governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

The coal-gate bell tolls selectively

patiala house

On Monday, May 22, 2017 CBI Special Judge, Bharat Parashar will sentence the five accused, convicted by him on May 19, 2017. Among the convicted are three officers – H.C. Gupta, retired Secretary of the Ministry of Coal (MOC) and two of his juniors, convicted under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for criminal conspiracy and cheating and under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (PCC), for obtaining undue pecuniary advantage, against the public interest, for M/s Kamal Sponge Steel and Power Ltd (KSSPL).

The fearsome consequences of a criminal conviction

The conviction under the IPC invites a maximum sentence of up to six months with a possible fine. The conviction under the PCC invites a minimum sentence of one year, extending up to seven years with a possible fine. Associated outcomes would be the retrospective dismissal and withdrawal of retirement benefits for Mr. Gupta and dismissal for the two officers in service with no termination benefits. It can’t get worse for these officers.

Jail

The background to coal-gate

In November 2006, the UPA government, desiring to relieve the coal shortages crippling the economy, invited applications from end-users of coal in power, steel and cement sectors for allotment of captive coal mining licenses. 1.422 applications from 344 companies for 38 coal blocks were received.

But this gigantic liberalization measure quickly acquired notoriety. A Tsunami of public revulsion at the alleged, rampant corruption in allotment followed.  In August 2012, a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General – India’s public auditor, was leaked. It assessed the loss to the treasury from incorrect coal allocations between 2004 to 2009 at Rs 10.7 trillion.

CAG

The Vigilance Commissions waded in righteously and referred the case of allotment of the Thesgora B/Rudrapuri block in Madhya Pradesh, to the CBI for a preliminary investigation on June 1, 2012.

CBI lives up to its “caged parrot” reputation 

The CBI lodged an FIR on October 13, 2012 against M/s Kamal Sponge Steel and Power Ltd. (KSSPL) – one of the two joint allotees. It had identified deviations from the guidelines for allotment specified by the ministry of coal. However, after investigation, it filed a closure report, stating that there was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy to cause unlawful gain for the allotee.

The Supreme Court bats straight and hard

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, in a separate case regarding coal allotment, ruled in August 2014, that all the coal allotments done over the period 2004 to 2009 in favour of private companies were contrary to the provisions of law and terminated them.

The CBI court takes heart and revives the case 

Soon after, the CBI court rejected the agency’s closure report on October 13, 2014 and framed charges on October 1, 2015. Special Judge Parashar has been painstakingly diligent in avoiding judicial overreach. His approach has been technically exemplary. He has recorded how the ministry of coal subverted the process defined by itself and failed to exercise due diligence and adequate oversight over the actions of the coal allocation section of the ministry – headed by an undersecretary level officer. In an unedifying spectacle of poor leadership this junior officer was fingered by his immediate superiors as solely responsible for incorrectly processing the 1,422 applications received during the 36th round of coal allocation.

A tragedy of avoidable self goals in MOC

self goal

The entire process was replete with errors. The application of M/s KSSPL was incomplete. The last three years audited balance sheet were not attached as required by the advertised guidelines. But the lacuna was not red flagged. Instead, it was circulated, like all the other applications received, to the concerned administrative ministries – in this case the Ministry of Steel and the state government of Madhya Pradesh for comments and then tabled in the Screening Committee for consideration. The state government recommend that the block be allocated to M/s BLA Power – a power producer. But this recommendation was not accepted, presumably because this block was specified for non-power coal users.  But then why was the application of m/s BLA Power circulated to the concerned ministries and state government, without red flagging that it was ineligible?

M/s KSSPL – complicit conspirator or merely gaming an inefficient system

M/s KSSCL was invited to make a presentation to the screening committee despite their applications remaining incomplete. Worse, the prosecution established that the missing audited balance sheet had been with the applicant all along and that the applicant had overstated their production capacity and their net worth. Whilst there were no minimum conditions for net worth or production capacity, overstating both, could only have been done consciously to falsely claim a greater need for coal and a larger allotment than required. Having once stated this falsehood, producing the audited balance sheets was no longer possible. Considering these facts constructively, the charge against the company and its employees for cheating and conspiring to obtain pecuniary benefit at the expense of public interest is well established.

A conspiracy of one?

But who did the applicant conspire with in the government? Is it not possible that the applicant, simply used the loosely dispersed and poorly managed selection process to their own advantage, without the active criminal cooperation of anyone? Do not thieves enter through a door, inadvertently left open, to steal? Would the mere fact of an open door automatically make a beat policeman or the owner a co-conspirator?

Why the selective targeting of and within, the ministry of coal?

Second, even if there was a conspiracy, why was the relevant chain of officers in the administrative ministry (Ministry of Steel) or in the government of Madhya Pradesh not similarly charged? They did not object to the incorrect inclusion of the applicant. Nor did they object to the allocation, either during, or after the steering committee meeting. Was it sufficient for them to merely stress the need to evolve objective criteria for evaluating the applications in a pre-evaluation meeting convened by the MOC on May 11. 2007 without putting down their concrete suggestions on record? Secretary, Coal had specifically directed Coal India to identify the applications whose net worth was at least 20 percent of the capital needed to implement their proposed projects. The onus was on the MOC to follow up on these decisions. But nothing seems to have been done.

The fact that the MOC did not follow up on defining the evaluation process has been used as evidence of a conspiracy within the ministry to retain undue discretion possibly with the intent to cause pecuniary benefit against public interest, to be obtained by selected applicants. This is a valid concern.

But, if there was a conspiracy within the Ministry of Coal, surely the extent of it needs to be established. Could it not, for example, extend to the then Minister of Coal, who was also the Prime Minister- Dr. Manmohan Singh? Also, what about the undersecretary heading the coal allocations section.  He is clearly not solely to blame. But exonerating him completely, also appears extraordinarily generous, considering that he could produce no written orders directing him to circulate the applications without checking them for completeness or eligibility per the guidelines. Is it sufficient to rely on the mere fact that the three convicted officers were all from the IAS to establish that only they were part of a conspiracy?

Was the circumstantial evidence doubt proof enough to prove guilt?

Special Judge Parashar quotes the Supreme Court on the need for convictions, based on circumstantial evidence, to establish a clear, plausible, plainly visible connectedness between the actions of the conspirators for a common illegal objective. But the evidence to support this minimum requirement to establish guilt seems far too thin and speculative in substance.

Administrative disaster but criminal conspiracy…..?

