governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Book Review

 

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Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution, Parag Khanna, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016

In the 1980s, Disney World, Florida offered a gripping, virtual journey as viewed by a blood corpuscle as it rushes through the arteries, veins, into and out of organs in the human body. Parag Khanna’s fourth and latest book –Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution – does much the same for the world of physical and digital infrastructure -roads, railway tracks, power lines, communication cables, oceans, rivers, canals and electrons joining suppliers to customers, uniting families physically and virtually, whilst creating ever widening value enhancing networks around mega cities.

In this world, national borders are little more than irritants; national sovereignty a barrier to be overcome; national passports a poor substitute for global identity options and the ownership of land valueless, unless it is part of global supply chains.

Global citizen

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Parag is a self-confessed global citizen. He was born in India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in the US, works in Singapore but feels at home anywhere – chatting with Chinese workers in Tibet, Turkish Gastarbeiters in Germany or breakfasting with the President of Mongolia in Ulan Bator. There are around 300 million others like him. This book describes the way the world could be from the view point of global citizens. A world without borders or intrusive governments; self-regulating businesses kept customer friendly by competition; open markets allowing capital and goods to move freely, perpetually in search of optimizing costs and maximizing value.

Open economy

The virtues of the “open economy, networked” universe are generally accepted today, even if most peoples’ view on markets is similar to their opinion of democracy – not the best option but better than anything else available.

Parag hammers away at re-establishing these generic concepts with relentlessly energy via a high octane delivery, interspersed with a wealth of granular information to buttress his argument. It helps that the book is extensively researched. Its bibliography lists nearly 500 references and almost each page has a quotable quote. An added attraction is the 38 color plates which illustrate what connectography could look like. Maps or traditional cartography which represent geographical or political features, actually tell us very little about the world. These are of little use beyond being partial navigational aids. Consider that Singapore is a mere dot on the world map with just 0.1 percent of the world’s population. But if countries were mapped to scale on the size of their GDP, it would be twice the size of Bangladesh. Does Singapore’s land size or population determine its function in the world today or its economic heft?

Connectivity is key

The book is divided into five parts. Part one dwells on the truism that connectivity and not territory or resource endowments, are the arbiter of how nations grow. In a riposte to the reasons listed by Paul Collier of why nations fail, Parag argues, that countries can overcome the disadvantage of poor geophysical endowments. There is hope even for land locked nations, like Rwanda. Despite being resource poor, it is one of the fastest growing economies, in Africa, because it actively searches out opportunities for becoming part of global supply chains.

The withering Nation State

Part two posits controversially, that the nation state is an artificial construct whose longevity is explained by inertia rather than any irreplaceable value addition ascribable to it. This is especially true in nation states which spend much time and effort to reconcile mutually antagonistic and parochial domestic stakeholder identities. Far better then, to devolve power away to homogenous, smaller sub entities – tribes, communities, companies and cities which, in any case, are the basic framework for solidarity and common interest.

The recent splintered vote in Britain, with London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union whilst the rest of the country voted to exit, seems to illustrate the inherent fragility of nation states in the face of sharp internal divisions based on self-interest. The nation state is similarly powerless against the loss of sovereignty to larger regional aggregations- earlier the United Nations, cold war alignments and now regional trading blocks. Better connectedness and communications fosters this trend towards aggregation, driven by Metcalfe’s law that the value of a network increases proportionately to the square of the number of interconnected users. Scale is everything.

Sub- national entities are stable

Part three asserts that a future world of connected sub-national entities aggregated into large regional entities, is a more stable and competitive arrangement than the present geopolitical architecture. Sovereign nations seem besieged by split mandates and dissidence at home whilst simultaneously assaulted by external threats. Competitive connectivity trumps national sovereignty. There is no incentive for destabilizing any actor because all are connected for mutual gain. In comparison, Orwellian instability is built into the DNA of competing nation states.

Snap shot of a connected future

Part four fleshes out the future as a landscape of connected megacities. Multinational businesses will be replicas of the Dutch 19th century colonial empire – a web of small enclaves – business hubs for a global supply chain. The nodes of growth would be the four thousand Special Export or Economic Zones, which dot the world today and are also the foundation of China’s extraordinary economic growth.

….and everything else

Part five is mixed fare – an overview of current issues in the digital economy; the genetic transformation resulting from human cross breeding inherent in the physical movement of more people across the globe than ever before- provocatively titled “a mongrel civilization”- and how to best deal with the competing needs of conserving nature and welfare enhancing growth.

For resilient readers only

This is not a book for the faint hearted. The style varies from the explanatory; the exhortatory to being chattily conversational. Some parts are too dense for a lazy afternoon’s read. Others, particularly where the author links his own experiences to more generic issues are lucid and revealing. Editing is unfortunately, lackluster. Rwanda is not a country which is natural resource rich as claimed on page 94; the lead paragraph on page 337 under the attractive title “The digital identity buffet” is an incomprehensible, single sentence of seventy-one words! Deng Xiaoping’s reforms kicked in during the 1980’s in China, not the 1970s as page 380 claims.

Read this book if you are interested in knowing more about the intersections between globalization, geopolitics, business, technology, urbanization and culture. If you are looking for deep knowledge in any one of these areas, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are looking for a new theory of development or growth, it isn’t here. What you do have is masses of information brought together anecdotally in a narrative format.

This is a tour de force of contemporary world trends with attractive, self-explanatory titles to each of the seventy-eight sub chapters. Each of these is self-contained so you don’t have to read the book sequentially. And don’t miss the quotable quotes. My favorite is “a smart rabbit keeps three holes to hide in” to explain why large numbers of Chinese citizens invest in the US or Canada as a safe haven option.

If you are looking for advice on very long term business investments, check out the heat map on plate 31. Be warned, India, China, Africa, Southern Europe, the US and South America may all be deserts by 2100 dried out by the ravages of climate change – unlivable but good for generating solar power. Think instead of investing in Canada, Greenland, Northern Europe, Russia and Western Antarctica, where the climate is expected to be salubrious and the resources plentiful for the depleted population which manages to emigrate there.

This book review by the author first appeared in Swarajyamag, August 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/

 

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If Suresh Prabhu has his way this is how Indians would travel routinely on vacation. Today these luxury trains are expensive immersive “period” experiences for foreign tourists. Photo credit: http://www.2luxury2.com

The 28 million passengers who use the Indian Railways daily fear March as much as ancient Romans feared the Ides of March. This is when the prospect of the impossibly low rail fares being hiked looms, and then usually abates, as political parties compete to “safeguard the people’s interest”. Indian Railways charges passengers, on average, just 29 paise per kilometre of travel, whereas in China passenger fares are four times higher. The Railways lose around `30,000 crores annually from carrying passengers, but makes up some of that by charging freight rates that are almost double the cost incurred. In China, freight rates are around half of ours. Add to this better roads, bigger trucks and fierce competition, and you can see why road transport has weaned rail freight away. The golden goose of freight revenue funding the Railways is dying.

