governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘bureaucracy’ Category

Retribution – the missing R for resolving bad loans

Courtesy Arvind Subramanian, India’s Chief Economic Advisor, the 4R (reform, recognize, recapitalize, resolve) approach to manage the corporate bad loans problem, has captured public imagination. But he soft peddles a fifth R, that of retribution. The big stick must be wielded for reform to be credible.

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Public sector banks – flabby, politicised ATMs providing easy money to elites

Banks are flush with money. But “liquidity” for borrowers, even those who have a “special relationship” with banks, is low. The shadow of stressed loans – missed loan repayments and interest payments- makes the usual, clubby way of doing business suspect. Banks operate on big margins – between interest paid on deposits and interest received on commercial loans – of up to 5 percent, in our cartelized banking architecture, dominated by publicly owned banks. But, despite high margins, public sector bank ratings suffer. The more loans they give, higher is the volume of bad loans.

Bad loans are an outcome of shoddy risk appraisal followed by poor loan account oversight. The ugly habit of kicking the can down the road by rolling over bad loans has been the norm.  On average, only around 26 percent of bad loans and accumulated interest are recovered. Using this metric, banks stand to lose around Rs 9 trillion (6 percent of our GDP) by recognizing and resolving bad loans of around Rs 12 trillion.

If corporate loans were recovered like consumption loans for cars, there would be no problem

Once a loan becomes stressed there is little a bank can do, except to recover as much as it can from the borrower; divert the proceeds to a better borrower and black list the delinquent borrower. But Indian banks rarely operate on this “sunk cost” principle. A long history of covert support to keep diseased loans and borrowers alive, under the guise of retaining jobs, has not helped. The spectacularly unsuccessful, Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction was still alive till January 2016. Unfortunately, so were hundreds of companies ripe for corporate euthanasia. We now have a new Insolvency and Bankruptcy Act, January 2016. But its effectiveness remains to be established.

RBI oversight of banks comes up short

Disappointingly, the Reserve Bank of India, instead of taking the bull by the horns and directing banks to start bankruptcy proceedings for bad loans, has taken the soft approach – giving banks time, till the end of 2017, to resolve the stressed loans themselves. Amusingly, to nudge bankers into doing unfamiliar, unpleasant things, extraordinary measures are being taken, to provide them administrative cover, from ex-post facto audit, vigilance and CBI investigations. Clearly, retribution against those bankers, who approved and over saw the dud loans, is not contemplated.

Loan waivers without retribution for the complicit create moral hazard

Economists, including RBI Governor caution against the problem of “moral hazard” that loan waivers create in the context of agricultural loans being written off by state governments. Apparently, forgiveness without retribution, is bad for rural borrowers, but ok for corporate borrowers. Sadly, retribution is sorely needed for commercial borrowers too, who account for 75 percent of the bad loans.

80% model borrowers, 20% delinquent addicts of “easy money”

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The reality is even more nuanced. The bulk of borrowers, across sectors, are gold standard risks. Despite gross mismanagement of large corporate loans, 83 percent of the bank loans, valued at Rs 63 trillion, are serviced on time by borrowers. Moral hazard affects borrowers selectively in India. This is because retribution is also selective. Access to bank finance for small borrowers is cut off if they become delinquent and recovery proceedings are harsh. For large borrowers and the influential, more favourable terms apply.

Are only babus to be held to account?

handcuffs

Last month, a retired Secretary of the Coal Ministry and two other senior colleagues, were convicted for criminal conspiracy, by a trial court. The charge and the punishment meted out was completely out of proportion to their misdemeanors – less than adequate diligence in discharging their duties. Why this double standard for holding public officials to account? Rs 12 trillion of accumulated stressed loans against annual loan approvals of between Rs 3 to 5 trillion, indicates a deep rooted “conspiracy of silence” within public sector and co-operative banks; their patrons in government and the borrowers themselves.

These stressed loans, whether in industry or in agriculture, must be taken off the books of banks. But the concerned loan sanctioning and account oversight chain, whether present or retired, must be held to account on a standardized, transparent metric to establish active connivance to cheat the bank or lack of adequate diligence. This is the only way to delink quick resolution of the stressed loans from the problem of “moral hazard”.

Blacklist actively negligent founders

Second, deals need to be urgently struck with borrowers to resolve loans without access to the lengthy judicial review process. These can only happen if the big stick of sanctions is available to the negotiators. Founders, actively negligent in servicing loans, should be made to exit management positions, as a precondition for future access to bank finance. Delinquent individuals, who have been given opportunities earlier, to reform, via “greening” or rolling over of loans, should be debarred from access to bank finance.

