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Infrastructure Fault Lines

With one major economic engine practically flat since 2013, India was still chugging along. Then, with domestic economy beginning to slow down, the second engine - private investment - started sputtering
twitter-logoRajeev Dubey | Print Edition: September 6, 2020
Infrastructure Fault Lines
Rajeev Dubey, Editor, Business Today

First it was exports. Around 2013, when the slowdown-induced economic nationalism and protectionism was taking roots, globalisation was slowly getting uprooted. India - forever a fringe player in global trade - bore the brunt of the de-coupling as merchandise exports began to flatten for the next seven years.

With one major economic engine practically flat since 2013, India was still chugging along. Then, with domestic economy beginning to slow down, the second engine - private investment - started sputtering.

Neither of these two major engine failures got undue attention as the economy continued to grow at a reasonably healthy 6 per cent plus rate, still among the fastest in the world, barring China.

But the big blow came when the third engine of the economy - consumption - began slowing and eventually buckled just before coronavirus hit the Indian shores in March, 2020. With 16 consecutive quarters of relentless slowdown, GDP growth too collapsed from more than 8 per cent to just about 4 per cent.

The spotlight then fell on the fourth - and by now the only functional engine of the economy; public expenditure via infrastructure building. After all, it represented the only hope to prevent the Indian economy from slipping into a deep-deep slowdown. Perhaps, with higher investments, even pull off a quicker economic recovery.

It appears, those hopes are dashed as India's infrastructure spending is faltering. The Centre which is supposed to spend about 40 per cent of the proposed Rs 111 lakh crore froze investments in FY20, particularly in the last quarter of the fiscal. Rating agency Crisil says, in FY21, capital expenditure on infrastructure is projected to be 7 per cent lower, while finance ministry has ordered a freeze on new schemes starting June 2020.

States - which are supposed to spend another 40-odd per cent - have drastically pulled back capital outlay in FY20 with 12 of the top 15 states reporting lower outlays - ranging from -1 per cent to -60 per cent - than the previous year. Covid-hit economies at both the Centre and the state level will be lucky to meet revenue expenditure. Capital expenditure on infrastructure which could potentially trigger a multiplier effect in the economies is going to be few and far between. Punjab and Kerala have already deferred capital expenditure planned for FY21 to the following fiscals.

And finally private sector, which is projected to spend the remaining 20-odd per cent of the Rs 111 lakh crore outlay, is least enthused about new infrastructure creation right now because of a dramatic collapse in demand. Particularly, in areas such as airports, ports, power and even highways.

All these pose a grim picture of any hopes of a public expenditure-led economic recovery. Nirbhay Kumar captures those fault lines in an extensive account in our cover story this issue.

For those who may have forgotten the intrepid, loquacious Rahul Sharma of Micromax fame, he's all set to make a comeback. Once the biggest player in India's handset market, even overtaking the mighty Samsung briefly, Micromax had to beat a retreat with the advent of smartphones and the onslaught from Chinese mobile sellers.

But he wants his mojo back. Riding on the prevailing anti-China sentiment, the Centre's determined push for local manufacturing under Atma Nirbhar Bharat and his own resolve, Micromax is re-entering the market. Sumant Banerji explains why Sharma is in the midst of the fight of his life.

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