governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘jobs’

Is a machine kicking u out?

 

only-humans

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

Yes, computers are after your job.

loss-job

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

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

Five ways to win the battle

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

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

Step in: You can’t beat them so collaborate

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

Step forward: Join the race to make computers better

computer-engineer

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

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

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

Step aside: Develope skills in managing human behaviour 

ben-bernanke

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

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

falconer

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

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

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

Governments need to teach us differently for us to adapt

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

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

i4j

A new “living wage” f0r Delhi

Populism, buttressed by dodgy economics, has become the fashion statement in politics. Last year, the Union government approved handsome “real” increases in government salary. There was little justification for doing so since the government salaries were already fully indexed to inflation and the largesse couldn’t have been justified as a reward for higher productivity.

The default justification was that more money in the hands of government employees would kick start a virtuous circle. Higher demand for goods and services would lead to expanded supply, more jobs and just possibly, more income for the rest of us.

AAP disrupts the cozy status quo in Delhi

This week, the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi, used similar tactics to grab eyeballs on Independence Day. Evoking the high moral stance of re-distribution of wealth and the economic principle of boosting demand as justification, the government declared massive increase in the minimum wage. In effect, it imposed a “living wage”, for workers in Delhi.

The impossible dream of “mandating” the end of poverty

Child searches for valuables in a garbage dump in New Delhi

The concept of a “living wage” — pegged significantly higher than the minimum wage — with an eye to decrease poverty has been used in over 100 urban jurisdictions in the United States since the late 1990s. It has also been used to set the national poverty level in India. But it is pegged at very low levels.

In Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has proposed that the minimum wages of unskilled labour will be increased from Rs 9,500 to Rs 14,000, semi-skilled Rs 10,600 to Rs 15,500 and for skilled Rs 11,600 to Rs 17,000.

The hike seems unreasonable given that the minimum wage in Delhi is already 35 per cent higher than in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and 72 per cent higher than in adjoining Haryana.

Delhi is rich but…

It is true that Delhi is relatively rich. Its per capita income of around Rs 18,300 per month is the highest among the states of India and the top 10 metros. Consequently, there is a case for setting the “living wage” in Delhi reasonably higher than in the neighbouring states, purely on the grounds of equity.

The real issue is whether a 47 per cent increase is warranted and how comprehensively should the “living wage” be applied? If it is applied just to the establishments governed by the Factories Act, then it is little more than populism. There are only around 8,000 such factories in land-hungry Delhi and employment in them is static.

If the intention is to enlarge the coverage of the “living/minimum wage” to all registered shops and establishments, which employ around 20 per cent (one million) of Delhi’s five million workers, then the economic consequences can be more substantial.

Mandated wages hurt business and make it shift out 

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Photo credit: blogs.ft.com

The negative impact will be felt in price-sensitive, low value-addition segments like clothing, food and household goods, where higher wages will hurt business profits. More importantly, will a similar “living wage” follow for the one million workers in the informal sector — household help in rich and middle class homes and in unlicensed small establishments? If so Delhi’s privileged elite and wannabes may have to look for a lifestyle change – let the ayah go and manage their own babies; cook for themselves or use an app to order in; make their own beds; wash and iron their own laundry and learn to use a vacuum cleaner. And what of the ubiquitous car drivers and guards who lounge around the front gate of Delhi homes? Will the well-off opt for Ola and Uber instead?

Poor enforcement can make mandated wage a sham

Mandated high minimum wages, far above the market rate, encounter three problems. First, enforcing payment of the mandated wages depends crucially on clean, clever and consistent regulation. In its absence, it encourages the petty but crippling, corruption of “inspector raj”. Enlarging the scope of inspector raj in Delhi, even as it is being diluted in Rajasthan and Telangana sends the wrong message to investment for increasing jobs and private sector growth in Delhi.

High wages result in loss of unskilled jobs

Second, studies from the US show that the benefits are not uniform across the entire spectrum of workers. On average, unskilled workers lose the most from a high minimum wage because employment declines even as a smaller number of workers, who remain employed, benefit from high wages. Mandated wages rarely benefit skilled workers. Governments tend to be conservative in fixing the differential for skills. Delhi provides only a premium of 21 per cent, or `80 per day between unskilled and skilled work. The market premium is already between 75 to 100 per cent. A mason gets twice the amount as his unskilled worker — often a woman, who does the manual work.

In-migration increases fiscal pressure to provide public services

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High, mandated wages attract in-migrants to cities. photo credit: http://www.rediff.com

Third, pegging a price for labour far above the market rate increases the fiscal burden. This happens directly when government salaries are needlessly enhanced. But it also hits the government budget indirectly, when applied to the private sector. Higher the mandated wage for unskilled work the more attractive it becomes for migrants. With open borders, no control on migration and the Delhi government committed, rightly so, to provide a basic quality of life for all — free water, free medical care, free education, cheap electricity, improved toilets and paved roads — the resulting fiscal impact can be crippling.

Immigrants reduce the market price of unskilled labour

One way of ensuring that market wage rates remain aligned with mandated wages and are not beggared by competition from in-migration, is to licence city workers, as in China. But it is difficult to do this effectively in a governance environment of pervasive corruption. Licensing is a one way street to inefficiency and corruption. If government land cannot be protected from encroachment by the mafia, there is little hope of implementing an equitable worker licensing regime. Railway stations are a good example. Try getting a licensed coolie to carry your bags at the stipulated rates and you are more likely to miss your train.

