governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for March, 2015

FM Jaitley’s conundrum: Fat wallet but empty pockets

Jaitley fat wallet

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

Imagine if FM Jaitley had admitted in his budget speech of February 28 that of the Rs 17.77 lakh crores (US$ 287 billion) of expenditure he was tabling in Parliament, less than one third was really available for innovating on the past trends and the bulk of the funds relate to liabilities already contracted before the year begins.

Given the lack of fiscal space for new commitments one would think then that the budget would be transparently split between contractual liabilities of past decisions, which are “sunk cost”- loosely defined and new budget allocations to make instant and easy sense to citizens. After all it is the “new” allocations that everyone looks forwards to, assuming that they could perturb the status quo and kick start growth.

But you will not find the budget classified thus, even though the eleven budget documents, excluding the Finance Bill, runs into 949 pages! Instead it is split between Plan and Non Plan expenses – a practice that should thankfully end now with the demise of the Planning Commission– or Revenue and Capital, another archaic distinction, which was traditionally used to track investment expenditure due to the traditional direct linkage between investment and growth. But increasingly, the right kind of revenue expenditure is also critical. Funded by the “revenue black box” are catalysts for efficiency and innovation led growth- skilled employees; functioning institutions and well maintained public assets.

The cost of feeding the public beast

How much needs to be spent just to keep government systems alive even if they do nothing of value for citizens? This is a close proxy for “current liabilities”.

First, civilian employee pay and allowances account for around 8% of total expenditure, not high at all by international standards where high, double digit proportions are the norm.

Second,  expenditure on pension of government employees accounts for 5% of total expenditure but growing rapidly as ex-babu couples age and live longer.

Third, the administrative cost (providing workplaces, consumables and equipment) of managing 3.6 million civilian government employees has to be paid for. Assuming administrative cost to be one third of pay and allowances it amounts to around 3% (0.33 of 8%) of total expenditure.

Fourth, annual interest on government debt accounts for 26% of total expenditure.

Fifth, is expense on maintaining physical assets- the Achilles heel of the government. Chronic under provisioning results in axle-breaking pot holes; overflowing public toilets; broken x-ray machines and no doors or windows in classrooms. Two decades ago the PPP model for providing public services seemed like the way to go but those hopes faded.

Guess what? Maintenance expense is not transparently available as a separate line item in the budget documents. This is not surprising since the government has, inexplicably, not adopted a more complete economic classification of budget items, endorsed by the IMF and followed internationally.

Today we will have to make do with assumptions- albeit conservative ones. A God send is that ever since the promulgation of the FRBM Act the government is obliged to share an asset register of civilian assets (which excludes cabinet secretariat-a code word for India’s spooks; defence; police; atomic energy and space which together account for approximately 46% of the annual CAPEX).

The register of physical assets (excluding land) for 2013-14 values civilian assets at a measly Rs 1.87 lakh crores (US$ 30 billion) for a Rs 141.09 lakh crore (US$ 2 Trillion) economy. It seems designed, like the asset declarations of politicians, to hide more than it reveals.

Assuming a thumb rule asset value 20 times the annual capital expenditure yields a “notional” but more realistic value for government assets (other than land) of Rs 48.76 lakh crores (US$ 786 billion). Annual maintenance at 2% of “notional” asset value requires an additional 5% of total expenditure.

Just these five “tied” revenue expenses, all of which account for 47% of the total expenditure, reduce the “free play” money with the FM to 53% of total expenditure.

The drag of politics

But it doesn’t end here. Central assistance for states is what gives leverage to the PM to negotiate with state governments. In the new “cooperative federalism” framework envisaged by the PM, after the niceties are done, bargaining power will depend on the fiscal muscle the union government can flex in inter-state negotiations. How else could the PM, for example, influence the governments of Haryana and Delhi or the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to share water with the minimum of bloodletting as the searing heat of May pushes up water consumption? The 2015-16 allocation accounts for just 1% but is highly politically sensitive to change.

Subsidies on items like food, fertilizer and petroleum and interest subsidy account for 14% of the total expenditure and also fall in this category. “We need to cut subsidy leakages not subsidies themselves” is what FM Jaitley remarked in his FY 16 Budget Speech on February 28, 2015.

The “Statement of Fiscal Responsibility” tabled under the requirements of the “Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management  (FRBM) Act, 2003” unveils the FM’s hope that subsidies shall decline from 2% of GDP in 2014-15 to 1.6% of GDP in 2017-18. This could happen if annual GDP growth accelerates to the targeted 7.5% whilst the nominal amount of subsidy grows slower. But it sounds like an over optimistic assessment.

