governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Democracy’

Book Review: Just erratic not deranged

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

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

Nature’s pawns

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

Inequality and the urge to splurge

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

gas-guzzler

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

A captive media

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

Can religion help where politics has failed?

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

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

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

The world is increasingly more not less sustainable

 

cyclists

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

We are winning the war on poverty

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

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Choice and progress

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

Plurality rules

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

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

telescope

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

 

Afro-India: claiming the 21st century

Shared Dreams, Shared Destiny” screams the banner welcoming African delegates to the Third Indo-Africa Forum Summit. Forty heads of state are in attendance, along with dozens of ministers and 2,000 officials. Day one, Monday, got off to a shaky start. The press meet was termed a “damp squib” by one leading financial daily. Most delegations were absent disappointing the media which had to make do with our impeccably spoken minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her team of high officials.

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Pre summit conference on trade with Minister Sitharaman

A 7.5 scale earthquake, shook Delhi in the afternoon but caused no damage. Hopefully the visiting “big men” and the solitary “big woman” — President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia — will remember the demonstrated resilience of Indian construction, whilst deciding whether or not to go for a cut-price bid from China for their next project.

Day two had great press for Union minister for external affairs Sushma Swaraj, in a bright orange sari, with swathes of delegates draped around her.

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Minister Swaraj has these big men eating out of her hands

Why South Sudan, which has more cows than people, sought help from India to improve its meat supply business, remains a mystery. It illustrates how limited is Africa’s association with India.

Fuzzy agenda

Unfortunately, the government remains woolly on what we want to do with Africa beyond importing their raw materials and exporting cheap machinery, cars, chemicals and pharmaceuticals to them. Indian business is way ahead of this strategy. It sees Africa as a popular investment destination given the ease of doing business there at higher margins. Siuth African President Jacob Zuma has already sounded the battle cry of “Make in South Africa”.

Doing Business Report pats Indian on the back

Fifteen countries, or one-third of the 49 African countries, with a 30 per cent share in Africa’s GDP, monitored by the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, rank higher than India. Mauritius leads the pack at rank 32 — ahead of Japan and Italy, followed by economic powerhouse South Africa and tiny Rwanda, which weathered its 1990s ethnic crisis spectacularly.

India ranks a low 130 despite frantic efforts to improve its rank from 142 last year. Of the African economies which rank lower, 50 per cent or 15 countries are classified as “fragile”. African governments are well ahead of us in the art of outreach to attract investment or doing international business.

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Amitabh Kant the “go to” man for branding India

India’s democracy- only for marathon runners

Our next big “selling point”, from the Western perspective, is the democratic architecture of our country and its resilience since Independence in 1947. To be sure, there is much to be proud of. But it is doubtful if any of Africa’s “big men” and the solitary “big woman” will be attracted to our fractious democracy. Africans prefer order and discipline like a lot of Indians. They willingly barter personal liberties and freedom for the sake of their communities. Tribal bonds are alive and vigorous in Africa, much as caste is the leitmotif of India. The unhappy outcome of the Arab Spring, which unduly empowered citizen groups against the state, endorsed their strategy to retain an intrusive state to maintain order.

India is too big, too diverse, too individualistic and too “argumentative” for heavy-handed State regulation. Possibly, Africa could need a federative, “soft State” strategy, should they one day decide to form the United States of Africa. But for the present, we have few lessons for Africa on how to run a government. Why then, have so many top decision makers bothered to come? Here are my thoughts:

Is the new India for real?

First, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s muscular outreach to the world has evoked intense curiosity. Foreigners are lining up to check if we are ready to walk the talk. Does reality match the hype? It helps that India has a global reputation for gorgeous shopping — the jewelry, the silks, the pashmina, the prêt-à-porter fashion wear, all available at competitive prices, not to mention the grandeur of Mughal and colonial India reflected in the many monuments in Delhi which are stunning to gawk at.

