governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for April, 2017

Delhi voters slap AAP on the face

modi kejriwal

The Lion of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, has been bearded in his den. The BJP’s massive victory in all three municipalities in Delhi — North, South and East — has left everyone flummoxed. However, it wasn’t all one way. The AAP held onto their seats as per the outcomes of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in the South MCD. But it lost seat share in both the North and East MCD to the Congress. In both areas, it seems there was a “ghar-wapsi” (homecoming) of traditional Congress supporters, who had fallen prey to the AAP’s promise of transformation in the 2015 Assembly election.

Delhi State merely a jagir of the Union Government

anil baijal

Anil Baijal, Lieutenant Governor – the invisible satrap of Delhi

The forceful return of the BJP can only be attributed to the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. The confrontational politics of the AAP, which burnt its boats and utterly failed to establish a harmonious working relationship with the Centre, proved costly. Delhi is a Union territory, but with a twist — like Puducherry. Both have a Legislative Assembly that elects a chief minister. But it’s biggest asset — land — is directly controlled by the Union government, as is the police force and the civil service. The lieutenant-governor is the de facto ruler of Delhi state, and he plays to the tune of the Centre, which appoints him. Not all the hugs and shared parathas between the former L-G Najeeb Jung and Arvind Kejriwal could bridge this basic gap in political alignment. The new L-G, Anil Baijal, also follows the same route, an inevitable outcome of the fractured institutional arrangements in Delhi. Only if the same party rules the Centre, state and municipalities can this alignment be matched. This is not possible till 2020, when the next Delhi Assembly elections will be held.

Kejriwal can save AAP in Delhi by stepping down as CM

manish sisodia

Can things change even before 2020, if Arvind Kejriwal resigns, admitting he has lost the mandate to rule? This might be a canny move, and put him on the high moral ground. Ajay Maken, the face of the Congress in Delhi, has already resigned, even though his party made some gains in contrast to the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2015 Assembly results. The AAP has ambitions in Gujarat. The outcome of the recent Punjab polls should have taught Mr Kejriwal a lesson — that being an itinerant leader is only possible if one’s family is part of the political elite and has spent almost a lifetime in politics. A good showing in Gujarat would be a good base for enlarging the AAP footprint into the metros in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Left to himself, Manish Sisodia is a diligent leader with balance and the tenacity to show results, on the ground, in Delhi. More roads and flyovers built at less than the budgeted cost; more mohalla clinics and better services in the slums of Delhi is a painstaking job for an executive, not a charismatic dreamer.

Modi is the king of referenda politics

The Delhi municipal elections reinforce that charisma and shock and awe tactics work wonders. Like everywhere else, since 2014, these elections were fought in the name of Narendra Modi versus Arvind Kejriwal. In a costly tactical error, the AAP sought this face-off as a referendum. Clearly, Arvind Kejriwal has much distance to travel before he can be measured in the same metric as Prime Minister Modi.

Amit Shah is a one-man school for electoral management

The Modi-Amit Shah duo’s trademark electoral tactics of “placing” the right man to lead the Delhi BJP has paid off yet again. Manoj Tiwari, a Bihari actor, has a natural entry point into the significant voter pockets of recently-domiciled Puravanchalis — slang for immigrants from UP and Bihar. An outsider to the more traditional set of Delhi BJP powerbrokers, Mr Tiwari was also the least likely to invite backstabbing, unlike the hapless BJP late-entrant candidate Kiran Bedi, who lost the 2015 Delhi state elections. In any case, Mr Shah’s style of watertight oversight, now honed over half a dozen polls, precludes any dissent within the BJP now.

