governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

The price of democracy

beggar

Prof. Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University calls India an improbable democracy — poor, impossibly heterogeneous and multicultural, and ironically, only its colonial heritage keeps it going. So has our hubris cost us plenty?

Why we are not China

Forget comparing ourselves with China today. Are we at least on the same path? No, we are not. Assume a lag of a decade between China’s 1979 takeoff — Deng Xiaoping’s reforms — and India post-liberalisation in 1991. Second, assume that GDP growth is a decent proxy for national effort. Judging by the results, we have tried only one-third as hard as China to grow three decades into the reform process. Have we been tied down, like Gulliver, by democracy’s Lilliputian ropes?

Money or efficiency make the world go around

There are only two ways of increasing growth. Increase investment or increase the efficiency with which capital is used. The latter is tough but critical. Efficiency and stability invite foreign capital in, build supply chains and boost “federated” exports — many economies get a say and a share in the final product. Making the world your shareholder makes politicians more responsible — barring outliers like US President Donald Trump — and who knows, his unorthodoxy might well work for the United States.

Wasting scarce capital

Amravati

India is hugely capital starved. Sadly, it has not done well either in using capital efficiently. And it is not just the public sector alone which is wasteful. A generalised trend of wastefulness springs from poor monitoring systems available to the government, shareholders and citizens, none of which can easily check the data by triangulating information sources.

Over-designed public projects

Bengaluru airport has had charging points in its parking lot since 2008 for electric cars, which will not use them till 2030 – if then. You pay for casually over designed projects. The building of Amravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, represents all that is wrong with our democracy with politicians free riding on tax payers.

Frank admissions of failure are as important as bragging about success

Finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia has admitted that the GST network has failed to provide end-to-end digitisation. We knew this. But speaking honestly and responsibly endeared him to the public. Unfortunately, no one is to be held accountable for this glitch.

Adhia

Cheap finance induces waste

Wasteful use of capital is hardwired into a system which prices capital cheaply. Most business folk will moan about the high cost of funds in India. But the fortunes, domestic and overseas troves of real estate barons and industrial tycoons were built on negative interest rates, with inflation boosting prices but diluting the real interest cost of a bank loan to zero over a 10-year period.

Four matras for democratic success 

Can we take remedial measures? The times are tough. But bad times never last. More important, are we primed to take advantage of the next uptick cycle in world economic growth? Possibly not. Here is a four-point mantra for getting there.

Efficient public services

online

First, the new national government, later this year or in early 2019, must tackle the long-ignored task of public sector reform. It is shocking that economic duality has widened since 1947. The average citizen and business is streets ahead of the government in the effective use of 21st century technology to make employees accountable. Can you imagine how the government would change if the bottom five per cent of employees were sacked every year for poor performance or if the courts disposed of cases quickly? Just focusing on achieving these two and keeping everything else on hold could retrieve democracy in India.

Make data accessible on citizen aspirations & preferences, government performance and business governance 

Second, know your citizens. Make all residents and citizens identifiable, traceable and accessible. Aadhaar is the answer. Make registration for Aadhaar painless and self-declaratory — the ability to cancel out duplicates is supposed to be built into the system — enhance its accuracy in identification; mask the private information better and multiply improved digital recognition equipment. Populate data for citizenship, electoral rights and public benefits, using Aadhaar as the base platform. Transfer all public benefits through bank accounts. Roster all government officials, below 40 years of age, irrespective of grade or cadre, to serve as field-level facilitators wherever they are posted, with specific mentoring targets, to help citizens access their benefits.

The BJP and some regional parties (Trinamul Congress, AIADMK, the Left parties) who have a cadre are ramping up to do this. Down this route lies the threat of democratic abdication. A citizen must be served by the government of the day, not tied to the apron strings of a particular party for accessing benefits.

Link official accountability with efficiency in use of capital 

Third, change public incentives and processes. Switch from lazy budgeting of inputs to specific outputs, achievable over two years and outcomes over five years. Form teams of specifically identified officials to programmes and projects; ensure that there are no transfers and the team remains intact for the next five to 10 years. This will ensure more responsible budgeting; development of job commitment and expertise and improve outcomes. China does not shuffle its officials about needlessly. They stay tied to specific tasks for long periods — many forever. We encourage our officials to forum-shop from one cushy position to another.

