governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for May, 2015

Indo-German Defence Pact- New beginnings for subaltern states.

Leyen

(photo credit:www.junglekey.fr)

Ursula Von Der Leyen, the scarily efficient and glamorous German Defence Minister, who is also incredibly mother to seven children, ticked all the required boxes for soaring rhetoric on a bilateral strategic partnership with India. Democracy, freedom, an open society, diversity and religious plurality being the ground for shared values.

Of course, she was careful to not mention the closest strategic arrangement yet between India and Germany, forged by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose whose “Indian National Army” joined the “Axis” forces in World War II.  This fact is inconvenient on two counts.

First, Germany is still defensive about its authoritarian past under Hitler. Second, Netaji, whilst acceptable to the current BJP government, remains a big no- no to the Congress. He was Pandit Nehru’s rival within the Congress and had to quit. Displaying characteristic German caution, Ms. Leyen preferred to give the past a brush-over and concentrated on the future.

Today, the most visible link is the fascination of the Indian nouveau riche for high-end German cars- the Audi and its cheaper cousin the Volkswagen and the BMW stable- thereby uncharacteristically forsaking the “value for money” Japanese options.  The second common link is a taste for beer though German brands remain unrepresented in the Indian beer sweep stakes which is dominated by Dutch, American, UK, Australian and home grown Indian brands.

Human Rights and Democracy go together

To a direct question from a media representative whether a dodgy human rights record for India could sour any proposed strategic partnership with Germany, Ms. Leyen was quick to brightly aver that since the two countries were democracies,  safeguarding human rights was, by definition, of equal value for both. She could not have done better.

The response was in sharp contrast to the US Ambassador’s apprehension, recently voiced publicly, that freezing the activities of Ford Foundation and Greenpeace in India could chill Indo-American relations. But Ms. Leyen’s response also came as recognition of India’s long standing support for the rights of the exiled Tibetan community, resident in India. Chancellor Merkel has been an international exception in publicly snubbing China by maintaining warm relations with the Dalai Lama. PM Modi in turn has been quick to project the Indian origins of Buddhism.

Can Germany subvert NATO discipline?

For all the talk about a strategic partnership, it was not clear what the substance of this partnership could be. Germany and Japan (the defeated Axis powers of WW II) have both reaped the economic advantages of aligning with the victors and outsourcing their external protection to the US Nuclear umbrella for the last seven decades. Japan and Germany are the third and fourth largest economies, respectively, but on defense spend they rank a lowly eighth and ninth, behind the UK, France and even India (SIPRI 2015).

Is Germany seriously considering abandoning the US crutch and shouldering more of the defense burden versus Russia’s currently expansive ambitions in Europe? Would the additional fiscal burden be feasible given that the dodgy economies of Southern Europe are fast becoming Ms. Merkel’s subsidy problem?

This would be uncharacteristic for the cautious and pragmatic Ms. Merkel. Germany is increasingly dependent on natural gas imports, subsequent to it closing the nuclear power option. Russia is right next door with the largest reserves of gas and the pipeline infrastructure to supply it. It makes perfect sense for Ms. Merkel to continue to depend on the US for “protecting” Europe and avoid a direct face-off with Russia.

One lesson to learn from Germany is how aligning with a stronger partner for strategic purposes can free up public resources for development and growth. But it is unlikely that the context will ever fit the tough neighbourhood India is situated in and the compulsion of living with a “muscular” China.

Indo-German strategic partnership?

Indeed the question uppermost in Ms. Leyen’s mind was whether there was any future for an “alliance” with India, given our long standing adherence to the doctrine of non-alignment. It is unlikely that she will get a straight answer.

First, strictly defined “for-ever” alliances are now old hat. Germany, together with the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, the Nordics, Australia and New Zealand have ignored US chagrin at their participation in establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank- China’s counter to the Japan dominated Asian Development Bank.

Second, the past shows that alliances do not suit India. We are too large and too poor, to hang our hat exclusively on any one peg though it is not for want of trying. India has all the characteristics to be a natural ally for the rich, democratic world.  But the accident of history, or the perversity of diplomacy, has been that none of the rich, democratic countries (US, UK, EU) actually showed much interest in having an alliance with democratic India and its messy politics.

The rich, democratic world (G8) found it more convenient, during the extended “cold war years”, to team up with developing country dictators in Asia, Africa and South America in a global pact against Communism. Unfortunately, this also meant teaming up with elites and against the poor citizens of their allies in the developing world. This is what drove India into a strategic alliance with Russia in 1971 which has since lost its salience.

Make for India

Germany is today Europe’s powerhouse. India has shrugged off its mantle of lethargy. Demography is waiting to be exploited in India whilst ageing Germany needs skilled, temporary immigrants to drive their economy. This presents a huge opportunity for India’s unemployed but tech savvy youth.

Language will be a problem for Indian immigrants and this is one good reason why India should free up the language curriculum in schools and make it market oriented. Ms. Leyen is multi-lingual as must Indian kids become.

Around 12% of the German population has roots outside Germany but mostly in other European countries and Turkey. Ms. Leyen’s proposal for temporary migration, at scale, from India must be pursued.

A partnership with Germany will likely cater more to optics than substance. But the proposal to integrate the technical workforce in the two countries is a substantive addition via Indians making, for India and the world, in Germany.

A packed house turned out in the burning, mid-day heat of New Delhi to listen to Ms. Leyen and to get a glimpse of the endearing German ambassador and India buff- Michael Steiner.

