governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

BOOK REVIEW
Rethinking Public Institutions in India
Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Milan Vaishnav (Eds)
Oxford University Press
548 pages; Rs 995

Rethnking Pub Inst in India

Public institutional reform has a stale air about it. There are plenty of options but little action. The sombre packaging of this book adds to this gloom. Possibly, the “monkish”, value-for-money branding is a consciously adopted tactic, setting it apart from the current trend favouring glitz and hype. The authors appear to be flinging a dare — that in their case substance needs no gloss. They are right.

PBM

The editors’ academic pedigree is reassuring. Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the best-known of them, a public intellectual extraordinaire and the acknowledged voice of evidenced, liberal political thought.
Devesh
His co-editors Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav are US-based academics.
milan vaishnav
This new publication is a follow-on of a 2007 publication Public Institutions in India: Performance and Design co-edited by Messrs Kapur and Mehta.
The contributors are an eclectic mix of UK-, US- and India-based academics and Indian civil servants, serving, repositioned or retired. What is common is their deep and systematic association with public institutional development and an enviable record of publishing their work and opinions.
Are public institutions in India doomed?
So, are central public institutions going to seed? And does that explain India’s future challenges? The introductory chapter, written by the editors, provides an elegant, broad sweep of drivers and trends in institutional malaise, highlighting areas where performance has been dangerously below par. But the helicopter view is a mite too one sided, veering to a dark view of the state of national institutions.
Institutional resilience outnumbers the failures 
A more nuanced and refreshing view emerges from the succeeding chapters, each about a single institution. James Manor, writing on the Presidency, exquisitely details how this apex institution, despite the occasional failures of individual incumbents – think Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who signed on the dotted line to impose emergency in 1975 and Giani Zail Singh, who was not averse to being actively political – has been a steady hand, safeguarding constitutional propriety and citizen rights from potential executive and legislative transgressions.
Errol D’Souza, reviewing the Reserve Bank of India, describes its pugnacious success in enlarging its regulatory space, solely through its performance-driven credibility. E Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav pen a fluid and attractively rendered tale, about the Election Commission of India, which has similarly earned its spurs. Eighty per cent of Indians trust it because of its remarkable conduct of timely, fair and efficient elections. Madhav Khosla and Ananth Padmanabhan describe how the Supreme Court has nurtured the public’s trust by courageously and consistently ruling in favour of equity, inclusion and fair play. However, they warn that dark clouds loom unless justice is delivered more efficiently.
Navroz Dubash writing on new infrastructure regulatory institutions – the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) – acknowledges that in the initial years both had to fight severe challenges from publicly-owned monopolies and their patrons in government. Two decades on, they are the arbiters of positive change. The CERC has overseen competition in bulk electricity supply. The Trai has curated highly competitive private telecom customer services and tariffs. However, Dubash correctly points to the need for enlarging the regulatory space such that all actors – the Parliament, Judiciary and the Executive become active players in negotiating regulatory outcomes, with the Regulator playing the balancing role,
Institutional failure more visible in sub-national entities
“State failure” is a malaise more visible in sub-national institutions, which have failed to imbibe the positive changes taking place in related central public institutions. State governors, legislatures, the lower judiciary, state public financial management institutions, electricity regulatory commissions, vigilance departments, and election commissions are often severely blemished. T R Raghunandan woefully records that institutions of local government remain ignored, underfunded and underused, except in Kerala, Karnataka and West Bengal. Consequently, inclusive growth suffers and an opportunity is lost for embellishing and inculcating local traditions of results-based democratic functioning.
But there are black sheep at the national level too
Not all national institutions, despite inherited advantages, have developed benignly. Parliament is one such. M R Madhavan ruthlessly excavates the reasons it has lost the public trust. R Shridharan similarly unravels why the Central Vigilance Commission, India’s anti-corruption agency, and its investigative arm, the Central Bureau of Investigation, have failed to establish their credentials. The former is merely a tool, to be used selectively, by the executive against its own officials. The latter is at its nadir. The moniker “caged parrot” accurately reflects why it has lost credibility in the fight against corruption.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the supreme audit institution, gets mixed reviews from R. Shridharan and Amitabh Mukhopadhyay. The CAG is uniquely placed and significantly empowered, to guide and assist Parliament to exercise granular oversight over the executive. Its path-breaking exposure, under Vinod Rai, of massive inefficiency and financial impropriety in spectrum and coal allocations lifted its public profile. But, in its “independence”, also lies the danger of it being ignored, through a “conspiracy of silence”, between a dysfunctional Parliament and a pliant executive.
The civil service, particularly its elite component – the All India Services (AIS), which constitute 0.03 per cent of the total civil employees and just 1 per cent of the Group A employees of the Union Government – have unambiguously failed. K P Krishnan and T V Somanathan admit that nothing has changed for the better over the past decade. Recruited on merit, this tiny elite thereafter enjoy the rents accruing from that initial, one-time achievement. But the authors shrink from endorsing that the AIS be phased out and its functions reallocated to the specialist cadres of the Central Services — these constitute 99 per cent of the Group A civil employees, who currently fester despondently.
This is a multi-layered, exhaustively referenced publication, which surgically exposes the dark side of public institutional dysfunction. But it also provides sufficient evidence of institutional resilience, on which an enlightened political leadership can build. A must-have, for all those who either belong to, or wish to join, the frustratingly uplifting community of public institutional developers.
Adapted from the authors review in Business Standard June 15, 2017 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/public-institutions-under-scrutiny-117061401505_1.html
raj ghat
Raj Ghat – Gandhi ji’s memorial keeps the flame of “independence” alive

Paris cops 1

What is it about the Indian elite, which makes them salivate at the thought of global leadership? Barely had President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris accord, that we were exulting at the thought of an “opening” for India at the high table of global climate leaders.

The tail can’t wag the dog of climate change

Can India, which contributes just 3 percent of world GDP, substitute for the US with 23 percent of world GDP? The key to mitigate climate change is to decarbonize GDP. Only those who have the GDP can contribute significantly.

Rich, developed countries contribute 68 percent of world GDP, each with a per capita income above US$12,476. Of this the European Union and North America each account for 25 percent. Not even China is part of this select group,

China figures as a newly emerged economy in the upper middle-income group, which contributes 24 percent of world GDP with per capita incomes starting at US$4036. China, with a per capita income of US$7380, has a share of one half of the GDP of this group.

To put this perspective, India, with a per capita income of just US$ 1590, will take 11 years of growth at 9 percent per year, to enter this group. We must remember that we are puny – with a per capita income just above the average for 34 fragile and conflict affected areas. Even heroic actions within a 3 percent share of world GDP does not count for much.

China is the key climate leader

Xi Merkel

President Trump is right in backing away from leadership in climate change. The US faces a fundamental, domestic, economic crisis; a fragmenting social compact and a deteriorating external account. This constrains its ability to influence global agendas. Ageing Europe and its ATM – Germany, will struggle to just hang in there and keep national welfare levels at current levels. Russia is similarly in relative decline and cannily, already a junior partner in the China bloc. It is China, to whom we must look for world leadership, in limiting climate change.

But there are things we can also do, which are aligned with national welfare.