Stop fiddling with markets

markets

Fourth, walk the talk. Withdraw the government from being a market participant and it will work better. Markets are like forests. Naturalists like Pradeep Krishen say it is enough to fence barren land off from predators like goats to allow a forest to regenerate. Going with the grain of nature doubles results. Anything else is wasteful and inefficient.

Stop fiddling with markets and they will find their level. Focus on diluting, not alleviating, the pain of those who lose out from markets. Just that can consume all of the government. Do not dilute the bite of markets if you aim for efficiency. Equity initiatives must be front-loaded to enhance competitiveness, not installed at the end of pipe to shackle markets. Caste-based reservations for education, jobs or benefits are an end-of-the-pipe option. They gel perfectly with our real strategy of steady but inefficient, slow growth.

Democracy is not the reason for our woes. It is what we do with it that’s troubling. Democracy implies at least a 50 per cent chance of not getting re-elected. The great Mughals would not have approved of the risk profile. Neither, it seems, do our rulers today.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, July 9, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/090718/price-of-democracy-a-4-point-growth-mantra.html

Show the middle class some love

middle class

The Indian middle class is a diverse set – professionals, public servants, skilled factory workers, the self-employed in the gig economy and smaller business folk who earn enough for daily needs, educate their children, access healthcare adequately and still have a surplus after consumption. High aspirations are what distinguish them from the hopelessness of the poor and the inherited arrogance of the rich.

Governments delight in extorting the private surplus available with the middle class via tax, purely because it is easier done than unravelling the legal defences and accounting labyrinths which protect the income and wealth of the rich.

The income tax anatomy of the middle class

Budget 2017-18, vicariously defined the middle class as having an annual income between Rs 5 to 50 lakhs. The rich got a surcharge of 10 per cent on top of the marginal top income tax rate of 30 per cent plus an additional cess of 3 per cent, increased subsequently to 4 per cent, for an annual income above Rs 50 lakhs.

A punitive, marginal tax rate of 20 per cent plus cess, on income above Rs 5 lakhs distinguished the middle class from the poor  Annual income up to Rs 2.5 lakhs (around Rs 4000 per head per month for a five member household) is not taxed. This is where being poor ends. Income above this level and till Rs 5 lakhs is taxed at a moderate 5 per cent plus cess. This low-tax, income slab provides a platform for inducting the poor, who are gritty enough to claw themselves into higher incomes levels, into the tax paying habit.

Income tax rates are reasonable

How a tax matrix affects real households is where the rubber meets the road. So how does the government’s tax policy look from the household upwards? Assuming a household of five persons, income per head per month of less than Rs 8,000 or more than Rs 80,000 is either too poor or too rich to qualify for being middle class. This  taxonomy captures the middle class fairly accurately.

GST rates are arbitrary

Problems arise if the impact of the Goods and Services Tax on the lower end of the middle class is computed. The effective tax rates have increased for most items of middle class consumption – branded products, white goods, eating out and holidays in homestays and mid-range hotels. For the large numbers of the middle class who provide services as consultants or on contract in the gig economy, the GST summarily appropriates 18 per cent of the billed revenue if it exceeds Rs 20 lakhs a year. Small suppliers of services do not have the market power to get their corporate customers to bear the tax, even though the latter are legally responsible to pay the GST on receipt of services. Reducing prices to fully or partly absorb the GST is their only choice.

Why is there no standard deduction for costs in services?

There are no standard deductions of costs available for services. Even depreciation on a vehicle is not allowed as a cost.  Oddly small retailers with a turnover of up to Rs 1 crore can claim a standard deduction of 30 per cent for costs. Such glitches are disincentives to declare revenue and completely contrary to the GST dharma of incentivising tax compliance.

Progressivity in GST on services is poorly designed

Oddly the GST is not imposed on the marginal amount of revenue from services exceeding Rs 20 lakh. It applies across the entire revenue. The message it sends is that it is foolish to use banked transactions for revenue from services beyond Rs 20 lakhs annually.  The income effect of such taxation illustrates the absurdity of the structure. The net income, after deducting notional costs of 30 per cent, from an annual billing of Rs 21 lakhs is Rs 17.5 lakhs. The imputed tax imposed by GST on net income is 26 per cent. Add to that income tax of 20 per cent. The post-tax disposable income gets slashed to just Rs 14 lakhs or 54 per cent of gross income. In comparison someone who keeps her billing of services restricted to Rs 20 lakhs pays no GST and therefore has a higher net disposable income of Rs 16 lakh!

