governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Oil shock: Entry point for reform

POTUS Saudi

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

Who has POTUS benefited?

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

Who suffers the collateral economic damage?

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

The risks for India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

imports

The risk of balooning the fiscal deficit

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

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

Preserve oil PSU commercial autonomy

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

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

Slash frivolous budget allocations for current year

swaach

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

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

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

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

pollution

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

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

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

Piyush Goyal

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

Oil at $100+ soon?

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

POTUS

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting for all by Deepawali 2018

India diwali night

Poor or profligate households are often forced to borrow for meeting current expenditure. But most borrowers ensure that they are able to fund the interest payable from current income. Not so the Government of India. In fiscal 2016-17, interest payments on government loans amounted to Rs 4.8 trillion. The government had to borrow Rs 1.4 trillion (effective revenue deficit) to meet its interest payments.

Non merit subsidies compress the fiscal space

The reason government ran short, is that it spent Rs 2.3 trillion to reduce the cost of fertilizers for farmers; supply cheap cereals to the poor and reduce the price of cooking gas and kerosene. This income transfer mechanism is leaky – it benefits many more than just the poorest; it is expensive to administer; and it leads to the environmentally disastrous overuse of fertilizer by a few farmers with assured irrigation, as in Punjab and Haryana; encourages profligate use of cooking gas and adulteration of diesel with kerosene.

FM Jaitley – a fierce, fiscal Ayatollah

Jaitley ayatollah

To be fair, Finance Minister Jaitley, has leashed subsidies since 2015-16. In 2017-18 subsidy, on these three accounts, is budgeted only marginally higher than the previous year. But, interest payments are budgeted to increase to Rs 5.2 trillion, even as the net borrowing is budgeted to decrease to Rs 1.26 trillion. Reduced borrowing is unlikely. Significantly lower than anticipated growth and lower inflation will depress nominal revenues and increase the need for loans.

But politics beckons

BJP politics

The launch, by Prime Minister Modi, of a scheme this week to connect the estimated 16% households (40 million out of 248 million) who live sans electricity, will be welcomed by the beneficiaries. But the fiscal implications are worrisome.

Two options exist. Either connect these households by distributed solar power or extend the distribution grid into their homes. Of the two, renewable supply is a better option.  It requires capital expenditure to buy equipment. But the recurrent cost on maintenance is minimal, at least for the first three years, till the battery is replaced. Of course, this is not an option if solar intensity is low; rooftops are not available or if the maintenance supply chain is dodgy.

Renewable energy micro-grids – a sustainable option

Micro grid

Some of these downsides can be met by opting for renewable energy micro grids, managed by a private franchisee. This model is used in several states, including Bihar, with which R.K. Singh, the new minister for power, is familiar. The franchisee can make a profit, even where the utility cannot, because distribution line-loss, which on average is 20%, is minimized; private workers cost less and work more than public sector workers and the renewable capital cost is subsidized.

What customers prefer is to be connected to a grid, managed by the distribution utility. This assures them that as their needs ramp up, they would get better supply on demand. The problem is of asymmetric expectations. Distribution utilities do not want more low value, domestic customers because subsidy compensation from state governments are patchy and there is no profit to be made.

Grid power – burdened by past indiscretions

Of the 41 distribution utilities, assessed by ICRA/CARE for Power Finance Corporation in 2017, as many as 22 or more than 50%, ranked below average due to unsatisfactory financials. Expectedly, most, though not all, are in the poorer states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the share of industrial and commercial load is low.  Industry pays double of what it costs to service them whilst farmers and small domestic users pay, either nothing at all, or just a fraction of what it costs to service them. High electricity prices for industry and commercial users is one reason why business flounders or opts instead for self-owned oil based generation. This is a triple whammy for Make in India; energy security and environmental sustainability. Map the highest electricity supply rates for industry across states and you will have a map of de-industrialized India.

Last year, under the Uday Scheme, 16 distribution utilities transferred debts exceeding Rs 2 trillion to their state governments. These debts had funded their annual revenue loss. Going forward state governments are to compensate the loss of distribution utilities. Increasing the number of poor customers significantly will either deteriorate utility finances or stress state government budgets.

