governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for October, 2016

Fly India, fly

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Udan — the new regional air connectivity scheme — is not likely to get the aam aadmi (common man) to fly, but it will correct the historical wrong done to the air transport business in India. The hallmark of faux socialism was the targeting of some services and goods as “luxury” and by implication, anti-common man, anti-growth and pro-inequality.

Air transport was one such service. It’s early face was to serve the rich or the privileged. But all this has changed. Indian workers travelling from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh to the Gulf travel by road or rail to Delhi before taking an international flight. Why not facilitate them to fly straight from Etawah to Delhi, thereby securing their luggage end-to-end and avoiding the choking of our inter-state roads?

Udan is refreshingly simple and timely in its objectives. It is not populist even though it is being marketed in that manner. The “hawai chappalwallahs” would prefer to get subsidy in hand rather than as a low-cost air junket. Udan is not about giving the poor a taste of luxury, Evita Peron style.

Air transport for growth and jobs

Udan is about growth and jobs as the policy note avers up front. It quotes the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that every rupee invested in civil aviation add Rs 3.5 to the economy and every job created directly generates 6.1 jobs indirectly.

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There is no reason to take the ICAO at its word. The ministry has been baking this scheme since November 2014. It should have estimated similar value and job multipliers in the Indian context. That could have better evidenced the benefits from the allocation of public funds on the “value for money” principle. But the economic rationale can be intuitively surmised.

What! India has more airports than commercial planes

There are as many as 398 “unserved” airports which have no commercial flights and 18 “under-served” airports host less than seven flights per week. One may well ask why this large number of airports exist if there are no commercial flights to them and who pays for their upkeep? Anecdotally, these airports have existed for the convenience of the elite political class for their infrequent “in and out” inspections, disaster surveys and election time visits to the hinterland. Less frequently India’s small business elite may also use a few.

Not all of them are owned by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), the Central agency which manages airports. Some are owned by the ministry of defence, others by state governments. It would have helped investors if the policy note had listed the ownership and management of each.

Democratise these public assets

So what are the likely benefits? First, commercialising these 416 airports will “democratise” publicly-owned sites which have hitherto been reserved for elite use. The average citizen would get a participative stake in their use and development. This is a vital aspect that policy note ignores.

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Rationalise air taxes & spend on infrastructure

Second, the government has rightly slashed taxes and charges on regional connectivity flights to narrow the viability gap. AAI will not charge any landing or parking charge and only 42.5 per cent of the route and navigation facilitation charge. The owners of these airports will similarly exempt such flights from all charges whilst ensuring the full package of airport facilities. Most of these charges are exorbitant in any case and need to be rationalised. Consider that AAI earns a profit after tax of around `800 crores. This surplus is better used for regional air connectivity than to subsidise Air India, which should be privatised.

Kick start new businesses and services in rural areas

Third, whilst Udan is branded as a new passenger facility, an additional business opportunity is the potential for moving existing perishable cargo, fragile goods and high-value export-oriented products by air. It is only a combination of passengers and cargo which can make the scheme sustainable. Public investments should be leveraged via private management model used for major airports. Investor consultations in state capitals being planned should include potential investors in airport management and development.

Fourth, some of the additional economic value and jobs are from developing these airports as growth centres. Providing secure and high quality road links, 24×7 electricity, clean water and sanitation are key for private management to step in with malls, airconditioned warehouses, hotels and new businesses which need secure air connectivity.

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Udan has got it right.

The Udan policy ticks all the right boxes. It retains the potential for business innovation by limiting the seats at the Udan price to 50 per cent of capacity. The remaining seats can be sold at market rates. Operators shall be chosen competitively via reverse auction for the minimum amount of “viability gap funding” (VGF) required. The policy is carefully and explicitly drafted to avoid ex-post disputes.

The policy is market driven. Flight operators must do their own due diligence and come forward with proposals which would then be put out to bid. If a proposer fails to submit the lowest bid, they could still win by agreeing to match the lowest bid. This provision preserves the incentive for initiating proposals, whilst retaining competitive energy in the bid process. In the past, in roads and telecom, irresponsible bids resulted in projects being abandoned subsequently. Most of these airports are challenges for business development rather than ready-baked money spinners. Hopefully, only responsible bidders would respond.

The policy carries forward the spirit of cooperative federalism. The Central government will fund 80 per cent (90 per cent in the Northeast) of the subsidy amount to be paid to the operators as VGF. The state government shall fund the residual marginal amount.