Why does cross border supply of services not have a free-of-tax limit?

Arbitrary taxes on turnover are highly discriminatory and inhibit competition. Consider that no GST is payable if services are provided within a State up to Rs 20 lakhs. But all cross border supply to another State attracts GST. In the United States, cross border online supply of services are not taxed, creating a converse unfair advantage for such supply, versus local supply. This was struck down last week by the US Supreme Court. What can possibly be the logic of inhibiting competition by taxing cross border supply below the annual taxable limit of Rs 20 lakhs?

 

Fuzzy economic assumptions on the relative merit of public or private expenditure & savings

By taxing both income and consumption at punitive rates, the government drains the surplus available with the middle class, which could have been used more efficiently for higher consumption – triggering higher production or more savings, leading to more investible funds. We are fuzzy about a fundamental trade-off between being an efficient, rationally-taxed, private sector-led economy — a mantra which every government since Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s has sworn by — and a punitively-taxed, state investment led, low efficiency economy — which is what we have become.

It does not help that the tax base remains despairingly low and the same law-abiding citizens and entities get taxed ever more by each succeeding government. The tax base of individual assesses of Income Tax is around 60 million. The tax loophole of agricultural income being tax exempt is a major inhibitor for growing the base significantly. The GST has around 11 million registrants. But tax compliance is said to be a low 70 per cent. The tax buoyancy is coming from bleeding the already compliant.

farm house

Despite extortionist taxes for the middle class, the tax to GDP ratio is stagnant at just below 12 per cent, because of massive evasion and statutory loopholes for avoidance. Inequality is increasing with income and wealth concentrating within the top 1 per cent. Inequality and tax impunity are “dhili” (loose) foundations for building a sharing economy.

This summer, as our political elite relax in the soothing cool of the leafy and shaded Lutyens’ Delhi, spare a thought for the middle class and show them some love. They also vote, you know.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, June 30, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/300618/its-time-govt-shows-the-middle-class-some-love.html

India’s geopolitical choices till 2040

Trump

Every passing day, America plays the truculent, ageing diva on the wane, whilst China exudes a quiet, confident gravitas. Their chosen global roles, however, do not reflect the fundamentals of either country.

America is one of the few developed countries with a robust economy, relative to its overwhelming size. It grew smartly at an average of 2.5 per cent over 1990 to 2016 (versus world growth 2.8 per cent). In Europe and Japan, ageing and poor economic policies are slowing down the revival process, post the 2008 slowdown. But America, thanks to its ‘open-doors’ policy for talent, its zeal for innovation and a super-educational architecture, has rebounded –– even though President Trump continues to play to the injured sentiments of middle America, which sees growth and jobs as a zero sum game.  But psychologically, America is shrinking into a smaller island of prosperity than it needs to be. The mood of the nation is to cut its losses overseas, lock the doors and count its millions. This is akin to voluntary national euthanasia.

China Russia

China, despite much less going for it physically, is psychologically expansive in its ambitions – eager to fill the gaps opened up by a receding America. In 2016, GDP at US$ 9.5 trillion (constant $ 2010) was roughly where America was in 1990. Despite high levels of inequality, which concentrates the incremental growth and wealth at the top, President Xi enjoys enviable domestic support. The average Chinese is gung-ho about occupying centre stage in global affairs.  Strategic allocation of its surplus for investments overseas has created an alternative variety of quasi sovereign international finance which, to put it bluntly, seeks to “immizerise”- to twist Professor Bhagwati’s signature concept-  the beneficiary nations who accept its cheap loans.

China investment

Inability to repay the loans followed by benevolent ever-greening of the loans, will bind the beneficiary nations into a long-term, largely one-sided financial relationship, reducing once independent nations to vassals. The Chinese will try and stretch out this symbiotic arrangement till they either supersede or take control of the United Nations and related institutional arrangements for management of international affairs. China might become the largest economy by 2030, and by 2040 indentured nations will have little choice except to bow to Chinese dominance, much like an addict wanting her next shot at any cost. It is unclear, however, if China will have the staying power to continue to splurge cash on winning friends till then.

