governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Oil shock: Entry point for reform

POTUS Saudi

The latest oil shock — an increase from $69 (average Indian import price) to $80 per barrel (Brent) this week — is courtesy the American President, Donald Trump, who unilaterally pulled the United States out of the 2015 deal between Iran and the UN’s Permanent Five (US, UK, Russia, France, China) plus Germany. This spooked the global financial markets, which justifiably fear renewed trade sanctions on Iran. Pulling out Iran’s 5 per cent contribution to world oil production has consequences. The nuclear deal which had earlier ended sanctions boosted world supply reducing oil price for India from $84.2 in 2014-15 to $46.2 in 2015-16. New sanctions may reverse the trend.

Who has POTUS benefited?

The gainers are the oil producers. The US President has imposed the supply constraint that Opec finds difficult. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni bête noir, is in clover. The 42 per cent increase in prices over last year, relieves fiscal stress; is wonderful for the long-awaited listing of Aramaco, its national oil company, and avoids the unpleasantness of having to tax its citizens or reducing their benefits.  Other countries in the Gulf, Venezuela and Russia will also benefit. America’s shale oil producers, for instance, are busily removing the covers on their drills.

Who suffers the collateral economic damage?

The big losers are China and India. For India, higher prices mean a bigger trade deficit and more stress on our foreign exchange reserves. Another outcome is rupee depreciation. Foreign hot money is pulling out to “safe haven” destinations also in expectation of an increase in US interest rates. The hot money bleed made the rupee slide by around six per cent to more than Rs 68 against the US dollar from around Rs 64 earlier. But it is still overvalued and needs to go down to Rs 70.

The risks for India

The oil shock poses two risks for India. First, the fear that it will increase the current account deficit (CAD) — the difference between international receipts and payments, from trade and income flows — beyond the acceptable level of two per cent of GDP.

Second, it poses a conundrum of navigating conflicting objectives — preserve the market-based retail oil price mechanism whilst graduating the price shock for consumers and containing inflation.

Moody had revised India’s credit rating upwards last year. Standard and Poor had not. Enhanced imbalance on the external account and missing the fiscal deficit target for 2018-19 will invite a review of India’s sovereign risk.

How serious is the risk for the CAD – red flagged at max. 2% of GDP 

At $80 a barrel, our additional spend on oil imports could be around $9 billion this fiscal, net of the increased earnings from oil product exports. But the threat to keeping the CAD below the target of two per cent of GDP is over-hyped.

The oil shock has a silver lining. With more robust fiscal balances in the Gulf, investment and jobs will increase for Indian workers, who generously remit all their earnings. Inward remittances, higher than $69 billion last year, will dilute the impact on CAD. More petro-dollars to spend, can boost our exports to the Gulf.

Second, the accompanying six per cent depreciation of the Indian rupee will make our price-sensitive exports much more competitive. Last year exports grew by 12.1 per cent to $300 billion. A three per cent growth in exports this year would generate the additional spend needed on oil imports of $9 billion.

Third, a weaker rupee discourages imports generally. Last year total imports increased by 21 per cent. Making domestic producers more competitive is in India’s interest. The risk of breaching the CAD cap is minimal.

imports

The risk of balooning the fiscal deficit

Transport minister Nitin Gadkari had recently opined that subsidizing oil consumers is not aligned with a market economy. Not quite right,sir. It is in a market economy that the question of subsidy arises – of course subsidy must be tightly targeted, which ours is not.

In an old, Soviet-style economy, there are no subsidies because the government sets the retail price for the production units which it also owns. In our context, this is analogous to directing ONGC to absorb the cost. This is best avoided.

Preserve oil PSU commercial autonomy

Last year, ONGC assisted in achieving the disinvestment target by buying the government’s shareholding in HPCL. Whilst even such nudging to support the government is undesirable. But far worse is to dilute ONGC board’s commercial autonomy for pricing products. More importantly administered pricing distorts markets and discouraged private sector investments and operations – both highly desirable in oil.

Three better options exist : They need professional effort and political capital 

Slash frivolous budget allocations for current year

swaach

Three options present themselves. First, intrusive Budget scrutiny can do the trick. A fiscal “surgical strike” slashing frivolous expenditure, which has crept in, can generate the Rs 0.6 trillion to sanitise consumers from a price increase. This is just six per cent of the Rs 10 trillion, which the Central government spends on schemes without including wages, pensions, interest or capital expenditure.

Pass through the price increase to customers @ 50 paise per litre per month  

Second, it is not desirable to entirely sanitise customers from the oil shock. This will kill the liberalised “marked to market” regime for retail prices of oil products, introduced last year.