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Udan targets medium term dividends

It is a policy reform which does not just eye the popular vote. It courageously demolishes the economic posturing of the past and the earlier demonisation of air transport. It looks, instead, towards medium-term economic growth and job creation. Habitual leftists, dyed-in-the-wool faux socialists and related do-gooders are likely to label this policy a sellout in the name of the poor. But young entrepreneurs yearning for growth opportunities and young workers looking for good jobs should support it. Even those who are ideologically bound to oppose this policy are sure to use these services as they travel “cattle class” to the hinterland.

Adaapted from the authors article in the Asian Age, October 28, 2016  http://www.asianage.com/columnists/will-udan-be-able-make-bharat-soar-536

 

Is a machine kicking u out?

 

only-humans

Davenport and Kirby’s book “Only Humans Need Apply” Harper.2016 comes with a whiff of optimism and plenty of specific practical advice- based on real life cases- for professionals – scientists, radiologists, teachers, actuaries, financial analysts, lawyers and all “knowledge workers” who fear loss of jobs. This is where it is different from the previous, scarily sensational non-fiction on machines versus humans. The title is an inversion of Jerry Kaplan’s memorable “Humans Need Not Apply”.

Yes, computers are after your job.

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Yes, computers could be coming after your job. And yes, machines are very smart and becoming smarter. So ignoring them or trying to compete against them is a zero-sum game- the machine will win and you will lose. John Henry, a West Virginia driller learnt that in 1870. He competed against a steam powered drill. He won- only to die from over exertion soon after.

Dirty, dangerous, physically demanding and highly structured jobs like on an industrial production line have been doomed since the 1990s. The US lost more jobs to automation at home, than to outsourcing to India. This trend will worsen. Even “knowledge workers”, highly educated professionals – 25 to 50 percent of the workforce in advanced economies- will get flooded out via automation by 2040. McKinsey estimates automated systems will replace the equivalent of between 110 to 140 million human jobs, by as early as 2025.

Five ways to win the battle

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The way out is “augmentation”- keeping humans at the center whilst farming out work machines can do better, as opposed to “autonomy”- progressively substituting humans with machines. Steve Jobs illustrates – a human, “augmented” with a bicycle, becomes far more energy efficient that even a condor, the most energy efficient of all species. Augmentation is more than mere “complementarity” or co-existence with machines. It means actively collaborating with automation and artificial intelligence to sharpen our skills in areas where humans are most competitive.

Take apart your job into two components – structured tasks which can be codified and tasks which cannot – or at least not just yet. Focus on honing the latter. The former will be automated. You have five options to adapt to the future.

Step in: You can’t beat them so collaborate

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You can “step in” by learning how machines can offload your “dodo”, routinized tasks, thereby freeing up space for your core “human” skills. This presents the largest opportunities to partner machines, oversee them, point out errors they have made or help in improving them.

Step forward: Join the race to make computers better

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You could also “step forward” by acquiring the highly specialized quant skills, engineering knowledge and coding expertise needed to create newer and better machines. But the skill requirements would be of a very high level with the need for continuous upgrades.

Step up: Use computers to widen or deepen decision making skils

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“Step up” options involve honing the expertise to take unstructured decisions by integrating information from multiple sources. Warren Buffet defines one such which defies codification – what should a car driver do if the choice is either to mow down a child, who has strayed onto the road, or to plough into a car with four adult passengers? Complex, corporate “trade-offs” in business strategy are no different.

Step aside: Develope skills in managing human behaviour 

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Others may prefer to “step aside” or take up jobs machines cannot do, like explaining in plain language, to an irate Ben Bernanke, the erstwhile Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, why a computer assessed him as too risky for a mortgage refinance or building relationships in business.

Stepping narrow: Specialise in what computers can’t do.

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“Stepping narrow” is the fifth option. These are jobs so specialized and so restricted- like dealing with special kids or translating lost languages -that they lack the scale required to make automation efficient. In 1997 film maker Errol Morris featured four such narrow specialisations – a topiary gardener, a lion tamer, an authority on the colony behavior of naked mole rats and ironically Rodney Brooks – inventor of autonomous robots.

Computers are  like a horse or a car: They get you where u want to go

Is automation, Keynes’ leisure filled utopia, or a jobless dystopia, scarred by rising inequality and violence? Elon Musk thinks artificial intelligence is “our biggest existential threat”. Stephen Hawking warns that it “could spell the end of the human race”. Bill Gates wonders why “some people are not concerned”.  The authors are clearly not concerned. Nor are 52 percent of nearly two thousand experts polled by PEW. But the near term problem of managing the transition, particularly in poor countries like India, remains a public concern. The authors rightly debunk the option of universal income transfers, as short term palliatives –like NREGA in India – with potentially negative fiscal and work-ethic related unintended consequences.