Hold banks to account for bad loans

The argument against sanctioning bankers is bogus. It is feared bankers will stop taking decisions if sanctioned, thereby freezing the lending cycle. Till two decades ago, bank trade unions, routinely used the threat of striking work, to stop computerization or extract better wages. It was the Supreme Court which defanged them in 2003 by ruling that the right to strike is not absolute, particularly in the case of public services. No need to turn the clock back.

Stringent action against the bureaucracy has not adversely affected the functioning of government. Enshrined bureaucratic safeguards are most often the refuge of the incompetent or the corrupt. Those working transparently, in the public interest, rarely need such support. There is no reason why banks should be different.

Needed an empowered financial sector, “clean up” champion, to wield a long broom

Jaitley grimace

“Moral hazard” in bad loan resolution becomes a problem, only if we do not deal equitably and transparently. Elitist cliques, spanning politics, business and agriculture, must be weaned-off, the vice of bank financed “easy money”. Swift, impartial, standardized resolution of bad loans, with judicious retribution, can drain this vicious whirlpool, which saps national wealth and reeks of inequity.

Adapted from the authors article in TOI Blogs, June 23, 2017 http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/retribution-the-missing-r-in-resolving-bad-loans/

 

Can GST make Hasmukh Adhia smile?

Hasmukh

Hasmukh Adhia, India’s revenue secretary, is finance minister Arun Jaitley’s chief aide for rolling out the Goods and Services Tax. Contrary to his first name, he never smiles, at least not in public. But even he can now take a break and smile. The GST juggernaut is careening ahead. In just over a week, India would have leapfrogged into the league of economies which have walked the talk on rationalising indirect taxes.

Noose tightens on black money generation

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Photo credit: Imagesbazar.com

So what will Mr Jaitley and the GST Council have achieved on July 1, 2017? First, this collegial team of finance ministers, across the Central and state governments, would have fired the first, potent salvo against black money. Demonetisation; tax raids; getting back overseas black money caches — all pale in significance, compared to the institutional impact of GST. Consider, that the most vocal protests against GST have come from dry fruit traders, cloth merchants and jewellery makers. These businesses have been traditionally cash heavy. Of course, the intrepid evader will still have tax leak holes left open. Agriculture, food items and the business in booze remain yawning gaps in the tax revenue security architecture. But the message is loud and clear: the rope is shortening. So watch out!

Lower net indirect tax, lower prices to spur demand

shopping

Photo credit: Imagesbazar.com 

Second, the massive discounts being offered on pre-GST clearance of the stock of consumer durables suggests that prices of these goods will reduce. An entity, empowered to investigate and ensure that net tax reduction benefits are passed on by manufacturers and dealers to consumers, is in the offing. The history of such clunky, intrusive executive action is not encouraging. Due to information asymmetry, determining the cost breakdown of products externally, is invariably inefficient. Either the enforcement agents get compromised or they end up harassing manufacturers and suppliers for trifling results.

But in truth, it really doesn’t matter. Inflation levels are at historic lows — below three per cent per annum; the monsoon is progressing well and global demand remains damp. Babus and their counterparts in the public sector — around 18 million households — have all either been given or will soon get pay revisions. They are itching to spend the windfall.

Clunky “inspector raj” to check price rise – a bad idea

Even if the entire tax rationalisation bonanza is retained by manufacturers and dealers, it will still generate surpluses for private investment — in debt servicing, realty and equity markets. Improving the revenue steam of corporate India is vital for getting over the gargantuan NPA problem, which is bad cholesterol for growth. The good news is that most product markets are competitive. Digital marketers have cut retail margins to the bone. Even the market for services is hyper competitive — think telecom. This makes it tough for corporates to retain extra normal profits.

SMEs & Trade pay the price for becoming accountable – high compliance cost

Also, undeniably, tax rationalisation has come at a cost. The actual transaction cost, for business, to comply with digital GST processes is unknown. But GST provides a huge opportunity to India’s IT developers to innovate low-cost compliance and oversight options — particularly for value segments produced by small and medium industries. These could be perfected at home and marketed worldwide as context-specific solutions for developing countries. In 2013, at a conference in Washington, the World Bank president asked Nandan Nilekani why he wasn’t rolling out Aadhaar across the globe? Mr Nilekani responded that he was too busy at home and had no time left for solving the problems of the world. This single statement projected India’s enormous domestic, digital market potential far better than the glossies, which international consultants and governments routinely produce touting themselves. These digital opportunities have multiplied by several degrees with GST.

Multiple rates align with multiple objectives 

Third, the agreed-upon somewhat clunky architecture for GST reflects compromises made to achieve the twin overriding concerns — protecting the poor and ensuring fiscal neutrality for all governments. In the absence of a direct cash transfer framework, continuing tax exemptions on mass consumption goods and services is a reasonable policy option. Given the federal structure and the plurality of our polity, there never was an option to the consensual approach adopted by the GST Council. Meeting the revenue concerns of state governments has inevitably led to six GST rates. The highest rate of 28 per cent is designed to be used for neutralising any revenue loss for state governments.

