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Posts tagged ‘Environment’

If only Suresh Prabhu was CEO of Indian Rail!

train-crowd (1)

(photo credit: Indianexpress.com)

As expected Suresh Prabhu, the likable, very professional and intensely committed Railway Minister presented a Rail Budget yesterday, which is not only fiscally responsible; internally consistent; aligned with the medium terms needs of the economy but which also pushes all the right buttons.

For the middle class the buttons pushed are availability of disposable linen in trains, on payment, for the squeamish- a first; entertainment on board to while away boredom; Wi-Fi at stations; a choice of meals; an assured maximum waiting time of five minutes whilst purchasing a ticket – again a first. Most important is there is no increase in the price of “upper class” tickets, which no one was expected, given the gaping hole in the financials of passenger traffic.

For the environmentally conscious citizen, Minister Prabhu flags that investing in rail reduces transport of goods and people by road, thereby saving up to 90% of energy and 85% of the carbon emissions as compared to road transport. A clear plus for the security of energy imports dependent India and a plus for the global climate.

Second, dual fuel engines are planned which will run on diesel plus the significantly less polluting Compressed Natural Gas, which compulsorily fuels all commercial road traffic in Delhi thanks to a Supreme Court order a decade ago and is why Delhi citizens are not choking to death in stand-still traffic.

Third, select railway stations will switch to green solar power, generated on site, using the ample land available with government.

For the poor, he has held the lower class ticket fares constant despite a net loss on passenger traffic of Rs 26000 crores ($ 4.2 billion). He adds that he is likely to be helped somewhat by weak oil prices which may reduce the loss by 20%.

Revenues from passenger traffic contribute only around 33% of total revenues but passenger trains get priority in congested routes. Of the passenger revenue the “lower class” subsidized fare contributes only around 70% even though around 85% of passenger miles are in this class. These rates are crying for upward revision.

Sadly, he has hiked the rates for goods transport by around 10%, in line with the long term trend, in which freight of goods and upper class passenger fares are taxed to cross subsidise passenger fares for the poor.

But there is hope. Unlike all his august predecessors he has resisted the temptation of announcing new trains and thus frittering away the meagre public funds (Rs 40,000 crores – $ 6.6 billion) that Indian Rail (IR) gets from the budget.

Sensibly, he intends to invest in around 50% of pre-identified segments of the congested routes to remove blockages,  which slow down premier passenger trains- technically capable of running at 130 km per hour to a mere 70 and freight trains- which can run at 75 km per hour to a mere 25 km per hour.

Decongesting such sections will increase the speed of transport, improve turnaround time of rolling stock and reduce the delivery time at destination of both goods and passengers. Once realized, this by itself will result in financial rewards for IR from improved efficiency. Sadly these intended benefits are either not assessed or not shared with the public.

But it is sad that India still wastes both executive effort and scarce parliamentary time on issues which are squarely within the corporate ambit. There is really no reason why IR should not be a government corporate just like Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) the oil behemoth or the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), India flagship power Generation Company.

India’s stock market is booming and capital values are several times the book value of “capital employed” in the these corporations based on future expectations of their profits.

Meanwhile IR, a monopoly in the rail transport segment, with annual revenues of Rs 183, 828 crores ($ 30 billion) struggles to charge cost reflective rates; needs to mind its Ps and Qs because its budget is debated in Parliament, where the 790 honourable members can each be a stumbling block to reform and rationalization and is strapped for capital to invest.

If Indian Railways were a government corporation with a Suresh Prabhu clone as its CEO, it would be the second largest Indian company by assets size, after State bank of India (SBI); the fifth largest Indian company by profits after ONGC, the Mukesh Ambani led Reliance Industries (RIL), SBI and TATA motors and the seventh largest by revenues after Indian Oil Corporation, RIL, Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum, SBI and TATA motors.

Ofcourse if it had been a government corporation it would not have had to suffer the political interference which has crippled it since the last “business like” minister it had in the late Madhavrao Scindia of the Congress more than  two decades ago. It is time all the Scindia descendants alligned with the right side of reform again.

The best part of Suresh Prabhu’s Rail budget is that it is “timid” in its ambition. It does not promise the moon and instead bats for “incremental improvements” which aligns well with the glacial pace of reform in India. It is realistic in its assessment of political economy compulsions and yet firm on not “giving in” to the long prevalent culture of “pork” in railway budget allocations.

