governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for April, 2018

An “Ambassador” amongst “box wallahs”

Rasgotra

Maharajakrishna Rasgotra, India’s foreign secretary from 1982 to 1985, records that in 1948, contrary to the popular perception, the wealthy “Doon School wallahs” preferred to join the domestic services, where they could keep an eye on their assets, and that the IFS boys were at a premium only amongst the urbanised, “sophisticated girls of marriageable age and their even more pretentious socialite mothers”! Things have changed considerably since then. Ambitious Indian girls and boys now routinely choose to work and live abroad, on their own steam, rather than as “diplomatic baggage”.

But true to nature’s rule, when one door shuts, another inevitably opens. Losing out in the marriage market place has been compensated now for the IFS by  major Indian corporates wooing them post-retirement. Just-retired foreign secretary S. Jaishankar has been picked up by the Tatas to head the group’s  overseas operations, reporting to Mr N. Chandrasekharan, the executive chair of the board of Tata Sons, the holding company of all Tata enterprises. The board already has two retired civil servants — Ronen Sen, a ex-IFS officer and former ambassador to Washington, and Vijay Singh, an ex-IAS officer who served as defence secretary. But unlike these board level directors, Mr S. Jaishankar will be more substantively involved, with a hands-on role, as the President of a business vertical. “Descent from heaven” is how Japanese business describes the practice of absorbing retiring senior bureaucrats, who have held key positions, to cushion them from a hard landing in the real world.

Jaishanker Modi

Mr S. Jaishankar is reported to have said he was happy to join “the Tata Group… India’s most respected brand globally”. Just this simple endorsement of the Tata business leadership, from a recently retired foreign secretary, who was selected personally (unusually) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, to replace a serving foreign secretary, Sujata Singh, is sufficient to justify the Rs 6 crores that he is speculated to be paid per year. As far as value for money in advertising goes, it can’t get any better for the Tatas.

Despite the 1991 liberalization, Indian business remains constrained by red tape at home. Overseas, it is an orphan, with little formal support from its home government. Blame our perverted colonial legacy for this. The British came to India to trade, profit, export and rule. They used every trick in their mercantilist book of “free trade”, including the selective use of state power and the law, to benefit British companies. But, in a classically hypocritical stance — which incidentally appealed greatly to the convoluted sensibilities of upper-caste Indians, the average British officer feigned a horror of being in bed with business interests. The “boxwallah” was an inferior being as compared to his Army or civil service brethren, who were on a morally superior mission of civilizing India.

Colonial hypocrisy persists – “it is not the business of government to help business”

This “red line” between government and business, which Free India inherited, though always surreptitiously porous, has long since dissolved for India’s domestic service cadres — except for odd cases of the most particular officers. The foreign service, however, has taken to these new commercial roles, over the past decade, as the overseas business interests of private Indian corporates have expanded. This is a welcome outcome of liberalization.

Talk of being a market-led economy is hollow, unless the government works actively to grow the Indian private sector at home and abroad. At the most minimal level, this involves opening doors abroad for our businessmen. This is what retired IAS or revenue service officers having been doing for business interests, at home. But opening doors is low-level stuff, albeit with high personal returns. More potentially transformative, is the opportunity to develop an institutionalized public-private partnership, around the human resources required, by “India Unlimited” to become an A-level international player.

Big is not beautiful

With 162 missions overseas, the Indian Foreign Service looks extremely stretched, with just 600-plus serving elite officers. Expanding the service — using the existing generalist skills-based platform on which it is recruited and trained — would be a costly mistake. It would be far better to add the human resources, specifically needed in the ministry and in the missions overseas, through multiple entry options – lateral contracting, deputation from other services based on relevant skills and selective promotion from within.

Create a new position-based Apex Public Service Ecosystem

The origin of an exclusive service for external affairs, as opposed to a combined one for political and external matters lies, in the Government of India Act 1935. The idea at that time was racist. A separate “political” wing to deal with Asiatic powers — namely the Indian princes (there was already a separate home department for police and security matters) and a “foreign” wing to deal with the European powers.

