1991 India economic crisis
By 1985, India had started having balance of payments problems. By the end of 1990, it was in a serious economic crisis. The government was close to default, its central bank had refused new credit and foreign exchange reserves had been reduced to such a point that India could barely finance three weeks’ worth of imports which lead the Indian government to airlift national gold reserves as a pledge to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for a loan to cover balance of payment debts.
Causes and consequences
The economic crisis was primarily due to the large and growing fiscal imbalances over the 1980s. During the mid-eighties, India started having balance of payments problems. Precipitated by the Gulf War, India’s oil import bill swelled, exports slumped, credit dried up, and investors took their money out. Large fiscal deficits, over time, had a spillover effect on the trade deficit culminating in an external payments crisis. By the end of 1990, India was in serious economic trouble.
The gross fiscal deficit of the government (centre and states) rose from 9.0 percent of GDP in 1980-81 to 10.4 percent in 1985-86 and to 12.7 percent in 1990-91. For the centre alone, the gross fiscal deficit rose from 6.1 percent of GDP in 1980-81 to 8.3 percent in 1985-86 and to 8.4 percent in 1990-91. Since these deficits had to be met by borrowings, the internal debt of the government accumulated rapidly, rising from 35 percent of GDP at the end of 1980-81 to 53 percent of GDP at the end of 1990-91. The foreign exchange reserves had dried up to the point that India could barely finance three weeks worth of imports.
In mid-1991, India's exchange rate was subjected to a severe adjustment. This event began with a slide in the value of the Indian rupee leading up to mid-1991. The authorities at the Reserve Bank of India took partial action, defending the currency by expending international reserves and slowing the decline in value. However, in mid-1991, with foreign reserves nearly depleted, the Indian government permitted a sharp depreciation that took place in two steps within three days (1 July and 3 July 1991) against major currencies.
With India’s foreign exchange reserves at $1.2 billion in January 1991 and depleted by half by June, barely enough to last for roughly 3 weeks of essential imports, India was only weeks way from defaulting on its external balance of payment obligations.
The caretaker government in India headed by Prime Minister Chandrasekhar's, immediate response was to secure an emergency loan of $2.2 billion from the International Monetary Fund by pledging 67 tons of India's gold reserves as collateral. The Reserve Bank of India had to airlift 47 tons of gold to the Bank of England and 20 tons of gold to the Union Bank of Switzerland to raise $600 million. National sentiments were outraged and there was public outcry when it was learned that the government had pledged the country's entire gold reserves against the loan. Interestingly, it was later revealed that the van transporting the gold to the airport broke down on route and panic followed. A chartered plane ferried the precious cargo to London between 21 May and 31 May 1991, jolting the country out of an economic slumber. The Chandra Shekhar government had collapsed a few months after having authorized the airlift. The move helped tide over the balance of payment crisis and kick-started Manmohan Singh’s economic reform process.
P.V. Narasimha Rao took over as Prime Minister in June, the crisis forcing him to rope in Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister, who unshackled what was then called the 'caged tiger'. The Narasimha Rao government ushered in several reforms that are collectively termed as liberalisation in the Indian media. Although, most of these reforms came because IMF required those reforms as a condition for loaning money to India in order to overcome the crisis. There were significant opposition to such reforms, suggesting they are an "interference with India's autonomy". Then Prime Minister Rao's speech a week after he took office highlighted the necessity for reforms, as New York Times reported, "Mr. Rao, who was sworn in as Prime Minister last week, has already sent a signal to the nation—as well as the I.M.F.—that India faced no "soft options" and must open the door to foreign investment, reduce red tape that often cripples initiative and streamline industrial policy. Mr. Rao made his comments in a speech to the nation Saturday night."  The forex reserves started picking up with the onset of the liberalisation policies and peaked to $314.61 billion at the end of May 2008.
A program of economic policy reform has since been put in place which has yielded very satisfactory results so far. While much still remains on the unfinished reform agenda, the prospects of macro stability and growth are indeed encouraging.
Economic problems in 2012 led to comparisons to the 1991 crisis in various media outlets.
- Economic liberalization in India
- Corruption in India
- Economic history of India
- Economy of India
- License Raj
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