“dhili” Congress unravelled in Delhi

Compare this targeted “placement strategy” of the BJP with the Congress, which failed to rally its troops behind Delhi leader Ajay Maken. Arvinder Lovely, a Sikh leader, deserted the party for better pickings with the BJP. Manoj Tiwari’s counterpart in the Congress is Sheila Dikshit and her son Sandeep Dikshit. They have familial links to the Purabaia community via the late Uma Shanker Dikshit, Ms Dikshit’s father-in-law, who was a venerated UP politician of the independence movement era. Ms  Dikshit, Delhi’s chief minister for 15 years, from 1998 to 2013, was sidelined, possibly due to infighting between her and Mr Maken.

AAP – resource thin and exhausted post Punjab disappointment

AAP workers

If disjointed leadership cost the Congress dearly, the AAP suffered from electoral exhaustion; a dwindling bench strength and failing credibility. Arvind Kejriwal held out the ultimate bait — a promise to abolish property tax — to win over the middle class. This was the final nail in the coffin of responsible politics. Property tax is the primary source of revenue for all municipalities. Its abolition would spell financial ruin and even worse services than at present. In comparison, the BJP brings to the table the coffers of the Union government. The NDMC area, which is managed directly by the Central government, is a lush, green oasis for the gilded elite — the Lutyens people — in sharp contrast to the dusty, filthy Delhi, the rest of the national capital’s residents live in. The prospect of resembling the NDMC  area was a mouth-watering possibility that few voters would pass up.

Can Modi reproduce the well being of the NDMC area in the rest of Delhi by 2019?

NDMC2

Delhi has voted for the Modi magic to rub-off on them. The denizens of other metros may contest this, but Delhi best illustrates the diligent, aspirational and yet conflicted India — riven by caste, religious, regional and class cleavages. It is a ready crucible for implementing the PM’s vision of a prosperous, equal opportunity-oriented, highly skilled, healthy and sustainable India. Mr Modi is unlikely to disappoint.

Adapted fro the authors article in The Asian Age April 27, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/270417/delhi-gives-kejriwal-a-slap-in-the-face.html

 

NITI’s vision 2032 disappoints

NITI vision 2

NITI vision 2032 : foggy, disjointed & barely hanging together

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the chief ministers of states spent most of Sunday deliberating over the plans and prospects for India in the next 15 years to 2031-32. The third governing council meeting of the Niti Aayog seems to have been an underwhelming affair, judging from the two presentations put up on its website. Why this listless thinking?

Great expectations

Three years ago, when the dowdy Planning Commission was transformed into a glitzy Niti Aayog, expectations were high that it would be the loci of innovation and cutting-edge analytics in public policy. The Planning Commission was merely an extended office of the Prime Minister. Chief ministers, whilst supposedly integral to the National Development Council (NDC), which the commission serviced, felt like interlopers rather than participating members. The flamboyant J. Jayalalithaa used the NDC forum like a television station — walking in to deliver her speech and then walking out. Others stoically suffered the process, making debating points, that no one heard.

New beginnings

Some of that has changed. Mr Modi has done away with the elevated podium of yesteryear for the PM and Union ministers. Now all are seated at the same level around a round table. Another first — the meeting was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Symbolic, as our head of state is not the PM, but the President, with whom the Union and state governments have an independent constitutional equation. In deference to the beacon ban, the long line of official cars streaming into the venue were minus their flashing red lights, thereby letting the tricolour atop Rashtrapati Bhavan take pride of place. On optics, the arrangements were perfect.

More optics than substance

The substance, however, seems not to have been as uplifting. Five examples will illustrate.

Lacks credibility

indian dream

A car for every household – is this the Indian dream?

First, a 15-year vision which is not nuanced enough to reconcile trade-offs lacks credibility. To aim to make India a prosperous economy by 2032 is a pie in the sky. India can, at best, and that too with enormous effort, go from being a lower middle-income country (per capita at current $1,600) to become a middle-income country (per capita current $4,800). A very long shot from being prosperous. The per capita income (at current US dollars) in Latin America and Caribbean today is $8,415, while in East Asia it’s at $9,512. There is no way we can catch up to even these levels by 2032. Consider also that the high growth rates required to make this jump could negatively impact equality. The international experience amply demonstrates that high levels of growth come with the risk of increasing inequality. There is not a whisper in the vision statement of how we propose to navigate the trade-off between growth and equality — the latter being part of the PM’s vision.