True, subsidies can be better targeted to eliminate waste and corruption. But there are also millions who are eligible for subsidy, but remain unable to access it today, because of complex administrative arrangements and poor documentation.  If the JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhar, Mobiles) inclusion initiative succeeds it will likely swell the numbers accessing subsidy. Consequently, the jury is out on the net savings that better administration of subsidy can achieve.

Accounting for the amounts committed to assistance for states and subsidies, the “play” money available to the FM reduces from 53% to 38% of total expenditure.

Funding White Elephants

The remaining 38% or Rs 7.18 lakh crores (US$ 116 billion) sounds like a lot of money. But we still have not accounted for the FMs compulsion to fund the variable costs of programs managed by the mind boggling 72 (seventy two) departments of the union government-each a fiefdom in itself.

Not accounted either are allocations for ongoing projects which are unproductive “sunk cost” unless completed and operationalized. Budget 2015-16 proposes parceling out Rs 1.11 lakh crore (US$ 18 billion) of CAPEX  as grants to as many as 375 projects.

Oddly, the budget documents make no distinction between CAPEX allocations to ongoing projects and the CAPEX for new projects. Could this be because making such information public may reveal the absence of fiscal space for new projects or force government to abandon undeserving old projects?

Inefficient governments under-allocate to old projects thereby making space for announcing new ones. This makes sense politically, if sharing “pork” is the mantra of survival. But it happens at the expense of previous investment lying unutilized, worsening thereby the Incremental Capital Output Ratio- jargon for how much bang each buck buys and increases the interest burden every year as borrowed funds lie unproductively in incomplete projects.

To be sure none of this mess is of FM Jaitley’s making. But it is fair to expect him to clean it up since PM Modi’s is a government which works.

There are four initiatives the FM must launch to achieve this worthy objective.

First, he must walk the budget speech to aggressively resuscitate the PPP model and not solely because it pulls private capital into public projects. Partnering with the private sector forces the government to be efficient, effective and results oriented. Entering into explicit contracts with the private sector also makes information public, which can then be used to hold government accountable.

Second, the economic rationale behind civilian investment decisions must be made public. How are potential investments ranked? Hopefully, making the investment and economic analysis public knowledge can reduce the political noise and avoid wasteful decisions. We cannot just leave it to path breaking individual ministers like Suresh Prabhu to be punctiliously technocratic, as he was in the Railways Budget 2015-16. The weight of public opinion, via direct participation, must be institutionalized to assist the government in avoiding “bridges to nowhere”.

Third, at least ruling party MPs must commit time and effort to disseminate the logic of the budget to their constituents. It is for this purpose that Parliament takes a month’s recess during the Budget session- this year from March 24 to April 20. Have, at least, the BJP MPs fanned out to their constituencies to interact with citizens? Doing so would force MPs to understand the provisions better; come across as being well informed and initiate a more substantive dialogue at the local level. Delhi is a fish bowl in which MPs operate. Happenings here do not resonate with the rest of India automatically.

Finally, there is the appeal to save trees by reformatting the budget documents and making them shorter in length (500 pages for starters?) but more transparent in quality and to share both, the genuine constraints and the FM’s innovations to punch above his fiscal weight.

Lest we forget our “dark” non-democratic past

emergency

photo credit: http://www.dw.de

Forty Eight years ago on March 23, 1977 India emerged from the darkness of a 21 month long “national emergency (Article 352 of the Constitution)” into the light of full restoration of fundamental rights. Indira Gandhi- the then Prime Minister, a feisty mother, tired of the excesses of her son- Sanjay Gandhi, called for general elections in January 1977, which resulted in the decimation of the Congress Party in the North and the humiliating defeat of herself and Sanjay from their pocket boroughs of Rae Bareilly and Amethi respectively.

Lest this dark period repeat itself, we must plug the institutional gaps which allowed it to happen in the first place.

Better oversight of the need to impose emergency

First, today the President is the only entity empowered to exercise oversight over the government’s proposal to implement the emergency provisions. This arrangement has not served us well.  The manner in which the Indian President is selected- indirectly by a simple majority of the MPs and MLA vote- only ensures that a “candidate” of the ruling party wins. Any, but the most exceptional, human being is bound to serve those who appointed him. This makes the President unsuited to stand up to a Prime Minister who has a more direct democratic mandate. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed- no moral giant succumbed to Indira Gandhi’s dark machinations- and approved the Proclamation of national emergency.

But that was as inevitable as the more recent example of the shoo-in, unelected Prime Minister- Manmohan Singh, subverting public interest, presumably under pressure from the Congress Party. Sonia Gandhi- an astute politician ensured her centrality by putting in place a non- threatening President of India (Pratibha Patel-2007 to 2012) and a Gandhi subaltern as Prime Minister.

Can we avoid a recurrence of such crass undermining of our constitutional framework? There are three options.

  1. We could change the manner in which a state of national emergency is approved by making it more inclusive and subject to ex-post-facto approval not only from the Parliament, as presently required, but also by state legislatures. The downside is this is likely to be a clunky process and unsuited to the urgent needs of a “real” emergency.
  2. We could change the manner in which the President is elected to strengthen the incumbent’s independence from the executive and preserve his mandate for guarding against a mala fide “emergency provision” by the government of the day. The best way to do so is to directly elect the President. Whilst there are good reasons why we should adopt a Presidential style of government, doing so, just to safeguard against malicious use of the provisions for national emergency, would be like the tail wagging the dog.
  3. We could narrow down the basis for imposing national emergency by excluding “armed rebellion” as one of the three reasons. The other reasons are “war” or “external aggression”. This approach resonates in these troubled domestic times. A large part of Eastern India is under siege from Maoist and assorted rebels but life goes on there and the situation is improving, without recourse to emergency provisions.

In any event “armed rebellion” is largely a “domestic law and order” issue which is handled by state governments and can be dealt with using the existing laws criminalizing violence and terrorism. Nothing stops the Union Government from coming to the assistance of a state government which needs help in dealing with the break-down of the rule of law.

A State Government, which is unable to manage “armed rebellion”, may yet be reluctant to seek or accept help for political reasons. The proper way to deal with such governments is to impose state level emergency provisions under Article 356 if there is break down of the constitutional machinery at the state level. There could be a number of reasons why there may be a constitutional meltdown in a state and “armed rebellion” is just one of them.

Limit the period

Second, more broadly, the scope of a Constitutional provision for imposing emergency; suspending fundamental human rights and diluting recourse to the higher judiciary against excessive or unjust executive action needs to be relooked.

Independent India has fought four wars till now- 1962-China, 1965-Pakistan, 1971-Pakistan and 1999-Pakistan. They all ended within a month except the last one, fought on the heights of Kargil, which lasted three months. This illustrates that the need for unfettered executive action, unencumbered by clunky constitutional provisions, lasts only for a limited period. Presently, emergency provisions can be extended ad-infinitum merely with Parliaments approval. The 1975 emergency lasted 21 months! That is way too much power to give to a simple majority of Parliamentarians with too few safeguards to guard against the mala fide use of such wide powers.

Forget the “steel frame” 

Third, our dark past showed us that faced by a determined and malign political power the much vaunted bureaucracy crumbles and “crawls” even without specifically needing to do so. The “steel frame” has eroded far too much to be revived. Indeed it is questionable if it should. After all, in modern democracies it is those who have the popular mandate who must rule and be responsible for the outcomes. Professional bureaucrats are today just that- professionals who devise the most optimum way of achieving political objectives. They cannot and indeed must not, be expected to carry the can of defending the nation against tyrants. That is best done by developing robust institutions; formal and informal norms for political behavior.

Make political parties democratic

Fourth, political parties are the vehicles for consolidating and representing the opinions of voters. They continue to be very ineffective in the absence of commonly accepted norms for their internal governance. Even a small public limited company is exposed to more regulatory control to ensure transparency and protect the interests of the small shareholder, as compared to even the largest political party. Media reports suggest that the Congress party could be the biggest real estate owner in India! In the absence of disclosure standards for political parties rumor may well be fact.

Unless a code for ensuring transparency and preserving inner party democracy is imposed on recognized political parties, the “recognition” granted to them by the Election Commission is meaningless. It is instructive that the nascent Aam Admi Party is self-destructing even today on the charge of undemocratic and authoritarian rule by a select few leaders. The Election Commission must be empowered to define and audit standards for the internal governance of political parties- audit and accounting of party funds; election of leaders and protecting the rights of the ordinary member, in much the same way as SEBI does for public limited companies listed on the stock exchange.

Democratic party processes can breed democratic leaders and thereby cut at the root of dynasty; megalomania and delusional complacence.

Time to get working on protecting the ordinary voter from the tyranny of undemocratic political parties.

Taming Terror

terror

(photo credit: guns.com)

An inequitable sharing of power and the “glass ceilings” of “closed order” societies, devised to keep the status quo intact, are ripe pickings for terrorism.

Apologists of terror focus on this underlying social explanation for the breeding of terror. But this is cold comfort for the victims of terror who, generally, are as ordinary and as excluded, as those perpetuating terror.