What has been incontrovertibly established is that the pre-conditions for a conspiracy to be hatched existed. But in the absence of incontrovertible evidence that a criminal conspiracy existed, whilst there is ample ground for proceeding with disciplinary proceedings against the officers concerned, indicting them criminally seems excessive.

portia

Portia in Merchant of Venice – “The quality of mercy is not strain’d……….It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s; When mercy seasons justice.” William Shakespeare

The law must needs be blind, single-minded and mechanically predictable if it is to avoid selective targeting. Special Judge Parashar after penning a water tight judgement stopped short on excising the cancer of criminal conspiracy fully. Or can this be judicial self-restraint in the face of certainty, that additional indictments are around the corner to get to the root of the problem?

The blog is also available at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/the-coal-gate-bell-tolls-selectively/

Needed paychecks not pink slips

Jobs 2

Photo credit: Zee news

Ask any of the 68 government departments in New Delhi, what they are doing about private sector jobs, and each will point at the other for an answer. The truth is that governments have not been held accountable for job creation since the 1980s, when neo-liberalism took root. No one advocates going down the horribly inefficient public sector job creation route again. So, it is up to the private sector and self-employment to absorb our surging army of millennials — almost 10 million strong annually — which is equal to the entire Australian workforce.

bot

Humans versus machines- who’s winning?

But does the private sector have incentives to produce jobs? Looking purely at the bottom line, machines are superior to humans. They also come with financial incentives for capital investment — cheap bank finance and accelerated depreciation for tax purposes — which boost the bottom line. Technology is fast eroding the capacity gap between the unique attributes of human labour and machines. Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), Google Now and the mellifluously named Maluuba are all cheaper than hiring a real-life assistant and are on call 24×7. Bots will progressively replace humans, more so in logically-executed routine jobs. Not only are human services more expensive, but they come with enormous social and economic costs for housing, transport, education, health and security.

Can government help preserve human employment?

highway

So, how can the government help create new jobs and preserve existing ones? Kickstarting infrastructure projects; promoting “Make in India” and resolving the bad loans burden of banks — are all great government initiatives for new employment. But their impact is medium term. In the near-term, the government needs to preserve existing jobs. Here are four options.

Market Indian skills in 34 “Aged”, rich, countries 

indian farmers

First, extend the H1-B strategy, used to great advantage in the US, for temporarily exporting Indian workers overseas. Rich countries, with ageing populations who need the workers, but fear the cultural dilution associated with permanent immigration would be the targets. Assign targets to our ambassadors posted in these locations to negotiate with their host countries to allow temporary immigration, lightly monitored by the government and directly supported, under the Skills India initiative, to acquire local language and cultural skills. The associated fiscal costs are outweighed by the social and economic benefits from repatriated earnings alone. A stretch target could be to export a million workers over the next three years.

Discourage the “paper chase” by avoiding “gold plated” human resources.

microsoft-employee

Second, build respect for skilled work by venerating those who have these skills. Our caste and hierarchy-ridden Brahmanical social norms devalue skills and overvalue “intellect” — both in the public and private sectors.  This unfortunate social milieu engenders “qualification creep”. Both Indian companies and the government routinely advertise for engineers even when an experienced mechanic is needed. Consider the irrational gap between the wage for a nurse versus a doctor. Good nursing vastly reduces the workload for doctors — specially in the emergency room for the care of trauma patients. But this noble, highly skilled profession is not a first choice today. Instead, there is a stigma attached to it, as being fit only for those who cannot afford the high cost and long incubation period for becoming a doctor. Why is a Bachelor of Arts degree needed to become a bank clerk — a high responsibility but a routine, people skills-oriented job? Only a select few, intending to teach at the college level or do research, should need a master’s degree. Tests and interviews for jobs should focus on personality and psychological attributes, rather than educational qualifications, which are rarely aligned with job skills anyway. Only when we consciously make the paper chase redundant will we value real-life skills accretion, where the maximum potential for human jobs exists.

Reward socially responsible business leadership which looks beyond the “bottom line”

murthy gates

Third, introduce disincentives for layoffs. Yes, flexibility in workforce management is a must for employers. But companies can be incentivised to be socially responsible employers. Those who go beyond watching their “bottom line” to retaining and growing their employees should be rewarded through tax breaks, access to cheaper finance and publicly recognised as nation builders. Why not devise an index to assess social leadership qualities of company honchos before they get awards and honours, get invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan; preferential access to our ambassadors overseas or get nominated on to government committees? We need to publicly distinguish between narrow-minded private employers who only watch bottom lines, and truly transformative business leaders, if the private sector is to lead in job creation.

Give incentives for digital/banked wage payments by individual employers

Around 300 million workers are employed in the agrarian and household sector as daily wagers or long-term help by individuals — farmers, rich and middle class urban households. Legislating minimum wages and benefits for this segment is lazy policymaking and can end up having a regressive impact due to weak oversight capacity. The Niti Aayog has taken the lead to plug the data gap on informal employment where most of the incremental jobs will be created. The government can step in with near-time transactional measures for light-handed regulation of such employment. As an initial step, the government should promote the payment of wages into bank accounts to generate big data on such employment. An incentive of Rs 5 credited back to the employer’s account for every Rs 1,000 paid into an employee account could help. If costs are shared between the bank and the government, a budget outlay of Rs 5,000 crores can pay for this incentive and bank annual wage payments of an estimated Rs 18 trillion, much of which is in cash today. Individual employers, with a track record of employing more than five workers and banking wages of more than Rs 10 lakhs per year, should be publicly recognised as “social growth enablers”.

Collaborative governance is key

bicycle with flag

Last, the optics must be right. The government needs to step away from the colonial pedestal of being the “mai baap” (supreme preserver). The “lal battis” (red beacons) have gone. It is time now to puncture some sarkari egos further and spread the accolades for social and economic achievements.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age July 16, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/160517/a-to-do-list-for-govt-to-create-more-jobs.html

Modi: Unassailable at three

Modi parliament 2014

Modi enters Parliament for the first time in 2014 in a characteristic “Indian” manner – prostrating himself at the steps of this very British institution. Stooping to assimilate is the Indian way. Photo courtesy Indian Express 

Three years ago, when Modi’s BJP entered Parliament in May 2014, with a never before majority, the “realtors of Raisina Hill” (policy wonks and public intellectuals in Delhi) were full of doubt about whether a country bumpkin from Gujarat could navigate the gilded and suave avenues of Lutyen’s Delhi –  that part of the city, designed by the British for themselves in the 1930s, where todays rich and powerful elite lives and conspires in self-interest.