Is it time now to end this farcical divide. “India unlimited” should have a seamless, internationally competitive and standards compliant architecture. inside, out. An integrated, elite Apex Public Service ecosystem for the Government of India, consisting of no more than 3,000 officers, could be a targeted support mechanism. Selected by the UPSC on merit, at mid-career, with a minimum experience of 10 years, it would provide the specific position-based skills and expertise, required for formulating policy and representing India at technical negotiating fora in trade and intellectual property; fiscal management, including tax; economic development and technology; social protection; human development and human rights.

ambassador

A foreign secretary has boldly and transparently opted to step directly into an executive role in an Indian corporate entity. Over the last decade retired IFS officers have taken to self-acquiring a life long title, copying the US practice, of “Ambassador” – a reminder perhaps of their once hallowed status as a flag officer oversees. Now, many more may cross the divide between them and the “boxwallahs”. But till it becomes common to see retired IFS folk jostling amongst the corporate crowd, it will be odd to see an “Ambassador” parked at Bombay House, the Mumbai headquarters of the global Tata empire, rather than at Birla Building in Kolkata, which is the original owner of the brand.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, April 28, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/280418/govt-india-inc-time-to-diffuse-the-red-lines.html

Lives dedicated to change India

RTI story

This is not a glib account of mobilising the rural poor, penned by a peripatetic babu or a drive-in-fly-out development expert. It is, refreshingly, a record of activists, who elected to spend the better part of their working lives making a difference, bottom upwards, and three decades later remain rooted in their karmbhumi — village Devdungri, Rajasthan.

school for democracy

Some came from well-off urban backgrounds and yet stuck it out in the harsh and relentless realities of the rural poor. This testifies to their commitment. But even to attribute high moral incentives to them, betrays the tinted glasses of this urbanised reviewer. The authors do not vent their frustration, voice their regrets or betray even a whiff of resentment against an uncaring world. What shines through instead, is their quiet joy and fulfillment, at doing something useful.

Aruna Roy, for all her careful attempts to disperse the credit, is the central figure. Born into a family of lawyers, she drifted into the elite Indian Administrative Service in 1968 but resigned in 1975 to work with the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Ajmer. Clearly, goaded by the need to be more immediately and directly involved with real people in rural India, she left SWRC in 1983. Nikhil Dey — recently returned after college in the United States, seeking something beyond a comfortable life, became a friend; Shanker Singh, a local village official’s gifted son, adroit puppeteer and communicator extraordinaire, completed the group which bonded and decided to check out the rural empowerment landscape in Jhabhua, Madhya Pradesh. That seed did not flower. But bonds between the three deepened.

They resolved, in 1987, to put down roots in village Devdungri, which today is part of district Rajsamand in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. This was close enough to Shanker’s village, Lotiyana, to give the group an entry into rural life through his local bonds of kinship. Here, in a mud hut, rented from his cousin, the small group lived like the villagers around them and awaited a gradual immersion into the rhythm of village life and hopefully, local social acceptance — their doors and hearts open. Trust and credibility is central to an activist’s effectiveness.

MKSS

Meanwhile, the group refined the credo of their concerns. These coalesced around the need to enable the rural poor and marginalised, to look beyond their sordid reality of traditional social and cultural constraints, to understand and avail of, the constitutional rights available to them, within India’s democratic and institutional architecture. The disastrous drought, blighting the region, presented an opportunity. The standard mechanism for drought relief was to initiate civil
works.

By 1983 the Supreme Court had directed that public works must comply with payment of minimum wages. But this was rarely done. The group resolved that getting workers minimum wages would be their central concern. A related opportunity arose due to the tyrannical ways of a local sarpanch who misappropriated village development schemes for personal benefits and whose benami holdings encroached on village land.

In both cases, empowering the poor meant getting access to the government records of money allocated by the government for different schemes; the amounts spent, on what and when. At that time ordinary citizens could not access these records as a right. Often mistakenly, even a list of Below Poverty Line cardholders was conveniently construed to be secret. Consequently, in any dispute with government entities — around wages or non-inclusion for welfare schemes “the villagers were always the liars”. They had no way to prove their case because the truth was hidden inside the official records, to which only the government had access.

Getting the dispossessed to appreciate that access to information and knowledge is vital, was the easiest part. The awareness that local government intermediaries were swindling them kindled anger, and sometimes outrage among villagers. While the immediate oppressor is visible and becomes vulnerable, the veiled support of those higher up in the hierarchy, maintains the status quo. Getting villagers their rights, means changing the status quo from the top.

The political vehicle used by Aruna and her activist colleagues to generate awareness; the desire for change and an ecosystem for long-term support to deliver rights to the rural poor was the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The artful, determined and collaborative way in which it was constituted, and the strategic depth of its functioning is a delight to read. The ideological roots of the MKSS lie in the life and thoughts of Gandhi ji (non-violent protests against government apathy), Babasaheb Ambedkar (equity and dignity for all) and J.P. Narayan (social and political revolution within constitutional constraints).