Part of the curiosity was to see what the Germans had to offer in this new area of defense international co-operation. What was on offer publicly was underwhelming. Seeing and hearing the first woman Defence Minister of Germany was itself a novelty. But mostly, it was an opportunity to be with a possible future successor to Ms. Merkel once she decides Germany no longer needs her.

If this happens in 2017, PM Modi may be dealing with a powerful transatlantic woman-power tie up: Hilary Clinton in the US and Ms. Leyen in Germany – both of whom are likely to provide him stiff sartorial competition.

Well run, PM Modi

modi run

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

Reposted from the Asian Age May 25. 2015 < http://www.asianage.com/columnists/well-run-modi-690>

Should it worry us that Modi sarkar resembles the Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie, the greatest long-distance runner ever and not Usain Bolt, the 100-metre thunderbolt from Jamaica?

Not really. The 100-metre dash, whilst spectacular and crowd pulling, is a good tactic for disaster mitigation but disastrous for managing a huge, diversified economy. The marathon analogy suits India better. It is a test of endurance, grit and determination. Outcomes are only visible towards the end of the 42 km race. Those in the lead for the first eight km rarely end up winning.

Other than physical fitness the marathon runner needs a disciplined mind, which restrains the urge to sprint till the last mile whilst maintaining a planned and steady pace all through. Also important is the ability to transcend the near continuous pain and stress, and remain focused on the goal.

Modi sarkar has expectedly followed the epic Bollywood masala — a marathon interspersed with sprints. Citizens have been kept entertained by a blitzkrieg of short-term Bolt spirits to simulate inclusive ascent on a rising elevator of well being, whilst working steadily behind the scenes towards medium-term goals.

The opening of 80 million small bank accounts; the launch of three social protection (pension and insurance) schemes; the attractively packaged, near weekly engagements with foreign governments on their soil and ours; pushing through the border realignment with Bangladesh; the quietening down of tension with China in Arunachal Pradesh; the relatively incident-free border with Pakistan; the warming relationship with Sri Lanka; the race to make India “cough-free” by substituting clean renewables with dirty fossil fuels; the quick response to natural disaster in Nepal and Bihar; the disciplining of the bureaucracy and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political cadres; effective management of the sensitive relationship between the BJP and its regressive cultural font — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; the visible dominance of the Prime Minister’s Office, which had wilted under the previous government; the productive alignments with Didi’s (Mamata Banerjee) government in West Bengal; Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party in Kashmir; the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh; Amma (J. Jayalalithaa) in Tamil Nadu, are all signals of aggressive political outreach.

But behind the scenes, several half-marathons have also been initiated — the blistering pace of tendering and award of infrastructure projects with results expected over the next three years; the quick decisions on defence procurements; the swift auction of coal mines to resolve the fuel supply bottlenecks; the opening up of the defence sector to private investment and management; relaxation of foreign direct investment constraints in insurance — both major sources of good jobs and the quiet continuation of the previous government’s Aadhaar electronic platform as a primary mechanism for verifying identity so necessary for subsidy reform via direct cash transfers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has run the first leg of the marathon with exceptional skill. But this was the easy part. The next 16 km till 2017 is what will make or break his chances for re-election in 2019. Five key measures stand out.

First, with two big state-level elections coming up, the BJP will need to marry the compulsion for populism with fiscal rectitude, which has been the leitmotif of the first year of Arun Jaitley as the finance minister of India. Reigning in inflation is a continuous struggle in such circumstances. It is fitting that the Reserve Bank of India continues to focus on managing money supply and interest rates. The ministry of finance will have its hands full substituting for the erstwhile Planning Commission in allocation of funds and enhancing real-time, expenditure management systems and metrics to ensure “value for money” spent. Key indicators to watch will be achievement of the targeted reductions in revenue, current account and fiscal deficits.

Second, introduce a poverty and private jobs creation filter. Share the assessments publicly via a “dashboard” of proposed allocations to make the allocation process more transparent and participative. Direct democracy is of Mr Modi’s signature tune. This is also a great way of self-restraining crony capitalism and populism.

Third, cut loose the railways and the public sector companies and banks from the crippling constraints of ministerial intervention. Corporatise all production and service delivery entities as a first step to reform, followed by administrative autonomy and selective listing of stock. The creeping tendency, reminiscent of the “Indira Gandhi ‘commanding heights’ syndrome”, of falling back on the public sector for getting quick results is unfortunate. The international experience shows that poor investments are the outcome if public funds are plentiful. India cannot afford “bridges to nowhere”, even if they create jobs in the short term. This implies fixing the “broken” public-private partnership (PPP) model, not effectively junking it altogether with the government assuming all the risk, as is being considered currently.

Fourth, trim the flabby Union government. The UK model of agencification and administrative reform, tight budget constraints, monetisation of assets and the levy of user charges, fits the Indian context best. Look for “asymmetric reform”, rather than whole-of-government approaches. The Aadhaar unique ID experiment is a useful example of the benefits of strategic, but narrow reform. The “Namami Gange” Clean Ganga Mission is another example. If “cooperative federalism” is to be more than just an attractive slogan the Union government must be the pied-piper, which the state governments follow.

Fifth, fix the big institutional constraints to rapid development. The last thing we need is a clash of titans — Rajya Sabha versus the government — a replay of the dysfunctionality of the American political architecture; judiciary versus the executive. Are we really keen to tread the Pakistan route? Avoid proxy veto by the Union governors over elected state governments — a throwback to the ugly days of the Emergency in the 1970s. Implement the 74th Amendment (1992), which mandates decentralisation but remains ignored two decades later.

The final 16-km dash in 2018 and 2019 will be easy if the half marathons already initiated are run well, over the next two years. The trick is not to sacrifice public interest in an all-out attempt to win state elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The question remains: will the BJP’s marathon mind rule or its sprinter’s muscles dominate?

CM Kejriwal’s plunging popularity

Kejriwal plunge

(photo credit: fundamental.bogs.com)

How justified is Mr. Kejriwal, the Chief Minister (CM) of Delhi in assuring auto rickshaw (tuk tuks) owners and drivers -his niche supporters numbering around 100,000 – annual rate revisions in tandem with rising costs, when he denies a similarly supportive regulatory regime to the three private companies which supply power to consumers in Delhi?

As a Dilli-walla, who has not had to use an inverter during the last five years because electricity is available on tap- a saving of Rs. 5000 per year- it seems obvious to me that privatizing electricity supply has been the biggest boon for citizens.

But to sustain supply at a reliability level of 99.5%, the DISCOMS have to buy sufficient power to meet peak load and maintain the wires, related transmission and distribution equipment and meters sufficiently well, to avoid breakdowns and to meter consumption accurately. Privatisation has given Delhi what only Bombay (also privately supplied) used to have a two decades ago – reliable electric supply.

Build institutions, don’t undermine existing ones

The Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission’s (DERC) consistently fair, participative and effective decision making has supported this achievement. Not surprisingly, a recent independent survey, done by the premier Jaipur based, consumer advocacy institute- CUTS, which reviewed institutional arrangements and consumer perception, assessed the DERC as the state electricity regulator most responsive to citizen grievances.

It is consequently, decidedly odd, that the Mr. Kejriwal should try and undermine the institutional credibility of the electricity regulator by insinuating that the private DISCOMS are being favoured by the DERC tariff determination process at the cost of consumers.

Most recently Mr. Kejriwal has alleged that the newly appointed in-charge Chief Secretary (who apparently was not his choice) is also in cahoots with the two Reliance power DISCOMS.

Mr. Kejriwal has erred in mixing up the issue of whether or not the CM should choose the Chief Secretary with the unrelated issue of whether, or not, the person appointed to that position, by the Lt. Governor, has the right credentials to occupy that post.

On the first issue, good governance norms would dictate that, at the very least, the CM should be consulted and preferably should concur in the appointment of the Chief Secretary (CS). After all, unless the CM and the CS trust each other, government will become dysfunctional. The worst thing for a government is to admit publicly that it is out of control. This holds irrespective of the legal position that the Lt. Governor is not bound to seek the CMs advice on the issue since Delhi is only a “make believe” State Government with limited functions.

Populism is not sustainable

The Kejriwal government is coming across as populist, anti-reform and anti-organised private sector. Add to this the constraint that being recent rulers, with no administrative experience, it appears ham-handed at doing what it wants. The result is that even good intentions get warped by inept execution.

Why Messers Kejriwal and Sisodia seem bent upon wasting time and political capital on burnishing their populist image, even though there are still more than four long years to go before elections, is puzzling.

That Mr. Kejriwal looks to the common man for his support is welcome. After all more than 40% of Delhi residents live either in slums or in slum-like colonies. But more than “freebies”- like cheap power and free water- what each of these “slum dwellers” want is a better life for their children and a job.

Generating new jobs

Generating 1 million “good” jobs in Delhi over the next four years is a colossal task and the CM would do well to focus his energies on this task. He will need the active collaboration of the private sector to achieve this goal. The continued availability of reasonably priced, good quality electricity will be crucial so tinkering with what is working well (privatized electricity utilities) is dangerous and irresponsible.

It is all very well to grandstand by dis-allowing the entry of multi-brand retail in Delhi. In any case, these space-intensive, “deep pocket” entities which seek to provide a “complete shopping experience”, would rather locate in adjoing NOIDA or Gurgaon, where commercial space is cheaper. But what does the government plan to do to “clean up” the existing local market places and make small shopkeepers more competitive?

Why not create new jobs by servicing public spaces better with private security; better maintenance; toilets; take-a-break-spots; green spaces and parking facilities to enhance the shopping experience.  The popular Dilli Haat (market) started two decades ago is one such example.

Make the rich pay for using public road space

Delhi has around 2 million cars. Most of them are parked overnight on the streets and adjoining side-walks. Why not charge car owners for this privilege, especially at a progressive rate? Rate progression would mean that for every incremental car per household, the rate increases. Even a flat charge per car of Rs 500 per month would yield an additional revenue of Rs 1000 crore per year (rule-of-thumb basis) equal to 3% of the 2015-16 Budget estimate of Rs 35,000 crores.

The incremental proceeds could be used, in the colony where it is collected, to provide and maintain colony roads; drains; sewage systems; street lights and water supply systems. More importantly, the fee will provide a disincentive to own multiple cars; encourage owners to dump old, unused cars and free up public parking, cycling and walking space.

Public transport

The CM should also note that whilst today electricity in Delhi is of the same quality as in Mumbai, the same cannot be said of the public buses. Ensuring a 24X7 public transport system, which is secure and accessible within a maximum ten minute walk from any urban mohallah (community), is an enormous challenge which goes beyond just buying more buses. Meeting this public transport infrastructure gap will hurt he CMs support group the most – the 100,000 auto rickshaws who provide an inefficient, insecure and costly substitute for public buses. But it can garner the CM the support of 60% of the 25 million Dilli-wallas who can only afford to travel by bus.

There are still more than four years to go for the Delhi elections and it is sad to see the Kejriwal government not using this time to deliver substantial gains to Delhi citizens. Grandstanding by “taking on” the Government of India via the Lt. Governor is unlikely to get it votes. Delhi is not a city which tolerates “whiners”.

BJP ruled municipalities provide no “benchmark” competition

The only silver lining for Mr. Kejriwal is that the three Municipal Corporations, all controlled by the BJP, are even worse. It is shocking that the Modi “magic” has not brushed-off on its local worthies and the municipalities remain mired in inefficiency and corruption.

Far from setting governance standards which would force Mr. Kejriwal to up his game and perform better, the Delhi municipalities are making it absurdly easy for Mr. Kejriwal to “shine” by comparison. This is shortsighted of the BJP and bad for Delhi citizens.

End game

Mr. Kejriwal has already lost the support of the middle class. Sadly he is in danger of losing the poor also, unless he takes service delivery beyond the level of rhetoric. He knew the limited character of the Delhi government before he contested. If he now feels constrained for power he has to wait till 2017 when he will get a chance of consolidating his power base in the three municipalities. Alternatively, he has to wait till 2019 in the hope of getting a congenial partner at the national level, who will cede fuller powers to Delhi State.

Either way he has a clear three years in which he can focus on improving what lies squarely within his ambit today- electricity supply, roads, public lighting, water, drains, sewage collection and treatment and social services. Even this seems a handful given the shallow bench strength of the AAP.

PM Modi’s Foreign Policy “Trilema”

Trilema

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

Reposted from Asian Age May 15, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/modi-s-trilemma-1

India’s bland foreign policy has traditionally been based on the principle of “please all and offend none”. Things changed under Indira Gandhi when we pivoted to the Soviets and teamed up against the “capitalists” in the West. But post-1990, once the Soviet dream evaporated, we reverted to the “offend none” tactic. The UPA years were a continuation of this approach, which suited the soft-spoken, nominal Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Things have changed since then. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a muscular, energetic man and wants his foreign policy to reflect that energy and purpose. But he faces the classic problem of managing an “impossible trinity” comprising the US, a weakening Russia and an emerging China, which today attracts allegiance from countries cutting across traditional power blocs.

East Asia, other than Vietnam and Australia, feeds off China’s economic growth. China will likely add $6 trillion of new wealth (GDP increase over 2015) in the period 2015-24 and this is a powerful magnet that dulls the pain of negotiating with China over “disputed territory” in the South and East China Sea.

Similarly, Sub-Saharan Africa increasingly depends on Chinese investment “aid” and mineral export to China. Even Russia prefers to diversify its energy exports away from Europe to China, but not to India or Japan.

China is an immediate neighbour of India. A dispute over border demarcation in the west and east lingers. Neither party is really willing to resolve it because it is convenient for both.

For China, the ongoing border dispute presents it with the opportunity to build roads through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), linking into Karachi on the Arabian Sea and the still-to-be-built Chinese port of Gwadar in Balochistan province, next to the Iranian border.

For India, the border dispute and China’s dodgy moves to build infrastructure through PoK, with the concurrence of Pakistan, is a package problem. It serves to legitimise a tit-for-tat aggressive development of Arunachal Pradesh, a border territory claimed by China. The area has significant hydro potential estimated at around 30 GW and is of strategic importance to safeguard the north-eastern states of India to its south.

It is fashionable to couch India’s need for China in commercial terms — trade and investment. But China is a much more efficient manufacturer than India and hence a trade deficit ($40 billion doubling to $80 billion in three years) is inevitable, with India as the junior exporting partner. Seeking investment from China is one way of plugging the hole created by the trade deficit. But such investment benefits China as much as India.

India’s growth story, whilst not as impressive as China’s, is sufficiently dramatic in these economically hollow times to garner eyeballs. New value creation (cumulative value addition to GDP over 2014 levels) of $1.4 trillion over a decade from now is not a trifle. A share of just 20 per cent (similar to its share today) in India’s new value creation could feed an annual growth of 0.3 per cent for China.

Growing economic ties with India — soon to be the fourth largest economy in the world (after the US, China and Japan) — enhance China’s “strategic prestige”. This is the “pull” factor. There is also a “push factor” which Indian strategists tend to emphasise — China’s paranoia that India may become part of a US effort to encircle China along with Japan. This “fear factor” is over hyped.

China knows well that the Indian psyche favours reconciliation rather than confrontation. India routinely prefers turning a Nelson’s eye to occasional intransigence but abhors subjugating its sovereignty to any foreign influence — a hangover of our colonial mindset. India could never be a link in an American chain to “contain” China.

China is unconcerned about future competition from the US. Over the next 30 years, the US will morph demographically into being dominated by fast-growing Hispanic and African-American communities; an ageing, minority white population; the inherited disadvantage of high wages and even higher citizen expectations; degrading infrastructure and increasing inequality. What this will mean for the “can do” spirit and mojo which defines the US, is unclear.

Despite such uncertainties, the US remains a long-term natural ally of India. Its plural culture, democratic values, federal institutional arrangements, history of innovation and grounded belief in religion and “family first” gels well with India.

A weakening US and a strengthening India make a perfect combination. The combined GDP of the US, India and Japan will be double of China’s GDP in 2024 and their future value addition — a key “convening” factor for attracting allies — will be higher than that of China.

Finally, the significant Indian community and private sector investment in the US and Europe provide a ready base for developing P2P (people to people) and B2B (business to business) contacts.

