BREAKINGVIEWS - Manmohan Singh can start by tackling silly laws

MUMBAI Fri Jul 6, 2012 2:17pm IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during the fifth India-Brazil-South Africa summit (IBSA) in Pretoria October 18, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during the fifth India-Brazil-South Africa summit (IBSA) in Pretoria October 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files

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MUMBAI (Reuters Breakingviews) - Manmohan Singh, prime minister and finance minister, is talking a good game. He wants to woo back disaffected investors. Symbolic wins removing tax uncertainty and encouraging foreign investment will help, but his real test will be to hack away India's rampant red tape.

Singh set out his vision in an interview with the Hindustan Times on Friday. He wants to improve response times, cut down on "infructuous procedures", and generally make India a more business-friendly place. That's no easy task in a country the World Bank ranked 132nd out of 183 in last year's report on the ease of doing business.

And the World Bank has a point. In Mumbai, police have started arresting people under the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, which states that even customers must have a permit to drink alcohol. Bar owners in the city need up to 20 licences to run their businesses, and almost twice as many if they also want to play music.

New Delhi, meanwhile, may lack a ministry of silly walks but it boasts a total of 77 ministers with overlapping remits in areas such as drinking water, sanitation and water resources. Singh could set about rationalising the legendary bureaucracy and set in train a programme to archive archaic laws which are no longer relevant.

The Dutch government has been a pioneer in this respect. Officials estimated the administrative cost of regulation to be around 3 percent of GDP. If that's what Dutch red tape costs business, the weight of New Delhi's paper-pushing must be multiples of that. The finance ministry in the Hague developed a model to measure and reduce the burden of regulation. The result was a 25 percent net reduction in cost across the country, and the approach has since been emulated elsewhere in the EU.

There are those in the Indian government who are trying something similar. Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Stanford-educated son of a Maharaja who is now a junior commerce minister, has launched website that will allow entrepreneurs to apply for all 57 clearances they need to start a business through a single website. Singh should log on: It's nuts and bolts simplifications of this kind that will really start making India friendlier to business.

CONTEXT NEWS

-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took on the role of finance minister on June 27 following the resignation of Pranab Mukherjee. In an Interview with the Hindustan Times on July 6, Singh set out ways to revive Indian economic growth, which has slumped to a 5.3 percent annual pace in the final quarter of the financial year ending in 2012.

- He said: "We will also work towards improving the response time of government to business proposals, cut down infructuous procedures and make India a more business friendly place."

- The World Bank ranked India 132nd out of 183 countries in last year's "Ease of Doing Business" report.

- Hindustan Times interview: link.reuters.com/kyb39s

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

(Editing by Richard Beales and Katrina Hamlin)

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