governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘bureaucracy’ Category

Book Review: Paying the price for aid

AID

Three themes undergird the author’s exhaustive narrative of the politics around foreign aid in India between 1950 and 1975, during the early years of the Cold War — the people who made key decisions; the domestic context and, finally, the geopolitical incentives that shaped donor responses.

The deal makers

come across as being surprisingly entrepreneurial in securing aid. Mercifully, unlike more recently, the political and bureaucratic manoeuvring was almost never for personal gain, other than managerial satisfaction at seeing pet projects fructify.

lobbied for civilian atomic power at a time when hydro and coal-based power was the norm. P C Mahalanobis, a physicist turned statistician, institutionalised centralised planning as a scientific prerequisite for development. C Subramaniam as minister for food ushered in higher agricultural productivity via the Green Revolution. Morarji Desai as finance minister and later prime minister promoted private Indian industry and trade, an outlier view, supported by G D Birla. B K Nehru — India’s economic ambassador to the US; John Mathai and later C D Deshmukh as finance minister, economist I G Patel and L K Jha as ambassador in Washington were more inclined to look to markets, international trade, the private sector and the criticality of macro-economic stability, all of which aligned more with the United States as a development model.

Jawaharlal Nehru and later Indira Gandhi as prime minister; Krishna Menon as defence minister, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and later D P Dhar, ambassadors to Moscow; Gulazarilal Nanda, deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission; K D Malaviya, petroleum minister; P N Haksar, principal secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission and T N Kaul as foreign secretary were the top decision makers who leant towards the Soviet Union.

The domestic context

But individuals became important only because they seized the moment in a given context. Nehru was opposed to be seen begging for aid. It did not fit with his ideology of non-alignment. But India needed lots of aid. With overt political alignment unacceptable, the second-best option for officials was to conspire and reassure donors, that India’s and their interests were aligned.

America feeds India

The establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949 spurred America to save India from Communism. American aid funded technical assistance, community development, large irrigation and flood control projects like the Damodar Valley Corporation and credit lines for the import of machinery by private industries. The PL-480 programme, starting in 1960, provided desperately needed food grains against deferred payments in rupees. The accumulated amount equalled 40 per cent of the money supply by 1974. The US government generously wrote the largest cheque ever, of $2.05 billion, converting two thirds of the outstanding balance into a grant for India.

But disjointed Geopolitical compulsions act as spoilers

But the Indo-American relationship was an uneasy fit. The 1954 treaty of mutual security between the US and Pakistan was an early spoiler. India’s denial of an endorsement for US military action in Korea and later, in Vietnam, rankled. By 1969, interest in India waned, as President Nixon focused on resetting relations with China. In 1966, India accounted for one-eighth of total American aid. By 1975 it had dwindled to one-eightieth.

Soviet Union industrializes India hoping to strengthen Indian Socialism

Soviet aid comprised projects to build industrial capacity. This fitted Indian objectives of backward area development via the creation of model public sector factories in the “core” areas according to the 1956 Industrial Policy. By the 1970s, Indian industry had caught up, whilst the Soviet Union had fallen behind in technology and run out of revolutionary fervour. Meanwhile, enhanced multilateral, soft credit from the World Bank under Robert McNamara introduced new options to source industrial equipment commercially and competitively.

The West – aligned with fPakistan, wary of China and needing its buying power –  fails to provide arms to India 

The United Kingdom, the ex-colonial power, was best placed to meet India’s defence needs. But it was unwilling to supply arms against rupee payments. Military aid from the US for India was a non-starter, given that Pakistan was a close ally. The 1965 Indo-Pakistan war did not help. In 1971 the US-China détente prompted Henry Kissinger, secretary of state, to convey that America would not come to India’s assistance, against a Chinese attack, in response to India’s military action in Bangladesh. In comparison, the Soviets were generous – supplying military assets more modern that those supplied to China; readily accepting technology transfer and payment in Indian rupees. Consequently, the Indo-Soviet defence partnership has endured.

An informative, closely referenced read for diligent students of South Asian political economy, the author posits that India paid a price for foreign aid, which subverted indigenous institutions of collective decision-making, like the Planning Commission and the Cabinet. This assessment seems overblown. Institutions evolve and adapt. Their efficiency must be measured from real outcomes, not the stated objectives or the rigidity of the institutional framework.

The race towards assured mutual destruction in South Asia was fueled by competitive arms aid but civilian aid strengthened India

However, unregulated military aid has sparked off an arms race and contributes massively to the regional welfare loss from insecurity and high defence spend. But just as surely, civilian aid cushioned the negative impact of natural and economic shocks, boosted infrastructure and enhanced human development — all of which helped preserve the integrity of India’s nascent democracy. Individual, institutional or national egos were bruised in the process. In hindsight, that is a small price to pay, for what is today a sustainable and increasingly equitable, growing economy.

Adapted from the authors book review in Business Standard, May 23, 2018 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/paying-the-price-for-foreign-aid-118052200013_1.html

Are Marwaris taking over our heritage monuments?

Red fort

Someone else, better equipped and trained should do this routinely


Somebody needs to fund heritage preservation. Why not the Marwaris and Banias? After all they funded the National Movement for Independence. But try telling India’s die hard, Left Liberal crowd that a person in desperate need of a public toilet, does not care, whether the plaque above it gives credit to a public-sector company or a private entity. An especially abled person, with a yen for travel, couldn’t give two-hoots who paid for the ramp that makes heritage monuments accessible on her wheel chair.

None of this will wash with those who hold public management of “national” monuments and public sector white elephants dear to their heart. They would rather see them collapse, gradually, than hand them over to the private sector for making them user friendly.

Our heritage, our identity

Last year, in September, the government launched, what should have been an innocuous and much needed initiative to seek non-state (private) interest in providing better facilities at our heritage sites in exchange for on-site advertising. This is explicitly not a revenue generating partnership. No additional fee or charge, unless approved specifically by the government, is to be imposed by the non-state partner.

ex-IAS, Minister Alphons, off to a good start

Things moved surprisingly fast after ex-IAS KJ Alphons got elected to the Rajya Sabha from the BJP and joined the government as minister for tourism. Thirty-one entities have been shortlisted to “adopt” 95 monuments and sites across India.

These entities called “Monument Mitra (friends)” are required to prepare a vision document detailing what needs to be done to improve the visitor experience and how they would go about doing it, as a part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The good news is that, this time around the public-sector has been spared the near compulsory burden of footing the bill. Most of the interested entities are private companies except NBCC (India) ltd. – a construction PSU for the Old Fort, New Delhi and the State Bank of India Foundation for the Jantar Mantar complex, New Delhi.

Dalmia Bharat Ltd for the Red Fort

But the selection which grabbed the headlines was the one signed with Dalmia Bharat Limited for the Red Fort in Delhi. Left Liberal sentiment was outraged at this seeming mortgage of India’s iconic heritage fort, to the Dalmia’s – an old Calcutta/Delhi based family business.

It is unclear, why the Dalmias are interested in the project, except to generate goodwill with the government and amongst citizens in their home city. The potential for getting a free Dalmia promo in the national TV reportage of the annual Independence Day spectacle at the Red Fort on August 15, might have also been a motivator.

Keeping art and heritage “aficionados” out of the process, generates suspicion

The vision document or the MOU, spelling out what the company intends to do has not been publicly shared. The Committees reviewing the expressions of interest; the vision documents and approving the MOUs consist only of the relevant government departments, to the exclusion of non-state actors, particularly from the extended arts, architecture and culture community in Delhi.

As expected, exclusion breeds unnecessary suspicion and distrust. The Modi government seems to shy away from the active participation of non- state actors in decision making. The previous government of Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh went overboard in the other direction, possibly to deflect any blame from itself. A healthy balance between the two extremes would help.

The Dalmias – hard nosed businessmen, far from the sensibilities of culture.

Ramkrishna Dalmia, a Marwari from Rohtak, was the founder of the Dalmia group. Thomas Timberg notes in – “The Marwaris” that, like all entrepreneurs of the early 1900s he made his money from speculation in silver and then went on to become one of the three largest Indian industrialists along with Tata and Birla. But unlike the other two groups, the fortunes of the Dalmia’s have waned.

Dalmia Bharat Cement is a listed company with a market cap of just around Rs 220 billion – around one half of the smallest 100 top listed BSE companies. Its CSR focus is on energy conservation, rural development and solar power applications. Providing and managing visitor facilities for a significant historical monument is a significant departure from its main line of business. Of course, that is no reason to dismiss the effort outright. But it does raise doubts about their ability to perform, to satisfaction, even if the intent is genuine.

Not too many private takers for cultural spend

Government argues that corporates are not exactly lining up to spend scarce money on historical monuments. They must make do with those who are interested, even if they will have a steep learning curve. Mechanisms for technical support to the Monument Mitra and oversight of their activities, are being put in place. Cultural czars however, thumb their noses at such amateurish attempts to break into the rarified world of culture, art and heritage architecture.

To be fair to the government, not all selections, have the same problem. The well-known Aga Khan Trust – which restored Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, has been selected for the Aga Khan Palace in Pune; The premier hotel chain ITC and a GMR entity (builders of the Delhi airport) have been selected for the Taj Mahal and so on.
Dalmia Bharat Limited – a cement manufacturer and infrastructure developer – is an outlier for the Red Fort. One wonders why the government does not share the rationale on which the decision was made with interested citizens. This would allay fears.

Marwaris

Suspicion of the Bania (India’s mercantile caste) is deeply imbedded in the Indian psyche, possibly anachronistically. Even the Marwaris and Banias might have moved on from the rapacious image that Left Liberals have of them. We shall know soon enough. By Independence Day, August 15, 2018.

Also available at TOI Blogs https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/are-marwaris-taking-over-our-national-heritage/

 

 

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

India’s 50-50 reforms

half reforms

Unlike politicians, who can choose their targets, business leaders have to dance to the tune of  shareholders, who buy or sell, based on the existing or the future bottom line. In politics. it is relatively easy to change the goal posts or indeed, shift the goal itself.

Changing goals

In India, the current metric for political performance, is jobs. Self -selected by the Bharatiya Janata Party, this may become a self-goal because even globally, there are few, near-term solutions.Prior to jobs, in the noughties, it was all about boosting economic growth — where again headwinds have built up. Before growth, it was about ending poverty in the 1990s. Earlier, in the late 1960s and till the mid-1970s, it was about boosting agriculture, becoming self-sufficient in food and avoiding famines. Even further back in the 1950s, heavy industrialisation and infrastructure were the mantra. Of course all these are part of development. But sequencing matters. Also, pancaking more reform targets on the existing ones, confuses even the reformers.

Partial success abounds, but excellence less visible

Seventy years on, we are only narrowly competitive in manufacturing; our infrastructure is vast but shoddy; agriculture has low productivity levels; 40 per cent of us are either poor or are vulnerable to poverty; we are still stretching for sustained real growth in high single digits; unemployment is rife and the participation rate in the workforce is a low 44 to 48 per cent, with women faring worse than men.

This is not to trash what we have achieved. But it is useful to look beyond the efforts made by the successive governments, at the outcomes and ask the question, why are the results always worse than expected?

Elusive transformative change

Tribal protest

Transformative change is disruptive. We have been slow in embedding credible instruments to mitigate the cost of disruption. This increases the risk perception of change, leading to a public push-back on reforms. Consider how poorly we acquire land in public interest. The instruments for identifying, determining and managing the acquisition are loosely supervised, at the cost of ensuing inequity and poor transparency.  Massive amounts of mineral resources continue to lie buried in tribal areas, whilst tribes prefer to eke out a subsistence level traditional life, rather than participate in the process of development. The overriding fear of every property owner, or occupier, is of being gypped in the process of acquisition, by forces beyond their control. In a democracy we cannot ignore insulating people, especially the poor, from the cost of disruption.

Public trust and credibility in short supply

Managing change successfully, requires a governance system good at modern parenting rather than a patriarchal approach to directing and controlling people and events. Our governance systems still follow the colonial legacy of collaborating with entrenched elites to get things done, somehow. Those affected at the bottom become a hindrance rather than participants. There is very limited institutional appetite or capacity to deal directly, as a change agent, with those who are most affected by change. Even when specific processes, like consultation are provided for, the approach degenerates to ticking the box, rather than using the opportunity to gather feedback on the process, test assumptions and obtain buy-in for the way forward.

“Accountable discretion” is not an oxymoron

It does not help that there is a near ubiquitous ban on the transparent use of executive discretion — prompted by misuse of the privilege in the past and a judicial preference for impossibly rigid rules, regardless of their negative impact on implementation.Consider, for example, the burgeoning non-performing loans of banks. The rule bound approach to bank lending insures the lender- manager, if sufficient security against the loan existed, on paper, when the loan is approved. The focus is on achieving secured lending targets rather than adding economic value. This makes gold plating of projects, to increase the notional value of an asset, a mutually convenient tactic between the lender and the borrower, especially at times when the real lending rate is low. Never mind that it can adversely affect the project’s viability and thereby the repayment capacity of the borrower. The public sector no longer trusts its employees. But ending supervised, executive discretion has significant efficiency costs.

Chasing impossible scale 

We succumb easily, to the insidious temptation to effect instant change at sub-continental levels, rather than build change, bottom upwards, block by block. India is heterogenous without parallel. For us, the political model should be Europe, rather than China. Multi party politics in India requires sufficient elbow room for diverse political agendas. The political architecture may prescribe the objectives and principles of public management. But being flexible in program implementation is a must.

The Constitution fixed past challenges, but under-provides for the future

Our constitution reflects the challenges faced at the time of independence rather than today’s priorities. Integration fears at the time led to a centrist constitution. This is what enabled the Union government in 1959 to dismiss the first elected E M S Namboodiripad government of Kerala. The governor of a state, appointed by the President, acting on the advice of the Union government, is another centrist feature as are the emergency powers of the Union government.

Overlapping mandates

The capacity constraints existing at independence shaped the lop-sided division of mandates between the Union and the state governments, with the former unduly burdened. The sub-state or local government came into existence only through a 1993 constitutional amendment.Delhi is a good example of poor inter-governmental allocation of mandate resulting in a governance logjam. Overlapping mandates confuse citizens. and reduce accountability. Consider that Members of Parliament get elected by getting drains made and Members of Legislative Assemblies by promising higher prices for agricultural products or by proposing a separate flag for their state — all areas outside their mandates.

Poor arrangements for resource management

The constitutional scheme for recruitment and management of the bureaucracy is unduly complex and diffuses accountability. Officials must be “owned” by the level of government they serve. Fiscal resources, at every level of the government, must be aligned with form, which should fit the functions executed at that level.

Avoid the Banyan Tree 

banyan tree

The top-down, centrist approach has the disadvantage of an overblown apex crushing the little people below. Remember, nothing grows under the Banyan tree.Change, sensitive to mitigating the costs thereof, flexible implementation of norms driven from below, with primacy for real value addition can deliver 100 per cent results in reforms.

 

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in the Business Standard, March 27, 2018 http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/india-s-half-baked-reforms-why-are-the-results-always-worse-than-expected-118032601102_1.html#

Junk policy for action

parliament

Policies mean very little, unless there is a national consensus behind them, because governments change in a  Formulating a policy is a clunky, time- and effort-intensive, process. It should be attempted only if massive structural change is necessary. India has rarely been in the game of big bang reform. Our forte is incremental change. For this, key actions with outsize results are more significant than policies.

Industral licensing became ideological & lasted well past its expiry date

Also, policies can haunt a country for longer that necessary.The Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956 was one such. It was inspired by the seductive early achievements of the Soviet Union. The Bombay Plan 1944 formulated by leading industrialists, including the redoubtable JRD Tata, implicitly supported massive state intervention and regulation to protect domestic industry from foreign capital and competition. This became the trap, chaining private enterprise in regulations and excluding it from capital intensive “core” sectors.

Never mind that Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata had invested in Asia’s largest integrated steel plant as early as 1907, helped by a buy-back arrangement from the British Indian government, which also laid a railway link to the site. It was India’s first public–private partnership (PPP).

tatasteel

It took us over eight decades, till 1992, to come around to the idea that leveraging public resources with private management and investment was cleverer than autarkic public investment. It took another 25 years for us to come to terms with foreign investment. In the meantime, India missed the bus of industrialisation and manufacturing, even as China marched ahead, from the 1980s, to become the factory of the world.The short point is that making a policy is no panacea for achieving results.

Were the existing low-level of health outcomes unachievable without a policy?

Health is a state government subject under the Constitution in India. But a National was formulated in 1983. Despite three decades of central planning since then, health outcomes vary significantly across states and aggregate achievements are unimpressive.

Gradual privatisation of SOEs is ongoing because there is no policy to stop it

Balco 2

Conversely, structural change is often implemented without articulating a policy.Consider the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The National Democratic Alliance government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee found it impossible to build a consensus around privatisation. A comprehensive privatisation policy was therefore, never attempted. The Industrial Policy Resolution of July 1991 — which sought to weaken the stranglehold of the government over industry — had shrunk the industries reserved for the public sector to atomic power, defence, mineral oil, mining of coal, iron and other metals and the railways. This enabled the sale of minority shares in the other public sector undertakings (PSU). Then finance minister Yashwant Sinha used the 1999-2000 Budget to reduce the reserved sector to “strategic” PSUs in atomic energy, defence and railways only. All others could be privatised.