Small is still beautiful and the Rail budget does well to recognize it. It is the small changes which have a big bang for the buck. Problem solving and unplugging bottled up efficiency essentially involves looking for cost effective solutions. The railway budget assiduously finds them all. The only exception is the commitment to green solar energy which, despite the hype, remains a hugely expensive option for grid connected electricity generation in a poor country like India.

If PM Modi’s “invisible hand” was behind the Rail Budget, we hope to see more of the same, strengthening FM Jaitley’s resolve on February 28, whilst presenting the nation’s Budget for FY 2016, to be efficient without being excessive; effective without being cruel and carefully allocating public funds where the maximum private sector jobs can be created; the poor most benefited and the common tax-payers wallet swelled.

The Rail Budget was a good beginning. Lets hope for a  happy ending tomorrow to the budget mania.

“Tweak” the process transparently to deliver PM Modi’s “Big Things to Small People”

Obama Modi

(photo credit: article.wn.com)

Charismatic leaders can mould crowds like putty. Bill Clinton’s March, 2000 “US and India are natural allies” address to the Indian Parliament; Barrack Obama’s University of Cairo “New Beginnings” address to the Muslim world, June, 2009 unleashed a Tsunami of optimism and “feel good”. In much the same way, PM Modi-the man with an agenda of Big things for Small people- in his recent Madison Square address, won over the hearts and minds of a “massive” (by US standards) crowd of 18,000 Indian-Americans in New York and an even larger audience back home in India.

For many Indian expatriates, including us in India, it is a relief to have a Prime Minister who radiates strength, speaks extempore and from his heart. It also helps that he is a consummate performer, who draws energy from the crowd and returns it to them magnified many-fold.

Those looking for suave wit and a sophisticated exposition of geo-political gyan were sorely disappointed. Modi was deliberately folksy and simplistic. He capitalized on his strengths magnificently, just as Indira Gandhi, the last Indian PM with an international stature, used to do more than three decades ago.

Of course, it helps if one can live on water endlessly and still have the physical ability and mind space to go through a deliberately, whirl-wind program. By doing so Modi has become a live bill-board for the low carbon footprint potential of solar energy. His eschewing food altogether, through the trip, was akin to the Mahatma wandering through the London chill in his sparse loin cloth, protected only by the churning energy generator in his mind.

Till now the West has been wowed by India’s IT skills, thanks to our Silicon Valley diaspora. Next, we are likely to be branded as Yoga maestros all and expected to perform never-before feats of physical endurance.

But it was not all plain sailing.

Three areas where plain speaking-PM Modi’s forte, would have helped, are listed below.

First, what exactly is our stand on joining the fight against Islamic Terror and the linked approach to Afghanistan? The message coming through till now is fuzzy. It seems India is likely to carry on in much the same muddled way we have done till now; remaining visible in Afghanistan, but primarily as well wishers, bringing development to the people of Afghanistan. This is clearly dissatisfactory and unrealistic in the context of the impeding US withdrawal and the likely security turmoil courtesy the unresolved political contestation between the Ashraf Ghani and Abudullah Abdullah groups. National governments are prone to fail. Similar recent experiments in Nepal, Zimbabwe and South Sudan illustrate the illusive nature of such options for “externally enforced” stability in the face of unresolved local contestation.

Our interest lies in clearly establishing that we view the Taliban, the Pakistan Army and Militant Kashmiri jihadi groups as part of the same set of Islamic Terrorists, which are a direct and existential threat to us and our secular, plural democratic system. We must be willing and able to take the most effective action in our near abroad to crush Islamic Terror. But where Islamic Terror is not a direct threat to us (as for example the ISIL) whilst any UN endorsed initiative will have our support, we do not have the resources to join a plurilateral initiative against global terror. This is strictly for the big boys; the US, its NATO allies and China.

PM Modi has been at pains to explain that on this trip that whilst he has been trying for more than the last two decades to get the US to recognize the global consequences of Islamic terror, they took cognizance only after 9/11, when it hurt them directly. The fact is we must be similarly discriminating in unbundling Islamic Terror into immediate and distant threats and not be distracted by the enormity of global threats and ignore focusing on managing immediate threats, closer home.