Being stingy with current expenditure is virtuous

Electricity is different from telecom. Each additional customer comes with significant marginal cost. Nearly two thirds of the cost of supply is the cost of fuel; metering, billing and collecting; installing and operating transformers to step down electricity supply to domestic use voltage levels and wires to connect with the customer. These add to the cost and the potential for theft. All this is neatly sidestepped in mobile telephony, by just topping up your pre-paid SIM. Pre-paid meters are possible in electricity too but they are too expensive for small users and susceptible to tampering.

Union government finances are under threat in fiscal 2017-18. State governments also risk overshooting their fiscal deficit targets. Limiting current expenditure to the revenue available is an urgent, near-term objective. This is best done by deepening the Finance Minister’s stance of freezing subsidies at nominal levels, within the existing envelop. Dovetailing the renewable power generation program with the target of lighting every home by Deepawali 2018, is a sustainable and “best fit” option.

Also available at https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/lighting-for-all-by-deepawali-2018/

Avoid the global climate leader trap

Paris cops 1

What is it about the Indian elite, which makes them salivate at the thought of global leadership? Barely had President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris accord, that we were exulting at the thought of an “opening” for India at the high table of global climate leaders.

The tail can’t wag the dog of climate change

Can India, which contributes just 3 percent of world GDP, substitute for the US with 23 percent of world GDP? The key to mitigate climate change is to decarbonize GDP. Only those who have the GDP can contribute significantly.

Rich, developed countries contribute 68 percent of world GDP, each with a per capita income above US$12,476. Of this the European Union and North America each account for 25 percent. Not even China is part of this select group,

China figures as a newly emerged economy in the upper middle-income group, which contributes 24 percent of world GDP with per capita incomes starting at US$4036. China, with a per capita income of US$7380, has a share of one half of the GDP of this group.

To put this perspective, India, with a per capita income of just US$ 1590, will take 11 years of growth at 9 percent per year, to enter this group. We must remember that we are puny – with a per capita income just above the average for 34 fragile and conflict affected areas. Even heroic actions within a 3 percent share of world GDP does not count for much.

China is the key climate leader

Xi Merkel

President Trump is right in backing away from leadership in climate change. The US faces a fundamental, domestic, economic crisis; a fragmenting social compact and a deteriorating external account. This constrains its ability to influence global agendas. Ageing Europe and its ATM – Germany, will struggle to just hang in there and keep national welfare levels at current levels. Russia is similarly in relative decline and cannily, already a junior partner in the China bloc. It is China, to whom we must look for world leadership, in limiting climate change.

But there are things we can also do, which are aligned with national welfare.

Get the private investment cycle going

projects

First, “counting our pennies” carefully before splurging public funds is a fail-safe option for sustainable development, poverty reduction and managing corruption.  We have failed to do this over the last fifteen years. The results are the bad loans of the publicly owned banks, aggregating to around 5 percent of the GDP. The RBI, has been newly anointed to clean the clogged balance sheets of the banks and corporates. But the magnitude and complexity of the task will require that discretion be applied judiciously for a quick resolution. In the current environment of heightened distrust, this is possible only via an empowered committee of ministers; select representatives from the opposition in parliament; the RBI; the CAG and the higher judiciary to cut through the mess in a practical, fair and conclusive manner. Only then can we get the investment cycle restarted.

Use public funds to leverage private investment in “green” tech

go green

Second, mitigating climate change means allocating capital wisely to “green” technology – renewables, storage systems, efficient transport, eco-friendly habitats, carbon sinks, organic farms and bio-nutrients. Whilst using public funds, ensuring that private investment has sufficient “skin in the game” is necessary, to retain the “bottom line” compass in projects. This requires effective collaboration or tweaking the sarkari plumbing – new rules delegating financial and administrative powers; well-defined codes and processes and clear oversight to fix accountability. The existing system is overly centralized. A Secretary to the Government of India is seemingly “personally accountable” for all decisions within a department.

Manage local pollution to enhance well-being and global empathy

pollution

Third, managing local pollution is an immediate priority. Using solar power and gas for household energy needs is a welcome step. Ideally, the Solar Alliance should provide ready access to infrastructure and fiscal incentives to international research labs to set up shop in India. Facilitating Chinese companies to invest in India for manufacturing solar technology components and products can integrate India into global supply chains and encourage mutual learning and collaboration between Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs.