Modi does a pincer on Dehi elites

True to his Gujarati heritage and much like Gujarati emigrants to the west have done for ages, Modi made no effort to integrate or ingratiate himself into the elite. He cut his own lonely, furrow going around the established elite. Over time the furrow deepened into a moat which effectively encircled and confined Delhi’s elite to gossiping amongst themselves. Admittedly, his was an easier task than what confronted Gujarati emigrants overseas. But the tactic employed was the same. First, entrench yourself in the eco-ystem – get a job or start a small business; next, deepen your control on resources – build up capital and develop local relationships and finally look for gaps to fill – do what the lazy locals will never do.

Patels

The Patels – intrepid survivors in foreign lands – a smooth blend of modernity and tradition that makes them outstanding achievers and harmonious assimilators. 

There were initial hiccups. The BJP – essentially a north Indian, middle class party till then – first tried the babu approach of distinguishing itself from the previous government by rejecting even the good things the UPA had done – like NREGA and Aadhar. But Gujarati pragmatism and performance orientation won. The approach changed to building on what existed and exponentially expanding the scale and ambition of projects and policies, to shock and awe the public into abject Modi bhakts (followers). Nothing it seemed was impossible.

Modi’s ratings better than the BJPs

Three years on, the mood within the party is upbeat – not surprising after the massive electoral victories in Uttar Pradesh and then in the Delhi municipal elections. In sharp contrast to Trump, Modi’s popularity ratings beat those of his party. The inanities of the BJP’s rant on protecting cows rather than Dalits or projecting Hindu populism rather than political equality and security for the minorities is attributed by the common person to vested interests in the party – vigilantes who use the party’s hard line as a business or “God men” who use the saffron they wear to encroach on government land. Prime Minister Modi stands tall above this desperate fray for the crumbs of political power.

Sour grapes?

Detractors and cynics say it is hype which is keeping Modi in the stratosphere.  This is lazy analysis. There are three reasons why Modi has embedded himself into the public mind as the harbinger of a better future.

India’s Bill Clinton – responsive, charismatic peoples’ person

First, being of humble origins he feels the pulse of the people and responds to it. Demonetization was a temporary set-back for the economy and cost workers their wages or their jobs. But, they saw it as a plan to punish the corrupt and applauded the effort. Modi did not just rest on the laurel of public acclaim. He has successfully pushed the tax bureaucracy to unearth black money and investigate shady deals. Is this sufficient to end corruption? Clearly not. But it is sufficient to establish Modi’s credibility as having the gumption to take on the corrupt, rich and make them pay for their sins.

Neither Right, Left nor Liberal – for Modi, transactions matter, not ideology

Second, the expansion of social insurance schemes for the poor; progressive expansion of crop insurance; the 200 million Jan Dhan accounts opened; the switch to the direct transfer of benefits for the poor to their accounts; kick -starting the moribund highways program; the proposals to reform agriculture by legalizing the leasing out of land; freedom for farmers to market produce outside the clunky and corrupt, public sector Agricultural Marketing System; the boost in coal production by whipping the public sector Coal India; making Indian Rail more efficient with better services; the improved functioning of government offices – all serve to illustrate positive change.

Stellar stabiliser of the economy

Lastly, the Modi government’s biggest achievement has been to stabilize the economy. Wasteful public spending has been restrained by fiscal discipline; the growth momentum has been maintained and consumer price inflation kept low within the targeted 5 percent per year. New institutional mechanisms are in place now, with the Reserve Bank of India specifically charged to deal with the bad loans of public sector banks amounting to over 12 percent of their average assets.

But there are still promises to keep…

Critics of the government point to the unfulfilled promises on new jobs and the linked poor performance of industry and exports; lack of performance on the promised recovery of black money stored overseas and the continuing civil unrest at home in Kashmir and in the tribal belt, even though the BJP is now in power, directly or in an alliance, in these states. To be sure domestic violence – not least the violence injected by self-proclaimed vigilante groups- is worrisome.  The poor performance in exports is partly a function of a strong Rupee which makes exports uncompetitive but keeps imports, particularly oil, cheap – thereby restraining inflation.  High domestic interest rates protect small savings, particularly of pensioners; restrain the creation of yet another realty driven bubble economy and dissuades gold-plated, bank financed, industrial investment.

Talking freely with people, sharing and learning can build long term credibility

Modi in varanasi

Prime Minister Modi greets the people of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh – his parliamentary constituency

Trade-offs between economic priorities are always contentious. The key is to evidence why government acts in a certain way and who benefits. Mere rhetoric will not do. It is here that the Modi government falters because of its irrational stand against spelling out how the outcomes of its policies benefit minorities. Consider that, ironically, Modi’s BJP has probably helped more poor Muslims and Dalits, than ever before, via financial inclusion, higher allocations for NREGA and the new crop and social insurance schemes. Yet, the government does not highlight this. Nor does it share granular data, whilst defending its track record on inclusion, which many regard as its Achilles heel. Talking with, not at the people, in an evidenced manner, about one’s achievements, especially when it can silence critics, is good. Try it.

A version of this blog is also available at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/modi-unassailable-at-three/

 

NITI’s vision 2032 disappoints

NITI vision 2

NITI vision 2032 : foggy, disjointed & barely hanging together

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the chief ministers of states spent most of Sunday deliberating over the plans and prospects for India in the next 15 years to 2031-32. The third governing council meeting of the Niti Aayog seems to have been an underwhelming affair, judging from the two presentations put up on its website. Why this listless thinking?

Great expectations

Three years ago, when the dowdy Planning Commission was transformed into a glitzy Niti Aayog, expectations were high that it would be the loci of innovation and cutting-edge analytics in public policy. The Planning Commission was merely an extended office of the Prime Minister. Chief ministers, whilst supposedly integral to the National Development Council (NDC), which the commission serviced, felt like interlopers rather than participating members. The flamboyant J. Jayalalithaa used the NDC forum like a television station — walking in to deliver her speech and then walking out. Others stoically suffered the process, making debating points, that no one heard.

New beginnings

Some of that has changed. Mr Modi has done away with the elevated podium of yesteryear for the PM and Union ministers. Now all are seated at the same level around a round table. Another first — the meeting was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Symbolic, as our head of state is not the PM, but the President, with whom the Union and state governments have an independent constitutional equation. In deference to the beacon ban, the long line of official cars streaming into the venue were minus their flashing red lights, thereby letting the tricolour atop Rashtrapati Bhavan take pride of place. On optics, the arrangements were perfect.

More optics than substance

The substance, however, seems not to have been as uplifting. Five examples will illustrate.

Lacks credibility

indian dream

A car for every household – is this the Indian dream?