Gradual disinvestment has been ongoing, primarily with the intention of raising revenue. This year the government anticipates an all-time high of Rs. 1 trillion from disinvestment, being 30 per cent of non-tax receipts, other than debt.Seasoned bureaucrats will advise never write something down, unless you need to.

Electricity remains a “vexed” business despite reform legislation and policy

Merely articulating aspirational objectives in a policy will not achieve results. This has become particularly true in an uncertain world, made even more unstable by technology development. Clunky state action tends to come late and gets clogged into stranded assets.

This is the fate of our Mega Power Policy with 30 GW of power generation stranded because of low demand or disrupted fuel supply. Policies create huge inertia. Consider that as late as 2015-16 the Budget Speech sought to create 4 GW of additional power capacity, even as stranded power assets were building up.

Foreign policy is different 

ASEAN

Some policies are intended to signal political alignment and intent rather than become an entry point for concrete action. falls clearly in this genre. The “Look East” policy of the Manmohan Singh government was followed by the “Act East” policy of the present government — both signaling our interest in South East Asia. But substantively little has changed in the years since, even as China has gone, from being a dominant economic power to a power-hungry bully in the region.

Paris 2016 – the world laid to rest, climate policy & switched to voluntary actionable metrics 

India does not have a comprehensive  We tend to put development before the environment — in exactly the manner other developed countries have grown. This is pragmatic. The 2016 recognises the futility of having a single for the world. Instead, it defines a global target — reversing aggregate carbon emissions to keep global temperature rise within 1.5 degree Celsius of pre-industrial levels. Countries now evolve their own action plan, keeping in view their development needs. Collective action works better than global posturing.

Imagine the impact on Google’s share value if it bound itself to follow a medium term policy

Consider that multinational companies do not formulate business policies in an autarkic manner. They define strategies which, nimbly align with global trends to  eke out the maximum value for themselves. This is a sensible approach. We should get away from announcing sector policies. Instead, we could define incremental and jointed action plans, which result in achieving national objectives.

Google folllows the money. We could follow the Directive Principles in our Constitution

happy girl

National objectives do not need to be defined afresh. A close look at Part IV of our Constitution will suffice. The Directive Principles of State Policy were formulated more than 75 years ago. Our task is to put in place the action points to achieve them, via the annual and medium-term budgets. Politicians love announcing policies and programmes because these can be narrowly targeted at specific beneficiaries for votes. This is the downside of the dharma of  We should junk sector policies as an instrument of development. Intellectuals will disagree. But pragmatism must trump ideals.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in Business Standard, February 26, 2018 http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/junk-sector-as-an-instrument-of-development-118022500673_1.html

BJP’s new script – defending the losers

Modi grim

Thus far, the BJP has played to a core script of development; a more effective State and muscular nationalism, fanned by Hindu revivalism and an assertive foreign policy stance. This has resulted in a “tick all the boxes” type strategy, with the central focus being on winning elections. This strategy has paid rich dividends politically.
But some of the steam appears to be leaking out of this construct.

Admittedly, more Indians still put their faith in the BJP than in any other party – not least because of its charismatic Prime Minister – Narendra Modi. But voters are notoriously fickle. A politician is only as good as the last bag of goodies delivered to supporters. The BJP needs a strategy to generate goodwill in a more sustainable manner.

One option is to systematically address the concerns of those who have fallen through the cracks of the neo-liberal, open economy model we have followed since the 1990s. Of course, in doing so, the BJP will have to distinguish itself from populism and vote buying, which is the hall mark of a failed politician. Here are some options.

Protect children from malnutrition

stunted

First, we have smashed the pre-1980s growth, glass ceiling of 4 per cent per year, also called the “Hindu rate of growth”. Sustained growth reduced poverty to around 20 per cent with an additional 20 per cent teetering on the edge of the abyss of poverty. But it is shocking that 40% of children remain malnourished and not all of them are poor.

Unless a child is adequately nourished in the first eight years, there is a high likelihood of permanent damage to its brain. Clean air (to increase lung capacity), clean water (to avoid diarrhea) and micronutrient rich food can guard against stunting. Unless this is done, we are continually handicapping around 90 million kids or 7 percent of our population, from childhood.

Spending today, on these three inputs – clean air, clean water and nutritious food, is well worth the avoided economic cost of perpetually sustaining a stunted population of around 500 million. Do the math if you are not convinced. Consider also, that looking ahead, the quality of the human brain and not brawn, will determine if a nation succeeds or fails.

Social protection for the elderly- 50+ and poor

old man 2

Second, experts agree that the capacity of the average human brain to learn and innovate decreases sharply with age. Start up India, Make in India, Mudra – loans for MSMEs, all benefit those under 50 years of age, who retain the vitality to do new things. For those above 50, who have been thrown out of jobs or others who have never held a job, there is little on offer, except the back-breaking NREGA.

SKILLS India is also not a solution for them because failure rates in adult education are very high. Around 6 percent of the people above 50 years of age, or 80 million people, are poor. They could never have saved for their old age. Also, poverty is sticky and disadvantages entire families. Even their children must be barely able to keep body and soul together.

Cash benefits for this set of 80 million, at a paltry Rs 1000 per person per month would cost Rs 1 trillion per year. A progressive annual cash allocation, increasing with age, as the likelihood of doing gainful work decreases, would be sensible. This is expensive but an inevitable cost of our past public transgressions.

In addition, they must get free basic medical insurance schemes, allowing them to seek in and out-patient treatment, at any registered clinic for free, just like the middle class and rich do. This way the elderly poor will cease to be a burden on their children. The cash and other benefits for supporting the girl child have worked well. So can, a benefits scheme for the elderly poor.

Respect land ownership rights

Third, liberalization, whilst creating enormous private wealth, also generates inequalities. There are losers who fall through the cracks. Take our historic failure to provide credible commitment that acquisition would “cause no harm” to land holders. The common apprehension is that bank financed, land acquisition, incentivizes excess acquisition for speculation. It also robs the land holder of the ensuing value creation.

