Anticipating the Unintended #86: Production-Linked Subsidies & Decoding Charisma

This newsletter is really a weekly public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

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India Policy Watch #1: Production-Linked Incentives

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

Production-Linked Incentives (PLI) — that’s the name the government’s recent, most-favourite industrial policy instrument goes by. It seems elegant on paper: the government will reward companies for incremental sales of manufactured goods with a subsidy. More the sales (either domestic or exports), more the subsidy amount.

The intent seems sound too: encourage companies to up their manufacturing game.

First introduced for the electronics sector earlier in the year, PLIs worth ₹2 lakh crore for ten disparate sectors over the next five years were announced by the Union Cabinet earlier this month. These sectors are automobiles and auto components, pharmaceutical drugs, advanced chemistry cells (ACC), capital goods, technology products, textile products, white goods, food products, telecom and specialty steel.

Let’s assume that the size of the incentive is big enough to change companies’ investment decisions at the margin (that’s a big if). What are the consequences likely to be in that case? Can we anticipate some unintended consequences beforehand?

Let’s parse this policy through the framework discussed in edition #48. Three unintended effects are possible:

  1. “Reasonable regulation drifts toward overregulation, especially if the costs of overregulation are not perceptible to those who bear them.”

    The PLI scheme for the electronics sector has specific eligibility criteria both on incremental investment and incremental sales a company needs to commit over the next five years. This is supposed to be cross-checked by a Project Management Agency (PMA), a government-body formed under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).

    The PMA will further submit its recommendations to an Empowered Committee (EC) composed of CEO NITI Aayog, Secretary Economic Affairs, Secretary Expenditure, Secretary MeitY, Secretary Revenue, Secretary DPIIT and DGFT which will make the final decision. The EC is also empowered to revise anything — subsidy rate, eligibility criteria, and target segments.

    In short, more bureaucracy and predictably unpredictable delays. The speed of incremental investments might get decided by the speed of government decision-making. EC’s powers to make any changes to this policy in the future is also filled with possibilities of regulation becoming overregulation.

    There’s one more gap. In order to increase innovation, the PLI scheme will not consider incremental investments towards land and buildings towards the eligibility criteria. Only investment towards plant, machinery, equipment, research, and development is allowed. This might incentivise companies to fudge their land dealings and for government officers verifying the real quantum of incremental investments to cut deals for themselves.

  2. “Moral hazard increases.” The ten sectors chosen by the government might see a crowding-in of investment at the cost of all other sectors. Are these ten industries strategic for India while others aren’t? I don’t quite know the basis of this selection.

    Next, every policy move has an associated opportunity cost. It’s a bane of Indian policymaking that policy decisions are rationalised solely by looking at projected benefits; by ignoring opportunity costs. In the context of PLIs, the government needs to pay up ₹2 lakh crore over the next five years to a few companies in these ten sectors. The government will most likely rake in this revenue in the form of taxes. Using the Kelkar/Shah Marginal Cost of Public Funds (MCPF) estimate for India of 3, the total cost to India from this subsidy would be of the order of ₹6 lakh crore. The scheme would make sense if the benefits are projected to be higher than this number. Whether an analysis of these costs has been taken into account, we don’t know.

  3. “Rent-seekers distort the program to serve their own interests”. Companies that benefit will seek to modify the eligibility criteria to suppress competition thus leading to more market concentration. They might even try to extend the sunset clause of this scheme in order to keep benefiting from the discount.

These unintended consequences might substantially diminish the benefits that the PLI schemes are aiming at.

What are the alternatives?

Read this statement by the chairman of the India Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA):

“The disability stack runs deep in the economy. For example, the taxes on fuel. Second, electricity is not subsumed under GST (goods and services tax). So how do you become competitive?

This is the key point. Perhaps PLIs are a much-needed band-aid solution for a wounded economy but it cannot transform manufacturing in India. Doing that would require consistent and simpler tax, policy, business, and trade environments. Improvements on these grounds will benefit all sectors and investments will follow sectors which show higher productivity. In other words, we’re still waiting for a reforms 2.0 agenda.

Read the full edition here.

Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.