Tariff not related to the cost of the service

Indian Railways increased passenger fares in June 2014 by six per cent soon after the Narendra Modi government took charge. The Opposition outcry was fast and furious. Around 20 million vocal suburban commuters, a critical vote bank, use trains as a lifeline in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. The Delhi Metro (run separately by the Urban Development ministry) hasn’t revised tariffs since 2009. This ranges from Rs 10 to Rs 30 (around a Nickle to 50 pence US) for secure, fast, air conditioned travel with sparkling terminals. And yet commuters who cavil at the cost think nothing of getting into a shared auto rickshaw and paying `20 for a 2-km slow, pollution infused ride home.

Suresh Prabhu, who took over as railway minister in November 2014, is a battle-hardened, savvy veteran at reforming utilities from his days as power minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee NDA government. Learning from his predecessor, his first Railway Budget in 2015 skirted around the vexed issue of hiking tariffs. His second budget, in 2016, was no different, except that he had developed a track record for delivering on passenger amenities — on cleaner coaches and stations, digital food orders; better on-time arrivals and departures; easier freight booking/handling; and a minister-on-tap app, that has almost become the leitmotif of the Modi government.

Only upward flex in IR’s new tariff 

Even last Saturday, addressing the Indian Merchants Council in Mumbai, Mr. Prabhu gave no hint of the thunderbolt he would unleash on September 7, with the new “flexi-fare scheme” for Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabadi trains. To call this a “surge pricing” scheme, as most of the media has done, contrasting it with state governments banning flexi fares for radio taxis, is a little misleading. “Surge pricing” transmits both benefits when demand is low and higher costs during peak demand. There is very little “flexi” in the Railways’ scheme. Fares, even if trains are empty, will never fall below existing rates. The railway flexi fares only incentivise travelers to book well in advance, as the base fare increases by 10 per cent after every block of 10 per cent of available seats gets booked. There is a cap of 40 per cent hike for AC-3 possibly because this category, even at existing rates, is the most profitable for the Railways.

But valuable unwritten message: the value of time saved, via fast travel, does not come free

For all other passengers there is a 50 per cent cap on hiked fares, including for those travelling in non-air conditioned sleeper class (2S or SL) on fast premium trains. It is this last category that is interesting. These are truly the aam aadmi (common man) or students, who take a bus or shared auto home on reaching their destination rather than a taxi. By making even them pay what it costs for secure, fast, inter-city travel, Mr Prabhu has set the right tone for the inevitable future increases. After all, if the value of one’s time is low, shouldn’t one be taking a slow train instead at cheaper rates?

So why is Mr Prabhu trying to do a Ronald Reagan rather than playing with a straight bat? Why so much secrecy in tariff hikes, with no explanation of how the new rates relate to the cost of providing the services. Mr Prabhu is a master communicator, but the Railways appear to be still mired in a colonial mode.

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The Bibek Debroy Report 2014 is the only the latest in a long line of reports which has urged IR to restructure and modernise. But the Railway Board remains in comfortable colonial mode.

Independent Railway Regulator: Pending since 1989

Independent electricity regulators set up when Mr Prabhu ran the power ministry set tariffs transparently. The costs of offering different services and corresponding tariffs proposed by utilities — mostly publicly owned, like the Railways — can be downloaded from the Internet or a copy obtained from the commission. Then consumers can individually or collectively file comments and/or objections to the proposed tariffs. The process is transparent, access to information is assured and participation is facilitated. This is because Parliament legislated such provisions in specific laws relating to telecom and electricity.

The Railway Act 1989 also provides for a Railway Rates Tribunal to set tariffs in a quasi-judicial manner. This has never been operationalised by previous governments. Mr Prabhu said in his 2015 Budget speech that an “independent mechanism” for comprehensive regulation of the railway sector is needed. This is significant as it acknowledges that a precondition for bringing private capital and enhancing competition is the hiving off of regulatory powers from Indian Railways. The exhaustive Bibek Debroy Committee Report of June 2015 on restructuring the Railways similarly strongly backed such a regulatory system. But the elusive search for the best appears to have come at the expense of the good.

Charged political environment encourages “reform by stealth”

Even in the absence of a regulator, the government could have engaged directly with the public before a tariff increase. But the surcharged political atmosphere, with two major state elections around the corner and the prospect of delay, may have dissuaded it from opening a window for political protests. But someone needed to bell the cat.

In this country’s political shadow play, a proposed rate hike inevitably incorporates a rollback margin. So hope for a rollback in the cap from a 50 per cent increase to a cap of possibly 25 per cent. But be prepared for an era where the railway station is no longer the place to look for a free lunch.

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Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age August 9, 2016 http://onlineepaper.asianage.com/articledetailpage.aspx?id=6283706

 

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Haryana’s folk dances are vigorous and fiesty like its people. Photo credit:alchetron.com

Haryana wears its heart and mind on its sleeve. There is a lot of brawn and bravado but little guile here. Last week, the Haryana Assembly listened in rapt attention to a pravachan (teachings of a holy person) by a Jain monk. Alarm bells rang immediately in the citadels of prickly pseudo-secular vigilantism.

The Indian Constitution clubs Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists under the broader rubric of “Hindus”. So, the choice of a Jain monk, rather than a Hindu priest, to preach to the Assembly was a clever and far-reaching tactic to formalise the mix of religion with politics. Clever, because the minority Jain community is being used as a proxy for Hindu thought. Far reaching because, frankly, it was disturbing, coming from an overwhelmingly Hindu state, ruled by the BJP.

The politico-religious cocktail 

In these fractious times, an overt mix of religion and politics is unusual. The practice has been to keep religion distanced from the formal processes of the State, whilst discreetly extracting political mileage from religious discord. Secular fundamentalists cavil that unless the strictest oversight is exercised, in this God-fearing, Hindu dominant country, religion can creep into politics and governance, to the detriment of marginalised communities. They have a point. In earlier days, prayers on public occasions were explicitly secular. Holy men from all major religions were allotted time for doing their bit. But this tradition has waned during the last two decades. Hindus no longer feel obliged to be subdued, lest they offend minorities. This is a healthy development. Truth needs to be spoken and recognised before reconciliation can happen. Paying lip service to secularism, whilst practising a more partisan strategy, has done little for those away from the mainstream.

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1986 – Shah Bano – a Muslim, who had to fight a majority government, pandering to populist Islamic orthodoxy, for getting maintenance from a divorced husband, even after getting relief from a progressive judiciary.  

India: a “benignly Hindu” majority state

The “syncretic” culture of India is predominantly Hindu. We are more comfortable with Barelvi Sufi version of Islam than the more strident Wahhabi Deobandi type. This illustrates that strident, ritualised religion — whether Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or Sikhism, does not align with the benign and neutral constitutional provisions. Citizenship, not religion, is the primary identity of Indians. This is the essence of a modern, secular state.

