The building of an economy is not like making instant coffee. Nor is it the stuff of vague discussions that digress and disturb. In an economy of India’s size and ambition, changes begin long before they show up on any graph. This column will focus on the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which, in my view, is one of the most far-reaching reforms the first Narendra Modi government has written into law by enacting one Constitutional Amendment, four Central laws, 29 state laws and one notification for Union Territories (UT) in one swoop. With root and branch changes like this, the re-elected Modi government’s mantra is efficient delivery and strict compliance.
Journalism is a public good. The GST is a good candidate for the Indian media to play a key role in building, knitting, knocking down, questioning and rebuilding not just a method of work Indians are used to but also a mindset that has kept progress shackled and servile to vested interests. Ask people including truck drivers who enable carrying goods across the country appreciating the near disappearance of tollgates and some tangible answers emerge.
You don’t have to be an economist to understand what the GST can do to a market like India. Economists who say it’s a dud are dishonest and their calling is to complain not guide and build. I have little or no patience with professional naysayers and meal-ticket seekers and I have all the time for constructive criticism and dissection of policy work aimed at securing gains for the country.
One fact is the lighthouse for those in the media interested in a healthy debate. The GST heralds the beginning of a seamless market for some 1.3 billion Indians, a market that is larger than the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) combined. In 2016 when the GST was written into law, I wrote that it is the much-needed economic corollary of the world’s largest democracy seeking to strengthen its markets. For this to happen, we have to sink our pettiness and sort out our differences democratically so the economy can grow. Let us not let ourselves down.
It is not going to be easy. Implementation and scaling are one of India’s most important problems. As Gautam Chikermane, Vice-President of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) wrote recently, in GST 1.0 there were six rates – nil, five per cent, 12 per cent, 18 per cent and 28 per cent with one per cent for affordable housing. “These must collapse into three (nil, five per cent and 12 per cent) …in the GST council (the Finance Minister) needs to take leadership of these changes,” Chikermane wrote adding that the GST’s teething troubles, especially on compliance in small businesses, are behind and there’s efficiency in tax collection.
The media’s role in owning the budget is key. Taking ownership is a sign of a maturing nation as relevant to its leadership as it is to its people. I have covered enough trade and related talks and negotiations at the national and international levels to know that once the sherpas (in this case the bureaucrats) have done their work, the heavy lifting has to be done by politicians. In our federal structure, New Delhi needs to combine astute footwork and handholding simultaneously with state capitals in a moving environment. Converting data into law is one thing. Converting law into societal utility, market access and ultimate success of the process is quite another.
Data-driven advocacy is a splendid thing in journalism. It’s a strong combination of science, economics, legislation and when necessary, litigation. The GST is not a magic wand. It is a vibrant tool handed to us, one we must now own it in all its dimensions.
Those who have travelled to Europe thirty years ago now appreciate the ease of doing business in the European economic space without heavy bureaucracy – it has taken years and millions of hours of negotiations to build this free space as Europe grew to 44 countries simultaneously. Remember some of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century were fought on Europe’s soil. Peace and stability is EU’s biggest gift to itself, underwritten by strong economic foundations and democracy. There’s no reason why India with as much diversity and division, cannot rally around giving itself the gift of peace and prosperity with an economic tool called GST.
Broken down, it means systems, institutions, processes and politics that deal with delivery and responsibility must deliver. Broken down further, it will involve transport, manufacturing, agro-business, post and telegraph, packaging, labelling, banking, insurance and finance, telecommunications and public health. I’m skipping some of the other service sectors.
The GST is not about who wins or loses. We in the media have to work towards ensuring that the promises made to make India a strong democracy and economy remain on track, irrespective of who is in power and however difficult the ride. We cannot be a strong global power if we are not economically prosperous and sound internally.
People must question, governments must deliver and the media has to be an honest intermediary. Not a broker, but an intermediary. Big difference. You watch, I watch, we watch.