governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Why Planning Died in India

thebetterindia

(www.thebetterindia.com)

So what will the post-Plan India look like?

Will we veer away from the soaring flyovers; highways straight as Arjun’s arrow; high rise apartments and carefully “zoned” areas, typical of planned development and turn instead towards the squiggly, irregular lines so dear to the foreign tourist, of “charming”, little, oriental streets; buildings leaning precariously into each other; roads not wide enough to turn around a decent sized car; gloomy, shaded rooms looking inwards onto resplendent, inner courtyards with shops, factories, homes, schools and hospitals all thrown higgledy-piggledy together in the best tradition of “organic growth” fueled by private money?

Unlikely, because even the most ancient, known, Indian city-Mohenjo Daro- built in the 25th century BC was based on a rectilinear street grid (now in Pakistan) and is completely at variance with the more recent, albeit charmingly romantic, memories of traditional Indian living.

If the ancient past was at variance with recent memories, the present is rapidly evolving.  Indian values and needs are changing in response to the open economy framework adopted since 1991 and the associated diffusion of technology, competition and choice. The change is so rapid that formal institutions have yet to catch up.

Neither our laws, nor our judiciary caters to the frustration of young Indians with the plethora of “limiting”, formal traditions.

Take for instance, the case of gays, lesbians and trans-genders. Our law demonises them. But most Indians are easy about adapting to them in the same way “hands-off” manner as they good naturedly, accept foreign customs, like opening doors for women ( a custom rapidly becoming extinct in the West); as a quaint sub text of life.

Cross religion marriages is another example. It is not the norm but is generally accepted if neither family objects. Young India takes to anything modern with a vengeance. Hafiz Contractor’s lurid architecture; skin fit jeans; soppy “friends” style TV serials; head banging, electronic music, offensively fast food and horribly over-priced lounges.

Aspirational India likes multilane highways, fast bikes, week-end car holidays, fourteen hour work days, nuclear families, steel and glass buildings, swanky airports; e-commerce and want rapid change, within their lifetime.

The rapid economic growth associated with these aspirations has usually been scaled up, to encompass the middle class, only by planned investments and heavily regulated economies, as in East Asia. The downside has been rapid grow in pockets of affluence; carefully screened off; insulated from the sordid reality of the poor. Planning to skillfully create a bubble of affluence, access into which is carefully monitored for those make the bubble real but who are excluded from the bubble, except as service providers.

But if Plans and Rules cater only to the rich does it really matter if we stop planning? Even if a random approach is adopted for public investment management there is a 50% chance that investments will benefit the rich and the poor equitably. In contrast, the Impact Assessment of Planned Programs for the poor does not have a better “hit rate” so who cares?

For starters, let us recognize that the death of Planning is not new. It died a quarter of a century ago when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

First, the planned share of private sector in investment has been increasing with every plan and was at 50% of total investment in the last Plan. So irrespective of how much money the government invests, so long as the private sector meets its targets we could hit at least 50% of the growth target so long as the government ensures a facilitating investment environment.

Second, public investment spend comprises just 21% of total public expenditure every year. The rest goes towards meeting the existing recurrent liabilities of interest (33%) salaries (8%) and other operating expenditure just to feed the public “beast”. Rather than increasing public investment by increasing taxes, far better to leave the surplus with private actors and encourage them to invest.

Third, of the 21% which is available for public investment there is no easy way of knowing how much needs to go for funding completion of ongoing projects and what then is the residual fiscal space for new projects. It is telling that even the Union Government budget documents are not transparent about this important distinction in resource allocation.

The suspicion is that if Fiscal Deficit targets are to be achieved there is very limited fiscal space for new projects. A careful inventory of approved but unfinanced projects could reveal a project stock as high as investment spending over the next five years. This is not new and explains why the practice has been to spend on new projects by starving existing ones, so as to please the largest number of political constituencies.

Remember that incomplete road outside your window which rakes up columns of dust every time a motorcycle zips by? Well the reason why the engineers, you curse daily, are taking so long to complete it, is that money for a road or any other project is not allocated and frozen at the time the project is approved. Allocations lapse at the end of the year and fresh allocations made against which cash is released piece meal, depending on the relative power of conflicting political constituencies.

Fourth, planning died because Planners did not reciprocate the faith put in them by citizens. They “gold plated” projects (Commonwealth Games); failed to anticipate technological change and innovation (Public Transportation) and thereby created huge stockpiles of inefficient and unsustainable assets, financed by public debt.

PM Modi probably knows this and consequently is no hurry to devise a new planning set up. Of course every government wants to leave its “footprint” encrusted in projects. The Modi government is no different, if one is to judge from the bouquet of projects hurriedly announced and allocated notional amounts in the 2014 post-election budget.

The only hope this time around, is that there may be more emphasis on creating a facilitating environment and encouraging the private sector to invest rather than using public funds to determine the future.

The test case will be Defence Production. If the government can get the domestic and foreign private sector to invest in “make in India”, against buy back assurances, we shall be starting on an even keel. Nothing much there for the poor to cheer, except some trickle down in construction and services, but at least the middle class can look forward to more jobs and better wages.

India’s Urban Adolescence

jama masjid

(photo credit: http://www.virtualtourist.com)

First time visitors to India are usually taken aback by our degraded cities and the seeming public apathy to sewage and garbage competing for space with Bentleys and Porches-much like puberty when it is as important to hide the pimples as it is to dress smart.

Ed Glasser of Harvard University, speaking at the LSE-NIUA Urban Age Conference” in New Delhi today illustrates the dire situation by using the metric of vertical plus horizontal living space available per person.  India’s low rise cities squeeze people much closer together-often to suffocatingly high levels- as compared to high rise cities with a similar spatial (horizontal) density.

The perplexingly happy co-existence of some of the finest hotels and monuments in the World, with the largest slum populations has multiple explanations. Some trace institutionalized urban neglect to the Mahatma’s vision of a happy India as comprising only self-sufficient villages with cities as necessary evils.

Others point to the stratified, Hindu, caste system as the reason, why spotlessly clean households and well-scrubbed people have no qualms about chucking their filth into the streets. The central concept of “ritual pollution” is a purely personal one. Public filth is a public issue and it is enough to be personally clean.

Urban government “groupies” identify the extended atrophy of municipal government in independent India, as the key reason for listless municipal governance today.

Possibly there is a little bit of truth in all these explanations and some more. But none of them are helpful in solving the problem.

The Mahatma and his thoughts have long been relegated to the realm of our “glorious past” with little salience in a rapidly growing, open economy. Spinning one’s own yarn and milking one’s own goat, even if one is a rocket scientist, negates the central concept of “comparative advantage” on which international trade is based.

The caste system has not stopped us from sending a low-cost space mission to Mars; from becoming the Information Technology back office for the West; from producing more films in Bollywood than another country in the World and becoming the most successful, largest and most diversified democracy. Blaming urban decay on caste is just plain lazy thinking.

As outdated, are those who mourn the relatively light touch of municipal government in India and the over whelming influence of higher levels of government at the Provincial and National levels.