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Jugaad and the very visible hand of God

Second, is curiosity, about an ancient land that is reputed to be managed directly by God, because doing so is beyond earthly skills. India is full of bad news, rapes, riots, hunger, poverty, illiteracy and poor services. And yet, it is the fastest growing economy in the world with a reasonable ambition of joining the “big three” or “the big five” over the next 10 years. Bung in the fact that government is hopeless at providing primary education, but arranges the kumbh mela (religious festival) annually at the Sangam in Allahabad for 100 million pilgrims over the space of a week, without a major disruption or incident and the role of divine intervention in keeping India going becomes clear.

durga

We produce the full range of products from leather jootis to spacecraft which hover around Mars, with consumer durables, textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, intermediate goods and industrial machinery also thrown in — not to forget the services provided globally by our IT companies. Yet 60 per cent of our people live below the $2 per day poverty line; just 3.2 per cent of Indians (middle class and above) own 64 per cent of the country’s wealth (Credit Suisse 2015). How we manage these contradictions, the “social noise” and the “political disruptions” is a miracle that many feel they need to “touch” to understand. And so they come.

Come, make friends in India

Lastly, and most importantly, heads of state come to India to build lasting relationships with a country which is non-threatening, well-meaning, gentle — at least by the standards of international realpolitik — and is slated to have a share of 10 per cent of the incremental world GDP by 2025 and 15 per cent by 2035.

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Prime Minister Modi meets President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya

Selling products and arranging capital is what our private sector should be doing, not the government. After all, business is best placed to strike deals on both sides of the table. What our government needs to do is to paint in the details of the “Idea of India”, projected by Prime Minister Modi, as a focused, motivated country determined to claim, along with other developing countries, the second half of the 21st century as “our” own.

The Africans cannot be bowled over by pomp or ceremony. For them a Mercedes is merely a high-end taxi, not an executive limousine. What attracts them, instead, is the simplicity of life in India, the concern for high human values, even amongst our poor, combined with our earthy tradition of seeking “value for money” — well-known to them via our Gujarati expatriates. But if this fails to click, dancing to Congolese Rumba or the fusion Afrobeat also helps. Pity there is no joint Nolly-Bollywood event planned.

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Rashtrapati Bhawan, New Delhi illuminated for the Diwali festival

Adapted from an article by the author in Asian Age October 29, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/afro-india-claiming-21st-century-722

African “big men” in India

African heads of State will don Modi kurtas and party in New Delhi, October 27 to 29. The occasion is the third meeting of the Indo African Summit. It would be quite a sight to see Robert Mugabe, age 91, President of Zimbabwe for the last two decades, take a turn or two on the dance floor. But we may have to make do with the more agile President Jacob Zuma.

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President Jacob Zuma of South Africa at his agile best

Hopefully, the parallel with ASEAN will not extend to Minister Sushma Swaraj having to sing at the concluding party, just to liven up the proceedings, along the lines of Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State in 1997, who crooned her version of “Don’t cry for me Argentina”.

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Minister Sushma Swaraj with members of parliment

Beyond the theatrics, it is tough to figure out what we want to achieve with the possibly forty heads of state or governments and many more senior politicians and officials from Africa who are expected to participate. Similar summits were held in 2008 and again in 2011.

Claim the 21st century for Africa and India

Demographics suggests that the second half of this century belongs to Africa and India. But to claim this “historical destiny” India and Africa have to do the right things. One such is to put the right institutions in place.

This “mirror” long term need is what binds India to African countries far more than the standard diplomatic fare; trade and investment, terrorism and security. These are merely the transactional outcomes of sound institutional development and better dealt with at specialized fora which already exist like the World Trade Organization, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions and their offshoots.

Context is key for developing “best fit” institutions. Context varies enormously between India and Africa and even more so within Africa. But one common theme across most African countries is a rich endowment of natural resources (except Rwanda and Burundi) which distinguishes them from resource poor India.

In contrast, adherence to broad democratic norms is increasingly the preferred option across Africa. Swaziland and Lesotho remain the only kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa. Yesterdays “dictators” are today’s leaders, who test their popularity in elections.

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Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda

India has been the world’s largest democracy since 1947. In Africa Senegal has similarly been a multi-party democracy since 1960 when it became independent. Senegal had its “Indira Gandhi moment” in the first decade of this century when then President Wade tried to unduly empower the executive through constitutional amendments. The democratic backlash was strong and he lost in elections to his own Prime Minister in 2012- President Small still leads today. Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and later South Africa, Botswana and Namibia also have stellar democratic records.