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Haryana: Treading thorny paths

Haryana has initiated a novel experiment of democratising religion by inviting a never-before direct interaction between a religious leader and elected legislators. This has been long overdue. Legislators reflect voter preferences better than intellectuals. But their formal duties thrust them into an artificial bubble, which bars frank recognition of the extent to which religion both deeply divides and elevates India. Nothing wrong in puncturing the bubble. But the Haryana experiment will lack credibility as a “positive new beginning”, unless it promotes similar interaction with religious leaders of all denominations.

Religion can be inherently divisive, particularly in the highly-contested political environment of democracy. This is why Communist regimes stand out from other political parties, in that they steadfastly ignore religion. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the wily politician and grand old man of the CPI(M), passed on in 2008. He was a Sikh. But at his funeral, there were no religious rituals beyond a spirited Lal Salaam. Contrast this with the traditional rituals which accompany the sendoff for other departed leaders.

The Indian “glue”: beyond religion?

Hum Hindustani poster

The overlay, mostly incipient but often explicit, between religion and politics, has been a fact in the subcontinent since Independence. Pakistan hived itself off into an Islamic state consisting of physically and culturally separated West Pakistan and Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Surely, the fact that Pakistan split subsequently, despite a common religion and that Nepal, despite being a predominantly Hindu state, holds its sovereignty dear, sufficiently illustrates that Hinduism is not the primary glue which binds India. India is predominantly Hindu. But significant political jurisdictions, where 32 per cent of our people live, are not. These states cannot ignore the salience of a plural polity. Nagaland and Mizoram are predominantly Christian; the Kashmir Valley is Muslim; Punjab is 60 per cent Sikh; 20 per cent of West Bengal, 18 per cent of Uttar Pradesh and 17 per cent of Bihar is Muslim; 19 per cent of Kerala is Muslim and 25 per cent is Christian; Goa is 26 per cent Christian.

Sanitize religion for inclusive democracy

Rather than hiding from religion as an identity, dealing with it upfront and sanitising it democratically, could have real value. The pseudo-secularist approach, driven by 1950s beliefs in modernity versus tradition as values, rather than processes, relies on insulating politics from religion as the right way to go. Nothing could be worse, if the ground realities do not reflect this belief.

Far from fading away, across the world, religion as an identity is fighting back. And this is true across all religions. The modern state needs to explicitly factor in the resilience of religion as a treasured personal belief. But just as surely, the State needs to enforce constitutional rights across all religions. In particular, the religious marginalisation of minorities, dalits, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community come to mind. The available constitutional safeguards need to override religious biases against these communities. Upfront, visible confirmation of this intent by the leadership would be transformative.

If Haryana has this resolve then bridging the gulf between politics and religion makes eminent sense. If the moral fiber of politicians can be strengthened by religion, without diluting their constitutional commitment to safeguard the marginalised, the benefits of religious teachings far outweigh the costs. After all pragmatic Haryana filters all actions through the “value for money” lens.

But it is a thin line the legislators walk between legitimising naked majoritarianism — Haryana is 95 per cent Hindu — and spring-cleaning their minds as they run through the full gamut of multi-faith religious discourses in the Assembly. The stout bamboo lath (stick) that the archetypal Haryanvi “tau” (great uncle) is caricatured to carry is as useful to balance on a tight wire as it is to subdue dissent. It all depends on the intent with which it is wielded.

 

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Asian August 30, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/jain-monk-house-unhealthy-precedent-052

Us versus Them

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Prime Minister Modi addresses young IAS officers – the elite civil service of India, February 16, 2015.

“Tribes” exist in India other than the ones provided for in Part X of the constitution. The largest is the “Tribe” of government servants – to be distinguished from the even larger body of public servants.

Sheltering under the benign glow of the Ashoka Pillar lions, this tribe is the worst afflicted by the “Us versus Them” syndrome. The “Them” in this case being private entities, derisively called “box wallahs” during the colonial period. This is odd for an economy where the private sector contributes around two thirds of value added. How can we develop more empathy between the two “tribes”?

Bridge the chasm

First, systematically bridging the chasm between government systems and private sector processes can help. Yes, private business works for profit whilst government works in public interest. But both work in the same economic environment. There is little reason then, for such a wide chasm in systems and processes.

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Winds of change: Firebrand Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee “Didi” of West Bengal has Amit Mitra previously of FICCI (a premier business association) as Finance Minister. Seen here rapping with Kolkata industrialists. Photo credit: The hindu.com

Better accounting systems

One such chasm is the system of accounts used by the two. Government follows the cash based accounting system. The formal private sector uses accrual based accounting. In a cash system, the focus is on cash-in and cash-out. But the cost of future liabilities and potential receipts foregone tend to be overlooked. Government can afford to do this. It can print money or just raise taxes to bridge the deficit. But like in a Ponzy scheme, fiscal unsustainability catches up and eventually ends the party, although at huge economic cost. Government already disciplines itself with strict constrains on public deficits. We should not relax this constraint.

But it is also important to transparently cost our contingent liabilities and share these with citizens. We do not do this very well. As a result, even government managers lose sight of these because the eventual cost of adopting the business-as-usual approach is hidden. Similarly, the opportunity cost of indifferent asset management is largely ignored within government. Accrual accounting helps generate such future costs.

Factor in the cost of risk

Second, government routinely underestimates the cost of risk incurred from operations. For example, government cars or buildings are never insured against loss or damage. Project estimates never factor in risks like the cost of time overruns or cost creep, despite a long trend line of evidence to the contrary. The cost of failing to meet targets is left open ended.

Consider the case of nuclear power. Our strict liability law requires private suppliers to bear the risk of damage from contamination. But the real risk is borne by a publicly owned General Insurance Company and indirectly by the government. It is the same with public sector banks whose losses from massive bad loans in the past, are now being borne by the government. Government must be more transparent whilst accepting risk. Accrual accounting unearths the data required for factoring in the risk of failure.

Government as a participant

Third, government is unused to be a mere participant in the commercial eco system. This derives from its sovereign mandate to be a rule maker and regulator. It also has sovereign functions. No one would want to replace the Indian army with private military contractors. Citizens prefer better policing to paying for private guards. No one wants unelected non-state entities to make our laws. Similarly preserving natural resources and the provision of public goods are best regulated by the government and not by markets.

But modern governments have added on a host of non-core social and economic functions, including the actual delivery of public services. Some of these can be outsourced  to the private sector – electricity supply or transport services. For others building “Chinese walls” between officials who discharge sovereign functions- like formulating policy, proposing legislation and developing programs – and others who implement programs and projects can internalize private sector concerns into the government.

Government entities like the Indian Railways; defence production units; public research laboratories; drinking water utilities; irrigation departments; public works departments; public institutes of tertiary education and hospitals can be usefully extracted from government, into publicly owned corporations subject to all the regulatory requirements as the private sector.

Stepping out of the “confining glow” of government and becoming a public limited corporation, even if it is 100 percent owned by the government, changes the organizational culture. In colonial days, financial relief to rehabilitate drought hit farmers was handed out by District Collectors. Since the late 1970s we have used public sector banks for this purpose. Today, crop insurance is the financial backstop for failed crops. This will incentivize even private banks to expand rural lending for profit. And farmers will not have the incentives they have today to exchange loan forgiveness for votes.

In the Union government alone, 66% of the 3 million civilian staff can be hived off to corporations. If this mammoth task seems undoable, look back to 2000, when the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) was restructured and 320,000 staff hived off into the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) leaving the DOT with just around 3000 staff.

Copy-paste the Telecom story

Telecom grew unshackled once the government stopped worrying only about protecting BSNL.  The empowered regulator -Telecom Regulatory Authority of India- in sync with the government since 1999, developed a fiercely competitive market. Private providers cater to 90% of the market. Subscribers have increased from a paltry 0.3 per 100 in 1999 to 88 per 100 population – pretty close already to China, which has 95 per 100 but at a per capita income five times higher than India. Indian telecom tariffs are a fraction of what they were in 1999 and are the lowest in the world. A telephone connection with a direct dialing facility was the preserve of business and the elite, fifteen years ago. Today a mobile is in the pocket of the common man and has become a can’t-do-without tool for empowering women. Low cost, high quality wireless internet access is expected to double, the 300 million internet users today, by 2019.

This transformation was achieved by deliberate, visionary steps taken to restructure the government and the telecom market for growth and efficiency. Application of these principles, across all sectors, can liberate the economy from the shackles of inherited, institutional constraints; bridge the “us versus them” chasm and squeeze out the fat in government.

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Digitally savvy India’s young are its future Photo credit: Globallearninggroup.com

 

Populism, buttressed by dodgy economics, has become the fashion statement in politics. Last year, the Union government approved handsome “real” increases in government salary. There was little justification for doing so since the government salaries were already fully indexed to inflation and the largesse couldn’t have been justified as a reward for higher productivity.

The default justification was that more money in the hands of government employees would kick start a virtuous circle. Higher demand for goods and services would lead to expanded supply, more jobs and just possibly, more income for the rest of us.

AAP disrupts the cozy status quo in Delhi

This week, the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi, used similar tactics to grab eyeballs on Independence Day. Evoking the high moral stance of re-distribution of wealth and the economic principle of boosting demand as justification, the government declared massive increase in the minimum wage. In effect, it imposed a “living wage”, for workers in Delhi.

The impossible dream of “mandating” the end of poverty

Child searches for valuables in a garbage dump in New Delhi

The concept of a “living wage” — pegged significantly higher than the minimum wage — with an eye to decrease poverty has been used in over 100 urban jurisdictions in the United States since the late 1990s. It has also been used to set the national poverty level in India. But it is pegged at very low levels.

In Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has proposed that the minimum wages of unskilled labour will be increased from Rs 9,500 to Rs 14,000, semi-skilled Rs 10,600 to Rs 15,500 and for skilled Rs 11,600 to Rs 17,000.

The hike seems unreasonable given that the minimum wage in Delhi is already 35 per cent higher than in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and 72 per cent higher than in adjoining Haryana.

Delhi is rich but…

It is true that Delhi is relatively rich. Its per capita income of around Rs 18,300 per month is the highest among the states of India and the top 10 metros. Consequently, there is a case for setting the “living wage” in Delhi reasonably higher than in the neighbouring states, purely on the grounds of equity.

The real issue is whether a 47 per cent increase is warranted and how comprehensively should the “living wage” be applied? If it is applied just to the establishments governed by the Factories Act, then it is little more than populism. There are only around 8,000 such factories in land-hungry Delhi and employment in them is static.

If the intention is to enlarge the coverage of the “living/minimum wage” to all registered shops and establishments, which employ around 20 per cent (one million) of Delhi’s five million workers, then the economic consequences can be more substantial.

Mandated wages hurt business and make it shift out 

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Photo credit: blogs.ft.com

The negative impact will be felt in price-sensitive, low value-addition segments like clothing, food and household goods, where higher wages will hurt business profits. More importantly, will a similar “living wage” follow for the one million workers in the informal sector — household help in rich and middle class homes and in unlicensed small establishments? If so Delhi’s privileged elite and wannabes may have to look for a lifestyle change – let the ayah go and manage their own babies; cook for themselves or use an app to order in; make their own beds; wash and iron their own laundry and learn to use a vacuum cleaner. And what of the ubiquitous car drivers and guards who lounge around the front gate of Delhi homes? Will the well-off opt for Ola and Uber instead?

Poor enforcement can make mandated wage a sham

Mandated high minimum wages, far above the market rate, encounter three problems. First, enforcing payment of the mandated wages depends crucially on clean, clever and consistent regulation. In its absence, it encourages the petty but crippling, corruption of “inspector raj”. Enlarging the scope of inspector raj in Delhi, even as it is being diluted in Rajasthan and Telangana sends the wrong message to investment for increasing jobs and private sector growth in Delhi.

High wages result in loss of unskilled jobs

Second, studies from the US show that the benefits are not uniform across the entire spectrum of workers. On average, unskilled workers lose the most from a high minimum wage because employment declines even as a smaller number of workers, who remain employed, benefit from high wages. Mandated wages rarely benefit skilled workers. Governments tend to be conservative in fixing the differential for skills. Delhi provides only a premium of 21 per cent, or `80 per day between unskilled and skilled work. The market premium is already between 75 to 100 per cent. A mason gets twice the amount as his unskilled worker — often a woman, who does the manual work.

In-migration increases fiscal pressure to provide public services

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High, mandated wages attract in-migrants to cities. photo credit: http://www.rediff.com

Third, pegging a price for labour far above the market rate increases the fiscal burden. This happens directly when government salaries are needlessly enhanced. But it also hits the government budget indirectly, when applied to the private sector. Higher the mandated wage for unskilled work the more attractive it becomes for migrants. With open borders, no control on migration and the Delhi government committed, rightly so, to provide a basic quality of life for all — free water, free medical care, free education, cheap electricity, improved toilets and paved roads — the resulting fiscal impact can be crippling.

Immigrants reduce the market price of unskilled labour

One way of ensuring that market wage rates remain aligned with mandated wages and are not beggared by competition from in-migration, is to licence city workers, as in China. But it is difficult to do this effectively in a governance environment of pervasive corruption. Licensing is a one way street to inefficiency and corruption. If government land cannot be protected from encroachment by the mafia, there is little hope of implementing an equitable worker licensing regime. Railway stations are a good example. Try getting a licensed coolie to carry your bags at the stipulated rates and you are more likely to miss your train.

Test the viability first in government contracts

The high salary of unskilled government workers already provides a wage floor. But the incremental numbers employed are limited. The trend, since 1990s when the government adopted the practices of “new pubic management”, has been to outsource non-core services i.e. cleaning, canteen, security and office support. Worker productivity clearly increases under private management. But there is insufficient evidence that the wages paid to them reflect this higher productivity. The apprehension is that the workers will suffer from price competition to get government contracts.

This is a perverse and unintended outcome. Tightly regulating the private contracts that are funded by the government can ensure that the mandated wages are passed through to workers. And contractors do not corner the wage increase. This is how the financial viability of the enhanced wage rates should be tested before imposing them.

But there is little point in cultivating a small, handsomely paid labour “aristocracy”, as the CPI(M) did, whilst throttling investment and employment.

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Adapted from the author’s article in Asian Age August 19, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/how-viable-are-hiked-wage-rates-333

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Border controls across India’s 30 states fragment it economically. The Arvind Subramanian Committee Report, 2015 on Goods and Services Tax-GST, cites economic fragmentation as responsible for 15% in welfare loss. Hopefully, with the GST legislation on its way, the sight of trucks waiting patiently to pay tax will disappear.  Photo credit: http://www.thehindu.com

Expectations are unrealistically high from the long delayed move to amend the Constitution and levy a common Goods and Service Tax (GST- a value added tax) across the Union and all state governments. Truly, this tax can bind India far better than Bollywood or the All India Services have done thus far.

Like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant, each segment of stakeholders see only how the GST could benefit them. Consumers eagerly await lowered retail prices once the pancaked tax embedded in the value chain can be set off.

Suppliers hope that lower tax incidence will enhance their competitiveness versus imports. Studies suggest welfare gains of five percent by reduction within state transaction cost and as much as 15% for supply across state borders.

Tax payers are ecstatic at simplification — the clubbing of more than a dozen individual taxes into a single tax.

The government looks forward to additional tax revenue from better tax compliance on a tax base made larger by higher economic growth.

Governance evangelists are pleased at the potential of reducing corruption, inherent in diluting the incentive to evade tax. This will build on the existing mission to make tax regimes transparent and accountable. Indirect tax revenue grew 29% in the first quarter of this fiscal year, despite merchandise imports contracting by 14% — a tribute to efficient tax collection.

Unemployed students and their parents look forward to a revival of industry and more “good” jobs thanks to efficiency led higher economic growth.

Road freight transporters await the benefits of reduced transaction time and cost. Today 25% of a trucker’s time goes in just waiting at border Octroi posts.

But reality will bite

However, several of these expectations are unlikely to be met over the next three years. There is a trade-off between enhancing tax revenue for the government and reducing prices for consumers or costs for suppliers.

There is also a trade-off between making the GST comprehensive, thereby plugging tax evasion opportunities and shielding small tax payers from the cost of compliance to become a part of the digital audit chain. Eighty five percent of the 9.4 million taxable entities are small, with an annual turnover less than one crore Rupees.

Ensuring that no state government is harmed, also called revenue neutrality, poses the risk of pegging the tax rates so high that they constrain demand and pass no benefit to consumers. Alternatively, the government has to breach the fiscal deficit targets to finance the compensation, but risks stoking inflation.

The Arvind Subramanian Committee Report of 2015 discusses all the trade-offs, pitfalls and optimal options. It is a must read for those interested in an informed appreciation of the issues involved.

Federalism — the real winner

The real winner has been the principle of federalism which has been visibly and practically implemented in public interest. The continuous work on the GST spanning a decade and the directional consensus across three separate Union governments and similar changes within the state governments is heart-warming for all those who would like India’s commitment to federalism, to be more than skin deep.

Similarly, political parties evolved a consensus in Parliament (even the AIDMK’s opposition was muted to walking out, but not voting against the motion) to pass the one hundredth constitutional amendment illustrates that plural and inclusive democracy is vibrant in India.

Naysayers opine that political parties may agree to a generic, enabling provision such as this one, but they will be pricklier when it comes to putting flesh on the bare bones. They may be right. But all negotiations have to begin by defining the envelope within which there will be give and take. This is exactly what happened in Parliament on August 4 last week. Now after a simple majority of the State Assemblies give their assent to the Act, it will be ready to be presented to the President of India to become the law.

Thorny issues remain

However, thorny issues still abound — defining the tax base and thereby the exemptions to be allowed; specifying whether the exemptions are indefinite or have a sunset clause; setting the tax rates for the Union and the States; identifying the existing Union and state government taxes which will be rolled into the new GST; writing up the new model law; specifying the principles for tax assessment and to identify the place of supply at which the new tax becomes payable.

All these are to be worked on by a newly constituted GST Council consisting of all the State Finance Ministers and chaired by the Union Finance Minister. This institutional innovation embeds the concept of federalism even deeper.

The process of rolling out the GST will require a great deal of analytical legwork of the type done by the Subramanian Committee; intensive monitoring of the IT backup for extending digital invoicing and tax payment and coordination of activities across the state governments.

Attempting all this from within the Revenue Department of the Union Government would be an unbearable burden. It would distract from the just-as-vital task of actually bringing the bacon home — enhancing tax collections to 13% of the GDP from 11% today. It does not help that the Revenue Department gets swamped over for at least nine months by the annual budget process.

GST Secretariat

A stand-alone GST Secretariat with a defined budget and human resources can hasten the pace. The Council and its Secretariat could be attached to the Department of Revenue of the Union Government for administrative and budgetary purposes. But, it must have a level of autonomy if its deliberations are to be credible.

The experience with exclusively Union Government staffed secretariats, servicing federated institutions, is not encouraging. The Planning Commission failed to be a credible secretariat for the National Development Council. Its successor — the NITI Ayog — is a Union Government think tank. The Home Ministry based Inter States Council suffers similarly from a Union government bias.

The GST Secretariat should be a mirror of the federated GST Council itself — staffed by officers drawn directly from the state governments and the Union Government. In deference to the pre-eminence of the Union Government, it should be helmed by a Secretary General proposed by the Chair. But in the spirit of true federalism, all senior appointments should be ratified by the Council members.

The Secretariat should be lean and skills based, not exceeding 100. The officers nominated by the States should be paid by the state governments. They would represent state government interests even as they work for the Council. Having both, ministers and senior officers from state governments, represented in the Council and its Secretariat respectively, is federalism at its best. The ensuing bottom upwards consensus will facilitate time bound decision making. This may be a baby step for federalism, but it is a huge leap for indivisible India.

ITax

Last week’s “revolt” by senior income tax officers, meeting in Mumbai, against alleged micro management by the Union Revenue Secretary is unlikely to bother the average citizen. If anything, citizens would welcome glitches in tax collection behind which they can hide.

Mind the growing gap

But the revolt deserves attention because it illustrates a growing gap between officers and the political leadership. A similar gap resulted, earlier in 2015, in the extended and emotive agitation by army pensioners, for implementing the principle of One Rank One Pension (OROP). They and serving officers believed that it was a just demand being scuttled by the civil bureaucracy which acts as a gate keeper between the army and the political leadership. The revolt of the tax collectors is the second time that short circuited wires, between the political leadership and field level officers, are being exposed.

Bad strategy but genuine angst

The instrument chosen, by the tax officers, to voice their concerns via a resolution is questionable in terms of its efficacy as is the selection of the flash point for making their case. Unlike the army, income tax officers are no ones’ favourite person. The income tax department is, unfortunately, generally perceived as being self-serving and uncaring of citizen rights. Consequently, an upsurge of public sentiment in their support, as was the case for OROP, is unlikely. More likely, citizens would advocate even harsher disciplinary measures to pull up the department. Collecting tax is a thankless job.

The choice of flash point is similarly questionable — the transfer of a tax officer who allegedly adopted unfair means to boost his end-of-year performance. He issued a huge tax demand on a public sector bank just prior to the annual deadline and then allowed a refund of most of the tax amount immediately thereafter — a cynical “win-win” strategy for both the officer and the bank.

No one could possibly defend the officer’s use of “temporary tax terrorism” tactics. But the summary manner in which he was “punished” by being transferred (not officially a punishment), on the intervention of the Revenue Secretary, seems to have rankled. It does not help matters that the Revenue Secretary is traditionally from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) but exercises oversight over the functioning of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) under which around 8000 Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officers work. Incidentally there are seven senior officers of the IRS in the CBDT — the apex body for exercising operational control over direct tax administration. But none of them can ever break through the glass ceiling prescribed for them of the rank of a Special Secretary. This is lower than that of the Revenue Secretary, though they get the same pay.

Only empowered agencies perform

In India, we have not developed a culture of equality between field agencies and the secretariat. It is only in the armed forces that the correct equation between the secretariat and the field agency is maintained. This is visible during the republic day celebrations. In the line up to greet the President, the Vice President and the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary stands lower down than the three service chiefs of the army, the air force and the navy. This is how it should be for all field level entities of the government. The officer in the secretariat must never be the person perceived to be in charge of the field level operations. Maintaining the principle of unity of command and responsibility is a pre-condition for efficient functioning within an agency.

Towards a more nerdy Secretariat  

nerd

The job of the secretariat is to assist the Minister in parliamentary work. It is perverse to adorn secretariat positions with high level administrative powers. The nuts and bolts of administration must be outsourced to the concerned agencies created specifically for the purpose. The role of the secretariat must shrink. The example of Minister for Railways, Suresh Prabhu, is worth emulating. One of the first things he did, on assuming charge, was to delegate away most of the operational powers, centralized in his office, to the Regional General Managers. A secretariat officer enhances value, not by banging people on their heads, but by skillfully using an insider’s appreciation of the operating environment and superior analytic skills to facilitate the functioning of field agencies. Making officers in field agencies perform better is squarely the job of the head of the concerned agency.

In a more evolved work environment, the secretariat is where policy and legislation is formulated. The field agency is where programmes are fleshed out and operations monitored for results. The relationship between the two must not be hierarchical as it inevitably is today. Policy formulation and programme implementation are two entirely different albeit symbiotic specialisations. There must be give and take between the two. One way of ensuring this is to make the heads of both the secretariat and the field agency of equal rank. Indeed, this is one way a Minister — who often might not be well acquainted with her charge — gets a rounded perspective of the issue at hand.

The bottom line is that, whilst the Mumbai IRS officers have chosen their battle badly, their cause, as indeed the cause of all other specialised government agencies and cadres, needs deeper consideration.

We should be moving over to a new governance architecture which values specialisation and extends equal opportunities to all cadres, particularly those which already exist in the Union government. IAS officers, unlike officers from the IRS, are on deputation from the state government cadres to the Union government. The IRS is a home grown, central government cadre. The logic for not letting the IRS manage its own house is questionable. Inserting an IAS officer between the political leadership and the IRS seems an archaic and inefficient way of managing the vital tax function.

The manner in which a majority of the senior positions in the Union government are “reserved” for the IAS is archaic because it does not recognise the heightened role for specialisation in modern administration. Law, Tax, Public Finance, Infrastructure, Human Development, Industry and Trade, Natural Resource Management, Defence, Security and Intelligence are all stand-alone disciplines in which practitioners spend their entire working lives. It is inconceivable that value can be added in policy formulation; program conceptualisation or project implementation, without the relevant experience and skill.

Lift the glass ceiling for specialized central services

Inflection points are always graphically depicted by glass ceilings getting smashed. Institutional wisdom lies in removing glass ceilings as soon as they develop cracks and well before they are smashed by the force of change.

smash

 

Rebranding Indian Rail

IR1

Indian Railways: Lifeline of the Nation” — runs the bold title of a 2015 government white paper. But the reality is that post-1991 the Indian Railways (IR), whilst retaining its high ritual status, ceded ground to competition from road transport.

Too many consultant chefs

It has only itself to blame. The railways steadfastly stonewalled all attempts to reform its operations. Over the past 15 years, railway operations have been studied by no less than six high-level committees, under Rakesh Mohan (2001), Sam Pitroda (2012), Montek Singh Ahluwalia (2014), Rakesh Mohan (National Transport Development Committee, 2014), D.K. Mittal (2014) and Bibek Debroy (2015). There was no committee chair from the railways.

There are seven executive members of the Railway Board, its highest body, that functions directly under the railway minister. There are 9,124 senior Group A railway officers who are specialists in finance, commercial services, maintenance, operations, construction and production of rolling stock. It’s odd, therefore, that the government has never trusted these professionals to come up with a vision of what “the lifeline of the nation” should look like. In fact, this illustrates that reform was never an internally driven priority.

No internal support for reform in IR

Admittedly, with a large workforce of 1.3 million, unionisation in the railways is strong. George Fernandes, former railway minister (1989-1990) and Janata Party luminary, sowed his wild oats as a firebrand, railway union leader. But this is exactly why the Narasimha Rao brand of “reform by stealth” cannot work for the Indian Railways. The bottomline is that in such huge industrial enterprises there is no alternative to a broad consensus around reform and approaching it head-on.

Road wins versus rail

Truck

The railways languished in the post-reform era as it was unable to build private partnerships and leverage its assets. The government too seemed to have given up on it and turned its attention to building highways instead. So as rail passenger transportation doubled, road passenger transportation has trebled since 1990-91. The railways’ share of freight decreased from 53 per cent in 1986-87 to less than 30 per cent today.

The Indian Railways lost ground as it got mired in its own corrosive image of a government entity focused on social objectives — providing cheap, even free, travel. Thus, it lost sight of its mission to become the “economic lifeline” of the nation. Communist China moves less passengers kilometre per kilometre of its rail network than India. But it moves four times more freight kilometer per kilometre of its network than India. The India Railways’ priorities are time-warped around passenger traffic.

The seamless movement of freight over long distances can cut the cost of production and make industry competitive. Long-distance freight is best moved by rail. But the Indian Railways lost the freight business due to a monopolistic tariff policy for bulk freight, such as for coal, iron ore, cement and foodgrains. It is similar for the power sector. Bulk consumers like industry are still charged at penal rates to cross-subsidise rural and retail consumers.

Fuzzy mission

Railway minister Suresh Prabhu, like several of his predecessors, is articulate, public-spirited and full of ambitious programmes spelt out in his Railway Budget speech this year. On offer is more public investment to remove the choke points which congest and slow down traffic; a more extensive search for alternative revenues from station redevelopment and the monetisation of assets; better passenger facilities and continued implementation of the dedicated freight corridors.

SPrabhu

But clarity on the Indian Railways’ core mission is missing. This has to be, first and foremost, the movement of freight and increasing the railways’ market share in the city and suburban passenger traffic.

Three reform measures are preconditions for success.

City and suburban travel

metro

First, it is SMART to switch city and suburban passenger traffic to rail from road. The savings on travel time and the avoided cost of air pollution justify such investments. But this is an option only if we can make these systems attractive for private investment and management. Assured viability gap funding on the back of regular adjustment of tariff is a must. The experience of “independent” regulators in electricity shows that in large metros, with high income levels, cost-reflective tariffs can work, if customers can transparently see for themselves the value proposition the service offers.

Use scarce capital to move freight

IRFreight

Second, allocation of public capital across competing projects has to be “value for money”. The railways’ passenger and freight businesses should be insulated silos for accounting purposes so that costs and revenues can be allocated to each service. Our rail freight tariff is on average 40 per cent more than China’s. But our passenger tariff is on average 75 per cent cheaper. Investing to make freight move four times faster at 100 km per hour instead of 25 km per hour makes sense as there is room to reduce tariffs and expand business. Investing to move passengers at 130 kmph, instead of 70 kmph, makes no sense because although passengers are willing to pay for it the Indian Railways is not willing to charge for it.

Go for partnerships

Third, the Indian Railways must think of itself as part of a supply chain rather than a stand-alone competitor. It must seek partnerships with air, road and marine transporters, and with traffic aggregators that can yield better returns. This is possible through transparent contracts, even as the railways remains a government entity.

In 1990-91, India had few choices except to reform by stealth. We have moved on since then. The reform constituency has grown. The real concern now is how to insulate losers from the pain of change and development. Loss of employment or of land must be fairly and adequately compensated. Using scarce fiscal resources for this purpose aligns with equity and is more efficient to bump up aggregate demand than across-the-board public sector pay increases.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, July 27, 2016  http://www.asianage.com/columnists/3-reforms-put-railways-fast-track-019

 

solar plane

Solar Impulse 2 touches down in Spain completing a historic trans Atlantic flight. photo credit: dispatch.com

Air India recently made headlines by offering last-minute unsold seats at the price of AC rail tickets. It makes a lot of business sense for the national carrier: every marginal rupee it earns adds to its bottom line. More important, the fact that its bottom line is attracting leadership-level eyeballs is welcome for a state-owned company that budgeted for government support of Rs 19,900 crores over the 2012-16 period.

This new initiative could bomb if it makes regular air travelers, who are time flexible,wait till the last minute to book tickets. This would squeeze revenues further. But if it induces rail travelers to fly instead, it will be a win-win. This is a calculated risk that must be tested. What is more significant is that it signals the Maharaja’s changed can-do business-oriented approach.

air india2

Disruptive pricing or funded wars for market-share

Disruptive price innovation in passenger travel as a whole is a welcome move to squeeze out hidden value. This should be distinguished from the price war unleashed by private low-cost airlines a decade ago, and again in 2014, to gain market share within aviation. As the e-commerce market has found, funding losses to push out the competition quickly reaches the endpoint. Air India, a full-service airline, unlike some private carriers which levy hidden costs for baggage, seat allocation and food, should be encouraged to go further and explore all commercial options for expanding the air travel pie. Pulling away rail travelers, willing to pay AC fares, to fly instead is a good one.

Less than one per cent or 60 million inter-city travelers choose to fly. For most, the higher cost is the barrier. But for significant numbers easy connectivity is also an issue. Civil aviation is the neglected child of the ersatz socialism we have long practised. So deep is the association of private enterprise and markets with the rich that even this government, with its massive mandate, has to battle populist urges to stay on course with its reform agenda.

The socialist bias against air travel

Till just two years back, the thought of air travel competing with trains was a fantasy. Seen through the binary vision of poor versus non-poor, air travel is a luxury used mostly by the non-poor. Imposing penal taxes on air travel is therefore only a natural corollary of this bias.

The good news is that such mindsets are changing. The Union government has worked quietly but effectively since 2014 to convince state governments not to levy penal taxes on air turbine fuel, which cripple expansion of this sector. The fuel cost is 50 per cent of an airline’s total costs. State governments earlier saw air travel as a cash cow and levied VAT at penal rates of up to 29 per cent.

Government intervenes to correct the tax disincentives

But now several states, most affected by poor connectivity, wisely responded to the Union government’s efforts to de-demonise air travel. Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal slashed VAT to nominal levels in late 2014. Even CPI(M)-ruled Tripura was persuaded to reduce VAT to 18 per cent. Around 50 per cent of air traffic today and the bulk of profits are from flights linking the seven large metros. The need for better regional connectivity is obvious in a country of India’s size, that is also saddled with our dodgy surface transport infrastructure. Travelling from Kanyakumari, on the Indian Ocean, to Jammu, just below the Himalayas, or from Dwarka, on the Arabian Sea,K to Dibrugarh in Assam takes at least three days by train and even longer by road.

The Centre has launched a parallel scheme to improve air connectivity by creating a special fund to finance the gap in financial viability for linking Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities by air. There are around 50 of these. The pity is that this initiative is seen as fulfilling a social objective. This is an effective way to kill the long-term sustainability of air operations on these routes.

Regional air travel a wooly “social” objective  or just good economics?

Regional connectivity shouldn’t be branded as a populist goody. Air connectivity drives and contributes to growth and decent jobs. Globally, every job created directly in civil aviation leads to an additional six jobs indirectly. Only a link with growth will induce serious air operators to see the proposed subsidy as an initial sweetener rather than a perpetual crutch. Faster and better passenger trains are an option too. But it will take at least two decades to build upgraded rail tracks and the appropriate rolling stock. Our fastest passenger trains run at an average speed of only 80 km/hour. High-speed trains of the type envisaged between Mumbai and Ahmedabad and later between New Delhi and Varanasi can be viable only on high-density routes. These also cost a packet. The intrepid Elon Musk of the SpaceX rocket venture; Tesla Solar Wall and automated electric car, envisages a disruptive technology – travel by Hyperloop — an elevated tube mounted on pylons with passenger pods pushed through at hyper-speeds using electro-magnetic waves.

hyper loophyper loop2

The ball park estimate is a capital cost at $6 billion, just a fraction of the $68 billion, planned to be spent on the high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Musk concedes that beyond 1,500 km, air travel would still be cheaper.But this innovation in transportation is yet to be piloted and tested. Commercialization is unlikely before 2030 though Musk is pushing for 2020.

