The following piece by C V Madhukar appeared in the September,2011 issue of Governance Now magazine. The debate in Parliament in response to the recent Anna Hazare led agitation demanding a strong Lok Pal Bill was a fine hour for the institution of Parliament. What was even more important about the debate is that it was watched by thousands of people across the country many of whom have lost faith in the ability of our MPs to coherently articulate their point of view on substantive issues. Of course, in many cases some of these impressions about our MPs are largely formed by what the media channels tend to project, and without a full appreciation of what actually happens in Parliament. There is now a greater awareness about an important institutional mechanism called the standing committee, and other nuances about the law making process. The Lok Pal agitation brought out another important aspect of our democracy. There are still many in India who believe that peaceful protest is a powerful way to communicate the expectations of people to the government. Our elected representatives are prepared to respond collectively when such protests are held. There is a negotiated settlement possible between the agitating citizens and our political establishment within the broad construct of our Constitution. All of this means that the safety valves in our democracy are still somewhat functional, despite its many shortcomings. But the way the whole Lok Pal episode has played out so far raises a number of important questions about the functioning of our political parties and our Parliamentary system. A fundamental question is the extent to which our elected MPs are able to ‘represent’ the concerns of the people in Parliament. It has been obvious for some time now, that corruption at various levels has been a concern for many. For months before the showdown in August, there have been public expressions of the disenchantment of the people about this problem. Even though several MPs would say privately that it is time for them to do something about it as elected representatives, they were unable to come together in a way to show the people that they were serious about the issue, or that they could collectively do something significant about the problem. The government was trying in its own way to grapple with the problem, and was unable to seize the initiative, expect for a last minute effort to find a graceful way out of the immediate problem on hand. In our governance system as outlined in our Constitution, the primary and most important institution to hold the government accountable is the Parliament. To perform this role, the Parliament has a number of institutional mechanisms that have evolved over the years. The creation of the CAG as a Constitutional body that provides inputs to Parliament, the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament, the question hour in Parliament are some of the ways in which the government is held to account. Clearly all of these mechanisms together are unable to adequately do the work of overseeing the government that our MPs have been tasked with. But it is one thing for our MPs to be effective in their role holding the government to account, and a very different thing to come across collectively as being responsive to the concerns of the people. For our MPs to play their representation role more convincingly and meaningfully there are certain issues that need to be addressed. A major concern is about how our political parties are structured, where MPs are bound by tight party discipline. In a system where the party leadership decides who gets the party ticket to contest the next election, there is a natural incentive for MPs to toe the party line, even within their party forums. This is often at the cost of their personal conviction about certain issues, and may sometimes be against what the citizens could want their representatives to do. Add to this the party whip system, under which each MP has to vote along the party line or face the risk of losing his seat in Parliament. And then of course, if some MP decides to take a stand on some issue, he needs to do all the research work on his own because our elected representatives have no staff with this capability. This deadly cocktail of negative incentives, just makes it very easy for the MP to mostly just follow the party line. If the representation function were to be taken somewhat seriously, these issues need to be addressed. The 2004 World Development Report of the World Bank was focussed on accountability. An important idea in the report was that it was too costly and inefficient for people to vote a government in and wait till the next election to hold the government accountable by voting it out for the poor governance it provides. That is the reason it is essential for governments and citizens to develop ways in which processes can be developed by which the government can be held accountable even during its tenure. The myriad efforts by government such as social audits, monitoring and evaluation efforts within government departments, efforts by Parliament to hold the government accountable, efforts of civil society groups, are all ways of holding the government to account. But over and above accountability, in an age of growing aspirations and increasing transparency, our MPs must find new ways of asserting their views and those people that they seek to represent in our Parliament. This is an age which expects our politicians to be responsive, but in a responsible way. Even as the Lok Pal Bill is being deliberated upon in the standing committee, civil society groups continue to watch how MPs will come out on this Bill. There are plenty of other opportunities where MPs and Parliament can take the initiative, including electoral reforms, funding of elections, black money, etc. It remains to be seen whether our MPs will lead on these issues from the front, or will choose to be led by others. This will determine whether in the perception of the public the collective stock of our MPs will rise or continue to deplete in the months ahead.
The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has decided to conduct an off-cycle meeting today to discuss the failure to meet the inflation target under Section 45ZN of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934. As per the Reserve Bank of India Act (RBI), 1934, MPC is required to meet at least four times each year, to discuss the macroeconomic issues in the country, and take policy decisions to address those. This is the second time MPC has conducted an off-cycle meeting in 2022-23. The meeting is scheduled in light of inflation being consistently high for nine consecutive months.