All this is reflected in the determined efforts of Mr Modi to establish a trade, investment and communication bridgehead with the US, Japan, Germany and Australia.

The traditional third leg of the impossible trinity has been Russia. But the gains from trade or strategic alignment are scarce. A close strategic friendship with Russia elicits no apprehension in Beijing because Russia is today a “toothless bear” plagued by a natural resource-export dependent economy. Russia, ruled by “grasping” oligarchs, has to reform and shed its macho image. Its best bet is to integrate into Europe, where it belongs. Consequently the “real” third leg of the trinity in future is Europe, with Germany and Russia as possible focal points.

Mr Modi’s strategy to navigate the impossible trinity of US, China and Europe-Russia is clear. Engage with the US, Japan and Germany aggressively and integrate into their value chains. Keep expectations low but exchange lofty targets with the Chinese and the Russians. But, most importantly, keep your powder dry and gear up India’s economy, because our best friend is our own strength and resilience.

Prime Minister Modi says Ni Hou

Ni Hou

(photo credit: india.com)

Arun Shourie- minister in the earlier NDA government and senior BJP leader was being strategically alarmist when he went public on May 1 warning Prime Minister Modi against succumbing to the seductive spell, which the Chinese put on Pandit Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) eagerly accepting his diplomatic largesse and support whilst remaining firm on giving nothing in return, which was not expressly bargained for and agreed.

Mr. Shourie has a flair for the dramatic and an uncanny ability to be evocative in his speech, sweetly hitting hardest, where it hurts the most. The Chinese “betrayal” of Pandit Nehru’s “brotherly” love by invading India in 1962 broke Nehru’s heart and spirit. He succumbed to the body blow two years later. China supporters maintain that unclear messaging from India forced China to retaliate since it perceived India as being bent on unilaterally disturbing the status quo along an un-demarcated Himalayan border between the two countries. Be that as it may, the China-India 1962 war, in which, despite heroic, determined but futile resistance from an ill-equipped and poorly led Indian army, China soundly trounced India, has left an open wound for India, which is still raw more than five decades later.

One doesn’t need to go back to 1962 to be sure that China is not a natural ally for India. We are just too similar with few complementarities and hugely competing priorities.

India-China, twins separated at birth?

Both countries are in a race for fuel, which neither have and both need to grow their economies and feed their people. One out of every three humans is either Chinese or Indian. China is racing to achieve high income economy status (per capita GNI> US$ 12,746) whilst India is striving to be an upper middle income economy-where China is today (per capita GNI> US$ 4,125). Both need to find export markets to fuel their growth. Both are relative “outsiders” to the high table of developed countries and both are jostling for space. Both peoples are hugely entrepreneurial and compulsively competitive. But there the similarity ends.

Even twins grow differently

India is barely at the threshold of being a lower middle income economy but its international, political engagement is larger than its economic heft. China is already an upper middle income economy but traditionally prefers to remain below the international diplomacy radar and boxes well below its weight, except when it perceives its national interest directly at stake.

India is a democracy of long standing, grounded on the compulsion of complex heterogeneity and plurality. China is a largely homogenous, beneficent, authoritarian meritocracy.

India is has been institutionally and ideologically networked into the developed world due to its colonial heritage and the facility with English. But it is a recent and somewhat unwilling, entrant to the international trade and investment value chains. China’s culture and values are unique and somewhat autarkic but its planned tapping of developed country knowledge, innovation, research and technology market has worked well. Its pragmatism, easy adaptation to change and determined implementation of a growth strategy by integrating into trade and investment value chains, sets it apart from even its East Asian neighbours, most certainly India and previously communist countries.

Given the lack of complementarities and the visibly rivalrous character of the relationship why has Prime Minister Modi steadfastly wooed the Chinese?

Why China eyes India

China knows well what it wants from India. It wants to service India’s booming market with cost competitive goods and services. This is why a bilateral trade target of even US$ 100 billion per year is rather limited for China. Given a choice it would rather shoot for US$ 200 billion so that it can buy into India’s growth prospects for adding at least 1% to its GDP growth over the next few years.

Growth is flagging in China. This is worrisome for the leadership which has built its credibility by “filling people’s pockets to shut their mouths”- a snide reference to the grand political bargain in which Chinese citizens agree to trade in individual freedom for material gains.

India has a trade deficit of 50% of US$ 37 billion with China. Bilateral trade is US$70 billion.  This is higher than the aggregate trade deficit which is 20%. Further expansion of trade will likely worsen this deficit, since China is a more efficient mass producer of goods. Trade with China is consequently only a lever for India with which to negotiate alternative benefits in investment; security cooperation and mutually supportive diplomatic stances in multilateral fora.

So what is it about China which should excite India?

China made Indian Gods

Rather than predictably moan about the trade deficit with China Prime Minister Modi should praise the Chinese people for their achievements.

First, thank them for sending affordable goods to India thereby directly benefiting Indian consumers and forcing Indian industry to become competitive through attrition of uncompetitive businesses.

Second, thank China for being a role model for developing countries on the following three counts. (A) Illustrating the virtues of savings and investment led growth, particularly in manufacturing (B) Establishing the necessity of increasing public investment in human development and social protection (C)  Providing to the developing world a model for enhancing employment, jobs and rapid reduction in poverty

Third, invite them to visit India as Tourists, Students, Scholars and Friends so that our great cultures can learn from each other directly.

