A Sisyphean challenge

Dec 03 2012, 03:22 IST
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SummaryAs opposition to cash transfers and FDI in retail shows, it is difficult to change the direction of Indian policymaking

As opposition to cash transfers and FDI in retail shows, it is difficult to change the direction of Indian policymaking

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a frustrated man. He endeavoured to roll his rock up the hill, but the harder he pushed, the stronger were the countervailing forces that sent his boulder tumbling down. A shift in the direction of Indian policy is a Sisyphean challenge. Whatever be the merits of the desired change, the argumentative Indian will inevitably find reason to block its progress. Thus the twists and turns in the effort to bring succour to farmers by modernising the “farm-to-fork” supply chain through FDI in multi-brand retailing. Thus the noise against the cash transfer scheme. Fortunately, in both these cases, the government has not given up and is slowly but surely making its way to the top of the hill.

Alfred Marshall, the father of modern economics, used the ancient Greek word “organan” to nuance the purpose of economics. Organan means a tool; an implement designed to sort out mechanical problems. It is not a perfect instrument. It has to be modified and adapted to the nature of the problem and it provides the means to reduce inefficiencies and maximise possibilities. It does not offer a perfect solution. Similarly, economics is an “apparatus of the mind” (this was Keynes’s description) that will not “discover the final truth”, but can provide an “engine of analysis” to find answers to existing difficulties. It is not a perfect apparatus and it needs to be continually adapted to changing circumstances and context.

Critics of the government’s efforts to shift the needle of economic policy, in particular on retailing and the distribution of public entitlements, should think of an organan when making their comments. The shift will not be a cure-all; it will not be perfect; it will not eliminate all waste. There will be consequential costs and it may require mid-course correction. But it will be a step forward, and if the tools are upgraded in line with emerging developments, this first step could lead to larger steps towards resolving deep-rooted economic issues. Marshall and Keynes were clearly of the view that doing something, even if that something was imperfect in conception and rendition, would be more useful than standing still in the mire waiting for perfectly cloudless blue skies.

That there are arguments for and against multi-brand retailing and cash transfers is unremarkable. Our

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