Governments need to teach us differently for us to adapt

Governments need to reorient education. The focus on science, technology and quant skills is good for those who step in, up or forward. But one half of workers will be stepping aside or narrowly. Education policy does little to encourage these skills. Corporates should get incentives for generating “humans-only” work as Innovation for Jobs (i4j) is doing. International regulation of autonomous machines and artificial intelligence is critical, but absent. We need to collectively “trade off” the benefits from automation against the social cost of increasing joblessness and inequality. Such complex decisions should be a humans-only skill. Unfortunately, we have rarely made wise public choices. This skill needs to be augmented. A first step could be all those concerned reading this book.

Adapted from the authors book review in Business Standard weekend October 22, 2016 http://www.business-standard.com/article/specials/human-factors-in-the-automation-debate-116102101369_1.html

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Book Review: Just erratic not deranged

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Amitav Ghosh’s latest book—The Great Derangement—is an exploration of why contemporary culture, imagination and political systems have failed to prevent global warming, despite its cataclysmic long-term effects and disruptive short-term outcomes.

His choice of the book’s title reflects the conundrum facing poor nations. They are not the ones who benefited from the carbon economy. But to aspire to do this now, when there is no carbon space left, is a one-way ticket to self-annihilation. Hence, the derangement of the modern world, racing towards a future, where consuming itself becomes the only option. Curbing global warming means debunking the fundamental values on which the modern world is built. Central to this artifact is the notion that man is the centre of the universe. Non-human forces, like nature, have no place in this calculus of liberty and modernity.To recognise global warming as a problem, you first have to reject the paradigm that the unconstrained liberty of man is a leitmotif of human progress. Hence the unwillingness and the inability to face or deal with the problem.

Nature’s pawns

This is a cleverly crafted book, as would be expected from a novelist extraordinaire. Divided into three parts, it starts with “Stories”. This segment situates humans as powerless, organic sub-systems of a larger force—restless and dynamic nature. Stories of his family—climate refugees from Bangladesh; of self-doubt after a sudden, destructive tornado in Delhi; of raw beauty and sudden death in the muddy, torpid, densely tangled greenery of the Sundarbans reinforce that we are not masters of the universe.

Inequality and the urge to splurge

The second section on History, draws together three defining strands of the late 17th to the early 20th centuries. First, the availability and use of fossil fuels which were an important precondition for wealth and power. Second—the use of technology to improve productive capacity. Third—the growth of modern empires as the political mechanism for extracting the supply of raw materials; controlling access to technology and keeping overseas markets open for exported manufactured goods. Empires faded in the late 20th century but the extractive process continued. The elite—foreign and domestic—comprise not more than one fourth of the world population, but continue to become wealthy at the expense of the bottom three fourths.

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The third section is on Politics. Ghosh argues cynically that so little has been done to mitigate climate change because the rich world will be able to insulate itself from the horrific outcomes. The shock will primarily be borne by the poor. Littoral countries like Bangladesh, Seychelles and Vietnam and poor communities, within countries, will be the worst affected.

A captive media

Ghosh believes the deafening silence in the media around climate change is because it has been bought out by the huge corporates who own fossil fuel assets. The silence in literature is because his peers—writers, poets and intellectuals—are bludgeoned into conformity by the formulaic path to success of shunning the unpredictable and situating a story within the predictable activities of everyday life, with the individual as the central character.

Can religion help where politics has failed?

Not much can be expected from politicians either. They are so immersed in “bio-politics”—catering to the short-term interests of a defined population of voters—that they have little appetite for long-term global risks. For what it is worth, differences in economic ideology across parties have become minimal in India. All the political parties which have ruled India since 1991 have adhered to the broad neo-liberal construct of economic development. So, quite possibly, the devil lies in the incentives created by this economic model to produce and consume in larger volumes. He cites the December 2016 Paris Agreement as subterfuge and doublespeak, promising to do much without, in effect, doing anything.

He compares this shallow and evasive, politically negotiated international agreement with the direct and forceful Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis issued at the same time. The latter fingers the ruling “technocratic paradigm” and the objectification of endless growth as the problem rather than the solution. It calls for tempering individualism with the balm of social and ecological justice. Ghosh notes that similar voices are being heard within the Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths. This leads him to believe that greater community activism led by religious leaders could be the answer to mobilize opinion for definitive steps to abate global warming.