This creates resistance and fear. Even the latest version of the Land Acquisition Act is backward looking. It merely seeks to “compensate losers”. It should explicitly provide for “sharing of the ensuing value creation” between the land holder, the project developer and the government, using a Participative, Public, Private Partnership (PPPP) model.

land protest

India is land starved. The ownership of this valuable asset must be respected as an equity contribution to new projects, with pre-defined, time bound returns, insured by the government. Even “public purpose” must bow to the rule of law, which upholds the property rights of land-owners.

Penal sanctions for public delinquency

Lastly, some tough love is necessary to improve our public services. We should legislate – “The Public Services Act” – sanctioning those who fail to use the fiscal resources put at their disposal; we must attach criminal penalties to public actions which result in public harm, due to lack of due diligence whilst budgeting or poor implementation of projects.

death 2

If citizens die in road accidents because an ambulance cannot ferry them, in time, to hospitals; if hospitals negligently harm, not cure patients; if defective public buses, trucks, aircraft, ferries and ships are allowed to ply, resulting in deaths; if shoddy public construction causes death or disability; if an official values her time more than the life of a citizen in urgent need or if a citizen dies because the police is away on VIP duty, the delinquent officials must be held accountable. Only then can the right public service culture and moral fiber be created, so necessary, to deal with the ceaseless challenges in public life. It cannot be a one-way street with only citizens serving the State.

Also available at TOI Blogs, December 31, 2017 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/bjps-new-script-defending-the-losers/

The two conundrums of the Modi government

DOKLAM

The Narendra Modi government poses two conundrums for citizens. First, citizens want an effective government, like PM Modis. But they also value and actively guard their rights. Making a colonial-style government gallop, often means cutting corners and turning a blind eye to the encroachment of citizens’ rights. We are still very far from being China, where even the option to negotiate a tradeoff, between effectiveness and rights, does not exist. For PM Modi reforming the government — a long-delayed, unpleasant, plumbing task — is one way to reduce the starkness of the tradeoff as it exists today.

Harsh on corruption soft on criminality

criminals

Second, there is a yawning gap between the proactivity of government in ending corruption and the business-as-usual approach to ending criminality. For the average citizen, criminality is far more worrying than corruption. A government which does not consistently impose the rule of law uniformly loses credibility over time. The djinns unleashed by allowing hired goons to massacre Sikhs in 1984 or by allowing kar sevaks to bring down the Babri Masjid in December 1992 still haunt us.

Going up the down escalator, is hard work and wasteful

The dead weight of poor governance practices and a predilection for unorthodox solutions, to show quick results, create a drag on its otherwise creditable efforts — just like a person running up the down escalator. Switching escalators can help. But this requires a change in ideology to put growth with jobs and a crackdown on criminality first.

Growth slows

Growth has taken a hit. Fiscal 2018 will end with a probable 6.5 per cent growth and the terminal year of the Narendra Modi government — Fiscal 2019 — with seven per cent. The average growth will then be one percentage point lower than under the previous government — a point Dr Manmohan Singh repeatedly emphasises to show that this government is only about hype.

But growth is not the only metric of governance

But this is being uncharitable to the BJP government. Growth is just one of the metrics of good governance. The open economy model spits out growth but often without jobs and with growing inequality, corruption and criminality. At some point, an efficient and purposeful tradeoff can be made between higher growth and more rounded social and economic outcomes, like social protection and investing in human development. Growth has been affected because drags like the accumulated stressed assets of banks trap them into recycling credit to discredited corporate borrowers to keep the accounts “healthy”, crowding out credit to others, who could build the future. This is slowly being rectified. But the steps towards building a more responsible banking culture, to avoid reoccurrence, are not yet visible.

New beginnings in infrastructure and connectivity

metro2

Poor infrastructure and high transaction costs are another drag on growth. Higher allocations of public finance for infrastructure; doubling the rate of highway development; modernising ports and railways; tripling the number of airports connected with regular flights; promoting the free flow of goods across state borders, are positive steps to reduce the drag on growth. Allowing the overvalued rupee to realign with its real value can boost exports to meet reviving overseas demand and level the playing field for domestic producers versus seemingly cheap imports.

There is little near-term hope for private job creation

Job creation is doing worse than growth, increasing inequality, because jobs in services and manufacturing are being axed at the middle and lower end. Even in agriculture, higher productivity will depend on using machines for tasks currently done by humans, and changing regulations to allow leasing-in land for scaled-up commercial farming — again at the expense of jobs.

Reversing the trend of declining public sector employment could help. We need more specialised skills, directly linked to service delivery — nurses, doctors, teachers, engineers, accountants, tax professionals and lawyers. Better talent can be attracted by linking salary and benefits to specific positions, filled through open competition, rather than through a cadre, as they are today. The Modi government has made some lateral appointments at the highest level. But a comprehensive policy for reforming government appointments is sorely needed.

Despite the rough edges PM Modi enjoys respect and credibility

Modi mask

Quixotically, the levels of public trust and credibility that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has generated, within India and abroad, is unprecedented since the days of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Admittedly, his supporters are overwhelmingly upper and middle-caste Hindus, though a tentative outreach to the lower castes, dalits and tribals has started. The minorities are caught in the “appeasement”and “alienation” paradox. Their “alienation” today is explained as an inevitable consequence of ending the practice of “appeasement” of earlier governments, to retain them as votebanks. The BJP is less ideologically committed to social and religious diversity than it is to forge a uniform national identity — China style. China faces potential social unrest — a drag on growth. We cannot afford another drag on growth.

Democracy incentivizes  political rhetoric

Democracy is about winning elections, forming stable governments, governing efficiently and ensuring justice. The BJP government has shown it can do three of the four very well. Turning up the heat on corruption has become the leitmotif of the BJP government. The costly demonetisation exercise; the rapid rolling out of the GST despite the associated implementation glitches; the strong action against corporate founders defaulting on bank loans or short-changing customers and suppliers; rapid financial inclusion and the promotion of bank and digital financial transactions to replace the use of cash — all these are initial steps towards combating corruption, increasing tax revenues and improving corporate governance.

But are we doing enough to reign in criminality?

More must be done to reduce the drag of widespread criminality. Reforming the election system to root out criminals; working with the Supreme Court to reform the dilatory judicial process and speed up the delivery of justice; enlarging the reach of judicial services; and reforming the police and prosecution systems are critical to reduce the drag imposed by shoddy implementation of the rule of law.

Use 2018 to consolidate past initiatives with just two new beginnings

2017 was a year of significant disruption and of useful beginnings. 2018 should be devoted to consolidation of ongoing initiatives rather than the scheme-a-month, headline-grabbing strategy of the past three years. Two new beginnings would, however, be welcome.

First, steps to compensate for the collateral damage caused to business, employment and incomes by hurried attempts to show results and win elections. Second, defined pathways to reaffirm the wider social compact between the government and all citizens.

inter faith 2

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, December 28, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/281217/protect-rights-of-all-or-itll-be-drag-on-growth.html

Aadhaar – catching crooks & criminals

UIDAI members

The Aadhaar fever started in 2009, when the UPA government was in office. It encountered turbulent times in 2014 when the government changed. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a technology enthusiast, was persuaded to look beyond the past at the opportunity it gave to reduce official discretion and corruption, whilst targeting and delivering public services.

Inspirational achievements: Speed, scale, low cost & sustainable institutions

The results have been impressive on three counts — speed, cost and sustainability. First, the system was scaled up at breathtaking speed. Around 15 citizens were digitally registered every second, over seven years, assuming a 60-hour week.  Registering 1.2 billion residents out of around 1.3 billion, in a country spanning 3.3 million sq km is by itself a “never- before” achievement.

Second, unbelievably, this feat was achieved at a nominal cost of Rs 73, a little more than $1, per person. The norm for biometric identification anywhere else has been at least $10 per person. Clearly, frugal Indian innovation was at its best here.

Third, Nandan Nilekani, the single parent of Aadhaar, moved on in early 2014, serially to politics, social impact ventures and today heads Infosys as its non-executive chairman. Small, effective public institutions — UIDAI had a sanctioned staff of just 115 in 2009 — tend to be helmed by charismatic banyan trees — leaders who allow nothing to grow under their horizontally spread branches. But the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which he first headed, continues to flourish, which speaks volumes of its sustainable management systems and the quality of successor chairpersons.

Why, then, the angst?

So why then the public angst against Aadhaar? Three reasons come to mind — all of them related not to the technical effectiveness of the system itself but the manner in which it is proposed to be used.

Illegal immigrants are rich political fodder

First comes politics. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — between three million to 20 million — along with legal immigrants from Nepal, have acquired voter IDs and ration cards. They are difficult to distinguish from their neighbours. But it has also suited the government politically, till now, to not identify such immigrants. Aadhaar can upset political calculations. Targeting Aadhaar at residents — a more inclusive genre — than citizens was a compromise solution. But the threat remains that this powerful data set will feed into culling voter lists of duplicates or ghosts and weeding out passports wrongly issued to people who were never Indian citizens.

We are all “crooks”

Second is the scale of disruption associated with ending corruption. Consider that 14 per cent of Indians, or 180 million, have a driving licence. But one-third are fake and many more are improperly given to ineligible drivers — a key factor in road fatalities.  290 million Indians have a unique number called PAN, required for filing income-tax. But 80 per cent are not authenticated with the Aadhaar database. This illustrates the poor integrity of the tax database.

Big bang reform catches headlines but induces a push back

Third, managerial ambitions have outrun executive caution in graduating the pushback from those adversely affected. From being a back-office tool, Aadhaar has become a digital shortcut to cull ghosts from the burgeoning food security scheme; weed out manipulations in income-tax submissions; introduce a security check over phone connections or use big data to link bank accounts, phone numbers, vehicles, houses, financial investments with each biometrically identified individual. Aadhaar is the shortcut to dig out our dirty secrets. And no one likes that.

Protection needed against low data integrity at time of issue & poor connectivity for authentication of Aadhar

aadhar center

Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act 2016 specifies that Aadhaar shall not be the sole arbiter of identity for accessing public benefits.  Section 5 makes it obligatory for UIDAI to get those, who lack identity documents — children, women, the specially-abled, senior citizens, workers in the unorganised sector, nomads are mentioned — covered under Aadhaar by other means. The intention is clear. The State must devise methods to include all residents in the database and ensure, till then, that the flow of public benefits to eligible recipients continues uninterrupted. Similarly, the onus for protecting the privacy of the individual is on the State. The government has no option except to align with the law. Indeed, it seems to have already diluted its hard stance on the timeline for the implementation of Aadhaar.

Rolling back or stalling the program a poor option

Two options present themselves for the way forward. First, the government could downsize its ambitions for Aadhaar and allow other modes of identity verification to continue till the availability of Aadhaar becomes universal and, more important, the hardware for authenticating Aadhaar is widely available. This is unlikely, in the short term, till the Bharatnet fibre cables have been laid and are operational in all gram panchayats. Just one-fourth are connected today. But the more real downside here is of a slide into never-ending inertia. This seems alien to the present government’s style.

Prescribe fall-back identity authentications with better oversight over the quality of initial data capture 

AAdhaar alt

The second and better option is to deal with the fears of activists who have petitioned the Supreme Court against linking bank accounts and phones with Aadhaar. With respect to privacy, the fact that the State will be able to trace individuals behind phone conversations or bank accounts seems innocuous. On the contrary, both security and tax revenue considerations point to this being desirable, if not essential.

Better branding: disseminate tax and security advantages of Aadhar widely

The government has advertised the Aadhaar principally as a means to transfer benefits to citizens in a more targeted manner and thereby optimise the public subsidy on such benefits. But this is only part of the story. Aadhaar is a significant tool in increasing tax revenue and bringing criminals to justice. What is in it for those who do not enjoy social security benefits? They must be made aware of how Aadhaar creates a trade off between privacy on the one hand and public finance and security on the other. It must be re-branded as a broad governance tool. It should take a cue from what President Obama said about privacy concerns. No individual right, against the State, is perfect. It must needs bow to the larger public interest.

Theoretically, any information, available with the State, can be misused to violate the privacy of an individual. But surely an income-tax officer using the Aadhaar authentication to check if you have included all your bank accounts in your tax return does not fall in that category. What about a duly authorised police officer who traces the owners of phone numbers talking about crime or a threat to public security? Protocols for tapping phones and accessing details of private bank accounts already exist. The Aadhaar link simply makes it easier and faster to catch crooks and criminals.

recovery ITGovernments rely on their credibility to gain the trust of citizens. Safeguards for individual rights do help. But only for governments that are public-spirited and well-intentioned. Once this is no longer the case, the only recourse is to voice your opinion through your vote, and good luck to you on that.

Adapted form the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, December 13, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/131217/aadhaar-fever-unveiling-secrets-to-secure-india.html

Moody God of bond markets

bond_mesopotamia_

The international bond market, with an outstanding volume of around $22 trillion, is the final arbiter of a country’s destiny. Bonds, unlike loans, can be traded, or “marked to market”. This makes trustworthy credit ratings, like Moodys’, critical to give pricing signals. Since there is a market, even discards are recycled. Discards are called “junk” bonds. Their outstanding volume is $1.3 trillion. They are traded at insanely high returns up to 12 per cent per annum as compared to AAA-rated bonds, where the yield is just four per cent. India had an investment grade rating of Baa3, which Moodys upgraded, on November 17, to Baa2 (stable outlook).

Rating the sovereign

A sovereign credit rating reflects the country risk. It serves as a “glass ceiling”. Bond issuers from any country can never have a credit rating higher than their country’s rating. India has not issued a sovereign bond overseas thus far. But government-owned companies and private entities access the international bond market. This is one reason why the rating upgrade is welcome.

It is a win-win for India. The upgrade increases the incentive to invest in India. The Reserve Bank must be vigilant to sanitize the potential of such inflows to strengthen an already-overvalued rupee, which is hurting export competitiveness. But our stock market is already inflated in the aftermath of demonetization by the surge of domestic savings, seeking refuge from a dull realty market.  This may dampen the inflow of “hot money”.

Sovereign rankings

The upgrade pulls us ahead of Italy (negative outlook) and level with Uruguay, Colombia, Spain, Bulgaria, the Philippines and Oman. We remain behind Panama, which has a positive outlook and can be upgraded to Baa1 to join Thailand, Mauritius and Slovenia. In the next level (A3) are Mexico, Malaysia, Peru, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Iceland. China floats high above at A1 — four rating segments above us.

Unpacking the Moodys rating

The Moody’s rating methodology is complex. First, a country is fitted into one, of three possible levels, for each of the 25 indicators. These are then aggregated into 11 sub-factors using assigned weights. The sub-factors in turn are aggregated into four factors using assigned weights. There is a mechanism to “fine-tune” the final rating using qualitative assessments – this is where confidence-building measures help.

Massaging the numbers

The highest weight — 50 per cent — is for the risk probability of default on interest payment or redemption of the bond. Risk is assumed to increase with higher levels of income inequality and lower scores on the World-Wide Voice and Accountability index (both reflective of political stability); higher reliance on external debt; higher borrowing need relative to revenue; weak banks; imbalance between foreign exchange receipts and expenditures and higher reliance on foreign investment.

Fiscal strength gets a weight of 25 per cent, related to lower nominal and trend line of debt to GDP levels and lower interest payments relative to revenue and to GDP.

Institutional strength has a of weight 12.5 per cent. Countries scoring higher in the World-Wide Government Effectiveness index; the Rule of Law index and the Control of Corruption index get higher marks.

Economic strength has a weight of 12.5 per cent. Higher real growth with lower volatility of GDP; higher nominal and per person national income and a better score on the World Competitiveness Index all ensure higher scores.

Labouring through this long explanation of the methodology becomes rewarding because it points us to a prioritised pathway for improving our credit rating.

Push the right buttons

First, remember that in today’s networked world, not only is it important to do the right thing generally but one must also push the right buttons. Our credit rating depends on our score in the five independent indices, mentioned above, relating to – voice and accountability, rule of law, government effectiveness, control of corruption and competitiveness. The Niti Aayog has demonstrated how our score and rank can be improved in the Doing Business Survey. Similar effort, in these five indices, can directly improve our overall credit rating.

Fastrack four priorities

Second, consider that four initiatives — (1) reducing inequality via direct transfers and NREGA to supplement low incomes; (2) funding investments through tax revenue and domestic private savings via financial inclusion and market development; (3) strengthening the resilience of our banks by shrinking the size and functions of weak banks and recapitalising the strong banks; and (4) increasing export earnings by removing the import bias for a “strong” rupee, can together improve one half of the overall score. These four areas should have a very high priority.

Go easy on piling up debt

Third, stabilising the aggregate public debt to GDP ratio is necessary. This contributes to one-fourth of the aggregate credit score. Moody’s recognises that this ratio shall increase from 68 per cent in 2016-17 to 69 per cent in 2017-18.

headload

It may even be higher, if real GDP growth this year is less than 6.7 per cent. State government debt has increased by Rs 2.7 trillion (1.5 per cent of GDP) due to financial engineering in acquiring 75 per cent of the stressed assets of electricity utilities through UDAY (electricity restructuring) bonds. An additional source of stress is the proposed recapitalisation bonds, particularly if financed from public funds. Financing the capital needs of strong banks through private equity would be far better, even if government equity must be diluted to 26 per cent. At the very least, the market would force adequate internal restructuring. Sharply reducing the revenue expenditure by 10 per cent can bridge the “effective revenue deficit” (0.7 per cent of GDP) and release fiscal space for virtuous allocations. Revenue expenditure — other than interest and capital grants —is budgeted at Rs 11.2 trillion this year.

Diligent nudging will show results

The Moodys’ rating methodology has evolved beyond the pure commercial intent of repaying lenders on time, to assess systemic sustainability and happy citizens.

The ball is now in the government’s court to navigate the tightrope between short-term welfare priorities and medium-term fiscal stability and growth. Political sagacity, restraint and technical wizardry in choosing the right boxes to tick will determine if the finance minister can widen our smile.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age November 21, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/211117/after-the-upgrade-can-fm-widen-our-smile.html

“Demonetisation” as a morality play

The politics around “demonetisation” — a misused term for what happened on November 8, 2016 — has taken centerstage in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh (that voted yesterday) and Gujarat (which goes to the polls in December). Finance minister Arun Jaitley has added “morality” to the cluster of objectives, that seemingly justified compulsorily replacing 86 per cent of our currency with new notes over a short period of just two months last year.

Whose morality?

Morality is a slippery slope to tread in public affairs. It’s certainly an individual virtue, but at a societal level it’s difficult to define. Consider the moral conundrums that arise while enforcing a law which doesn’t have widespread local acceptance. Rebels with a cause see themselves as morally-elevated outliers. Not so long ago, our freedom fighters were feted for disrupting the peace, assassination or damaging public property. Even today in areas like Kashmir or the Maoist belt in central India, it’s tough to apportion the balance of morality between those who violate the law and others who seek to enforce it.

Our Constitution, quite properly, is silent about “morality”. A quasi-moral concept of “socialism” was introduced in 1976 into the preamble, by former PM Indira Gandhi, as a populist measure. But it sits incongruously with the otherwise liberal slant of the document.

Corruption is patently immoral as it saps national wealth. Measures to fight corruption are part of public dharma. The real issue is: was demonetisation essential to end corruption?

Demonetisation to identify counterfeit money like using a hammer to kill a bug

If the objective was to weed out counterfeit money, which can fund terrorism or even legal transactions, there was no need to impose a tight timeframe of two months. This is what caused widespread panic and disruption. It would have been enough to alert the public to the menace; provide markets (banks already have them) with testing devices to weed out “compromised” notes over time. This is an ongoing activity, that all central banks do routinely, because any note (besides crypto currencies) can be counterfeited.

Better policing can identify & capture the stocks of black cash

If the objective was to capture the stocks of “black” money, held as cash, in one fell swoop, this was better done by making known “havens” of “black” cash — apparently entire warehouses — unsafe for storage through effective enforcement, coupled with strong incentives to come clean. Note that “black” money hasn’t gone away.

Black money was generated even as the notes were being replaced

Demonetisation can do very little to stop generation of black money. The government knows this. It intends to use “big data” for surveillance of potential evaders; embed governance systems with enhanced oversight and enhance transparency. Only improved technology and perpetual, intensive oversight can starve this hydra.

Was it political?

Not least the timing of the move, just before the elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which sends the largest number of members to the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP didn’t have a majority, could indicate the compulsion to play to the gallery. If this was the motive it worked very well politically — not least, because UP is a poor state with low governance indicators and high levels of inequality. Hitting the rich is a tested populist strategy, perfected by former PM Indira Gandhi, and still held dear by our antiquated Communist parties.

Would Gandhiji have approved?

But demonetisation doesn’t align with Mahatma Gandhi’s precept that “means matter as much as ends”. Hitting tangentially at corruption, at the cost of scorching even the law-abiding, is unacceptable. Anti-corruption measures which ignore the social and economic collateral cost of implementation are suspect. The State has an asymmetric, fiduciary relationship of trust with citizens. Did it live up to its dharma of insulating the honest from State-induced actions intended to harm the corrupt?

Some positives – nudged people towards digital and banked transactions

Undoubtedly, demonetisation did accelerate a shift towards banked transactions and boosted digital payments. Both outcomes are winners. But it’s also true that it put a temporary brake on economic growth by disrupting business and inducing job losses, mostly in the informal sector, where workers and the self-employed are less well paid, and less well-endowed to absorb the cost of a disruption.

Means matter as much as ends

Seemingly desirable steps to make the system honest can have grossly inequitable outcomes, which Gandhiji would have termed “immoral”. It’s possible to reduce corruption by replacing income-tax with a “head tax”. Citizens are more easily identifiable than their income, so very few would be able to escape this tax. If a “head tax” were to replace income-tax, each citizen would pay Rs 3,600 per year. But consider, for 40 per cent of the population, which is vulnerable to poverty, the head tax would be a minimum 12 per cent of even the poverty level income of $1.90 per day. Currently, even an income of Rs 10 lakhs (Rs 1 million), or 22 times the poverty level income, attracts a low effective tax rate. Protecting the weak is cumbersome. It creates tax escape routes, which need to be plugged with minimum collateral damage to the weak and the honest.

GST the first efficient, corruption buster

The good news is that the Narendra Modi government has got it bang-on with its second major corruption-busting initiative: the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Implemented from July 1, 2017, it has also disrupted business and compounded job losses, arising from the shutting down of businesses, which relied on the illegal competitive advantage of avoiding tax. GST is a potent standalone, medium-term winner. This expectation mitigates the interim economic “amorality” arising from the collateral harm to innocent workers and suppliers to such businesses. The proactivity of the GST Council in correcting mistakes and acknowledging errors has only deepened its credibility and conveyed a sense of responsible stewardship. This is welcome.

Compensate for the distress & dislocation

cashless

Demonetisation was misguided even if it had “moral” end-objectives. One-fifth of our population, which suffered the most, is in the income segment of Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakhs (0.5 million) per year, being workers and those self-employed in the informal sector. They have still not been compensated. Hopefully, the finance minister will apply some balm in his 2018-19 Budget and bring this tragic “morality play” to a happy end.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, November 10, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/101117/end-morality-play-its-a-misfit-in-eco-policy.html#vuukle-emotevuukle_div

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