More of the same

brick stacks

Second, the Niti Aayog’s vision statement is backward looking. It ignores the dislocation caused by technological developments which technology leaders like the Chinese entrepreneur, Jack Ma have been warning against. NITI aims to make India a highly-educated country by 2032. Should we not be looking, instead, at becoming highly skilled? We are already battling progressive robotisation. By 2032, artificial intelligence would have squeezed jobs further in traditional sectors. New jobs, 10 million a year, which we require and still don’t have, are only likely in highly specialised areas — like space travel, frictionless transportation and psychological counselling — niches which are not easy to robotise, rather than general education which we value today. By 2032, just as plumbers, carpenters, masons and welders would be obsolete so would equity traders, bank clerks, low-level lawyers and IT workers. We will still need pure scientists, social scientists and engineers, but in limited numbers, We already produce 2 million of these every year. But very few are of cutting edge quality. Our challenge is to develop innovative minds with appropriate skills, not to educate 400 million of our under 18 years population to become “thinkers” – the bulk of the thinking will soon be done by machines. Humans will need the skills required to choose and make wise decisions, intermediate between humans machines and train other humans to work with machines. No sign of this transformation in the vision.

Not joined up – conflicting objectives

oil pollution

Third, the vision statement wishes India to become “energy abundant”. But being energy abundant is a retrograde desire tinged with the potential for waste. Energy abundance means energy prices tumbling, spurring even more per capita consumption of energy. Surely this is incompatible with the other objective of being “environmentally clean”? Are we really aiming to provide a car or a motorbike to each household, as the vision proclaims, or do we wish to make public transport the most convenient option? Should we not be allocating funds to become energy efficient rather than spending on acquiring or developing more energy resources? The hunger for energy abundance is a stale ambition.

Mushy & emotional, not pragmatic

Fourth, the Niti Aayog aims to make us a “globally influential nation”. How is one to go about this Dale Carnegie-type revamp? India has thumped the tables of the United Nations for over five decades. And yet, suddenly today, we are more influential globally than ever before because of our large, growing markets, relatively easy access for foreign capital and technology, facilitating internal institutional arrangements and stable polity. Influence is an outcome of domestic capacity, confidence and conviction. These 3C’s are the drivers we should be looking at. Best, like Arjun, to aim for the eye of the bird and not get distracted by the clouds floating around.

Process matters for cooperative federalism

Fifth, the Niti Aayog was constituted to showcase cooperative federalism and be the entry door for its implementation. But it remains poorly organised for living by this principle. Its staff should be deputed both by the Union government and directly by the state governments, much like multilateral entities operate. It must have a permanent secretary-level board to review and clear documents to be presented to the governing council, and provide a forum for discussion and implicit negotiations between officers from the Union and the states deputed to the Aayog. The governing council should structure meetings to provide for negotiations at the political level to evoke the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. Currently, the council functions more as a receptacle for the views of state governments and offers an opportunity for the Union government to tell states what it is doing, just like the Planning Commission used to do.

Put some flesh on the vision

famine

The vision unveiled, yesterday, is muddied by a vast array of disjointed initiatives, thereby reducing the clarity of purpose expected from such a document. Words matter and must be used selectively and deliberatively. Otherwise a vision is nothing but a laundry list of wishes. For years the World Bank “dreamt” about a world free of poverty. It now recognises that wishes need to disciplined to the takable actions to convert wishes to reality.

The public expects much, much more than old wine in new bottles from Mr Modi- especially over the next decade. He and the outstanding talent in the Aayog, must allocate time for thoughtful negotiations at multiple levels. There is no other way to make others — particularly the state governments — feel like valued members of the same Team India!

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age  April 25, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/250417/niti-aayogs-vision-2032-disappoints.html

PM NITI 3 GC

 

Consumer Protection – Minister creates ripples

Ram-Vilas-Paswan

It isn’t easy being Ram Vilas Paswan – the leader of the Lok Janshakti party – a BJP ally. With just 7 MPs in parliament he has to pull his weight in the low profile Ministry for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution (MCAF&PD).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is whipping government departments to show quick results. But how does one do that if one is stuck in a drab, no glam ministry like MCAF&PD? It’s principal role is to set product standards and be the government’s eyes and ears by monitoring the prices of essential goods across the country to contain price volatility. It has done this quite well. This government has been fairly effective in managing food prices. This is, possibly, one of the positive outcomes of being battle ready for elections all the time. But stopping something bad from happening hardly ever makes news.

The department also administers the Consumer Protection Act 1986 and the Legal Metrology Act 2009. Legal metrology is the new name for the more familiar term of weights and measures. Both laws work through state governments and district-level institutions. The Central government’s role is to lead on innovations in better branding, labelling and disclosure norms, and update the supporting regulations. Nothing much here qualifies for breaking news — just a quiet slog in backroom offices to remain abreast of technology, judicial practice and global trends in product disclosure and customer awareness.

Proactive Paswan

No surprise then that Mr Paswan chose three unorthodox areas to show his department’s proactivity. First, he advocated the abolition of service charge, currently levied by formally registered eateries, which mostly cater to the well-off. Service charge is meant to be used for employee welfare and should act as a substitute for a tip. But it is not transparent. There is no way of knowing what the eatery does with the money. It could, instead, be built into the price of the food and beverage on offer — just like other overheads such as furniture, electricity, air-conditioning — or left to the discretion of the customer.

No service charge please we are Indian

Tipping by and large does not come easy to Asians. No Japanese expects a tip. Many would refuse it, even when offered, as being dishonourable.  Indian customers also prefer a full-cost price covering the entire experience, with a tip meant only for exceptional service. So the minister is bang on the spot with this one.

Specify portions to avoid waste of food

portions

A second proposal is get eateries to specify the portions of each dish on the menu. Ostensibly, this seeks to reduce waste. The thinking is customers never know how big or small the portions in a dish would be so they end up over ordering food. But most eateries anyway offer a takeaway facility for the food that is left over. Often food is left over only when it has been poorly cooked. But retribution for poor quality is swift in a competitive market. Better then to nudge eateries to themselves think up solutions for avoiding waste, conserving cost and benefiting consumers — such as offering part portions of dishes depending on the number of people eating. This could also happen if the waste disposal charges were made prohibitive.

Of course a reduction in food waste does not translate into more food for the poor. The real issue is not the supply or availability of food. It is the lack of income of the poor which leaves them under nourished. More food is wasted in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India because of poor storage than is wasted in eateries. Never the less no one can argue that wasting food is criminal. But the way ahead is via experience sharing, sensitisation and gentle persuasion — by prescribing a one-size-fits-all standard for the portions of dishes.

Pan India retail price for bottled water

Aquafina

A third intervention, recently reported, relates to nudging Pepsi, the Airports Authority of India and the Board of Control for Cricket in India to keep the price of bottled water the same, inside and outside airports and stadiums across India. Air passengers and sports enthusiasts are not allowed to take bottled water past security checkpoints at the entrance of airports and stadia. Vendors inside airports and stadia charge higher than the maximum retail price (MRP) printed on bottles. Not a very fair practice indeed. But then, these vendors pay through their nose for serving customers in airports and stadia by buying the rights through public auctions. Unless the MRP is specified in the contract at the time of auction, it is quite unfair to impose it retrospectively.