T.S. Panwar, Deputy Mayor of Shimla at the same conference illustrated the helplessness of municipal government by calling himself the “garbage man” since that is the only unique function his municipality could legitimately claim. Of course, one may well ask why small, municipal governments need autonomy beyond the functions best performed at the local levels, like garbage management, street lighting and the maintenance of demographic records.

In this vein Harvard University Professor, Neil Brenner posits that municipal autonomy, as an explanatory variable for citizen satisfaction, in an increasingly networked world is pretty meaningless. When even nations face the prospect of losing sovereignty in monetary policy; resource use and trade policy, it is too late to target greater devolution of powers to municipalities, as a driver of high urban growth.

India’s ambition for urban led growth has to be based on the consensual transfer of resources which fuel growth, from their existing owners, to cities. Far from devolving powers downwards this means looking upwards to supra-municipal jurisdictions where meaningful negotiations can be done between rural constituencies, like sugar cane and rice farmers, who use water wastefully today and cities who should be willing to pay for incremental water. Similarly cities need to negotiate with the owners of agricultural land to buy land for growth at market rates. Meanwhile, city dwellers have to boost city revenues by paying higher taxes and “user charges” for the privilege of staying in a high growth area where jobs are plentiful and the quality of life indicators higher.

Gerald Frug of Harvard University has a similar vision in which metropolitan conclaves, comprising representatives of all municipalities, decide how people should live in cities and are empowered by their collective size and reach to negotiate with National and Provincial governments. Richard Sennet of the LSE and NYU advises the just starting 100 Smart City program, to be careful to avoid creating “stranded assets” financed by public funds, as in China. The down side of fast, lumpy investments is that what once looked like a good idea very quickly gets sidelined by technological change; shifts in business cycles and evolving trade regimes.

How can India grow beyond its urban adolescence? Some lessons are relevant.

First, for all large projects ensure that public money only leverages private investment rather than being the sole source of funding. Public resource allocation methodologies are famously inefficient. The willingness of private entrepreneurs to risk their capital by co-funding public projects becomes a plausible proxy for sound investment decisions.

Second, whilst Public Private Partnerships are consequently the chosen instrumentality for lumpy investments, both the benefits and the risks must be equitably shared between the public and the entrepreneur. Arun Nanda of Mahindra Lifespace hits the nail on the head, by stipulating that successful Public Private Partnerships never forget to ensure quantum benefits for the Community they dispossess of resources.

Third, whilst it is true that there can be no governance without an effective government, it is unwise to equate decisive governments with good governance. Good governance implies embedded systems for “direct participation” by all stakeholders to hold government accountable.

Within the good governance eco-system, the role of political parties is the least discussed and is the most deficient. China’s rapid urban development is as much due to single party rule as it is to inner party discipline. Democratic plurality is meaningless without well administered political parties which reflect democratic ideals and public accountability in their internal processes.

The helplessness of even well-meaning politicians, lower down the food chain, in the face of low traction with party bosses to solve their local problems, often reflects the top-down, stratified architecture of political parties, where “lateral entry” at the top level is the norm and meritocratic selection from within party cadres an oddity. We need more efficient, vertically integrated and transparent party structures as part of good urban governance.

madison

(photo credit: http://www.ndtv.com)

The Republican sweep of the mid-term Senate elections in the US closely resembles the Modi wave in India. In both cases, electoral disgust with wooly idealism and unfulfilled promises fueled the wave.

In the US, Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve caused a stir on October 17 by labelling as “stagnant” the living standards of the “aam” American – a seeming indictment of the last seven years of Democrat rule. She next made already raised Democrat eyebrows, merge with the hair line, by citing the inheritance of wealth as a significant pool of economic opportunity.

Both statements are anathema for the Democrats for whom income inequality is only a necessary evil and inheritance of wealth, opposed to the American dream of making good on one’s own steam. Is Yellen playing to the Republicans?

If it was India, Yellen’s strategy would be viewed as a technocrat aligning to the tune of new masters. Party lines in India are androgynous, vague and fungible in any case. Political stances on specific issues are not nuanced. When horns are locked between parties, the driver is mostly to play “spoiler” rather than differences on technical or ideological grounds.

But for a dilution of “neo liberal” ideologies in the US, close to the heart of the Democrats since Bill Clinton initiated them,  is a serious event signaling a never before ideological convergence between the Democrats- associated with “big government, social protection and wealth redistribution” -and the more “conservative, small government, pro-business” Republicans.

Such a workable convergence of ideologies is sorely needed in the US, where the Republican dominated House of Representatives and now the Senate can torpedo any chance of President Obama having a meaningful second term.

The American parable has lessons for India. The handsome mandate won by the Modi led BJP in May 2014 and again recently in the Maharashtra and Haryana state assembly elections has spawned acrimony and worse, between India’s two main national parties: the BJP and the Congress. Frankly this is uncalled for. In sharp contrast the ex-PM, Manmohan Singh, who is a Rajya Sabha MP, is setting a good example by regularly and positively contributing to issues across party lines in Parliamentary Committees.  PM Modi and FM Jaitley seem to have established a working relationship with the technocratic, ex-PM. This augurs well for the substance of confabulations in the parliamentary committee on Finance. We hope the Modi Sarkar  (government) will expand the opportunities for such positive collaboration across party lines, especially with technocratic talent.

Media reports suggest that the erstwhile Planning Commission will be reconfigured, in early 2015, into a forum for hands-on collaboration between state government and the Union. This is just what is required.

The Modi electoral wave is shrinking the number of non-BJP state governments rapidly. Maharshtra and Haryana are now with the BJP. Delhi, which is now on way to the polls, is likely to follow. As the electoral clout of the BJP grows, it will inevitably induce a push back from threatened regional and marginalised national parties.

The British successfully used the “safety valve” of participative deliberations for decades, to secure political harmony. Bleeding opposition parties by productively engaging their technocrats can not only meet the capacity challenge the BJP currently faces, but also restrain opposition parties from being “spoilers”.

As in the US, Indian voters have “hunkered down” and adopted a black and white perspective. The choices have shrunk to either a vote for nebulous concepts of pluralism; democracy; liberalism (Congress and its spin offs) or a vote for economic self-interest (BJP and select Regional Parties). Between the two options, clearly acting in one’s economic self-interest is winning.

The Modi Sarkar has a huge opportunity to tap into this narrowing of the voter expectations. Here are two steps which can play to their new expectations:

First, after wowing the young electorate with a media savvy, electronically charged campaign, the likes of which has never been seen in India, the Modi Sarkar cannot now tamely go back to the netherworld of the paper file bound by red tape.

Google, Microsoft and Apple can facilitate real time digital communication between government, business and citizens. But unless connectivity become pervasive; the quality of access improves and the cost of access is resonable, large swathes of our citizens remain excluded.

More importantly, what use is it for a citizen to record and report crime instantly, using a smartphone, if the response time of the police and medical teams runs into hours if not days? Unless government processes are digitized to seamlessly integrate digital inputs and establish electronic audit trails of action taken, vast pools of sloth and inefficiency will continue to confound citizen expectations.

We are not moving up the ladder of digitization of public systems and interface fast enough, thereby keeping transparency, accountability and participation levels very low. Can the PM set May 27, 2015-a year since assuming office- as the deadline after which all submissions to the PMO must be electronic?

Second, young voters are unlikely to be impressed with the hoopla around the skills agenda as it currently exists. Even skilled workers do not have jobs today. Our 3000 engineering institutes churn out 1.5 million graduates every year, many of dubious quality. Around one half waste the skills acquired as no jobs exist. Jobs can only be created over time. During the interim a “holding strategy” is needed.

The skills agenda is a copy of the “holding strategy” in developed countries, where kids without jobs can continue studying at state expense. This is extremely wasteful. Far better, in the Indian context, to incentivize kids early to opt for learning-on-the-job. The traditional system of learning under an “Ustad” (mentor) can be kick started by publicly funding 5 million long term-2 to 3 years- apprenticeships.

Business would welcome the move for two reasons. First, public funding dilutes the cost of training a low-skilled, young employee, who could leave after her apprenticeship. Second, businesses get to train employee in the skill-set per their specific requirement. They are far better placed to impart job related skills than vocational schools, established under traditional, technical training programs, at high cost, but no direct linkage to jobs.

For employee the on-the-job-training is a costless opportunity to network and to add skills with an eye to the future.

Clearly, there are downsides to this proposal. Employment in the formal, private sector is shallow at only 13 million. Apprenticeships in the suggested volumes just cannot be absorbed in the formal sector. In the non-formal sector, unfair capture of benefits by family members of the business owner is a possibility. But competitive grant of apprenticeships can overcome this problem. Also the scheme does not come cheap and could cost 1% of GDP or 5% of the government’s budget.

But just as clearly there are upsides. The political benefits are obvious: 15 million young voters and 50 million satisfied family members, spread across India, all of whom have benefited directly from the scheme by 2019 (next general elections).

More substantively, publicly funded apprenticeships can democratize access to non-formal private sector jobs by encouraging the entry of other than family members. The public subsidy for financing the learning curve can incentivize the hiring of deserving but un-networked and financially insecure, young workers.

The incremental fiscal burden, whilst not insignificant, is easily absorbed by rationalising the wasteful, legacy, central sector schemes spawned by the erstwhile Planning Commission which amount to more than 4% of the GDP. Also funding apprenticeships is one way of increasing our miserably low allocation of public resources for education.

The hardest thing in public resource allocation is to quantify tradeoffs. But helping a young worker get hands-on experience, as a first step towards a real job, is surely pretty high up as a national priority.

When I’m 64

Paul Mccartney

(photo credit: wikipedia)

Paul McCartney -he of the long, brown hair who hung out in the company of the Beatles in the 1960s-wrote this song when he was just 16. Clearly he was not an economist and didn’t need to be hesitant about asking his “love” to project forward by 48 years, her likely feelings for him at the ripe, old age of 64. We don’t know what she told him then, but today it is unlikely to be the right thing to do.

First, not many lose their hair by 64 and the ones that do, get them back with renewed vigour, courtesy a visit to Dubai for a hair boost. Second, it is unwise to ask the modern spouse if she would lock the door if you remain out till 3 AM. The likelihood is that you would be opening the door for her when she comes in at 6! Third, the role distribution between men and women is no longer about the former mending a fuse and the latter knitting a sweater. Nor do women typically look forward to have three grandchildren dangling at their knees. But Mccartney got one thing right when he plaintively asked “will you still feed me when I am 64”.

The way to a man’s heart remains via his stomach and it is not just food that we refer to. In rural areas women have traditionally done most of the drudge of farming, animal husbandry and cottage industry along with fetching firewood, water and often carrying the weekly supplies home from the village market.  But now, even in urban areas, supporting the family by earning an additional income has become a critical role for women. In fact several studies of recent migrants to urban areas find that women adjust far better to the demand for skills in cities than men. The bulk of the labour demand in the urban informal sector is for housework and hospitality related jobs. Nannies in Gurgaon earn Rs. 40,000 a month, the same as recently graduated engineers. Women are better equipped to meet this demand than men, who tend to slide down the labour profile, from being proud farmers to become daily wagers in manual unskilled muscle-power related work or fall into petty crime. A woman with a steady income is consequently not to be sniffed at.

Even amongst the rich, women today play an important role in salving the stomach. Take for example the case of club memberships in the megacities. With a limited number of “legacy” clubs- leftovers from the colonial past- and growing demand, membership of a decent club has become a problem, even if you don’t have Groucho Marx’s hang up of not wanting to be a member of a club which would accept him. Most clubs however do have fast track arrangements for women memberships. A spouse, with a membership in these “legacy” clubs, is consequently a fairly efficient way of ensuring perpetual access to decent food and booze at ridiculously low prices, relative to the extravagantly generous environs.

Our PM Modi is already 64 and so must sympathise with the problems of his age cohorts. We know that this makes little electoral sense for him. After all, less than 5% of our population is above 64. Far better to cater to the 80% who are below 44. But here four things the PM should think about.

First, caring for the elderly is no longer a family effort. Nuclear families and migration make that impossible. Catering to the health needs of the old is a completely different specialization than looking after working adults. India is hopelessly deficient in this skill and public health institutions do not even waste their time on this “marginal” activity. The one thing the PM should remember is that social norms are built around how the elderly are treated. Even elephants will remain with a sick and elderly herd member, providing comfort and company. Should India not have a similar publicly funded HealthLine for the elderly?

Second, better nutrition, awareness and altered social expectations have enhanced longevity. The fond, greying, father marrying off his daughters and setting off for pilgrimage; his worldly duties done, is a Bollywood caricature, observed more in the breach, than in real life. India does not use its elderly purposefully. We tend to look at the “jobs and employment” pie as fixed. An elderly person occupying a job is seen as one job less for the young. This age based discrimination violates the fundamental principle of human rights and the economic principle of merit-based employment. Callow youth can be a disadvantage in many jobs and experience coupled with reasonable health, an economic virtue. A society which seeks to provide productive employment to the “specially enabled” cannot logically discard the elderly from its work force.

Third, the PM and FM Jaitley should regulate our private Medical Insurance Industry better. These companies blatantly cherry pick medical cover for those above 60 and make it available only to those who can either fudge their heath reports or to the few who enjoy “perfect health”, even after 60 and that too at astronomical premia.  There is no insurance cover available for those who have the typical “old age” health concerns of hypertension; diabetes and other assorted pains and aches. The pity is that there is significant demand from those who are more than 64 and can pay handsome premia but who want to insure against all possible “old age health risks and care”. Surely there is a business opportunity there which Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA) should nudge the private health insurers to exploit as a desirable private good?

Lastly, FM Jaitley was recently reported as supporting the reduction of interest rates for kick starting the stagnant realty sector. Whilst, setting interest rates should be strictly in the purview of the RBI Governor, could Mr. Jaitley please think about extending tax and interest rate benefits to “retirement homes” of which, yet again, the supply is far less than the demand, across all price segments. Caring for the old and giving them a good send-off when they die, is a nit-picky, long term business investment and does not lend itself to the typical realty practice of theme of doubling your money in two years by hiving off an leveraged assett. Big, established, realty and hospitality companies, with a reputation to protect, can only be attracted into the retirement home segment if the deal is sweetened by government.

Hopefully the FM will include this “public benefit” in the 2015 budget. This writer is waiting to sign up for one such “home” now that I am 62.

police

(photo credit: http://www.thehindu.com)

Liberals and human rights advocates are a queasy bunch with no stomach to face up to the honest truth that effective governance implies a better informed and more intrusive government.

Light handed regulation” is the mantra of neo-liberal economics. But such regulation fails unless the regulator can monitor compliance with the rule of law by acquiring more and better, real time data on individuals and business entities.

Take the simple case of ensuring that shop workers are not exploited by owners and get at least one weekly holiday and enjoy restricted, daily, working hours. The “heavy handed” manner this is done is by shutting entire markets down on a specific day and prescribing shop opening and closing hours. The “light handed regulation” option could give shop keepers the liberty to set their own working hours. But to protect workers’ rights, effectively, it would need to generate a real time centrally networked, database of cash transactions- to validate shop working hours and a bio-metric clock- doing the same for employees working hours.  How does this square with the Liberal preference for “small government”?

Consider the case of self-assessment by tax payers. Regulation cannot get lighter than that. But to be effective, it has to be coupled with predictable and significant sanctions against deviant behavior. This means generating a database, on each tax payer, comprising an effective audit trail of all financial transactions and a tax agent randomly trawling this data, using “red flags”, so that deviance can be detected and brought to trial.

Tracking phone call, social media, emails and physical movement of individuals all becomes part of “Big data” which needs to be captured to provide the information required for credible sanctions systems. This is especially necessary, in democracies like India, where all sanctions are appealable and hence must be backed by “judicial quality evidence”.

“Big data” does have unintended but positive outcomes. The clamour, amongst the elite,  for the status symbol of publicly provided, security guards can be greatly reduced, if “security” comes with a GPS enabled, real time, tracking of location and real time reporting, via a smart phone app, of whom the VIP is meeting as a routine procedure.

No Liberal would object to the installation of CCTV cameras where they live, to protect their lives and property. But this comes with the potential downside of intrusive government. Taking cameras closer to people generates “Big data”. Its value lies in the ability to constantly trawl it to prevent crime (or even natural disasters), by identifying “hot spots” and patterns of criminal behavior and to bring criminals to book. Constraints on individual privacy are inevitable. Also there is bound to be misuse, despite checks to prevent gaming; for example the illegal use of individual information, acquired for security purposes, to black mail individuals. There will always be “insiders”, who could trade off any inherent inefficiency in keeping “big data” secure.

Is Edward Snowden a traitor or an American hero? His country folk were divided on the fine point of the “tipping point” between an “insiders” duty to guard official secrets versus the citizens moral responsibility to fight “Big Government”. There is a stark choice between ensuring security and preserving individual freedom. Too much individual freedom (say the right to religious beliefs which may even bar or restrict social integration, as is available in India and the US) can be as negative as too little individual freedom (China, Russia) in the name of national security.

But the flash points where security collides with individual freedom are more often due to “entrenched privilege” being threatened, than the high ground of morality being squashed.  Indian Liberals, who willingly submit to racial profiling and body searches at US and UK immigration, are outraged if an Indian security personnel, so much as dares to question them about what they are carrying in their bags, whilst boarding domestic flights, trains or buses.

Of course most Liberals in India belong to the elite. For them the State and its officials are only to be suffered, not recognised. There is an implicit sense of “entitlement” amongst the elite, who expect to be “served”, even if they dodge their taxes. Much of this springs from the unfortunate spectacle, of fawning subordinates around a preening public official, in much the same manner, as courtiers may have supplicated before our erstwhile Maharajas.

Liberals mourn that there is too little reliance on “trust” and too much emphasis on “surveillance”. But isn’t it ironic, that in the US: the birth place of Liberal policy practices and “small government”, it is “legally enforceable contracts”, which are the life blood of social and even personal interaction. A society governed by “contracts” by definition, is a society which does trust anyone, including the State, to do the right thing.

It is the same with the theory of incentives. The fundamental basis of neo-liberal policy practice is to embed the correct “incentives” in regulations, which then elicit the desired behavioural outcomes associated with the desired results. The provision of artificially embedded incentives, as neo-Liberal policy practice seeks to provide, inevitably come with intrusive metrics of measurement because what is not measured can neither be sanctioned nor rewarded. Regulatory intrusion, big data and “big” government are the inevitable consequence.

In direct contrast, are systems which rely on “belief”, “religion” or “spirituality”. These seek to bind people to a higher morality and blind them to the needs of individuality. Communism is one such “belief” which relies on the morality of the State and not contracts. Of course, it also comes with high levels of State control and intrusive oversight by a bureaucracy of the faithful, exactly as any other religion.

The Liberal position becomes even more laughable when we consider the available “best practice” on poverty reduction; a key objective for developing economies. “Tightly targeted, cash transfers” to the poor is the latest mantra. But these have to be preceded by identification of the poor; close monitoring of their locations and current incomes. In fact, what this requires is a national database of the entire population of India so that we can segregate the poor from the non- poor; citizens from non-citizens and similarly along any other targeted classification (gender, caste, religion or spatial location). 25% of the Indian population is migratory. This requires “spatial location” enabled assessment of their current economic status since poverty levels vary across states. You can’t get bigger data than all these demographics on 1.25 billion people.

The loss of individual privacy is embedded in the logic of extensive digitization of information. Think of the benefits from being able to identify people uniquely; record their demographics (age, marital status, gender, health and education metrics) securely; store transactions securely and access the stored information instantly. If it is alright for the government to be intrusive versus the poor, why is it so horrible for the “privacy” of the rest to be invaded? The much touted right of the individual “to be forgotten” can exist versus other individuals (though how even that could be enforced is not known) but it must never exist against the State.

“Big data” and a better informed government are here to stay. Liberals should wake up and smell the coffee.

ashraf

(photocredit: dnaindia.com)

It is unlikely that the national coalition in Afghanistan, which the US has stitched together, will last. More likely, the Unity Government provides a convenient cover of artificially generated “peace” allowing the US to withdraw, with “honour”, from the “graveyard of invaders”.

Once it leaves, the US shall make all efforts to secure a working relationship between the Taliban and the Afghan Unity Government. The US has already started distinguishing between the palatable, if misguided, Taliban, with whom business is possible and the utterly untouchable Al Qaida.

The new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani seems comfortable with cutting a deal with the Taliban to include them too, in the fullness of time, in the power sharing structure. This approach also fits well with the traditional “big tent” approach of the US which also includes decentralizing power and thereby enhancing inclusion of hitherto marginalized segments. This option is worth a try, but is likely to fail just as surely, as the existing Unity Government.

Mr. Ghani is a knowledgeable, well-meaning and committed, if somewhat unbending, politician-international bureaucrat-academic. His main problem will be similar to what Manmohan Singh faced in India. How does a personally honest leader turn a blind eye to massive corruption and yet retain control over the government?

Mr. Ghani says his first priority will be to make it difficult to be corrupt by improving governance systems. The conundrum is that “power sharing”, almost by definition, means allowing warlords a long rope. Manmohan Singh called it the “dharma of coalition politics”. Once executive control is loosened to avoid the personal association of the leader with the expectedly bad decisions of the warlords, stopping the system from unravelling is tough.

In his last political assignment (2002 to 2004) Mr. Ghani was Finance Minister in Afghanistan and was very successful in introducing some order and economic sense into governance. The parallels are ominous. Mr. Singh too was outstanding as Finance Minister in India before he got the top job. It doesn’t end there. Like Manmohan Singh in 1999, Ashraf Ghani lost his first election in 2009. The question then is: will Mr. Ghani be Afghanistan’s Manmohan Singh; a good man heading a bad outfit? Only time can tell.

For India, the current situation is impossible. There is little to distinguish the Pashtun dominated Taliban from Pakistan’s military de-facto rulers. This is why, traditionally, India cozied up, during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan (1980s), to the “Northern Alliance” comprising the Hazara, who are determinedly opposed to Pashtun rule; the Tajiks who are today represented by Abdullah Abdullah, the number two leader in the Unity Government and Abdul Rashid Dostum, the indomitable Uzbek leader- who is currently allied with the Pashtun, President-Ashraf Ghani.

Any talk of an Afghan government, propped up by the Taliban, cannot be music to either India’s ears or acceptable to Abdullah Abdullah. This is especially so because China does business with Pakistan quite happily and is unlikely to have any qualms about doing the same with the Taliban. In this calculus any gain for the Taliban, is a gain for Pakistan and for China and a loss for India.

In the shadows is Putin’s Great Bear which is constantly sniffing about for a pot of honey in the great game. India and the Soviets have a long association of friendship which can become the basis for a coalition of the “underdogs” in Afghanistan. India is also friends with Iran, which it uses to trade with Afghanistan. The Russia, Iran, India (RII) axis will become India’s fallback option if the US continues to duck its responsibilities in South Asia. The result will be the “RII axis” playing “spoilers’ with consequential instability and strife in Afghanistan.

The silver lining is that India’s PM Modi has already signaled a preference for a more positive strategy of alignment with the set of countries which represent the shared ideals of democracy, markets and private sector led equitable growth. This approach advocates caution and restraint in committing our scarce resources to secure our near-abroad, whilst we still face enormous challenges of dealing with domestic infrastructure and poverty.

PM Modi stressed during his recent US visit that there can be no “good terror (read Taliban) and bad terror (read IS and Al Qaida). The networks of terror and the resources available to them are fungible and transmute constantly to escape identification. In simple language, a Leopard cannot change its spots. The only option is to isolate and confine it once it turns man eater.

What is unknown is whether President Obama has his ears tuned to South Asia or will the IS and the Middle East pre-occupations distract him completely. Will he be forced to soften his currently anti-Sunni terror stance by turning a blind eye to the Sunni-Taliban in Afghanistan? Great powers have to choose their battles and prioritise across options.

If the choice is between completely browning-off Saudi Arabia and its cohort of Sunni Middle Eastern countries by pursuing Sunni-Terror doggedly, on the one hand and worrying about how this approach could impact India’s interest, we know which way he will jump; and who can blame him for that.

If India is actually part of the “big boys club” we must mobilize pressure from constituencies who have similar interests in containing terror to force the US to not “step off the plate”. If this fails, as it probably shall, the option is to build a coalition against terror with China, which is similarly affected by it. Testing times loom for India’s diplomats.

multifaith

(photo credit: http://www.en.wikipdia.com)

By polishing shoes at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, in New Delhi, as “Kar Seva,” the refreshingly ordinary Lt. Governor, Najeeb Jung and his wife, have raised the bar for people in high public office.

A “Kar Sevak” is one who volunteers to provide pro-bono service for a religious cause. That a deeply religious Muslim couple should choose to do so in a Sikh gurudwara, showcases the best practice role model for our plural society.

Critics will dismiss it as mere tokenism. But in a country starved of demonstrated public consciousness amongst the high and mighty, even tokenism is helpful in building bridges across our social divides.

In a similar vein, PM Modi launched his Swachh Bharat campaign by sweeping a poor colony of the kind that the Mahatma used to prefer to live in on his travels, to show solidarity with the Dalits; again tokenism of course but of the right kind.

Pseudo secularists of course would prefer to build a more religiously sanitized society where religion becomes purely a personal affair and the State keeps away consciously from religious events.

To expect this to happen in the near future is “pie in the sky”. Indians of all denominations are a deeply religious people. Even those, like the “Dalits” who were once doomed to be the dregs of society, under the orthodox Hindu caste system, rebelled not by abandoning religion altogether but instead chose to became Christian in earlier times, inspired by the egalitarian society of the Christian faith. More recently they choose to become Buddhists, led by Bhenji (Sister) Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh.

Religion is here with us to stay, just like man’s selfish nature or inequality. The real issue is how the downside of a deeply religious society can be minimized. As in matters economic, a vibrant society requires the push and pull of competing religions for people to choose from. Reform and change is often sparked by enough people “voting with their feet” to cross over to an alternative group or religion, whose sentiment resonates better with their current aspirations. If this was not so, religions would atrophy and become preserves of elites preying on the ordinary people. This, in fact, is the problem with theocratic states. There is little room or opportunity, for reforming the State religion. The only real choice is to exit the country.

Clearly a plural, traditional country like India cannot offer such blunt choices to its citizens. Hinduism is a fairly elastic religion and can fit all manner of beliefs. This is why, despite 700 years of Theocratic State rule, till 1947, by non-Hindu, monarchic or colonial governments, Hinduism has flourished even in the North and the East where these theocratic rulers were most firmly in power. This is also illustrative of the essentially extractive objectives of these theocratic government. So long as people paid their taxes and did not expect to share in political power, their religion mattered not a whit to the non-Hindu rulers.

It is odd, therefore, that in modern, democratic India, Hinduism should be perceived to be under threat. The real truth is that being the dominant religion in India, Hindu leaders have not felt the bite of competition to keep them on their toes.

If Christian missionaries could expand their fold by providing public services (education, health and social equality) what has stopped Hindu religious leaders from being similarly socially active? If Madrassas can attract poor Muslim kids with the promise of a free education and care why are Hindu institutions not able to compete and retain their market share of adherents?

An areligious State is not anti-Hindu. Similarly a State which does not recognize the deep reverence of Indians for religion can only be blind. Till now we have sought to covertly protect one religion or the other whilst pretending that in State matters religion does not exist. This is hypocritical. Let us confront the issue frontally.

Most Indians would want a State which deals with religions in an even handed manner. Here are five  ground rules we could establish to illustrate that the State has no religion.

