governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for October, 2014

When I’m 64

Paul Mccartney

(photo credit: wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberals; smell the coffee please

police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Ashraf Ghani be Afghanistan’s Manmohan Singh?

ashraf

(photocredit: dnaindia.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The glue of cross-religious Kar Seva

multifaith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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