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The Indian Budget 1996-97 The Indian Economy Overview

IN DEPTH : Indian Insurance Sector

Finally, The Indian Insurance Sector May Go Global

Insurance has always been a politically sensitive subject in India. After 40 years of government protectionism of this massive sector, the new United Front government is touching dangerous yet interesting ground with their intentions of opening this sector to private Indian business houses, as well as international players.

Insurance has always been a politically sensitive subject in India. Within less than 10 years of independence, the Indian government nationalized private insurance companies in 1956 to bring this vital sector under government control to raise much needed development funds.

Since then, state-owned insurance companies have grown into monoliths, lumbering and often inefficient but the only alternative. They have been criticized for their huge bureaucracies, but still have millions of policy holders as there is no alternative.

Any attempt to even suggest letting private players into this vital sector has met with resistance and agitation from the powerful insurance employees unions. The Narasimha Rao government (1991-96) which unleashed liberal changes in India's rigid economic structure could not handle this political hot potato. Ironically, it is the coalition government in power today which has declared its intention of opening up insurance to the private sector. Ironical because this government is at the mercy of support from the left groups which have been the most vociferous opponents of any such move.

No policy initiatives have yet been announced, but the government has already clarified it will not privatize the existing insurance companies. But while the decision has been welcomed by the big companies who were planning to make a foray into this lucrative business, the move has been criticized by trade unions and even some left supporters of the government.

In some ways it was inevitable-all segments of the financial sector had been opened to private players and it was only a matter of time before insurance followed. The bigger private players claim that opening up insurance will give policy holders better products and service; the opponents of privatization argue that in a poor country like India insurance needs to have social objectives and newcomers will not have that commitment.

Many international players are eyeing the vast potential of the Indian market and are already making plans to come in. But it will take some time before the intent translates into policy-the unions are not going to give up without a fight and in that they will get the support of some elements of the coalition government.

Sidharth Bhatia is a senior Indian journalist who runs a well known television program on Indian business and current affairs. A former newspaper editor and foreign correspondent, Bhatia has written for several publications in India and abroad.

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