Get the private investment cycle going

projects

First, “counting our pennies” carefully before splurging public funds is a fail-safe option for sustainable development, poverty reduction and managing corruption.  We have failed to do this over the last fifteen years. The results are the bad loans of the publicly owned banks, aggregating to around 5 percent of the GDP. The RBI, has been newly anointed to clean the clogged balance sheets of the banks and corporates. But the magnitude and complexity of the task will require that discretion be applied judiciously for a quick resolution. In the current environment of heightened distrust, this is possible only via an empowered committee of ministers; select representatives from the opposition in parliament; the RBI; the CAG and the higher judiciary to cut through the mess in a practical, fair and conclusive manner. Only then can we get the investment cycle restarted.

Use public funds to leverage private investment in “green” tech

go green

Second, mitigating climate change means allocating capital wisely to “green” technology – renewables, storage systems, efficient transport, eco-friendly habitats, carbon sinks, organic farms and bio-nutrients. Whilst using public funds, ensuring that private investment has sufficient “skin in the game” is necessary, to retain the “bottom line” compass in projects. This requires effective collaboration or tweaking the sarkari plumbing – new rules delegating financial and administrative powers; well-defined codes and processes and clear oversight to fix accountability. The existing system is overly centralized. A Secretary to the Government of India is seemingly “personally accountable” for all decisions within a department.

Manage local pollution to enhance well-being and global empathy

pollution

Third, managing local pollution is an immediate priority. Using solar power and gas for household energy needs is a welcome step. Ideally, the Solar Alliance should provide ready access to infrastructure and fiscal incentives to international research labs to set up shop in India. Facilitating Chinese companies to invest in India for manufacturing solar technology components and products can integrate India into global supply chains and encourage mutual learning and collaboration between Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs.

Remain within our carbon emission envelop

Fourth, coal fuels two thirds our power generation. This worries external observers, like President Trump, particularly when they visualize massive future emissions led by economic growth. But this is a false hypothesis. India’s carbon emissions at 1.7 tons per capita is just 10 percent of the per capita US emissions of 17.1 tons per capita. The ever so dreamily liberal and socially conscious Canada, emits 14 tons per capita. Even if our emissions increase by three times to 5.1 tons per capita, these would still be lower than emissions in the Euro zone of 7 tons per capita. The targeted increase in the share of renewable energy (other than large hydro and nuclear) to 40 percent of electricity generation, is further proof that India’s plans are aligned with sustainable growth targets.

Wash coal at mine mouth

air pollution

But we need to start washing all the coal we use. Indian coal is of poor quality. Fortunately, it is also low in Sulphur, so unlike Australian and American coal it does not contribute to acid rain. Washing capacity remains limited at around 10 percent of mined coal. Even this is under utilised. Power generators, say it is not financially rewarding to wash coal since they cannot pass through the cost under regulated tariffs. Coal India, the publicly owned coal monopoly, has no incentives to improve quality since they work on a regulated rate of return basis. Washing costs only around Rs 40 per Ton of coal. Coal India should only supply washed and sized coal to large customers. The additional cost can be met through a differential Clean Environment Cess (currently a uniform Rs 400 per Ton) for washed and raw coal.

Manage domestic and global expectations

Widespread poverty – affecting an estimated 40 percent of our 1.25 billion people – and low growth rates have constrained India’s carbon footprint. Delinking carbon from growth is far from easy in a desperately poor, decentralized, democratic country like India. True leadership, in this game, will be to remain below the global radar of carbon emission targets but substantially above the domestic radar of expectations on economic growth and jobs. Better monitoring of all three vectors – carbon emissions, growth and jobs, will be key in convincing the constituencies for each, that India is pulling far above her weight in all three. People who are the change also lead.

Modi Xi

Pensioning-off cows

cow veneration

So is “the cow” (including bulls) a living deity, like the Ganga or Yamuna rivers, to be revered as a “mother”, or just another productive asset like a buffalo or a goat? This debate dates to the Constituent Assembly sessions in the late 1940s.

Cow protection smuggled into a non operative part of the Constitution

constituent assembly

Hindu traditionalist members of the Constituent Assembly wanted complete protection for the cow as a fundamental right. This was stolidly opposed by realists like B.R. Ambedkar, who saw it as a veiled attempt to deify upper caste brahmanical practices, to the detriment of the poor — for whom the cow means a source of milk, meat and leather.

Modernists like Jawaharlal Nehru thought it would blemish the liberal, secular character of the Constitution. A consensus was urgently required. Clever drafting by Dr Ambedkar pleased all by inserting an ambivalently worded Article 48 (on working towards prohibiting cow slaughter) in the Directive Principles, that are not legally enforceable. Therein lies buried the knotty, seven-decade-old problem of what the cow means to Indians.

But Hindu reverence for the cow has increased seven decades later

Neither modern education nor “development” has diminished the demand for prohibition of slaughter. Educated, well-off Hindus, across castes, are avid supporters. Higher incomes enable more people to “Sanskritise” — fashion their customs by emulating brahmanical practices. Vegetarianism is a “luxury” in desperately poor India, as is substituting cereals with vegetables and lentils. The clamour to save the cow will increase as ever more people are economically capable of “assimilating” themselves, culturally, into upper castes. Beef is already an “inferior” food eaten mostly by the poor.

Our “secular” government and political parties are politically expedient

Rather than amend the Constitution outright to reflect this demand, devious bureaucratic means have been adopted to achieve the same effect, whilst hiding behind the economic usefulness of the cow. Nine state governments — Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat — ban the slaughter of cows and bulls outright. Seven states — Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Sikkim and Kerala — allow slaughter. Others permit slaughter of animals who are no longer productive — usually more than 15 years old. The varying levels of “protection” are directly related to Hindu upper caste political dominance in a state. The only exception is J&K — a Muslim-majority state, which bans cow slaughter. In more normal times this would be an example of our “syncretic” culture.

New rules drive Beef markets underground

cow markets

The Union government has chipped in by banning the export of beef and cows, thereby minimising the incentive for cow slaughter. It also promulgated rules on May 23, 2017 under a Central law, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, which ensure cattle markets are not used to purchase “bovine” animals for slaughter. The rules are onerous. They require multiple certifications, declarations and identity verifications. They will ensure all sale/purchase of “cattle”, which includes buffalos and camels, would end in cattle markets. Curiously, a convenient “out” remains available. Direct purchase from a cattle owner doesn’t attract these rules. The net result will be trading will move to one-on-one sale/purchase, or to large commercial dairy farms — now facilitated by the agricultural land leasing policy. These will be informal cattle trading hubs, without health certification to ensure meat quality.

Ironically, even as the Niti Aayog and agriculture ministry are striving to make agricultural markets efficient, the trade in dairy animals is being driven underground. Perversely, the new rules are being touted as the fallout of a July 2016 Supreme Court order, that was intended primarily to stop the flourishing cross-border traffic of cattle into Nepal and Bangladesh. The loud protests by West Bengal and Kerala and muted noises from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are as farcical, playing to the dalit and Muslim vote banks.

Are we willing to pay for pensioning-off cows?