Will sugary, aerated, bottled beverages and liquor be next?

sula

More important, will the same principle be followed for all aerated beverages — none of which are allowed through security? Are we opening a can of worms here? And where does it end? Will we next require that bottled water and beverages served in eateries also not exceed the MRP? And what about liquor? Upto 50 per cent of the revenue at an eatery, licensed to serve liquor, comes from the beverages sold. Imposing MRP on such sales would cripple their business model and hugely impact employment.

Pluck more deserving low- hanging-fruits

spot-the-fake

It’s not as if there are no other low-hanging fruits to be plucked. How about taking a leaf from Africa and popularising an App into which a customer feeds in the manufacturing number printed on expensive medicines and out pops the answer whether the serial number is genuine or not. Whilst buying medicines from unfamiliar chemists this App could provide much needed quality assurance.

Consider also that by the end of 2015-16, there were 3.9 lakh pending cases in the three-layer deep machinery of the consumer courts. The ministry’s annual report doesn’t say how long they have been pending. Nor does it share the trend in pendency — both of which are commonly used metrics in rule of law institutions. This leads us to presume the worst: that consumer cases aren’t being effectively disposed of.

consumer courts

This impression is strengthened by the DCA’s results framework for 2014-15 — oddly, that is the latest one available on its website. Timely disposal of cases has a weight of just two per cent, while 98 per cent of the weight is for assessing the department’s performance, based on outreach initiatives and infrastructure development. The results which benefit consumers directly — like case disposal — should matter the most. Mere process outcomes — like completing buildings or installing computers and helplines — should matter less, since these are only a step towards the actual results.

Tardy consumer redress drives even MPs to use crass tactics to be heard

Some navel-gazing is advisable. Had this been done earlier, maybe the Shiv Sena MP from Maharashtra — a business class ticket-holder — who recently, albeit misguidedly, resorted to “direct action” to settle his grievance with Air India, may have been persuaded to approach the consumer courts instead. But who will wait for two years to get redress?

The DCA would do well to adopt strategic forbearance as its motto while exercising its legislative mandate to set the retail prices of packaged products; prescribe minimum disclosure norms for eateries or to set product standards out of context. Regulations which are not enforceable, or which distort well-functioning markets — with sufficient choice available for consumers to vote with their feet — are best left well alone. Making a noise doesn’t ever make real news.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age April 19, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/190417/to-protect-consumers-focus-on-basics.html

shopper

Taming killer highways: Booze ban a marginal solution

booze bar

Thirsty travellers on highways are going to miss the inviting LED signboards offering “cold beer” to alleviate their boredom. But ask those who have lost a loved one in an accident, or been maimed in one — and they will enthusiastically support the Supreme Court’s ban on the availability of booze along our state and national highways. When the issue is emotive, the reflex response of both the judiciary and the executive is to do anything that appears adequately responsive. What could be easier than banishing booze from the highways, knowing full well that this could be just optics.

Target drivers and the owners of vehicles with punitive action

Traffic police

Curbing drunken driving requires that drivers, a small fraction of all travellers, be targeted. Most travellers are passengers. It doesn’t matter whether they tipple or not. Many of those at the wheel are licensed, professional cab, bus and truck drivers — much like commercial pilots. Surely the owners of these commercial vehicles should be held criminally accountable, along with the driver, for accidents caused by drunken driving, unless they can prove that they test their drivers randomly. This would automatically incentivise owners to use drivers who don’t drink. But this is a narrowly targeted option that requires follow-on administrative action and effective policing. Far splashier, instead, to go in for a blanket ban on booze —  and never mind if it causes collateral pain.

Our bias against booze is vested in the Constitution

Directive Principles

The origin of our half-hearted approach to the problem lies in the Directive Principles of our Constitution which enjoin the State to implement prohibition. These define the higher moral ground that we all must aspire to. But they are not mandatory and need a law to be passed to become implementable. We implement these only selectively — like universal education —  where there is near complete consensus. But we ignore others, like prohibition, where a consensus is missing. Hence the tension between the constitutional directives and reality.