First, establishment of new religious shrines should require the consent of the entire community resident around an area and must not be undertaken on public land. If people want a new Temple, Gurudwara, Mosque or Church, they must find the land for it privately and do so in a manner which does not create opposition.

Second, all those entitled to fly the India flag officially, must be required to participate in religious occasions in their local areas to give visible proof that the State respects all religions. Whilst in such high public office, officials must eschew public demonstration of their private religious faith. People judge intentions by how a leader behaves not by the rhetoric. Leaders have to be areligious whilst in public office if the State is to be benign to all religions. Being areligious means being accessible to all religions, including for their key events.

Third, the State must intervene forcefully to protect and facilitate inter-faith marriages, so long as they are legal, including being based on choice. The current trend is highly regressive where the Police act illegally to dissuade such marriages. Choice is the corner stone of liberty so long as it is exercised within the boundaries of the rule of law. By subverting this ideal we are subverting the very basis of democracy.

Four, affirmative action by the State (reservations) must be available to all religions on a common economic and social basis. So long as the basis of affirmative action is based on belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Castes or Other Backward Castes, they must not face the prospect of losing the benefits of affirmative action on opting for an alternative religion.

Five, the convention of rotating the positions of formal power (President, Governors, nominated members of Parliament) across all the religions is a fine, albeit symbolic gesture. Similarly, maintaining proportionate representation of all religions in such formal positions is an excellent convention which should be upheld.

No one knows better than PM Modi the power of symbolism. He is the symbol of New India: aspirational, confident, eager for change and enabled to compete in the World. In our race to “catch-up” with the World we must not repeat the mistake that China made of a black and white choice between tradition and modernity.

The “Big Mac index” only works if there is sufficient diversity in the World. If all countries were clones of each other it would not be needed. Innovation is the preserve of alternative minds and evolution the consequence of differentiated genes.  Let us preserve and grow both in India. More power to the elbows of “cross-religious Kar Sevaks”.

Obama Modi

(photo credit: article.wn.com)

Charismatic leaders can mould crowds like putty. Bill Clinton’s March, 2000 “US and India are natural allies” address to the Indian Parliament; Barrack Obama’s University of Cairo “New Beginnings” address to the Muslim world, June, 2009 unleashed a Tsunami of optimism and “feel good”. In much the same way, PM Modi-the man with an agenda of Big things for Small people- in his recent Madison Square address, won over the hearts and minds of a “massive” (by US standards) crowd of 18,000 Indian-Americans in New York and an even larger audience back home in India.

For many Indian expatriates, including us in India, it is a relief to have a Prime Minister who radiates strength, speaks extempore and from his heart. It also helps that he is a consummate performer, who draws energy from the crowd and returns it to them magnified many-fold.

Those looking for suave wit and a sophisticated exposition of geo-political gyan were sorely disappointed. Modi was deliberately folksy and simplistic. He capitalized on his strengths magnificently, just as Indira Gandhi, the last Indian PM with an international stature, used to do more than three decades ago.

Of course, it helps if one can live on water endlessly and still have the physical ability and mind space to go through a deliberately, whirl-wind program. By doing so Modi has become a live bill-board for the low carbon footprint potential of solar energy. His eschewing food altogether, through the trip, was akin to the Mahatma wandering through the London chill in his sparse loin cloth, protected only by the churning energy generator in his mind.

Till now the West has been wowed by India’s IT skills, thanks to our Silicon Valley diaspora. Next, we are likely to be branded as Yoga maestros all and expected to perform never-before feats of physical endurance.

But it was not all plain sailing.

Three areas where plain speaking-PM Modi’s forte, would have helped, are listed below.

First, what exactly is our stand on joining the fight against Islamic Terror and the linked approach to Afghanistan? The message coming through till now is fuzzy. It seems India is likely to carry on in much the same muddled way we have done till now; remaining visible in Afghanistan, but primarily as well wishers, bringing development to the people of Afghanistan. This is clearly dissatisfactory and unrealistic in the context of the impeding US withdrawal and the likely security turmoil courtesy the unresolved political contestation between the Ashraf Ghani and Abudullah Abdullah groups. National governments are prone to fail. Similar recent experiments in Nepal, Zimbabwe and South Sudan illustrate the illusive nature of such options for “externally enforced” stability in the face of unresolved local contestation.

Our interest lies in clearly establishing that we view the Taliban, the Pakistan Army and Militant Kashmiri jihadi groups as part of the same set of Islamic Terrorists, which are a direct and existential threat to us and our secular, plural democratic system. We must be willing and able to take the most effective action in our near abroad to crush Islamic Terror. But where Islamic Terror is not a direct threat to us (as for example the ISIL) whilst any UN endorsed initiative will have our support, we do not have the resources to join a plurilateral initiative against global terror. This is strictly for the big boys; the US, its NATO allies and China.

PM Modi has been at pains to explain that on this trip that whilst he has been trying for more than the last two decades to get the US to recognize the global consequences of Islamic terror, they took cognizance only after 9/11, when it hurt them directly. The fact is we must be similarly discriminating in unbundling Islamic Terror into immediate and distant threats and not be distracted by the enormity of global threats and ignore focusing on managing immediate threats, closer home.

Plain speaking about our threat perceptions, our limitations and our determination not to be cowed down by terror would have helped.

Second, the message on trade and investment needs to be distilled better. The economic opportunities in India are well known. The demographics; the steady economic growth and resultant demand and our democratic architecture.

Unfortunately most foreign investors live in the present. No international manager has a business perspective beyond a decade-even if they draw up beautiful thirty year perspectives. What big business looks for is leadership level facilitation to get their specific project up and running quickest with commercial and political risk minimized.

Tardy environmental clearances; tax opacity; poor infrastructure and most recently, the extended ambit of judicial review of contracts are big dampeners. Many of these constraints are institutional and require structural change, which is long term. What we need are near tern solutions, of the fire-fighting kind, to establish the enabling business environment. Selective but transparent tweaking of dilatory process is an obvious option but there are challenges even here.

At the leadership level, “successful tweaking of process” requires political credibility that the selective attention is in national interest and not another manifestation of crony capitalism. Consensus building between the executive and the judiciary of the acceptable envelop of “process tweaking”, in national interest, is key for retaining the credibility of the executive and the independence of the judiciary, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the judiciary does not get drawn into settling political scores.

PM Modi is best placed to manage the optics on this score. At the operational level, he will need the support of a highly skilled and empowered team of state government officials working with counterparts from the Union Government, to pilot the tweaking process towards accelerated launch of projects.

What should constitute the government’s decision matrix for determining the “hurdle rate” for projects to be eligible for tweaking the “way we do business”? In such circumstances it always helps to have narrow objectives. “Employment and poverty reduction”, both of which are urgent near term investment related goals, present themselves as excellent “filters” for evaluating and identifying proposals which merit the highest level of facilitation.

50 projects; 5 million jobs; US$15 billion investment can be the rolling target with automatic replenishment by new proposals as projects get launched. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to generate the frisson of excitement which the project based approach generates.