Remain within our carbon emission envelop

Fourth, coal fuels two thirds our power generation. This worries external observers, like President Trump, particularly when they visualize massive future emissions led by economic growth. But this is a false hypothesis. India’s carbon emissions at 1.7 tons per capita is just 10 percent of the per capita US emissions of 17.1 tons per capita. The ever so dreamily liberal and socially conscious Canada, emits 14 tons per capita. Even if our emissions increase by three times to 5.1 tons per capita, these would still be lower than emissions in the Euro zone of 7 tons per capita. The targeted increase in the share of renewable energy (other than large hydro and nuclear) to 40 percent of electricity generation, is further proof that India’s plans are aligned with sustainable growth targets.

Wash coal at mine mouth

air pollution

But we need to start washing all the coal we use. Indian coal is of poor quality. Fortunately, it is also low in Sulphur, so unlike Australian and American coal it does not contribute to acid rain. Washing capacity remains limited at around 10 percent of mined coal. Even this is under utilised. Power generators, say it is not financially rewarding to wash coal since they cannot pass through the cost under regulated tariffs. Coal India, the publicly owned coal monopoly, has no incentives to improve quality since they work on a regulated rate of return basis. Washing costs only around Rs 40 per Ton of coal. Coal India should only supply washed and sized coal to large customers. The additional cost can be met through a differential Clean Environment Cess (currently a uniform Rs 400 per Ton) for washed and raw coal.

Manage domestic and global expectations

Widespread poverty – affecting an estimated 40 percent of our 1.25 billion people – and low growth rates have constrained India’s carbon footprint. Delinking carbon from growth is far from easy in a desperately poor, decentralized, democratic country like India. True leadership, in this game, will be to remain below the global radar of carbon emission targets but substantially above the domestic radar of expectations on economic growth and jobs. Better monitoring of all three vectors – carbon emissions, growth and jobs, will be key in convincing the constituencies for each, that India is pulling far above her weight in all three. People who are the change also lead.

Modi Xi

Pensioning-off cows

cow veneration

So is “the cow” (including bulls) a living deity, like the Ganga or Yamuna rivers, to be revered as a “mother”, or just another productive asset like a buffalo or a goat? This debate dates to the Constituent Assembly sessions in the late 1940s.

Cow protection smuggled into a non operative part of the Constitution

constituent assembly

Hindu traditionalist members of the Constituent Assembly wanted complete protection for the cow as a fundamental right. This was stolidly opposed by realists like B.R. Ambedkar, who saw it as a veiled attempt to deify upper caste brahmanical practices, to the detriment of the poor — for whom the cow means a source of milk, meat and leather.

Modernists like Jawaharlal Nehru thought it would blemish the liberal, secular character of the Constitution. A consensus was urgently required. Clever drafting by Dr Ambedkar pleased all by inserting an ambivalently worded Article 48 (on working towards prohibiting cow slaughter) in the Directive Principles, that are not legally enforceable. Therein lies buried the knotty, seven-decade-old problem of what the cow means to Indians.

But Hindu reverence for the cow has increased seven decades later

Neither modern education nor “development” has diminished the demand for prohibition of slaughter. Educated, well-off Hindus, across castes, are avid supporters. Higher incomes enable more people to “Sanskritise” — fashion their customs by emulating brahmanical practices. Vegetarianism is a “luxury” in desperately poor India, as is substituting cereals with vegetables and lentils. The clamour to save the cow will increase as ever more people are economically capable of “assimilating” themselves, culturally, into upper castes. Beef is already an “inferior” food eaten mostly by the poor.

Our “secular” government and political parties are politically expedient

Rather than amend the Constitution outright to reflect this demand, devious bureaucratic means have been adopted to achieve the same effect, whilst hiding behind the economic usefulness of the cow. Nine state governments — Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat — ban the slaughter of cows and bulls outright. Seven states — Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Sikkim and Kerala — allow slaughter. Others permit slaughter of animals who are no longer productive — usually more than 15 years old. The varying levels of “protection” are directly related to Hindu upper caste political dominance in a state. The only exception is J&K — a Muslim-majority state, which bans cow slaughter. In more normal times this would be an example of our “syncretic” culture.