Multiple rates result in efficiency loss due to tax leakage from misclassification of goods to a lower tax rate. A good example is the amorphous classification of a storage battery as a computer peripheral (lower tax rate) versus use for backup lighting needs (higher tax rate). Multiple rates also increase the accounting load for keeping track of tax credits and debits. But the economic benefits from early implementation of a less than perfect solution far outweigh the opportunity lost from a prolonged wait for the BJP to come to power in all the states, thereby enabling a best practice single rate template to be imposed from above, China style.

Fourth, GST is good for jobs. It gives a boost to “Make in India” by withdrawing the tax advantage for imported manufacturers. Importers pay Central state tax at four per cent as special additional customs duty. But domestic products are taxed at the rates of state sales tax, which are generally higher. This disadvantage for domestic production will vanish with GST. Imports, in addition to customs duty, will pay additional customs duty at the GST rate applicable for domestic products.

Flexible implementation arrangements – to muddle through the knots

Finally, the finance minister has consistently adopted a firm but nuanced, practical stance on the implementation schedule. Recognising that small-scale industry and traders are lagging in preparations, he has agreed to defer the filing of returns by two months. Assurances have also been given that the GST rates could be adjusted if the net tax burden gets distorted or gets unbearable. A government that is open to negotiating beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders and still retains the will to keep the national interest foremost is quite clearly operating at the tax-related good governance frontier. Smile, please.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age , June 23, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/230617/its-time-to-smile-gst-to-usher-in-a-new-era.html

Jaitley black money

India’s pressured public institutions

BOOK REVIEW
Rethinking Public Institutions in India
Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Milan Vaishnav (Eds)
Oxford University Press
548 pages; Rs 995

Rethnking Pub Inst in India

Public institutional reform has a stale air about it. There are plenty of options but little action. The sombre packaging of this book adds to this gloom. Possibly, the “monkish”, value-for-money branding is a consciously adopted tactic, setting it apart from the current trend favouring glitz and hype. The authors appear to be flinging a dare — that in their case substance needs no gloss. They are right.

