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A “green” Diwali sans firecrackers

SupremeCourtPhotos(47)

Managing winter smog in the National Capital Region (NCR) has occupied the Supreme Court since 2015. Three interim orders — in November 2016, September 2017 and October 2017— each of which changes the status quo, imposing commercial costs, illustrate the limitations of the judicial approach while balancing commercial interests with public health concerns.

Joined at the hip

joined at the hip

Delhi and Sivakasi, 2,650 km away in Tamil Nadu, are symbiotically joined. Sivakasi produces three-fourths of India’s firecrackers. Delhi and its surrounding areas are the prime consumers. Consider that 40 per cent of 610 permanent licensees for selling firecrackers are located here. Delhi also licences 968 temporary fireworks retailers. The NCR’s stock of fireworks is estimated at 6,000 metric tons — enough to fill 600 trucks.

CPCB plays truant

The reason why a substantive decision on the sale of firecrackers remains elusive is that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has failed to define the permissible ingredients for firecrackers and their volumes thereof. Without a standard regulating manufacture, the task of optimising across public health concerns; preserving employment and nurturing business potential becomes, at best, an approximation with avoidable costs. Only blunt options like banning the sale of firecrackers present themselves. The actual public health benefit of such measures is uncertain. But irreparable harm to businesses and distress to workers is certain.

At the very beginning…

Back in November 2016, during the Diwali season, Delhi was enveloped in smog. CPCB air quality reports indicated that in 2015 and 2016, the level of pollution had spiked during and after Diwali. Pitampura, a densely populated area in Delhi, suffered an increase of pollution by four times in 2015 and more than 10 times in 2016. Dealing with an emergency, the Supreme Court suspended all licences for the sale of firecrackers in the NCR on November 11, 2016. It also directed the CPCB to submit, within three months, a comprehensive report on the air pollution impacts of bursting firecrackers. The implied strategy was clear. Take stern action in keeping with the magnitude of the crisis and incentivise manufacturers and sellers of fireworks to negotiate with the government for setting standards. Since Diwali was already over, the commercial dislocation caused by the order was minimal.

The CPCB has yet to submit the report due on January 11, 2017, on the air pollution impact. Meanwhile, prohibitions on using antimony, lithium, mercury, arsenic and lead compounds were imposed piecemeal by the Supreme Court on July 31, 2017 and on strontium chromate on September 13, 2017. The court is clearly working hard despite executive intransigence.

And more recently…

Gearing up for the festival season in 2017, the Sivakasi manufacturers and suppliers requested the Supreme Court on July 5, 2017 for a modification of the suspension of permanent licenses.

The Supreme Court recognised the harm being caused to 300,000 livelihoods, despite the absence of any proven link between the bursting of firecrackers and hazardous air pollution.

The National Green Tribunal has listed seven sources of air pollution in NCR. Firecrackers are not one of them. A January 2016 IIT Kanpur report had also not listed firecrackers as among the major sources of air pollution in Delhi.

On September 13, 2017, the Supreme Court allowed a partial lifting of the suspended licences, to enable the accumulated stock of fireworks to be sold in NCR or to be transferred out. To avoid any reoccurrence of a fait accompli, it directed no more fireworks should be transported into the NCR. More significantly, it directed that the number of temporary licences in NCR be halved in 2017, and both permanent and temporary licences further halved in 2018. Taking a cue from the 1999 experience in defining noise pollution standards for firecrackers, it constituted a multi-stakeholder, technical committee chaired by the CPCB to report on the impact of bursting firecrackers on air quality. By all accounts this was a fair and forward-looking order mitigating the commercial harm caused by regulatory uncertainty while seeking to reduce the public health impact.

The puzzling about turn

Inexplicably, on October 9, a three-judge Supreme Court bench put the September 2017 order in abeyance till November 1. The intention was clearly to postpone the restitution of sale till after Diwali, thereby nullifying the positive commercial benefits. The court invoked the “precautionary principle” in the public interest. This principle advocates abundant caution if the potential for irreparable harm exists. Thereby, the significant, negative commercial impact of the order simply became inevitable collateral damage.

Regulating better is possible

Could the regulatory process have been managed better? First, it goes without saying, that this is yet another instance of the government purposefully abdicating politically sensitive, inconvenient regulatory ground. Commercial uncertainty and public health costs are bound to escalate when this happens.

