governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

BJPs half-win in Gujarat


The David versus Goliath battle in Gujarat Assembly elections has ended, as expected, with Rahul Gandhi failing to pry away the State from the BJP. But the Modi magic has been dented, particularly with the slim margin of victory and the loss of his home constituency of Unja. With a 41% plus vote share the Congress has reasserted its political credibility in the state.

What is the glue which binds the 41% plus vote share of the Congress?

Of course, it remains to be seen, how well the glue, which holds the Congress together, sticks. State level legislative assemblies do not function in a manner which provides the opposition a forum for high profile “statesmanship” as should be the norm in parliamentary democracies. It is pretty much a zero-sum game with the executive getting most of the face time.

gujarat-elections Gandhi

Five corrective steps for the BJP 

So, will the Congress leave the BJP in the dust, in the general elections of 2019? Yes, it may, unless the BJP takes five corrective steps – broaden its core leadership; roll out public jobs; junk Hindu consolidation; push federal decision-making in education and health and go hell for leather in rolling out infrastructure.

Broaden the core leadership

First, the BJP should seriously consider bolstering the public profiles of their state chief ministers and rely on them to win the state elections rather than just on the Prime Minister’s charisma. MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are coming up for elections in 2018.

It is ironical, that such homilies were once regularly directed at the dynastic Congress, which had systematically decimated its state level leadership to ward of “pretenders” to the Gandhi fiefdom. Today, it is the BJP, once a party of open entry and merit, which needs to go back to the future.

2019 will be traumatic if state level BJP leadership sits on its hands, whilst only the Shah-Modi combine toil.

Create publicly funded jobs as an interim filler


Second, if young voters are to be attracted to the BJP, it is jobs, which will do the trick. There is precious little the BJP can do, over the next two years, to turn around the gloomy situation on jobs in the private sector. But there is nothing to stop it from recruiting youngsters for government. Done strategically, every person given a job, creates hope in at least ten others. If government can increase employment by a million people, ten million others feel hopeful.

Even in the civilian (excluding the military) part of the central government, employment has declined by around 2,00,000 since 2001. There are 4,20,000 unfilled positions today. In the broader public sector, which includes all state and local governments, employment has fallen by 2 million since the peak, in 1995, of 19.5 million. Filling up these 2 million jobs provides hope to 20 million youngsters. This is a no-brainer.

Junk the strategy of Hindu consolidation

Third, the strategy of consolidating the Hindu vote. It is dead in the water. Prime Minister Modi must revert to his 2014 vision of a multicultural, meritocratic nation for the good of all citizens, with no obeisance to caste or religious divides, for narrow political ends. Hindus are not under threat in India, nor is their culture under threat of being swamped.

The minorities need to feel that they are a minority, only nominally. That being a minority is only an arithmetic fact. That what they can achieve for themselves, their families and society, is limited only by their own inhibitions and not by an unsupportive state architecture.

Just as surely, putting the young in touch with their roots; correcting history, where it may have been written with a bias; building a national consensus on language and cultural policy, are all legitimate State objectives. State actions seem menacing only when they are a cloak for achieving partisan political ends.

Extend the federal council concept (GST) to education & health

Fourth, political federalism has taken a backseat beyond implementation of the GST. The central government must broad base this principle with respect to areas in the concurrent list of the constitution, where both the Union government and the state government have a mandate to legislate. Education and health are two key areas.

Clones of the GST council could be formally created in education and health, to make decisions on allocation and utilization of funds, participative and consensual. India lags, even many developing countries in Sub Saharan Africa, on education and health metrics. Joined up action; significant expansion in the public education and health services; leveraging technology to improve the quality of services and a doubling of budgetary outlays in both sectors are reforms which can be implemented in the short term. Just focusing on these basic services can spread a warm, nurturing glow amongst voters.

Gap filling of infrastructure better then new projects

Fifth, focus on completing last mile gaps in infrastructure rather than new projects to maximize value creation. Jobs, better connectivity, lower transaction costs – all flow from public investment in this sector. Some innovation is needed. Crowd sourcing small infrastructure can reduce the fiscal burden.