The gloved fist

Much has been made of the Chinese excursions into India even as President Xi was eating Dhoklas with Prime Minister Modi in September 2014.  Was this part of an elaborate Chinese plan to remind India that sipping green tea together does not mean China will give up its claims on Indian territory? Or were they a Peoples Liberation Army game plan to stab the reformist Xi in the back and undermine his international credibility? We may never find out. But what it does illustrate is that diplomacy is like sleeping with snakes-one has to sleep light, remain vigilant, move slowly but definitively and remain calm and unperturbed by the ensuing rattles.

Chinese cash

Should we fear Chinese investment in India? Clearly they have the cash and we have the need for it. One reason why we need the cash is to generate jobs. This means that the standard Chinese model of project implementation which relies on Chinese expatriates does not suit our needs. Rather they should build Indian skills in project implementation in keeping with their celebrated record in project implementation.

Partnership with Indian companies is the best model for Chinese investment in India so that social benefits and tax revenue flows downwards to the people of India whilst corporate profits flow to China. Other than a very short negative list of investments in sensitive border areas, Chinese investment should be welcomed. In fact co-partnership in international value chain related production can be of mutual benefit in services, engineering and chemicals.

End game

Prime Minister Modi’s China strategy must needs be minimalist. India looms too large in China’s neighbourhood for comfort. China will pull no punches in consciously trying to establish its dominance in South Asia and thereby cramp Indian influence. This is very similar to the effort India spends on cultivating Vietnam now and Taiwan earlier to the chagrin if China.

The best that India can hope to do is to stop China from playing “spoiler” in India’s unfolding growth story. Chinese support for Pakistani Terror or Maoist rebels in east India is an illustration of such proxy efforts. The best way of neutralizing “spoilers” is to co-opt them into the game as active participants. We must encourage China to develop significant investment stakes and trade links with India so that they too benefit from India’s growth. Actively encouraging highway and rail links across borders is a good place to start. India must aim to become “too big” in the Chinese investment portfolio for it to stall Indian growth- this is what “protects” the US.

It is inconceivable that Mr. Shourie is oblivious of this imperative to reach out to China. Could it be then be that his highly publicized “missive” to the PM was just a charade, dreamt up by the BJP “dirty tricks” department, to build up PM Modi as a strong and forceful leader with the reach; the credibility and the strategic depth to ignore inner-party, high level resistance to warming up China-India relations? In other words was Mr. Shourie’s advice given with the full knowledge that it would be ignored?

Similarly, could it be that the recent government action against Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation for crossing red lines by supporting activities against the national interest, were also initiated to project Mr. Modi’s government, ahead of the China visit, as being strongly nationalistic, able and willing to cock a snook at the US, just to illustrate, that India is not wedded to any traditional power block.

Far-fetched or not, PM Modi leaves for Beijing on a stronger wicket, as a friend of China, than he started with in September 2014, in part, thanks to Mr. Shourie.

Shrimatiji awaits achche din

Reposted from The Asian Age May 5, 2015 where it first appeared http://www.asianage.com/columnists/shrimatiji-awaits-achche-din-800

asianage_logo

India is on a roll. The “helicopter-top down” view looks good. Growth is to be 7.5 per cent this fiscal and 8 per cent by 2018 (World Bank’s India Development Update report 2015) outdoing China, which cannot but be a matter of satisfaction. We are now besting China at their home grown “game” of sustained growth.

Home loan rates are also down. Stalled infrastructure projects are being restarted. Government is “intervening” decisively with upfront public investment to reduce the commercial and political risk for private investors. There is more “method” now to the earlier “madness” in the allocation of natural resources like spectrum and coal mining rights. Gas exploration regulations have been “tweaked” to make them more “investor friendly”. On land acquisition, state governments are showing the way though political rhetoric still trumps consensual problem solving.

Overseas, India is stepping up to the plate forcefully. The global narrative on India is changing. Canada is selling us uranium once again. India’s risk-averse nuclear regulatory framework is being applied innovatively to fit with the international risk sharing, contractual norms. India is once again a part of the global and regional public decision-making chain.

A signal of strategic maturity is India turning down the offer to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. The growth dividend from such mega public events is iffy. More importantly, this is a frank recognition that it is not yet time for India to party.

How do things look bottom up? High expectations but fewer results just about sum it up. The common woman is still waiting.

That inflation is no longer surging is a relief. More importantly, the subtle but unsavory regulatory dispute between the Reserve Bank of India and the ministry of finance is resolved. Both now have bright lines defining their separate roles for growth sustaining, macroeconomic stability. This augurs well for the poor, who suffer the most from inflation and instability.

The average Indian household is not resilient to “shocks” principally because their pockets are so shallow. Food, cooking gas or kerosene and electricity constitute more than 50 per cent of an average Indian’s household budget despite subsidies. All three perch on an unstable stool of administered prices.

There are huge political economy barriers to making food supply fiscally sustainable. But shaping food demand away from the monoculture production of water intensive, risky crops unsuited to the local agro-climatic conditions can drive local jobs and reduce subsidies.

India is trapped in the Green Revolution led productivity enhancement of fine cereals — rice and wheat — which led to south India consuming chapattis and the north wolfing down dosa, thus creating a pan-India balanced, administered market.

Cereals are a staple diet for the price-sensitive poor because of subsidised retail supply prices. But, more worryingly, administered high farm gate prices — used as an inefficient instrument of income assurance for farmers — have led to fine cereal production, crowding out other weather-resilient local crops. Weather-resilient coarse cereals and legumes languish for want of research and fiscal support.