Surely, this farce played out repeatedly, since 1948, should end now. Why not have a referendum to establish the extent of support for cow protection? Seth Govind Das suggested this in 1948. The cost would be around Rs 50 billion, equal to the cost of a general election. The outcome, as in Brexit, is by no means certain.

If the existing 190 million (2012 data) indigenous and hybrid cows are to be cared for after their useful life, for say an additional five years (underestimated), the annual cost at a daily spend per animal of Rs 50 is Rs 1.1 trillion.

This is four times the spend in 2017-18 on medical, public health, welfare of SC-ST, backward castes and minorities and social security — spread thinly across around 400 million of India’s income-insecure citizens. It’s more than half the spending on defence. Maneka Gandhi and animal rights activists will be delighted, but it’s impossible to fund a pension scheme for cows publicly.

cow employment

Cow retirement homes run by the private sector on viability gap funding basis will create around one million jobs. But there is no free lunch, even for spiritual or emotional fulfilment. So how many of the 280 million Indian households would be willing to pay an additional Rs 4,100 per year for protecting the cow?

What about the environmental consequences of keeping 70 million old cows

The 1.5 lakh hectares of land to house the “retired” cows can be found. But the additional water resources — far exceeding the needs of 200 million humans — would be a challenge. The retired, unproductive cows will increase methane emission, which are worse than carbon dioxide, by an estimated 0.6 per cent, even as we are struggling to reduce carbon emissions.

Of course, it may never come to this absurd end. Farmers won’t buy cows if they can’t sell them for slaughter. Bulls are redundant in mechanised farming. Buffalos are more productive milk producers. “Nandi” clone bulls and milk white cows might become like racehorses or elephants — the treasured preserve of rich people and temples. And this is how it should be.

bulls

If the suggestion by Justice Mahesh Chand Sharma of the Rajasthan high court (now retired) “trends” sufficiently, the cow could become India’s third national animal, alongside the other “big two” —tiger (de jure) and Gir lions (de facto). Welcome to India’s new-age action safari.

cow temple

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age June 3, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/030617/the-cow-indias-icon-wholl-pay-the-price.html

patiala house

On Monday, May 22, 2017 CBI Special Judge, Bharat Parashar will sentence the five accused, convicted by him on May 19, 2017. Among the convicted are three officers – H.C. Gupta, retired Secretary of the Ministry of Coal (MOC) and two of his juniors, convicted under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for criminal conspiracy and cheating and under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (PCC), for obtaining undue pecuniary advantage, against the public interest, for M/s Kamal Sponge Steel and Power Ltd (KSSPL).

The fearsome consequences of a criminal conviction

The conviction under the IPC invites a maximum sentence of up to six months with a possible fine. The conviction under the PCC invites a minimum sentence of one year, extending up to seven years with a possible fine. Associated outcomes would be the retrospective dismissal and withdrawal of retirement benefits for Mr. Gupta and dismissal for the two officers in service with no termination benefits. It can’t get worse for these officers.

Jail

The background to coal-gate

In November 2006, the UPA government, desiring to relieve the coal shortages crippling the economy, invited applications from end-users of coal in power, steel and cement sectors for allotment of captive coal mining licenses. 1.422 applications from 344 companies for 38 coal blocks were received.

But this gigantic liberalization measure quickly acquired notoriety. A Tsunami of public revulsion at the alleged, rampant corruption in allotment followed.  In August 2012, a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General – India’s public auditor, was leaked. It assessed the loss to the treasury from incorrect coal allocations between 2004 to 2009 at Rs 10.7 trillion.

CAG

The Vigilance Commissions waded in righteously and referred the case of allotment of the Thesgora B/Rudrapuri block in Madhya Pradesh, to the CBI for a preliminary investigation on June 1, 2012.

CBI lives up to its “caged parrot” reputation 

The CBI lodged an FIR on October 13, 2012 against M/s Kamal Sponge Steel and Power Ltd. (KSSPL) – one of the two joint allotees. It had identified deviations from the guidelines for allotment specified by the ministry of coal. However, after investigation, it filed a closure report, stating that there was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy to cause unlawful gain for the allotee.

The Supreme Court bats straight and hard

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, in a separate case regarding coal allotment, ruled in August 2014, that all the coal allotments done over the period 2004 to 2009 in favour of private companies were contrary to the provisions of law and terminated them.

The CBI court takes heart and revives the case 

Soon after, the CBI court rejected the agency’s closure report on October 13, 2014 and framed charges on October 1, 2015. Special Judge Parashar has been painstakingly diligent in avoiding judicial overreach. His approach has been technically exemplary. He has recorded how the ministry of coal subverted the process defined by itself and failed to exercise due diligence and adequate oversight over the actions of the coal allocation section of the ministry – headed by an undersecretary level officer. In an unedifying spectacle of poor leadership this junior officer was fingered by his immediate superiors as solely responsible for incorrectly processing the 1,422 applications received during the 36th round of coal allocation.

A tragedy of avoidable self goals in MOC

self goal

The entire process was replete with errors. The application of M/s KSSPL was incomplete. The last three years audited balance sheet were not attached as required by the advertised guidelines. But the lacuna was not red flagged. Instead, it was circulated, like all the other applications received, to the concerned administrative ministries – in this case the Ministry of Steel and the state government of Madhya Pradesh for comments and then tabled in the Screening Committee for consideration. The state government recommend that the block be allocated to M/s BLA Power – a power producer. But this recommendation was not accepted, presumably because this block was specified for non-power coal users.  But then why was the application of m/s BLA Power circulated to the concerned ministries and state government, without red flagging that it was ineligible?

M/s KSSPL – complicit conspirator or merely gaming an inefficient system

M/s KSSCL was invited to make a presentation to the screening committee despite their applications remaining incomplete. Worse, the prosecution established that the missing audited balance sheet had been with the applicant all along and that the applicant had overstated their production capacity and their net worth. Whilst there were no minimum conditions for net worth or production capacity, overstating both, could only have been done consciously to falsely claim a greater need for coal and a larger allotment than required. Having once stated this falsehood, producing the audited balance sheets was no longer possible. Considering these facts constructively, the charge against the company and its employees for cheating and conspiring to obtain pecuniary benefit at the expense of public interest is well established.

A conspiracy of one?

But who did the applicant conspire with in the government? Is it not possible that the applicant, simply used the loosely dispersed and poorly managed selection process to their own advantage, without the active criminal cooperation of anyone? Do not thieves enter through a door, inadvertently left open, to steal? Would the mere fact of an open door automatically make a beat policeman or the owner a co-conspirator?

Why the selective targeting of and within, the ministry of coal?

Second, even if there was a conspiracy, why was the relevant chain of officers in the administrative ministry (Ministry of Steel) or in the government of Madhya Pradesh not similarly charged? They did not object to the incorrect inclusion of the applicant. Nor did they object to the allocation, either during, or after the steering committee meeting. Was it sufficient for them to merely stress the need to evolve objective criteria for evaluating the applications in a pre-evaluation meeting convened by the MOC on May 11. 2007 without putting down their concrete suggestions on record? Secretary, Coal had specifically directed Coal India to identify the applications whose net worth was at least 20 percent of the capital needed to implement their proposed projects. The onus was on the MOC to follow up on these decisions. But nothing seems to have been done.

