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India Turns to Economic Overhaul as Growth Prospects Slide Amid Coronavirus

India Turns to Economic Overhaul as Growth Prospects Slide Amid Coronavirus

NEW DELHI—With India facing an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is looking to deregulation as the cure.

The changes pushed through in recent weeks by his Bharatiya Janata Party, affecting everything from factory floors to farming, have so far led to more confusion than acclaim, but economists say the economic overhaul could ultimately improve India’s troubled growth prospects.

“The reforms are in the right direction. They are bold steps,” said Ashok Gulati, an Indian agricultural economist and professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

India’s economic growth was slowing alarmingly even before the pandemic abruptly threw it into reverse, starting in March. In the months that followed, the economy contracted by almost one-quarter, the sharpest blow suffered by any of the world’s largest economies during the coronavirus-induced downturns.

The poor have been particularly hard hit, as workers who had migrated to cities to support families in rural areas returned home when those jobs disappeared. With many returning to farming, they now depend more than ever on India’s heavily regulated agricultural economy.

Mr. Modi, whose government’s perilous financial state has left few options for addressing the crisis, pushed through a grab bag of dramatic regulatory changes last month with little warning and no debate in Parliament. In a voice vote—obscured by technical glitches with the public broadcast of the proceeding that made it difficult to determine which parliamentarians actually supported the measures—the BJP passed a flurry of politically difficult changes.

In a single swoop, it dismantled a longstanding regulatory system that forced farmers to sell most of their crops through government-approved wholesale markets dominated by traders and middlemen instead of directly to consumers or food processors.

Then the BJP passed a series of new labor measures that increased the number

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