African public service structures have evolved unlike ours which have atrophied

The institutional architecture within which government functions is critical for achieving developmental goals. Within the broad institutional architecture the manner in which the civil service is structured is key. India has much to learn from select countries. South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia for instance, have developed and maintained outstanding public service structures and traditions.

These bureaucracies have weathered far more tumultuous times than we in India have ever encountered in the post- World War II period. But they remained committed, motivated and deliver results- three characteristics that are iffy to apply across the board in India.

India presents a fascinating case study of asymmetric development. On the one hand we have scientists sending space expeditions to Mars. At the other end poor villagers still rely on traditional healers and “bangali” doctors- sometimes out of choice and habit but mostly out of compulsion since the public health service is so poor.

It is fashionable today to advocate the case for asymmetric development- getting reform in through the door wherever possible without attempting an across the board improvement in the civil service. India is a good example of how this does not work. Islands of excellence remain just that cordoned and insulated from the ills that afflict service areas not considered critical from the short term (sighted) point of view.

India manufactures or assembles more brands of cars, scooters and motorcycles in India than it is possible to remember. We pride ourselves on our in-house capacity for developing infrastructure. We have embarked on a “make in India” mission. Foreign students come to India to study management, medicine and engineering.

Yet, within the government, it is rare to find an official with the relevant technical qualifications, in a senior position with decision making powers. This is not to say that our top bureaucrats are not highly educated. Invariably they do have these credentials, in a general way. Many may even be a PhD. It doesn’t get better. But rarely is it that the academic qualifications and the experience overlap. This disregard for “technical excellence” as a driver of good public administration is at the root of our inability to apply the vast knowledge reserves we have built up to improving public services on the ground.

We should learn for countries in Africa which have done away with the hierarchical, cadre based, colonial administration systems they inherited and have moved on to a position based meritocracy. South Africa, Mauritius, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania are examples.

Our federal structure is an outstanding example of contextual decentralization

Whilst our Constitution is a Union of States rather than being a federation like the US Constitution, it is a dynamic yet robust instrument. It has been amended one hundred times since 1952 but it remains the driving force for growing the “Idea of India” as a single nation comprising unparalleled diversity in religion, ethnicity and culture.

Much of richness of the Indian public management experience derives from the significant levels of devolution to the thirty state governments. Around 40% of the Union government’s revenues are made available to state governments as their share of tax. An additional 15% of funds are transferred to state governments for executing national development schemes. State governments also have their own sources of revenue.

The size and character of states varies enormously in India. These range from the mammoth Uttar Pradesh (UP) with a population of 200 million (the next biggest state is Bihar with pop. 100 million) to tiny Sikkim population 600,000.

Uttar Pradesh is larger than the largest African nation-Nigeria-pop. 189 million, renowned for its oil rich economy, entrepreneurial people and pluralistic society.

Sikkim, sticking out like a “thumbs up” between Nepal and China in North Eastern India with streets neat as a pin and people, as disciplined as the Rwandans closely resembles the well governed, gorgeous, North Western African island nation of Cape Verde.

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Cape Verde

Africa manages regional co-operation exceedingly well

India should look closely at the cross country arrangements within Africa which facilitate development based on the comparative advantage of countries. Power pooling across the Southern Cone countries and West Africa is one such example. Access to sea routes for land locked countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda via rail, road and pipelines provides good models for cost sharing across Indian states. Truth and reconciliation type negotiations are another African specialty.

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Presidents Bashir of Sudan and Salva Kiir of South Sudan- friendly foes.

The Indian institutional arrangements for regional integration have fallen into disuse and are ineffective. Water sharing arrangements are particularly dissatisfactory and legal disputes linger for years, increasing conflict and retarding development. Similarly implementing the Goods and Services tax- a single, value added tax, to replace state level taxes on the production and sale of products, to which all parties are agreed in principle, has become harder and more painful than extracting a tooth.

It may have been really useful to arrange sessions where state chief ministers could have interacted with heads of state depending on areas of mutual interest with their officials following up on the detailed areas of cooperation.

We are not China

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aarti” evening prayers on the banks of the Holy Ganga

Finally how can we  differentiate ourselves from China whilst dealing with Africa? Clearly the worst option would be to emulate the muscular Chinese style of economic diplomacy. For one we just don’t have the firepower. For another the principle of comparative advantage advocates that everyone must play to their strengths.

China’s comparative advantage is cash-lots of it. But the Chinese model of development is not something which is easily replicated because of the size of its economy, the homogeneity of its population and its long history of splendid isolation. Also it is unlikely that exporting workers in droves to implement projects overseas is a sustainable or effective developmental strategy for the beneficiary countries.

Our comparative strength is that we are the “Constantinople of Parliamentary Democracy”. We straddle the democratic heritage of the West and the traditional Asian democratic principles. In doing so we have evolved a home spun democratic model. Like all jugaad (learning by doing) the ends of this model are a bit jagged.

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The Indian parliament on high alert post a terrorist attack in 2001

Nevertheless, it is a model which works- both for economic growth and to uphold the human liberties of speech, association and property. Within this generic model of development lie gems of granular achievement at the state government and local level, which provide solutions to the universal development barriers of elite control, low initial capacity, nascent institutions and less than adequate rule of law mechanisms.

India must use the Summit to share these nuggets of experience which are at the heart of building institutional resilience for sustainable development in poor countries.

1542 words

Taming Terror

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(photo credit: guns.com)

An inequitable sharing of power and the “glass ceilings” of “closed order” societies, devised to keep the status quo intact, are ripe pickings for terrorism.

Apologists of terror focus on this underlying social explanation for the breeding of terror. But this is cold comfort for the victims of terror who, generally, are as ordinary and as excluded, as those perpetuating terror.

In fact hurting the average citizen is the intended consequence of terror.  The intention of the terrorist is to shatter the credibility of the government’s ability to preserve the rule of law.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948 is a verbose document assuring all manner of Human Rights through its 30 Articles. Of these, the most critical are Articles 3 to 5 which relate to the Right to Life; Freedom from Slavery and The Right against Torture. It is these three which are the primary targets of terror.

Democracy disappoints

Through the second half of the Twentieth Century the anticipated social leveling through the spread of Democracy and since 1990 the economic benefits from Globalization were expected to take away the breeding ground for terror. Sadly this has not happened.

Democracy perversely marginalizes and excludes many, even as it empowers others. In India lower castes have gained through a policy of positive affirmation but religious minorities have lost out. It is all a numbers game with a huge political incentive to encourage identity (religion; ethnicity; caste; culture) politics. In this polarizing game those who have the majority win and the rest lose or are forced to become subaltern partners in governance.

Economic growth an incomplete answer

The notion that growing economic well-being can bridge the divisiveness of culture and identity has been shattered repeatedly. Germany was a rich nation just prior to the World War II but demonized the Jews. British and French kids today join the Islamic State even as the ethnicity obsessed, Right in Europe is resurgent by making immigrants the “fall guys” on whom to pin the woes emanating from the fiscal excesses of the go-go years of the first decade of this century.

Monitored executive discretion can help

Centralized, authoritarian regimes like China seem best placed to manage terror for the simple reason that they have plenty of monitored, executive discretion, which is the key ingredient whilst fighting those who live in “shadows”.

Terror is spread by highly trained and motivated cadres who are rigorously monitored and mentored.  They can only be stopped by a similar cadre. The Israelis know this and that is why they are so successful at surviving in the toughest neighborhood in the World.

But Democracy by definition undercuts executive discretion. Transparency, Open Data and Citizen Voice- all off-springs of the Good Governance framework popularized since the late 1990s, similarly constrain executive discretion.

The most dramatic illustration is the public rebuke given by the Republican controlled Senate to President Obama’s initiative to “socialize” radical Iran by negotiating a nuclear agreement with it. This is a departure from the “norm”, which gave significant leeway to the US President to negotiate Foreign Policy initiatives. We are fortunate that the Indian Prime Minister is not constrained in this manner since Agreements with Foreign Nations are not subject to Parliamentary approval and the Executive has considerable discretion in managing Foreign Affairs.

With both Economic Development and Democracy proving to be unlikely bulwarks against terror what then remains as a cogent strategy to manage this scourge?

Four initiatives present themselves.

First, reduce inequality. This is important because much of it, particularly in developing countries, is the result of massive corruption. This is visible in the workplace; in life styles and in the resource endowments that some people inherit. What can be done about it is less certain. The best, but somewhat dissatisfactory strategy is to constrain the government’s budget to the very minimum, whilst striving to get the biggest bang for the buck. Big governments are bad news. Small, nimble governments are in.

Second, adopt open access structures: The challenge is not to “pull down” the rich by taxing them (France tried but failed) or by banning the consumption of luxury goods (luckily the French view fine wine and cheese as a necessity). The challenge is to open access to good education, health, social protection and formal, private sector jobs based on merit.

Third, Role Models matter. “Open access” systems are not created overnight.  Open access is more than a physical process. As Tagore said it is the mind which has to be opened. Role models are key in building such societies.

One such role model today is Arvind Kejriwal who emulates the entrepreneurial, mass-movement based political principles of Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi).

PM Modi presents the other, more “muscular” model of the dedicated, organizational man who claws his way to the top by pure grit and guile- very similar to what happens in an American Corporate and the Communist Party of China.

Both role models represent an open access system in operation. For Chief Minister Kejriwal the “entry point” was the Constitutional provisions for pluralism in political parties. In Prime Minister Modi’s case, it is the meritocratic structure of the RSS and the BJP.

That “open access meritocracies” are the best bridge to socialize Radicals, Fundamentalists and Discontents is best illustrated by the recent teaming up of the “Islamist” leaning, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with the Hindu Right-BJP to form a government in Kashmir. Neither party wears “secularism” on their sleeve but both represent the middle class and that is their biggest glue. In comparison, the National Conference of Kashmir and the Congress are both dynasties run by political aristocrats.

Fourth, grow the middle class. The key to kill terror is to grow the middle class by investing in formal, private sector jobs and state funded, but privately provided, education, health and social protection facilities.

Keeping people productively busy and cruising the “basically comfortable” income frontier is important. Time to restructure the government workplace by opening it up to external skills (they exist in India believe it or not!); balancing worker rights with worker responsibilities and decentralizing authority widely, including to non-state actors thereby co-opting them into governance, so that the “pie” is widely shared.

Capitalism centralizes income and wealth. The government must use its fiscal resources to re-distribute it wisely.

Liberals; smell the coffee please

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(photo credit: http://www.thehindu.com)

Liberals and human rights advocates are a queasy bunch with no stomach to face up to the honest truth that effective governance implies a better informed and more intrusive government.

Light handed regulation” is the mantra of neo-liberal economics. But such regulation fails unless the regulator can monitor compliance with the rule of law by acquiring more and better, real time data on individuals and business entities.

Take the simple case of ensuring that shop workers are not exploited by owners and get at least one weekly holiday and enjoy restricted, daily, working hours. The “heavy handed” manner this is done is by shutting entire markets down on a specific day and prescribing shop opening and closing hours. The “light handed regulation” option could give shop keepers the liberty to set their own working hours. But to protect workers’ rights, effectively, it would need to generate a real time centrally networked, database of cash transactions- to validate shop working hours and a bio-metric clock- doing the same for employees working hours.  How does this square with the Liberal preference for “small government”?

Consider the case of self-assessment by tax payers. Regulation cannot get lighter than that. But to be effective, it has to be coupled with predictable and significant sanctions against deviant behavior. This means generating a database, on each tax payer, comprising an effective audit trail of all financial transactions and a tax agent randomly trawling this data, using “red flags”, so that deviance can be detected and brought to trial.

Tracking phone call, social media, emails and physical movement of individuals all becomes part of “Big data” which needs to be captured to provide the information required for credible sanctions systems. This is especially necessary, in democracies like India, where all sanctions are appealable and hence must be backed by “judicial quality evidence”.