No surprise then that a fine cereal-intensive diet has become the diet of choice even of the middle class (30 per cent of the population) which, whilst not rich, is not desperately poor either. One-third of even the wealthiest children in India are malnourished, not because they don’t eat enough but because they don’t eat healthy.

A second revolution must herald the end of the great Indian tradition of a cereal-intensive diet. The time is ripe for a second revolution in food demand. Six hundred million Indians, who can afford to eat healthy, need to move to a more balanced combination of lentils, milk products, fish, meat, vegetables, fruit and coarse cereals. Doing so could create the demand incentive for food growers to diversify away from the subsidised monoculture of wheat and rice into more weather resilient local food varieties and packaged options.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the gold standard for illustrating the ability of positive outreach and communication to shape opinion and events. He should lend his heft to a campaign for revolutionalising food demand away from fine cereals to more sustainable local substitutes. Associating private sector partners in research and NGOs in extension work for developing and mainstreaming these substitute crops would also be a rich source for productive, new jobs for our science graduates.

Energy (transport and cooking) is the second big-ticket spend for households, which is why cooking fuel and road and rail passenger fares are subsidised. But low oil prices are precariously dependent on the continuation of the current US and Saudi strategy to sanction Iran and Russia by bleeding their oil revenues. This is a temporary factor. Similarly, normalisation of world economic growth is likely to boost oil prices in the medium term, upsetting the “happiness” apple cart for both retail consumers and the stability of the foreign exchange balance of the country.

In electricity, the neglected, dominantly state-owned distribution utilities are crying out to be fixed. Some of their angst relates to their own inefficiency — they continue to lose 27 per cent of the electricity they buy due to theft, collusive metering and poor operations. But below-cost tariffs for domestic and agricultural users have resulted in an accumulated loss of Rs 100,000 crore ($16 billion). This is recognised by regulators as due to the utilities but remains parked as a notional asset with no assurance of when or how utilities are to recover it.

Things have now come to a head. Poor utility finances are holding up the conclusion of power purchase agreements with generators, which in turn negatively affects the operationalisation of 20,000 MW of new investment in generation and shall ultimately impact consumers with either poor quality or higher prices.

At the heart of improving the life of the common woman is to drive hard for stability, reduce the risks she faces and move quickly to dilute the inevitable shock. Traditionally the government has focused on the latter — better disaster management is one of them. But the far more fundamental work is to enhance individual risk resilience. Jobs help the most in meeting this objective.

Realty is a jobs-intensive sector. The construction splurge of the previous years — driven by bank loans available at low and mostly negative interest rates — created a two years’ over-supply of “inert economic assets” which generate no jobs post construction because they are empty shells. The challenge is to fill these empty spaces — shops, offices and homes — with people who are willing either to rent or buy and use them.

Intervening administratively — rent control and allocating vacant space, as done in the past, or even worse, caps on the sale price of property — would be a ham handed, extremely leaky approach out of step with the times.

A better way is for municipalities and banks to provide price disincentive — higher property tax and higher interest rates for loans on properties kept vacant. Having to pay more on vacant properties can discourage speculation, drive better utilisation of inert investments and generate social returns — jobs for people and taxes for the government.

A year is a lifetime in an intensely contested, democratic polity. This is why the government must squeeze out the “fat” in the system whilst planning for the future. Over the past decade, we had much more of the latter and very little of the former. Given the head winds building up, it is critical for the government’s longevity to redeem its compact with voters by delivering real, near-term, fiscally neutral improvements in consumer welfare. Think long but act now should be the mantra

PM to babus: Learn to work with “plentiful resources” for social and human development

DC

(photo credit; namakkal.tn.nic.in)

Prime Minister Modi, addressing the civil service officers, last week, made three telling points. First, he asked the bureaucracy to shrug off the inhibitions of the past and think big and assured that resource constraint would not limit them.

Second, he exhorted the bureaucracy to change citizens’ perception of babudom by personal example.

Third, he advised that social and human development were core sovereign areas that babus should focus on.

Taking the second first, he was bang on. Babus have taken a severe beating over the last three decades, with even the government giving this institution short shrift. Cleary, this PM is different. This warmed babu hearts, as it was meant to and possibly sparked off in a few, the determination to be different. But unless some core steps are taken to create the enabling environment for babus to earn respect, the warmth will dissipate quickly.

There are three key issues which bedevil the bureaucracy and unless these are dealt with widespread change is a dream.

Management by Janampatri

First, the bureaucracy remains mired in colonial, vertical hierarchies, with each having its own jagir of positions that only they can occupy from induction to the day they retire. Aspirants work hard to join the various silo like career lines, not because they have a talent or even liking for the type of work they do, but based purely on differential career prospect, which bear no relationship to the value addition. This is clearly out of sync with the horizontal institutional structures which are the new work place.

Of course change has to be gradual to be fair to those, who for no fault of theirs have become what the system made of them. Starting with the top is always the best way to signal change. Recruit all senior positions in the Government of India on contract for fixed terms through open selection, based on core competencies. This is what will incentivize junior babus to be performance oriented; acquire relevant skills and to specialize.

The electron is mightier than the pen

Second, government has to go 100% digital to manage the ensuing burden of monitoring, managing and rewarding performance. Digitisation also establishes audit trails, which cannot burn down, as files do. It is also crucial for fixing accountability. Lastly, digitisation promotes transparency and access to information. India lost an opportunity when it did not become part of the steering group for the Open Data initiative of President Obama in 2013. But this is where we should be heading.