First, a 15-year vision which is not nuanced enough to reconcile trade-offs lacks credibility. To aim to make India a prosperous economy by 2032 is a pie in the sky. India can, at best, and that too with enormous effort, go from being a lower middle-income country (per capita at current $1,600) to become a middle-income country (per capita current $4,800). A very long shot from being prosperous. The per capita income (at current US dollars) in Latin America and Caribbean today is $8,415, while in East Asia it’s at $9,512. There is no way we can catch up to even these levels by 2032. Consider also that the high growth rates required to make this jump could negatively impact equality. The international experience amply demonstrates that high levels of growth come with the risk of increasing inequality. There is not a whisper in the vision statement of how we propose to navigate the trade-off between growth and equality — the latter being part of the PM’s vision.

More of the same

brick stacks

Second, the Niti Aayog’s vision statement is backward looking. It ignores the dislocation caused by technological developments which technology leaders like the Chinese entrepreneur, Jack Ma have been warning against. NITI aims to make India a highly-educated country by 2032. Should we not be looking, instead, at becoming highly skilled? We are already battling progressive robotisation. By 2032, artificial intelligence would have squeezed jobs further in traditional sectors. New jobs, 10 million a year, which we require and still don’t have, are only likely in highly specialised areas — like space travel, frictionless transportation and psychological counselling — niches which are not easy to robotise, rather than general education which we value today. By 2032, just as plumbers, carpenters, masons and welders would be obsolete so would equity traders, bank clerks, low-level lawyers and IT workers. We will still need pure scientists, social scientists and engineers, but in limited numbers, We already produce 2 million of these every year. But very few are of cutting edge quality. Our challenge is to develop innovative minds with appropriate skills, not to educate 400 million of our under 18 years population to become “thinkers” – the bulk of the thinking will soon be done by machines. Humans will need the skills required to choose and make wise decisions, intermediate between humans machines and train other humans to work with machines. No sign of this transformation in the vision.

Not joined up – conflicting objectives

oil pollution

Third, the vision statement wishes India to become “energy abundant”. But being energy abundant is a retrograde desire tinged with the potential for waste. Energy abundance means energy prices tumbling, spurring even more per capita consumption of energy. Surely this is incompatible with the other objective of being “environmentally clean”? Are we really aiming to provide a car or a motorbike to each household, as the vision proclaims, or do we wish to make public transport the most convenient option? Should we not be allocating funds to become energy efficient rather than spending on acquiring or developing more energy resources? The hunger for energy abundance is a stale ambition.

Mushy & emotional, not pragmatic

Fourth, the Niti Aayog aims to make us a “globally influential nation”. How is one to go about this Dale Carnegie-type revamp? India has thumped the tables of the United Nations for over five decades. And yet, suddenly today, we are more influential globally than ever before because of our large, growing markets, relatively easy access for foreign capital and technology, facilitating internal institutional arrangements and stable polity. Influence is an outcome of domestic capacity, confidence and conviction. These 3C’s are the drivers we should be looking at. Best, like Arjun, to aim for the eye of the bird and not get distracted by the clouds floating around.

Process matters for cooperative federalism

Fifth, the Niti Aayog was constituted to showcase cooperative federalism and be the entry door for its implementation. But it remains poorly organised for living by this principle. Its staff should be deputed both by the Union government and directly by the state governments, much like multilateral entities operate. It must have a permanent secretary-level board to review and clear documents to be presented to the governing council, and provide a forum for discussion and implicit negotiations between officers from the Union and the states deputed to the Aayog. The governing council should structure meetings to provide for negotiations at the political level to evoke the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. Currently, the council functions more as a receptacle for the views of state governments and offers an opportunity for the Union government to tell states what it is doing, just like the Planning Commission used to do.

Put some flesh on the vision

famine

The vision unveiled, yesterday, is muddied by a vast array of disjointed initiatives, thereby reducing the clarity of purpose expected from such a document. Words matter and must be used selectively and deliberatively. Otherwise a vision is nothing but a laundry list of wishes. For years the World Bank “dreamt” about a world free of poverty. It now recognises that wishes need to disciplined to the takable actions to convert wishes to reality.

The public expects much, much more than old wine in new bottles from Mr Modi- especially over the next decade. He and the outstanding talent in the Aayog, must allocate time for thoughtful negotiations at multiple levels. There is no other way to make others — particularly the state governments — feel like valued members of the same Team India!

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age  April 25, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/250417/niti-aayogs-vision-2032-disappoints.html

PM NITI 3 GC

 

Consumer Protection – Minister creates ripples

Ram-Vilas-Paswan

It isn’t easy being Ram Vilas Paswan – the leader of the Lok Janshakti party – a BJP ally. With just 7 MPs in parliament he has to pull his weight in the low profile Ministry for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution (MCAF&PD).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is whipping government departments to show quick results. But how does one do that if one is stuck in a drab, no glam ministry like MCAF&PD? It’s principal role is to set product standards and be the government’s eyes and ears by monitoring the prices of essential goods across the country to contain price volatility. It has done this quite well. This government has been fairly effective in managing food prices. This is, possibly, one of the positive outcomes of being battle ready for elections all the time. But stopping something bad from happening hardly ever makes news.

The department also administers the Consumer Protection Act 1986 and the Legal Metrology Act 2009. Legal metrology is the new name for the more familiar term of weights and measures. Both laws work through state governments and district-level institutions. The Central government’s role is to lead on innovations in better branding, labelling and disclosure norms, and update the supporting regulations. Nothing much here qualifies for breaking news — just a quiet slog in backroom offices to remain abreast of technology, judicial practice and global trends in product disclosure and customer awareness.

Proactive Paswan

No surprise then that Mr Paswan chose three unorthodox areas to show his department’s proactivity. First, he advocated the abolition of service charge, currently levied by formally registered eateries, which mostly cater to the well-off. Service charge is meant to be used for employee welfare and should act as a substitute for a tip. But it is not transparent. There is no way of knowing what the eatery does with the money. It could, instead, be built into the price of the food and beverage on offer — just like other overheads such as furniture, electricity, air-conditioning — or left to the discretion of the customer.

No service charge please we are Indian

Tipping by and large does not come easy to Asians. No Japanese expects a tip. Many would refuse it, even when offered, as being dishonourable.  Indian customers also prefer a full-cost price covering the entire experience, with a tip meant only for exceptional service. So the minister is bang on the spot with this one.

Specify portions to avoid waste of food

portions

A second proposal is get eateries to specify the portions of each dish on the menu. Ostensibly, this seeks to reduce waste. The thinking is customers never know how big or small the portions in a dish would be so they end up over ordering food. But most eateries anyway offer a takeaway facility for the food that is left over. Often food is left over only when it has been poorly cooked. But retribution for poor quality is swift in a competitive market. Better then to nudge eateries to themselves think up solutions for avoiding waste, conserving cost and benefiting consumers — such as offering part portions of dishes depending on the number of people eating. This could also happen if the waste disposal charges were made prohibitive.

Of course a reduction in food waste does not translate into more food for the poor. The real issue is not the supply or availability of food. It is the lack of income of the poor which leaves them under nourished. More food is wasted in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India because of poor storage than is wasted in eateries. Never the less no one can argue that wasting food is criminal. But the way ahead is via experience sharing, sensitisation and gentle persuasion — by prescribing a one-size-fits-all standard for the portions of dishes.

Pan India retail price for bottled water

Aquafina

A third intervention, recently reported, relates to nudging Pepsi, the Airports Authority of India and the Board of Control for Cricket in India to keep the price of bottled water the same, inside and outside airports and stadiums across India. Air passengers and sports enthusiasts are not allowed to take bottled water past security checkpoints at the entrance of airports and stadia. Vendors inside airports and stadia charge higher than the maximum retail price (MRP) printed on bottles. Not a very fair practice indeed. But then, these vendors pay through their nose for serving customers in airports and stadia by buying the rights through public auctions. Unless the MRP is specified in the contract at the time of auction, it is quite unfair to impose it retrospectively.

Will sugary, aerated, bottled beverages and liquor be next?

sula

More important, will the same principle be followed for all aerated beverages — none of which are allowed through security? Are we opening a can of worms here? And where does it end? Will we next require that bottled water and beverages served in eateries also not exceed the MRP? And what about liquor? Upto 50 per cent of the revenue at an eatery, licensed to serve liquor, comes from the beverages sold. Imposing MRP on such sales would cripple their business model and hugely impact employment.

Pluck more deserving low- hanging-fruits

spot-the-fake

It’s not as if there are no other low-hanging fruits to be plucked. How about taking a leaf from Africa and popularising an App into which a customer feeds in the manufacturing number printed on expensive medicines and out pops the answer whether the serial number is genuine or not. Whilst buying medicines from unfamiliar chemists this App could provide much needed quality assurance.

Consider also that by the end of 2015-16, there were 3.9 lakh pending cases in the three-layer deep machinery of the consumer courts. The ministry’s annual report doesn’t say how long they have been pending. Nor does it share the trend in pendency — both of which are commonly used metrics in rule of law institutions. This leads us to presume the worst: that consumer cases aren’t being effectively disposed of.

consumer courts

This impression is strengthened by the DCA’s results framework for 2014-15 — oddly, that is the latest one available on its website. Timely disposal of cases has a weight of just two per cent, while 98 per cent of the weight is for assessing the department’s performance, based on outreach initiatives and infrastructure development. The results which benefit consumers directly — like case disposal — should matter the most. Mere process outcomes — like completing buildings or installing computers and helplines — should matter less, since these are only a step towards the actual results.

Tardy consumer redress drives even MPs to use crass tactics to be heard

Some navel-gazing is advisable. Had this been done earlier, maybe the Shiv Sena MP from Maharashtra — a business class ticket-holder — who recently, albeit misguidedly, resorted to “direct action” to settle his grievance with Air India, may have been persuaded to approach the consumer courts instead. But who will wait for two years to get redress?

The DCA would do well to adopt strategic forbearance as its motto while exercising its legislative mandate to set the retail prices of packaged products; prescribe minimum disclosure norms for eateries or to set product standards out of context. Regulations which are not enforceable, or which distort well-functioning markets — with sufficient choice available for consumers to vote with their feet — are best left well alone. Making a noise doesn’t ever make real news.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age April 19, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/190417/to-protect-consumers-focus-on-basics.html

shopper

Taming killer highways: Booze ban a marginal solution

booze bar

Thirsty travellers on highways are going to miss the inviting LED signboards offering “cold beer” to alleviate their boredom. But ask those who have lost a loved one in an accident, or been maimed in one — and they will enthusiastically support the Supreme Court’s ban on the availability of booze along our state and national highways. When the issue is emotive, the reflex response of both the judiciary and the executive is to do anything that appears adequately responsive. What could be easier than banishing booze from the highways, knowing full well that this could be just optics.

Target drivers and the owners of vehicles with punitive action

Traffic police

Curbing drunken driving requires that drivers, a small fraction of all travellers, be targeted. Most travellers are passengers. It doesn’t matter whether they tipple or not. Many of those at the wheel are licensed, professional cab, bus and truck drivers — much like commercial pilots. Surely the owners of these commercial vehicles should be held criminally accountable, along with the driver, for accidents caused by drunken driving, unless they can prove that they test their drivers randomly. This would automatically incentivise owners to use drivers who don’t drink. But this is a narrowly targeted option that requires follow-on administrative action and effective policing. Far splashier, instead, to go in for a blanket ban on booze —  and never mind if it causes collateral pain.

Our bias against booze is vested in the Constitution

Directive Principles

The origin of our half-hearted approach to the problem lies in the Directive Principles of our Constitution which enjoin the State to implement prohibition. These define the higher moral ground that we all must aspire to. But they are not mandatory and need a law to be passed to become implementable. We implement these only selectively — like universal education —  where there is near complete consensus. But we ignore others, like prohibition, where a consensus is missing. Hence the tension between the constitutional directives and reality.

We do not have a fundamental right to drink or sell booze. We do so only at the pleasure of the State. It can be withdrawn at any time. Many would argue it should not be summarily withdrawn, specially when it will disrupt ongoing business. And because other options exist to curb drunken driving. If we are uncomfortable with the ideals specified in the Directive Principles, then the correct approach is to amend them and expand the fundamental rights to include the freedom to drink responsibly. But who will support such an amendment?

We are not French – we have no tradition or social acceptance of booze

indian meal

Mainstream India has no tradition of the neighbourhood bar, from where it is all right to stagger home, helped along by acquaintances or friends. Yes, there is communal drinking in tribal areas and on special occasions in villages, where there is a lot of staggering about. But these are rare occasions. In the plains of India, most regular tipplers are men as drinking is done outside our homes. It is the anonymity of highway drinking that is attractive for furtive, male drinkers.

Economic impact of booze ban marginal – because tipplers will find a way to drink

How terrible will the booze ban be for the economy? The measure simply aims to make drinking and sale of liquor physically invisible from highways. Tippling will shift a couple of minutes away onto back streets, possibly with far worse consequences for public order. But its revenue impact will be negligible. Businesses will adjust. Web-based apps will guide travellers to back street bars and booze shops; private caches of pre-mixed booze in flasks will proliferate as will the illicit supply in dhabas along the highway.

Judiciary not the culprit – amend the constitution if you want a right to drink

Blaming the judiciary for ham-handedness is the easy part. But the Government of India and several state governments, including Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have accepted the verdict. Eighteen other states didn’t bother to contest the decision. This shows that the judiciary is aligned with the national and state-level executive in moving India, gradually, in the direction to which the Directive Principles point us.

The real culprit is drunken driving- only intelligent policing can help

Drunk driver

But without effective patrolling, behavioural change among drivers is highly unlikely. Ask any highway traveller. There is nothing more reassuring than regularly passing by a police patrol car, specially at night. Drunken or irresponsible driving can only be curbed if the Centre, with the consent of all state governments, directly polices all our national highways. Centrally-monitored and controlled mobile patrols, responsive to distress calls and SMSes like the National Ambulance Service, equipped with paramedic and trauma support teams, should be frequently visible along the 90,000-km national highway network.

Create a National Highway Police & Trauma Support System- NHP&TS

NHP

A National Highway Police Force should be created and empowered to regulate traffic; challan errant driving; provide trauma support in case of accidents and keep the highways free of crime and irresponsible social behaviour. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that an officer-oriented, multi-skilled force of 11,000 employees would cost Rs 1,000 crores annually in overheads, maintenance and salaries, with a one-time capital cost of Rs 800 crores for equipment and housing. Sounds expensive? Implemented over a period of five years, it is just 0.3 per cent of the annual revenue expenditure and 1.5 per cent of the capital expenditure for the police in the Union Budget.

Compare this with the avoided cost of Rs 1,400 crores, being the value of lives lost (42,000 persons in 2009) in accidents on national highways, computed on a present value of Rs 3.5 lakhs per life lost, based on the average per capita income, over a residual working life of 20 years. The avoided cost of injuries to 1.5 lakh people (2009) is around Rs 180 crores, assuming medical treatment and lost wages at two months’ wages per injured person. The cost of vehicles and goods lost and cost of trauma suffered is over and above this.

The economic payback of a NHP&TS system is under one year

An international-quality high way security and trauma support system makes economic sense. More important, it is yet another bond sealing the social compact between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and the travelling public — urban immigrants, business people and tourists —  estimated at around 230 million passengers in 2016 (assuming an average lead of 75 km) by the National Transport Development Policy Committee in 2013. There can be no better social impact investment than one which offers an economic payback of under one year.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age, April 8, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/080417/tame-killer-highways-liquor-ban-just-optics.html

grief

Basic income transfer- Modi’s next big thing?

poor woman

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

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

The next frontier

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

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

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

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

Substitution or additional support

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

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

Reform wasteful, leaky de-merit schemes 

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

SEWA pilot shows the way in MP

SEWA

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

A first for India

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

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

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

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

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

PM should grasp the moment

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

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

poor children

Change UP to change India

victory 2

When it comes to winning elections, the sophistication and efficiency of the BJP political machinery is unmatched. Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma provides the base, which the party leverages, to ensure that their individual candidates win. So what does this historic win — pulling in an unprecedented 77 per cent of the seats up for grabs in the UP Legislative Assembly — mean for the nation. And specifically, is UP the tail which can wag the dog? PM Modi knows it can. This is why he has set five years from now 2022 as the milestone for changing India – not 2019 when the next general election is due.

UP the sleeping giant

The taj

UP has a rich past and a glorious future. It is the present which needs some looking after.

Uttar Pradesh accounts for around 12 per cent of India’s GDP but has 17 per cent of its population. If you sometimes wonder why India doesn’t grow more than it does or why the existing growth is not well-distributed, look no further. UP is to blame for both negative outcomes. It pulls down national metrics on per capita income and growth. It also makes us look bad on social inclusion. Nearly a quarter of all Muslims and the poor (based on the government’s poverty headcount metric) live in UP. The state’s poverty level, at just under 30 per cent, is the second highest in the country, after Assam.

UP – the key to ending poverty

child poor

If the BJP can halve poverty in Uttar Pradesh, bringing it down from 30 to 15 per cent (same as the existing levels of poverty in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra), the national poverty ratio will fall by a massive 10 percentage points, from 22 per cent to 12 per cent. Reducing the levels of poverty in UP also has high positive externalities — particularly political. There are sizable communities of migrant workers from UP in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, through whom the message of “achche din” can travel to these metros, generating a “feel good” tsunami.  Consider that if the BJP can make Uttar Pradesh grow at the average rate of national GDP, it would increase the rate of growth of the national GDP by 0.5 percentage points. This additional income, even if it is proportionately distributed across the population of the poor, would reduce poverty to single digits in UP.

Why the BJP is uniquely place to take up the challenge

BJP leaders

Cynics could ask how can we be sure that the BJP will extract the potential? Others think the BJP will face headwinds while picking a chief minister, thereby risk displeasing sections of the winning rainbow coalition. The squabbling in New Delhi in 2014 is evidence that even the BJP is not immune to internal sabotage by disgruntled cadres. The BJP works best when it functions in a vertically-integrated manner — much like the Communist Party of China. Significant decisions are all made at the very top. Targets are determined for lower level formations at the state and municipal levels. These are then vigorously followed up and performance measured against targets. Now that UP is directly controlled by the BJP, the Narendra Modi performance juggernaut can be rolled out uniformly across the state.

So here are three focused ways in which the BJP can be different.

Give UP back to real-time management by it’s bureaucracy

UP officers

UP has many Durga Shakti Nagpals – officers who seek to serve. The present Cabinet Secretary, the Chief Election Commissioner and the PMs Principal Secretary are all UP cadre officers. But two decades of “populist” rule post “mandal” in the 1990s have diminished the excellence, which was the hall mark of UP administration.

First, today UP is a state which is resource poor and deficient in entrepreneurship. Out of the 100 top companies listed by market capitalisation on the Bombay Stock Exchange, only one company — Dabur India — is headquartered in UP. The Annual Survey of Industries 2014-15 lists only six per cent of the total number of factories and industrial workers, and just five per cent of industrial capital in UP. This illustrates that government efforts remain crucial, unlike in more developed states, where private sector initiatives can substitute for government efforts. The Modi magic, of revitalising the bureaucracy through direct interaction and consultation, as is now being practised at the Centre, must be institutionalised. This “direct contact” pattern of administration at the Centre has significantly reduced the earlier proliferation of corruption and silo-based operations. Mr Modi must return Uttar Pradesh to the real-time management of its bureaucracy, who have been sidelined and broken in spirit for too long.
The State in UP has become moribund. It must be reinvented, and used as an instrument for social change.