The movement for access to political and social rights, formally started in 1987, expanded organically over time from the village level to the state level by the mid-1990s and finally to the national level by 2005, when the Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament. Parivartan, the Delhi-based NGO, headed at the time by Arvind Kejriwal, evolved its strategy of “direct democracy” from the MKSS methodology — a mix of rootedness in organising the poor from within; high moral, ethical and personal values; imaginative use of local folklore and theatre like the Ghotala Rath to lampoon corrupt politicians; careful research to unearth government information to pinpoint negligence, fraud or corruption using the vehicle of Jan Sunwais (public hearings).

Less successfully the MKSS also branched into directly managing kirana (provisions) stores in villages as a competitive force to make local traders less rapacious and reduce their profit margins. While useful as a temporary local intervention to break a trader cartel in a small village market, this model proved difficult to scale up. The MKSS also dabbled in village-level elections to get some of its well-intentioned members, elected and collaborate with like-minded parties. But it is far from transmuting into a political party.

Aruna and the team

Aruna, 41 years of age in 1987, is 72 today, Shanker is 64 and “young” Nikhil is 55. During the last three decades of their struggle, the Right to Information has been embedded into the accountability structure of the State, bringing the much-needed transparency. But making the State accountable to the people, in real time, is a broader unfinished task — top-down accountability and bottom-up participation, both need deepening. The good news is that the indefatigable trio is upbeat about conquering this frontier too.

This book is a must read for cynics, who want their optimism restored; those eager to share the pain and the joy of activism; organisational behavior “experts” and budding activists looking for pathways to India’s development.

Adapted from the author’s book review in The Asian Age, April 22, 2019 http://www.asianage.com/books/220418/read-it-to-know-the-pain-and-joy-of-activism.html

What the cash crunch foretells

Parliament's winter session

Conspiracy theorists are hard at work to identify the drivers behind the ongoing cash crunch, that has left the automated teller machines (ATMs) in cities and towns across large parts of the country dry. There is much finger pointing between the Reserve Bank of India and the commercial banks, both private and public sector, each accusing the other of being responsible for inefficient operations. It is unusual to see this level of discord, bordering on acrimony, between a regulator and the regulated entities.

Commercial banks bear the brunt of fuzzy policy objectives

The banks allege that the supply of high-value notes has dried up. The Bank Employees Union alleges that a shortage of imported printing ink at the currency press in Nashik could be one reason. Alternatively, this could be a covert attempt by the government to correct a problem dating back to the November 2016 demonetisation — the incomprehensible introduction of a Rs 2,000 note to replace the Rs 1,000 note as a measure to reduce black money. Phasing out the offensive new high-denomination note and stepping up the printing of new Rs 500 and Rs 200 notes instead is a more obvious and welcome blow against black money. The Ministry of Finance says Rs 70,000 crores worth of such “Hi-Value” notes can be printed in just one month. The value of such notes in circulation on March 31, 2017 (the last public data available) was Rs 7.5 Lakh Crore or ten times the value of such notes printable in just one month. So why a shortge ?

RBI waffles with poor communication

The Reserve Bank, unconvincingly, denies that there is any cash crunch and alleges the inefficiency of banks in properly allocating the available cash. Could this be a surgical strike by the banks and ATM service providers who have got unsettled by the criminal investigations into fraud or are upset with the March 2018 decision of the RBI to end the incentives for installing cash recyclers and ATMs for low-value notes? Was it their intention to embarrass the government by engineering a cash crunch to coincide with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to Sweden and the UK for the Commonwealth Summit? Possible, but far-fetched.

Cash remains king

cash is king

The most plausible reason is that the economy is reverting to its pre-demonetisation levels of cash held by the public of around 12 percent of GDP versus the hugely constrained post-demonetisation level of 9 percent of GDP in end of March 2017. Expectations were exaggerated on two counts. First, that the black economy would permanently be reduced. Second that digital and banked transactions could become uepreferred options. The second has indeed proved true. The use of cash by those who declare their incomes to tax, or even those below the tax levels, has reduced significantly.

But the big stick and carrots embedded in the Goods and Services Tax to incentivise the switch to banked transactions are not widely experienced yet. Systems and reporting compliance are clunky and curiously disadvantage the small, honest entrepreneur. Other small businesses may be unviable with a tax load.