Their game plan is not very different from what America itself followed post-1945. Financing the reconstruction of Europe and Japan bound these countries to America, creating a politico-economic group which represented 66 per cent of world GDP in 1960. Back then, America itself accounted for a heady 40 per cent of world GDP.

G7

This set of “friends of America” (FOA) still account for around 58 per cent of world GDP. But America’s share has shrivelled to around 18 per cent of world GDP. This is the core of President Trump’s angst. Whilst the FOA group has grown significantly since 1960, under American protection, they continue to be free riders when it comes to spending big bucks on global security. Indeed, avoiding large outlays on defence expenditure has enabled these economies to divert resources for growth and social welfare.

The truant behaviour by POTUS at the Quebec G7 meet should be viewed in this context. One can even make the argument that the trade wars are not so much directed at China but at America’s own allies – a wakeup call to start paying the bills for global domination. America is set to become an international wallflower after a half century of global domination.

China grew spectacularly at just under 10 per cent per year over 1990-2016. But to achieve somewhere close to the critical mass – 30 per cent of world GDP- needed for global domination, it will need to grow for twenty more years at 4 per cent above the rate of world growth. But unlike America, it does not yet have a set of permanent allies, who could pump up the group share.

SCO

India is a likely candidate for such friendship. Russia and India share traditional bonds which have deepened through the purchase, by India, of defence equipment. A bloc comprising China, India, Russia and Iran (CIRI) can pump up China’s economic heft to around 45 per cent of world GDP by 2040. China and India, respectively, would account for around 30 and 10 per cent of world GDP.

Admittedly, CIRI would be a grouping of convenience. The Friends of America group, in comparison, are glued together by history, culture, religion & race (other than Japan) and the liberal democratic State architecture.

It is unclear which way India should turn. India will be an easy fit into the FOA group because of shared liberal democratic values; history and language. India could bring to that group the demographic energy, at a scale they lack. But it is in the CIRI group, that India could play the more substantive role, including by providing much needed soft power to pull-in other nascent liberal democracies. In neither group is India likely to be the decisive partner over the next 20 years, which hurts our ego.

switzerland

A third pragmatic option is to play Switzerland on an international scale. Remain a neutral, trusted adviser to both groups – neither antagonistic nor subservient to either whilst remaining focused on shared economic growth domestically. International credibility to chart this principled course would depend upon developing a domestic eco-system reflecting these principles. This course suits Indian aspirations for leadership best. But are we, ourselves, ready to live by an elevated moral and human code?

Also available at https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/indias-geo-political-choices-till-2040/

Follow the money to tackle the fiscal perfect storm

Piyush Goyal 2

Piyush Goyal, the interim finance minister, will need to be a lucky general if he is to overcome the triple challenge of widening trade and fiscal deficits and lacklustre private investment.

Exports – India’s achilles heel

Despite our comparative advantage of cheap, skilled labour and entrepreneurial zeal, export pessimism is endemic — unlike in China. Last year we imported goods worth $460 billion, while exports were just $303 billion, leaving a trade gap of $157 billion. We try and cope with the trade deficit by mimicking the American economy — minus the pull of its global currency. We maintain a strong, stable rupee and high interest rates to encourage inward financial flows of capital to plug the deficit in the external account and protect our foreign reserves.

Our saviors – inward remittances from Indians in the Gulf

Gulf workers

We are blessed that our valiant expatriates in the Gulf states regularly repatriate their foreign earnings to finance their families struggling to survive in India. Net inward remittances — around $70 billion per year — cover around one-half of our trade deficit. The inward flow of foreign direct investment and “hot money” flowing into our equity and debt markets provide the residual foreign exchange for imports.

Aping America’s strategy to manage its external account, is out of context

A chronic trade deficit forces us into economic contortions. One such is high interest rates to generate demand for the rupee, never mind that it permanently disadvantages exports and makes domestic production uncompetitive, versus imports. A new monetary policy announcement is due later this week. If the Reserve Bank of India increases base interest rates, it will be in line with its inflation targeting, rupee strengthening and external account stabilisation objectives.