Strong action effective only if sustained

CJI Thakur2

Second, could the Supreme Court have been more consistent? Yes, it could have limited its initial intervention in 2016 to simply nudge the executive to introduce safe manufacturing standards, including by using back channels for the purpose. Possibly, its strained relationship with the government during this period, over the judicial appointments issues, may have constrained it from using this practical tactic to resolve the problem.

Optionally, the court could have issued a nuanced order, suspending temporary licenses in NCR to restrict retail sale; allowing permanent licenses to continue, but at a progressively decreasing scale and directing the executive to limit the bursting of firecrackers to collective displays at pre-designated sites. This would have reduced the quantum of firecrackers burst; minimised the commercial harm and preserved the incentive for firecracker manufacturers to actively pursue formulation of safe manufacturing standards. Despite the storm in the social media decrying the  encroachment of Hindu religious rights by limiting firecrackers, the public is in favour of clean air and a cleaner India.

Green “bangers” anyone? 

bamboo

Finally, the court could have explored the manufacture of “green” firecrackers. Before gunpowder was invented in the 10th century, the Chinese made them by heating bamboo. Northeast India is resplendent with bamboo, just waiting to be used. China might also be happy to modernise this sustainable technology and commercialise it under the Make in India initiative. Green “bangers” can preserve the thrill of Diwali, only minus the smog.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age October 12, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/121017/costly-flip-flops-over-ban-on-firecrackers.html

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

Needed paychecks not pink slips

Jobs 2

Photo credit: Zee news

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

bot

Humans versus machines- who’s winning?

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

Can government help preserve human employment?

highway

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

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

indian farmers

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

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

microsoft-employee

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

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

murthy gates

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

Give incentives for digital/banked wage payments by individual employers

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

Collaborative governance is key

bicycle with flag

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

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

Bulk up to beat the competition

Hulk

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

Big, deep pockets business is in

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

ONGC

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

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

Citizen anxiety at being left out in the cold

anxious citizens

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

Multiparty politics only means larger ballot boxes

ballot

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

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

Smart regulation can weed out frivolous parties

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

Political consolidation as a public good.

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

Mandate rainbow nominations for inclusive politics

symbols

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

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

Leave room to grow 

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

shoes

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

Funding the Republic

tricolour

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

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

The Union lacks funds for its core functions

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

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

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

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

broken-bridge

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

Repairing the broken system for bank credit and private investment

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

construction

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

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

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

judge

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

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

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

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

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

gst

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

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

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

Fiscal love for job loss

unemployed

Times are tough. Exports are in free fall. The import bill is increasing as oil prices harden in response to the international oil cartel’s plans to cut production. Domestic demand is moribund despite the largesse of the Seventh Pay Commission for the public sector. The stock market has sagged. Informal sector jobs are under threat. We need a push to get people over this sullen hump.

Electoral compulsions

Four states, comprising one-fifth of the nation’s population, are about to elect provincial legislatures in the first quarter of 2017. From a national perspective, the BJP has little to lose but much to gain. Goa, that is ruled by the BJP, elects just two MPs; Punjab, ruled by ally Shiromani Akali Dal, elects 12; while Uttarakhand, ruled by the Congress, elects five MPs — which together account for a mere four per cent of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha.

It is Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the Samajwadi Party, which is the real prize. It elects 80 MPs (just under 15 per cent of total seats) to the Lok Sabha. Varanasi is the Prime Minister’s adopted constituency. This is the Hindu heartland of India. A wipeout in UP may not directly impact the BJPs prospects irretrievably in the 2019 general election. But a win would surely be a grand start to the campaign.

Finance Minister as fire fighter

Finance minister Arun Jaitley seems eager to salve those burnt by “notebandi”. He may offer some tax relief in the coming Budget, but that helps only a tiny sliver of the population — just two per cent who pay income-tax. Lower indirect taxes are hostage to progress on the Goods and Services Tax (GST). But a GST with multiple rates, and with the highest nominal rate at 28 per cent, is unlikely to reduce the incidence of indirect tax or drive growth in GDP.

The FM had budgeted a nominal GDP of Rs 151 trillion for this fiscal, 11 per cent higher than the nominal GDP last fiscal. This is now unlikely for two reasons. First, growth in real terms will slip by between one to two percentage points. Second, inflation is lower by one percentage point. Taken together the nominal GDP increase will be eight, not 11 per cent, over last year. Tax estimates are based on “nominal” GDP — real growth plus inflation. So, tax collection at 10.8 per cent of GDP will also slip by about Rs 0.4 trillion from the budgeted amount of Rs 16.3 trillion. There is little headroom in this fiscal to play with tax reduction.

Even in the next fiscal, with significant economic headwinds and domestic uncertainties, the prospects for a revival in growth is wishful thinking. Tax reform with lower taxes seems a far cry. A temporary income support mechanism is more appropriate.

The losers 

The population segment most affected by demonetisation is domestic migrant labour and their families in villages. Urban migrants live on and save from what they earn daily. Over a period of six months, the income shock will feed back into their families in villages as income transfers decrease or vanish and migrant labour return home.

The FM must provide a “package” to soften the hard landing at home for returning migrant labour. This is urgent. Migrant labour are highly aspirational, having seen the “good life” available in cities. Their aspirations must not be squashed. Of cours it is not easy to distinguish between those affected by the loss of employment and others who never had any. Targeted income support for migrants can be ruled out.  But a more generic income support for all those with stressed incomes is not as wasteful as it sounds.

Income support for stressed families in villages

Three approaches can be combined to suit the context. First, borrow the concept of “helicopter money” from the much talked about income transfer scheme. Make the support freely available on demand with very selected and easily verifiable eligibility criteria. Second, revive the now defunct notion of “taccavi loans”, which were used in the colonial period as a famine relief measure. Third, use a participative and transparent good governance approach to identify the beneficiaries. Ranking families by the extent of income loss in open village meetings mediated by village-level government officers is a useful way to develop consensus and reduce the mistargeting. Lastly, devise the support mechanism in a manner which eliminates the undeserving.

Give consumption loans at market rates repayable in labour

nrega

The income support should be a loan and not a grant. This will deter those looking for a freebie. The interest rate should be reasonable but not subsidised for the same reason. Around 12 per cent per year, or one per cent per month can avoid misuse for interest arbitrage and yet peg it much lower that the unsecured informal market loans, which are available at an interest rate of 40 to 50 per cent per year, or between three to four per cent per month.

To further deter those looking for freebies and to make the scheme attractive only for those who really need the work, the loan and interest should be repayable only through around manual labour by the family in village works and not in cash. Around 50 days of labour can repay a loan of Rs 5000 along with accrued interest over six months. The advantage of this twist is that it leaves the migrant worker free to continue looking for work in cities,once he has secured a “taccavi” loan for his family to help them survive for six months without compromising the future through crippling debt. As in NREGA, the productivity of village-level work is very contextual and varies. But such inefficiencies are a small price to pay for the positive ripple effect of well targeted, publicly funded, social security schemes.

The fiscal burden is bearable.

Around 60-80 million such unsecured loans of Rs 5,000 each could cover all needy families (broadly 15 per cent households in urban areas and 30 per cent households in rural areas), with a sufficient margin to spare for the inevitable leakages from poor identification. The one-time cost of Rs 0.3-0.4 trillion can be met by either enlarging the allocation for NREGA (Rs 0.35 trillion for 2016-17) or by overshooting the fiscal deficit target by 0.25 percentage points (3.75 per cent instead of the budgeted 3.5 per cent). With weak retail demand, this temporary transgression from the fiscal deficit target is unlikely to be inflationary and in effect sustains rural demand.

Desperate times need innovation, with a human face, to soothe the hurt imposed by systemic shocks. Shielding the weak from the unbearable cost of bad economic decisions is a must, to preserve the consensus for change.

yech

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age December 20, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/201216/fiscal-love-for-a-sullen-electorate.html

 

Fly India, fly

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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  http://www.asianage.com/columnists/will-udan-be-able-make-bharat-soar-536

 

Is a machine kicking u out?

 

only-humans

Davenport and Kirby’s book “Only Humans Need Apply” Harper.2016 comes with a whiff of optimism and plenty of specific practical advice- based on real life cases- for professionals – scientists, radiologists, teachers, actuaries, financial analysts, lawyers and all “knowledge workers” who fear loss of jobs. This is where it is different from the previous, scarily sensational non-fiction on machines versus humans. The title is an inversion of Jerry Kaplan’s memorable “Humans Need Not Apply”.

Yes, computers are after your job.

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Yes, computers could be coming after your job. And yes, machines are very smart and becoming smarter. So ignoring them or trying to compete against them is a zero-sum game- the machine will win and you will lose. John Henry, a West Virginia driller learnt that in 1870. He competed against a steam powered drill. He won- only to die from over exertion soon after.

Dirty, dangerous, physically demanding and highly structured jobs like on an industrial production line have been doomed since the 1990s. The US lost more jobs to automation at home, than to outsourcing to India. This trend will worsen. Even “knowledge workers”, highly educated professionals – 25 to 50 percent of the workforce in advanced economies- will get flooded out via automation by 2040. McKinsey estimates automated systems will replace the equivalent of between 110 to 140 million human jobs, by as early as 2025.

Five ways to win the battle

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The way out is “augmentation”- keeping humans at the center whilst farming out work machines can do better, as opposed to “autonomy”- progressively substituting humans with machines. Steve Jobs illustrates – a human, “augmented” with a bicycle, becomes far more energy efficient that even a condor, the most energy efficient of all species. Augmentation is more than mere “complementarity” or co-existence with machines. It means actively collaborating with automation and artificial intelligence to sharpen our skills in areas where humans are most competitive.

Take apart your job into two components – structured tasks which can be codified and tasks which cannot – or at least not just yet. Focus on honing the latter. The former will be automated. You have five options to adapt to the future.

Step in: You can’t beat them so collaborate

step-in

You can “step in” by learning how machines can offload your “dodo”, routinized tasks, thereby freeing up space for your core “human” skills. This presents the largest opportunities to partner machines, oversee them, point out errors they have made or help in improving them.

Step forward: Join the race to make computers better

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You could also “step forward” by acquiring the highly specialized quant skills, engineering knowledge and coding expertise needed to create newer and better machines. But the skill requirements would be of a very high level with the need for continuous upgrades.

Step up: Use computers to widen or deepen decision making skils

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“Step up” options involve honing the expertise to take unstructured decisions by integrating information from multiple sources. Warren Buffet defines one such which defies codification – what should a car driver do if the choice is either to mow down a child, who has strayed onto the road, or to plough into a car with four adult passengers? Complex, corporate “trade-offs” in business strategy are no different.

Step aside: Develope skills in managing human behaviour 

ben-bernanke

Others may prefer to “step aside” or take up jobs machines cannot do, like explaining in plain language, to an irate Ben Bernanke, the erstwhile Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, why a computer assessed him as too risky for a mortgage refinance or building relationships in business.

Stepping narrow: Specialise in what computers can’t do.

falconer

“Stepping narrow” is the fifth option. These are jobs so specialized and so restricted- like dealing with special kids or translating lost languages -that they lack the scale required to make automation efficient. In 1997 film maker Errol Morris featured four such narrow specialisations – a topiary gardener, a lion tamer, an authority on the colony behavior of naked mole rats and ironically Rodney Brooks – inventor of autonomous robots.

Computers are  like a horse or a car: They get you where u want to go

Is automation, Keynes’ leisure filled utopia, or a jobless dystopia, scarred by rising inequality and violence? Elon Musk thinks artificial intelligence is “our biggest existential threat”. Stephen Hawking warns that it “could spell the end of the human race”. Bill Gates wonders why “some people are not concerned”.  The authors are clearly not concerned. Nor are 52 percent of nearly two thousand experts polled by PEW. But the near term problem of managing the transition, particularly in poor countries like India, remains a public concern. The authors rightly debunk the option of universal income transfers, as short term palliatives –like NREGA in India – with potentially negative fiscal and work-ethic related unintended consequences.

Governments need to teach us differently for us to adapt

Governments need to reorient education. The focus on science, technology and quant skills is good for those who step in, up or forward. But one half of workers will be stepping aside or narrowly. Education policy does little to encourage these skills. Corporates should get incentives for generating “humans-only” work as Innovation for Jobs (i4j) is doing. International regulation of autonomous machines and artificial intelligence is critical, but absent. We need to collectively “trade off” the benefits from automation against the social cost of increasing joblessness and inequality. Such complex decisions should be a humans-only skill. Unfortunately, we have rarely made wise public choices. This skill needs to be augmented. A first step could be all those concerned reading this book.

Adapted from the authors book review in Business Standard weekend October 22, 2016 http://www.business-standard.com/article/specials/human-factors-in-the-automation-debate-116102101369_1.html

i4j

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