In fact hurting the average citizen is the intended consequence of terror.  The intention of the terrorist is to shatter the credibility of the government’s ability to preserve the rule of law.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948 is a verbose document assuring all manner of Human Rights through its 30 Articles. Of these, the most critical are Articles 3 to 5 which relate to the Right to Life; Freedom from Slavery and The Right against Torture. It is these three which are the primary targets of terror.

Democracy disappoints

Through the second half of the Twentieth Century the anticipated social leveling through the spread of Democracy and since 1990 the economic benefits from Globalization were expected to take away the breeding ground for terror. Sadly this has not happened.

Democracy perversely marginalizes and excludes many, even as it empowers others. In India lower castes have gained through a policy of positive affirmation but religious minorities have lost out. It is all a numbers game with a huge political incentive to encourage identity (religion; ethnicity; caste; culture) politics. In this polarizing game those who have the majority win and the rest lose or are forced to become subaltern partners in governance.

Economic growth an incomplete answer

The notion that growing economic well-being can bridge the divisiveness of culture and identity has been shattered repeatedly. Germany was a rich nation just prior to the World War II but demonized the Jews. British and French kids today join the Islamic State even as the ethnicity obsessed, Right in Europe is resurgent by making immigrants the “fall guys” on whom to pin the woes emanating from the fiscal excesses of the go-go years of the first decade of this century.

Monitored executive discretion can help

Centralized, authoritarian regimes like China seem best placed to manage terror for the simple reason that they have plenty of monitored, executive discretion, which is the key ingredient whilst fighting those who live in “shadows”.

Terror is spread by highly trained and motivated cadres who are rigorously monitored and mentored.  They can only be stopped by a similar cadre. The Israelis know this and that is why they are so successful at surviving in the toughest neighborhood in the World.

But Democracy by definition undercuts executive discretion. Transparency, Open Data and Citizen Voice- all off-springs of the Good Governance framework popularized since the late 1990s, similarly constrain executive discretion.

The most dramatic illustration is the public rebuke given by the Republican controlled Senate to President Obama’s initiative to “socialize” radical Iran by negotiating a nuclear agreement with it. This is a departure from the “norm”, which gave significant leeway to the US President to negotiate Foreign Policy initiatives. We are fortunate that the Indian Prime Minister is not constrained in this manner since Agreements with Foreign Nations are not subject to Parliamentary approval and the Executive has considerable discretion in managing Foreign Affairs.

With both Economic Development and Democracy proving to be unlikely bulwarks against terror what then remains as a cogent strategy to manage this scourge?

Four initiatives present themselves.

First, reduce inequality. This is important because much of it, particularly in developing countries, is the result of massive corruption. This is visible in the workplace; in life styles and in the resource endowments that some people inherit. What can be done about it is less certain. The best, but somewhat dissatisfactory strategy is to constrain the government’s budget to the very minimum, whilst striving to get the biggest bang for the buck. Big governments are bad news. Small, nimble governments are in.

Second, adopt open access structures: The challenge is not to “pull down” the rich by taxing them (France tried but failed) or by banning the consumption of luxury goods (luckily the French view fine wine and cheese as a necessity). The challenge is to open access to good education, health, social protection and formal, private sector jobs based on merit.

Third, Role Models matter. “Open access” systems are not created overnight.  Open access is more than a physical process. As Tagore said it is the mind which has to be opened. Role models are key in building such societies.

One such role model today is Arvind Kejriwal who emulates the entrepreneurial, mass-movement based political principles of Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi).

PM Modi presents the other, more “muscular” model of the dedicated, organizational man who claws his way to the top by pure grit and guile- very similar to what happens in an American Corporate and the Communist Party of China.

Both role models represent an open access system in operation. For Chief Minister Kejriwal the “entry point” was the Constitutional provisions for pluralism in political parties. In Prime Minister Modi’s case, it is the meritocratic structure of the RSS and the BJP.

That “open access meritocracies” are the best bridge to socialize Radicals, Fundamentalists and Discontents is best illustrated by the recent teaming up of the “Islamist” leaning, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with the Hindu Right-BJP to form a government in Kashmir. Neither party wears “secularism” on their sleeve but both represent the middle class and that is their biggest glue. In comparison, the National Conference of Kashmir and the Congress are both dynasties run by political aristocrats.

Fourth, grow the middle class. The key to kill terror is to grow the middle class by investing in formal, private sector jobs and state funded, but privately provided, education, health and social protection facilities.

Keeping people productively busy and cruising the “basically comfortable” income frontier is important. Time to restructure the government workplace by opening it up to external skills (they exist in India believe it or not!); balancing worker rights with worker responsibilities and decentralizing authority widely, including to non-state actors thereby co-opting them into governance, so that the “pie” is widely shared.

Capitalism centralizes income and wealth. The government must use its fiscal resources to re-distribute it wisely.

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