The fact that the MOC did not follow up on defining the evaluation process has been used as evidence of a conspiracy within the ministry to retain undue discretion possibly with the intent to cause pecuniary benefit against public interest, to be obtained by selected applicants. This is a valid concern.

But, if there was a conspiracy within the Ministry of Coal, surely the extent of it needs to be established. Could it not, for example, extend to the then Minister of Coal, who was also the Prime Minister- Dr. Manmohan Singh? Also, what about the undersecretary heading the coal allocations section.  He is clearly not solely to blame. But exonerating him completely, also appears extraordinarily generous, considering that he could produce no written orders directing him to circulate the applications without checking them for completeness or eligibility per the guidelines. Is it sufficient to rely on the mere fact that the three convicted officers were all from the IAS to establish that only they were part of a conspiracy?

Was the circumstantial evidence doubt proof enough to prove guilt?

Special Judge Parashar quotes the Supreme Court on the need for convictions, based on circumstantial evidence, to establish a clear, plausible, plainly visible connectedness between the actions of the conspirators for a common illegal objective. But the evidence to support this minimum requirement to establish guilt seems far too thin and speculative in substance.

Administrative disaster but criminal conspiracy…..?

What has been incontrovertibly established is that the pre-conditions for a conspiracy to be hatched existed. But in the absence of incontrovertible evidence that a criminal conspiracy existed, whilst there is ample ground for proceeding with disciplinary proceedings against the officers concerned, indicting them criminally seems excessive.

portia

Portia in Merchant of Venice – “The quality of mercy is not strain’d……….It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s; When mercy seasons justice.” William Shakespeare

The law must needs be blind, single-minded and mechanically predictable if it is to avoid selective targeting. Special Judge Parashar after penning a water tight judgement stopped short on excising the cancer of criminal conspiracy fully. Or can this be judicial self-restraint in the face of certainty, that additional indictments are around the corner to get to the root of the problem?

The blog is also available at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/the-coal-gate-bell-tolls-selectively/

Jobs 2

Photo credit: Zee news

Ask any of the 68 government departments in New Delhi, what they are doing about private sector jobs, and each will point at the other for an answer. The truth is that governments have not been held accountable for job creation since the 1980s, when neo-liberalism took root. No one advocates going down the horribly inefficient public sector job creation route again. So, it is up to the private sector and self-employment to absorb our surging army of millennials — almost 10 million strong annually — which is equal to the entire Australian workforce.

bot

Humans versus machines- who’s winning?

But does the private sector have incentives to produce jobs? Looking purely at the bottom line, machines are superior to humans. They also come with financial incentives for capital investment — cheap bank finance and accelerated depreciation for tax purposes — which boost the bottom line. Technology is fast eroding the capacity gap between the unique attributes of human labour and machines. Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), Google Now and the mellifluously named Maluuba are all cheaper than hiring a real-life assistant and are on call 24×7. Bots will progressively replace humans, more so in logically-executed routine jobs. Not only are human services more expensive, but they come with enormous social and economic costs for housing, transport, education, health and security.

Can government help preserve human employment?

highway

So, how can the government help create new jobs and preserve existing ones? Kickstarting infrastructure projects; promoting “Make in India” and resolving the bad loans burden of banks — are all great government initiatives for new employment. But their impact is medium term. In the near-term, the government needs to preserve existing jobs. Here are four options.

Market Indian skills in 34 “Aged”, rich, countries 

indian farmers

First, extend the H1-B strategy, used to great advantage in the US, for temporarily exporting Indian workers overseas. Rich countries, with ageing populations who need the workers, but fear the cultural dilution associated with permanent immigration would be the targets. Assign targets to our ambassadors posted in these locations to negotiate with their host countries to allow temporary immigration, lightly monitored by the government and directly supported, under the Skills India initiative, to acquire local language and cultural skills. The associated fiscal costs are outweighed by the social and economic benefits from repatriated earnings alone. A stretch target could be to export a million workers over the next three years.

Discourage the “paper chase” by avoiding “gold plated” human resources.

microsoft-employee

Second, build respect for skilled work by venerating those who have these skills. Our caste and hierarchy-ridden Brahmanical social norms devalue skills and overvalue “intellect” — both in the public and private sectors.  This unfortunate social milieu engenders “qualification creep”. Both Indian companies and the government routinely advertise for engineers even when an experienced mechanic is needed. Consider the irrational gap between the wage for a nurse versus a doctor. Good nursing vastly reduces the workload for doctors — specially in the emergency room for the care of trauma patients. But this noble, highly skilled profession is not a first choice today. Instead, there is a stigma attached to it, as being fit only for those who cannot afford the high cost and long incubation period for becoming a doctor. Why is a Bachelor of Arts degree needed to become a bank clerk — a high responsibility but a routine, people skills-oriented job? Only a select few, intending to teach at the college level or do research, should need a master’s degree. Tests and interviews for jobs should focus on personality and psychological attributes, rather than educational qualifications, which are rarely aligned with job skills anyway. Only when we consciously make the paper chase redundant will we value real-life skills accretion, where the maximum potential for human jobs exists.

Reward socially responsible business leadership which looks beyond the “bottom line”

murthy gates

Third, introduce disincentives for layoffs. Yes, flexibility in workforce management is a must for employers. But companies can be incentivised to be socially responsible employers. Those who go beyond watching their “bottom line” to retaining and growing their employees should be rewarded through tax breaks, access to cheaper finance and publicly recognised as nation builders. Why not devise an index to assess social leadership qualities of company honchos before they get awards and honours, get invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan; preferential access to our ambassadors overseas or get nominated on to government committees? We need to publicly distinguish between narrow-minded private employers who only watch bottom lines, and truly transformative business leaders, if the private sector is to lead in job creation.

Give incentives for digital/banked wage payments by individual employers

Around 300 million workers are employed in the agrarian and household sector as daily wagers or long-term help by individuals — farmers, rich and middle class urban households. Legislating minimum wages and benefits for this segment is lazy policymaking and can end up having a regressive impact due to weak oversight capacity. The Niti Aayog has taken the lead to plug the data gap on informal employment where most of the incremental jobs will be created. The government can step in with near-time transactional measures for light-handed regulation of such employment. As an initial step, the government should promote the payment of wages into bank accounts to generate big data on such employment. An incentive of Rs 5 credited back to the employer’s account for every Rs 1,000 paid into an employee account could help. If costs are shared between the bank and the government, a budget outlay of Rs 5,000 crores can pay for this incentive and bank annual wage payments of an estimated Rs 18 trillion, much of which is in cash today. Individual employers, with a track record of employing more than five workers and banking wages of more than Rs 10 lakhs per year, should be publicly recognised as “social growth enablers”.