Third, plain speaking on our environmental and energy policy would have helped. It is clearly in India’s interest to clean its water bodies and rivers; reduce air pollution and reverse the denudation of forests and degradation of land. Degradation of these natural assets has immediate economic and social outcomes usually with adverse poverty consequences. It is the poor who are impacted negatively when water bodies and rivers become polluted because they use them directly for personal needs and business. The poor similarly suffer the most from atmospheric pollution because they are incapable of insulating themselves and their children, from such ambient pollution. Unregulated deforestation robs the poor of their eco-system and their livelihoods. Combating land degradation, like increased salinity often caused by unsustainable use of ground water and poorly managed large irrigation schemes, is a costly undertaking, which is often beyond the financial ability of the poor.

On energy our big concern is energy security. The use of coal is likely to remain a staple component of our energy profile. Similarly, more aggressive utilization of the hydro potential in India and in South Asia is an efficient option. Embedding passive energy efficiency building design is another significant option. Urbansiation levels are relatively low but there is a big stimulus in the offing under the PMs target of a house for all by 2022.

More generically, India is committed to technology choices which are congruent with our two, often conflicting, goals of reversing the degradation of natural resources whilst ensuring energy security. An increasing share of wind and solar energy is one such technology choice. Increasing the share of public transportation by railways relative to roads is another which the government is pursuing. But capping India’s carbon footprint at an unrealistic level is similar to capping food subsidy at historical prices which India has already rejected.

The mantra for plain speaking on the Indian strategy for managing terrorism; enlarging trade and safeguarding the environment is to rely on the simple rule of first reserving the fiscal and the physical space for the developing world to “catch up”, before providing breathing room for the developed world, who have abetted and often perpetrated all three global problems, by agreeing to hold them harmless.

“Class” in diplomacy

coffee

(photo credit: http://www.dreamstime.com)

“Diplomacy is not instant coffee” said the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs yesterday. He is right of course. If you are the “instant coffee” type,  you are unlikely to be invited to join the international high table.

This doesn’t mean though that, if our MEA mandarins switch from Coffee Board brew to private caches of Hacienda La Esmerelda (US$104 per lb.), the Chinese troops camping so brazenly at Chumar would vanish instantly. The diplomatic high table respects what you do at home not what you pretend to do when you are abroad or what you pretend to be, whilst mixing with the rich and mighty. “Class” is a social stamp affixed to your entire family, not just you, which sticks tighter than glue.

As in diplomacy, class at the individual level, is also increasingly about where you are going rather than where you have come from. The American dream best illustrates this change since the early part of the last century. “You can be what you want” so long as you have fire in the belly.

Ironically, the Soviets had the same ideology, but not the instruments. They ended up with a classless but skewed society where Party based patrimony and cronyism became more important than merit, tested by competition.

The Chinese corrected for this gap between ideology and practice and have prospered since 1979. The results are visible. One third of the people pulled out of poverty in the last decade by job creating growth, are Chinese. A classless “poor” society is becoming a classless “rich” society. To be sure this has resulted in growing inequality, but inequality is to growth, as wine is to cheese.

India has not been far behind in effecting a quiet social revolution with its unique brand of positive affirmation for the marginalized and merit based competitive entry for the excluded, into the heady domain of the powerful via public service jobs.  PM Modi is the best example that this policy has been reasonably satisfactory in giving entry points to make individuals upwardly mobile.

But as a nation, so long as 70% of our population is poorer than the admittedly blunt, international standard of US$2 per head per day (or more colorfully, poorer that the proverbial “Church Mouse”); so long as our external account is fragile and so long as our political parties don’t align, like magnetic strips, in a single direction with respect to foreign policy, we are doomed to remain mere “guests” at the high table. We may be thus honoured for our future potential, but we will continue to be subtly excluded from substantive current decisions, till we become paying members of the club of “classy” nations.

We are years from getting there. We are still grappling with the fundamentals of infrastructure development and growth. How to make PPPs work? How to integrate world class assets into a creaky frame? How to scale up manufacturing and join the international value chain? These are our current 101 concerns. We have targets for infrastructure: (1) A fast train to Arunachal Pradesh by November 2014- a riposte to President Xi’s rather heavy-handed assertion of brute power by making the Peoples Liberation Army troops pitch camp in a border area, which both China and Indian patrol, even whilst he himself was savouring the delights of an Indian welcome last week.  (2) Fuel supply issues to be sorted out to enhance capacity utilization in electricity generation. (3) Faster project clearances (4) Easier environmental clearances and so on.

But we have no targets as yet for poverty reduction. We spend more “intellectual” effort in arguing about the nominal base line for poverty than on getting people to cross the line and remain above it.

An alternative strategy, one advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, could have been to put poverty reduction foremost. Bullet trains, highways, better airports, more electricity may all be inputs in the log frame defining the sequential path to achieve this key strategic objective. But why is the log frame and the thinking not shared with the public? Do we have a “poverty filter” in place which can help government rigorously evaluate and rank alternative investments for their poverty reduction potential? If we do not, then how can we be sure that our scarce capital resources are being allocated and spent well aligned to the principle of “value for money”?

Diplomacy is really about getting better deals with international partners that would be available automatically given the international market. Our external business strategy should be similar to that followed by the Dalai Lama and earlier by the Mahatma. This would be the 3H strategy characterized by Humility, Humanity and Holding Harmless.

Humility is the ultimate signal of strength. The Mahatma, clad in his spare loin cloth, demonstrated this whilst winning over the world with his message and his thoughts.

Humanity is of the essence to Indian philosophy. Given the extent of poverty and the depth of inequality, the relatively low level of social disorder is striking. The origins of this social-cohesion lie in an essential Rousseauian mind space, which views human nature as essentially benign; which accepts the dirty underbelly of humanity-greed, ego and excess, as human frailties; which accepts that the world is an unfair place; that differences in resource endowments and the standard of living are natural but draws comfort from the belief that there are countervailing social forces, which bring about social justice in the long term. This philosophy was recently well applied to our external relations by Minister Sushma Swaraj in a suave but home-spun manner “There are no full stops in Diplomacy”

Holding Harmless is the classic strategy of a democratic, heterogeneous, soft state and segmented economy like ours. Progress and reform yes, but not at the cost of unbearable pain even for significant minorities and always aligned to the principle of “None Left Behind”.  In external affairs just as we seek differentiated responsibilities to allow us to “catch up” with the rest of the World so must we recognize the special needs of others who are worse off-particularly select countries in South Asia.

How does 4H translate into practice?

First, we must learn to observe, listen, absorb and adapt from the experience of others rather than spend our time, preening and preaching about our practices and policies overseas. Our ways of doing things are contextually good, primarily for ourselves. They do not become better just by marketing them aggressively overseas. Nor do we need overseas endorsement of our ideas and policies.

Second, our officers overseas must resemble tradespeople; annoyingly nosy; curious; people-persons; seeking out deals in national interest, rather than haughty, remote representatives of the Indian State. False pride can be our fall.