Make UP the international “laboratory” for agri growth

farmer

Second, agriculture is the heartbeat of Uttar Pradesh. Poor rural infrastructure and lawlessness have constrained additional investment in agriculture. Eighty per cent of the poor also live in rural areas. Agriculture based on “per drop more crop”; large scale diversification to non-cereal crops and commercialisation of agriculture outside the subsidy regime format of minimum support prices; cheap fertiliser and energy can pay rich dividends. The new land leasing arrangements should be led by UP, just as Rajasthan has taken the lead in amending outdated labour laws. More urgently, crop yield is not uniform across the four sub-regions. Average agricultural productivity can be increased by 10 per cent by simply pushing up productivity in the lagging central and eastern sub-regions (which account for around one-half of total foodgrain production in UP) to the levels prevailing in the state’s western region, adjoining Delhi and Haryana.

Invest in UP’s infrastructure

gadkari 2

Finally, UP has the worst road infrastructure in North India. Power cuts are rampant, even in Noida, which is a satellite township that adjoins Delhi. A proposal to build a regional air hub to service Agra has been gathering dust because the political alignment between the Union government in New Delhi and the state government in Lucknow was not favourable since 2002. If Delhi plans to link Myanmar and Southeast Asia by road with Afghanistan and beyond, over 700 km of this highway must pass through UP. Some of transport minister Nitin Gadkari’s expertise in getting infrastructure going could be usefully applied to UP.

2017 election results are a gift – use it well

The BJP is known for its executive and managerial abilities; its disciplined cadre; its capacity to ramp up domestic and foreign investment and to link investment to results. Uttar Pradesh is likely to give it the biggest bang for every buck it spends, simply as the desire to do better in UP is matched only by the utter frustration of its citizens over their stagnating future prospects. If UP booms, India will follow. This is one chance that we simply must not lose.

bangles

Bangles in Firozabad, brassware in Moradabad, rich textiles in Varanasi, the juciest mangos from orchards across the state, Nimish – the flavoured forth from early morning milking of cows, Mughal delicacies from Lucknow and Rampur, ancient monuments at every turn and a culture bred by centuries of civilised life – UP has it all, except transformational leadership- will Modi be the one? 2022 will tell.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age  March 13, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/130317/if-bjp-can-uplift-up-all-of-india-will-gain.html

 

Bulk up to beat the competition

Hulk

Scaling up is the name of the game in politics and in business. The BJP secured enviable gains in the early 2017 municipal elections in Maharashtra and Odisha. A win in the Goa state election is likely. A possible, albeit messy, near-win in Uttar Pradesh and potential inroads into Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal portend that the Narendra Modi juggernaut is rolling out a massive, vertically integrated consolidation of party votes across the three levels of government.

Big, deep pockets business is in

In business, too, big is beautiful. Government banks and oil companies are being merged into competitively-sized entities. Reliance, India’s second biggest company by market capitalisation, after Tata Consultancy Services, still rankles at the loss of the top position due to faltering gas production. It is now hitting back at the fragmented competition in telecom, targeting an aggressive 50 per cent share by 2021.

ONGC

Bigger publicly owned enterprises and bigger government is the inevitable option if private investment response is weak 

The government sector too is expected to grow. Some of this is dictated by the compulsions of the faltering international economy. Private capital is risk averse when returns are dodgy. Public capital then is the only option. India is terribly under-capitalised in network and social infrastructure. We spend less than one half of what we should to get rid of the infrastructure constraints on growth and security. The government’s budget needs to expand by at least one-fourth to accommodate the necessary capital spend. FY 2017-18 is not budgeted to be different from the past. There is not enough time before the 2019 general election for grounding project plans into reality. Jobs will consequently be funded by public finance.

Citizen anxiety at being left out in the cold

anxious citizens

Should citizens and consumers then be apprehensive about the drive to consolidate and grow across government and business? Not really. Dominance is a systemic outcome of competition. Institutional safeguards can ensure that dominance is not misused to dilute citizen and consumer interests. The scale of operations should be a matter of choice, not compulsion, or the outcome of regulatory nudges. Citizens should rather be concerned that decent jobs won’t come unless businesses and government grow to scales dictated by market parameters.

Multiparty politics only means larger ballot boxes

ballot

The political architecture is similarly fragmented. A loose law allows a mind-boggling 1,452 political parties to be “registered” by the Election Commission under the Representation of the People Act 1951. Only 54 parties are recognised at the state level and just six are national parties. Recognition has stricter norms linked to voter share and elected candidates. Believe it or not, the commission’s powers to de-register moribund parties are not explicit.

Multi-party politics has become a fetish, far beyond its usefulness to the average voter. Tightening up on representational norms is possible without diluting the basic freedom to choose one’s political party. Just gearing up the disclosure, internal governance and accounting requirements, to the levels required for companies, can reduce the number of registered parties.

Smart regulation can weed out frivolous parties

Enforcing regulatory compliance can deter frivolous registration and ensure responsible representation. This is illustrated by the experience of companies. Of the 16 million commercial entities operating in India, just one million are registered under the Companies Act 2013, despite the benefits which accrue from registration. It is not as if only large commercial entities choose to get registered. 66 per cent of companies are very small with an authorised share capital below Rs 1 million or just $15,000. But the widespread reluctance to register is because of the accompanying higher levels of disclosure required. Political parties would respond similarly. Only the most serious ones would remain registered if regulatory requirements were increased in the public interest.

Political consolidation as a public good.

Why should we think of political consolidation as a public good? Our fractured and divisive social architecture provides ready opportunities for exploitation of the cleavages for narrow political purposes. We must make it difficult for parties. which cater solely to narrow agendas. Social inclusion fundamentalists would rebel against any institutional constraint on the freedom of a political party to represent even marginal views. But look at the trade-offs. Caste and religion find no place, in our Constitution, as legitimate grounds for political mobilisation. Introducing institutional mechanisms which encourage broad-banding of political platforms is therefore legitimate.

Mandate rainbow nominations for inclusive politics

symbols

One way to ensure such broad-banding across castes and religions is to mandate that parties must replicate the prevailing rainbow of castes and religions while nominating candidates in specific jurisdictions. Savvy political parties are already doing so. The BJP broadened its appeal to dalit and backward caste voters in Uttar Pradesh (2017). A quarter of Bahujan Samaj Party candidates are Muslims to demonstrate Mayawati’s good faith while seeking Muslim support. The Samajwadi Party’s tieup with the Congress broadens its appeal to dalits and upper castes — both long-time supporters of the Congress.