We do not have a fundamental right to drink or sell booze. We do so only at the pleasure of the State. It can be withdrawn at any time. Many would argue it should not be summarily withdrawn, specially when it will disrupt ongoing business. And because other options exist to curb drunken driving. If we are uncomfortable with the ideals specified in the Directive Principles, then the correct approach is to amend them and expand the fundamental rights to include the freedom to drink responsibly. But who will support such an amendment?

We are not French – we have no tradition or social acceptance of booze

indian meal

Mainstream India has no tradition of the neighbourhood bar, from where it is all right to stagger home, helped along by acquaintances or friends. Yes, there is communal drinking in tribal areas and on special occasions in villages, where there is a lot of staggering about. But these are rare occasions. In the plains of India, most regular tipplers are men as drinking is done outside our homes. It is the anonymity of highway drinking that is attractive for furtive, male drinkers.

Economic impact of booze ban marginal – because tipplers will find a way to drink

How terrible will the booze ban be for the economy? The measure simply aims to make drinking and sale of liquor physically invisible from highways. Tippling will shift a couple of minutes away onto back streets, possibly with far worse consequences for public order. But its revenue impact will be negligible. Businesses will adjust. Web-based apps will guide travellers to back street bars and booze shops; private caches of pre-mixed booze in flasks will proliferate as will the illicit supply in dhabas along the highway.

Judiciary not the culprit – amend the constitution if you want a right to drink

Blaming the judiciary for ham-handedness is the easy part. But the Government of India and several state governments, including Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have accepted the verdict. Eighteen other states didn’t bother to contest the decision. This shows that the judiciary is aligned with the national and state-level executive in moving India, gradually, in the direction to which the Directive Principles point us.

The real culprit is drunken driving- only intelligent policing can help

Drunk driver

But without effective patrolling, behavioural change among drivers is highly unlikely. Ask any highway traveller. There is nothing more reassuring than regularly passing by a police patrol car, specially at night. Drunken or irresponsible driving can only be curbed if the Centre, with the consent of all state governments, directly polices all our national highways. Centrally-monitored and controlled mobile patrols, responsive to distress calls and SMSes like the National Ambulance Service, equipped with paramedic and trauma support teams, should be frequently visible along the 90,000-km national highway network.

Create a National Highway Police & Trauma Support System- NHP&TS

NHP

A National Highway Police Force should be created and empowered to regulate traffic; challan errant driving; provide trauma support in case of accidents and keep the highways free of crime and irresponsible social behaviour. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that an officer-oriented, multi-skilled force of 11,000 employees would cost Rs 1,000 crores annually in overheads, maintenance and salaries, with a one-time capital cost of Rs 800 crores for equipment and housing. Sounds expensive? Implemented over a period of five years, it is just 0.3 per cent of the annual revenue expenditure and 1.5 per cent of the capital expenditure for the police in the Union Budget.

Compare this with the avoided cost of Rs 1,400 crores, being the value of lives lost (42,000 persons in 2009) in accidents on national highways, computed on a present value of Rs 3.5 lakhs per life lost, based on the average per capita income, over a residual working life of 20 years. The avoided cost of injuries to 1.5 lakh people (2009) is around Rs 180 crores, assuming medical treatment and lost wages at two months’ wages per injured person. The cost of vehicles and goods lost and cost of trauma suffered is over and above this.

The economic payback of a NHP&TS system is under one year

An international-quality high way security and trauma support system makes economic sense. More important, it is yet another bond sealing the social compact between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and the travelling public — urban immigrants, business people and tourists —  estimated at around 230 million passengers in 2016 (assuming an average lead of 75 km) by the National Transport Development Policy Committee in 2013. There can be no better social impact investment than one which offers an economic payback of under one year.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age, April 8, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/080417/tame-killer-highways-liquor-ban-just-optics.html

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