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Ghosh’s stand is unusual for a secular rationalist. But this is consistent with an approach which absolves religion of its divisive outcomes. He speculates (page 150) that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a former member of a Hindu party because he was perceived as weakening India by opposing industrialisation and consumerism. No references are quoted to support this “economic” explanation. The more usual view is to attribute the killing to Hindu apprehensions that the Mahatma was too politically accommodating of minority interest.Ghosh also seems to step lightly away from the conundrum that using religion for secular purposes is akin to riding a tiger, particularly in India’s surcharged environment, perpetuated by religious faultlines. Indira Gandhi paid the price for doing just that.

The world is increasingly more not less sustainable

 

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Ghosh’s rhetoric is elegant and elegiac. His reasoning is impeccably logical. But his morbid assessment of where we are today and of our future prospects does not triangulate with reality. The world is becoming less carbon-intensive. Every incremental unit of output requires less energy than the previous one. It is true that explosive economic growth in Asia since 1980 has negated this advantage and the global mean temperature continues to increase. But renewable energy options are being developed for air, road and marine transportation, thereby further diluting the link between the use of fossil energy and economic growth. Similarly, technology developments like LED lighting have vastly improved the efficiency of energy services. Climate risk is increasingly being factored into the cost of insurance and the hurdle rate of return for investors. This will drive smart green investments.

We are winning the war on poverty

International aid agencies, governments—of which China is the exemplar, and communities, all working in tandem, have successfully reduced poverty and are on track to eliminate it by 2030. Yes, inequality is on the rise but at a significantly elevated base income level. The opening up of international trade has diluted the link between political domination and market access. Even small nations like Vietnam or Mauritius have benefited from international markets. International trade has democratised resource endowment by making petroleum, minerals and metals available to resource-poor countries. Three out of the four largest economies today—China, Japan and India—are natural resource-poor. They have grown over the last half century by importing fossil fuel and technology. None of the three tops the charts in military might.

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Choice and progress

The spread and deepening of democracy has expanded opportunities for the disadvantaged and smashed earlier glass ceilings, including for women. Adoption of the open economy model has expanded imported competition while deregulation has nurtured domestic competition, for the benefit of consumers. There is more choice today than at any point in history.The world is a more peaceful place than a century ago. That this holds true despite growing sectarian violence in India’s near abroad and an increase in the number of nations armed with nuclear weapons, illustrates the high stakes everyone has in an enduring peace.

Plurality rules

Today, plural models for progress exist. These models are not country or culture specific. They are instead domain specific. Of the top 20 corporates in the world which accumulated the maximum value over the period 2009-2015, not a single company was in oil or gas; as many as eight were in technology or health care. All of them excelled at the capacity to innovate, communicate and compete. It’s a new world out there which defies explanation using traditional paradigms.

None of this means that we are on top of the problem of global warming, yet. But just as surely, there is more light visible, at the end of the tunnel, than has ever been seen before.

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Adapted from the authors essay in Swarajya October 7, 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/its-not-that-scary

 

India’s “green” moves

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Solar powered sun and rain shades in India!

India formally ratified the Paris climate agreement on Sunday, notwithstanding that Donald Trump trashed global warming, last week, as a hoax and efforts to control it as expensive and ineffective.

The United States contributes around 16 per cent of world carbon emissions. Truculence in its approach to manage global warming can scuttle the efforts of the rest of the world. Mr Trump’s cavalier approach to climate change can only be explained by his belief that a slowing US economy should not be the one which pays to set the world’s climate right.This abdication of international leadership appears to resonate with his not inconsiderable supporters.

Clearly, the expectation is that China, which contributes 28 per cent of global emissions, needs to step up to the plate of international burden-sharing. China is now the world’s second largest economy. Despite the slowdown it is growing at three times the rate of the American economy. That is reason enough for higher expectations from it to play the role of a global leader.

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Photo credit: huffingtonpost.com

India is also a fast-growing economy. In the long term we may be where China is today. But not for a while yet. We are just one-fifth of the Chinese economy. Our emissions are just six per cent of world emissions. Our global ambitions should be commensurate with our constraints. This is why, unlike China, we have not committed to cap our emissions at a predetermined level.

Paris – the agree to disagree concord

Under the Paris climate agreement countries have agreed to disagree. It is now left to individual nations to exercise “strategic direction” in developing their future energy profile and “tactical restraint” in energy consumption.The decentralised responsibility is welcome but worrisome on two counts. First, countries which are too small to make a difference but which will face the wrath of global warming like island countries now have to depend not on covenant but on the generosity of others to survive. Second poor, technologically deficient countries will now pay more to mitigate global warming since there are no pressing compulsions for the rich to change consumption patterns or develop carbon benign technology for domestic use.

India’s challenge is to remain green

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Laurie Baker’s characteristic green building in Kerala

Altogether 37 per cent of India’s energy consumption is non-fossil fuel based. This is fairly similar to the world non-fossil fuel energy consumption of 33 per cent. But the big difference is that bio energy accounts for only two per cent of the world’s green energy consumption, unlike in India, where biomass accounts for 92 per cent of the renewable energy used.Hydro power and new renewables — solar and wind- account for just six per cent and nuclear for two per cent of our green energy profile.

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The challenge for India is to ensure that as incomes grow, poor consumers – who use non commercial biomass sources today like dung, firewood and agricultural residue for heating and cooking – should graduate to new renewables like solar and wind, rather than go down the fossil fuel route, as the OECD countries have done. This challenge is principally for the government, not consumers. Consumers typically want energy services — cooling, heating, cooking and transport. They don’t really care about the fuel that provides these services. It is for the government to put in place the incentives which drive energy suppliers to provide renewable energy services.Energy users are underserved in India particularly in dispersed habitations. This presents the opportunity to use renewables to bridge the gap in innovative ways.

To be sure, domestic compulsions like smog do compel us to clean our energy profile. India already has economic incentives in place for this. High energy prices induce energy efficiency in industry. High taxes on petrol and diesel are expected to result in frugal consumption for personal transport. Scarce public funds are allocated to subsidise renewable electricity. Investment in public transport is being stepped up to substitute high energy-intensity personal vehicles. Rail freight has been reduced to stem the shift to the more energy-intensive road transport. Bulk public purchase and supply of low-energy intensive LED bulbs help manage domestic electricity peak load. The path to carbon sustainability is fortunately closely aligned to the the path to make our economy competitive by squeezing out the fat along he supply chain. But gains in the efficiency with which energy services are delivered  can only mitigate, at best, around 20 percent of our additional energy needs.

The compulsions to consume more energy services are stark.India’s per capita energy consumption is just 0.6 tons of oil equivalent (toe) versus global per capita consumption of 1.9 toe. India will likely consume four times the energy it does today to provide welfare enhancing energy services to its citizens. Similar compulsions face most developing countries in South Asia and Africa.Only a technological revolution in clean energy and in energy storage systems can delink the growth led increase in energy consumption from unsustainable levels of carbon emissions.

Target renewable energy services

Setting up clunky publicly owned entities to research and transfer renewable technology to industry is not the way to go. Backing selected private firms willing to invest in renewables in anticipation of an assured domestic market is also tough. We don’t have the democratic space in India, unlike South Korea, to back industrial winners.Transparent subsidies on the “viability gap funding” template will suit the private sector best to innovate, implement and increase the consumption of renewable energy. Shifting the subsidy from energy generation to the provision of energy services can enlarge the pool of potential investors whilst retaining the objectives of efficiency and effectiveness in subsidy provision.

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Prime Minister Modi flags off a solar bus service for MPs

Link green subsidies explicitly to revenue – social cost based levies on fossil fuel and a green cess

India’s clean energy strategy is built around the principle of minimising environmental damage whilst maximising economic growth. But the implementation of good principles also needs accurate and timely monitoring mechanisms to ensure that progress is along the desired trajectories. One such mechanism is to monitor the social cost of our fossil energy consumption and to use the data for fiscal allocations. The Arvind Subramanian report on pulses has suggested the inclusion of social cost, with respect to water intensity, while determining the maximum support price of agricultural food products, to ensure that subsidies do not deplete our water reserves. This is a good way of allocating public resources.

Social cost filter for resource allocation

If a social cost filter is adopted for allocating finances, public investment in the railways and in coastal shipping would surely trump investment on road transport. This is also a good mechanism for making users pay differentially for the energy they use. Charging more from those who use electricity at peak time is justifiable beyond the additional financial cost it imposes, to being an affirmation of commitment to going green. Habitats, offices and homes all impose social costs and must be taxed in proportion to the extent of their footprint. This “green tax” should be used to directly subsidise green energy and energy conservation.

A green balance sheet – green tax revenue and expenditure 

The government should consider including a green fiscal resources allocation and tax collection balance sheet along with the annual financial budget. This would provide, at a glance, the revenues collected by taxing fossil fuel and the capital allocated for green energy initiatives. Similar green fiscal resource balance sheets at the state and municipality level could feed into a green national fiscal framework.

India has traditionally punched above its weight in international affairs. Preserving the global commons is a lofty goal; an opportunity to upstage the international economic Goliaths and to improve well-being at home.

laurie-baker

Laurence Wilfred “Laurie” Baker 1917-2007 – architect & practioner of the science of living comfortably with nature. Seen here with his wife Elizabeth, in their home in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age October 4, 2016  http://www.asianage.com/columnists/green-taxes-cleaner-india-600

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