Collaborative governance is key

bicycle with flag

Last, the optics must be right. The government needs to step away from the colonial pedestal of being the “mai baap” (supreme preserver). The “lal battis” (red beacons) have gone. It is time now to puncture some sarkari egos further and spread the accolades for social and economic achievements.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age July 16, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/160517/a-to-do-list-for-govt-to-create-more-jobs.html

Modi parliament 2014

Modi enters Parliament for the first time in 2014 in a characteristic “Indian” manner – prostrating himself at the steps of this very British institution. Stooping to assimilate is the Indian way. Photo courtesy Indian Express 

Three years ago, when Modi’s BJP entered Parliament in May 2014, with a never before majority, the “realtors of Raisina Hill” (policy wonks and public intellectuals in Delhi) were full of doubt about whether a country bumpkin from Gujarat could navigate the gilded and suave avenues of Lutyen’s Delhi –  that part of the city, designed by the British for themselves in the 1930s, where todays rich and powerful elite lives and conspires in self-interest.

Modi does a pincer on Dehi elites

True to his Gujarati heritage and much like Gujarati emigrants to the west have done for ages, Modi made no effort to integrate or ingratiate himself into the elite. He cut his own lonely, furrow going around the established elite. Over time the furrow deepened into a moat which effectively encircled and confined Delhi’s elite to gossiping amongst themselves. Admittedly, his was an easier task than what confronted Gujarati emigrants overseas. But the tactic employed was the same. First, entrench yourself in the eco-ystem – get a job or start a small business; next, deepen your control on resources – build up capital and develop local relationships and finally look for gaps to fill – do what the lazy locals will never do.

Patels

The Patels – intrepid survivors in foreign lands – a smooth blend of modernity and tradition that makes them outstanding achievers and harmonious assimilators. 

There were initial hiccups. The BJP – essentially a north Indian, middle class party till then – first tried the babu approach of distinguishing itself from the previous government by rejecting even the good things the UPA had done – like NREGA and Aadhar. But Gujarati pragmatism and performance orientation won. The approach changed to building on what existed and exponentially expanding the scale and ambition of projects and policies, to shock and awe the public into abject Modi bhakts (followers). Nothing it seemed was impossible.

Modi’s ratings better than the BJPs

Three years on, the mood within the party is upbeat – not surprising after the massive electoral victories in Uttar Pradesh and then in the Delhi municipal elections. In sharp contrast to Trump, Modi’s popularity ratings beat those of his party. The inanities of the BJP’s rant on protecting cows rather than Dalits or projecting Hindu populism rather than political equality and security for the minorities is attributed by the common person to vested interests in the party – vigilantes who use the party’s hard line as a business or “God men” who use the saffron they wear to encroach on government land. Prime Minister Modi stands tall above this desperate fray for the crumbs of political power.

Sour grapes?

Detractors and cynics say it is hype which is keeping Modi in the stratosphere.  This is lazy analysis. There are three reasons why Modi has embedded himself into the public mind as the harbinger of a better future.

India’s Bill Clinton – responsive, charismatic peoples’ person

First, being of humble origins he feels the pulse of the people and responds to it. Demonetization was a temporary set-back for the economy and cost workers their wages or their jobs. But, they saw it as a plan to punish the corrupt and applauded the effort. Modi did not just rest on the laurel of public acclaim. He has successfully pushed the tax bureaucracy to unearth black money and investigate shady deals. Is this sufficient to end corruption? Clearly not. But it is sufficient to establish Modi’s credibility as having the gumption to take on the corrupt, rich and make them pay for their sins.

Neither Right, Left nor Liberal – for Modi, transactions matter, not ideology

Second, the expansion of social insurance schemes for the poor; progressive expansion of crop insurance; the 200 million Jan Dhan accounts opened; the switch to the direct transfer of benefits for the poor to their accounts; kick -starting the moribund highways program; the proposals to reform agriculture by legalizing the leasing out of land; freedom for farmers to market produce outside the clunky and corrupt, public sector Agricultural Marketing System; the boost in coal production by whipping the public sector Coal India; making Indian Rail more efficient with better services; the improved functioning of government offices – all serve to illustrate positive change.

Stellar stabiliser of the economy

Lastly, the Modi government’s biggest achievement has been to stabilize the economy. Wasteful public spending has been restrained by fiscal discipline; the growth momentum has been maintained and consumer price inflation kept low within the targeted 5 percent per year. New institutional mechanisms are in place now, with the Reserve Bank of India specifically charged to deal with the bad loans of public sector banks amounting to over 12 percent of their average assets.

But there are still promises to keep…

Critics of the government point to the unfulfilled promises on new jobs and the linked poor performance of industry and exports; lack of performance on the promised recovery of black money stored overseas and the continuing civil unrest at home in Kashmir and in the tribal belt, even though the BJP is now in power, directly or in an alliance, in these states. To be sure domestic violence – not least the violence injected by self-proclaimed vigilante groups- is worrisome.  The poor performance in exports is partly a function of a strong Rupee which makes exports uncompetitive but keeps imports, particularly oil, cheap – thereby restraining inflation.  High domestic interest rates protect small savings, particularly of pensioners; restrain the creation of yet another realty driven bubble economy and dissuades gold-plated, bank financed, industrial investment.

Talking freely with people, sharing and learning can build long term credibility

Modi in varanasi

Prime Minister Modi greets the people of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh – his parliamentary constituency

Trade-offs between economic priorities are always contentious. The key is to evidence why government acts in a certain way and who benefits. Mere rhetoric will not do. It is here that the Modi government falters because of its irrational stand against spelling out how the outcomes of its policies benefit minorities. Consider that, ironically, Modi’s BJP has probably helped more poor Muslims and Dalits, than ever before, via financial inclusion, higher allocations for NREGA and the new crop and social insurance schemes. Yet, the government does not highlight this. Nor does it share granular data, whilst defending its track record on inclusion, which many regard as its Achilles heel. Talking with, not at the people, in an evidenced manner, about one’s achievements, especially when it can silence critics, is good. Try it.

A version of this blog is also available at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/modi-unassailable-at-three/

 

modi kejriwal

The Lion of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, has been bearded in his den. The BJP’s massive victory in all three municipalities in Delhi — North, South and East — has left everyone flummoxed. However, it wasn’t all one way. The AAP held onto their seats as per the outcomes of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in the South MCD. But it lost seat share in both the North and East MCD to the Congress. In both areas, it seems there was a “ghar-wapsi” (homecoming) of traditional Congress supporters, who had fallen prey to the AAP’s promise of transformation in the 2015 Assembly election.

Delhi State merely a jagir of the Union Government

anil baijal

Anil Baijal, Lieutenant Governor – the invisible satrap of Delhi

The forceful return of the BJP can only be attributed to the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. The confrontational politics of the AAP, which burnt its boats and utterly failed to establish a harmonious working relationship with the Centre, proved costly. Delhi is a Union territory, but with a twist — like Puducherry. Both have a Legislative Assembly that elects a chief minister. But it’s biggest asset — land — is directly controlled by the Union government, as is the police force and the civil service. The lieutenant-governor is the de facto ruler of Delhi state, and he plays to the tune of the Centre, which appoints him. Not all the hugs and shared parathas between the former L-G Najeeb Jung and Arvind Kejriwal could bridge this basic gap in political alignment. The new L-G, Anil Baijal, also follows the same route, an inevitable outcome of the fractured institutional arrangements in Delhi. Only if the same party rules the Centre, state and municipalities can this alignment be matched. This is not possible till 2020, when the next Delhi Assembly elections will be held.

Kejriwal can save AAP in Delhi by stepping down as CM

manish sisodia

Can things change even before 2020, if Arvind Kejriwal resigns, admitting he has lost the mandate to rule? This might be a canny move, and put him on the high moral ground. Ajay Maken, the face of the Congress in Delhi, has already resigned, even though his party made some gains in contrast to the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2015 Assembly results. The AAP has ambitions in Gujarat. The outcome of the recent Punjab polls should have taught Mr Kejriwal a lesson — that being an itinerant leader is only possible if one’s family is part of the political elite and has spent almost a lifetime in politics. A good showing in Gujarat would be a good base for enlarging the AAP footprint into the metros in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Left to himself, Manish Sisodia is a diligent leader with balance and the tenacity to show results, on the ground, in Delhi. More roads and flyovers built at less than the budgeted cost; more mohalla clinics and better services in the slums of Delhi is a painstaking job for an executive, not a charismatic dreamer.

Modi is the king of referenda politics

The Delhi municipal elections reinforce that charisma and shock and awe tactics work wonders. Like everywhere else, since 2014, these elections were fought in the name of Narendra Modi versus Arvind Kejriwal. In a costly tactical error, the AAP sought this face-off as a referendum. Clearly, Arvind Kejriwal has much distance to travel before he can be measured in the same metric as Prime Minister Modi.

Amit Shah is a one-man school for electoral management

The Modi-Amit Shah duo’s trademark electoral tactics of “placing” the right man to lead the Delhi BJP has paid off yet again. Manoj Tiwari, a Bihari actor, has a natural entry point into the significant voter pockets of recently-domiciled Puravanchalis — slang for immigrants from UP and Bihar. An outsider to the more traditional set of Delhi BJP powerbrokers, Mr Tiwari was also the least likely to invite backstabbing, unlike the hapless BJP late-entrant candidate Kiran Bedi, who lost the 2015 Delhi state elections. In any case, Mr Shah’s style of watertight oversight, now honed over half a dozen polls, precludes any dissent within the BJP now.

“dhili” Congress unravelled in Delhi

Compare this targeted “placement strategy” of the BJP with the Congress, which failed to rally its troops behind Delhi leader Ajay Maken. Arvinder Lovely, a Sikh leader, deserted the party for better pickings with the BJP. Manoj Tiwari’s counterpart in the Congress is Sheila Dikshit and her son Sandeep Dikshit. They have familial links to the Purabaia community via the late Uma Shanker Dikshit, Ms Dikshit’s father-in-law, who was a venerated UP politician of the independence movement era. Ms  Dikshit, Delhi’s chief minister for 15 years, from 1998 to 2013, was sidelined, possibly due to infighting between her and Mr Maken.

AAP – resource thin and exhausted post Punjab disappointment

AAP workers

If disjointed leadership cost the Congress dearly, the AAP suffered from electoral exhaustion; a dwindling bench strength and failing credibility. Arvind Kejriwal held out the ultimate bait — a promise to abolish property tax — to win over the middle class. This was the final nail in the coffin of responsible politics. Property tax is the primary source of revenue for all municipalities. Its abolition would spell financial ruin and even worse services than at present. In comparison, the BJP brings to the table the coffers of the Union government. The NDMC area, which is managed directly by the Central government, is a lush, green oasis for the gilded elite — the Lutyens people — in sharp contrast to the dusty, filthy Delhi, the rest of the national capital’s residents live in. The prospect of resembling the NDMC  area was a mouth-watering possibility that few voters would pass up.

Can Modi reproduce the well being of the NDMC area in the rest of Delhi by 2019?

NDMC2

Delhi has voted for the Modi magic to rub-off on them. The denizens of other metros may contest this, but Delhi best illustrates the diligent, aspirational and yet conflicted India — riven by caste, religious, regional and class cleavages. It is a ready crucible for implementing the PM’s vision of a prosperous, equal opportunity-oriented, highly skilled, healthy and sustainable India. Mr Modi is unlikely to disappoint.

Adapted fro the authors article in The Asian Age April 27, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/270417/delhi-gives-kejriwal-a-slap-in-the-face.html

 

NITI vision 2

NITI vision 2032 : foggy, disjointed & barely hanging together

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the chief ministers of states spent most of Sunday deliberating over the plans and prospects for India in the next 15 years to 2031-32. The third governing council meeting of the Niti Aayog seems to have been an underwhelming affair, judging from the two presentations put up on its website. Why this listless thinking?

Great expectations

Three years ago, when the dowdy Planning Commission was transformed into a glitzy Niti Aayog, expectations were high that it would be the loci of innovation and cutting-edge analytics in public policy. The Planning Commission was merely an extended office of the Prime Minister. Chief ministers, whilst supposedly integral to the National Development Council (NDC), which the commission serviced, felt like interlopers rather than participating members. The flamboyant J. Jayalalithaa used the NDC forum like a television station — walking in to deliver her speech and then walking out. Others stoically suffered the process, making debating points, that no one heard.

New beginnings

Some of that has changed. Mr Modi has done away with the elevated podium of yesteryear for the PM and Union ministers. Now all are seated at the same level around a round table. Another first — the meeting was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Symbolic, as our head of state is not the PM, but the President, with whom the Union and state governments have an independent constitutional equation. In deference to the beacon ban, the long line of official cars streaming into the venue were minus their flashing red lights, thereby letting the tricolour atop Rashtrapati Bhavan take pride of place. On optics, the arrangements were perfect.

More optics than substance

The substance, however, seems not to have been as uplifting. Five examples will illustrate.

Lacks credibility

indian dream

A car for every household – is this the Indian dream?

First, a 15-year vision which is not nuanced enough to reconcile trade-offs lacks credibility. To aim to make India a prosperous economy by 2032 is a pie in the sky. India can, at best, and that too with enormous effort, go from being a lower middle-income country (per capita at current $1,600) to become a middle-income country (per capita current $4,800). A very long shot from being prosperous. The per capita income (at current US dollars) in Latin America and Caribbean today is $8,415, while in East Asia it’s at $9,512. There is no way we can catch up to even these levels by 2032. Consider also that the high growth rates required to make this jump could negatively impact equality. The international experience amply demonstrates that high levels of growth come with the risk of increasing inequality. There is not a whisper in the vision statement of how we propose to navigate the trade-off between growth and equality — the latter being part of the PM’s vision.

More of the same

brick stacks

Second, the Niti Aayog’s vision statement is backward looking. It ignores the dislocation caused by technological developments which technology leaders like the Chinese entrepreneur, Jack Ma have been warning against. NITI aims to make India a highly-educated country by 2032. Should we not be looking, instead, at becoming highly skilled? We are already battling progressive robotisation. By 2032, artificial intelligence would have squeezed jobs further in traditional sectors. New jobs, 10 million a year, which we require and still don’t have, are only likely in highly specialised areas — like space travel, frictionless transportation and psychological counselling — niches which are not easy to robotise, rather than general education which we value today. By 2032, just as plumbers, carpenters, masons and welders would be obsolete so would equity traders, bank clerks, low-level lawyers and IT workers. We will still need pure scientists, social scientists and engineers, but in limited numbers, We already produce 2 million of these every year. But very few are of cutting edge quality. Our challenge is to develop innovative minds with appropriate skills, not to educate 400 million of our under 18 years population to become “thinkers” – the bulk of the thinking will soon be done by machines. Humans will need the skills required to choose and make wise decisions, intermediate between humans machines and train other humans to work with machines. No sign of this transformation in the vision.

Not joined up – conflicting objectives

oil pollution

Third, the vision statement wishes India to become “energy abundant”. But being energy abundant is a retrograde desire tinged with the potential for waste. Energy abundance means energy prices tumbling, spurring even more per capita consumption of energy. Surely this is incompatible with the other objective of being “environmentally clean”? Are we really aiming to provide a car or a motorbike to each household, as the vision proclaims, or do we wish to make public transport the most convenient option? Should we not be allocating funds to become energy efficient rather than spending on acquiring or developing more energy resources? The hunger for energy abundance is a stale ambition.

Mushy & emotional, not pragmatic

Fourth, the Niti Aayog aims to make us a “globally influential nation”. How is one to go about this Dale Carnegie-type revamp? India has thumped the tables of the United Nations for over five decades. And yet, suddenly today, we are more influential globally than ever before because of our large, growing markets, relatively easy access for foreign capital and technology, facilitating internal institutional arrangements and stable polity. Influence is an outcome of domestic capacity, confidence and conviction. These 3C’s are the drivers we should be looking at. Best, like Arjun, to aim for the eye of the bird and not get distracted by the clouds floating around.

Process matters for cooperative federalism

Fifth, the Niti Aayog was constituted to showcase cooperative federalism and be the entry door for its implementation. But it remains poorly organised for living by this principle. Its staff should be deputed both by the Union government and directly by the state governments, much like multilateral entities operate. It must have a permanent secretary-level board to review and clear documents to be presented to the governing council, and provide a forum for discussion and implicit negotiations between officers from the Union and the states deputed to the Aayog. The governing council should structure meetings to provide for negotiations at the political level to evoke the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. Currently, the council functions more as a receptacle for the views of state governments and offers an opportunity for the Union government to tell states what it is doing, just like the Planning Commission used to do.

Put some flesh on the vision

famine

The vision unveiled, yesterday, is muddied by a vast array of disjointed initiatives, thereby reducing the clarity of purpose expected from such a document. Words matter and must be used selectively and deliberatively. Otherwise a vision is nothing but a laundry list of wishes. For years the World Bank “dreamt” about a world free of poverty. It now recognises that wishes need to disciplined to the takable actions to convert wishes to reality.

The public expects much, much more than old wine in new bottles from Mr Modi- especially over the next decade. He and the outstanding talent in the Aayog, must allocate time for thoughtful negotiations at multiple levels. There is no other way to make others — particularly the state governments — feel like valued members of the same Team India!

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age  April 25, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/250417/niti-aayogs-vision-2032-disappoints.html

PM NITI 3 GC

 

Ram-Vilas-Paswan

It isn’t easy being Ram Vilas Paswan – the leader of the Lok Janshakti party – a BJP ally. With just 7 MPs in parliament he has to pull his weight in the low profile Ministry for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution (MCAF&PD).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is whipping government departments to show quick results. But how does one do that if one is stuck in a drab, no glam ministry like MCAF&PD? It’s principal role is to set product standards and be the government’s eyes and ears by monitoring the prices of essential goods across the country to contain price volatility. It has done this quite well. This government has been fairly effective in managing food prices. This is, possibly, one of the positive outcomes of being battle ready for elections all the time. But stopping something bad from happening hardly ever makes news.

The department also administers the Consumer Protection Act 1986 and the Legal Metrology Act 2009. Legal metrology is the new name for the more familiar term of weights and measures. Both laws work through state governments and district-level institutions. The Central government’s role is to lead on innovations in better branding, labelling and disclosure norms, and update the supporting regulations. Nothing much here qualifies for breaking news — just a quiet slog in backroom offices to remain abreast of technology, judicial practice and global trends in product disclosure and customer awareness.

Proactive Paswan

No surprise then that Mr Paswan chose three unorthodox areas to show his department’s proactivity. First, he advocated the abolition of service charge, currently levied by formally registered eateries, which mostly cater to the well-off. Service charge is meant to be used for employee welfare and should act as a substitute for a tip. But it is not transparent. There is no way of knowing what the eatery does with the money. It could, instead, be built into the price of the food and beverage on offer — just like other overheads such as furniture, electricity, air-conditioning — or left to the discretion of the customer.

No service charge please we are Indian

Tipping by and large does not come easy to Asians. No Japanese expects a tip. Many would refuse it, even when offered, as being dishonourable.  Indian customers also prefer a full-cost price covering the entire experience, with a tip meant only for exceptional service. So the minister is bang on the spot with this one.

Specify portions to avoid waste of food

portions

A second proposal is get eateries to specify the portions of each dish on the menu. Ostensibly, this seeks to reduce waste. The thinking is customers never know how big or small the portions in a dish would be so they end up over ordering food. But most eateries anyway offer a takeaway facility for the food that is left over. Often food is left over only when it has been poorly cooked. But retribution for poor quality is swift in a competitive market. Better then to nudge eateries to themselves think up solutions for avoiding waste, conserving cost and benefiting consumers — such as offering part portions of dishes depending on the number of people eating. This could also happen if the waste disposal charges were made prohibitive.

Of course a reduction in food waste does not translate into more food for the poor. The real issue is not the supply or availability of food. It is the lack of income of the poor which leaves them under nourished. More food is wasted in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India because of poor storage than is wasted in eateries. Never the less no one can argue that wasting food is criminal. But the way ahead is via experience sharing, sensitisation and gentle persuasion — by prescribing a one-size-fits-all standard for the portions of dishes.

Pan India retail price for bottled water

Aquafina

A third intervention, recently reported, relates to nudging Pepsi, the Airports Authority of India and the Board of Control for Cricket in India to keep the price of bottled water the same, inside and outside airports and stadiums across India. Air passengers and sports enthusiasts are not allowed to take bottled water past security checkpoints at the entrance of airports and stadia. Vendors inside airports and stadia charge higher than the maximum retail price (MRP) printed on bottles. Not a very fair practice indeed. But then, these vendors pay through their nose for serving customers in airports and stadia by buying the rights through public auctions. Unless the MRP is specified in the contract at the time of auction, it is quite unfair to impose it retrospectively.

Will sugary, aerated, bottled beverages and liquor be next?

sula

More important, will the same principle be followed for all aerated beverages — none of which are allowed through security? Are we opening a can of worms here? And where does it end? Will we next require that bottled water and beverages served in eateries also not exceed the MRP? And what about liquor? Upto 50 per cent of the revenue at an eatery, licensed to serve liquor, comes from the beverages sold. Imposing MRP on such sales would cripple their business model and hugely impact employment.