High interest rates can kill our nascent economic recovery

The consequences for the domestic economy will be harshly adverse. Cheap money and a realistic exchange rate is what drove the Chinese juggernaut for years. Admittedly, it can also create bubbles. But private investment is at risk. The emerging political uncertainty and the yet to be completed corporate insolvency processes — affecting 15 per cent of bank assets — are investment dampners. Higher interest rates could well be the straw that breaks the donkey’s back. Public investment is always a poor substitute for private investment. It comes with the enormous risk of misallocating capital hugely, including for political ends.

A circle of wealth excluding the poor?

Political economy considerations also conspire to maintain the inward financial flows of “hot money”, which boosts stock market valuations. Over the last two months, foreign portfolio investors have sold a net amount of around $3 billion of Indian assets roiling our thin domestic stock and debt markets — eroding the wealth of 40 million equity holders. But it matters little for over 200 million other families, who continue to squirrel away their meagre savings into interest-bearing bank or post office savings accounts, or in gold.

Look beyond tax revenue to fund burgeoning expenditure

HAL

The Central government is constantly walking on a razor’s edge to achieve fiscal deficit targets – which is necessary to avoid stoking inflation. It is a tough call to choose between allowing oil spikes to pass through to consumer prices at the cost of stoking inflation and consumer anger, or to absorb the price increase within the general government finances, at the risk of blowing the fiscal deficit targets. The win-win solution is to find a source of additional non-debt financing, till the full benefits of GST kick in over the next five years. One option is to monetise the public investments made thus far in industrial entities, infrastructure and land.

Find a non-tax source to replace the cushion provided earlier by low oil prices

Ashok

During 2015-18, the government reduced the fiscal deficit by one per cent of GDP because of the availability of additional revenues of Rs 2 trillion from cheap oil. The government should target raising Rs 4 trillion over 2018-20 by monetising public assets, including the sale of equity in public sector undertakings. These capital inflows can help keep the fiscal deficit within three per cent of GDP. This is not easy. Embedded vested interests, which benefit from such investments, would create hurdles. Political capital will have to be spent.

Sell our “crown jewels” and monetise completed publicly financed projects 

NALCO

The disinvestment ministry was notionally empowered last year to discharge a limited mandate with respect to managing government equity in PSUs. But disinvestment remains a programme of simply selling government equity, when the stock market is high, to plug the fiscal hole and keep the fiscal deficit in check. 2017-18 was a landmark year. The government sold equity worth Rs 1 trillion due to very adroit management and with help from deep-pocket publicly-owned entities like ONGC, which bought into HPCL and other institutional investors who generated the demand pull. This was a one-off. The target this year is 20 per cent less at Rs 800 billion.

Air India is a high-profile disinvestment, which can stem the annual loss borne by the government. The 2016-17 loss was Rs 58 billion. Not enough to break the budget but unnecessary, and hence wasteful. No bids were received for it. Blame the flight of international capital to “risk-free” investments. Blame our fragile domestic political environment prior to the general election. But also blame low appetite within the administrative departments to let go of the PSUs that they control.

Don’t mimic the UPA – discipline departments which fight to retain PSU assets 

Air India

It is astonishing how quickly political capital can fade. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature theme was that his writ runs in the Central government. But the foot-dragging in the Air India disinvestment case seems to illustrate that this might have changed. Admittedly, Air India is an iconic brand. For long, you felt you were home once you boarded Air India — remember that familiar smell of curry? Selling it, specially to a foreign investor, is like the British selling Jaguar-Land Rover to the Tata Group. Pragmatic but heart rending. We have yet to become business-like about our crown jewels, as the British have. We sell our assets past their expiry dates and then wonder why we got peanuts.

Focus, diligence and smart choices can make a difference

Success in navigating through this perfect storm will depend on avoiding the bureaucratic gut instinct for “tax terrorism”; monetising public assets in mission mode; monitoring expenditure closely and ensuring fiscal discipline, while absorbing the oil price increase and providing for higher farm gate prices — two politically inescapable imperatives. If the finance minister is lucky, oil prices will subside; America’s tempestuous and unpredictable President will lapse into hubris and the domestic political landscape will change for the better. But don’t wait for it to happen.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, June 6, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/060618/a-fiscal-storm-looms-dont-wait-for-godot.html

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

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