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Book Review: For Reasons of State

For reasons of state

India is a young nation. Three fourths of us probably have no recollection of the ravages of the Emergency period from January 1975 to March 1977.

This book was first published in 1977, just after the national elections, called by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – in a bout of self-delusion as a referendum on the Emergency, swept out the Congress – they lost all seven parliamentary seats in Delhi – and brought in the lightly glued together Janata Party.

The authors, both veteran journalists, describe their work as an “investigation into the workings of (the) monstrous administrative machine during the Emergency and the devastation it left behind”.  It is a perfect informational tool – not just a blend of statistics and a chronological listing of events. The authors say they chose “to be accurate rather than sensational”. But the level of granularity they uncover in their investigations and the lively characterisations they add, make people and events come alive, giving the narrative a gut wrenching, virtual face-time feel.

Cashing in on current trends

Why re-publish the book now?  It is the fortieth anniversary of the Emergency. But that seems less than sufficient reason, even though the new version has a foreword by the celebrated “Indian” journalist, Mark Tully. The authors perceive a salience – the potential for constitutional subversion under today’s majority government, just as it happened during the Emergency.

The muscular track record of the Modi government and its commitment to implement deep political change evokes a visceral fear, amongst those, who apprehend that a major constitutional change can negatively impact minorities and the marginalised. The liberal order is being challenged universally, which heightens the fear that India is no exception.

Is India under a virtual emergency today?

Mark Tully points out that drawing a parallel between the Emergency and the situation today is illusionary. This assessment resonates well. Citizens voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in 2014. But the Congress has also been re-elected with a majority in the past. But each time, events conspired to temper authoritarianism. Today the BJP remains in a minority in the Rajya Sabha.  A vociferous, albeit small, opposition is active in Parliament. Democratic safeguards have actually worked. Consider Uttrakhand, where the judiciary quashed an attempt to impose Presidents rule in 2016. In Bihar 2015 and in Karnataka 2018 non-BJP governments were elected, illustrating that electoral rights remain intact.

Tully also opines that unlike the Emergency, today there is an absence of widespread anger. However, fear of a vigilante backlash or the termination of government largesse via advertisements or project funds, has muted criticism of government by non-government organisations and driven some of the mainstream media to self-censorship.

The authors believe that there are strong personal and institutional characteristics shared by the Indira Gandhi and the Narendra Modi governments. A massive mandate to rule is one such. This inevitably emboldens leaders to take strong, decisive action. There is also a desire to move quickly for results. Shackled by lumbering institutions, charismatic leaders seek to short circuit public processes. In doing so, they bring in trusted advisers, not accountable to the public – Sanjay Gandhi in the case of Indira Gandhi and the RSS in the case of the Modi government. Curiously, however, both these widely disparate centres of extra-constitutional power seem to target Muslims and Dalits.

Wannabe Lutyens denizens, charlatans and craven officials abandoned public interest 

The most interesting aspect of the book is that readers are invited to be flies on the wall, whilst dodgy decisions are taken by the high and mighty of the Emergency days. The authors do not shy away from naming specific politicians, officials and wannabes like “Begum” Ruksana Sultana, who were all actively complicit in subverting the rights of citizen in Delhi.

Ruksana Sultana

Nasbandi (forced sterilisation) and resettlement of slums were the key disrupters of social contracts and civic responsibilities during the Emergency. Slums were levelled overnight. 7 lakh hapless residents were transported to 27 resettlement colonies on the outskirts of Delhi with little more than 25 square yard demarcated plots and patchy one room houses. But under-provisioned sanitation facilities and drinking water, no markets, no access to health care or schools made these peri-urban deserts, seem designed to make the poor disappear and leave Delhi looking green and beautiful. They bred disease, death, and anger. In the 1984 organised hate crimes against Sikhs, it is these resettlement colonies like Trilokpuri and Mangolpuri, where the worst atrocities were committed.

Two perceptive chapters dwell on the travails of the Delhi police and the reasons behind its ready capitulation to manipulation by politicians during the Emergency. Imaginary threats were materialised and minor criminals magnified into severe security threats. Tragically there have been too many “Dacoit” Sunders (a Delhi badmaash who was built up into gun toting dangerous gangster, later captured by the police) who, like “Sant” Bhindranwale, in Punjab, were manipulated into larger than life figures only to meet their untimely end in a burst of righteous police action.

If a grim account of abandoned constitutional responsibilities, grossly violated official procedures and craven official machinations for personal glory can serve to entertain – this is it. Whether it puts readers off voting for the BJP or impels them to do exactly that, remains to be seen.

Adapted from the authors book review in Business Standard, July 31, 2018 https://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/intimations-from-the-emergency-118073100018_1.html

What Karnataka foretells

File picture shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi drinking green tea during a tea ceremony in Tokyo.

The tea leaves, following the Karnataka elections, are as muddied as they were before it — a hung House, a history of unstable coalitions and in your face examples of money power and shabby politics all around.

Modi government a bell-weather for fiscal management

The BJP not getting a majority has spooked the financial markets. Frankly, it matters little which party or parties have a majority as long as it or they live through the five-year term, thereby allowing the outstanding administrators which Karnataka has to go about their jobs and for business to plan ahead. The Narendra Modi government is a bellwether for markets simply because it has demonstrated vastly superior capacity to get the rusty levers of government working.

Only Janata (S) gains from the mess

The only real gainer in Karnataka is a regional party — the Janata Dal (Secular) under the leadership of H.D. Deve Gowda, a former Prime Minister of India (June 1996 to April 1997) and his son H.D. Kumaraswamy. The latter was chief minister of Karnataka (February 2006 to October 2007), courtesy a power-sharing agreement with the BJP after the JD(S) walked out of a similar arrangement with the Congress in 2004. The record does not inspire confidence in its commitment to political stability.

Germany lived for six months without an elected government, why not Karnataka?

Having said that, Karnataka is not a backward state where political stability is critical for survival. Germany took nearly half a year to form a coalition government after inconclusive elections in September 2017 without any adverse economic consequences. Karnataka, like Germany, has a high capacity to absorb the absence of elected government. It is above the median, amongst Indian states, in its socio-economic indicators. It is one of the four major national hubs for the tech. industry. Services account for 60 per cent of the state’s domestic product. Per capita income is 20 per cent higher than the national average.

Yogendra Yadav, a veteran political analyst, has rightly said that the hung Assembly in Karnataka is a routine affair. It acquires significance only because of what it might foretell about political economy responses at the national level. Shorn of all jargon, the question is — will the BJP continue its reformist economic agenda or will it be abandoned for more populist measures, in the run-up to the spate of Assembly elections and the national election in 2019?

BJP’s desperation for power a self goal

Mr B.S. Yeddyurappa, the state BJP leader, on being invited by the governor, Mr Vajubhai Vala, to take charge as chief minister, quickly declared that farm loans, possibly amounting to `250 billion, are waived, even before he could prove his majority. This could be a panic attack, foretelling that the BJP may not find the numbers to cobble up a majority. If it does not, the unseemly political manoeuvring to gain power will be a self-goal.

Will Modi’s reforms take root?

The two biggest reforms that have been initiated by the Narendra Modi government are incentivising formalisation of the economy via the Goods and Services Tax and using the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Act to end the long festering, toxic ecosystem of Indian banks, which spawns stressed assets. Both actions increase tax revenues, reduce the pressure on public financial resources and control black money. These are signature reforms with significant economic gains. Imposing penalties on businessmen, who misuse or default on bank loans, has enormous popular support. Neither is likely to be abandoned by the Modi government.

The next two important achievements have been taming inflation whilst playing a careful sherpa to economic growth. Low international oil prices helped finance minister Arun Jaitley to liberalise the petroleum retail price regime whilst simultaneously raising additional revenues to reduce the fiscal deficit from 4.4 per cent of GDP in 2013-14 — the final year of the UPA — down to 3.5 per cent by 2016-17, where it has remained in 2017-18. Further reductions are tough. Inflation is likely to edge up to five per cent this fiscal driven by the oil price increase, whilst the fiscal deficit shall increase to four per cent of GDP.