Pay for value addition not status

Third a common problem, across bureaucracies, is that that the most unskilled get paid the highest relative, to the market comparators and the most skilled are severely underpaid. The logic behind this “madness” was socialism which expected you to “give” to the nation per your capability but to expect only what you needed. Since there is not much variance in human need- roti, kapda, makaan- pay scales across the vertical levels of babus were compressed unreasonable in a show of faux equity. Even today the highest gets paid only 10 times the lowest. This needs to change. In the private sector, where pay is related to value addition, this ratio is meaningless. The start should be made by making all senior positions-Joint Secretary and above- contractual, filled by open selection through UPSC and paid on market rates.

Just making these three changes can inject skills into the bureaucracy; make them more responsive to public needs and generate the right incentives for those in line for senior positions.

Are we heading for a fiscal surplus?

What about the other significant point of the PM-thinking big and learning to work with “plenty” instead of coping with resource scarcity.

The source of the PM’s confidence that a fiscal bounty is around the corner is unclear but the point is relevant in the context of his objective “minimum government, maximum governance”.  If the physical size of the government is reduced to only the skills required for core sovereign functions, the ensuing surplus public funds can be deployed.

Focus the bureaucracy on core sovereign functions

His remark gains heft when linked to his third point that he did not visualize a big role for the bureaucracy in areas which were earlier considered “prime “ positions- industrial development, commerce and infrastructure, since these were not core sovereign responsibilities. Developed economies function very well, through professional bodies and the private sector in these areas, using light touch regulation.

Instead he exhorted the bureaucracy to align their skill set with what people expected of them- enforcement of the rule of law; social protection and human development. Working with and for the disadvantaged, is a core sovereign function. This must have come as a shock to many babus, aspiring for career in the glamorous world of industry, infrastructure and commerce.  But, if and when translated into reality, a focus on using the bureaucracy primarily to fulfill social objectives is very welcome.

Management of “plenty”

Are there special skills required to work with plenty? A fiscal bounty or “plenty” has obvious advantages in improving funding even for functional areas like personnel management, accounting, auditing and technical consultancy which are fundamental to public efficiency; in improving the timely availability of budgeted amounts or in making government more receptive to innovation requiring some additional up-front cost. But perversely, plenty also breeds its own “spoilers”.

Keeping the “Locusts” at bay?

First, “plenty” attracts locusts in droves each trying desperately to get at a slice of the action. If the institutional arrangements are poor, or the government weak kneed, “locusts” will gnaw away till they bring down the very tree they feed on. The UPA 2G and coal allocation scams were exactly these.

So PM Modi is correct that the bureaucracy will need to change their skill set if they are to manage “plenty” as efficiently as they have been managing scarcity all along.

The might of public finance breeds civil service arrogance

Second, the most pernicious outcome of public plenty is the perception, within government, that it can go it alone without the collaboration of other stakeholders- civil society organisations; NGOs and the private sector. The collateral damage is of “know all” babus and surrounding supplicants, who would prefer to allow government to make costly mistakes rather than risk point out an error for fear of being labeled as a “problem creator”.

The systematic subservience, during the colonial period, of local public management systems to centralized, top-down arrangements like the District Collector or the Police Superintendent, have left an enduring miasma of suspicion, envy and mistrust, which still colours the relationship between the people and the State, seven decades into our independence.

Resource scarcity has the advantage that it humbles the State and its representatives and forces them to take help from the local community thereby creating horizontal working relationships between the State and Non State Actors. Loosening of the fiscal strings can retard this healthy socio-political institutional development.

The State has to progressively step up partnerships with CSOs and NGOs, not only when it is driven to do so by budget constraints but because of the social and economic benefits accruing from letting people manage their own affairs.  Decentralisation and direct democracy has multiplier effects, beyond just the fiscal mirage of making personnel liabilities off-budget for government.

The begging bowl is easier than community effort

Third, one of the biggest problems in lavishly funded, extended United Nations relief and rehabilitation missions is how to wean the beneficiaries away from the psyche of dependence on an beneficent external actor, be it the UN or the government.

A government of plenty begets the same dilemma. In the face of the might of public finance, the internal juices of communities, to fund and manage their own needs, dry up. Instead it is so much more convenient to stand in line with a begging bowl every time the PM comes calling and to lobby for public funds in the capital.

Gold plated stranded assets

Fourth, at the best of times due diligence, design, planning and execution of public projects is made impossibly inefficient by process norms and the political economy constraints of spending public money per the “value for money” principle. When money is scarce, decisions get pared down to the essentials. Conversely well-funded public entities make bad investments merely because they can afford to do so.

Public decisions-be they big or small, are so difficult to get made that the tendency is to lump what should be a series of separate decisions into a single omnibus project which becomes so big and involves so many stakeholders that it “just cannot fail” and has to be approved. But this also generates surplus capacity.

This tactic is unsuited to an era of rapid technological change. Excessive future commitments can become stranded assets-technology which is no longer efficient. Building 100 GW of solar capacity in the next five years has precisely this risk.

There are four key ingredients for making good decisions in a time of plenty going by the acronym- COLON.

First- Collaboration with all stakeholders is key to inclusion. Embed it in government process. Second-Outcomes like reduced electricity outages, should be monitored rather than inputs like project spend or intermediate outcomes like project completion. Third-LOcal decision making is key for ensuring buy in. Leave room for it even if it means slower implementation. FourthNo is what a Finance Minister should say to politically motivated, low social return investments. Currently we have only the fourth ingredient.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: