governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘Law and regulation’ Category

Grandfather stranded power assets equitably

Coal

Economic reform has few friends. This truism is visible today as the 2003 de-licensing of power generation capacity is being unfairly fingered as the culprit for the Rs 1 trillion bank debt turning delinquent due to pending or actual bankruptcy of the power projects.

De-licensing of power generation delivered what it was supposed to – capacity addition in thermal generation exceeding the planned capacity addition over the period 2012 to 2017 by 30%. Fingers are also being pointed to low coal production or the prohibitive price of imported gas as additional culprits. This is disingenuous.

Drivers of stranded power assets

The primary reason why installed generation capacity remains underutilised is that distribution utilities have failed to develop new markets for electricity and are stuck at unreasonably high levels of operational inefficiency. The CRE/ICRA 6th Annual Rating for Distribution Utilities July 2018, rates just 7 out of 41 distribution utilities with a satisfyingly high performance. But remember that rating standards in India are contextually determined to offer an incentive for improvement. Lowering transmission and commercial loss below 25% accrues incentive points. International standards would be way better.

The average loss in distribution utilities, during FY 2016, after accounting for subsidy received from government, was Rs 0.65 per unit (kWh) sold. Is it any wonder then that distribution utilities have failed to absorb the available supply of electricity. Actual users have to undergo forced power outages till the utilities can generate cash to pay for purchasing electricity from the grid. Constraints on the supply side have been unplugged by reform. The problem lies in stodgy utilities failing to aggregate potential demand.

India night lights

SHAKTI a transparent, effective resource allocation mechanism

Union government steps for reducing financial stress in the power sector date back to 2017. SHAKTI (Scheme for Harnessing and Allocating Koyala (Coal) Transparently in India) skillfully used the auction methodology to allocate up to 80% of the assessed need for coal supply to 11 generators (31 entities applied but only 14 were found to be at a reasonable stage of project completion) . Generators without any coal linkage, bid for coal supply from Coal India Ltd. by agreeing to reduce their approved levelized tariff , thereby sharing the gain with their customers. Bids for reducing tariff by 4 to 1 paise per unit (kWh) were received. This was commercially smart rationing of coal supply to favour the most efficient generators.

RBI shakes complacent defaulting promoters awake with looming insolvency

Debt Recovery

Why has the debate around stressed power assets gained currency today? Election time, which we are clearly into, is a good time to press for benefits. This applies to requests for extending the time period beyond the 180 days allowed to promoters to rectify a loan default. Under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code 2016, promoters or their associates, become ineligible to bid for the assets during resolution proceedings. This severe penalty is meant to spur promoters to fulfil their loan repayment obligations and pay banks back on time.

Timely negotiated settlements better than the judicial option 

Draconian penalties are of little use when the default is due to a systemic shock. The Enron private power fiasco 1992-1999 was sparked by spiralling of imported gas price. Negotiations, rather than judicial options, finally resolved matters. In 2005, NTPC, GAIL and MSEB acquired the assets in Dahbol, Maharashtra abandoned by the bankrupt US company.

Enron solution redux- neither desirable nor feasible

Dahbol involved only 2GW of abandoned assets. Today, 10 GW of gas generators are stressed, like Enron. In addition around 12GW of coal fired generators are also stressed after excluding those which have benefited from the SHAKTI initiative. The stranded asset problem is more than 10X of the Enron problem. The bank loans – mostly of Indian banks – at stake are around Rs 1 trillion. Is there a way out causing the least disruption to embedded economic incentives?

Reduce the cost of coal based generation by lowering the implicit and explicit “tax” imposed on it.  

The most direct route would be to end the extortive levies on coal production and transportation by rail. Rahul Tongia and Puneet Kamboj of Brookings India recommend making the railway freight charges cost reflective. This would also make Indian Railways competitive with road transport, to which it has been losing market share.

Currently, coal transport by rail is charged more than the cost of service. This is an implict tax on freight which subsidises passenger traffic. The resultant excess freight cost feeds into the cost of electricity generated. This increases the cost of electricity by Rs 0.21 per unit (kWh) amounting to Rs 108 billion per year.

In addition, there is an explicit tax on coal via royalties, levies and coal cess. These increased from Rs 200 per tonne in 2011 to Rs 800 per tonne in 2017 pushing up further the cost of coal based power.

Why should electricity consumers pay to subsidise rail passengers?

Quite unfairly, it is the honest electricity user who is indirectly subsidising rail passenger traffic – that too in a poorly targeted non-merit way. Freight charges should become cost reflective and the levies on coal production reduced to Rs 400 per tonne. IR should generate the additional revenue required for keeping passenger fares reasonable, from commercial development of their physical assets.

Subsidise rail passengers explicitly via the budget

There is also a good case to use the revenues from coal cess and other levies for this purpose. Rail transport is more efficient and environmentally less toxic than road transport. Switching to electric rail from road, reduces the import burden imposed by using petro products. A direct subsidy of Rs 150 billion should be allocated to IR specifically for adopting cost based freight charges in the 2019 budget. Lowering the cost of coal based power will improve the finances of distribution utilities and enable them to buy more power, which would feed into the financials of coal based generators.

Spread the pain of low availability of domestic fuel across all thermal power generators

Why not replicate the SHAKTI auction template to allocate a portion – say 50% – of the annual coal demand to all generators (those owned by the Union, state governments or the private sector) whilst retaining the existing allocations for the remaining one half. Electricity prices at the grid would reduce. The principle of price competitiveness (electricity supply) as the door to preferential access to scarce domestic coal will incentivise all generators to become efficient.

competition

Grandfathering existing contracts is the gold standard of contracting norms. But extraordinary circumstances call for innovative options. When the available resources fall short of demand, the principle of efficiency of resource use overrides historical rights in a merit order system. New generators win the efficiency battle, hands down.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in TOI blogs, August 9, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/equitable-grandfathering-needed-in-thermal-power/

Secrecy, privacy and property rights

access denied

Rahul Gandhi alleged, during last week’s doomed-from the-start no-confidence motion in Parliament, that corruption in the 2016 agreement signed by the Narendra Modi government to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets from France had forced defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman to backtrack from her assurance to disclose details of the price of purchase.

Parliamentary subterfuge – unnecessary, if there is nothing to hide

The matter could have been ended by Ms Sitharaman admitting that being new, she had overlooked the confidentiality clause – a plausible explanation since military purchases are a tough, black box to unravel. Instead, the government chose to hit back by pinning the blame on a 2008 bilateral security agreement signed by the then UPA government with France. This needed both parties to protect classified information which could compromise the security and operational capability of the defence equipment of either.

It is quite a stretch to argue that keeping the price paid a secret meets the test of “necessity” or “proportionality” which guide how much a citizen’s right to know can be restricted. The Chinese or the Pakistanis couldn’t care less what the Indian taxpayer shelled out for the fighter jets.

They likely already know the specifications of our purchases. But at the same time corruption cannot be lightly presumed to be the reason why Ms Sithraman backtracked. Expect this unresolved debate to hang like an ominous cloud as the counter to the BJP’s allegations of corruption during the previous UPA government.

The underside of unrestrained privacy

Privacy is to individuals what secrecy is to the State.  The debate on privacy got muddied by the recent arraignment of WhatsApp for being the conduit of fake news, which incited vigilante violence and hate crimes.

WhatsApp encrypts content in its pipes end-to-end like no one else. Complete secrecy attracts 1.5 billion active monthly users and 60 million messages per day. Its end-to-end encryption cannot even be decrypted by its own administrators. This rabid commitment to secure the privacy of its users doesn’t align with the extant law and is as over-the-top as is our government’s thirst for secrecy. The fundamental right to privacy is restricted by other fundamental rights, including public order, security and those embedded in Article 21 of the Constitution of India, to which privacy was also mapped by the Supreme Court in 2017.

A fundamentalist view on the right to privacy has spawned “dark”, impenetrable means of communication, like WhatsApp. This is a precursor of what could happen if the “dark web” becomes the norm. Similarly, if crypto currencies are allowed to subvert a sovereign’s power to issue currency and bury crime-related financial transactions underground, catastrophe beckons.

WhatsApp managers initially expressed technological helplessness to regulate the unsavoury use of its technology. They are now making conciliatory noises with an eye to their bottomline. Non-compliance could jeopardise their application for adding-on a payments app in India.

Psst! I have a secret

Secrets

Why has WhatsApp been allowed to linger on and not simply told to shut shop, as is China. The bottom-up view is that encrypted communication has wide appeal across political parties and individuals. We all have secrets.

WhatsApp democratises the power to have secrets, unlike the Official Secrets Act 1923, which locates this power only within the State. WhatsApp allows everyone to have secrets. This suits freewheeling democratic India.The last word on the privacy of digital data will be from the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Committee on data protection. This committee, appointed in August 2017, has worked in unprecedented grand isolation. Presumably, things have been decided behind closed doors and the collective wisdom will be revealed in due course.

TRAI recommendations on data privacy and security mundane, at best 

But in chaotic India, surprises are routine. Days before the report was to be submitted, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) published, on July 16, 2018, its recommendations on privacy, security and ownership of data. The TRAI recommendations are unlikely to make the committee pause and think again. It is already broadly agreed that the individual’s ownership of data is paramount. But both the fundamental right to privacy and the right to property over data are restricted. If the necessary safeguards exist to mask sensitive and personal information, the plea of privacy loses force for denying access to data, at least to the State.

Artificial intelligence requires masses of data to train machines to think and behave better than humans. Anonymised data aggregated across a large number of individuals is more valuable than oil, in order to understand and predict contextual human behaviour.

Who is “Free riding” on data?

The debate on free riding on data has focused on how aggregators free ride on individuals data. However, if an aggregator “pays” explicitly for using individual data, ownership over data should stand transferred to the aggregator. Consider that in touristy locations across the world, locals demand a fee to be photographed. Such contracts, for non-anonymised data, with adequate safeguards, should be encouraged not pushed underground.

With respect to strictly anonymised data the right to deny or withdraw access to, despite adequate masking safeguards, can be viewed as anti-development and also at a stretch anti-national. At the very least, denying or withdrawing access to anonymised data should attract a cost to be paid, since it amounts to “free riding” on the technological benefits gained by others providing their anonymised data.

TRAI has passed up an opportunity to assert that the ownership of anonymised aggregate data should vest with the entity doing the aggregation if a specific contract exists with the data generator (app user). This needs to be clarified to retain the value proposition in data aggregation.

A market for anonymised data

Conversely, TRAI has ignored the need for a market to price data. A market exists even today. But it is an informal and non-transparent market which hurts the commercial interests of the individual data owner and puts the controller or processor of data in the driver’s seat. This information asymmetry can be removed through innovative institutional development to ensure that individuals are not shortchanged and have to sell their data cheap – much like innocent tribals selling their land for peanuts. If data is the new oil, it must priced accordingly.

Restore property as a fundamental right 

demolition

We have grossly neglected property rights in general and specifically in the context of  data management. Civil society mostly focuses on safeguarding the privacy aspect of data management. There is a reason for this. Unlike privacy, the right to property stopped being a fundamental right in India in 1978. This makes it difficult to challenge laws infringing on property rights.

Conversely, the higher judiciary has been indulgent in admitting public interest litigation  (writs) challenging laws threatening fundamental rights generally, so privacy gets privileged legally over property. Privacy rights also align with the need to decriminalise gay sex. It is an emotive issue. In comparison, a right to property seems almost crass, where 60 per cent of people own no land or electric consumer durables; 40 per cent of households live in just one room and can fit their possessions into a gunny sack.

But make no mistake. Socialism erred in hiving-off the right to property from human rights. Property is intrinsic to the right to privacy and liberty. But we will have to keep arguing till we fix this error, eventually.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, July 24, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/230718/whatsapp-row-on-secrecy-privacy-property.html

Lives dedicated to change India

RTI story

This is not a glib account of mobilising the rural poor, penned by a peripatetic babu or a drive-in-fly-out development expert. It is, refreshingly, a record of activists, who elected to spend the better part of their working lives making a difference, bottom upwards, and three decades later remain rooted in their karmbhumi — village Devdungri, Rajasthan.

school for democracy

Some came from well-off urban backgrounds and yet stuck it out in the harsh and relentless realities of the rural poor. This testifies to their commitment. But even to attribute high moral incentives to them, betrays the tinted glasses of this urbanised reviewer. The authors do not vent their frustration, voice their regrets or betray even a whiff of resentment against an uncaring world. What shines through instead, is their quiet joy and fulfillment, at doing something useful.

Aruna Roy, for all her careful attempts to disperse the credit, is the central figure. Born into a family of lawyers, she drifted into the elite Indian Administrative Service in 1968 but resigned in 1975 to work with the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Ajmer. Clearly, goaded by the need to be more immediately and directly involved with real people in rural India, she left SWRC in 1983. Nikhil Dey — recently returned after college in the United States, seeking something beyond a comfortable life, became a friend; Shanker Singh, a local village official’s gifted son, adroit puppeteer and communicator extraordinaire, completed the group which bonded and decided to check out the rural empowerment landscape in Jhabhua, Madhya Pradesh. That seed did not flower. But bonds between the three deepened.

They resolved, in 1987, to put down roots in village Devdungri, which today is part of district Rajsamand in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. This was close enough to Shanker’s village, Lotiyana, to give the group an entry into rural life through his local bonds of kinship. Here, in a mud hut, rented from his cousin, the small group lived like the villagers around them and awaited a gradual immersion into the rhythm of village life and hopefully, local social acceptance — their doors and hearts open. Trust and credibility is central to an activist’s effectiveness.

MKSS

Meanwhile, the group refined the credo of their concerns. These coalesced around the need to enable the rural poor and marginalised, to look beyond their sordid reality of traditional social and cultural constraints, to understand and avail of, the constitutional rights available to them, within India’s democratic and institutional architecture. The disastrous drought, blighting the region, presented an opportunity. The standard mechanism for drought relief was to initiate civil
works.

By 1983 the Supreme Court had directed that public works must comply with payment of minimum wages. But this was rarely done. The group resolved that getting workers minimum wages would be their central concern. A related opportunity arose due to the tyrannical ways of a local sarpanch who misappropriated village development schemes for personal benefits and whose benami holdings encroached on village land.

In both cases, empowering the poor meant getting access to the government records of money allocated by the government for different schemes; the amounts spent, on what and when. At that time ordinary citizens could not access these records as a right. Often mistakenly, even a list of Below Poverty Line cardholders was conveniently construed to be secret. Consequently, in any dispute with government entities — around wages or non-inclusion for welfare schemes “the villagers were always the liars”. They had no way to prove their case because the truth was hidden inside the official records, to which only the government had access.

Getting the dispossessed to appreciate that access to information and knowledge is vital, was the easiest part. The awareness that local government intermediaries were swindling them kindled anger, and sometimes outrage among villagers. While the immediate oppressor is visible and becomes vulnerable, the veiled support of those higher up in the hierarchy, maintains the status quo. Getting villagers their rights, means changing the status quo from the top.

The political vehicle used by Aruna and her activist colleagues to generate awareness; the desire for change and an ecosystem for long-term support to deliver rights to the rural poor was the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The artful, determined and collaborative way in which it was constituted, and the strategic depth of its functioning is a delight to read. The ideological roots of the MKSS lie in the life and thoughts of Gandhi ji (non-violent protests against government apathy), Babasaheb Ambedkar (equity and dignity for all) and J.P. Narayan (social and political revolution within constitutional constraints).

The movement for access to political and social rights, formally started in 1987, expanded organically over time from the village level to the state level by the mid-1990s and finally to the national level by 2005, when the Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament. Parivartan, the Delhi-based NGO, headed at the time by Arvind Kejriwal, evolved its strategy of “direct democracy” from the MKSS methodology — a mix of rootedness in organising the poor from within; high moral, ethical and personal values; imaginative use of local folklore and theatre like the Ghotala Rath to lampoon corrupt politicians; careful research to unearth government information to pinpoint negligence, fraud or corruption using the vehicle of Jan Sunwais (public hearings).

Less successfully the MKSS also branched into directly managing kirana (provisions) stores in villages as a competitive force to make local traders less rapacious and reduce their profit margins. While useful as a temporary local intervention to break a trader cartel in a small village market, this model proved difficult to scale up. The MKSS also dabbled in village-level elections to get some of its well-intentioned members, elected and collaborate with like-minded parties. But it is far from transmuting into a political party.

Aruna and the team

Aruna, 41 years of age in 1987, is 72 today, Shanker is 64 and “young” Nikhil is 55. During the last three decades of their struggle, the Right to Information has been embedded into the accountability structure of the State, bringing the much-needed transparency. But making the State accountable to the people, in real time, is a broader unfinished task — top-down accountability and bottom-up participation, both need deepening. The good news is that the indefatigable trio is upbeat about conquering this frontier too.

This book is a must read for cynics, who want their optimism restored; those eager to share the pain and the joy of activism; organisational behavior “experts” and budding activists looking for pathways to India’s development.

Adapted from the author’s book review in The Asian Age, April 22, 2019 http://www.asianage.com/books/220418/read-it-to-know-the-pain-and-joy-of-activism.html

India’s 50-50 reforms

half reforms

Unlike politicians, who can choose their targets, business leaders have to dance to the tune of  shareholders, who buy or sell, based on the existing or the future bottom line. In politics. it is relatively easy to change the goal posts or indeed, shift the goal itself.

Changing goals

In India, the current metric for political performance, is jobs. Self -selected by the Bharatiya Janata Party, this may become a self-goal because even globally, there are few, near-term solutions.Prior to jobs, in the noughties, it was all about boosting economic growth — where again headwinds have built up. Before growth, it was about ending poverty in the 1990s. Earlier, in the late 1960s and till the mid-1970s, it was about boosting agriculture, becoming self-sufficient in food and avoiding famines. Even further back in the 1950s, heavy industrialisation and infrastructure were the mantra. Of course all these are part of development. But sequencing matters. Also, pancaking more reform targets on the existing ones, confuses even the reformers.

Partial success abounds, but excellence less visible

Seventy years on, we are only narrowly competitive in manufacturing; our infrastructure is vast but shoddy; agriculture has low productivity levels; 40 per cent of us are either poor or are vulnerable to poverty; we are still stretching for sustained real growth in high single digits; unemployment is rife and the participation rate in the workforce is a low 44 to 48 per cent, with women faring worse than men.

This is not to trash what we have achieved. But it is useful to look beyond the efforts made by the successive governments, at the outcomes and ask the question, why are the results always worse than expected?

Elusive transformative change

Tribal protest

Transformative change is disruptive. We have been slow in embedding credible instruments to mitigate the cost of disruption. This increases the risk perception of change, leading to a public push-back on reforms. Consider how poorly we acquire land in public interest. The instruments for identifying, determining and managing the acquisition are loosely supervised, at the cost of ensuing inequity and poor transparency.  Massive amounts of mineral resources continue to lie buried in tribal areas, whilst tribes prefer to eke out a subsistence level traditional life, rather than participate in the process of development. The overriding fear of every property owner, or occupier, is of being gypped in the process of acquisition, by forces beyond their control. In a democracy we cannot ignore insulating people, especially the poor, from the cost of disruption.

Public trust and credibility in short supply

Managing change successfully, requires a governance system good at modern parenting rather than a patriarchal approach to directing and controlling people and events. Our governance systems still follow the colonial legacy of collaborating with entrenched elites to get things done, somehow. Those affected at the bottom become a hindrance rather than participants. There is very limited institutional appetite or capacity to deal directly, as a change agent, with those who are most affected by change. Even when specific processes, like consultation are provided for, the approach degenerates to ticking the box, rather than using the opportunity to gather feedback on the process, test assumptions and obtain buy-in for the way forward.

“Accountable discretion” is not an oxymoron

It does not help that there is a near ubiquitous ban on the transparent use of executive discretion — prompted by misuse of the privilege in the past and a judicial preference for impossibly rigid rules, regardless of their negative impact on implementation.Consider, for example, the burgeoning non-performing loans of banks. The rule bound approach to bank lending insures the lender- manager, if sufficient security against the loan existed, on paper, when the loan is approved. The focus is on achieving secured lending targets rather than adding economic value. This makes gold plating of projects, to increase the notional value of an asset, a mutually convenient tactic between the lender and the borrower, especially at times when the real lending rate is low. Never mind that it can adversely affect the project’s viability and thereby the repayment capacity of the borrower. The public sector no longer trusts its employees. But ending supervised, executive discretion has significant efficiency costs.

Chasing impossible scale 

We succumb easily, to the insidious temptation to effect instant change at sub-continental levels, rather than build change, bottom upwards, block by block. India is heterogenous without parallel. For us, the political model should be Europe, rather than China. Multi party politics in India requires sufficient elbow room for diverse political agendas. The political architecture may prescribe the objectives and principles of public management. But being flexible in program implementation is a must.

The Constitution fixed past challenges, but under-provides for the future

Our constitution reflects the challenges faced at the time of independence rather than today’s priorities. Integration fears at the time led to a centrist constitution. This is what enabled the Union government in 1959 to dismiss the first elected E M S Namboodiripad government of Kerala. The governor of a state, appointed by the President, acting on the advice of the Union government, is another centrist feature as are the emergency powers of the Union government.

Overlapping mandates

The capacity constraints existing at independence shaped the lop-sided division of mandates between the Union and the state governments, with the former unduly burdened. The sub-state or local government came into existence only through a 1993 constitutional amendment.Delhi is a good example of poor inter-governmental allocation of mandate resulting in a governance logjam. Overlapping mandates confuse citizens. and reduce accountability. Consider that Members of Parliament get elected by getting drains made and Members of Legislative Assemblies by promising higher prices for agricultural products or by proposing a separate flag for their state — all areas outside their mandates.

Poor arrangements for resource management

The constitutional scheme for recruitment and management of the bureaucracy is unduly complex and diffuses accountability. Officials must be “owned” by the level of government they serve. Fiscal resources, at every level of the government, must be aligned with form, which should fit the functions executed at that level.

Avoid the Banyan Tree 

banyan tree

The top-down, centrist approach has the disadvantage of an overblown apex crushing the little people below. Remember, nothing grows under the Banyan tree.Change, sensitive to mitigating the costs thereof, flexible implementation of norms driven from below, with primacy for real value addition can deliver 100 per cent results in reforms.

 

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in the Business Standard, March 27, 2018 http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/india-s-half-baked-reforms-why-are-the-results-always-worse-than-expected-118032601102_1.html#

BJP’s new script – defending the losers

Modi grim

Thus far, the BJP has played to a core script of development; a more effective State and muscular nationalism, fanned by Hindu revivalism and an assertive foreign policy stance. This has resulted in a “tick all the boxes” type strategy, with the central focus being on winning elections. This strategy has paid rich dividends politically.
But some of the steam appears to be leaking out of this construct.

Admittedly, more Indians still put their faith in the BJP than in any other party – not least because of its charismatic Prime Minister – Narendra Modi. But voters are notoriously fickle. A politician is only as good as the last bag of goodies delivered to supporters. The BJP needs a strategy to generate goodwill in a more sustainable manner.

One option is to systematically address the concerns of those who have fallen through the cracks of the neo-liberal, open economy model we have followed since the 1990s. Of course, in doing so, the BJP will have to distinguish itself from populism and vote buying, which is the hall mark of a failed politician. Here are some options.

Protect children from malnutrition

stunted

First, we have smashed the pre-1980s growth, glass ceiling of 4 per cent per year, also called the “Hindu rate of growth”. Sustained growth reduced poverty to around 20 per cent with an additional 20 per cent teetering on the edge of the abyss of poverty. But it is shocking that 40% of children remain malnourished and not all of them are poor.

Unless a child is adequately nourished in the first eight years, there is a high likelihood of permanent damage to its brain. Clean air (to increase lung capacity), clean water (to avoid diarrhea) and micronutrient rich food can guard against stunting. Unless this is done, we are continually handicapping around 90 million kids or 7 percent of our population, from childhood.

Spending today, on these three inputs – clean air, clean water and nutritious food, is well worth the avoided economic cost of perpetually sustaining a stunted population of around 500 million. Do the math if you are not convinced. Consider also, that looking ahead, the quality of the human brain and not brawn, will determine if a nation succeeds or fails.

Social protection for the elderly- 50+ and poor

old man 2

Second, experts agree that the capacity of the average human brain to learn and innovate decreases sharply with age. Start up India, Make in India, Mudra – loans for MSMEs, all benefit those under 50 years of age, who retain the vitality to do new things. For those above 50, who have been thrown out of jobs or others who have never held a job, there is little on offer, except the back-breaking NREGA.

SKILLS India is also not a solution for them because failure rates in adult education are very high. Around 6 percent of the people above 50 years of age, or 80 million people, are poor. They could never have saved for their old age. Also, poverty is sticky and disadvantages entire families. Even their children must be barely able to keep body and soul together.

Cash benefits for this set of 80 million, at a paltry Rs 1000 per person per month would cost Rs 1 trillion per year. A progressive annual cash allocation, increasing with age, as the likelihood of doing gainful work decreases, would be sensible. This is expensive but an inevitable cost of our past public transgressions.

In addition, they must get free basic medical insurance schemes, allowing them to seek in and out-patient treatment, at any registered clinic for free, just like the middle class and rich do. This way the elderly poor will cease to be a burden on their children. The cash and other benefits for supporting the girl child have worked well. So can, a benefits scheme for the elderly poor.

Respect land ownership rights

Third, liberalization, whilst creating enormous private wealth, also generates inequalities. There are losers who fall through the cracks. Take our historic failure to provide credible commitment that acquisition would “cause no harm” to land holders. The common apprehension is that bank financed, land acquisition, incentivizes excess acquisition for speculation. It also robs the land holder of the ensuing value creation.

This creates resistance and fear. Even the latest version of the Land Acquisition Act is backward looking. It merely seeks to “compensate losers”. It should explicitly provide for “sharing of the ensuing value creation” between the land holder, the project developer and the government, using a Participative, Public, Private Partnership (PPPP) model.

land protest

India is land starved. The ownership of this valuable asset must be respected as an equity contribution to new projects, with pre-defined, time bound returns, insured by the government. Even “public purpose” must bow to the rule of law, which upholds the property rights of land-owners.

Penal sanctions for public delinquency

Lastly, some tough love is necessary to improve our public services. We should legislate – “The Public Services Act” – sanctioning those who fail to use the fiscal resources put at their disposal; we must attach criminal penalties to public actions which result in public harm, due to lack of due diligence whilst budgeting or poor implementation of projects.

death 2

If citizens die in road accidents because an ambulance cannot ferry them, in time, to hospitals; if hospitals negligently harm, not cure patients; if defective public buses, trucks, aircraft, ferries and ships are allowed to ply, resulting in deaths; if shoddy public construction causes death or disability; if an official values her time more than the life of a citizen in urgent need or if a citizen dies because the police is away on VIP duty, the delinquent officials must be held accountable. Only then can the right public service culture and moral fiber be created, so necessary, to deal with the ceaseless challenges in public life. It cannot be a one-way street with only citizens serving the State.

Also available at TOI Blogs, December 31, 2017 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/bjps-new-script-defending-the-losers/

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 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/131217/aadhaar-fever-unveiling-secrets-to-secure-india.html

Privacy – an elite fantasy

privacy

Elite concerns are usually disconnected from the ground reality. For the 1 per cent of Indian who live privileged, cocooned lives, the judicial right to privacy created by the Supreme Court yesterday will add yet another layer with which they can insulate themselves from the “barbarians at the gate”. So, here is what the rich may now be able to do which they couldn’t earlier.

Is the right to euthanasia next?

First, they may now be able to refuse medical treatment and die in their beds, peacefully, instead of being compulsorily hooked up to tiresome, life-saving machines in hospitals. But try explaining this “right” to the millions of poor Indians for whom just getting admitted to hospitals is still a dream and refusing treatment would be unimaginable.

Deletable past lives

Second, the well-heeled may now be able to press for being judicially forgotten – all traces of their past lives and identities expunged, giving them a fresh start without having to flee to distant London or arid Dubai. Contrast this with the Herculean efforts the average Indian makes to become part of a database and have an officially recognized identity – a voter card, a passport, a PAN card, anything which proves that she exists.

LGBT sex may become legitimate

Third, those with alternative lifestyles – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community might now hope to be free of the notoriously archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes everything other than straight sex. But would this give them the right to marry a partner of their choice; adopt children or be socially accepted?

Evidencing crime will become harder

Now ponder the downsides. Law enforcement agencies struggle to manage terrorism, Naxalism, urban mafiosi, drug pushers and armed rural gangsters even today. “Privacy” concerns will provide a legal shield to undermine information collection, crime detection and investigation. Nothing less than the over-the-top, draconian Armed Forces (Special Provisions) Act – used today only in the “disturbed” areas in Kashmir and parts of the North East – would be effective. Since gangsters can afford to hire the best lawyers, the violation of their fundamental right to privacy in the process of enforcing the law, will now become a favourite ploy to keep these worthies free to wreak havoc.

How intrusive is the Indian State anyway?

Will this fundamental to privacy help the 200 million slum dwellers or the unknown millions who sleep under the stars on urban streets? Is not our fear of the “big State” overblown? The India I know is under policed, under governed and under regulated. There is a plethora of agencies, laws and rules to bind down anyone and yet very few – mostly the timid, those mindful of their public image and the law respecting middle class get intimidated by the legal spaghetti. The rich buy their way out of any mess and the poor are so inured to danger and risk that it is second nature for them to live with uncertainty.

Biometric targeting of beneficiaries to be abandoned?

Take the case of Adhaar for verifying the identity of those using the Public Distribution System (PDS). Recent studies in Jharkhand by responsible social scientists – Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera – found that 15 percent of the eligible PDS beneficiaries were excluded because of technical glitches or access problems in using Aadhar as a test of identity. But 85 percent of the beneficiaries were targeted correctly. If the right to privacy eliminates the use of Adhaar, we will be back to what Rajiv Gandhi famously called the 25 percent approach to poverty reduction – where 75 percent of the funds are siphoned-off by intermediaries. How and why would a reversion to a system which has huge inclusion errors (ineligible people getting benefited) be any better?

Big data to be throttled?

Finally, consider how retrograde is the fight by “right to privacy” advocates against big data. It is big data – the billions of pieces of information on human behavior and preferences linked to specific human demographics, which enables algorithms to predict trends, thereby aligning products and services with customer needs. This is what makes big data commercially valuable. In price sensitive markets like India, telecom and e-commerce penetration is being driven by the potential to monetize big data. Putting brakes on this process means putting brakes on the rolling out of technology services which will become more expensive if the actual user is to pay for them.

India lost an opportunity in 2014 when facebook- Bharti Airtel wanted to roll out free internet services on mobiles. TRAI regulations ensured that this venture never took off, thereby slowing down internet access for all except the 300 million people in the upper most income segments who can afford it.

Tilting at windmills

Nandan Nilekani is now an evangelist against “digital colonialism” in the context of tech majors like Google and Amazon aggressively expanding their presence in India. We should be wary of tech industry insiders playing the “anti-foreign” card. Similar attempts were made by the infamous “Bombay Club” to scuttle the 1992 economic liberalization. Their contention was that liberalizing the domestic market was fine but Indian industry should continue to be protected from foreign competition. We are fortunate that the government of the day paid no heed to this self-serving agenda.

Keep India open for competition

India is a big economy with very shallow industrialization. We need to remain open to all economic actors – domestic and foreign who want to invest in India. It would be a huge mistake to emulate the xenophobia of the United States and draw up our bridges. Data is the new oil. Data security needs to be ensured, irrespective of whether data is stored in India, or overseas. But generating anti-foreign hysteria is not in our interest as we try to integrate into global supply chains and become a part of the global value creation eco-system.

It is easy enough to legislate rights. We have many notional rights. Creating a level playing field for all citizens to enjoy these rights, equally, is another matter altogether.

Also at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/privacy-an-elite-fantasy/

Is hubris slowing down Modi?

Hubris

So when does hubris — the corrosive comfort of undiluted power — overtake a government? Conventional wisdom points to three early red flags. First, when routine tasks are ignored for grand ambitions. Second, when party cadres act out of entitlement rather than commitment. Third, when rant replaces reason as public outreach. Has this already happened to the BJP government?

Ignore routine tasks at your peril

Venkaih

First, consider the recurrent trail of routine lapses. Take the embarrassment in July of being unable to get the non-controversial bill to give constitutional status to the Other Backward Castes Commission passed in the Rajya Sabha because BJP MPs did not even bother to attend in sufficient numbers. There is no glory in floor management. Ergo, it gets overlooked. Next, consider the election of Ahmed Patel to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat. The strategy to keep him out was brilliant. But shoddy execution, or worse, deliberate sabotage, let down the BJP. Finally, the mass death of children in a Gorakhpur hospital. The hallmark of the RSS has been effective management during emergencies and disasters. That oxygen cylinders couldn’t be swiftly organised speaks volumes of how low the cadres have sunk.

Rulers can’t ignore the Rule of Law

Second, consider contempt for the rule of law. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS supremo, violated the law in Kerala by unfurling the national flag, on Independence Day, at a school in Palghat, contravening a restraining order by the district collector. The order was perverse, based on pique and politics rather than prudence. The manner of its service — just prior to the occasion — was hurried and amateurish. But it was a legal order and anyone violating it is liable to be arrested. Mohan Bhagwat got away. But the lesson he taught the schoolkids and party cadres was that no law is sacrosanct if you are powerful enough.

Gandhiji would not have approved. Disobedience of an unjust law is fine, if followed by submission to its consequences, under the rule of law.

Gandhi

This contempt for the law is visible in the cadre vigilantes protecting cows, supporting unruly, disruptive religious yatras and the demonisation of alternative voices. Add to that, the raging testosterones of a BJP “princeling” in Haryana and you have party cadres which align more with gaali (abuse) and goli (bullets) rather than the galle lagana (hug) that Prime Minister Modi has espoused as the leitmotif of New India. Third, let us consider why no one came away inspired from Red Fort this year.

Outreach by high decibel rote no substitute for passion

The Prime Minister’s speech was a prime example of zombie behaviour, where the mind is elsewhere but the motions are acted out. The wide ramparts of Delhi’s historic Red Fort have set the stage for Prime Ministers to grandstand every year since 1947. Two (Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai) barely had a chance to give a second speech before they were gone.

Four others (Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, H.D. Dewe Gowda and Inder Gujral) were even more transient, managing not more than a single speech each from Red Fort. One — Rajiv Gandhi, a young, stunning-looking charmer — was suddenly elevated to the position but never quite unbuckled the pilot’s seat he used to occupy earlier. Manmohan Singh had a decade to hone up his act. But he knew that he was a mere seat-warmer for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — having been taught his lesson earlier, when party workers sabotaged his election bid to the Lok Sabha. P. V. Narasimha Rao — a friendless, private man was not given to making big public gestures from the Red Fort. His political games were deadly effective, but played entirely in privacy.

Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi are the only three Prime Ministers who have had the mandate and the charisma to use the ramparts to strut their act. Mr Modi thrilled us in 2014 with his energy and his earthy enthusiasm at reaching out to people — quite a change from the taciturn Manmohan Singh or the imperiously distant Sonia Gandhi. In 2015, he filled in the vacant spaces in his act with data, slogans and acronyms. We were impressed. In 2016, we were still agreeable to look kindly on him, given that the economy was racing along and government performance was projected as trending sharply upwards.

By 2017, the act was flat as yesterday’s soda. This is remarkable considering that Indian testosterones are racing at the government effectively holding off the Chinese muscle-flexing at Doklam and now in Ladakh; Pakistan is reduced to being a mere vassal of the Dragon and economically hollowed out Western powers are fawning at our doors for Indian business.

Modi 2017 Red Fort 2017 (3)

International acquiescence has bred much-needed confidence. But it is disquieting that in domestic policy it has led to complacence, drift and distance from the public. Mr Modi’s speech was rambling, glib, unnecessarily argumentative and just plan stale. The turban was way too shiny to be classy. The stance too casual to be purposive. The look too staged. Very confusing was the discrete use of the terms — Bharat, India and Hindustan.

Bharat, India or Hindustan?

Hindustan was used in the context of pledging support for the victims of the irresponsible Muslim practice of triple talaq. Bharat was referred to as the mata (mother). But it is New India that we seek to build. Meaning?

Bharat, India or Hindustan, all three remember earlier episodes of hubris — disconnects between reality and rhetoric — which ended badly for us. In 1964, we discovered, too late that India needed the world, not the other way around. In 1975, we realised Indira needed India, but we didn’t need her. In 2017 (Delhi municipal and Uttar Pradesh elections), a shallow social revolution met its downfall. In 2004, we tired of using the stock market as a metric of progress. The metrics proposed for New India are similarly flawed. Corruption, poverty, filth, early death and unemployment are long-term outcomes, unachievable by 2022.

Child India

Focus on the essentials, Mr Prime Minister: Ending poverty by providing jobs and social security; improve results in education and health; build infrastructure for the 21st century and professionalise your government. We supported you in 2014. We want to do so again in 2019. But is your party up to this task?

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 17, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/170817/is-a-sense-of-hubris-slowing-down-modi.html

FM Jaitley, aim for the sweet spot

Manmohan Jaitley

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recently released a book titled India Transformed — 25 years of Economic Reform, edited by Rakesh Mohan, at the appropriately historic Nehru Memorial Library. After the obligatory photo-op, Dr Singh turned to finance minister Arun Jaitley and with a beatific smile, handed the book over to him, as if, symbolically, he was satisfied that he could hand over trusteeship of the economy, to the three-year-old NDA government, and walked off, disregarding the speech he was scheduled to deliver.

The reform baton passes on

It was indeed a poignant moment and well chosen, for the economic baton to be handed over. The high-decibel criticism by Left-oriented, liberal public intellectuals of the economic vacuity of the BJP government’s economic policies continues. But the fact is that we are now at a cusp, an inflexion point. In all likelihood, we shall do substantially better on inclusive growth. This may sound incredulous at a time when growth, industrial investment and exports have fallen from the earlier upward looking trend line. But a dip in the industrial investment and growth rate are natural short-term consequences of the BJP having finally walked the talk on corruption.

Pressing the economic accelerator is not enough

Over the first three years, the NDA merely pressed the accelerator harder on the positive legacy of the UPA — rural unemployment support, fast-forwarding Aadhar, digitisation of commerce and banking, financial inclusion, space technology competitiveness, making electricity surplus, making access to telecommunications even more affordable, better transport and urban infrastructure, disinvestment of minority shares of state-owned entities, ensuring fiscal stability and progressively higher financial devolution to sub-national governments, including local governments.

Burying past negativities is good but not enough

It also did very well to bury the negative legacy of the UPA. The biggest achievement is in fast forwarding of expenditure programmes without the viral outbreak of corruption scandals seen earlier. More positively a three-pronged action plan is in place to make public systems resilient to corruption.

GST – the corruption buster

First, getting the GST is the biggest legislative and operational achievement to dampen corruption and enhance value addition by integrating the national market. Glitches remain due to poor drafting of rules which burden the small, honest taxpayer. Many such are the obsessive dedication to maximising revenue, even at the expense of simplicity. As usual the pain is being most felt by those least able to bear it — ragpickers — at the bottom of the urban food chain – their daily income have halved because the “kabadis” (junk yards) they sell plastics and glass to, are playing safe on the likely new tax liabilities. Small individual consultants or homeowners,  who live in one state but get work or rent from another, re similarly caught in a bewildering tax reporting spaghetti.

Bankruptcy & NPA resolution – The crony capitalism killer app

Second, is the frontal attack on crony capitalism — identifying the borrowers who have defaulted on Rs 12 trillion owed to banks, getting the Bankruptcy Act operational and signaling public sector banks that there will be no more “Mundra scam (1950s)” type telephone calls from the government. Reaffirming that sensible lending shall be rewarded and inept or corrupt lending punished.

Big brother must watch use smart analytics

Big data

Third, the proposed use of “big data”, including data from social media, to zoom in on potential tax evasion and crime. Taken together, these actions lay the systemic capacity for reducing corruption.

Aim for the sweet spot

cricket sweet spot

Whilst perfecting its drive at real sector reforms, here are the four “tests” the government must pass.

Defang the trade Unions

First, the unleashing of genuine privatisation (offloading of majority shares in a state-owned entity) as proposed in the long-delayed case of Air India is the winner. It sends the signal that India is open to efficiency enhancing financial restructuring. That it intends to free up existing public capital to create new public goods — jobs, physical infrastructure, improved social services, like health and education, whilst fresh private capital gets infused into the commercially viable supply of private goods — air and rail travel, steel, metals, petroleum and electricity. The Labour Unions are up in arms. This is where privatisation flagged in 2003 under Minister Arun Jaitley and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Can the Modi-Jaitley team de-fang the inward looking, protectionist, labour “aristocracy” comprising the Trade Unions – the bedrock of the moribund CPI(M)?

TU

Grow private banking rapidly

Second, financial sector restructuring to make state-owned banks commercially viable. Uday Kotak, of the Kotak Mahindra Bank, surely over-stretches when he advocates the  wholesale exit of loss making public banks and their substitution by private banks. But clearly, the strategy of incremental privatisation, as done earlier to enhance telecom, aviation or electricity generation, will pressure state-owned banks to become competitive. This should also circumscribe the ability of the government to use banks like ATMs for populist goodies.

Nail large. serial loan defaulters as criminals 

Modi nail

Third, the strong action proposed for making collusive default on bank loans a criminal act is commendable. It brandishes a big stick for potential defaulters. The intention is virtuous. But experience shows that criminals, especially rich ones, find it easier to evade the law than poor innocents. To avoid this perverse outcome, criminal powers should not be delegated outside the judiciary. The record of tax tribunals and quasi-judicial agencies is not sanguine enough to empower them with criminal powers in addition to their economic mandates.

There is no option except to reform the judiciary through incentives and structural changes in judicial governance. This is a tough nut to crack, but shortcuts will give rise to the miscarriage of justice, vigilantism, and massive public resentment — specially in the middle class, which will be the most impacted in cases related to property and small business.

Remain a classic, fiscal fundamentalist

Lastly, the finance minister’s determination to maintain macro-economic stability has been amply demonstrated. This resolve must not weaken even during the run up to the 2019 general election. This will be the biggest economic win,lo if achieved. The report of the N.K. Singh Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Committee 2017 embeds too much flexibility to provide credible guidance for the future. Fiscal fundamentalism is better.

cricket defense

Good politics must also be good economics. There is an appetite now amongst voters for hard reform. This, by itself, is a tribute to the credibility of the NDA government. A populist pre-election budget would be seen by the voters as an early admission of defeat. That is not the winner’s way.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 9, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/090817/hard-reforms-vital-nda-needs-to-shun-populism.html

Fix the “market” for political power

Indian army

Citizens expect governments to intervene when the markets fail. The market for Diplomacy failed last month at Doklam. If the Chinese Army is to be stopped well north of the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and Tibet/China, then only the Indian forces, funded by taxes, can do the job. This is a satisfactory arrangement for all Indian and Bhutanese citizens, who otherwise may be hard-pressed to secure their territory.

When State failure fails to fix the underlying market failure

But not all government actions have an obvious rationale. Demonetisation was unleashed in November 2016 to end black money. Few believe that this objective has been achieved. Black money is not an outcome of market failure. It is an outcome of governmental failure to tax income effectively; control corruption or control crime. Poor governance only encourages the generation of black money, which then requires another intervention to root out black money. Economist Shanta Devarajan of the World Bank, in New Delhi last week for the NCAER annual India Policy Forum <http://www.ncaer.org/event_details.php?EID=184>  believes such iterative interventions are ineffective in improving the quality of governance, and can reduce the legitimacy of governments. Far better instead to rethink how to deal with the underlying market failure – in this case the “market” for political power.

Poor tax administration

So why do governments tax ineffectively? Most commonly, multiple objectives in the tax policy are to blame. The sale of loose groundnuts — the ordinary person’s food — may be tax-free but packed groundnuts, even if unprocessed, are taxed. This creates a five per cent tax differential for arbitrage between the two categories, which are difficult to administer separately. A single rate of tax levied on a non-evadable tax base is the most effective. But consider that this would be akin to the colonial “poll or head tax” — levied on each person uniformly. Effective, but terribly inequitable.

The killer “app” for instant equity – Universal Basic Income- how effective?

Admittedly, mechanisms like transfer of a basic income to the poor can neutralise such an inequity. But transfer of a similar amount of cash, to each poor person, itself creates huge inequities, even among the 40 per cent population vulnerable to poverty. Transferring differential amounts, depending on need, attracts the same inefficiencies as trying to administer progressive tax rates fairly.

The big 2Cs – Corruption and Crime

Why is corruption or crime so hard to control in India? If citizens feel that political power can be acquired by subverting the “popular” vote, it reduces their faith in the power of their vote. It also delegitimises the government and undermines its ability to rule, in the eyes of those who voted against the government. Bihar faced this conundrum for two decades.

It does not help that, in India, governments can be formed even with a minority of the total votes cast in elections, so long as each elected member of the ruling party gets more votes than the next candidate. This first-past-the-post system fractionalises politics. It encourages parties to form coalition governments, which are unable to discipline errant behaviour by their constituents. This “coalition dharma” fosters crime and corruption.

Are laws aligned with context?

An alternative explanation for pervasive crime or corruption is that laws are out of sync with local customs. And not enough has been done to change social behaviour beyond legislating transformative rights and duties. Ending open defecation — a prime driver to reduce the vulnerability of women to crime — is one such example. The benefits from ending open defecation are dependent on collective action. One reason why we did not do more earlier could be that the political incentives are perverse. They favour exaggerating, rather than bridging, the social cleavages of caste and religion, which inhibit collective, progressive decision making.

Feudal governance patterns breed poor accountability

Low public accountability and lackadaisical collective action can also be traced to the continuation of feudal traditions of governance and poorly distributed income growth. Richer citizens are more resilient to State encroachment of their rights and less dependent on State largesse. Luckily, over the past three decades, we have become less poor, better educated and more aware of our rights versus the State.

But the extent of inequality remains significant as does the infrastructure deficit across rich and poor areas. The privileged crust is thinner than a hand-tossed Neapolitan pizza — possibly just 10 per cent of the population. The rest seethe in forlorn frustration. Can we get away from this low-level equilibrium? Yes, we can by fixing the market for political power.

End the perverse incentives in our political architecture 

Our political architecture is riddled with perverse incentives which  constrain the will to reform. Here are four changes which are overdue – deepening decentralisation; enhancing state government autonomy; enhancing the representativeness of the legislatures and regulating political parties better.

First, bridge the trust deficit and distance between citizens and the State. Empower state governments versus the Union government and local government versus state governments. Hopefully, the 15th Finance Commission will carry forward the trend of forcing the Centre to devolve functions and Central taxes to states and directly to local governments based on performance criteria.

Second, cut the colonial fat; abolish the titular but unedifying position of state governors. These are unelected nominees of the Union government exercising oversight over elected state governments. Transfer this role to the President, who is elected. This will level the playing field between states and the Centre versus the presidency.

Third, make Parliament and state Assemblies more representative. Sharply reduce the size of constituencies. Only directly-elected members should be eligible to become Prime Minister or chief minister. A candidate should be able to contest an election for only one seat at a time. The winner must secure a simple majority of the available votes and two-thirds of the votes cast. Municipalities must be headed by elected mayors.

Fourth, the functioning and finances of recognised political parties must be made transparent. Inner-party elections must conform to common but effective guidelines. The Election Commission must be empowered to determine constituency boundaries and diversified beyond the administration, to include citizen representatives and the judiciary with the chief election commissioner chosen specifically.

Use the GST process of risk-free consensual decision making

GST became a reality as a process of cooperative federalism was followed led by the finance minister. Reforming the market for political power could benefit from a similar approach.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, July 19, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/190717/power-structure-needs-reform.html

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