Plain speaking about our threat perceptions, our limitations and our determination not to be cowed down by terror would have helped.

Second, the message on trade and investment needs to be distilled better. The economic opportunities in India are well known. The demographics; the steady economic growth and resultant demand and our democratic architecture.

Unfortunately most foreign investors live in the present. No international manager has a business perspective beyond a decade-even if they draw up beautiful thirty year perspectives. What big business looks for is leadership level facilitation to get their specific project up and running quickest with commercial and political risk minimized.

Tardy environmental clearances; tax opacity; poor infrastructure and most recently, the extended ambit of judicial review of contracts are big dampeners. Many of these constraints are institutional and require structural change, which is long term. What we need are near tern solutions, of the fire-fighting kind, to establish the enabling business environment. Selective but transparent tweaking of dilatory process is an obvious option but there are challenges even here.

At the leadership level, “successful tweaking of process” requires political credibility that the selective attention is in national interest and not another manifestation of crony capitalism. Consensus building between the executive and the judiciary of the acceptable envelop of “process tweaking”, in national interest, is key for retaining the credibility of the executive and the independence of the judiciary, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the judiciary does not get drawn into settling political scores.

PM Modi is best placed to manage the optics on this score. At the operational level, he will need the support of a highly skilled and empowered team of state government officials working with counterparts from the Union Government, to pilot the tweaking process towards accelerated launch of projects.

What should constitute the government’s decision matrix for determining the “hurdle rate” for projects to be eligible for tweaking the “way we do business”? In such circumstances it always helps to have narrow objectives. “Employment and poverty reduction”, both of which are urgent near term investment related goals, present themselves as excellent “filters” for evaluating and identifying proposals which merit the highest level of facilitation.

50 projects; 5 million jobs; US$15 billion investment can be the rolling target with automatic replenishment by new proposals as projects get launched. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to generate the frisson of excitement which the project based approach generates.

Third, plain speaking on our environmental and energy policy would have helped. It is clearly in India’s interest to clean its water bodies and rivers; reduce air pollution and reverse the denudation of forests and degradation of land. Degradation of these natural assets has immediate economic and social outcomes usually with adverse poverty consequences. It is the poor who are impacted negatively when water bodies and rivers become polluted because they use them directly for personal needs and business. The poor similarly suffer the most from atmospheric pollution because they are incapable of insulating themselves and their children, from such ambient pollution. Unregulated deforestation robs the poor of their eco-system and their livelihoods. Combating land degradation, like increased salinity often caused by unsustainable use of ground water and poorly managed large irrigation schemes, is a costly undertaking, which is often beyond the financial ability of the poor.

On energy our big concern is energy security. The use of coal is likely to remain a staple component of our energy profile. Similarly, more aggressive utilization of the hydro potential in India and in South Asia is an efficient option. Embedding passive energy efficiency building design is another significant option. Urbansiation levels are relatively low but there is a big stimulus in the offing under the PMs target of a house for all by 2022.

More generically, India is committed to technology choices which are congruent with our two, often conflicting, goals of reversing the degradation of natural resources whilst ensuring energy security. An increasing share of wind and solar energy is one such technology choice. Increasing the share of public transportation by railways relative to roads is another which the government is pursuing. But capping India’s carbon footprint at an unrealistic level is similar to capping food subsidy at historical prices which India has already rejected.

The mantra for plain speaking on the Indian strategy for managing terrorism; enlarging trade and safeguarding the environment is to rely on the simple rule of first reserving the fiscal and the physical space for the developing world to “catch up”, before providing breathing room for the developed world, who have abetted and often perpetrated all three global problems, by agreeing to hold them harmless.

Mega-cities are inhuman

Unlike monkeys, it is not in the nature of humans to huddle though we take to cuddling quite easily. The instinct to explore new frontiers and the excessive demands which we impose on natural resources; both push us to put space between each other. The ancestors of today’s Indians trekked all the way from Africa to the sub-continent around 500,000 years ago, possibly to put space between themselves and their African cousins. It is not for nothing that the self- sufficient, “Marlboro Man” was an icon for three decades starting from the 1960s albeit now discredited in a tobacco-less World.

monkeys huddling

There already are too many humans at 7 billion. Of these, 1.2 billion souls are concentrated in India, making us the most densely populated, large country in the World. Worse Indians are huddled in habitations in just 9% of the land available. The rest is forests (an implausible 23% in government data), private groves, pastures and agricultural land.