It is also environmentally irresponsible not to have a price signal to induce lower consumption of petroleum products and incentivise users to switch to more efficient end-use equipment — cars, motorcycles, water pump and generators. Mr Gadkari is right. A portion of the oil shock should be passed through.

pollution

Invoke the GST style federalized decision mechanism for states to cut VAT equal to the windfall gains for price increase.

But state governments must be cajoled to give up the windfall gain accruing to them because VAT (their tax) is an ad valorem rate and not a specific rate as is Central excise or Customs. TERI, a New Delhi think-tank is modeling a revenue neutral taUse x realignment which would be useful. Government would do well to consult widely rather than go about taking decisions in secret as it tends to do.

Fiscal deficit 2018-19 target of 3.3% of GDP is unreal – last year we were 3.5%

Piyush Goyal

Lastly, Budget 2018-19 projects a fiscal deficit of 3.3 per cent of GDP versus 3.5 per cent in 2017-18. The target is not credible. Capitalisation of stressed public sector banks; agriculture minimum support price revisions; and the new flagship “Ayushman Bharat” medical insurance scheme will surely push the deficit beyond the target. The N.K. Singh committee report on Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management “blessed” variations in fiscal deficit capped at 4 per cent of GDP. Following this lead can provide an additional Rs 1.3 trillion to the Finance Minister, Piyush Goyal, part of this could be used for absorbing oil price increase. But stoking inflation is a real risk here.

Oil at $100+ soon?

A further increase to the 2011-2014 level of $100+ a barrel is unlikely. Oil producers, like Venezuela, need to cash into the high price. Sanctions on Iran, now seem likely since the POTUS-Kim Jong – peace talks have collapsed and POTUS needs to look muscular.

POTUS

But even if imposed, sanctions will not bite till six months after they are imposed. If oil spikes nevertheless, a temporary adjustment loan, from the IMF, can dilute this external shock, which can otherwise jeopardise our plans for mitigating carbon emissions to meet targets to 2020.

The continued supply of Iranian oil, but denominated in rupees, like the Russian trade earlier, is also possible. The United States may accept such necessary but limited “exceptions” for Iran as a humanitarian response “needed by the Iranian people” to survive.

Economic stress creates reform entry points because the urgency becomes publicly visible. 1991 was an extreme event. The 2018 shock is low intensity in comparison. But it can help to push the needed third generation of reforms — deep fiscal austerity, energy security and PSU autonomy.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, May 25, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/250518/oil-shock-entry-point-for-deepening-reform.html

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

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

Resurrecting ghosts is bad politics

AMU

One wonders whether Muhammad Ali Jinnah would have been disappointed or elated at a band of misguided, ultra-right Hindus, objecting to his portrait hanging in the students’ union office of the Aligarh Muslim University. Disappointment, at becoming a hate object, would fit well. the elegant, urbane man with a taste for fine suits, that Jinnah once was. Elation would align with the politician, who fueled the creation of Pakistan and who could now turn around and say – see, I told you so.

Zero-sum world view, led to partition

After all, it is a belief in the irreconcilable co-existence of Hindus and Muslims in one country, which led to the creation of Pakistan. The breaking away of Bangladesh from Pakistan, should have put an end to the unfortunate idea that only an Islamic state can assure a secure future for Muslims. Wars between Pakistan and India have deepened the distrust of the larger “Hindu” nation across the border. To be fair, we in India, have also not done a good job of forging a national identity, so compelling, that other social allegiances – religion and caste, fade in comparison.

It is true that professional, social relationships and regional affiliations – culture, language and food – often paper over the underlying segmentation of caste and religion. But seven decades of hotly contested electoral democracy has fed on and deepened the fissures, rather than cemented the gaps. In India we tend to avoid head-on collisions, preferring to skirt around intractable problems and hope that time will solve them.

Our history bears this out. Consider that a deeply traditional society was assumed to have magically evolved, on the eve of Independence, into a rational, scientific and liberal society, resonating with the personal beliefs of a microscopic, western educated elite, which was dominant in the transition from colony to independence.

If Jinnah’s vision, etched out in the constitutional assembly of Pakistan in 1947, of a Pakistan, which would not make a distinction between citizens on religion, sounds hollow, so too does our avowed adherence to secularism – the constitutional roots of which remain shallow.

India bends to avoid breaking

India is a “soft” state. The rule of law is not absolute. It has a time dimension. It is considered administratively wise to allow it to be bent, in the expectation that, with time and changed circumstance, the weight of institutional rigidity would bring it back to its rightful place. Inevitably, such flexibility in the application of the rule of law allows free play to mala-fide interests and dilutes the credibility of State actions.

