governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Funding the Republic

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The tricolour flutters happily at the Peer Makhdum Shah Dargah in Mahim, Maharashtra, hoisted by the peer’s devotees, as a symbol of the Indian Republic being alive and well. 

India is a Republic. But often it feels as though only the Union government must carry the can for doing unpleasant things – like levying tax on those who have the surplus income to add to the national kitty or getting heavy with tax evaders. Of course it is a juggalbandhi. The Union government invariably wants to grand-stand and hang on to financial muscle power so necessary to play “big brother”. State governments are only too keen to accept the federal goodies being thrown at them and thereby avoid the pain of efficiency enhancing structural reform in politics and in government. To be fair, the financial and political firepower of the Union government and individual states is asymmetric in favour of the former. This makes it difficult for a state to chart a lonely, unique, development path. The good news is we may be coming to the limits of this asymmetric sharing of development responsibilities.

The Union lacks funds for its core functions

Consider that rapid infrastructure development and public investment to strengthen competitive markets have become the stepchildren of the annual Union Budget process. This continues a trend, started by the previous government, of shoring up state government finances, at the risk of being stingy on spending in areas of its own core, constitutional mandate.

The Economic Survey 2017 notes that state fiscal deficits reduced sharply from 4.1 per cent to 2.4 per cent of the gross state domestic product (GSDP) over the last 10 years, since state governments adopted the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Enhanced Central transfers to states and reduced interest payments, courtesy debt restructuring, benefited states to the extent of 1.8 per cent of GSDP. To their credit, most states used the additional fiscal space to cover the revenue deficit and lower the fiscal deficit to below the target of three per cent of GSDP.

But how long can the Centre play the role of a responsible elder brother, darning his own clothes, whilst buying new ones for his younger siblings?

India’s poor infrastructure constrains growth. Low spending on infrastructure also limits job creation — something India needs. The Union government expenditure on infrastructure has increased from 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to an estimated 0.9 per cent of GDP in 2017-18. But it remains inadequate. Adding the state government and corporate — public and private — expenditure on infrastructure totals less than three per cent of GDP in 2017-18 versus the five per cent of GDP we should be spending.

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Dodgy infrastructure: the bane of the Republic. photo credit: indiamike.com

Repairing the broken system for bank credit and private investment

Bank and corporate finances are the second black hole which the Centre’s Budget was unable to address. Banks have accumulated bad loans to the extent of `12 trillion, or 17 per cent of their assets. The Economic Survey 2017 exhaustively discusses the “twin balance sheet problem” — of banks that must write down at least one half of the bad loans and of large private companies that face bankruptcy, for failing to use the loans productively over the past eight years.

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The finance minister has been explicit that the government should not bail out the private companies who made bad decisions. This is well-intentioned but difficult to implement.

There are 13 public sector banks that account for 40 per cent of these bad loans. Merging them with efficient banks can mask the problem for some more time. But such mergers can spread rather than contain the contagion. Selling or closing a failed public bank or enterprise requires courage and conviction. Our inclination is to retain the “crown jewels” no matter how tarnished they get. Air India has got a capital infusion of Rs 1,800 crores in 2017-18 on top of the Rs 5,765 crores over the last two years.

Fifty private companies account for 71 per cent of the bad loans. The public mood is for the government to go for their jugular. This will make it politically difficult for the government to fund write-downs of debt. But vigilantism against corporates can rock the growth story, which we can ill afford.

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A fast track quasi-judicial process must distinguish between “wilful” and unintended default, caused by systemic shock. Different rehabilitation regimes should be determined for the two categories of defaulters. Wilful defaulters should be pilloried. The downside is that picking and choosing defaulters, itself can perpetuate what this government abhors — crony capitalism.The finance minister has allocated Rs 10,000 crores in 2017-18 for recapitalising banks. This is a placeholder. All eyes are trained on the additional resources unearthed by demonetisation. The RBI is yet to disclose the value of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes which remain undeposited. This may be around Rs 1 trillion. Transferring the resultant excess sovereign assets, from the RBI to banks, can buy some breathing room.

Second, the incremental tax collection from demonetised “black money” deposited in banks, can fund infrastructure development or recapitalise banks, as it dribbles in over the next two years. This windfall was to be distributed to the poor as cash support. But recapitalising publicly-owned banks, albeit with more vigorous oversight and more transparent and intrusive stress tests, has a higher priority. More credit for corporates translates into more investments, more jobs and higher economic growth. These are the fundamentals that must accompany fiscal stability.

More “give” rather than just “take”, needed from States

We are in the middle of an incipient financial emergency, which can be triggered by a shock. The RBI cautions against thinking that inflation has been tamed. Other than food and oil, where prices remain low, inflation hovers just below the red flag of five per cent. This limits the headroom available to overshoot the fiscal deficit red flag of three per cent of GDP.

The Centre needs considerable fiscal slack to fund infrastructure development and recapitalise the banks. State governments can help by enhancing their own tax resources. Imposing income tax on agricultural income and vigorously collecting property tax are low hanging fruit available to them. These measures can add around one per cent of GSDP to their resources. This will enable the Union government to scale back the long list of Central sector schemes for human development and social protection and use the funds instead for its core mandate — developing infrastructure, markets and a competitive private sector.

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The Goods and Services Tax Council meets: State’s follow the take rather than give strategy. 

States may well ask why they should bother, since they were never partners in the illicit gains from mega crony capitalism. But this would be short-sighted. Faltering economic growth adversely affects all boats. An increase of six per cent in economic growth boosts state government tax revenue by one percentage of GDSP with more jobs in tow. But above all, cooperative federalism must have some give — along with the take. This is the time for states to give to the Republic, as equal partners in national development.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age, February 14, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/140217/to-raise-resources-give-and-take-needed.html

Red flags for FM Jaitley

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley

The embattled Finance Minister Arun Jaitley – clearly aware that the knives are out for him

 

Finance minister Arun Jaitley will be fighting from a tight corner on February 1, 2017, boxed in by low domestic demand and the approaching international headwinds of a protectionist United States.

Fighting on the backfoot is new to this government, which had it easy over the first two years. The windfall from falling oil and commodity prices created fiscal space over the last two years to check the right boxes on fiscal deficit and inflation. High interest rates kept the rupee strong. Deft footwork also boosted GDP numbers since 2014 to signal a new age of high economic performance.

Here are six red flags, which track if the finance minister’s courtroom fighting abilities are still intact as he presents Budget 2017-18.

red-flagDoes the growth estimate triangulate?

The estimate for growth during the current year 2016-17 and 2017-18 will show whether the government recognises that it has a problem. Assumptions of unrealistically high growth have a domino effect. They reduce the credibility of the tax revenue projections and the size of the fiscal deficit both of which track GDP growth. GDP growth estimates above 10 per cent in current prices (corresponding to six per cent in constant prices) or a number higher than Rs 149.5 trillion for 2016-17 and above 10.5 per cent in current prices (corresponding to 6.5 per cent constant prices), for 2017-18 is a red flag showing the government is burying its head in the sand.

red-flagDo the tax revenue estimates sound real?

An estimate for gross tax receipts, including the share of the states in Centrally-levied taxes, higher than the 10.8 per cent of GDP budgeted for in 2016-17 is unrealistic. Sticking to this level may be termed not aggressive enough in the context of the hyped-up expectations from the attack on black money. But note that this level was previously last achieved seven years ago, in 2007-08 before the financial crisis. Now, with fresh uncertainties in demand and corporate profitability, it remains an aggressive target. Anything higher is dodgy.

Any incentives for tax compliance?

red-flagAssuming higher average revenue from increased indirect tax rates, when the Goods and Services Tax rates have still to be negotiated with the states, give the wrong signals for growth, business and private consumption. On direct tax, some fiscal courage is required. Dilute the disincentive to evade tax, inherent in high tax rates — currently between 10 to 30 per cent — for middle-income earners up to an annual income of Rs 24 lakhs. It is reasonable to expect that better compliance will compensate for the hit taken on lower tax rates. Not doing so flags low confidence in the responsiveness of the tax machine to broaden the tax base. Challenging the machine to do better can work. Try it.

red-flagAre there band aids for the victims of demonitisation? 

Economic shocks affect the poor the most. Eighty per cent of the poor live in rural areas. The bottom 40 per cent of the population are either poor — a constantly changing group averaging around 22 per cent of the population — or are non-poor but vulnerable to fall into poverty due to personal or systemic shocks.

The allocation for rural poverty alleviation in 2016-17 is Rs 0.6 trillion across four schemes. The ongoing National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is a second best but a practical, quick-start option to scale up income transfer to the poor to insulate them for the twin economic shocks.

NREGA operates in all the 707 districts of India. This is politically sensible but wasteful. Out of the 29 states there are nine states in which the proportion of the poor exceeds the national average of 22 per cent. These “stressed states” should be specifically targeted. Separately, the government should target 40 per cent of the poorest districts, using the “poverty gap/person equivalent” metric to ensure that there is an incentive to first transfer income to the poorest of the poor. Anything less than an enhanced outlay of Rs 1 trillion for poverty alleviation red flags an irresponsible development strategy.

red-flagHas the fiscal deficit become an unreal holy grail?

Mr Jaitley has been steadfast in lowering the fiscal deficit from the level of 4.3 per cent in 2013-14 — the terminal year of the previous government. He courageously embraced the daunting target of 4.1 per cent, naughtily left for him to deal with by P. Chidambaram in the interim Budget for 2014-15.

He succeeded in meeting the target against all expectations. But he was subsequently, practical enough, to retain a target of 3.5 per cent of GDP for 2016-17 instead of the planned three per cent. Inflation is currently low, at well under five per cent per year — the target level determined in the monetary policy framework. The US generated economic shocks to world trade; to growth and to world demand will keep commodity prices low.

It is good to recollect that the fiscal deficit peaked at 6.5 per cent in 2009-10 soon after the financial crisis of 2008. We are yet again in a perfect storm of domestic and external shocks. The need of the hour is to be practical not foolhardy. If the finance minister chooses valour over vision and sticks to a fiscal deficit target of three per cent for 2017-18, the red flag of fiscal cowardice should go up. The brave accept challenges and fight them openly.

red-flagHas public investment been provided for?

Sluggish private investment requires that the slack be met by public investment. Banks are to be recapitalised, infrastructure developed and armaments upgraded. 2016-17 targeted 1.6 per cent of GDP for Central government investment expenditure. Budget allocations have always trailed actual investment expenditure so there is room for some bravado here. The investment red flag must be raised if targeted investment in 2017-18 is below two per cent of GDP.

To navigate the dragnet of stagnant tax income, lower growth and low demand, the finance minister must avoid raising any of the six red flags. To do so, he must systematically cut waste and pork to balance the Budget transparently.

green-flagPushing for doubling revenues from privatisation to a never-achieved estimate of Rs 1 trillion is one button he should press for increasing the fiscal leeway available to him. This will also signal that the reform process is alive and well. There is nothing like a resource constraint to separate the winners from the also ran.

Adapted from the author’s artcile in Asian Age, February 1, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/010217/red-flags-that-finance-minister-must-not-ignore.html

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In a welcome change of national focus, becoming rich is no longer enough unless the poor are taken along. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is very au fait with international headwinds, was prescient in his December 31 address. For the first time, it was not the youth, nor non-resident Indians, nor Hindus, that the PM was focusing on. His attention was primarily on the travails of the poor. He donned the mantle, first evoked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi four and a half decades earlier in 1971, of a pro-poor proselytiser.

Recovering lost ground

Speaking in the shadow of the economic storm unleashed by the demonetisation of 86 per cent of the currency in November and December 2016, Mr Modi extolled the poor for their patience and resilience. They had shown, he said, “…even people trapped in poverty, are willing to… build a glorious India… through persistence, sweat and toil (they), have demonstrated to the world, an unparalleled example of citizen sacrifice.”

The finance minister would do well to gauge which way the wind is blowing when he rises to present the fiscal 2017-18 Budget on February 1. It is not as if the poor were ignored in the earlier three Budgets presented by him. But they only figured tangentially. Growth, macro-economic stability, infrastructure and jobs for the middle-class young, the usual Davos consensus, took pride of place.

A sombre 2017 ahead

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We face a sombre fiscal year ahead. The International Monetary Fund’s economic outlook — a source the finance minister has used previously to highlight India’s outlier growth performance since 2014 — has projected a growth of only 6.6 per cent in 2016 — one percentage point less than the 7.6 per cent estimated pre-demonetisation. Worse, even growth in 2017 at 7.2 per cent will suffer. Even this is dependent on the shock being temporary. The subtext is that if the ongoing jihad against corruption is extended indefinitely and indiscriminately, business sentiment will collapse. Corruption is a curse. But it must be tackled surgically by an army of savvy saints, who are hard to find.

Lower growth in 2017 would reduce tax revenues. Hopefully this can be compensated by taxing some of the Rs 4 trillion, suspected to be dodgy money, deposited in banks during demonetisation.

Sops only for revenue and economic return multipliers

This stash should also encourage the finance minister to take the risk of slashing income-tax rates to boost revenue through better tax compliance and boost demand. The maximum tax rate for an annual income between Rs 25 to Rs 50 lakhs should be 15 per cent (current rate 30 per cent), with suitably lower rates for lower income slabs. The tax on income between Rs 2.5 to Rs 10 lakhs should be broad-banded at five per cent (current rate 10 to 30 per cent). Tax studies show that the revenue dividend is more pronounced by reducing tax in the lower income slabs. This is probably because the proportionate cost of evasion reduces at higher income levels so it is tough to beat. High income wallahs tax arbitrage internationally via corporate earnings. So, they declare domestically only enough to justify their easily verifiable lifestyle and assets.

Lower growth also red flags the fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP, which acts as a cap on public borrowing to spend. High fiscal deficits can lead to inflation and public indebtedness. But courtesy demonetisation money is cheap. Banks deposits have swelled by Rs 6 trillion since October 28, 2016. This is low-interest money waiting to be used by the government and its assorted entities. Inflation is well below the target five per cent. This presents the option for temporarily breaching the fiscal deficit target of three per cent for 2017-18 to infuse income into the poorest households.

Rich farmers, poor workers

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Sops for agriculture are falsely conflated with poverty-reduction objectives. Admittedly, investing in agricultural growth is an efficient strategy for reducing poverty. Eighty per cent of the poor live in rural areas. But this is too blunt an approach.

Fifty-four out of 180 million rural households (30 per cent) own no land and survive on manual labour. Benefits from agricultural growth are indirect for the poor. Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Muslims are overrepresented in this group. They need instant relief. Consumption loans of Rs 20,000 for each household, deposited into bank accounts, repayable by labour in village improvement schemes, can combine the advantages of a direct benefits strategy, coupled with the self-selecting benefits of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act programme. This requires an allocation of Rs 1 trillion — three times the NREGA allocation. This would be a fit use for the demonetisation windfall.

Neo-middle class vulnerable to sliding back into poverty

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But income support is a short-term mechanism to reduce poverty. The World Bank assesses that the Indian growth strategy, whilst effective in pulling people out of poverty, is less effective in keeping them out of poverty. By 2012 poverty levels were down to 22 per cent, from 45 per cent in 1994. But an astonishingly high 41 per cent in the neo-middle class were vulnerable to sliding back into poverty. Even in the go-go years (2005 to 2012) around seven per cent of the neo-middle class slid back into poverty. Sudden economic stress, like the loss of jobs, can significantly increase this proportion.

Reduce multidimensional poverty through better services 

Vulnerability to sliding back into poverty can be fixed if the poor get steady jobs, which are more likely if they are educated. Shocks to household budgets can be mitigated by access to healthcare. Nutrition can be improved through clean water supply and sanitation. Lower tax on low-income earners reduces the effective cost of labour versus capital, making labour competitive in the formal sector. Public services, which reduce the multidimensional index of poverty, can be ramped up by the private sector, if the government provides viability gap funding.

Junk low economic return schemes & protect the poor from shocks

India can be on track, to meet the interim sustainable development goal of reducing the level of extreme poverty to nine per cent by 2020, if we safeguard growth and cocoon the poor from shocks by providing access to better public services. The finance minister must identify the allocations specifically for the core objectives and discard the chaff generated by the testosterone of high growth.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age January 20, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/200117/safeguard-poor-bring-india-back-on-track.html

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Public sector angst

So, what is it about social media which gets sarkari types hyperventilating about their gripes and grouses? First, we have members of the para military forces seeking sympathy for the poor living conditions they suffer on duty. Next, we have a General, passed over for promotion, pedaling conspiracy theories around his being overlooked. To cap it all the managing director of Air India laments that a CBI investigation into improper procurement could sabotage the critical turn-around of the publicly owned airline. 

Why for instance do the owners and employees of private companies not do the same. Why didn’t Mr. Ratan Tata wring his hands on social media about the underhand way his successor was cutting the ground from under his feet? Or, for that matter, why hasn’t Netaji – Mulayam Singh Yadav – done the same about the goings on of his son? Why don’t we get to hear more stories of backstabbing, sell outs and short-circuited ambition from the private sector? I suspect the private sector guys feel that exposing their angst on social media is unlikely to generate any public sympathy for them. Working to improve the bottom line of a private company does not gel with the popular concept of national service. Never mind that using resources efficiently and maximizing output and productivity are the corner stone of growth oriented, competitive economies. In India “profit” remains a dirty, exploitative word.

Not even bumbling saints

At the very least public sector officers could be bumbling saints – role models of honesty, diligence and accomplishment. But forget efficiency most do not even have the basic attributes of rectitude. We saw this in the abandon with which public sector bank employees participated in the conversion of old black into new black recently during notebandi. The reasons why more sarkari types do not conform to the ideal are complex. Low organizational expectations from them; a performance system which provides huge rewards for competing successfully for the market (getting a public-sector job) but virtually no rewards for competing in the market (continuously improving performance in the job); lax disciplinary procedures for miscreants and low accountability, all serve to cocoon the public servant in an impregnable miasma of collective might versus citizen demands.  

Antiquated management systems

Continuously improving public sector systems are part of the job of a public servant. But India, today, has possibly the most antiquated public management processes. This despite the availability of funds for purchase of equipment, procurement of technical expertise and the powers to make changes in existing rules being pervasive. But for years the job of managing the household efficiently has taken a backseat to racing ahead with announcing new initiatives for public good and spinning old initiatives into new ones.

High overheads

The overhead cost or, tail to teeth ratio, is very high in the public sector. Just the expenditure on salaries and pensions is around a quarter of the net revenue receipts of the central government. The administrative costs of managing offices – purchase of consumables, electricity, purchase of new equipment, maintaining and constructing offices and government houses, travel and communication costs are additional. 

In public sector accounting, employees matter more than machines. Getting boots on the ground and waving the flag is more important than empowering the employee. That is why Bollywood delights in stereotyping the bumbling cop who ambles up to a crime site gamely swinging nothing more than a lathi. A lathi costing Rs 300 is the sole piece of equipment the average policeman has. Never mind that the average police constable costs the government upwards of Rest 20,000 per month. Providing jobs is a means of empire building for politicians and far too often becomes a lucrative business for the recruiters.

It is no wonder then that “zero based budgeting (ZBB)” never took off. How could it? ZBB is based on the axiom that you can always do better. The past is nothing more than a sunk cost which must never hold back good decisions making in the future. But our public sector operating mantra is to never accept that a mistake has been made which needs to be corrected. Government auditors view all mistakes as evidence of waste. Never mind that individuals only learn by committing mistakes. A baby who is fearful of falling would never walk, let alone run. 

So, what is it that we can do differently in the public sector?

First, by providing cradle to grave employment, even at the officer level, we create a collective (the cadre) where only individuals need exist. Government must dispense with the cadre system for recruiting officers, which is at the heart of the problem. Recruit instead for specific positions against specific eligibility criterion. Open recruitment, on contract, would keep the officers on their toes. 

Second, adopt cost accounting metrics for budgeting. This would make operational systems more efficient and facilitate performance evaluation across verticals.

Third, decentralize financial and administrative powers extensively whilst making the reporting chain flatter. This is the first change Suresh Prabhu made as Minister for Railways in 2015. The beneficial impact is already visible. The IAS should be as adept at organizational development as at strategy or policy making. The incentive today is to shine in service delivery achievements. This is self-limiting once the low hanging fruits have been plucked.  

Fourth, we should experiment with flexible budgeting by broad banding expenditure allocations across schemes. This would enable the executive to maximize the physical impact of budgetary allocations based on the performance of schemes in the field. Parliamentary approval should be limited to setting the macro variables (primary deficit, revenue deficit, fiscal deficit, current account deficit, debt to GDP ratio and the assumption of economic growth) and approve the specific tax proposals. The specifics of how the money is spent should not be held hostage to Parliamentary approval. Parliament must safeguard the macroeconomic bottom line not become part of the executive in micromanaging expenditure via the power to allocate expenditure. 

Lastly, disciplining of errant public sector staff can be salutary. Mistakes happen. What is more important is that they should be corrected once they are detected. Severe sanctions should apply for those who commit rule infractions themselves or those who turn a blind eye to infractions by their subordinates, whilst managing to keep their own desk clean. Conversely, rewards must accrue for others who adopt a positive and proactive approach to rule infractions made without mala fide intention. Greater rewards should accrue, for those who can propose thoughtful changes in rules to plug loopholes and avoid repeat infractions in future.

Managing a government is very much like managing a large, noisy joint family. A combination of encouraging pats, dissuading slaps, a great deal of open discussion and well intentioned decisions made in public interest are the failsafe ingredients for a happy and productive public sector family.

 

 

professor

Some pictures may be worth a thousand words. But when the two are put together, as in a video, they evoke deep emotions and convey subliminal messages. Watch the master of the spoken word — Barack Obama, in his January 2016 address on the mundane subject of gun control in the United States and you will see what I mean. It is unfortunate, that despite the best talent in branding and outreach we fail to use words which convey our intent unambiguously.

Poor namkaran begets poor results

Consider the name of the government department, which is supposed to privatise the public sector. It was created in 1999 under the BJP-led NDA regime and helmed by finance minister Arun Jaitley. Even way back then, it was clear it would not take root. Mandated to raise capital through privatisation — it ended up being named, hypocritically, the department of disinvestment. “Divestment” would have been more proximate to the intent. But the fuzzy name, matched the lack of sustained resolve for a big-bang approach to privatising the public sector. It muddled along till, mysteriously, in April 2016, it was cumbersomely renamed as the department of investment and public asset management (DIPAM). It does nothing of the sort. Its core mandate remains to sell the industrial Central public sector. Public sector investment and asset management continue to be the mandate of every line ministry, for the state-owned enterprises (SOE) under them. No wonder then that the Central public sector not only lingers but grows.

In 2015, there were 235 operating SOEs. But an additional 63 were coming online. One-third of the operational SOE made a loss of Rs 27,000 crore in 2015. The data for 2016 is yet to be publicly shared. But there are unlikely to be surprises here. Named badly at birth, the department lingers on much like the loss-making SOEs.

Clever acronyms can mislead

bhim

Consider also the new government-sponsored payments app named Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) created by the National Payments Corporation. The app was ostensibly named after Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar — the learned dalit leader and constitutionalist. A payments app named after Babasaheb is quaint just as launching a human rights initiative in his name would resonate. The app is more likely to be associated with the brute power of the legendary Bhim from the Mahabharat conveying that the app is safe and impregnable. Yes, security is one important feature of an app. But it must also be nimble, adaptable, scalable, efficient and convenient to use. Bhim of the Mahabharat was none of these. Legend has it he was pretty resource-intensive — gobbling up nearly as much as all his four other siblings and was difficult to discipline, much like an invincible Robocop. “Killer app” is how kids term an outstanding app. But slang shouldn’t be taken literally to name government initiatives.

Words without momentum

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his New Year’s Eve address to the nation, fell into the same rhetorical trap of belting out a preachy sermon but chose the wrong words. He stressed purity, pain and renunciation as key processes for exorcising evil — in this case black money and corruption-fed terrorism, Naxalism and Maoism.

Left unanswered was who should feel the pain more and make sacrifices — the honest many or the dishonest few? Also, conflating Maoism and Naxalism with terrorism, drugs and loss of human rights is okay if you are a right-wing, conservative American. But in India, these misguided socio-economic movements are the consequences of state failure in providing a basic level of welfare to the poorest of the poor. One cannot simultaneously romance the poor for their virtues — fortitude and honesty; finger the rich for their vices — dishonesty in evading tax, wallowing in luxury in big city bungalows — and yet denounce social movements which seek to give voice to the marginalised, however unpalatable their senseless violence may be.

BJP – get your mojo back

The BJP came to power in 2014 as the voice of reform and growth. It has traditionally been private sector-friendly. This resonated with an India fed up with populism and ersatz socialism, unemployment, poverty and a low quality of life. Touting the cause of the poor by pulling down the rich was never meant to be the BJP’s trademark. The Communist parties and the Congress fight from that shrinking corner of the electoral base. The poor versus rich genie will now be difficult to put back into the bottle. This will be particularly so if growth disappoints and economic stability suffers — both of which are near-term probabilities.

A strong government can trample over many citizens’ rights so long as it can stuff the mouth of citizens with money — as in China. But no money, no jobs and no rights are the fertile grounds on which violence, Naxalism and Maoism thrive.

Keep the narrative simple, not simplistic

Multiple objectives in public governance are a recipe for disaster. One hopes that in the waning days of this fiscal the government will shed some of the fluff it has accumulated. Focusing on infrastructure, macro-stability and private sector-led growth is the only option for creating sustainable jobs and reducing poverty. If an all-out fight against corruption is a must, because of electoral promises, let it begin where corruption breeds. This is in the public and not in the private sector.

A trishul for action

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Three initiatives are overdue. First, make the funding of political parties open to public scrutiny. This is a far more important political reform than having simultaneous elections. Second, exorcise the public sector of corruption before terrorising the private sector. The bribe-giver is the victim of an unresponsive governance system. It is the bribe-taker who is delinquent. It is public sector banks, public service departments, the police and the lower judiciary which need to be “purified”, not the voting public. Third, restore the credibility of regulatory institutions by respecting Chinese walls purposefully built between them and the government. The Reserve Bank of India seems to be the latest victim of executive activism in the demonetisation snafu. Let’s ring the curtain down on disruptive, executive muscularity.

Adapted from the author’s article in Asian Age January 11, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/110117/to-create-new-india-3-initiatives-overdue.html

Fiscal love for job loss

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Times are tough. Exports are in free fall. The import bill is increasing as oil prices harden in response to the international oil cartel’s plans to cut production. Domestic demand is moribund despite the largesse of the Seventh Pay Commission for the public sector. The stock market has sagged. Informal sector jobs are under threat. We need a push to get people over this sullen hump.

Electoral compulsions

Four states, comprising one-fifth of the nation’s population, are about to elect provincial legislatures in the first quarter of 2017. From a national perspective, the BJP has little to lose but much to gain. Goa, that is ruled by the BJP, elects just two MPs; Punjab, ruled by ally Shiromani Akali Dal, elects 12; while Uttarakhand, ruled by the Congress, elects five MPs — which together account for a mere four per cent of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha.

It is Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the Samajwadi Party, which is the real prize. It elects 80 MPs (just under 15 per cent of total seats) to the Lok Sabha. Varanasi is the Prime Minister’s adopted constituency. This is the Hindu heartland of India. A wipeout in UP may not directly impact the BJPs prospects irretrievably in the 2019 general election. But a win would surely be a grand start to the campaign.

Finance Minister as fire fighter

Finance minister Arun Jaitley seems eager to salve those burnt by “notebandi”. He may offer some tax relief in the coming Budget, but that helps only a tiny sliver of the population — just two per cent who pay income-tax. Lower indirect taxes are hostage to progress on the Goods and Services Tax (GST). But a GST with multiple rates, and with the highest nominal rate at 28 per cent, is unlikely to reduce the incidence of indirect tax or drive growth in GDP.

The FM had budgeted a nominal GDP of Rs 151 trillion for this fiscal, 11 per cent higher than the nominal GDP last fiscal. This is now unlikely for two reasons. First, growth in real terms will slip by between one to two percentage points. Second, inflation is lower by one percentage point. Taken together the nominal GDP increase will be eight, not 11 per cent, over last year. Tax estimates are based on “nominal” GDP — real growth plus inflation. So, tax collection at 10.8 per cent of GDP will also slip by about Rs 0.4 trillion from the budgeted amount of Rs 16.3 trillion. There is little headroom in this fiscal to play with tax reduction.

Even in the next fiscal, with significant economic headwinds and domestic uncertainties, the prospects for a revival in growth is wishful thinking. Tax reform with lower taxes seems a far cry. A temporary income support mechanism is more appropriate.

The losers 

The population segment most affected by demonetisation is domestic migrant labour and their families in villages. Urban migrants live on and save from what they earn daily. Over a period of six months, the income shock will feed back into their families in villages as income transfers decrease or vanish and migrant labour return home.

The FM must provide a “package” to soften the hard landing at home for returning migrant labour. This is urgent. Migrant labour are highly aspirational, having seen the “good life” available in cities. Their aspirations must not be squashed. Of cours it is not easy to distinguish between those affected by the loss of employment and others who never had any. Targeted income support for migrants can be ruled out.  But a more generic income support for all those with stressed incomes is not as wasteful as it sounds.

Income support for stressed families in villages

Three approaches can be combined to suit the context. First, borrow the concept of “helicopter money” from the much talked about income transfer scheme. Make the support freely available on demand with very selected and easily verifiable eligibility criteria. Second, revive the now defunct notion of “taccavi loans”, which were used in the colonial period as a famine relief measure. Third, use a participative and transparent good governance approach to identify the beneficiaries. Ranking families by the extent of income loss in open village meetings mediated by village-level government officers is a useful way to develop consensus and reduce the mistargeting. Lastly, devise the support mechanism in a manner which eliminates the undeserving.

Give consumption loans at market rates repayable in labour

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The income support should be a loan and not a grant. This will deter those looking for a freebie. The interest rate should be reasonable but not subsidised for the same reason. Around 12 per cent per year, or one per cent per month can avoid misuse for interest arbitrage and yet peg it much lower that the unsecured informal market loans, which are available at an interest rate of 40 to 50 per cent per year, or between three to four per cent per month.

To further deter those looking for freebies and to make the scheme attractive only for those who really need the work, the loan and interest should be repayable only through around manual labour by the family in village works and not in cash. Around 50 days of labour can repay a loan of Rs 5000 along with accrued interest over six months. The advantage of this twist is that it leaves the migrant worker free to continue looking for work in cities,once he has secured a “taccavi” loan for his family to help them survive for six months without compromising the future through crippling debt. As in NREGA, the productivity of village-level work is very contextual and varies. But such inefficiencies are a small price to pay for the positive ripple effect of well targeted, publicly funded, social security schemes.

The fiscal burden is bearable.

Around 60-80 million such unsecured loans of Rs 5,000 each could cover all needy families (broadly 15 per cent households in urban areas and 30 per cent households in rural areas), with a sufficient margin to spare for the inevitable leakages from poor identification. The one-time cost of Rs 0.3-0.4 trillion can be met by either enlarging the allocation for NREGA (Rs 0.35 trillion for 2016-17) or by overshooting the fiscal deficit target by 0.25 percentage points (3.75 per cent instead of the budgeted 3.5 per cent). With weak retail demand, this temporary transgression from the fiscal deficit target is unlikely to be inflationary and in effect sustains rural demand.

Desperate times need innovation, with a human face, to soothe the hurt imposed by systemic shocks. Shielding the weak from the unbearable cost of bad economic decisions is a must, to preserve the consensus for change.

