In 1964, Manmohan Singh wrote his doctoral thesis under the mentorship of Ian D. Little. His research broke from import substitution, the widely accepted economic approach at the time. Singh presented a compelling case for free trade and emphasized the importance of exports, during an era when economies worldwide were focusing on internal development through import substitution.
He wrote, “Imports, however, have to be paid for either by current export earnings or by withdrawal from reserves of foreign exchange or by fresh capital inflow… In the long run, therefore, the import capacity of an economy and its ability to utilize the above-mentioned benefits of international trade is crucially dependent on its export capacity.” His arguments highlighted a deep understanding of the symbiotic relationship between imports and exports and the necessity for balance in managing both in order to ensure economic stability.
Singh’s thesis cautioned that shielding industries from global competition could lead to inefficiencies, thus inhibiting the growth of a robust export sector. He highlighted the need for economies to engage in international trade to leverage its benefits and achieve sustainable growth.
Singh’s thesis became the theoretical groundwork for India’s economic liberalization decades later in 1991. As finance minister during the reform years, Singh spearheaded fundamentally new economic policies. The reforms included a reduction in import tariffs, abolition of import licensing for most goods, devaluation of the rupee (to promote exports), and deregulation of investment.