In this blog, we discuss what the inflation targeting framework is, examine retail and wholesale prices, and the divergence between them.
What is the inflation targeting framework, and what happens if inflation is persistently high?
In 2016, Parliament amended the RBI Act, 1934 to change the monetary policy, and introduce an inflation targeting framework. This framework prioritises price stability to achieve sustainable GDP growth. Price stability allows investors to confidently invest their money for productive activities, without worrying about it losing value. Price stability also maintains the purchasing power of consumers, i.e., the ability to purchase a good (or service) with a given amount of money.
As per the new framework, the central government, in consultation with RBI sets: (i) an inflation target, and (ii) an upper and lower tolerance level for retail inflation. The target has been set at 4%, with an upper tolerance limit of 6% and a lower tolerance limit of 2%. The upper and lower limits indicate that although it is desirable for inflation to be close to 4%, deviation between these limits is acceptable. The target and bands are revised every five years. In March 2021, the existing targets were carried forward.
Retail inflation has been above 6% for the past nine months, and it has been above 4% from October 2019 onwards (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: Consumer price index (year-on-year; in percentage)
Sources: Database on Indian Economy, Reserve Bank of India; PRS.
If inflation is above or below the prescribed limits for three quarters, RBI must submit a report to the central government explaining why prices have been rising (or falling) persistently, what will be done to correct that, and an estimate as to when the target will be achieved.
The MPC uses tools such as interest rates to control the level of inflation in the economy. One such rate is the policy repo rate, which is the rate at which RBI lends money to banks. An increase in the policy repo rate makes borrowing money more costly, and hence is expected to control inflation by reducing the money supply. MPC increased this rate from 4% in April 2022 to 4.4% in May 2022, to 4.9% in June 2022, to 5.4% in August 2022, and to 5.9% in September 2022.
Breaking down the Consumer Price Index and the Wholesale Price Index
Consumer Price Index (CPI) measures the general prices of goods and services such as food, clothing, and fuel over time. Retail inflation is calculated as the change in the CPI over a period of time. Goods and services such as petrol, food products, health, and education are considered for its calculation, which are assigned different weights (See Table 1). Between February 2022 and August 2022, the average annual inflation was 6.9%. The rise in prices of subcomponents of the CPI during this period is indicated in Table 2.
Table 1: Assigned weights for the calculation of CPI
Sources: MOSPI; PRS.
Table 2: Average inflation of some CPI components
Sources: Database on Indian Economy, RBI; PRS.
CPI is not the only index that measures inflation in an economy. The Wholesale Price Index (WPI) measures the wholesale prices of goods. A change in wholesale prices reflects wholesale inflation. Table 3 indicates the weights assigned to goods for calculating the WPI. Manufactured goods include metals, chemicals, food products, and textiles.
Primary articles (23%) include food articles, and crude petroleum and natural gas. Fuel and power (12%) include mineral oils, electricity, and coal. WPI has remained above 10% from April 2021 onwards. It reached an all-time high of 17% in May 2022. This was driven by the inflation in metals, kerosene and petroleum coke, fruits and vegetables, and palm oil.
Table 3:Assigned weights for the
Sources: Ministry of Commerce and Industry; PRS.
Why has WPI inflation been consistently above CPI inflation?
Movements in the WPI have an impact on the CPI. For almost a year and half, CPI inflation has remained below WPI inflation. However, as per the design of the indices, it is expected that CPI would remain above WPI, and that any increase in WPI would reflect in the CPI after a time lag. This is because retail prices include taxes (as a percentage of price), while wholesale prices do not. Additionally, some of the goods in WPI act as inputs in the goods considered in CPI. An increase in input prices would lead to higher retail prices after a time lag.
We discuss possible reasons for why CPI has remained below WPI for a year and a half.
Figure 2: Consumer Price Index and Wholesale Price Index
Sources: Database on Indian Economy, Reserve Bank of India; PRS.
Composition of indices
As indicated in Table 2 and 3, the composition of the two indices varies. For instance, prices of manufacture of basic metals, chemicals, and machinery grew at an average rate of 13% between February 2021 and September 2022. They contribute 7% to the WPI. These are input goods for producing final goods and services such as automobiles, which are included in the CPI. The rise in prices of transport vehicles, communication devices, fuel for transport, and housing (CPI components) rose by 6% during this period.
The Ministry of Finance has observed that wholesale prices did not feed into retail prices (from March 2021 onwards) as wholesalers absorbed the rising input costs and did not pass them on to retailers. In August 2022, it noted that as retail prices are rising now, the pass-through may occur.