RBI – bitten by the bug to ration currency, & create the “statistical” basis for “digital victory” 

Anecdotal evidence of how cash transactions are done show that post demonetisation, Rs 2000 has replaced the earlier Rs 1000 note as the preferred stock of currency held by high value entities and individuals. Unfortunately, RBI has squeezed the printing of this note. Prior to demonetisation, for every Rs 1000 note available, there were three Rs 500 and three Rs 100 notes. Post demonetisation, for every Rs 2000 note available, there are eight Rs 100 notes but just two Rs 500 notes available. RBI has curiously enlarged the relative supply of the highest value note (which is used mostly for individual stock of currency)  at the expense of having more transaction related currency in Rs 500 notes- possibly hoping that transactions would move to digital rather than remain in cash post demonetisation.

More importantly, not only has the overall quantum of currency, relative to GDP decreased, but even the share of Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes, by value, in the total stock of currency has decreased, from 86 percent pre-domentisation to 73 percent in end March 2017 – possibly in expectation of individuals banking surplus stocks of money.

The ground reality is that the cash-based supply chain of goods and services is a subset of the demand for cash contributions, related to electoral politics. Highly contested elections are scheduled for mid-May in Karnataka and later this year in several other states. Cash resources will be needed to buy SUVs, print advertisements and motivate the lethargic population to vote.

Election Commission hesitates to adopt T.N. Seshan’s (ex-Chief Election Commissioner 1990-1996) muscular credo on mandate

ECI

Oddly, there is not a peep out of the Election Commission of India (ECI), which is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that election spending remains within the implausibly tight limit of Rs 20 to Rs 28 lakhs per candidate for Assembly elections. The EC has adopted an “end of the pipe” strategy. The intention is to catch the crooks once they show their hands via excess expenditure. A more proactive EC could have recognised the red flags of unusually high cash withdrawals unearthed by the media. It could have directed the Karnataka government to report on the ensuing potential for subversion of the code of conduct and the measures being taken to heighten border vigilance, to clamp down on cross-border transfers of cash. One can imagine former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan diving through this open door for enhancing the regulatory ambit of the ECI. But today’s election commissioners appear to be content, at least overtly, with a narrower definition of their mandate, strictly as per the law.

RBI – a regulator at odds with its “caged parrot” status 

To speak the truth, the glory days of Indian regulatory institutions are over. Even the RBI, the first to be legislated into existence in 1934, is going through strained times. Demonetisation had spread the apprehension that the RBI was led by the nose from North Block in New Delhi. The extent of wilful defaults in the bad loans of public sector banks, often the consequence of ever-greening of impaired assets and plain fraud, also points a finger at the RBI for exercising inadequate oversight.

RBI governor Urjit Patel had appealed to the government through a public address on March 16 to bring public sector banks into a uniform regulatory arrangement as applicable to private banks. Domestic and international professionals support the broad thrust of a uniform regulatory arrangement for all banks. But the subsequent expose of the yawning deviations in ICICI Bank and Axis Bank from gold-standard board governance have cut the ground from under the governor’s feet.

Public credibility of commercial banks at its nadir

Mutual funds are upbeat about the prospects for equity investment in private banks. But the average person is inclined to quietly diversify away from private banks to the safe haven of public sector banks. Private insurance and healthcare are similarly perceived as being exploitative of the average consumer. It does not help that the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill 2017 was worded so ambivalently that it fanned a deep seeded fear of savings deposits being sequestered as equity for resolving bankruptcy. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has been at pains to assure people that deposits up to Rs 1 lakh per account will remain guaranteed. But ministerial assurances provide very little comfort when elections are around the corner.

A common thread across this turbulence is uneven support from the government for beleaguered institutions and the absence of informed participation, quite unlike in the GST Council. RBI governor Patel bravely sat out the storm around the hasty implementation of the questionable policy option of demonetisation. But the Pandora’s box of crony capitalism has taken its toll. These are challenging times. Deeper bench strength, within the government, of trusted fiscal and financial expertise would help.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, April 21, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/210418/what-the-cash-crunch-foretells.html

Lock your data & sell it

The concept of information asymmetry” was taught using the well-worn example of a secondhand car salesman who uses his insider’s knowledge to sell a “lemon” (a defective car) to the innocent buyer. The new-age example of information asymmetry relates to data.

rural data

Visionary business leaders know that “data is the new oil”. But the average person allows free access to his or her digital data merely in exchange for downloading and using an app, such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube or Amazon, for free. The asymmetry is that individual data is worth a lot less than data collected at scale. The latter generates enormous value by targeting advertisements and influencing minds. Resolving problems of information asymmetry is a typical regulatory function. But it has been managed lackadaisically in the digital world, at least so far.