“Big data” does have unintended but positive outcomes. The clamour, amongst the elite,  for the status symbol of publicly provided, security guards can be greatly reduced, if “security” comes with a GPS enabled, real time, tracking of location and real time reporting, via a smart phone app, of whom the VIP is meeting as a routine procedure.

No Liberal would object to the installation of CCTV cameras where they live, to protect their lives and property. But this comes with the potential downside of intrusive government. Taking cameras closer to people generates “Big data”. Its value lies in the ability to constantly trawl it to prevent crime (or even natural disasters), by identifying “hot spots” and patterns of criminal behavior and to bring criminals to book. Constraints on individual privacy are inevitable. Also there is bound to be misuse, despite checks to prevent gaming; for example the illegal use of individual information, acquired for security purposes, to black mail individuals. There will always be “insiders”, who could trade off any inherent inefficiency in keeping “big data” secure.

Is Edward Snowden a traitor or an American hero? His country folk were divided on the fine point of the “tipping point” between an “insiders” duty to guard official secrets versus the citizens moral responsibility to fight “Big Government”. There is a stark choice between ensuring security and preserving individual freedom. Too much individual freedom (say the right to religious beliefs which may even bar or restrict social integration, as is available in India and the US) can be as negative as too little individual freedom (China, Russia) in the name of national security.

But the flash points where security collides with individual freedom are more often due to “entrenched privilege” being threatened, than the high ground of morality being squashed.  Indian Liberals, who willingly submit to racial profiling and body searches at US and UK immigration, are outraged if an Indian security personnel, so much as dares to question them about what they are carrying in their bags, whilst boarding domestic flights, trains or buses.

Of course most Liberals in India belong to the elite. For them the State and its officials are only to be suffered, not recognised. There is an implicit sense of “entitlement” amongst the elite, who expect to be “served”, even if they dodge their taxes. Much of this springs from the unfortunate spectacle, of fawning subordinates around a preening public official, in much the same manner, as courtiers may have supplicated before our erstwhile Maharajas.

Liberals mourn that there is too little reliance on “trust” and too much emphasis on “surveillance”. But isn’t it ironic, that in the US: the birth place of Liberal policy practices and “small government”, it is “legally enforceable contracts”, which are the life blood of social and even personal interaction. A society governed by “contracts” by definition, is a society which does trust anyone, including the State, to do the right thing.

It is the same with the theory of incentives. The fundamental basis of neo-liberal policy practice is to embed the correct “incentives” in regulations, which then elicit the desired behavioural outcomes associated with the desired results. The provision of artificially embedded incentives, as neo-Liberal policy practice seeks to provide, inevitably come with intrusive metrics of measurement because what is not measured can neither be sanctioned nor rewarded. Regulatory intrusion, big data and “big” government are the inevitable consequence.

In direct contrast, are systems which rely on “belief”, “religion” or “spirituality”. These seek to bind people to a higher morality and blind them to the needs of individuality. Communism is one such “belief” which relies on the morality of the State and not contracts. Of course, it also comes with high levels of State control and intrusive oversight by a bureaucracy of the faithful, exactly as any other religion.

The Liberal position becomes even more laughable when we consider the available “best practice” on poverty reduction; a key objective for developing economies. “Tightly targeted, cash transfers” to the poor is the latest mantra. But these have to be preceded by identification of the poor; close monitoring of their locations and current incomes. In fact, what this requires is a national database of the entire population of India so that we can segregate the poor from the non- poor; citizens from non-citizens and similarly along any other targeted classification (gender, caste, religion or spatial location). 25% of the Indian population is migratory. This requires “spatial location” enabled assessment of their current economic status since poverty levels vary across states. You can’t get bigger data than all these demographics on 1.25 billion people.

The loss of individual privacy is embedded in the logic of extensive digitization of information. Think of the benefits from being able to identify people uniquely; record their demographics (age, marital status, gender, health and education metrics) securely; store transactions securely and access the stored information instantly. If it is alright for the government to be intrusive versus the poor, why is it so horrible for the “privacy” of the rest to be invaded? The much touted right of the individual “to be forgotten” can exist versus other individuals (though how even that could be enforced is not known) but it must never exist against the State.

“Big data” and a better informed government are here to stay. Liberals should wake up and smell the coffee.

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