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Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age December 20, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/201216/fiscal-love-for-a-sullen-electorate.html

 

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Photo credit: Kundan Srivastava

A month has passed. Opinion is unanimous that demonetisation has failed as an instrument to end terror or black money. Brazen terror strikes continue. The shadow industry for converting black into white has perversely got a boost from a new business vertical — converting “old black” into “new black”. Worse still, the economy has taken a severe hit in the process. The good news is that committing mistakes is a sign of executive action. Mistakes fade from public memory if the government learns from them and takes corrective action. So what is the learning?

Too much black

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First, black money is too pervasive to be substantively reduced either via anti-corruption legislation; strong-arm tactics like “raids” or moral persuasion. We dont know the proportion of black money creaed out of crime – this is the most difficult to eradicate – and the proportion created due to the evasion of tax – either because the owner considers that she does not get enough for what she pays to government or because she is a congenital free rider. Post colonial democratic economies have this problem. Even after independence citizens continue to remain aleinated from the State. Free riding is the natural consequence of alienation.

Rationalise the tax regime

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Things become worse if the marginal rate is ficed very high mimicking what happens in other countries without considering the underlying social compact. India is one such economy. We tax at high rates from a narrow base and end up with a paltry tax to GDP ratio of around 20% (center and states included). High rates provide an incentive to evade tax. Our strategy has been to dilute the high marginal rate of tax by offering a slew of deductions if investments are channeled into government entities. Such tax avoidance options must be rationalised and reduced. Tax exemptions are a non-transparent way of providing a subsidy to either an individual or a business. They are difficult to target narrowly ato achieve the intended objectives and generate perverse, unintended outcomes. The real estate boom and subsequent bust happened because of tax incentives to but multiple houses by leveraging savings with bank debt pushing housing demand into purely speculative territory. Black money, which always looks for supranormal financial returns to defray the risk it carries, boosted the process.

Putting indirect and direct tax together, the incidence of tax in India at the highest level is around 43 per cent on an income of just Rs 83,000 ($1,220) a month if the entire amount left over after paying income-tax is spent on purchasing services or goods. In the United States, the federal income tax rate of 33 per cent is attracted by an income of $75,000 per year. The US is nine times wealthier than India. Factoring in the income differential, the comparable income level in India would be $8,300 per year (Rs 5.6 lakhs per year or Rs 47,000 per month). At this income level, the marginal rate in India is just 20 per cent. This is understandable, purely on considerations of equity, since the income tax base is narrow, unlike in the US and targets only that tiny sliver of the population earning more than Rs 2.5 lakh ($ 3600)a year, other than in agriculture. Just around 3 percent feel compelled to file a tax return.

Plug revenue leaks 

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Numerous deductions reduce the effective incidence of tax by a further 10 percentage points. Loan repayment and interest payments for house building, fixed income investments in postal savings, public sector enterprises and infrastructure, capital gains re-invested in specified government bonds, capital gains on equity held for a paltry one year — all qualify for a tax rebate.

These exemptions distort the fixed income market for attracting savings into banking and private business entities. They also do nothing to “pull in” new taxpayers. On the contrary, these exemptions serve as avenues for parking black money through substitution. Instances abound of the entire salary being deposited in such investments with living expenses met from “other” undisclosed sources.

End deductions & reduce income tax

The finance minister proposed, last year, a lower rate of corporate tax of 25 per cent for new assesses if no tax deductions were availed. A similar strategy of reducing the marginal income-tax rate should be followed in Budget 2017 to widen the tax base. Reducing the marginal rate from 30 to 20 per cent can “pull in” new taxpayers. A simultaneous declaration of an intention to reduce the rate further to 15 per cent, depending on the revenue surge, would provide the much-needed assurance of medium-term stability in the tax architecture. The incentives being provided for digital payments and selective targeting of high-profile tax evasion could provide the “push” factor towards better tax compliance. The lesson here is that in a democratic, open economy, incentives work better than directives.

Institutions matter – preserve or build judiciously

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The second lesson is that whilst politics always drives government policy, the consequences of ignoring well-honed governance principles are severe. Institutions matter for sustainable results. Why are 32,290 gazetted tax officers powerless to perform? Are we aware that 36 per cent of available Grade A tax positions are vacant? Is it appropriate that the academic requirements for becoming a tax officer do not mandate having either a masters in commerce or economics or being a chartered accountant? Nor are candidates tested psychologically for their motivations or their ability to put the public interest first. All these red flags show that tax collection has never been a priority. We tend to focus overly instead on the spending departments.

The ability to tax and to punish citizens as per the law is the best metric of sovereignty. To build institutional support for targeting black money we should take a leaf from the British Raj. During the colonial period, the district collectors were the flag-bearers of the Raj. Today, their successors — the Indian Administrative Service — occupy the same high status. But they do everything except collect tax. Those who collect tax — the Central Board of Direct Taxes and the Central Board of Excise and Customs — are condemned to be second-class bureaucrats, perpetually subservient to a revenue secretary from the IAS. The IAS is an elite because it is treated as such by the government. It attracts the best. It trains and gives its members the opportunity to be leaders. If collecting tax is a national priority, we must give the tax officers the privilege of being an elite and leading the tax effort. This will mould them, over time, into being leaders rather than mere camp followers.

A boost for tax collectors 

A healthy parallel is the possible formation of a tri-services command, in the defence ministry, to establish a direct link between the defence minister and the armed forces. This architecture must be replicated in the department of revenue. Create a “Supreme Tax Council” of secretary-level officers, expert in direct and indirect tax, led by a chairperson in the rank of a minister of state, reporting directly to the finance minister. Consequential changes in the method of recruitment, training, functions, powers and upgrade in the service conditions of the tax services can follow.

Targeting black money is a medium-term task. No government has had the gumption or the political capital to sustain the process. The personal charisma and overwhelming public support that Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys places the buck for tax reform squarely at his door.

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Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age , December 10, 2016. http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/101216/next-use-budget-to-target-black-money.html

 

 

 

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Shashi Tharoor’s latest book originated in a debate at Oxford on whether Britain should pay reparations to its erstwhile colonies. The YouTube clip of Tharoor systematically demolishing the opposition, his brilliance evident in the thrust and parry of debate, has been watched by more than three million viewers. But the author says he felt a “moral urgency” in informing the “layman and students” in India and in Britain, about the “horrors” of colonialism and hence this book.

The book is conveniently divided into eight chapters. Unusually, each is virtually self contained though each focuses on specific topics, as for example, the extent of the loot; dividing, rather than unifying India; subverting Indian diversity in ersatz modern British institutions; the policy of divide and rule; the absence of enlightened despotism et al. Whilst this stratagem of comprehensive rendition adds to the length, it facilitates selective, speed reading. There are also 295 helpful references to other works—both Indian and foreign, a veritable treasure trove.