Humans huddle in cities more out of necessity than choice. Group living does not come naturally to humans, unlike lions, elephants, antelopes and penguins. The Swedish alternative lifestyle experiments in the 1960s, demonstrated that whilst cuddling was definitely in, huddling was out. Commune members tended to pair off, even if temporarily. More evidence on human choice is available from the preferences of the rich, who sprawl in gardens, whilst the poor are crammed into tiny, multiple stories precariously piled on houses.

Babus, in India, are willing to serve the government, even without pay, for the privilege of living in Lutyen’s green, heritage, garden city. The nouveau rich meanwhile are busy buying up unauthorized, “farm houses” in Delhi suburbia. Part of the fascination of “going West”, particularly to the US, is the affordability of sprawling houses as compared to the tight, modular, frightfully expensive “paper” abodes of the Japanese.

Neither time not technology, augur well for huddling or cuddling. Thanks to digitization of information; the internet and social media, human relationships are now virtual and often best conducted remotely. Many a face to face encounter has spelled disaster. Business is also increasingly digital and even government is going that way. All of this reduces the need for huddling in cities. The modern “Morlboro Man” is a woman with her Iphone.

Gandhiji’s vision of “self-sufficient” villages and Julius Nyrere’s vision of “Ujama villages”, on which the Washington Consensus smart set poured scorn, now increasingly seems not only a reality but a potential option for preserving the best of humanism. Consider that with the revolution in printing technology, it is already possible to print out a plastic tumbler or bowl in one’s home. Consumer durables are most likely to follow suit. This will completely change the “scale economy” for manufactured goods. The most scalable part of the new technology would be the software, which in all probability may have been conceived in a garage! Of course we would still need some “old industry” type factories to make the chips, the computer accessories and most importantly the printer, which makes all this possible.

Old age technology and industrial habits have fueled the international trend in urbanization towards mega cities (population of 10 million and above) whose number increased from 2 (Tokyo and Rome) in 1970 to 28 in 2013 and will likely go to 37 by 2025. India today has 3 mega cities and Mumbai is the second most densely populated megacity after Dhaka. The demise of the mega huddle of a mega city is not immediately imminent because the available “industrial age” technology still makes them scale efficient. But in India recent data indicates that growth in the mega cities is slower than in second rung cities which shows that they have reached the economic limits of their efficiency.

Mega cities are bad news for the following four reasons.

First, humans are bad huddlers because with the existing technology, cities with a density in excess of 4000 persons per sq km, end up severely polluting the air, land and water. Our mega cities have a density of around 12,000 persons per sq km and are unsustainable, as are China’s.

Second, as population density increases, the pressure on land drives up the price of realty, making “land intensive” business like “international scale multi-brand retail” uneconomic. Contrary to popular criticism, the AAP knows that no international multi brander would want to locate in Delhi because land is too expensive and hence had no downside in siding with the populist naysayers.

Third, increasing population density requires a higher spend on environmental mitigation of local pollution further driving up the cost of doing business.

Fourth urban led growth is inherently iniquitous. It creates pockets of luxury amidst vast swathes of wretchedness. The IMF (the bastion of the erstwhile Washington Consensus) estimates that in the US, 90% of the incremental wealth from growth benefits just 1% of the population.  Inequality is a growing concern and a key driver of political and social instability and crime and a major threat for poorly governed countries.

The term SMART city is the current buzzword to make cities efficient. This is a misnomer since cities by definition are not SMART. SMART is to digitize; connect electronically; disperse population; integrate rural and urban areas seamlessly and not to huddle.

Our cities should be self-financing and not draw on central or state funds. Public spending on infrastructure should focus on making rural areas more productive. It should improve the quality of life for rural residents since dispersed habitations make market based solutions for basic services unviable. At the best of times, making sensible public investment is tough. It becomes unconscionable when public funds are used to artificially drive up the demand for realty through public expenditure on creating cities. This growth pattern has also been a key source of corruption with elite capture of the land just prior to its development into an urban area using State finance.