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The editors’ academic pedigree is reassuring. Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the best-known of them, a public intellectual extraordinaire and the acknowledged voice of evidenced, liberal political thought.
Devesh
His co-editors Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav are US-based academics.
milan vaishnav
This new publication is a follow-on of a 2007 publication Public Institutions in India: Performance and Design co-edited by Messrs Kapur and Mehta.
The contributors are an eclectic mix of UK-, US- and India-based academics and Indian civil servants, serving, repositioned or retired. What is common is their deep and systematic association with public institutional development and an enviable record of publishing their work and opinions.
Are public institutions in India doomed?
So, are central public institutions going to seed? And does that explain India’s future challenges? The introductory chapter, written by the editors, provides an elegant, broad sweep of drivers and trends in institutional malaise, highlighting areas where performance has been dangerously below par. But the helicopter view is a mite too one sided, veering to a dark view of the state of national institutions.
Institutional resilience outnumbers the failures 
A more nuanced and refreshing view emerges from the succeeding chapters, each about a single institution. James Manor, writing on the Presidency, exquisitely details how this apex institution, despite the occasional failures of individual incumbents – think Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who signed on the dotted line to impose emergency in 1975 and Giani Zail Singh, who was not averse to being actively political – has been a steady hand, safeguarding constitutional propriety and citizen rights from potential executive and legislative transgressions.
Errol D’Souza, reviewing the Reserve Bank of India, describes its pugnacious success in enlarging its regulatory space, solely through its performance-driven credibility. E Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav pen a fluid and attractively rendered tale, about the Election Commission of India, which has similarly earned its spurs. Eighty per cent of Indians trust it because of its remarkable conduct of timely, fair and efficient elections. Madhav Khosla and Ananth Padmanabhan describe how the Supreme Court has nurtured the public’s trust by courageously and consistently ruling in favour of equity, inclusion and fair play. However, they warn that dark clouds loom unless justice is delivered more efficiently.
Navroz Dubash writing on new infrastructure regulatory institutions – the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) – acknowledges that in the initial years both had to fight severe challenges from publicly-owned monopolies and their patrons in government. Two decades on, they are the arbiters of positive change. The CERC has overseen competition in bulk electricity supply. The Trai has curated highly competitive private telecom customer services and tariffs. However, Dubash correctly points to the need for enlarging the regulatory space such that all actors – the Parliament, Judiciary and the Executive become active players in negotiating regulatory outcomes, with the Regulator playing the balancing role,
Institutional failure more visible in sub-national entities
“State failure” is a malaise more visible in sub-national institutions, which have failed to imbibe the positive changes taking place in related central public institutions. State governors, legislatures, the lower judiciary, state public financial management institutions, electricity regulatory commissions, vigilance departments, and election commissions are often severely blemished. T R Raghunandan woefully records that institutions of local government remain ignored, underfunded and underused, except in Kerala, Karnataka and West Bengal. Consequently, inclusive growth suffers and an opportunity is lost for embellishing and inculcating local traditions of results-based democratic functioning.
But there are black sheep at the national level too
Not all national institutions, despite inherited advantages, have developed benignly. Parliament is one such. M R Madhavan ruthlessly excavates the reasons it has lost the public trust. R Shridharan similarly unravels why the Central Vigilance Commission, India’s anti-corruption agency, and its investigative arm, the Central Bureau of Investigation, have failed to establish their credentials. The former is merely a tool, to be used selectively, by the executive against its own officials. The latter is at its nadir. The moniker “caged parrot” accurately reflects why it has lost credibility in the fight against corruption.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the supreme audit institution, gets mixed reviews from R. Shridharan and Amitabh Mukhopadhyay. The CAG is uniquely placed and significantly empowered, to guide and assist Parliament to exercise granular oversight over the executive. Its path-breaking exposure, under Vinod Rai, of massive inefficiency and financial impropriety in spectrum and coal allocations lifted its public profile. But, in its “independence”, also lies the danger of it being ignored, through a “conspiracy of silence”, between a dysfunctional Parliament and a pliant executive.
The civil service, particularly its elite component – the All India Services (AIS), which constitute 0.03 per cent of the total civil employees and just 1 per cent of the Group A employees of the Union Government – have unambiguously failed. K P Krishnan and T V Somanathan admit that nothing has changed for the better over the past decade. Recruited on merit, this tiny elite thereafter enjoy the rents accruing from that initial, one-time achievement. But the authors shrink from endorsing that the AIS be phased out and its functions reallocated to the specialist cadres of the Central Services — these constitute 99 per cent of the Group A civil employees, who currently fester despondently.
This is a multi-layered, exhaustively referenced publication, which surgically exposes the dark side of public institutional dysfunction. But it also provides sufficient evidence of institutional resilience, on which an enlightened political leadership can build. A must-have, for all those who either belong to, or wish to join, the frustratingly uplifting community of public institutional developers.
Adapted from the authors review in Business Standard June 15, 2017 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/public-institutions-under-scrutiny-117061401505_1.html
raj ghat
Raj Ghat – Gandhi ji’s memorial keeps the flame of “independence” alive

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

grief

Basic income transfer- Modi’s next big thing?

poor woman

Irrespective of its economic virtues, demonetisation — an aggressive, unprecedented initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, brought rich dividends for the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh election. Above all, voters were impressed with his determination to punish those who have become fat on black money. That the move also “punished” those who had no black money — via extended inconvenience, loss of business or employment — was collateral damage.

An incredible 41 per cent of voters gave a thumping majority to the BJP, including possibly those who were collateral fodder or the target — proving, yet again, that in politics, good intentions trump technically appropriate action.

The next frontier

So what can the Prime Minister do next to shock and awe the Opposition and win minds and hearts across India? Elections loom in Karnataka in 2018, currently ruled by the Congress, and national general election is in 2019. The chosen programme must be elegant not clunky; effective not merely palliative; quickly deliverable and fiscally prudent.

The Union government currently uses clunky, partially- or fully-funded schemes, implemented by the state governments, to establish its human face. There were 1,500 such schemes, which the Modi government has pruned to around 657. Most are massively inefficient. Arvind Virmani, a former chief economic adviser, claims they follow the one-third rule. Only one-third for the targeted beneficiary, one-third for administrative expenditure and one-third for corruption.

Mind you, it is expensive to provide access to public services and goods even via a cash support mechanism. Prof. Abhijit Banerjee of MIT assesses the average administrative cost, across countries, of cash support programmes at 50 per cent of the amount delivered.

A universal, unconditional income transfer in cash to all citizens is the most efficient option. But it suffers from bad optics. The same amount of money is given to a beggar as to a real estate baron. But Sudipto Mundle of NIPFP argues that select exclusions are possible without massively retarding efficiency. The most obvious exclusion is anyone in urban areas. The average income in urban areas is consistently higher than in rural areas, where 80 per cent of the poor live.

Substitution or additional support

Others, like Jean Drèze, are sceptical about the cash transfers, specially for food support. We know food prices spike during drought. During such extreme events, the transferred income would be insufficient to buy the targeted amount of food. Those living at the edge cannot afford to be caught in such a situation.