The Raj – long on loot short on local benefits?

The author deploys the familiar nationalist tactic of talking up the wealth and virtues of pre-British India, while playing down the inadequacies of much of post-independence India, to book-end the “horrors” of the Raj. The benefits from the Raj are dismissed as few and that too, unintended, barring the development of a pan-India modern press and media; development of canal irrigation; scattered electrification of towns; and of course -the railways. Oddly, the planning and building of regulated, urban settlements for the British, expanded versions of which, subsequently, also became the refuge of India’s political, business and professional elite and in less oppulent versions for India’s middle class, goes unacknowledged.

The “loot” neither began nor ended with the Raj 

The litany of colonial woes is expectedly long. Nothing attracts instant attention more than stories of loot and rape inserted early on in a book. The British drained 8 per cent of India’s GDP as per Paul Baran’s 1957 estimate. Annual outflows are separately estimated by William Digby at 4.2 billion British pounds during the 19th century. Extrapolating this trend onto the first half of the 20th century, the additional outflow was 2 billion British pounds. Huge as this cumulative sum seems, consider that Indians themselves are estimated to have amassed $500 billion of illegal wealth abroad in less than seven decades of India’s independence as per the CBI in 2012. Consider also, that against the less than 10,000 British subjects employed in India, the Report of the Indian States Committee of 1929 lists a total of 562 princely states, each with a retinue of vast numbers of relatives of the ruling family living off the state treasury. There is no corresponding account of how much these effete rulers and their families cost the ordinary Indian.

maharaja-bhupinder-singh-patiala

Indian Maharajas delighted in maintaining humongous households and extravagant habits – and why not, since the aam admi paid for it all.

Yes, the British used India as a source of capital and raw material for their industries, which stilted Indian industrial development. Yes, they helmed organised commerce in India via the Managing Agencies. But just as surely, Jamshedji Tata’s dream of establishing a modern steel mill saw fruition because British India guaranteed the off-take of steel and built the railway to link the steel mill with raw materials and markets, thereby making it India’s first Public Private Partnership.

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Jamshedpur, 1912: The first steel ingot is rolled 

The author cites the regulations forcing Indian mills to produce only British Specification Steel as a low stratagem to make them uncompetitive. But it could also be viewed as the first step towards internationalising standards in Indian industry. Not producing to international standards was our failing till we liberalised industry and opened our markets to competition in 1991.

The Raj was neither elightened nor did it serve a moral purpose

Of course, the British, as a colonial community, were rapacious, openly racist and self-serving. But the evidence is thin that they were any worse than the long line of Indian rulers that preceded them. Admittedly, it mattered where you lived. The princely states of south and west India were generally better managed and more progressive than those in north and eastern India.

Colonial consequences: The death of institutionalised privilege & rise of the new middle class

Tharoor’s view that neither the political unity of India nor the adoption of democratic norms was a direct outcome of the pan-India political architecture of the Raj is inadequately backed up with evidence. The mere fact that Arabs refer to all Indians as “Hindi” is hardly evidence that pre-British India was already integrated. By this logic, all those living south of the Vindhyas are “Madrasis” because that is what ignorant North Indians called them and all of Arabia is one because we refer to people from there as “Arabs”.

The author ignores the greatest accomplishments of the Raj—the decimation of the old order of inherited privileges and rights; kindling of the spirit of democracy and incubation of the great Indian middle class via government jobs in the railways, the army and in civil governance.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, by abolishing privy purses in 1971, ended what the British began—the consigning of India’s numerous Maharajas to the dustbin of history. By institutionalising the common law and opening up vacancies—admittedly too few—at the very top, the Raj inspired millions of young, ordinary Indians to aspire to be literate and professionally qualified. That three generations of Indians had to serve as clerks to British superiors, not necessarily more accomplished than themselves, is a regrettable but possibly an inevitable consequence of gradual transition.

The Indian Constitution – equity, liberty and inclusion

The Indian Constitution is a direct outcome of the groundwork done over the previous four decades, since the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909, to implement consultative democracy by including the professional middle class in the process. Ask any Dalit, backward caste, tribe or other minority and they will ascribe their liberation from traditional shackles to the modernist, reformist social and economic thinking which emerged, possibly as a nationalist response, to British rule.

ambedkar2

Babasaheb Ambedkar: Iconic messiah of dalit inclusion

It is not for nothing that Babasaheb Ambedkar wore a suit and a tie rather than a dhoti. For him the suit was a symbol of liberation from the oppressive rule of India’s traditional, upper caste elite and the Constitution was his guide to a more equitable future. Mayawati, Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Modi are the organic outcomes of the much-needed, albeit self-serving, prising open, by the British, of India’s dormant, traditional cleavages—a black box of competing religions, castes and regions. Consolidation of these traditional identities at the national level via democratic institutions is what has changed the social landscape of India.

Sans the Raj – either a balkanised Hindustan or Red India

Tharoor speculates that if only the East India Company had not been as successful as it was, India would have found its own way to modernity. But what if we had remained hopelessly Balkanised instead? Why would we have not succumbed instead to the romance of Communism and gone the Chinese way? Would bloody revolution, social upheaval, the end of private enterprise, de-legalisation of religion and cultural diversity, unrelieved even by the constitutional promise of human rights and freedoms, have been better?

Contempt for the “box wallah” and the bania -Colonial hangover or the convenience of ersatz socialism? 

Tharoor speciously links our inward looking, anti-business attitude in the first four decades of independence till 1991, to our bad experience with the East India Company. This looks awfully like a red herring. It would be more instructive instead to examine the role played by our ineffective brand of ersatz intrusive socialism, used by the elite as a cloak, to retain domestic privilege. The ordinary Indian has looked westward for higher education and advancement, primarily because the professional choices at home have been too narrow and the glass ceilings too low.

Even the author accepts that the British Raj was more efficient than the domestic institutions it replaced. He is right that the rapacity of the Raj was exaggerated, precisely because its extractive capacity was greater than the loosely regulated Princely States. Consider the establishment of land records and the uniform and regular assessment and collection of revenue.

High taxes, yes but also efficient systems and records

Tharoor bemoans the high rates of taxes and the resultant penury for landowners since the burden of taxation fell on land and not trade. Yes, indeed. But that very system also bequeathed an embedded practice of recording individual property rights and updating transactions thereof, which is fundamental for development of private enterprise and for access to bank finance. The British left us with a treasure chest of land tenure, revenue and demographic data and an entire community of rule-bound “babus”. Better this than the institutional anarchy many other developing countries faced, post-independence.

