David Frum

06.11.12

What Happened to India?

Raghuram Rajan offers an answer to the haunting question:

...while politicians spent the growth dividend on poorly targeted giveaways such as subsidized petrol and cooking gas, the need for further reform only increased. For example, industrialization requires a transparent system for acquiring land from farmers and tribal people, which in turn presupposes much better land-ownership records than India has.

As demand for land and land prices increased, corruption became rampant, with some politicians, industrialists, and bureaucrats using the lack of transparency in land ownership and zoning to misappropriate assets. India’s corrupt elites had moved from controlling licenses to cornering newly valuable resources like land. The Resource Raj rose from the ashes of the License Raj.

India’s citizenry eventually reacted. An eclectic mix of idealistic and opportunistic politicians and NGOs mobilized people against land acquisitions. With investigative journalists getting into the act, land acquisition became a political land mine.

Moreover, key institutions, such as the Comptroller and Auditor General and the judiciary, staffed by an increasingly angry middle class, also launched investigations. As evidence emerged of widespread corruption in contracts and resource allocation, ministers, bureaucrats, and high-level corporate officers were arrested, and some have spent long periods in jail.

The collateral effect, however, is that even honest officials are now too frightened to help corporations to navigate India’s maze of bureaucracy. As a result, industrial, mining, and infrastructure projects have ground to a halt.