Clearly, basic income transfer is not a substitute for all other existing social support mechanisms in education, health and social protection, but it can substitute those mechanisms which are the most wasteful and poorly targeted.

Reform wasteful, leaky de-merit schemes 

The Economic Survey 2017, lead-authored by Arvind Subramanian, chief economic adviser, does signal service by evidencing the problem of misallocation of fiscal resources in the existing schemes. The share of the districts, where 40 per cent of the nation’s poor live, in allocation for anti-poverty schemes, like the mid-day meal scheme is just 20 per cent and just 24 per cent in the Swachh Bharat Mission. Such misallocation is wasteful.

SEWA pilot shows the way in MP

SEWA

A pilot done by SEWA in four villages in Madhya Pradesh, over a period of two years, covering 6,000 people along the universal coverage principle, transferred Rs 3,600 per year to each adult, with lower amounts to children. The results are impressive. The most significant outcome is that even four years later, many of the initial achievements with respect to the enhanced decision-making role of women; sustainable income from assets — mainly livestock — and the continued productive use of income remained strongly in place. Similar pilots are being done in Africa. But the caveat is that pilots involve significant handholding and oversight without which, as in Ghana, sustainable income enhancement is negligible. This cautions that even with a universal basic income scheme the role of handholding will remain.

A first for India

India could become the first country in the world to use a “qualified-universal” basic income transfer to end poverty. The real problem is how to find the money. Arvind Panagariya, the Prime Minister’s key economic adviser and vice-chairperson of the Niti Aayog, however, highlights the fiscal requirement. At just Rs 10,000 per year per person the cost is equivalent to the government’s entire revenue of 10 per cent of GDP.

Use second best options – sequential implementation; finance the poverty gap

But there are viable second-best options. First, smaller amounts could be transferred. The poverty gap has been estimated at around Rs 3,500 per poor person per year as in the SEWA pilot. The Economic Survey records that an annual transfer of Rs 3,240 to every female would cost one per cent of GDP. The cost can be reduced further by a quasi-universal scheme focused on females only in rural areas, with girl children getting less and women getting more, as in the SEWA pilot.

Subsidy reform is overdue. The Prime Minister had also adopted the approach of “subsidy tyaag” the voluntary giving up of subsidy by those who were well-off. It is also possible to make it administratively more difficult to access demerit subsidies like on cooking gas; fertiliser and income-tax exemptions with the target of eliminating them altogether.

In the meantime, a “quasi-universal” basic income transfer scheme can be started by allocating just Rs 75,000 crores (just 0.3 per cent of anticipated GDP in 2017-18) to one-third of the poorest districts. The programme can be expanded to other districts by allocating just two-fifths of the incremental revenues, especially if growth trends upwards beyond eight per cent per year.

PM should grasp the moment

Prime Minister Modi is not one to be hesitant about funding innovative ideas in the public interest. The quasi-universal basic income scheme is one door that he should consider walking through, specially if he is confident that India shall grow at above eight per cent.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age, March 31, 2017  http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/310317/basic-income-transfer-modis-next-big-thing.html

poor children

Public sector angst

So, what is it about social media which gets sarkari types hyperventilating about their gripes and grouses? First, we have members of the para military forces seeking sympathy for the poor living conditions they suffer on duty. Next, we have a General, passed over for promotion, pedaling conspiracy theories around his being overlooked. To cap it all the managing director of Air India laments that a CBI investigation into improper procurement could sabotage the critical turn-around of the publicly owned airline. 

Why for instance do the owners and employees of private companies not do the same. Why didn’t Mr. Ratan Tata wring his hands on social media about the underhand way his successor was cutting the ground from under his feet? Or, for that matter, why hasn’t Netaji – Mulayam Singh Yadav – done the same about the goings on of his son? Why don’t we get to hear more stories of backstabbing, sell outs and short-circuited ambition from the private sector? I suspect the private sector guys feel that exposing their angst on social media is unlikely to generate any public sympathy for them. Working to improve the bottom line of a private company does not gel with the popular concept of national service. Never mind that using resources efficiently and maximizing output and productivity are the corner stone of growth oriented, competitive economies. In India “profit” remains a dirty, exploitative word.

Not even bumbling saints

At the very least public sector officers could be bumbling saints – role models of honesty, diligence and accomplishment. But forget efficiency most do not even have the basic attributes of rectitude. We saw this in the abandon with which public sector bank employees participated in the conversion of old black into new black recently during notebandi. The reasons why more sarkari types do not conform to the ideal are complex. Low organizational expectations from them; a performance system which provides huge rewards for competing successfully for the market (getting a public-sector job) but virtually no rewards for competing in the market (continuously improving performance in the job); lax disciplinary procedures for miscreants and low accountability, all serve to cocoon the public servant in an impregnable miasma of collective might versus citizen demands.  