Tharoor packs in masses of information and opinions around the British Empire in India. But it is all done in a grand, Quixotic style of tilting at windmills. The book is a hard-hitting, one-sided debate and caution is advised in succumbing to its mesmerising message, that the Gora (white man) is to blame.

Adapted from the authors book riview in Swarajyamas December 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/tilting-at-windmills

hindu-college

How to junk cash and when

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Going cashless is a good idea. For the government, the biggest gain is an easy audit trail to assess individuals and businesses to tax and to ferret out illegal transactions like the financing of crime, terror, smuggling and drugs. For individuals, plastic (payment cards) and e-money provides far greater security, despite the risk from cybercrime. Businesses also gain. Studies of consumer behaviour show that paying by card or e-money encourages you to spend more than you would otherwise.

So it is no surprise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man in a rush, is pushing the country to abandon cash. But how far are we from the point where a cashless economy can kick in? A US study in California noted in 2012, that even in the case of those who state a preference for paying by card, there is a 49 percent probablity that they will settle payments less than $20 by cash. The probability drops to 8 percent  for payments above $20. In India the inverse is true. At least, 95 per cent of personal consumption related transactions in numbers (not volume) are in cash.

Access to bank accounts is key for going cashless 

bank-access

A 2015 World Bank survey established that increasing the number of banked adults in the economy is the most relevant intervention till one reaches the level of around 800 accounts per 1,000 adults. India stands at a ratio of 480 accounts per 1,000 adults. This is pretty far from the point after which increase in the number of bank accounts cease to matter. Nevertheless, the extension of banking services in India is impressive given the scale of poverty, illiteracy, gender discrimination and the sparse spread of bank branches, particularly in rural areas — just around 40,000 for six lakh villages and a population of 800 million or on average 1 bank branch per 20,000 people..

“Barefoot” banks

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The high level of poverty in rural areas; low savings and consumption levels make rural branches uneconomic. So innovative mechanisms should be developed to provide “barefoot” banking to the poor. This is virtually impossible via our clunky and inefficient public sector banking system. The Reserve Bank of India revolutionised the licensing of payment banks earlier this year by bringing in a “year-around”, entrepreneur-driven approach of welcoming proposals for opening payment banks -which provide less than the full range of banking services- without inviting proposals for bank licensing through formal rounds, as previously. We need to pursue this approach and establish at least a “payment only” bank branch for every cluster of 5,000 adults. But inevitably this will take time.

e-money is a low cost, “quick win”, to digitise payments

A faster way of displacing cash payments is to scale up the use of e-money. Across economies which do not have universal financial access, over the period 2010 to 2015, the number of e-money accounts have grown at the rate of an astonishing 63 per cent per annum — more than triple the rate at which bank accounts have increased over. Mobile money accounts comprise 55 per cent of such e-money accounts. But, in India, e-money continues to languish at merely 10 per cent of transactions.

Getting merchants digitally ready for Point of Sale applications.    

A more serious missing link for ramping up cashless transactions is the relative scarcity of point of sale (POS) acceptability of cashless transactions. Easy access to POS ready merchants and vendors is key for building the credibility of plastic money as an alternative to cash.

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Photo courtesy: thehindu.com

This is a chicken and egg situation. Merchants do not see the value of accepting e-money payments unless enoigh people want to use them. Also, mechants lose interest on the deferred payments into their accounts. On top of this card providers charge merchants upto 3 percent of the transaction value for the service. All this pushes up the prices of customer purchase price of products. Customers in turn, try and dodge the servive tax and additional charges which comes with buying digitally. No wonder then that a mere 1.5 million commercial entities accept cashless transactions in India. Compare this with the 44.7 million registered micro, small and medium enterprises (comprising industrial and service related businesses) with an investment ranging from Rs 1 to 50 million, estimated in India by the 2006 SMSE survey. Bringing all these service providers into the POS net expands the market by an order of magnitude. Why not start by first “Carpet bombing” commercial entities in the 50 largest cities in India, with assistance and persuasion to say no to cash? Lets start by making cities cashless first and let the smaller towns and rural areas follow in an orderly manner.

Make cash transactions more expensive than digital ones

One cannot develop an entire ecosystem for junking cash by fiat alone. The incentive structure, which today privileges cash settlement because of its lower transaction cost, must be reviewed and reversed. The government started the RuPay debit card in 2014 with the hope that it would compete with the international biggies in the business — MasterCard and Visa – and make them look more seriously at the potential fortune which lies at the bottom of the pyramid — the small transactions end of the market.

India has 26 million credit cards and 712 million debit cards. But their use is low at just 12 times per debit card every year at an ATM and barely two transactions per year per debit card at a POS. The corresponding numbers are less than 1 transaction for a credit card at an ATM and 38 at a POS. In comparison in high income economies cards or e-money options are used to conduct around 280 transactions a year per person. We are a long way off from the frontier of cashless transactions. The good news is that we are better off than low and middle-income countries, which averaged just 22 cashless transactions per year per person.

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Plastic money becomes expensive to use if the individual transactions are small. Typically, micro-transactions of less than $5 (Rs 340) are not viable through plastic money and would need to be cross-subsidised. This is where e-money becomes the most appropriate vehicle to mop up the micro-transactions market which could account for as much as two-thirds of the total transactions. After all, cigarettes are still sold as singles in India; a paan (betel) costs just Rs 20 and a street meal is Rs 100.

Build the eco-system for expanding payments beyond traditional banks

If the government is serious about junking cash it must engage with commercial entities which have a large , diversified customer base to leverage for diversifying into the payments space. Phone carriers, progressive electricity utilities and the Railways are some options. They can quickly scale up the use of digital money by their customers in collaboration with e-pay platforms and provide some assurance to merchants against the risk of not realising the payments from the e-pay platform. Developing a “reward” based strategy to move 50 per cent of commercial transactions above Rs 500 to digital settlement by 2020 is a reasonable target.

There are some limitations which need to be overcome or gone around- the poor quality of electricity supply, dodgy net connectivity and the additional cost that needs to be borne to digitise small-value transactions via POS arrangements. Regional hackathons to find solutions to specific barriers can pay rich dividends. They can create an ecosystem of innovative thinkers focused on solving the problem. The future is digital. Engage millennials to figure out how to fast forward us there, out of turn.

Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age November 28, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/281116/in-rush-to-go-digital-dont-junk-cash-yet.html

 

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