More significantly, this makes private citizens and entities feel like partners not just recipients of public largesse. Assuring decent returns on private funds contributed in this manner will help. Think – functional street lights; road over or under passes for pedestrians; public toilets; better public transport; better water supply.

Bulk up budget re-allocation resources for infra, edu & health by 3% of GDP

The fiscal situation is already under severe stress. The money will need to be found by reallocating the existing funds. Additional funds to the tune of 3 per cent of GDP need to be directed towards health, education and infrastructure. Cutting back on defense allocations and starving peripheral departments of funds can achieve this objective over the next two years.


The BJP has been on a winning streak thus far. It is now time to defend the political fortress it has built. How it goes about doing so, will make the difference between a fractured, weak India in 2020 or a progressive, forward looking nation, fulfilling citizen aspirations.

Also available at TOI Blogs December 18, 2017

Aadhaar – catching crooks & criminals

UIDAI members

The Aadhaar fever started in 2009, when the UPA government was in office. It encountered turbulent times in 2014 when the government changed. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a technology enthusiast, was persuaded to look beyond the past at the opportunity it gave to reduce official discretion and corruption, whilst targeting and delivering public services.

Inspirational achievements: Speed, scale, low cost & sustainable institutions

The results have been impressive on three counts — speed, cost and sustainability. First, the system was scaled up at breathtaking speed. Around 15 citizens were digitally registered every second, over seven years, assuming a 60-hour week.  Registering 1.2 billion residents out of around 1.3 billion, in a country spanning 3.3 million sq km is by itself a “never- before” achievement.

Second, unbelievably, this feat was achieved at a nominal cost of Rs 73, a little more than $1, per person. The norm for biometric identification anywhere else has been at least $10 per person. Clearly, frugal Indian innovation was at its best here.

Third, Nandan Nilekani, the single parent of Aadhaar, moved on in early 2014, serially to politics, social impact ventures and today heads Infosys as its non-executive chairman. Small, effective public institutions — UIDAI had a sanctioned staff of just 115 in 2009 — tend to be helmed by charismatic banyan trees — leaders who allow nothing to grow under their horizontally spread branches. But the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which he first headed, continues to flourish, which speaks volumes of its sustainable management systems and the quality of successor chairpersons.

Why, then, the angst?

So why then the public angst against Aadhaar? Three reasons come to mind — all of them related not to the technical effectiveness of the system itself but the manner in which it is proposed to be used.

Illegal immigrants are rich political fodder

First comes politics. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — between three million to 20 million — along with legal immigrants from Nepal, have acquired voter IDs and ration cards. They are difficult to distinguish from their neighbours. But it has also suited the government politically, till now, to not identify such immigrants. Aadhaar can upset political calculations. Targeting Aadhaar at residents — a more inclusive genre — than citizens was a compromise solution. But the threat remains that this powerful data set will feed into culling voter lists of duplicates or ghosts and weeding out passports wrongly issued to people who were never Indian citizens.

We are all “crooks”

Second is the scale of disruption associated with ending corruption. Consider that 14 per cent of Indians, or 180 million, have a driving licence. But one-third are fake and many more are improperly given to ineligible drivers — a key factor in road fatalities.  290 million Indians have a unique number called PAN, required for filing income-tax. But 80 per cent are not authenticated with the Aadhaar database. This illustrates the poor integrity of the tax database.

Big bang reform catches headlines but induces a push back

Third, managerial ambitions have outrun executive caution in graduating the pushback from those adversely affected. From being a back-office tool, Aadhaar has become a digital shortcut to cull ghosts from the burgeoning food security scheme; weed out manipulations in income-tax submissions; introduce a security check over phone connections or use big data to link bank accounts, phone numbers, vehicles, houses, financial investments with each biometrically identified individual. Aadhaar is the shortcut to dig out our dirty secrets. And no one likes that.