Antiquated management systems

Continuously improving public sector systems are part of the job of a public servant. But India, today, has possibly the most antiquated public management processes. This despite the availability of funds for purchase of equipment, procurement of technical expertise and the powers to make changes in existing rules being pervasive. But for years the job of managing the household efficiently has taken a backseat to racing ahead with announcing new initiatives for public good and spinning old initiatives into new ones.

High overheads

The overhead cost or, tail to teeth ratio, is very high in the public sector. Just the expenditure on salaries and pensions is around a quarter of the net revenue receipts of the central government. The administrative costs of managing offices – purchase of consumables, electricity, purchase of new equipment, maintaining and constructing offices and government houses, travel and communication costs are additional. 

In public sector accounting, employees matter more than machines. Getting boots on the ground and waving the flag is more important than empowering the employee. That is why Bollywood delights in stereotyping the bumbling cop who ambles up to a crime site gamely swinging nothing more than a lathi. A lathi costing Rs 300 is the sole piece of equipment the average policeman has. Never mind that the average police constable costs the government upwards of Rest 20,000 per month. Providing jobs is a means of empire building for politicians and far too often becomes a lucrative business for the recruiters.

It is no wonder then that “zero based budgeting (ZBB)” never took off. How could it? ZBB is based on the axiom that you can always do better. The past is nothing more than a sunk cost which must never hold back good decisions making in the future. But our public sector operating mantra is to never accept that a mistake has been made which needs to be corrected. Government auditors view all mistakes as evidence of waste. Never mind that individuals only learn by committing mistakes. A baby who is fearful of falling would never walk, let alone run. 

So, what is it that we can do differently in the public sector?

First, by providing cradle to grave employment, even at the officer level, we create a collective (the cadre) where only individuals need exist. Government must dispense with the cadre system for recruiting officers, which is at the heart of the problem. Recruit instead for specific positions against specific eligibility criterion. Open recruitment, on contract, would keep the officers on their toes. 

Second, adopt cost accounting metrics for budgeting. This would make operational systems more efficient and facilitate performance evaluation across verticals.

Third, decentralize financial and administrative powers extensively whilst making the reporting chain flatter. This is the first change Suresh Prabhu made as Minister for Railways in 2015. The beneficial impact is already visible. The IAS should be as adept at organizational development as at strategy or policy making. The incentive today is to shine in service delivery achievements. This is self-limiting once the low hanging fruits have been plucked.  

Fourth, we should experiment with flexible budgeting by broad banding expenditure allocations across schemes. This would enable the executive to maximize the physical impact of budgetary allocations based on the performance of schemes in the field. Parliamentary approval should be limited to setting the macro variables (primary deficit, revenue deficit, fiscal deficit, current account deficit, debt to GDP ratio and the assumption of economic growth) and approve the specific tax proposals. The specifics of how the money is spent should not be held hostage to Parliamentary approval. Parliament must safeguard the macroeconomic bottom line not become part of the executive in micromanaging expenditure via the power to allocate expenditure. 

Lastly, disciplining of errant public sector staff can be salutary. Mistakes happen. What is more important is that they should be corrected once they are detected. Severe sanctions should apply for those who commit rule infractions themselves or those who turn a blind eye to infractions by their subordinates, whilst managing to keep their own desk clean. Conversely, rewards must accrue for others who adopt a positive and proactive approach to rule infractions made without mala fide intention. Greater rewards should accrue, for those who can propose thoughtful changes in rules to plug loopholes and avoid repeat infractions in future.

Managing a government is very much like managing a large, noisy joint family. A combination of encouraging pats, dissuading slaps, a great deal of open discussion and well intentioned decisions made in public interest are the failsafe ingredients for a happy and productive public sector family.

 

 

Us versus Them

IAS

Prime Minister Modi addresses young IAS officers – the elite civil service of India, February 16, 2015.

“Tribes” exist in India other than the ones provided for in Part X of the constitution. The largest is the “Tribe” of government servants – to be distinguished from the even larger body of public servants.

Sheltering under the benign glow of the Ashoka Pillar lions, this tribe is the worst afflicted by the “Us versus Them” syndrome. The “Them” in this case being private entities, derisively called “box wallahs” during the colonial period. This is odd for an economy where the private sector contributes around two thirds of value added. How can we develop more empathy between the two “tribes”?

Bridge the chasm

First, systematically bridging the chasm between government systems and private sector processes can help. Yes, private business works for profit whilst government works in public interest. But both work in the same economic environment. There is little reason then, for such a wide chasm in systems and processes.

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Winds of change: Firebrand Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee “Didi” of West Bengal has Amit Mitra previously of FICCI (a premier business association) as Finance Minister. Seen here rapping with Kolkata industrialists. Photo credit: The hindu.com

Better accounting systems

One such chasm is the system of accounts used by the two. Government follows the cash based accounting system. The formal private sector uses accrual based accounting. In a cash system, the focus is on cash-in and cash-out. But the cost of future liabilities and potential receipts foregone tend to be overlooked. Government can afford to do this. It can print money or just raise taxes to bridge the deficit. But like in a Ponzy scheme, fiscal unsustainability catches up and eventually ends the party, although at huge economic cost. Government already disciplines itself with strict constrains on public deficits. We should not relax this constraint.

But it is also important to transparently cost our contingent liabilities and share these with citizens. We do not do this very well. As a result, even government managers lose sight of these because the eventual cost of adopting the business-as-usual approach is hidden. Similarly, the opportunity cost of indifferent asset management is largely ignored within government. Accrual accounting helps generate such future costs.

Factor in the cost of risk

Second, government routinely underestimates the cost of risk incurred from operations. For example, government cars or buildings are never insured against loss or damage. Project estimates never factor in risks like the cost of time overruns or cost creep, despite a long trend line of evidence to the contrary. The cost of failing to meet targets is left open ended.

Consider the case of nuclear power. Our strict liability law requires private suppliers to bear the risk of damage from contamination. But the real risk is borne by a publicly owned General Insurance Company and indirectly by the government. It is the same with public sector banks whose losses from massive bad loans in the past, are now being borne by the government. Government must be more transparent whilst accepting risk. Accrual accounting unearths the data required for factoring in the risk of failure.

Government as a participant

Third, government is unused to be a mere participant in the commercial eco system. This derives from its sovereign mandate to be a rule maker and regulator. It also has sovereign functions. No one would want to replace the Indian army with private military contractors. Citizens prefer better policing to paying for private guards. No one wants unelected non-state entities to make our laws. Similarly preserving natural resources and the provision of public goods are best regulated by the government and not by markets.

But modern governments have added on a host of non-core social and economic functions, including the actual delivery of public services. Some of these can be outsourced  to the private sector – electricity supply or transport services. For others building “Chinese walls” between officials who discharge sovereign functions- like formulating policy, proposing legislation and developing programs – and others who implement programs and projects can internalize private sector concerns into the government.

Government entities like the Indian Railways; defence production units; public research laboratories; drinking water utilities; irrigation departments; public works departments; public institutes of tertiary education and hospitals can be usefully extracted from government, into publicly owned corporations subject to all the regulatory requirements as the private sector.

Stepping out of the “confining glow” of government and becoming a public limited corporation, even if it is 100 percent owned by the government, changes the organizational culture. In colonial days, financial relief to rehabilitate drought hit farmers was handed out by District Collectors. Since the late 1970s we have used public sector banks for this purpose. Today, crop insurance is the financial backstop for failed crops. This will incentivize even private banks to expand rural lending for profit. And farmers will not have the incentives they have today to exchange loan forgiveness for votes.

In the Union government alone, 66% of the 3 million civilian staff can be hived off to corporations. If this mammoth task seems undoable, look back to 2000, when the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) was restructured and 320,000 staff hived off into the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) leaving the DOT with just around 3000 staff.

Copy-paste the Telecom story

Telecom grew unshackled once the government stopped worrying only about protecting BSNL.  The empowered regulator -Telecom Regulatory Authority of India- in sync with the government since 1999, developed a fiercely competitive market. Private providers cater to 90% of the market. Subscribers have increased from a paltry 0.3 per 100 in 1999 to 88 per 100 population – pretty close already to China, which has 95 per 100 but at a per capita income five times higher than India. Indian telecom tariffs are a fraction of what they were in 1999 and are the lowest in the world. A telephone connection with a direct dialing facility was the preserve of business and the elite, fifteen years ago. Today a mobile is in the pocket of the common man and has become a can’t-do-without tool for empowering women. Low cost, high quality wireless internet access is expected to double, the 300 million internet users today, by 2019.

This transformation was achieved by deliberate, visionary steps taken to restructure the government and the telecom market for growth and efficiency. Application of these principles, across all sectors, can liberate the economy from the shackles of inherited, institutional constraints; bridge the “us versus them” chasm and squeeze out the fat in government.

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Digitally savvy India’s young are its future Photo credit: Globallearninggroup.com

 

The tax collectors’ revolt

ITax

Last week’s “revolt” by senior income tax officers, meeting in Mumbai, against alleged micro management by the Union Revenue Secretary is unlikely to bother the average citizen. If anything, citizens would welcome glitches in tax collection behind which they can hide.

Mind the growing gap

But the revolt deserves attention because it illustrates a growing gap between officers and the political leadership. A similar gap resulted, earlier in 2015, in the extended and emotive agitation by army pensioners, for implementing the principle of One Rank One Pension (OROP). They and serving officers believed that it was a just demand being scuttled by the civil bureaucracy which acts as a gate keeper between the army and the political leadership. The revolt of the tax collectors is the second time that short circuited wires, between the political leadership and field level officers, are being exposed.

Bad strategy but genuine angst

The instrument chosen, by the tax officers, to voice their concerns via a resolution is questionable in terms of its efficacy as is the selection of the flash point for making their case. Unlike the army, income tax officers are no ones’ favourite person. The income tax department is, unfortunately, generally perceived as being self-serving and uncaring of citizen rights. Consequently, an upsurge of public sentiment in their support, as was the case for OROP, is unlikely. More likely, citizens would advocate even harsher disciplinary measures to pull up the department. Collecting tax is a thankless job.

The choice of flash point is similarly questionable — the transfer of a tax officer who allegedly adopted unfair means to boost his end-of-year performance. He issued a huge tax demand on a public sector bank just prior to the annual deadline and then allowed a refund of most of the tax amount immediately thereafter — a cynical “win-win” strategy for both the officer and the bank.

No one could possibly defend the officer’s use of “temporary tax terrorism” tactics. But the summary manner in which he was “punished” by being transferred (not officially a punishment), on the intervention of the Revenue Secretary, seems to have rankled. It does not help matters that the Revenue Secretary is traditionally from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) but exercises oversight over the functioning of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) under which around 8000 Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officers work. Incidentally there are seven senior officers of the IRS in the CBDT — the apex body for exercising operational control over direct tax administration. But none of them can ever break through the glass ceiling prescribed for them of the rank of a Special Secretary. This is lower than that of the Revenue Secretary, though they get the same pay.

Only empowered agencies perform

In India, we have not developed a culture of equality between field agencies and the secretariat. It is only in the armed forces that the correct equation between the secretariat and the field agency is maintained. This is visible during the republic day celebrations. In the line up to greet the President, the Vice President and the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary stands lower down than the three service chiefs of the army, the air force and the navy. This is how it should be for all field level entities of the government. The officer in the secretariat must never be the person perceived to be in charge of the field level operations. Maintaining the principle of unity of command and responsibility is a pre-condition for efficient functioning within an agency.

Towards a more nerdy Secretariat  

nerd

The job of the secretariat is to assist the Minister in parliamentary work. It is perverse to adorn secretariat positions with high level administrative powers. The nuts and bolts of administration must be outsourced to the concerned agencies created specifically for the purpose. The role of the secretariat must shrink. The example of Minister for Railways, Suresh Prabhu, is worth emulating. One of the first things he did, on assuming charge, was to delegate away most of the operational powers, centralized in his office, to the Regional General Managers. A secretariat officer enhances value, not by banging people on their heads, but by skillfully using an insider’s appreciation of the operating environment and superior analytic skills to facilitate the functioning of field agencies. Making officers in field agencies perform better is squarely the job of the head of the concerned agency.

In a more evolved work environment, the secretariat is where policy and legislation is formulated. The field agency is where programmes are fleshed out and operations monitored for results. The relationship between the two must not be hierarchical as it inevitably is today. Policy formulation and programme implementation are two entirely different albeit symbiotic specialisations. There must be give and take between the two. One way of ensuring this is to make the heads of both the secretariat and the field agency of equal rank. Indeed, this is one way a Minister — who often might not be well acquainted with her charge — gets a rounded perspective of the issue at hand.

The bottom line is that, whilst the Mumbai IRS officers have chosen their battle badly, their cause, as indeed the cause of all other specialised government agencies and cadres, needs deeper consideration.

We should be moving over to a new governance architecture which values specialisation and extends equal opportunities to all cadres, particularly those which already exist in the Union government. IAS officers, unlike officers from the IRS, are on deputation from the state government cadres to the Union government. The IRS is a home grown, central government cadre. The logic for not letting the IRS manage its own house is questionable. Inserting an IAS officer between the political leadership and the IRS seems an archaic and inefficient way of managing the vital tax function.

The manner in which a majority of the senior positions in the Union government are “reserved” for the IAS is archaic because it does not recognise the heightened role for specialisation in modern administration. Law, Tax, Public Finance, Infrastructure, Human Development, Industry and Trade, Natural Resource Management, Defence, Security and Intelligence are all stand-alone disciplines in which practitioners spend their entire working lives. It is inconceivable that value can be added in policy formulation; program conceptualisation or project implementation, without the relevant experience and skill.

Lift the glass ceiling for specialized central services

Inflection points are always graphically depicted by glass ceilings getting smashed. Institutional wisdom lies in removing glass ceilings as soon as they develop cracks and well before they are smashed by the force of change.

smash

 

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