Pluck more deserving low- hanging-fruits

spot-the-fake

It’s not as if there are no other low-hanging fruits to be plucked. How about taking a leaf from Africa and popularising an App into which a customer feeds in the manufacturing number printed on expensive medicines and out pops the answer whether the serial number is genuine or not. Whilst buying medicines from unfamiliar chemists this App could provide much needed quality assurance.

Consider also that by the end of 2015-16, there were 3.9 lakh pending cases in the three-layer deep machinery of the consumer courts. The ministry’s annual report doesn’t say how long they have been pending. Nor does it share the trend in pendency — both of which are commonly used metrics in rule of law institutions. This leads us to presume the worst: that consumer cases aren’t being effectively disposed of.

consumer courts

This impression is strengthened by the DCA’s results framework for 2014-15 — oddly, that is the latest one available on its website. Timely disposal of cases has a weight of just two per cent, while 98 per cent of the weight is for assessing the department’s performance, based on outreach initiatives and infrastructure development. The results which benefit consumers directly — like case disposal — should matter the most. Mere process outcomes — like completing buildings or installing computers and helplines — should matter less, since these are only a step towards the actual results.

Tardy consumer redress drives even MPs to use crass tactics to be heard

Some navel-gazing is advisable. Had this been done earlier, maybe the Shiv Sena MP from Maharashtra — a business class ticket-holder — who recently, albeit misguidedly, resorted to “direct action” to settle his grievance with Air India, may have been persuaded to approach the consumer courts instead. But who will wait for two years to get redress?

The DCA would do well to adopt strategic forbearance as its motto while exercising its legislative mandate to set the retail prices of packaged products; prescribe minimum disclosure norms for eateries or to set product standards out of context. Regulations which are not enforceable, or which distort well-functioning markets — with sufficient choice available for consumers to vote with their feet — are best left well alone. Making a noise doesn’t ever make real news.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age April 19, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/190417/to-protect-consumers-focus-on-basics.html

shopper

booze bar

Thirsty travellers on highways are going to miss the inviting LED signboards offering “cold beer” to alleviate their boredom. But ask those who have lost a loved one in an accident, or been maimed in one — and they will enthusiastically support the Supreme Court’s ban on the availability of booze along our state and national highways. When the issue is emotive, the reflex response of both the judiciary and the executive is to do anything that appears adequately responsive. What could be easier than banishing booze from the highways, knowing full well that this could be just optics.

Target drivers and the owners of vehicles with punitive action

Traffic police

Curbing drunken driving requires that drivers, a small fraction of all travellers, be targeted. Most travellers are passengers. It doesn’t matter whether they tipple or not. Many of those at the wheel are licensed, professional cab, bus and truck drivers — much like commercial pilots. Surely the owners of these commercial vehicles should be held criminally accountable, along with the driver, for accidents caused by drunken driving, unless they can prove that they test their drivers randomly. This would automatically incentivise owners to use drivers who don’t drink. But this is a narrowly targeted option that requires follow-on administrative action and effective policing. Far splashier, instead, to go in for a blanket ban on booze —  and never mind if it causes collateral pain.

Our bias against booze is vested in the Constitution

Directive Principles

The origin of our half-hearted approach to the problem lies in the Directive Principles of our Constitution which enjoin the State to implement prohibition. These define the higher moral ground that we all must aspire to. But they are not mandatory and need a law to be passed to become implementable. We implement these only selectively — like universal education —  where there is near complete consensus. But we ignore others, like prohibition, where a consensus is missing. Hence the tension between the constitutional directives and reality.

We do not have a fundamental right to drink or sell booze. We do so only at the pleasure of the State. It can be withdrawn at any time. Many would argue it should not be summarily withdrawn, specially when it will disrupt ongoing business. And because other options exist to curb drunken driving. If we are uncomfortable with the ideals specified in the Directive Principles, then the correct approach is to amend them and expand the fundamental rights to include the freedom to drink responsibly. But who will support such an amendment?

We are not French – we have no tradition or social acceptance of booze

indian meal

Mainstream India has no tradition of the neighbourhood bar, from where it is all right to stagger home, helped along by acquaintances or friends. Yes, there is communal drinking in tribal areas and on special occasions in villages, where there is a lot of staggering about. But these are rare occasions. In the plains of India, most regular tipplers are men as drinking is done outside our homes. It is the anonymity of highway drinking that is attractive for furtive, male drinkers.

Economic impact of booze ban marginal – because tipplers will find a way to drink

How terrible will the booze ban be for the economy? The measure simply aims to make drinking and sale of liquor physically invisible from highways. Tippling will shift a couple of minutes away onto back streets, possibly with far worse consequences for public order. But its revenue impact will be negligible. Businesses will adjust. Web-based apps will guide travellers to back street bars and booze shops; private caches of pre-mixed booze in flasks will proliferate as will the illicit supply in dhabas along the highway.

Judiciary not the culprit – amend the constitution if you want a right to drink

Blaming the judiciary for ham-handedness is the easy part. But the Government of India and several state governments, including Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have accepted the verdict. Eighteen other states didn’t bother to contest the decision. This shows that the judiciary is aligned with the national and state-level executive in moving India, gradually, in the direction to which the Directive Principles point us.

The real culprit is drunken driving- only intelligent policing can help

Drunk driver

But without effective patrolling, behavioural change among drivers is highly unlikely. Ask any highway traveller. There is nothing more reassuring than regularly passing by a police patrol car, specially at night. Drunken or irresponsible driving can only be curbed if the Centre, with the consent of all state governments, directly polices all our national highways. Centrally-monitored and controlled mobile patrols, responsive to distress calls and SMSes like the National Ambulance Service, equipped with paramedic and trauma support teams, should be frequently visible along the 90,000-km national highway network.

Create a National Highway Police & Trauma Support System- NHP&TS

NHP

A National Highway Police Force should be created and empowered to regulate traffic; challan errant driving; provide trauma support in case of accidents and keep the highways free of crime and irresponsible social behaviour. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that an officer-oriented, multi-skilled force of 11,000 employees would cost Rs 1,000 crores annually in overheads, maintenance and salaries, with a one-time capital cost of Rs 800 crores for equipment and housing. Sounds expensive? Implemented over a period of five years, it is just 0.3 per cent of the annual revenue expenditure and 1.5 per cent of the capital expenditure for the police in the Union Budget.

Compare this with the avoided cost of Rs 1,400 crores, being the value of lives lost (42,000 persons in 2009) in accidents on national highways, computed on a present value of Rs 3.5 lakhs per life lost, based on the average per capita income, over a residual working life of 20 years. The avoided cost of injuries to 1.5 lakh people (2009) is around Rs 180 crores, assuming medical treatment and lost wages at two months’ wages per injured person. The cost of vehicles and goods lost and cost of trauma suffered is over and above this.

The economic payback of a NHP&TS system is under one year

An international-quality high way security and trauma support system makes economic sense. More important, it is yet another bond sealing the social compact between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and the travelling public — urban immigrants, business people and tourists —  estimated at around 230 million passengers in 2016 (assuming an average lead of 75 km) by the National Transport Development Policy Committee in 2013. There can be no better social impact investment than one which offers an economic payback of under one year.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age, April 8, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/080417/tame-killer-highways-liquor-ban-just-optics.html

grief

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