Protection needed against low data integrity at time of issue & poor connectivity for authentication of Aadhar

aadhar center

Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act 2016 specifies that Aadhaar shall not be the sole arbiter of identity for accessing public benefits.  Section 5 makes it obligatory for UIDAI to get those, who lack identity documents — children, women, the specially-abled, senior citizens, workers in the unorganised sector, nomads are mentioned — covered under Aadhaar by other means. The intention is clear. The State must devise methods to include all residents in the database and ensure, till then, that the flow of public benefits to eligible recipients continues uninterrupted. Similarly, the onus for protecting the privacy of the individual is on the State. The government has no option except to align with the law. Indeed, it seems to have already diluted its hard stance on the timeline for the implementation of Aadhaar.

Rolling back or stalling the program a poor option

Two options present themselves for the way forward. First, the government could downsize its ambitions for Aadhaar and allow other modes of identity verification to continue till the availability of Aadhaar becomes universal and, more important, the hardware for authenticating Aadhaar is widely available. This is unlikely, in the short term, till the Bharatnet fibre cables have been laid and are operational in all gram panchayats. Just one-fourth are connected today. But the more real downside here is of a slide into never-ending inertia. This seems alien to the present government’s style.

Prescribe fall-back identity authentications with better oversight over the quality of initial data capture 

AAdhaar alt

The second and better option is to deal with the fears of activists who have petitioned the Supreme Court against linking bank accounts and phones with Aadhaar. With respect to privacy, the fact that the State will be able to trace individuals behind phone conversations or bank accounts seems innocuous. On the contrary, both security and tax revenue considerations point to this being desirable, if not essential.

Better branding: disseminate tax and security advantages of Aadhar widely

The government has advertised the Aadhaar principally as a means to transfer benefits to citizens in a more targeted manner and thereby optimise the public subsidy on such benefits. But this is only part of the story. Aadhaar is a significant tool in increasing tax revenue and bringing criminals to justice. What is in it for those who do not enjoy social security benefits? They must be made aware of how Aadhaar creates a trade off between privacy on the one hand and public finance and security on the other. It must be re-branded as a broad governance tool. It should take a cue from what President Obama said about privacy concerns. No individual right, against the State, is perfect. It must needs bow to the larger public interest.

Theoretically, any information, available with the State, can be misused to violate the privacy of an individual. But surely an income-tax officer using the Aadhaar authentication to check if you have included all your bank accounts in your tax return does not fall in that category. What about a duly authorised police officer who traces the owners of phone numbers talking about crime or a threat to public security? Protocols for tapping phones and accessing details of private bank accounts already exist. The Aadhaar link simply makes it easier and faster to catch crooks and criminals.

recovery ITGovernments rely on their credibility to gain the trust of citizens. Safeguards for individual rights do help. But only for governments that are public-spirited and well-intentioned. Once this is no longer the case, the only recourse is to voice your opinion through your vote, and good luck to you on that.

Adapted form the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, December 13, 2017

Indian Railways: Slow and unsafe

suresh prabhu

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

Suresh Prabhu – a good but unlucky minister

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

IR is low on transparency 

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

IR not to blame for 62 percent of accidents

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

Rail still safer than road transport

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

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

Safety or speed – a false binary

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

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

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

Sans investment, neither safety nor speed is possible

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

Corporatize IR for efficiency enhancement

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

rail repair

Shun politics – Let IR become commercially viable

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

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

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 24, 2017

Fly India, fly


Udan — the new regional air connectivity scheme — is not likely to get the aam aadmi (common man) to fly, but it will correct the historical wrong done to the air transport business in India. The hallmark of faux socialism was the targeting of some services and goods as “luxury” and by implication, anti-common man, anti-growth and pro-inequality.

Air transport was one such service. It’s early face was to serve the rich or the privileged. But all this has changed. Indian workers travelling from Etawah in Uttar Pradesh to the Gulf travel by road or rail to Delhi before taking an international flight. Why not facilitate them to fly straight from Etawah to Delhi, thereby securing their luggage end-to-end and avoiding the choking of our inter-state roads?

Udan is refreshingly simple and timely in its objectives. It is not populist even though it is being marketed in that manner. The “hawai chappalwallahs” would prefer to get subsidy in hand rather than as a low-cost air junket. Udan is not about giving the poor a taste of luxury, Evita Peron style.

Air transport for growth and jobs

Udan is about growth and jobs as the policy note avers up front. It quotes the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that every rupee invested in civil aviation add Rs 3.5 to the economy and every job created directly generates 6.1 jobs indirectly.


There is no reason to take the ICAO at its word. The ministry has been baking this scheme since November 2014. It should have estimated similar value and job multipliers in the Indian context. That could have better evidenced the benefits from the allocation of public funds on the “value for money” principle. But the economic rationale can be intuitively surmised.

What! India has more airports than commercial planes

There are as many as 398 “unserved” airports which have no commercial flights and 18 “under-served” airports host less than seven flights per week. One may well ask why this large number of airports exist if there are no commercial flights to them and who pays for their upkeep? Anecdotally, these airports have existed for the convenience of the elite political class for their infrequent “in and out” inspections, disaster surveys and election time visits to the hinterland. Less frequently India’s small business elite may also use a few.

Not all of them are owned by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), the Central agency which manages airports. Some are owned by the ministry of defence, others by state governments. It would have helped investors if the policy note had listed the ownership and management of each.

Democratise these public assets

So what are the likely benefits? First, commercialising these 416 airports will “democratise” publicly-owned sites which have hitherto been reserved for elite use. The average citizen would get a participative stake in their use and development. This is a vital aspect that policy note ignores.


Rationalise air taxes & spend on infrastructure

Second, the government has rightly slashed taxes and charges on regional connectivity flights to narrow the viability gap. AAI will not charge any landing or parking charge and only 42.5 per cent of the route and navigation facilitation charge. The owners of these airports will similarly exempt such flights from all charges whilst ensuring the full package of airport facilities. Most of these charges are exorbitant in any case and need to be rationalised. Consider that AAI earns a profit after tax of around `800 crores. This surplus is better used for regional air connectivity than to subsidise Air India, which should be privatised.

Kick start new businesses and services in rural areas

Third, whilst Udan is branded as a new passenger facility, an additional business opportunity is the potential for moving existing perishable cargo, fragile goods and high-value export-oriented products by air. It is only a combination of passengers and cargo which can make the scheme sustainable. Public investments should be leveraged via private management model used for major airports. Investor consultations in state capitals being planned should include potential investors in airport management and development.

Fourth, some of the additional economic value and jobs are from developing these airports as growth centres. Providing secure and high quality road links, 24×7 electricity, clean water and sanitation are key for private management to step in with malls, airconditioned warehouses, hotels and new businesses which need secure air connectivity.


Udan has got it right.

The Udan policy ticks all the right boxes. It retains the potential for business innovation by limiting the seats at the Udan price to 50 per cent of capacity. The remaining seats can be sold at market rates. Operators shall be chosen competitively via reverse auction for the minimum amount of “viability gap funding” (VGF) required. The policy is carefully and explicitly drafted to avoid ex-post disputes.

The policy is market driven. Flight operators must do their own due diligence and come forward with proposals which would then be put out to bid. If a proposer fails to submit the lowest bid, they could still win by agreeing to match the lowest bid. This provision preserves the incentive for initiating proposals, whilst retaining competitive energy in the bid process. In the past, in roads and telecom, irresponsible bids resulted in projects being abandoned subsequently. Most of these airports are challenges for business development rather than ready-baked money spinners. Hopefully, only responsible bidders would respond.

The policy carries forward the spirit of cooperative federalism. The Central government will fund 80 per cent (90 per cent in the Northeast) of the subsidy amount to be paid to the operators as VGF. The state government shall fund the residual marginal amount.


Udan targets medium term dividends

It is a policy reform which does not just eye the popular vote. It courageously demolishes the economic posturing of the past and the earlier demonisation of air transport. It looks, instead, towards medium-term economic growth and job creation. Habitual leftists, dyed-in-the-wool faux socialists and related do-gooders are likely to label this policy a sellout in the name of the poor. But young entrepreneurs yearning for growth opportunities and young workers looking for good jobs should support it. Even those who are ideologically bound to oppose this policy are sure to use these services as they travel “cattle class” to the hinterland.

