Prime Minister Modi has declared 16 January as National Startup Day in his continuing efforts to energise the country’s economic environment. However, while all this encouragement from the highest level is laudable, the fact remains that most of the business opportunities exist in new and upcoming sectors such as IT, AI, Robotics, online based enterprises, etc. There are breakthroughs required also in the mainstream sectors such as manufacturing, infrastructure, even agriculture, which are not possible without breaking deeply embedded monopolies. As in the case of the recent recall of new agriculture reforms, the vested interests run too deep even for a powerful leader like Modi to take on. Experts are in despair at the failure to transform the economy at this level, as with more global crises to come after Covid-19, India is likely to find itself grossly unprepared.
This problem has as much to do with prevailing social and cultural norms as the basic economic fundamentals. The ‘informal economy’ that was much empathised with by many political parties post demonetisation is the result of multiple layers of corruption that have got ‘normalised’ in society. People who have made money out of milking the flaws in the system groom the coming generations to go down the same path, turning it into a social virtue. Political families across the country have risen to power through taking commissions on projects big and small. Traders make less money from providing efficient service and more from cheating on taxes. As a result, a competitive environment is the last thing they want. With their skills directed at aspects other than becoming more efficient and keeping up with the times, they end up going extinct at the first hint of change.
Such monopolies also deny newcomers the opportunity to establish enterprises, which is why it has become the social norm in so many middle-class families to direct their children towards increasingly scarce government jobs. Many youngsters waste as much as a decade and a half in the pursuit of such ‘safe’ employment, rendering them incapable of making productive contributions to society. This lies behind the craze for job reservations among ‘backward’ sections of society despite knowing that very few will go on to benefit.
If disaster is to be averted, society has to collectively make the hard choices – challenge monopolies and eliminate corrupt practices. People must refuse to be seduced by promises of an easy life and caste and class based benefits. Skill development and entrepreneurship must become the new culture with the intent to become job-providers rather than job-seekers, as the PM so often reiterates.