Piyush Goyal a hard taskmaster – will not let tax revenue slip

Image result for free photos Piyush Goyal

It is unlikely that the new, interim finance minister, Piyush Goyal, will countenance any further deviation from the path of fiscal consolidation, lest it erode India’s credit rating. He is likely to keep inflation in check by adjusting Central taxes on petroleum to avoid the full impact of the oil price spike passing through into retail prices. But this revenue sacrifice will need correspondingly higher collections of income-tax and GST — a task that the present finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia is adept at. Monetising existing infrastructure assets, to get additional fiscal resources this year, will be an extension of what Mr Goyal was already doing as railway minister.

The blessings of a cheaper Rupee

It is not all doom and gloom. The rupee exchange rate has adjusted to more realistic levels as foreign investors reallocate their “hot” money to higher return jurisdictions. This is a blessing. Letting go of the fetish of a strong rupee can boost exports; contain imports; make domestic production more competitive and induce additional flows of long-term foreign direct investment into projects. Higher international oil prices also mean more net inward remittances from our citizens working in the Gulf countries, which will balance the external account.

Focus on budget announcements for liberalising agriculture

Quickly implementing the progressive announcements of Budget 2018-19 for agro-processing, liberalisation of domestic agricultural markets and agricultural exports — which has not been in the news since — can illustrate that the government walks the talk on a sustainable doubling of farmer incomes.

Pursue enhanced health care capacity 

Investing more in primary health via well-equipped “wellness centres” and insuring the poor against the ruinous costs of hospitalisation, via Ayushman Bharat, are powerful, scaled-up initiatives, which should be foregrounded.

Actions speak louder than words

If the BJP has a long-term economic vision for India, it needs to shun acting in a purely transactional manner in the near term, with an eye to squishing out all political opposition. It has taken the lead at the national level in ensuring probity. Doing the same in the states can show that the BJP rubber is meeting the road.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, May 19, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/190518/what-ktaka-foretells-not-all-gloom-doom.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/

 

 

Lives dedicated to change India

RTI story

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

school for democracy

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

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

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

MKSS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aruna and the team

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

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

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

What the cash crunch foretells

Parliament's winter session

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

Commercial banks bear the brunt of fuzzy policy objectives

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

RBI waffles with poor communication

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

Cash remains king

cash is king

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ECI

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

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

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

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

Public credibility of commercial banks at its nadir

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

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

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

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

Saintliness versus efficiency

BJP winner

The BJP can put India on auto-pilot over the next eighteen months and probably still win the next general election, principally because, things are going well and the combined opposition has still to acquire the characteristics – leadership, resolve and broad agreements – of credibility. This high probability of winning in 2019 should push the BJP to evolve strategies, rather than tactics, particularly for the economy.

The key decision – morality or results

The key decision is to choose between prioritising morality or efficiency. The former entails more public delivery, the latter more private enterprise. Going down the moral route, say “zero tolerance” for corruption, has severe consequences – continued economic dislocation over the next two years; losing out on economic growth and inhibiting the availability of jobs. In a largely informal, cash based economy, like India, putting anti-corruption first, requires the private sector to reorganise, become more efficient and profitable, other than, by just avoiding tax. Whilst this adjustment plays out, the state – despite it being more inefficient than private enterprise – would need to step in with an enhanced role. The moral choice puts us on the long route to efficiency, which could last, well into the second term of the government starting 2019.

Corruption has its uses

The “amoral” choice is to junk the fundamentalist approach to anti-corruption, fix one’s eyes on the objective of high growth and navigate the waters by feeling the stones underfoot, to avoid deep pools, where corruption and inefficiency, overlap the most. Some examples of such action are – sticking to a reasonable “real” interest rate rather than go for an artificially “low” interest rate. The latter may enhance investment. But it comes at the cost of possible future stressed assets via “gold plated” bank-financed projects. Similarly, choosing Direct Benefit Transfers rather than the physical provision of subsidised public goods of indifferent quality is another example, which reduces corruption and enhances efficiency. But, in many other cases, the choice is not so obvious.

Corruption can be functionally efficient. Consider the case of information asymmetries – shorn of jargon, this simply means that it is not easy to know how or why government acts in a certain manner – whilst awarding contracts; appointing employees or allowing its assets – like land, to be misused.

Democratising access to information

If I bribe an official to understand the politics around a pending economic decision, corruption ends up “democratising information”, which is what a perfectly “transparent” system would achieve in Norway or Sweden. Consider, that prisoners in Indian jails bribe guards, merely to get minimum sanitary and nutrition conditions. Turning a blind eye to such “corruption” is “amorally pragmatic” till prisons become more acceptably habitable. After all, prison is meant to reform not penalise prisoners through health hazards. Petty corruption is the common persons way of dealing with administrative inefficiency.

Morality tends to exclude private enterprise

So, why does morality and a “big” state go together? Consider a government, which is stuck with a poorly motivated; inadequately qualified and shoddily managed workforce. Suppose it chooses to bypass public inefficiency by outsourcing public service delivery to the private sector. How will they oversee the private provider? Poor drafting of agreements and enforcement of contractual obligations generates corruption or delays execution. This is what took the fizz out of the juggernaut of Public Private Partnerships. Why for instance, did Mr. Piyush Goyal, the minister of railways decide to call in the Army to repair the collapsed pedestrian over-bridge at Elphinstone Station, Mumbai? Could it be that, contracting private parties, on an emergency basis, inevitably has lags and creates opportunities for corruption? We saw a lot of this in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, New Delhi in 2010.

Preferring to work in-house is the obvious safe, default option for an executive which is capable and willing to work 24X7. The downside is that extensive use of state enterprises crowds out the private sector, which is hard put to better the riskless cost of finance available to the public sector. If publicly managed service delivery is sustainable, there is no harm in that. But not every public leader is an efficient “saint” and public systems, set-up by them, revert quickly to the mean, once the leadership changes.

How many Saints do we have?

Saintliness, humility and frugality make great copy and attract votes. The problem lies in scaling up a system based on virtue and otherworldliness. It is not for nothing that the competitive spirit -so important for sustainable efficiency- springs from the basic “killer” instinct to be numero uno. Saintliness is also rigid in adapting to the world. Effectiveness – getting results on the ground,  requires flexibility in implementation.

“Jhooming” can’t generate shared growth

closed market

A tax system with high nominal tax rates, which is efficiently oppressive can reduce supply because producers and service providers will shut shop, rather than risk getting their personal assets forclosed. This is worse than a tax system, which is not completely evasion proof but encourages growth in value addition. Black money, in progressively, smaller doses over time is better than a clean but scorched economy. Unlike in nature, “jhooming” may not generate shared growth.

Also available at TOI Blogs November 15, 2017 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/saintliness-versus-efficiency/

“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

Indian Railways: Slow and unsafe

suresh prabhu

It seems to be raining rail accidents these days, with two in swift succession. The hapless Suresh Prabhu is a good general but an unlucky one. He made sweeping changes in Indian railways (IR) since November 2014 when he became Minister. Most dramatic was his willingness to diminish his “empire” by merging the rail budget with the national budget. Similarly, far reaching was his delegation of financial powers for purchase and contracts away from the moribund Railway Board to the General Managers of the sixteen different railway systems which manage operations. Good management practise, yes. But more importantly it severed the ministerial potential for graft. Not many ministers have done similarly elsewhere.

Suresh Prabhu – a good but unlucky minister

Mr Prabhu has offered to resign owning up moral responsibility. Prime Minister Modi may have to let him go, reluctantly. Such is the dharma of politics. Having another accident on his watch would be unacceptable! Of course accidents are unlikely to stop merely by replacing the minister. Data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau records that in 2014 IR suffered 28,360 accidents or 78 accidents per day. So the chances of an accident happening, anytime, are high.

IR is low on transparency 

IR would have us believe otherwise. In a document titled “Transforming Railways, Transforming India” issued in 2016, reviewing achievements since 2014, the number of accidents over the period 2009-2014 is mentioned as an average of 135 per year which resulted in 693 deaths. The National Crime Record Bureau data puts the number of deaths from railway accidents in 2014 as 25,006, with an additional 3,882 people injured. The discrepancy between the IR and the NCRB database is due to creative use of data by IR, which reports only “consequential” accidents involving derailments or collisions. The NCRB data is comprehensive and based on the First Information Report filed with the police for all accidents connected with rail travel.

IR not to blame for 62 percent of accidents

To be sure, not all the 25,006 railway accidents in 2014 were due to the fault of IR. 62 percent of these accidents occurred due to “people” error – travellers walking negligently on railway tracks and getting run over or falling from over full trains. But even around 11,000 accidents  year is worrisome.

Rail still safer than road transport

To be fair to IR, their safety record should be compared with the other option available to travelers – road travel. The safety record of road travel is even worse. NCRB data for 2014 records 450,900 road accidents in that year with 141,526 deaths and 477,700 injured. The combined length of the National and State Highways, which carry the bulk of the traffic, is around 220,000 km or twice the length of rail track. The number of accidents however is 16 times more; the number of deaths is 6 times more and the number of injuries is 123 times more. Whilst the safety of road travel is a poor metric to use, it does provide a perspective of the objective conditions, in which IR operates.

Other than the likely moving out of Suresh Prabhu and the resignation of the the Chairman of the Railway Board, the other – more worrisome fall out – is going to be a typical short-term, defensive response of putting safety above all else. No private utility could have survived without doing as much, routinely. Consider,how tangled the Nuclear Power negotiations became when government legislated to put the onus of criminal and civil liability for accidents on the private sector suppliers of nuclear power equipment. But government service providers have more leeway in avoiding criminal action against them for safety lapses.

Safety or speed – a false binary

But the fact is that choosing between fast, modern trains and safe travel is a false binary. The populist, Luddite approach of slowing down the speed of trains, to avoid mishaps, is like asking car owners to go back to Ambassadors to reduce the risk of accidents by traveling slower. Technology allows you to travel both faster and safer. Air travel is for example both faster and safer than road travel. The Hyper Loop, when it arrives, is expected to boost both safety and speed at lower cost. The Indian Railways compete with other means of transport like road and air. It must provide the expected level of speed, convenience, comfort and safety which comparable transport options already embed. It has failed to do that, thereby losing marketshare to road transport over the last two decades.

Just as high-speed highways and the growing network of air routes has changed the way Indians travel, the Railways must also offer a bouquet of services to suit the differentiated needs of specific routes and category of customers. High-speed, premium railway transport on high-density routes radiating out from the hubs of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai can transform travel by rail. Similarly, the rapid expansion of metro lines is a smart option to reduce the urban carbon footprint and road congestion.

Both speed and safety are a function of reliable track infrastructure adequately insulated for unregulated traffic ingress and suitable rolling stock. The planned high speed, dedicated, rail traffic corridors intend to achieve precisely these objectives – much like expressways do in highways.

Sans investment, neither safety nor speed is possible

None of this — speed, safety or security — is possible, unless we step up investment in Indian Railways. We cannot manage the 108,000 km of track and 11,000 trains which run daily, by jugaad, penny pinching, dodgy maintenance schedules and techniques, antiquated rolling stock, poorly trained and equipped personnel and management systems, which have not changed since the first train ran in 1853.

Corporatize IR for efficiency enhancement

Indian Railways must be corporatized so that it can shine like other public-sector companies like National Thermal Power Corporation, Indian Oil Corporation and Steel Authority of India. This is impossible as a government department because the administrative and financial rules are unsuited to the dynamics of running a business.

rail repair

Shun politics – Let IR become commercially viable

Railway tariff cannot be subject to politics. The same passenger who has no problem paying Re 1 per km for bus travel between cities pays just 28 paise per km of second class, rail travel and 45 paise per km in reserved sleeper class. Suburban rail travellers pay just 18 paise per km. This is an unsustainable and unnecessary subsidy, undeservedly enjoyed, mostly by the middle class. Rail tariff for non-AC travel must be increased to remunerative levels, thereby generating funds for improving the quality of services.

The spate of accidents has focused public attention on the need to restructure IR. What needs to be done is well known – using technology across the service delivery chain – track development and maintenance; signaling; rolling stock; communication; disaster relief and management systems. But none of this will happen unless Indian Railways is set free from the bureaucratic constraints which bind down its management cadres today. We can save lives, reduce the fiscal burden, improve rail services and make the economy more efficient by corporatizing IR.  Time to walk the talk on good economics also being good politics.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 24, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/240817/making-trains-safer-and-faster.html

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