Adaapted from the authors article in the Asian Age, October 28, 2016


Book Review



Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution, Parag Khanna, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2016

In the 1980s, Disney World, Florida offered a gripping, virtual journey as viewed by a blood corpuscle as it rushes through the arteries, veins, into and out of organs in the human body. Parag Khanna’s fourth and latest book –Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution – does much the same for the world of physical and digital infrastructure -roads, railway tracks, power lines, communication cables, oceans, rivers, canals and electrons joining suppliers to customers, uniting families physically and virtually, whilst creating ever widening value enhancing networks around mega cities.

In this world, national borders are little more than irritants; national sovereignty a barrier to be overcome; national passports a poor substitute for global identity options and the ownership of land valueless, unless it is part of global supply chains.

Global citizen


Parag is a self-confessed global citizen. He was born in India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in the US, works in Singapore but feels at home anywhere – chatting with Chinese workers in Tibet, Turkish Gastarbeiters in Germany or breakfasting with the President of Mongolia in Ulan Bator. There are around 300 million others like him. This book describes the way the world could be from the view point of global citizens. A world without borders or intrusive governments; self-regulating businesses kept customer friendly by competition; open markets allowing capital and goods to move freely, perpetually in search of optimizing costs and maximizing value.

Open economy

The virtues of the “open economy, networked” universe are generally accepted today, even if most peoples’ view on markets is similar to their opinion of democracy – not the best option but better than anything else available.

Parag hammers away at re-establishing these generic concepts with relentlessly energy via a high octane delivery, interspersed with a wealth of granular information to buttress his argument. It helps that the book is extensively researched. Its bibliography lists nearly 500 references and almost each page has a quotable quote. An added attraction is the 38 color plates which illustrate what connectography could look like. Maps or traditional cartography which represent geographical or political features, actually tell us very little about the world. These are of little use beyond being partial navigational aids. Consider that Singapore is a mere dot on the world map with just 0.1 percent of the world’s population. But if countries were mapped to scale on the size of their GDP, it would be twice the size of Bangladesh. Does Singapore’s land size or population determine its function in the world today or its economic heft?

Connectivity is key

The book is divided into five parts. Part one dwells on the truism that connectivity and not territory or resource endowments, are the arbiter of how nations grow. In a riposte to the reasons listed by Paul Collier of why nations fail, Parag argues, that countries can overcome the disadvantage of poor geophysical endowments. There is hope even for land locked nations, like Rwanda. Despite being resource poor, it is one of the fastest growing economies, in Africa, because it actively searches out opportunities for becoming part of global supply chains.

The withering Nation State

Part two posits controversially, that the nation state is an artificial construct whose longevity is explained by inertia rather than any irreplaceable value addition ascribable to it. This is especially true in nation states which spend much time and effort to reconcile mutually antagonistic and parochial domestic stakeholder identities. Far better then, to devolve power away to homogenous, smaller sub entities – tribes, communities, companies and cities which, in any case, are the basic framework for solidarity and common interest.

The recent splintered vote in Britain, with London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union whilst the rest of the country voted to exit, seems to illustrate the inherent fragility of nation states in the face of sharp internal divisions based on self-interest. The nation state is similarly powerless against the loss of sovereignty to larger regional aggregations- earlier the United Nations, cold war alignments and now regional trading blocks. Better connectedness and communications fosters this trend towards aggregation, driven by Metcalfe’s law that the value of a network increases proportionately to the square of the number of interconnected users. Scale is everything.

Sub- national entities are stable

Part three asserts that a future world of connected sub-national entities aggregated into large regional entities, is a more stable and competitive arrangement than the present geopolitical architecture. Sovereign nations seem besieged by split mandates and dissidence at home whilst simultaneously assaulted by external threats. Competitive connectivity trumps national sovereignty. There is no incentive for destabilizing any actor because all are connected for mutual gain. In comparison, Orwellian instability is built into the DNA of competing nation states.

Snap shot of a connected future

Part four fleshes out the future as a landscape of connected megacities. Multinational businesses will be replicas of the Dutch 19th century colonial empire – a web of small enclaves – business hubs for a global supply chain. The nodes of growth would be the four thousand Special Export or Economic Zones, which dot the world today and are also the foundation of China’s extraordinary economic growth.

….and everything else

Part five is mixed fare – an overview of current issues in the digital economy; the genetic transformation resulting from human cross breeding inherent in the physical movement of more people across the globe than ever before- provocatively titled “a mongrel civilization”- and how to best deal with the competing needs of conserving nature and welfare enhancing growth.

For resilient readers only

This is not a book for the faint hearted. The style varies from the explanatory; the exhortatory to being chattily conversational. Some parts are too dense for a lazy afternoon’s read. Others, particularly where the author links his own experiences to more generic issues are lucid and revealing. Editing is unfortunately, lackluster. Rwanda is not a country which is natural resource rich as claimed on page 94; the lead paragraph on page 337 under the attractive title “The digital identity buffet” is an incomprehensible, single sentence of seventy-one words! Deng Xiaoping’s reforms kicked in during the 1980’s in China, not the 1970s as page 380 claims.

Read this book if you are interested in knowing more about the intersections between globalization, geopolitics, business, technology, urbanization and culture. If you are looking for deep knowledge in any one of these areas, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are looking for a new theory of development or growth, it isn’t here. What you do have is masses of information brought together anecdotally in a narrative format.

This is a tour de force of contemporary world trends with attractive, self-explanatory titles to each of the seventy-eight sub chapters. Each of these is self-contained so you don’t have to read the book sequentially. And don’t miss the quotable quotes. My favorite is “a smart rabbit keeps three holes to hide in” to explain why large numbers of Chinese citizens invest in the US or Canada as a safe haven option.

If you are looking for advice on very long term business investments, check out the heat map on plate 31. Be warned, India, China, Africa, Southern Europe, the US and South America may all be deserts by 2100 dried out by the ravages of climate change – unlivable but good for generating solar power. Think instead of investing in Canada, Greenland, Northern Europe, Russia and Western Antarctica, where the climate is expected to be salubrious and the resources plentiful for the depleted population which manages to emigrate there.

This book review by the author first appeared in Swarajyamag, August 2016


Prabhu tightens “free lunches” in Indian Railways


If Suresh Prabhu has his way this is how Indians would travel routinely on vacation. Today these luxury trains are expensive immersive “period” experiences for foreign tourists. Photo credit:

The 28 million passengers who use the Indian Railways daily fear March as much as ancient Romans feared the Ides of March. This is when the prospect of the impossibly low rail fares being hiked looms, and then usually abates, as political parties compete to “safeguard the people’s interest”. Indian Railways charges passengers, on average, just 29 paise per kilometre of travel, whereas in China passenger fares are four times higher. The Railways lose around `30,000 crores annually from carrying passengers, but makes up some of that by charging freight rates that are almost double the cost incurred. In China, freight rates are around half of ours. Add to this better roads, bigger trucks and fierce competition, and you can see why road transport has weaned rail freight away. The golden goose of freight revenue funding the Railways is dying.

Tariff not related to the cost of the service

Indian Railways increased passenger fares in June 2014 by six per cent soon after the Narendra Modi government took charge. The Opposition outcry was fast and furious. Around 20 million vocal suburban commuters, a critical vote bank, use trains as a lifeline in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. The Delhi Metro (run separately by the Urban Development ministry) hasn’t revised tariffs since 2009. This ranges from Rs 10 to Rs 30 (around a Nickle to 50 pence US) for secure, fast, air conditioned travel with sparkling terminals. And yet commuters who cavil at the cost think nothing of getting into a shared auto rickshaw and paying `20 for a 2-km slow, pollution infused ride home.

Suresh Prabhu, who took over as railway minister in November 2014, is a battle-hardened, savvy veteran at reforming utilities from his days as power minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee NDA government. Learning from his predecessor, his first Railway Budget in 2015 skirted around the vexed issue of hiking tariffs. His second budget, in 2016, was no different, except that he had developed a track record for delivering on passenger amenities — on cleaner coaches and stations, digital food orders; better on-time arrivals and departures; easier freight booking/handling; and a minister-on-tap app, that has almost become the leitmotif of the Modi government.

Only upward flex in IR’s new tariff 

Even last Saturday, addressing the Indian Merchants Council in Mumbai, Mr. Prabhu gave no hint of the thunderbolt he would unleash on September 7, with the new “flexi-fare scheme” for Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabadi trains. To call this a “surge pricing” scheme, as most of the media has done, contrasting it with state governments banning flexi fares for radio taxis, is a little misleading. “Surge pricing” transmits both benefits when demand is low and higher costs during peak demand. There is very little “flexi” in the Railways’ scheme. Fares, even if trains are empty, will never fall below existing rates. The railway flexi fares only incentivise travelers to book well in advance, as the base fare increases by 10 per cent after every block of 10 per cent of available seats gets booked. There is a cap of 40 per cent hike for AC-3 possibly because this category, even at existing rates, is the most profitable for the Railways.

But valuable unwritten message: the value of time saved, via fast travel, does not come free

For all other passengers there is a 50 per cent cap on hiked fares, including for those travelling in non-air conditioned sleeper class (2S or SL) on fast premium trains. It is this last category that is interesting. These are truly the aam aadmi (common man) or students, who take a bus or shared auto home on reaching their destination rather than a taxi. By making even them pay what it costs for secure, fast, inter-city travel, Mr Prabhu has set the right tone for the inevitable future increases. After all, if the value of one’s time is low, shouldn’t one be taking a slow train instead at cheaper rates?

So why is Mr Prabhu trying to do a Ronald Reagan rather than playing with a straight bat? Why so much secrecy in tariff hikes, with no explanation of how the new rates relate to the cost of providing the services. Mr Prabhu is a master communicator, but the Railways appear to be still mired in a colonial mode.


The Bibek Debroy Report 2014 is the only the latest in a long line of reports which has urged IR to restructure and modernise. But the Railway Board remains in comfortable colonial mode.

Independent Railway Regulator: Pending since 1989

Independent electricity regulators set up when Mr Prabhu ran the power ministry set tariffs transparently. The costs of offering different services and corresponding tariffs proposed by utilities — mostly publicly owned, like the Railways — can be downloaded from the Internet or a copy obtained from the commission. Then consumers can individually or collectively file comments and/or objections to the proposed tariffs. The process is transparent, access to information is assured and participation is facilitated. This is because Parliament legislated such provisions in specific laws relating to telecom and electricity.

The Railway Act 1989 also provides for a Railway Rates Tribunal to set tariffs in a quasi-judicial manner. This has never been operationalised by previous governments. Mr Prabhu said in his 2015 Budget speech that an “independent mechanism” for comprehensive regulation of the railway sector is needed. This is significant as it acknowledges that a precondition for bringing private capital and enhancing competition is the hiving off of regulatory powers from Indian Railways. The exhaustive Bibek Debroy Committee Report of June 2015 on restructuring the Railways similarly strongly backed such a regulatory system. But the elusive search for the best appears to have come at the expense of the good.

Charged political environment encourages “reform by stealth”

Even in the absence of a regulator, the government could have engaged directly with the public before a tariff increase. But the surcharged political atmosphere, with two major state elections around the corner and the prospect of delay, may have dissuaded it from opening a window for political protests. But someone needed to bell the cat.

In this country’s political shadow play, a proposed rate hike inevitably incorporates a rollback margin. So hope for a rollback in the cap from a 50 per cent increase to a cap of possibly 25 per cent. But be prepared for an era where the railway station is no longer the place to look for a free lunch.


Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age August 9, 2016


Rebranding Indian Rail


Indian Railways: Lifeline of the Nation” — runs the bold title of a 2015 government white paper. But the reality is that post-1991 the Indian Railways (IR), whilst retaining its high ritual status, ceded ground to competition from road transport.

Too many consultant chefs

It has only itself to blame. The railways steadfastly stonewalled all attempts to reform its operations. Over the past 15 years, railway operations have been studied by no less than six high-level committees, under Rakesh Mohan (2001), Sam Pitroda (2012), Montek Singh Ahluwalia (2014), Rakesh Mohan (National Transport Development Committee, 2014), D.K. Mittal (2014) and Bibek Debroy (2015). There was no committee chair from the railways.

There are seven executive members of the Railway Board, its highest body, that functions directly under the railway minister. There are 9,124 senior Group A railway officers who are specialists in finance, commercial services, maintenance, operations, construction and production of rolling stock. It’s odd, therefore, that the government has never trusted these professionals to come up with a vision of what “the lifeline of the nation” should look like. In fact, this illustrates that reform was never an internally driven priority.

No internal support for reform in IR

Admittedly, with a large workforce of 1.3 million, unionisation in the railways is strong. George Fernandes, former railway minister (1989-1990) and Janata Party luminary, sowed his wild oats as a firebrand, railway union leader. But this is exactly why the Narasimha Rao brand of “reform by stealth” cannot work for the Indian Railways. The bottomline is that in such huge industrial enterprises there is no alternative to a broad consensus around reform and approaching it head-on.

Road wins versus rail


The railways languished in the post-reform era as it was unable to build private partnerships and leverage its assets. The government too seemed to have given up on it and turned its attention to building highways instead. So as rail passenger transportation doubled, road passenger transportation has trebled since 1990-91. The railways’ share of freight decreased from 53 per cent in 1986-87 to less than 30 per cent today.

The Indian Railways lost ground as it got mired in its own corrosive image of a government entity focused on social objectives — providing cheap, even free, travel. Thus, it lost sight of its mission to become the “economic lifeline” of the nation. Communist China moves less passengers kilometre per kilometre of its rail network than India. But it moves four times more freight kilometer per kilometre of its network than India. The India Railways’ priorities are time-warped around passenger traffic.

The seamless movement of freight over long distances can cut the cost of production and make industry competitive. Long-distance freight is best moved by rail. But the Indian Railways lost the freight business due to a monopolistic tariff policy for bulk freight, such as for coal, iron ore, cement and foodgrains. It is similar for the power sector. Bulk consumers like industry are still charged at penal rates to cross-subsidise rural and retail consumers.

Fuzzy mission

Railway minister Suresh Prabhu, like several of his predecessors, is articulate, public-spirited and full of ambitious programmes spelt out in his Railway Budget speech this year. On offer is more public investment to remove the choke points which congest and slow down traffic; a more extensive search for alternative revenues from station redevelopment and the monetisation of assets; better passenger facilities and continued implementation of the dedicated freight corridors.


But clarity on the Indian Railways’ core mission is missing. This has to be, first and foremost, the movement of freight and increasing the railways’ market share in the city and suburban passenger traffic.

Three reform measures are preconditions for success.

City and suburban travel


First, it is SMART to switch city and suburban passenger traffic to rail from road. The savings on travel time and the avoided cost of air pollution justify such investments. But this is an option only if we can make these systems attractive for private investment and management. Assured viability gap funding on the back of regular adjustment of tariff is a must. The experience of “independent” regulators in electricity shows that in large metros, with high income levels, cost-reflective tariffs can work, if customers can transparently see for themselves the value proposition the service offers.

Use scarce capital to move freight


Second, allocation of public capital across competing projects has to be “value for money”. The railways’ passenger and freight businesses should be insulated silos for accounting purposes so that costs and revenues can be allocated to each service. Our rail freight tariff is on average 40 per cent more than China’s. But our passenger tariff is on average 75 per cent cheaper. Investing to make freight move four times faster at 100 km per hour instead of 25 km per hour makes sense as there is room to reduce tariffs and expand business. Investing to move passengers at 130 kmph, instead of 70 kmph, makes no sense because although passengers are willing to pay for it the Indian Railways is not willing to charge for it.

Go for partnerships

Third, the Indian Railways must think of itself as part of a supply chain rather than a stand-alone competitor. It must seek partnerships with air, road and marine transporters, and with traffic aggregators that can yield better returns. This is possible through transparent contracts, even as the railways remains a government entity.

In 1990-91, India had few choices except to reform by stealth. We have moved on since then. The reform constituency has grown. The real concern now is how to insulate losers from the pain of change and development. Loss of employment or of land must be fairly and adequately compensated. Using scarce fiscal resources for this purpose aligns with equity and is more efficient to bump up aggregate demand than across-the-board public sector pay increases.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, July 27, 2016

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