New rules drive Beef markets underground

cow markets

The Union government has chipped in by banning the export of beef and cows, thereby minimising the incentive for cow slaughter. It also promulgated rules on May 23, 2017 under a Central law, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, which ensure cattle markets are not used to purchase “bovine” animals for slaughter. The rules are onerous. They require multiple certifications, declarations and identity verifications. They will ensure all sale/purchase of “cattle”, which includes buffalos and camels, would end in cattle markets. Curiously, a convenient “out” remains available. Direct purchase from a cattle owner doesn’t attract these rules. The net result will be trading will move to one-on-one sale/purchase, or to large commercial dairy farms — now facilitated by the agricultural land leasing policy. These will be informal cattle trading hubs, without health certification to ensure meat quality.

Ironically, even as the Niti Aayog and agriculture ministry are striving to make agricultural markets efficient, the trade in dairy animals is being driven underground. Perversely, the new rules are being touted as the fallout of a July 2016 Supreme Court order, that was intended primarily to stop the flourishing cross-border traffic of cattle into Nepal and Bangladesh. The loud protests by West Bengal and Kerala and muted noises from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are as farcical, playing to the dalit and Muslim vote banks.

Are we willing to pay for pensioning-off cows?

Surely, this farce played out repeatedly, since 1948, should end now. Why not have a referendum to establish the extent of support for cow protection? Seth Govind Das suggested this in 1948. The cost would be around Rs 50 billion, equal to the cost of a general election. The outcome, as in Brexit, is by no means certain.

If the existing 190 million (2012 data) indigenous and hybrid cows are to be cared for after their useful life, for say an additional five years (underestimated), the annual cost at a daily spend per animal of Rs 50 is Rs 1.1 trillion.

This is four times the spend in 2017-18 on medical, public health, welfare of SC-ST, backward castes and minorities and social security — spread thinly across around 400 million of India’s income-insecure citizens. It’s more than half the spending on defence. Maneka Gandhi and animal rights activists will be delighted, but it’s impossible to fund a pension scheme for cows publicly.

cow employment

Cow retirement homes run by the private sector on viability gap funding basis will create around one million jobs. But there is no free lunch, even for spiritual or emotional fulfilment. So how many of the 280 million Indian households would be willing to pay an additional Rs 4,100 per year for protecting the cow?

What about the environmental consequences of keeping 70 million old cows

The 1.5 lakh hectares of land to house the “retired” cows can be found. But the additional water resources — far exceeding the needs of 200 million humans — would be a challenge. The retired, unproductive cows will increase methane emission, which are worse than carbon dioxide, by an estimated 0.6 per cent, even as we are struggling to reduce carbon emissions.

Of course, it may never come to this absurd end. Farmers won’t buy cows if they can’t sell them for slaughter. Bulls are redundant in mechanised farming. Buffalos are more productive milk producers. “Nandi” clone bulls and milk white cows might become like racehorses or elephants — the treasured preserve of rich people and temples. And this is how it should be.

bulls

If the suggestion by Justice Mahesh Chand Sharma of the Rajasthan high court (now retired) “trends” sufficiently, the cow could become India’s third national animal, alongside the other “big two” —tiger (de jure) and Gir lions (de facto). Welcome to India’s new-age action safari.

cow temple

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age June 3, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/030617/the-cow-indias-icon-wholl-pay-the-price.html

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

 

Book Review: Just erratic not deranged

ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s latest book—The Great Derangement—is an exploration of why contemporary culture, imagination and political systems have failed to prevent global warming, despite its cataclysmic long-term effects and disruptive short-term outcomes.

His choice of the book’s title reflects the conundrum facing poor nations. They are not the ones who benefited from the carbon economy. But to aspire to do this now, when there is no carbon space left, is a one-way ticket to self-annihilation. Hence, the derangement of the modern world, racing towards a future, where consuming itself becomes the only option. Curbing global warming means debunking the fundamental values on which the modern world is built. Central to this artifact is the notion that man is the centre of the universe. Non-human forces, like nature, have no place in this calculus of liberty and modernity.To recognise global warming as a problem, you first have to reject the paradigm that the unconstrained liberty of man is a leitmotif of human progress. Hence the unwillingness and the inability to face or deal with the problem.