Air travel also more safe and easy to secure than surface transport

In lightly-policed countries like ours, the security and safety of ultra high-speed inter-city passenger trains is a matter of some concern. Air travel is more difficult to cripple and offers higher security levels as it is off the ground. It is suitable for connecting urban growth hubs at distances beyond 500 km under our “enclaved pattern” of development

The Maharaja has kicked-off its strategy to meet the competition in a fiscally sustainable and affordable manner. More power to the elbow of the civil aviation leadership to grow the pie of the air travel business.

air india

Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age, July 18, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/incentivise-air-travel-new-links-will-boost-growth-825

 

rajan thinker

Rajan the thinking central banker: photo credit: bloomberg.com

Raghuram Rajan, India’s central banking czar, will be history by September 2016. He enjoys unprecedented popularity and near cult status as Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Some of this has to do with his youthful looks and fresh demeanor — unusual in a profession peopled by dour old men. But much of his appeal is related to the confidence and skill he brings to the job, which he plunged into in weeks, rather than the months, which are the usual learning curve.

Even business — usually taciturn about rooting for bureaucrats, has also publicly supported his conservative strategy to keep the rupee stable; build foreign reserves; check inflation and ensure reasonable positive real interest rates, to protect the large mass of middle-class savers. International capital flows, which are as much about fundamentals as about the Iqbal — the credibility and charisma — of the central bank, responded well to his strategy for stability with fundamental reform.

Job specific technical brilliance and international standing matters

Rajan is the first RBI governor to came to the job with considerable experience in international finance (in the IMF) and even more significantly, a long spell in American academia, in the same area. To the billionaires who make the markets move, Rajan is a familiar face, with a track record of original thinking and practical foresight. He is best known for disagreeing with mainstream economists and foretelling the 2008 financial meltdown.

Rajan’s exquisite symphony- the “Dardnama” (book of pain)

In India, his legacy is the exquisite symphony, he wrote, of caution mixed with big-bang reforms. On interest rates, he was consistently cautious. His mantra was that flooding the economy with cheap money is not a quick-fix for growth. Instead, it can spark off high inflation, as in Brazil.

To the common man, this resonates well with the millennium’s continuing conundrum of jobless, inequitable, high growth. There are no quick fixes for these flaws in today’s post-industrial, service-oriented growth model. Rajan had no choice except to focus on keeping inflation low; preserving the real incomes of the disadvantaged who don’t have the luxury of inflation-indexed incomes and pushing banks and industry hard to become competitive.

His historic big reform was break with the past and publicly finger banks that had lent inefficiently, destroyed capital and most likely enhanced corruption — given the magnitude of bad loans accumulated by them since 2011.

He shone a bright light on the dodgy bank loans overburden- shockingly high at more than 12% of bank assets and 4% of GDP, rather than keeping them hidden under furtive, refinance Ponzi schemes. He was likened by “incremental reformers” to a bull in a china shop — pulling down both fraudsters and unlucky entrepreneurs with equal ferocity.

Admittedly, big-bang reforms shake up the cozy status quo and inflicts pain. But if followed through with decisive surgery, as Rajan recommended, it could have created sustainable wealth, in the medium term, rather than slowly bleed the financial system till it collapses, as happened in the developed world in 2008.

“Big bang” reforms too disruptive for India’s political economy

Will there ever be another Rajan as RBI governor? More importantly do we need another Rajan, given our political economy?

India is a conflicted society — at once eulogizing “savants” like Rajan, and yet shrinking away from the ripples they create in the village pond. It takes a lifetime of work in India to play the system harmoniously. Rajan came before India was ready for him. So while we may not be able to digest a Rajan today, there is unlikely to be a shortage of “suitable” talent. But the real pity is — why have we tried to “fix” a system that is not broken. Why not let the good work continue?

Tough global headwinds for the new Governor

head winds

Grapic credit: janeaustenslondon.com

The irony is that by letting Rajan go in September this year, the government will actually be cementing his “rock star” legacy. The second half of 2016 is blighted by uncertainty and will be hell for the new governor. First, is the near-term question mark over Brexit on June 23. If the “Leavers” win, Europe is surely in for turbulent times. But this may not actually happen, as the British are far too practical to be brash and emotional.

Second, even without a Brexit, the economic outlook is gloomy. Protectionism is growing and geopolitical instability is getting worse. These are fertile grounds for a flight of capital to safety and away from emerging markets like India. A tightening by the US Federal Reserve in the second half of this year may convert the capital flight into an outward-bound tsunami, severely denting our foreign exchange reserves and importing instability.

Oily silver linings and political compulsions

vote 2016

India’s largest state-Uttar Pradesh, votes in 2016: photo credit: teluguflavours.com

The only good news is that oil prices are likely to remain low. The low lead time for the mothballed 500-odd oil fracking rigs in the United States to return to work ensures that any uptick in price beyond $50 will deliver a supply response. Saudi Arabia, with nominal production costs, a deficit budget and a deficit current account and a proposed public listing for its oil company, is unlikely to rein in production or oil revenue. But low oil prices also depress incomes in oil-producing countries, which is bad for Indian exports and disastrous for inward remittances — that are largely dependent on the Gulf countries remaining lucrative employment sinks for Indian expatriates.

Low growth potential in the coming years, combined with the domestic compulsions of the largest state election in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and three smaller states and a national election in 2019, are likely to strain the fiscal discipline, which the finance minister has assiduously built up since 2014. Rajan was lucky. But had yet to be “Indianised”. He would have got there. But time ran out.

Job description for applicants

queue

India financial leadership job vacant- only the best need apply: photo credit: blogs.wsj.com

Needed an RBI Governor with the political acumen to align with the government’s compulsions. Must be able to quickly improve the well-being of voters. Must also have the economic guile to minimize the resultant damage caused by politics to the economy. Must have his finger on the pulse of Bharat; the experience of having walked this tightrope earlier and the good fortune of being lucky. Must be able to strike practical deals — with big defaulters to ensure that capital starts getting rolled over; with banks so that interest rate cuts are passed on to borrowers; with the government so that Rajan’s “dosanomics” inspired efficiency enhancing incentives are carried forward: cut red tape and discretion in licensing of financial intermediaries; keep interest rates positive in real terms; exercise forensic oversight over banking discipline. Must be reconciled to the macro-economic ball being carried mostly by the government. Must have the access and ability to discreetly warn the government against scoring self-goals.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, June 19, 2016 : http://www.asianage.com/columnists/does-rbi-needs-political-governor-511

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