Have judicial short cuts muddied the water for selling your data legally?

A Constitution Bench of India’s Supreme Court had decided on August 24 last year that the right to privacy was a fundamental right for every Indian citizen, akin to the right to life and liberty or the right to freedom of expression. The court had stressed, however, that it was not creating a new right and was not, therefore, judicially amending the Constitution. It was merely enumerating the core components of the pre-existing rights in Article 21 to life and liberty.

Life and liberty are recognised as natural or inalienable right. The State can only restrain them lawfully, going through due process, and then too only in a reasonable manner. The judgment serves well the purpose of guarding individual privacy against intrusion by the State. But it may have inadvertently created a problem for individuals who want  to sell their data, opinions or experiences. There is a long history of the right to sell your privacy, such as in publishing a memoir.

Natural rights being inalienable cannot of course be sold. You cannot end your life for money or any other inducement. You cannot also voluntarily revoke your right to liberty and become a slave, no matter how much the reward. Techies, some of whom work 24×7, would be surprised to hear this. Treating privacy as a natural right and yet allowing for its sale with consent will have to be judicially reconciled.

……..and governments looks to the Justice Srikrishna Committee for answers

ravi shanker prasad

Meanwhile, Big Data is too valuable not to be used by social media and digital search, share, see and sell companies. Explicitly contracting with users to compensate them for using their data is one way forward. The Justice Srikrishna Committee report will likely show the way to legislate the do’s and don’ts on data protection.

Public education on the uses & abuses of data would help

In the meantime, the government can help by educating the public about the consequences of clicking the consent button on websites and apps — something that we all do without a thought. Tech companies could also do better. At present, they do inform users about the type of data that they intend to access, but what is less clear is how they intend to use this data. A clear distinction must be made between three types of use.

First, using your private data to target advertisements of products and services that you may want. Second, using private data for generating useful secondary data for sale like analysis of market trends and forecasts. Third, selling raw private data to a third party.

The Aadhaar leaks and the leak by Facebook to Cambridge Analytica of the raw data of 50 million American users are the third type of use, which can only be termed mala fide. Since there was no consent, such leaks should have both criminal and civil consequences — punishing the offenders, including those who leaked, and the collaborators who used the data, and in addition compensating the victims. Mere possession of stolen lists of raw data should be punishable as dealing in stolen goods under the Indian Penal Code. The source of the leak should be booked for theft, or at the very least, for criminal negligence.

Using your data to drive advertisements to you is the least pernicious of the three types of use. You can always choose to not view advertisements. Using your data to analyse behaviour trends is also acceptable, if only aggregated, secondary data is made public.

Socially conscious “tech” should lead by paying for data use with consent 

James Madison, one of the framers of the American Constitution, had put it very well. For him, if there is a right to property, the right itself become property, which can be transacted. Applying this logic, one can make the right to privacy something that can either be enforced or alternatively, sold or gifted, at the will of the owner. This seems to be a practical approach.

Tech companies desirous of being legally in the clear could start compensating customers who explicitly agree to having their data analysed and outed as secondary data, or even given out raw. Paying users through discount coupons on purchases or even by picking up their Internet access charges could generate the underpinnings of consent and contract. If the user remains free to choose any transmission provider, despite the social media site picking up the monthly bill, the Net Neutrality principle, which had killed Free Basics earlier, could also be complied with.

Meanwhile, cryptographed network and analytics tech companies, launching soon, aim to provide a “question and answer” service. Customers could query it about specific markets. “Fetch”, one such tech company, proposes to provide the answers, using primary data from contracted-in data sets of other companies, while ensuring that the primary data is kept secure.

Keep regulation focused on efficiency and free of ideology

Till now, the government has sensibly regulated technology companies very lightly, in order to avoid killing the spirit of innovation. Those days are now over. The government must ensure the impending privacy legislation is fit for the purpose, but also provides for the potential to monetise private data. Not doing so would be a massive social loss.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, April 3, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/030418/in-an-age-of-leaks-just-lock-your-data-sell-it.html

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