Democracy can deepen divides

Democracy has unexpectedly, sharpened religious polarization. The good news is that it has also deepened caste polarization. Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s pessimism about Dalits getting justice via democratic institutions, without suitable tweaks and safeguards for positive discrimination, resonate much deeper today, than they did in the rosy-tinted period post-Independence.

Dalit empowerment has created a conundrum for traditional Hindu society. It upends the gentlemanly agreement between Dalit and upper caste political elites, to co-exist without upending the basic power structures which bind down the ordinary Dalit. For example, grooms must not ride a horse to their wedding in emulation of a custom, which was the traditional prerogative of prosperous upper caste people or display and fire into the air in celebration, at Dalit weddings.

Everyone is relatively better off

Admittedly these are mere, distant pinpricks when viewed from above. The helicopter view of Indian society remains positive and progressive. Urbanization evens the score for Dalits. The enormous expansion of the service sector has created jobs which are skill based, caste-neutral and anonymous. Similarly, exports offer opportunities for good jobs in handicrafts, textiles, leather, metalwork, carpentry – areas where Dalit and Muslim communities dominate.

Communalism, casteism and low development feed off each other

Luckily for us, much of the religious and caste angst is in the backward areas of the north and central India, where human development indicators are low and per capita incomes are below the median level. In 2007-08 India’s median Human Development Index (HDI) was 0.47. The states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, comprising 41 percent of the total population, were well below the median.

Curiously, Pakistan in 2010, with an HDI of 0.53 was worse off that the border Indian state of Punjab at 0.61 (2008) but better than Rajasthan at 0.43 (2008). Bangladesh, in 2010, with an HDI of 0.55 was better than the Indian state on their border – West Bengal at 0.49 (2008). Cross territory comparisons are notoriously misleading. But it is startling than even several decades after political separation, the cross-border differences in South Asia are less stark than those within the country. India has made significant strides in improving human development outcomes since 2008 and achieved an HDI of 0.62 in 2015 with focused attention on backward regions. The Modi governments program of targeting around 15 percent of the total number of 640 districts for accelerated support, will further even out the spatial distribution of development and income.

In 2014 the Modi government came to power on the back of an impressive record of achievement at the state level in BJP rules states. A host of development initiatives have been unleashed, which seek to sustain macroeconomic stability, raise incomes, roll out infrastructure and reverse the ravages of environmentally unsustainable development. There are more successes than misses. This is solid ground on which to go to the people in the general elections of 2019.  It is unwise to fall into the temptation of maximizing political gains by departing from the narrative of achievement.

Also available at the TOI Blogs May 9, 2018   https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/resurrecting-ghosts-is-bad-politics/

So, you want “good” jobs.

toyota

Growth with jobs is the new Eldorado. At its core, the raging debate around job creation in India is really about how far India has traveled down the conventional path of industrialized development and its proxy — long-term employment, with defined benefits and social security. This metric of economic performance is anachronistic in the post-industrial ecosystem.

Long term, formal employment is declining even in the developed economies. The future of work is casual, possibly off-site, with skill sets and job descriptions that are constantly adapting to technology and re-schooling a necessity even for the middle aged. We may never ever reach the copybook stage of industrial age employment. India, unlike China, is largely informal and ineffectively regulated for work standards and safeguards. Out of a workforce of around 427 million, formal employment is just 14 per cent at 60 million.

Mind you, there are 972 million people more than 15 years of age who could work. But the lack of opportunity in the workplace and cultural constraints keep 56 per cent of then (a vast majority of them being women) at home. This probably explains our penchant to get to a higher level of formalized employment, say 60 per cent of the workforce, and thereby resemble a developed economy.

Statistical jousts around employment

The ongoing statistical debate between government economists (of the Niti Aayog and those in the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council) and external experts (from CMIE, for example) revolves around the number of jobs created since 2014 as an index of economic performance. The CMIE data, based on quarterly surveys, shows that net-job creation in 2017, over the previous year, was just 1.4 million, primarily due to large job losses of seven million among young adults (aged 15-24) and three million among veterans (aged 65 or above) significantly diluted the positive impact of an addition of 12 million jobs in the age group of 25 to 64.

The government appears disinclined to trust large surveys. It prefers to rely on the monthly payroll data. There is the inexplicable issue of just 12 per cent of women, of 15 years and above, being part of the workforce in the CMIE survey data. Gallingly, 21 per cent of Saudi Arabian women work. Can it be that 88 per cent of Indian women above 15 years actually do not wish to work? Compared to such quirks in the CMIE survey data, there is a comfortable certainty about the payroll data. The only problem is — payroll data is unlikely to provide the granularity required across a largely informal economy.

Even if one is disinclined to believe the outlier estimation by economist Surjit Bhalla, of an addition of 15 million jobs in 2017, the good news is that data from the Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) shows an addition of three million jobs during the six months till February 2018 — an encouraging growth of 10 per cent per annum over the 60 million employee accounts. It is unclear, however, if these are all new jobs. The digital outreach, increased tax oversight and the GST implementation are all encouraging formalisation of operations, including payments to existing informal workers. Payroll data from the New Pension Scheme for government employees shows a similar happy trend, with an addition of 0.4 million employees to the base of around 5 million employee accounts.

It remains unclear where this statistical jousting is leading to, except to the scoring of political brownie points with the relevant political constituencies.

Workers under threat – too many, chasing too few jobs

headload

For the large mass of workers, a “formal” sector “good” job in the classic industrial sense of the term is becoming increasingly unlikely. Humans are under threat. Karl Marx was on the button, two centuries ago, when he intuited that it is humans who add value in the economy. We still do. But we became so good at extracting value from human effort that we have marginalized ourselves.  Machines today, substitute for all but the most advanced cognitive human skills. Once machine learning becomes deeper and autonomous of human effort, technology czars like Ellon Musk, presciently point to a dystopic, machine versus man future for the planet.

We do not have to imagine what it will be like in in 2050. Even today, deepening levels of worker anxiety about retaining a job affects large swathes of the developed economies. Indians and others in the developing world are already well acquainted with this syndrome. We hesitate to take medical leave even when we are sick. And if you think that happens only in the informal sector, think again. Even politicians and senior government officials fear being nudged out, merely by not being visible.

Low levels of formal employment require enhanced government intervention. As work becomes intermittent or irregular, even for skilled employees, the potential loss of income must be cushioned by social protection schemes to keep individuals and families afloat.

Listen to the Jholawallahs

Dreze Aruna

The NREGA program is a basic form of such cushioning, which benefits around 20 million manual workers. Jean Dreze is right when he asserts that access to work is more than just another way of putting public money into needy private hands. Aruna Roy has the same message. Collectives have a dynamic, which empowers the marginalised. They provide institutionalized support for challenging traditional, arbitrary and often illegal entitlements. They also establish a new and healthy tradition of direct democracy.

The early noughties presented a future which looked impossibly bright and full of possibilities, girded by shining bands of opportunity crisscrossing the globe. That vision has now dimmed. The environmental, cultural and institutional limits of globalization are now visible. We would do well, however, not to be blindsided by the inevitable ratcheting down of global aspirations. It could turn out to be a hard landing for the overly ambitious.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, May 5, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/050518/jobs-nature-of-work-it-may-be-time-to-rethink-basics.html

Lives dedicated to change India

RTI story

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

school for democracy

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

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

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

MKSS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aruna and the team

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

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

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

What the cash crunch foretells

Parliament's winter session

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

Commercial banks bear the brunt of fuzzy policy objectives

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

RBI waffles with poor communication

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

Cash remains king

cash is king

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ECI

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

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

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

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

Public credibility of commercial banks at its nadir

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

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

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

Lock your data & sell it

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

rural data

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

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

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

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

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

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

ravi shanker prasad

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

Public education on the uses & abuses of data would help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep regulation focused on efficiency and free of ideology

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

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

Trump’s – “ugly American” redux

Trump

President Donald Trump’s administration is showing its a mean. mercantilist machine. Unsurprisingly, for it, international trade is a one-way street, with exports increasing wealth in America, at the expense of the importing economies and imports stealing American jobs. The psychosis is familiar territory for India and scores of developing countries. What is truly unusual is the conversion of the United States of America to this flawed concept and the abandonment of the open economy model, by the erstwhile foremost exponent of this philosophy.

Nǐ hǎo ma America

In today’s topsy-turvy world, Mr Trump is aping the Great Qing emperors of China during the mid-19th century. At that time China was more than willing to sell Chinese silks, ceramics and art in exchange for silver, but felt no need to import any foreign goods or influences. The result was a burgeoning trade surplus. It took export of cheap opium and gunboat diplomacy by the Western colonial powers to balance the trade.

Emperor Quinlong

Unlike China under the Great Qing, the United States runs a massive trade deficit equal to around three per cent of its GDP. This is normal for many developing countries but unusual for a “great power”. American consumers are accustomed to the “opium” of cheap imported goods. It helps that the appetite of foreigners for AAA-rated US dollar securities finances the deficit. But what matters to Mr. Trump is protecting US jobs. Hence the plan to reduce the deficit, particularly versus China, by $100 billion. Hiking import tariffs on metals significantly is part of that  endeavor. Mr. Trump hopes that metals, being intermediate goods, the resultant rise in price of final goods will not be immediately visible. More bizarre tactics may follow.

Jobs for the boys, at any cost 

But higher tariffs will rob both American consumers via higher prices eventually and jobs in ancillary, user trades, which are sensitive to price rise. All this, just to keep jobs alive on life support, in the metals production business. This is bad politics and worse economics – at best a short-term tactic — to signal the Trump administration’s sympathies for Republican rough-necks. The economy wide negative impact will be diluted over time. Mr. Trump believes in deals. So expect to be able to evade the higher tariffs if you are willing to buy enough of iconic American products – like Harley Davidson motorcycles, stetsons and Boeing aircraft.

The US remains the biggest single country, market. It imports $2.7 trillion of goods and services. But the European Union’s market for imports is much bigger, at $6.7 trillion. Japan alone imports $0.8 trillion and China imports $2 trillion worth of goods and services. So the US is steadily dropping away from being a dominant market for world exports.

India is not the target, but we suffer collateral damage

The new import tariff of 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminum are of marginal consequence for India. Our share in world steel exports is just 2.5 per cent. Steel exports to the US, over 2012-16, averaged around 6.5 per cent of our total steel exports. We also export metals to other big markets like the UAE, Europe, East Asia and South Asia. Our share in world aluminum exports, averaged 1.5 per cent over 2013-16. The share of the US in our aluminum exports is significant, at 10 per cent. But our largest importer is South Korea, with significant volumes also exported to Mexico, Malaysia, the UAE and Turkey. Indian exports to the US are not of the scale where they could threaten the economic security of American industries. Also, our special relationship with the US, since the 2005 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, the shared commitment against terror and common military logistics arrangements, can facilitate privileged access to the US market.

The US – a willful ally

The elephant in the room is US intransigence, amounting to the “ugly American” behaviour. Starting with the US walking out of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement; and its recent regressive approach to immigration — in sharp contrast to responsive European policies; and its most recent arbitrary protection via high import tariffs of steel and aluminum manufacturing jobs — all these have damaged its “soft power”.

 

Of course, the US has the firepower, bolstered by its $600 billion defence expenditure, to promote “gunboat” diplomacy. But faced with China’s relentlessly expanding economic muscle which makes it an implacable adversary in the superpower sweepstakes, the US will be hard pressed to convince its own allies that it can back its brash words with action.

Indians have indelible memories, from 1971, of the threatening deployment of the US Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal seeking to prevent the liberation of East Pakistan by the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini from the oppressive, quasi-colonial rule of the Pakistani-Punjabi mafia — a long-time close US ally. It was only the counter deployment of Soviet nuclear submarines and warships, in response to a request for help from India, which rendered the USS Enterprise and the rest of the Seventh Fleet toothless. If the US was not willing, in 1971, to face down the Soviets, to help its ally Pakistan, then how credible is its willingness and ability to come to the help of India in facing down a possible threat from China?

mujib

China, our awesome, prickly neighbour

In a networked world, trade, investment and security are intertwined. The US views China as its primary adversary. Luckily for it, China is several thousand miles removed from the American land mass. But China lurks on our northern borders. It spends $180 billion on its military alone — almost equal to the total budget of the Indian government. Whilst, lining up to seek favourable trade terms from America, it would be foolhardy to provoke a trade war with China. India did well, recently, to dilute the potential use of the Dalai Lama’s April 19, 1959 flight to safety in India, as an irritant for “Emperor Xi”.

Navel gazing better than eye-balling

Modi emerging

Prudence lies in following the Chinese strategy of subordinating muscular diplomacy to economic growth till the time is ripe. It remains in India’s interest to adhere to the open economy model. We have limited capital and governance capacity. We must be frugal in allocating them to first build our domestic infrastructure and facilitate private investment, whilst keeping our markets lightly regulated and open to competition and foreign investment.

Let us not obsess about job creation or force-feeding the formal economy. The US creates two million jobs in a year. Non-farm jobs are scarce everywhere. We should become better at generating fiscal resources to redistribute as income support to the “lost generations” of unskilled, unemployed Indians who are older than 50. This will boost domestic demand and fuel economic growth, far better than resorting to failed economic solutions — such as protectionism, subsidies and publicly financed businesses to chase impossible dreams.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, March 17, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/170318/ugly-american-is-back-shun-all-the-failed-ideas.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

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: