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MORE OF THE SAME

Quoting Queen Elizabeth, Mr P. Chidambaram referred to 2002 as an annus horribilis. Politically, there was a horribilis element to the year that is now over. But in the world of economics and business, it was more of the same. It was a year of departures, scandals, reports, commissions and talk rather than walk. There were goodbyes to Mark Mascarenhas, Harshad Mehta, G.M.C. Balayogi, M.S. Oberoi, Dhirubhai Ambani, Priya Tendulkar, Krishan Kant, Raunaq Singh and Nani Palkhivala. The Punjab public service commission, petrol pumps and land allotments led the scandals list, apart from the judiciary becoming further tainted. The Unit Trust of India was bifurcated. The joint parliamentary committee report on the stock market scandal of 2001 found nothing new. The tenth plan document was approved, pitching for 8 per cent gross domestic product growth. The report of the second national labour commission was submitted, leaving the future of amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act uncertain. The N.K. Singh committee recommended further liberalization of foreign direct investment and the government sought to reconcile its FDI definition with that of the International Monetary Fund. The two Kelkar Committee reports were anything but popular. They violated the Bharatiya Janata Partyís tenet of cultivating the middle class.

The debate on disinvestment was unresolved. Despite some fracas between the son-in-law and the father-in law, the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limitedís decision in February raised hopes. But the year ended with no significant decision on Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited. Having deliberately lost two reform-minded ministers in Mr Suresh Prabhu and Mr Arun Jaitley, the National Democratic Alliance only had Mr Arun Shourie to brandish. With so few reform-minded ministers in sight, it was not surprising that the government boycotted the World Economic Forum meeting, interpreted as punishment to the Confederation of Indian Industry for opening its mouth on Gujarat. The states used the drought spectre to demand doles from the Centre. The drought was not as bad as was feared, except in Rajasthan. With exports growing at 14 per cent in dollar terms, 2002-03 may end with 5 to 5.5 per cent growth, and industry does show some signs of recovery. Meanwhile, the food and foreign exchange mountains continued to grow. There was some exchange control liberalization. However, procurement prices increased and fertilizer subsidies remain contentious. Gujarat, Flex Industries and Mr George Fernandes prevented legislative business in earlier sessions. Thankfully, the winter session proved different. Conditional cable access, Right to Information and amendments to Representation of the Peopleís Act are the most significant. The fallout of the Gujarat elections and Iraq will determine the economic scene in 2003. With the BJPís landslide win and imminent state-level elections in 2003, it is not just Mr Alex Perry who questions the prime ministerís health. Hence, politics will continue to constrain the economy in 2003.

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