In every decade since Independence, the approach to foreign direct investment has been influenced by a mistrust triggered by a colonial hangover. Every time India has opened its doors – or windows if you please – to foreign investment, it has been characterised by gradualism in the wake of much opposition. The debates around opening or expanding FDI are similar – as it was when telecom or banking opened up for foreign investment. What is important to recognise is that every such initiative has been beneficial, delivering greater common good.
Higher economic growth is driven by competition and consumer choice. Competition drives efficiency and efficiency drives growth. This is true of every country that has done well economically. It is also true of India since 1991, in segments where competition has been introduced. Any attempt to artificially introduce protection always has costs. Inefficient producers are protected, but at the expense of consumers. Consumers suffer from higher prices,bad service and limited choice. This is straightforward under-graduate economic theory. The gains to inefficient producers are more than neutralized by losses to consumers, leading to an overall dead weight welfare loss to the country.
In this argument, the colour of the competition, whether it is domestic or foreign, does not matter. In addition, there is the macroeconomic argument about a current account deficit having to be met through capital account inflows and non-debt-creating FDI inflows are preferable to debt-creating capital inflows. While these broad arguments about competition and FDI are accepted, the question to ask is, why should the insurance sector not be subject to these compelling arguments? Is there anything special about insurance that rational arguments should not be applied to this sector? In every sector where India has opened up to FDI, be it manufacturing or be it services, two propositions are empirically evident. First, liberalization helps consumers. Second, fears about inefficient producers being eliminated are also vastly exaggerated.
Instead, producers of goods and services adapt and survive, based on access to capital, technology, knowhow, improved management practices and customer orientation. Therefore, protection not only harms the cause of consumers, it also harms the cause of producers. There is no reason why insurance should be treated differently. And economic logic and rationale should not be conditional on whether one is within the government or is in opposition.