The US is the best example of publicly funded investment in highways since the 1950s. However, even they found it difficult to do so efficiently. They also have bridges to nowhere. The recent publicly financed programs of demand creation since 2008 have been downright wasteful. California, for example, is persistently broke because it is wedded to “big government”. Publicly funded research and infrastructure can only be attempted by very efficient governments and India is not one of them.

We should go back to our roots in communities. Public finance should be used primarily to subsidize connectivity (ports, airports, rail, roads, airwaves and electricity)in segments where market solutions are not available and private investment unviable. Building and maintaining stuff is best left to the private sector.

The urban-rural divide is an artificial cleavage. Gandhi’s village need not be devoid of modern facilities. Migration should be a choice enabling people to vote with their feet but it is demeaning as a necessity. Spending public money on urban areas is like giving a hungry woman a fish to eat. But investing seamlessly across the country is like teaching people how to fish. Only the latter is sustainable.

Corruption Red Flags and the Original Sin

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The Left has the best track record with respect to controlling corruption, followed by the BJP, with the Congress in the rear. Apologists of the Congress would be quick to assert that often corruption is part and parcel of rapid growth. They are right. China, Indonesia and Malaysia are good examples where rapid growth over the last 30 years has also resulted in large scale corruption.

Conversely, it is also true that an obsessive desire to end corruption, as projected by Kejriwal and the Aam Admi Party (AAP), also negatively affects growth. Even the NGOs and international development agencies know that corruption is like an original sin (the others being illicit sex, drinking and envy) and cannot be ended. It can only be managed, as in the developed world, so that citizens do not encounter it in their daily lives and public finances are conducted with relative probity.

Shanta Devarajan, a World Bank economist, known for his innovative take on economic problems, like Swaminathan Aiyer, pointed out in 2010 that “quiet corruption” (the kind that that the average citizen encounters) costs the economy much more than “grand corruption” of the 2G, Coal-gate kind.  http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/0,,contentMDK:22501207~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:258644,00.html

“Quiet corruption” is the “rent” that a babu collects for delaying decisions (speed money); is a babu using her discretion to unfairly benefit someone (bribe); it is sending the government decision making process into a spin thereby benefiting someone who profits from the status quo (babu googly or red herring noting on file); it is habitually being averse to taking a decision (babu evasion).

The media reports (Indian Express, January 13, 2014) that Jayanthi Natarajan, the Environment Minister till recently, had stacked a huge bundle of files relating to clearances in her house. This instantly raises “corruption red flags”, at the very least, of “quiet” corruption.

What is odd is that of the 350 files returned to the office from her home, when she resigned, 180 files had not even been seen by her! at least there was nothing on file to indicate that she had. Even odder, she had seen and signed 119 files but had held them back in her home. Why and for what reason? An additional 50 files, signed by the Minister, were in possession of her staff!  Not reading files and keeping them in the “in tray” is a classic red flag for corruption hunters. Signing files but holding on to them is an even more significant corruption red flag. Letting her staff hang on to signed files is the biggest corruption red flag.

Despite the plethora of red flags it is a sign of low expectations from the present government that this case has not raised the kind of furor that coal-gate had. If a babe had committed these sins she would have been hanged by the government but when it comes to Ministers the rope is very, very long.

The BJP, which is the most likely party to form the next national government, or be instrumental in supporting a minority government, must draw the correct lessons, as must Kejriwal and the AAP.

First, just by ensuring that the offices of Ministers do not become clog-holes of files and insisting on time bound dealing of files, by everyone in the chain, corruption can be hugely reduced.

Second, Sarkari corruption hunters like the CVC and now the Lokpal must zero-in on cases of frequent submissions of files and reversion with queries, the favourite babu trick of avoiding a decision.

Third, it is high time, India, at least at the national level, abandoned paper files for electronic functioning as in any other modern day country. Electronic filing and processing has the advantage of security; instant file tracking; generation of management information on “clog-holes” of undealt files; audit of who accessed the file at what time and the changes made therein.

Fourth, the advantage with digitizing government functioning is the heightened levels of seamless transparency which become possible. Managing the information requirements of the Right to Information Act will become a lark with complete digitization, since all it would require is to find the data and email it or print it out.

The economy needs a kick start. What better way than to target complete digitization of government functioning from 2016. The international experience shows that corruption levels drop precipitously when “big brother” is watching as is possible in real time electronic processes. Of course this only works in regimes where “big brother” himself is not corrupt.  

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