Nature’s pawns

This is a cleverly crafted book, as would be expected from a novelist extraordinaire. Divided into three parts, it starts with “Stories”. This segment situates humans as powerless, organic sub-systems of a larger force—restless and dynamic nature. Stories of his family—climate refugees from Bangladesh; of self-doubt after a sudden, destructive tornado in Delhi; of raw beauty and sudden death in the muddy, torpid, densely tangled greenery of the Sundarbans reinforce that we are not masters of the universe.

Inequality and the urge to splurge

The second section on History, draws together three defining strands of the late 17th to the early 20th centuries. First, the availability and use of fossil fuels which were an important precondition for wealth and power. Second—the use of technology to improve productive capacity. Third—the growth of modern empires as the political mechanism for extracting the supply of raw materials; controlling access to technology and keeping overseas markets open for exported manufactured goods. Empires faded in the late 20th century but the extractive process continued. The elite—foreign and domestic—comprise not more than one fourth of the world population, but continue to become wealthy at the expense of the bottom three fourths.

gas-guzzler

The third section is on Politics. Ghosh argues cynically that so little has been done to mitigate climate change because the rich world will be able to insulate itself from the horrific outcomes. The shock will primarily be borne by the poor. Littoral countries like Bangladesh, Seychelles and Vietnam and poor communities, within countries, will be the worst affected.

A captive media

Ghosh believes the deafening silence in the media around climate change is because it has been bought out by the huge corporates who own fossil fuel assets. The silence in literature is because his peers—writers, poets and intellectuals—are bludgeoned into conformity by the formulaic path to success of shunning the unpredictable and situating a story within the predictable activities of everyday life, with the individual as the central character.

Can religion help where politics has failed?

Not much can be expected from politicians either. They are so immersed in “bio-politics”—catering to the short-term interests of a defined population of voters—that they have little appetite for long-term global risks. For what it is worth, differences in economic ideology across parties have become minimal in India. All the political parties which have ruled India since 1991 have adhered to the broad neo-liberal construct of economic development. So, quite possibly, the devil lies in the incentives created by this economic model to produce and consume in larger volumes. He cites the December 2016 Paris Agreement as subterfuge and doublespeak, promising to do much without, in effect, doing anything.

He compares this shallow and evasive, politically negotiated international agreement with the direct and forceful Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis issued at the same time. The latter fingers the ruling “technocratic paradigm” and the objectification of endless growth as the problem rather than the solution. It calls for tempering individualism with the balm of social and ecological justice. Ghosh notes that similar voices are being heard within the Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths. This leads him to believe that greater community activism led by religious leaders could be the answer to mobilize opinion for definitive steps to abate global warming.

naga

Ghosh’s stand is unusual for a secular rationalist. But this is consistent with an approach which absolves religion of its divisive outcomes. He speculates (page 150) that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a former member of a Hindu party because he was perceived as weakening India by opposing industrialisation and consumerism. No references are quoted to support this “economic” explanation. The more usual view is to attribute the killing to Hindu apprehensions that the Mahatma was too politically accommodating of minority interest.Ghosh also seems to step lightly away from the conundrum that using religion for secular purposes is akin to riding a tiger, particularly in India’s surcharged environment, perpetuated by religious faultlines. Indira Gandhi paid the price for doing just that.

The world is increasingly more not less sustainable

 

cyclists

Ghosh’s rhetoric is elegant and elegiac. His reasoning is impeccably logical. But his morbid assessment of where we are today and of our future prospects does not triangulate with reality. The world is becoming less carbon-intensive. Every incremental unit of output requires less energy than the previous one. It is true that explosive economic growth in Asia since 1980 has negated this advantage and the global mean temperature continues to increase. But renewable energy options are being developed for air, road and marine transportation, thereby further diluting the link between the use of fossil energy and economic growth. Similarly, technology developments like LED lighting have vastly improved the efficiency of energy services. Climate risk is increasingly being factored into the cost of insurance and the hurdle rate of return for investors. This will drive smart green investments.

We are winning the war on poverty

International aid agencies, governments—of which China is the exemplar, and communities, all working in tandem, have successfully reduced poverty and are on track to eliminate it by 2030. Yes, inequality is on the rise but at a significantly elevated base income level. The opening up of international trade has diluted the link between political domination and market access. Even small nations like Vietnam or Mauritius have benefited from international markets. International trade has democratised resource endowment by making petroleum, minerals and metals available to resource-poor countries. Three out of the four largest economies today—China, Japan and India—are natural resource-poor. They have grown over the last half century by importing fossil fuel and technology. None of the three tops the charts in military might.

child

Choice and progress

The spread and deepening of democracy has expanded opportunities for the disadvantaged and smashed earlier glass ceilings, including for women. Adoption of the open economy model has expanded imported competition while deregulation has nurtured domestic competition, for the benefit of consumers. There is more choice today than at any point in history.The world is a more peaceful place than a century ago. That this holds true despite growing sectarian violence in India’s near abroad and an increase in the number of nations armed with nuclear weapons, illustrates the high stakes everyone has in an enduring peace.

Plurality rules

Today, plural models for progress exist. These models are not country or culture specific. They are instead domain specific. Of the top 20 corporates in the world which accumulated the maximum value over the period 2009-2015, not a single company was in oil or gas; as many as eight were in technology or health care. All of them excelled at the capacity to innovate, communicate and compete. It’s a new world out there which defies explanation using traditional paradigms.

None of this means that we are on top of the problem of global warming, yet. But just as surely, there is more light visible, at the end of the tunnel, than has ever been seen before.

telescope

Adapted from the authors essay in Swarajya October 7, 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/its-not-that-scary

 

India’s “green” moves

solar-shade

Solar powered sun and rain shades in India!

India formally ratified the Paris climate agreement on Sunday, notwithstanding that Donald Trump trashed global warming, last week, as a hoax and efforts to control it as expensive and ineffective.

The United States contributes around 16 per cent of world carbon emissions. Truculence in its approach to manage global warming can scuttle the efforts of the rest of the world. Mr Trump’s cavalier approach to climate change can only be explained by his belief that a slowing US economy should not be the one which pays to set the world’s climate right.This abdication of international leadership appears to resonate with his not inconsiderable supporters.

Clearly, the expectation is that China, which contributes 28 per cent of global emissions, needs to step up to the plate of international burden-sharing. China is now the world’s second largest economy. Despite the slowdown it is growing at three times the rate of the American economy. That is reason enough for higher expectations from it to play the role of a global leader.

china-smog

Photo credit: huffingtonpost.com

India is also a fast-growing economy. In the long term we may be where China is today. But not for a while yet. We are just one-fifth of the Chinese economy. Our emissions are just six per cent of world emissions. Our global ambitions should be commensurate with our constraints. This is why, unlike China, we have not committed to cap our emissions at a predetermined level.

Paris – the agree to disagree concord

Under the Paris climate agreement countries have agreed to disagree. It is now left to individual nations to exercise “strategic direction” in developing their future energy profile and “tactical restraint” in energy consumption.The decentralised responsibility is welcome but worrisome on two counts. First, countries which are too small to make a difference but which will face the wrath of global warming like island countries now have to depend not on covenant but on the generosity of others to survive. Second poor, technologically deficient countries will now pay more to mitigate global warming since there are no pressing compulsions for the rich to change consumption patterns or develop carbon benign technology for domestic use.

India’s challenge is to remain green

green-house

Laurie Baker’s characteristic green building in Kerala

Altogether 37 per cent of India’s energy consumption is non-fossil fuel based. This is fairly similar to the world non-fossil fuel energy consumption of 33 per cent. But the big difference is that bio energy accounts for only two per cent of the world’s green energy consumption, unlike in India, where biomass accounts for 92 per cent of the renewable energy used.Hydro power and new renewables — solar and wind- account for just six per cent and nuclear for two per cent of our green energy profile.

india-cooking-2

The challenge for India is to ensure that as incomes grow, poor consumers – who use non commercial biomass sources today like dung, firewood and agricultural residue for heating and cooking – should graduate to new renewables like solar and wind, rather than go down the fossil fuel route, as the OECD countries have done. This challenge is principally for the government, not consumers. Consumers typically want energy services — cooling, heating, cooking and transport. They don’t really care about the fuel that provides these services. It is for the government to put in place the incentives which drive energy suppliers to provide renewable energy services.Energy users are underserved in India particularly in dispersed habitations. This presents the opportunity to use renewables to bridge the gap in innovative ways.

To be sure, domestic compulsions like smog do compel us to clean our energy profile. India already has economic incentives in place for this. High energy prices induce energy efficiency in industry. High taxes on petrol and diesel are expected to result in frugal consumption for personal transport. Scarce public funds are allocated to subsidise renewable electricity. Investment in public transport is being stepped up to substitute high energy-intensity personal vehicles. Rail freight has been reduced to stem the shift to the more energy-intensive road transport. Bulk public purchase and supply of low-energy intensive LED bulbs help manage domestic electricity peak load. The path to carbon sustainability is fortunately closely aligned to the the path to make our economy competitive by squeezing out the fat along he supply chain. But gains in the efficiency with which energy services are delivered  can only mitigate, at best, around 20 percent of our additional energy needs.

The compulsions to consume more energy services are stark.India’s per capita energy consumption is just 0.6 tons of oil equivalent (toe) versus global per capita consumption of 1.9 toe. India will likely consume four times the energy it does today to provide welfare enhancing energy services to its citizens. Similar compulsions face most developing countries in South Asia and Africa.Only a technological revolution in clean energy and in energy storage systems can delink the growth led increase in energy consumption from unsustainable levels of carbon emissions.

Target renewable energy services

Setting up clunky publicly owned entities to research and transfer renewable technology to industry is not the way to go. Backing selected private firms willing to invest in renewables in anticipation of an assured domestic market is also tough. We don’t have the democratic space in India, unlike South Korea, to back industrial winners.Transparent subsidies on the “viability gap funding” template will suit the private sector best to innovate, implement and increase the consumption of renewable energy. Shifting the subsidy from energy generation to the provision of energy services can enlarge the pool of potential investors whilst retaining the objectives of efficiency and effectiveness in subsidy provision.

solar-bus

Prime Minister Modi flags off a solar bus service for MPs

Link green subsidies explicitly to revenue – social cost based levies on fossil fuel and a green cess

India’s clean energy strategy is built around the principle of minimising environmental damage whilst maximising economic growth. But the implementation of good principles also needs accurate and timely monitoring mechanisms to ensure that progress is along the desired trajectories. One such mechanism is to monitor the social cost of our fossil energy consumption and to use the data for fiscal allocations. The Arvind Subramanian report on pulses has suggested the inclusion of social cost, with respect to water intensity, while determining the maximum support price of agricultural food products, to ensure that subsidies do not deplete our water reserves. This is a good way of allocating public resources.

Social cost filter for resource allocation

If a social cost filter is adopted for allocating finances, public investment in the railways and in coastal shipping would surely trump investment on road transport. This is also a good mechanism for making users pay differentially for the energy they use. Charging more from those who use electricity at peak time is justifiable beyond the additional financial cost it imposes, to being an affirmation of commitment to going green. Habitats, offices and homes all impose social costs and must be taxed in proportion to the extent of their footprint. This “green tax” should be used to directly subsidise green energy and energy conservation.

A green balance sheet – green tax revenue and expenditure 

The government should consider including a green fiscal resources allocation and tax collection balance sheet along with the annual financial budget. This would provide, at a glance, the revenues collected by taxing fossil fuel and the capital allocated for green energy initiatives. Similar green fiscal resource balance sheets at the state and municipality level could feed into a green national fiscal framework.

India has traditionally punched above its weight in international affairs. Preserving the global commons is a lofty goal; an opportunity to upstage the international economic Goliaths and to improve well-being at home.

laurie-baker

Laurence Wilfred “Laurie” Baker 1917-2007 – architect & practioner of the science of living comfortably with nature. Seen here with his wife Elizabeth, in their home in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age October 4, 2016  http://www.asianage.com/columnists/green-taxes-cleaner-india-600

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