To Economists: please pay attention to the ‘real’ problems

A talk by Arundhati Roy and watching Peepli Live has motivated the contents of this post largely. I have been forced to rethink what ‘economics’ as a discipline should do in a country like India. How can it contribute to economic growth and human development. It is often forgotten that, economics studies the big black box that transforms the labour of the labourers into commodities for consumption by the labourers. People or rather, people who work, appear at both the ends of the tunnel. The black box or the tunnel consists of varied actors, markets, institutions, laws, power groups, social classes, etc.

Some economists try to make sense of this complex interaction using tools such as game theory, which throws light of certain aspects of the interaction. This in turn is supposed to aid in the design of better institutions. A few study labour, the main actor in the whole economic process. Some look at institutions and how various legal arrangements affect the economic outcomes. It remains to be asked: outcomes for whom? In this manner, the entire profession of economics has been divided into various sub-disciplines, each specialising in a particular aspect of the economy. And it is evident that communication between the above mentioned sets of economists happen rarely. Very often, the larger picture is forgotten. Each group presents their results with a tremendous sense of certainty, which is entirely misplaced. And, the joke that economists love their ceteris paribus clause comes true here. Except that, the clause in this case, assumes as constant the remaining processes or aspects of the economy!

Who are the real producers in an economy? What role do farmers (small, marginal and large) play in our society? Do they live in dignity? When inflation occurs, do these farmers get more incomes? Or do the intermediaries pocket the increase? Are proper institutions in place to provide them with adequate credit? Can these formal institutions compete with the informal ones, such as money lenders and chitti funds?

It is accepted that farming is not a profitable enterprise any more. Policy makers are calling for industrialisation. They want the farmers to come away from their lands and work in industries. And so arises the slums in and around major cities, where their living conditions are perhaps worse than in the villages. Or, most of them are forced to become construction workers. Urbanisation implies buildings, which creates construction jobs in plenty. Once the space in big cities are exhausted, the urbanisation will take place in small cities. Workers will be in demand. In short, labour migration and increasing labour distress, owing to improper housing conditions will become even more intense. It is time, serious attention is paid to farmers and the role of farming in the development of India.

To conclude, it is time we paid more attention to the condition of India and not blindly follow academic fashions. It is the duty of the civil society and especially, the academicians to study the problems and issues thrown up by the society. When the problems of the majority of the population in India –those who live in the rural areas, those who work in the informal sector and those who are farmers– are forgotten and relegated as “deviations from the normal” or “problems of the Indian economy” and not as characteristics of the society we live in, it is indeed a pitiable situation.

On the Unorganised Sector in India

This post very briefly touches some aspects of the informal sector in India. Since, this sector is not organised strictly on the lines of capitalist systems, theoretical models find it difficult to accommodate them. And owing to the wide cultural and social differences in India, the informal sector is to that extent heterogeneous and differentiated. But, the first step is to identify such a sector and to broadly identify similarities, especially with respect to the production process and the organisation of the production process. It should be noted that the existence of a large ‘unorganised sector’ is not a problem; rather, it is a peculiar characteristic of the Indian Economy. And theory is supposed to be made in accordance with specificities of an economy and not the other way around.

The significance of the unorganized sector is seen when one takes a look at the NSS survey 1999-2000 – around 92% the Indian workforce (around 370 million workers) is employed in the unorganised sector. This is an extremely large section of India. Hence, any macroeconomic analysis (fiscal policy, monetary policy, international trade, etc) ought to look at this section of the Indian society.

The unorganized sector consists of small economic entities which are diverse and differentiated in nature. This sector (a.k.a. informal sector) is larger than the organized sector in terms of the relative share in GDP as well as the workforce. Moreover, the unorganised sector produces about 60 per cent of India’s GDP and also provides livelihood to nearly 93 per cent of the work force. [Kabra 2003] Whereas a report by National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) “estimated the un-organised/informal sector workers as comprising about 86% of work force in the Indian economy in 2004-2005 and informal employment both in the organised and unorganised sector as 92%.” How can any macroeconomic analysis/model leave this sector out?

Now, let us move on to how data is generated for this sector. As the ‘establishments’ in the informal sector are not governed by any legal provisions, no regular data is available such as that of the corporate (organised) sector. The Annual Survey of Industries (ASI) “provides statistical information to assess and evaluate, objectively and realistically, the changes in the growth, composition and structure of organised manufacturing sector comprising activities related to manufacturing processes, repair services, gas and water supply and cold storage” pertaining to the organised sector. [ASI 2005-06] Based on the Population Census (PC), the Economic Census (EC) is prepared which forms the reference for carrying out surveys to capture the informal sector. These surveys are conducted by the NSSO and are called as enterprise surveys.

To sum up, it is evident that the informal sector is an important contributor towards GDP as well as in terms of providing ‘livelihood’ to a large section of the Indian populace. And, we have data sources such as NSSO data which try to capture the process of production in the informal sector and their economic characteristics, which need to be looked at urgently. For any development process that does not explicitly address the informal sector will be blind towards the Indian reality!

References:

Kabra, Kamal Nayan (2003), The Unorganised Sector in India: Some Issues Bearing on the Search For Alternatives, Social Scientist, Vol. 31, No. 11/12 (Nov. – Dec., 2003), pp. 23-46.

ASI 2005-06, Introduction, Accessed at http://www.mospi.nic.in/stat_act_t3.htm on 26th September, 2009.