How to revive auto and telecom sectors

The government can take some immediate steps to assist economic recovery. This involves: (a) Policies for citizens to benefit from public resources (land, minerals, spectrum, water), not exploiting them for any government, person, or special interest (b) Systematic, end-to-end design and execution to completion (c) Cooperation and participation in organisation. The examples below are for automotive manufacturing and communications.

The automotive sector

The drop in automotive sales from over two years ago indicates considerable loss of momentum. Figures for vehicle registrations from FY2018 demonstrate this. (See table).

The Covid lockdowns constrained sales even further. Vehicle registrations in August 2020 were 1,188,087, a reduction of 27 per cent from August 2019 (1,623,218). Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson announced the closure of its plant in India, and Toyota expressed concerns about high taxes. A year ago, Ford moved most of its manufacturing into a joint venture with Mahindra. Even in a business-as-usual cycle, because of this sector’s contribution to manufacturing and across sectors, there are legitimate expectations of government support. This is to mitigate negative effects cascading through the economy, the aim being to prevent job losses and reduced employment prospects.  

The loss or shift of focus from India to other manufacturing locations warrants urgent action. Tax cuts after shedding ideas such as treating small cars as luxury goods are necessary, but not sufficient. Reducing goods and services tax (GST) from 28 per cent to 12 or 5 per cent is just one step. The revenue deficits can be monetised by printing currency, to be extinguished over time through increased tax collections from higher sales. A vehicle scrappage policy at this time may not be opportune, as it may be ineffective, and can cause undue hardship.

Freeing our (manufacturing) potential

Other measures can be taken besides tax cuts. Because there are so many, the emphasis here is on elements of industrial policy. It does not, however, minimise the most critical issue of social policy, which has been undermined as much as in 1975 during the Emergency, and desperately needs amends.  

Reliable infrastructure is one requirement to drive manufacturing productivity and broader economic potential. Manufacturing and service enclaves must be made to work, with stable infrastructure and social conditions. This is essential for local companies to thrive, as well as to attract international investment, and to generate spillover effects.  

Past experience suggests we should focus on fewer, well-conceived undertakings in the near term, while building for the longer term, like how telecommunications grew from 2004-2011, the national highways development projects from the late 1990s, and the earlier success of the Anand Cooperative.

Model SEZs

Take, for example, the over 200 special economic zones. Is it not in our interest to make a real success of two or three pilots as intermediate objectives, achieving a few that work, instead of many that do not, and then seek replication?(1) After unbiased selection of locations (the most difficult part), governments (Central, state and local), enterprises, and citizens have to be persuaded to get them to work right, to have them built up and serviced with stable infrastructure and governance, including competitive tax policies, not getting sidetracked by real estate speculation or assuaging political constituencies. Only then would it make sense to replicate them based on the experience and results.

While state and local regulations and practices affect these, the overarching laws and policies necessarily emanate from the Central government. Also, multiple government agencies are involved in any significant infrastructure policy, as with telecommunications, which requires national policies on spectrum allocation and assignment, rights of way and other regulations, standardisation, dispute resolution and penalties. 

Additionally, the laws have to be made to work. The widely held fiction that making a statement is tantamount to achieving all that is stated simply has to be given up.  

Taxes  on public resources

The real issues here are stable policies, taxes, and contracts, resulting in investments that succeed.  The recent arbitration award for Vodafone against the government’s claim of taxes with interest of over Rs 20,000 crore is, one hopes, an end to proceedings conceived by the United Progressive Alliance and pursued by the National Democratic Alliance. Allowing for retrospective changes means that any agreement can be changed. It is in our interest to accept this award as a lesson in upholding contracts, avoiding retrospective changes, and reviewing and modifying laws prospectively.  

An equally unreasonable litigation pursued by successive governments since 2005 is the adjusted gross revenue (AGR) case for the government’s revenue share from telecom operators. The Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling upholding the previously overruled government claim is very damaging for overall economic prospects. Parliament needs to frame legislation that defines AGR as the TDSAT ruled in 2015. The government could then apprise the Supreme Court of the change in policy, and renounce its claims. Together with accepting the arbitration award, this will not only change the prospects for telecom and broadband, but for investments and prospects across the board, although the rest remains to be done to show that it pays to invest in India, by investments being profitable. Perhaps the government will consider acting on these steps.

Measures such as regulations for spectrum bands of 60GHz, 70-80GHz, and 6GHz, are easier to address for immediate results. The government can formulate the regulations as was done for 5GHz, using the US FCC model with some modifications. Then, there are the policies only the Central government can initiate, on issues such as consortiums for shared infrastructure and manufacturing, that need to be given shape and form to make them realities.  

Above all, we need the powers-that-be to give up their durbar-style of operation, and start applying the principles of cooperative action and shared infrastructure with all stakeholders, to improve collective outcomes.(2)

1. SEZs failures: (a) Reuben Abraham: (b) Meir Alkon, Princeton: “Do SEZs Induce Developmental Spillovers? Evidence from India's States”:


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