Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Worldly freedom

Russians: Indians Are Coming by Yoginder K. Alagh

  • There was a fascinating story last week that there is discussion between Russia and India on sending Indian labour for construction in Siberia. Now this is an old reliable. These stories occur every decade or so.
  • In 1988, the PM was in Moscow and discussing reforms and economic ties with Mr Gorbachov. It occurred to them that trade between the two countries should be doubled and that appeared in their official communiqué. I was asked to operationalise that.
  • I was hesitant. We were liberalising. Barter trade was to be phased out. So was it in the Soviet Union. But an order is an order, so off I went to Moscow. We worked out important priorities which would otherwise have slipped and that was the beginning of the chequered history of the VVER nuclear reactors, the GSLV rockets and many other projects. I always regret that the Delhi metro was put on the backburner because I listened to short-sighted economists who felt we couldn’t afford it.
  • There were two interesting features which were reported but not noticed much. The first was that I insisted that trade should be integrated with reform in both countries. The Soviets were first dragging their feet but soon fell in line.
  • The rupee was in the basket of hard currencies that they put in auction in the beginning of exchange reform. We introduced packets of financing outside the trade plan for private and autonomous public sectors. I got IDBI to join and they set up counterpart agencies.
  • The second was that they asked their best men to be a part of the process. These were all hand-picked reformers. They were in their forties and had great achievements to their credit. They were Gorbachov’s phalanx.
  • I met them one by one and then all of them together in a dinner at the Ashoka in Moscow which B K Chaturvedi organised, as then JS in the Commerce Minstry. It was an occasion as they were the crown jewels of Gorbachov’s perestroika.
  • On our side, I got Sam Pitroda to join and he was a hit with them. He was asked to help them in the Azerbejain earthquake with an IT rehab framework. In the next two years, I was to go through the distressing experience in meetings in Moscow and Delhi of these extraordinary men getting frustrated. The Soviets didn’t get their reform institutions working.
  • One of them was the man who had planned the Siberian expansion in the Eighties and had great achievements to himself. He was the first one to moot the idea of Indian labour in the Siberian projects. We were taken up. The young Soviet electronic engineer who was my counterpart in their Gosplan; the first Soviet engineer trained in USA, discussed the plans, but not much happened before the context changed but the idea keeps on coming up again and again as many others of the period.
  • If it works, it would have another property. It could be the first big labour or factor movement in the globalisation period. There are incidentally interesting proposals by Canadian scholars of a World Visa Organisation arguing that labour mobility across borders will be the great reform frontier.

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