Third, PM Modi is right in declaring “make in India” as his leitmotif. Indian big business should heed this call. There is nothing edifying about earning money in India but investing it overseas. It is neither a coup for big Indian Business nor for the government. Rather, it is a cop-out for the country. It illustrates that Indian business has more faith in foreign business environments and opportunities that in those available in India. Such transactions may also be suspect due to the opportunities they provide for “havala” (extra-legal export of either illegal earnings in India, or to evade income tax through dodgy invoicing of imports and exports). The national duty of Indian business is to leverage overseas funds for investment in India.

Fourth, before we wade into securing the World against terror; or showcasing India’s “naval might” it would be prudent to spend a decade on building up our military assets; modernizing our equipment; re-stocking our armories and re-skilling our personnel. Indian peace keeping forces abroad do us proud but that is because of their personal valour and fortitude. They do so despite shoddy personal equipment and arms. We have too many security related issues to resolve at home, to have the mind space or the financial muscle to police the world.

“Class” as a social identity is increasingly an outdated concept everywhere except within the government where such Colonial traditions survive. We must work to restructure government to eliminate class based identities. Baby steps in that direction could be abolishing separate toilets for senior government officers in government buildings. Staff lunch gatherings in offices, at least twice a week is another way to socially integrate senior officers with their junior colleagues. Switching over to digital offices systems and denuding officers of personal secretaries and messengers, is another. We must work hard to replace the steaming Coffee Board brew, currently served by a waiter in colonial livery, with a plebian coffee dispenser at the end of each corridor, although stocked with- what else but Esmerelda?

sabarmati

(photo credit: narendramodi.in)

Later today when the Chinese supremo savours Khakra (a snack) and toasts PM Modi over a glass of aam-ras (the juice of raw mangoes), on the carefully grassed banks of the Sabarmati river, the symbolism of the location will not be lost on him.

What was till recently a sludge filled, trickle, has been transformed into a full water body. What was only a repository of nostalgia is now a kingdom of dreams and hope illustrating that India has shaken-off its somnolence of the past decade and is ready to Samba. The Sabarmati saga shows that we too can execute Chinese style development- large dams like-Narmada, regulating the water supply; city development projects, like the Sabarmati redevelopment scheme and more recently the ambitious Ganga re-development project. All this, in the face of stiff opposition from the usual bug-bears of large development: environmental fundamentalists who, rather academically, advocate strongly against channeling a river, or indeed doing anything which changes its natural flow.

As the bonhomie gets lubricated by Chaas (buttermilk) PM Modi must drive home the point that India has arrived, by politely refusing the expected Chinese offer of US$ 100 billion in financial support (to trump the Japanese offer of US$ 35 billion) for sundry projects. India is not up for sale to the highest bidder. Such bilateral support comes tied with numerous strings including the compulsory use of Chinese contractors. Japanese credit is the same. Whilst the terms of credit are deceptively attractive, there is no open international competition in the award of contracts. This loads the cost of the contract in present value terms far more than the discount on the interest rate offered.

The losers are usually the tax payers of the country providing the credit and the citizens of the country receiving the credit. The first because such “cheap” credit is funded out of the government budget of the donor country. The second because it is the citizens of the recipient country and users of such projects, who will bear the higher lifecycle cost of “gold plated” projects or the supply of low quality and shoddy goods. The winners are industry and business on both sides of the border, who gain by executing such projects. So expect to see an unholy alliance of Chinese and Indian business, loudly applauding the availability of such bilateral credit.

It doesn’t end there. Babus on both sides of the border will also raise a rousing cheer. The sole job and raison d’etre of our Department of Economic Affairs, within the Ministry of Finance, is to “negotiate” such bilateral credit lines. The Chinese (and the Japanese) have counterpart departments negotiating the supply of such credit. So that is another unholy alliance which undermines the financial autonomy of the country.

For many years, our babus have been used to touring the World Capitals with a begging bowl. None of them ever consider how incongruous it looks to assert our rightful place in the UN Security Council on the one hand, whilst simultaneously looking for some “rice” to fill the bowl.

It is time we changed that. The sustainable budget deficit of the Union Government is around US$ 400 billion. A lot of the existing debt is long term and the fiscal space available for new borrowings is limited. We should not fill the narrow window currently available with “nominally cheap but actually expensive” bilateral credit sources. It is just not worth the erosion of our international perception as a resilient stand-alone economy which seeks and gets credit on commercial terms. The key to financial strength is to spend only on projects which have high rates of economic and social returns and to avoid cost overruns. Money well spent is always rewarded by the financial markets through cheaper costs of borrowing.

Getting money cheap and then wasting 25% of it, which is the standard economic loss of non-competitive bids, does not impress financial markets as a viable strategy because it does not enhance our ability to service the credit.

If we need a bullet train or a super highway or high speed tracks linking our Five Big Metros then let us fund them through a mix of foreign commercial credit and foreign direct investment. That is the cheapest finance available today. Both sources also come with strict oversight on expenses and project management.

As the two supremos dip Bhakri (wheat flat bread) into the Kadhi (tangy sauce) Modi should move to the second agenda item and probe the extent to which the Chinese want to collaborate with India in international commercial ventures, in third countries between their companies and our own Navratnas (premier Indian State Owned Enterprises) and Indian private entrepreneurs. Both sides could learn from such collaboration.

Indian business communities in Africa and East Asia are hamstring by the crushing impact of Chinese competition. If collaboration can replace competition, both China and India benefit. After all, the best business venture is a monopoly, like a single toll bridge across a river. We should emulate the developed world, which advocates competition in overseas markets for their goods and services but hang on to quasi monopolies in their own domestic market.

More creatively, can we form an Indo-Chinese multi-national to promote renewable energy internationally? As a tangible target, what about announcing that by 2019, (1) both supremos would switch from the cars they drive in today, to electric cars and (2) their respective official homes and offices in New Delhi and in Beijing would be powered solely by Renewable Energy solutions manufactured through Indo-China cooperation.

As they scoop up the Kansar (a dessert) PM Modi should broach the third pillar of India-China partnership; a gas pipe line running from Turkmenistan/Iran through Pakistan to India and onto Southern China. Gas is critical to India’s energy plans. It is key to improve air quality in urban areas; provide a clean cooking fuel; power our city generators and reduce the incentive to use fire-wood as a fuel in our villages. Of all the commercial fuels, gas and hydro based energy have the most characteristics of a public good. Both generate the least negative externalities in energy supply. On the supply side, Iran is a traditional friend of both India and China. China has an increasingly dominant position in Pakistan which can facilitate safe passage for the pipeline. Their traditional policy of setting up Pakistan as a counter to India is now questionable in the face of Islamic terror and China’s own problems with Islamic communities in their North West. There is a commonality of interest in accessing gas from Iran. It should be pursued boldly using the plurilateral (Iran-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh-China) approach.

Great leaders are those who go beyond the narrow limits drawn by their babuish advisors. PM Modi and President Xi both have the mandate and the time to establish their credentials. They should start by making this point in Delhi.

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