In a fragmented political market, institutional compulsions to broaden the electoral base can be an effective catalyst for consolidation. This would be a welcome change from the minimalist strategy of securing the largest number of votes polled by splintering your opponent’s vote share below your own.

Leave room to grow 

Limiting governmental and private sector dominance by constraining their ability to grow has negative social and economic outcomes. We barred Facebook from giving free access to a limited Internet space in 2016 due to the misplaced fear of deep pockets-driven future dominance. E-commerce — similarly driven by deep pockets — has somehow bucked the tendency to protect incumbents. Institutional reform to regulate big institutions is overdue. Smart laws and empowered regulators can sift destructive dominance from scaling up for efficiency enhancement. Bulking up is the international trend. We cannot but conform.

shoes

Adapted from the author’s article in Asian Age, March 9, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/090317/in-politics-like-in-biz-bulk-up-to-beat-rivals.html

Funding the Republic

tricolour

The tricolour flutters happily at the Peer Makhdum Shah Dargah in Mahim, Maharashtra, hoisted by the peer’s devotees, as a symbol of the Indian Republic being alive and well. 

India is a Republic. But often it feels as though only the Union government must carry the can for doing unpleasant things – like levying tax on those who have the surplus income to add to the national kitty or getting heavy with tax evaders. Of course it is a juggalbandhi. The Union government invariably wants to grand-stand and hang on to financial muscle power so necessary to play “big brother”. State governments are only too keen to accept the federal goodies being thrown at them and thereby avoid the pain of efficiency enhancing structural reform in politics and in government. To be fair, the financial and political firepower of the Union government and individual states is asymmetric in favour of the former. This makes it difficult for a state to chart a lonely, unique, development path. The good news is we may be coming to the limits of this asymmetric sharing of development responsibilities.

The Union lacks funds for its core functions

Consider that rapid infrastructure development and public investment to strengthen competitive markets have become the stepchildren of the annual Union Budget process. This continues a trend, started by the previous government, of shoring up state government finances, at the risk of being stingy on spending in areas of its own core, constitutional mandate.

The Economic Survey 2017 notes that state fiscal deficits reduced sharply from 4.1 per cent to 2.4 per cent of the gross state domestic product (GSDP) over the last 10 years, since state governments adopted the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Enhanced Central transfers to states and reduced interest payments, courtesy debt restructuring, benefited states to the extent of 1.8 per cent of GSDP. To their credit, most states used the additional fiscal space to cover the revenue deficit and lower the fiscal deficit to below the target of three per cent of GSDP.

But how long can the Centre play the role of a responsible elder brother, darning his own clothes, whilst buying new ones for his younger siblings?

India’s poor infrastructure constrains growth. Low spending on infrastructure also limits job creation — something India needs. The Union government expenditure on infrastructure has increased from 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to an estimated 0.9 per cent of GDP in 2017-18. But it remains inadequate. Adding the state government and corporate — public and private — expenditure on infrastructure totals less than three per cent of GDP in 2017-18 versus the five per cent of GDP we should be spending.

broken-bridge

Dodgy infrastructure: the bane of the Republic. photo credit: indiamike.com

Repairing the broken system for bank credit and private investment

Bank and corporate finances are the second black hole which the Centre’s Budget was unable to address. Banks have accumulated bad loans to the extent of `12 trillion, or 17 per cent of their assets. The Economic Survey 2017 exhaustively discusses the “twin balance sheet problem” — of banks that must write down at least one half of the bad loans and of large private companies that face bankruptcy, for failing to use the loans productively over the past eight years.

construction

The finance minister has been explicit that the government should not bail out the private companies who made bad decisions. This is well-intentioned but difficult to implement.

There are 13 public sector banks that account for 40 per cent of these bad loans. Merging them with efficient banks can mask the problem for some more time. But such mergers can spread rather than contain the contagion. Selling or closing a failed public bank or enterprise requires courage and conviction. Our inclination is to retain the “crown jewels” no matter how tarnished they get. Air India has got a capital infusion of Rs 1,800 crores in 2017-18 on top of the Rs 5,765 crores over the last two years.

Fifty private companies account for 71 per cent of the bad loans. The public mood is for the government to go for their jugular. This will make it politically difficult for the government to fund write-downs of debt. But vigilantism against corporates can rock the growth story, which we can ill afford.

judge

A fast track quasi-judicial process must distinguish between “wilful” and unintended default, caused by systemic shock. Different rehabilitation regimes should be determined for the two categories of defaulters. Wilful defaulters should be pilloried. The downside is that picking and choosing defaulters, itself can perpetuate what this government abhors — crony capitalism.The finance minister has allocated Rs 10,000 crores in 2017-18 for recapitalising banks. This is a placeholder. All eyes are trained on the additional resources unearthed by demonetisation. The RBI is yet to disclose the value of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes which remain undeposited. This may be around Rs 1 trillion. Transferring the resultant excess sovereign assets, from the RBI to banks, can buy some breathing room.

Second, the incremental tax collection from demonetised “black money” deposited in banks, can fund infrastructure development or recapitalise banks, as it dribbles in over the next two years. This windfall was to be distributed to the poor as cash support. But recapitalising publicly-owned banks, albeit with more vigorous oversight and more transparent and intrusive stress tests, has a higher priority. More credit for corporates translates into more investments, more jobs and higher economic growth. These are the fundamentals that must accompany fiscal stability.

More “give” rather than just “take”, needed from States

We are in the middle of an incipient financial emergency, which can be triggered by a shock. The RBI cautions against thinking that inflation has been tamed. Other than food and oil, where prices remain low, inflation hovers just below the red flag of five per cent. This limits the headroom available to overshoot the fiscal deficit red flag of three per cent of GDP.

The Centre needs considerable fiscal slack to fund infrastructure development and recapitalise the banks. State governments can help by enhancing their own tax resources. Imposing income tax on agricultural income and vigorously collecting property tax are low hanging fruit available to them. These measures can add around one per cent of GSDP to their resources. This will enable the Union government to scale back the long list of Central sector schemes for human development and social protection and use the funds instead for its core mandate — developing infrastructure, markets and a competitive private sector.

gst

The Goods and Services Tax Council meets: State’s follow the take rather than give strategy. 

States may well ask why they should bother, since they were never partners in the illicit gains from mega crony capitalism. But this would be short-sighted. Faltering economic growth adversely affects all boats. An increase of six per cent in economic growth boosts state government tax revenue by one percentage of GDSP with more jobs in tow. But above all, cooperative federalism must have some give — along with the take. This is the time for states to give to the Republic, as equal partners in national development.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age, February 14, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/140217/to-raise-resources-give-and-take-needed.html

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: