significance when we view agricultural workers as those who are trying to make a livelihood out of various jobs – farm and non-farm employment and self-employed and casual labour. ‘Employment’ mainly refers to wage employment. In India, out of total employment, the share of self-employment is the highest. As Amit Bhaduri writes, the economic activities predominant in the agricultural sector (or rural or informal) can be called as ‘survival strategies’. [Bhaduri 2006, Employment and Livelihood, in Employment and Development: Essays from an Orthodox Perspective] He cautions the policy makers on the use of dual-sector models in framing development policies for India owing to the heterogeneity prevalent in rural India and also because of the specificities present in the unorganised agricultural sector. Hence, the notion of ‘surplus labour’ loses much of its weight. In turn, we need to carefully look at ‘disguised unemployment’ for it disguises a lot of specificities of rural India.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Amit Bhaduri, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, India, Informal Sector, Neoclassical Economics, Thought Experiment, Unemployment | No Comments »