Test the viability first in government contracts

The high salary of unskilled government workers already provides a wage floor. But the incremental numbers employed are limited. The trend, since 1990s when the government adopted the practices of “new pubic management”, has been to outsource non-core services i.e. cleaning, canteen, security and office support. Worker productivity clearly increases under private management. But there is insufficient evidence that the wages paid to them reflect this higher productivity. The apprehension is that the workers will suffer from price competition to get government contracts.

This is a perverse and unintended outcome. Tightly regulating the private contracts that are funded by the government can ensure that the mandated wages are passed through to workers. And contractors do not corner the wage increase. This is how the financial viability of the enhanced wage rates should be tested before imposing them.

But there is little point in cultivating a small, handsomely paid labour “aristocracy”, as the CPI(M) did, whilst throttling investment and employment.

CPIM

Adapted from the author’s article in Asian Age August 19, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/how-viable-are-hiked-wage-rates-333

Indian Economic Survey 2016: Bewinderingly optimistic

Arvind S

Arvind Subramanian Chief Economic Advisor- GOI: Rising star and Rajan clone?

The Indian Economic Survey is an annual document that is wrongly titled. The data it reveals is overpowered by large dollops of economic wisdom, literature and policy analysis. Arvind Subramanian, India’s Chief Economic Advisor and the key author of this year’s Survey, has clearly burnt the midnight oil liberally in making the Survey a reader’s delight, even for one who has only a nodding acquaintance with economics, gleaned primarily by pursuing the pink papers.

Running hard to stand still

The key guidance the general public has been looking forward to, is the credibility of the near miraculous GDP growth rate of 7.6 % recorded this year and in that context, prospects for the next year. Unfortunately, clarity still eludes the average reader. Whilst generally optimistic about the government’s ability to improve on the performance this year, the survey is curiously negative on growth prospects for next year (7 to 7.75%), which it says would be strongly dependent on world growth reviving rather than domestic reform being implemented. Running hard to stand still is not a very good incentive for public sector reform. Consequently, India should brace for lower growth next year.

Better fiscal administration but significant legacy problems

The Survey makes the point that over the last year India has done more than most of its peer countries- those with an investment grade of BBB, including China, to retain macroeconomic stability per the index of macro-economic vulnerability developed in the Survey last year. But it simultaneously notes that the quality of assets in government-owned banks has been deteriorating since 2010. This is complemented by the overleveraged position of large business houses who are finding it difficult to service these loans because market conditions are adverse and both the top-line and their bottom-line have taken a hit. Exports have reduced by 18% last year and the competitiveness of domestic suppliers even to meet domestic demand is dodgy. The domestic steel industry being the most recent example.

The popular explanation for the logjam in corporate funds has been that the financial stress of big corporates has less to do with inefficiency or injudicious resource allocations by them. The blame is pinned on government projects not progressing smoothly over the last few years of the previous government resulting in corporate funds getting blocked unproductively.

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Minister Nitin Gadkari doing the impossible- shaking the dust off moribund highway projects

But over the current year Minister Nitin Gadkari has revitalized the implementation of a large number of projects in the highways sector. Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu has similarly awarded more than double the level of contracts in railways than was the trend earlier.

prabhu Minister

Minister Suresh Prabhu -improving the plumbing of  Indian Rail – a colonial legacy and democracy’s neglected child 

State governments have also enhanced public investment per the Survey which states that the combined public investment increased by 0.8% of GDP over the first three quarters of the current year versus the previous year with state government contributing 46% of the investment.

Why then does corporate loan servicing remain a problem? Is it just a time lag issue before public expenditure decisions kick in and funds flow resumes to corporates? If this is the case  the salutary effects should be visible next year. Or is it that the loan defaults have less to do with poor implementation of government contracts than with the “smart” arbitrage strategy of big corporates to borrow domestically in an unreasonably strong rupee, post 2013 and salt investments away safely overseas? Is it not necessary then to keep the rupee at aggressively competitive levels to avoid the incentive for “carry trade”, boost export competitiveness and price the fiscal impact of imports- particularly oil, realistically?

Does a high risk fiscal strategy make sense?

If the economy could chalk up a relatively high growth rate of 7.6% this year, despite the adverse conditions, why then is there a clamour for more liquidity and lower interest rates to kick start private investment and to fund higher levels of public investment in the coming year?

Would it not be sensible to stick to fiscal rectitude and keep the fiscal deficit target at 3.5% of GDP and hope for the same growth rates next year particularly if domestic actions will count less than world growth and demand?

Does it not make sense to guard against the risk of inflation- particularly drought induced food inflation? Our poorly integrated agricultural markets and inadequately prepared public management structures for managing food inflation by using market mechanisms are unlikely to be effective to deal with the risk of such inflation should the next year also be dry.

Oil prices remain volatile even though the survey is sanguine on the potential for an oil price increase. Whilst there is still no agreement amongst the top oil producers for limiting production, India is badly placed, being heavily (85%) import dependent, to bank on low oil prices continuing. Adequate fiscal space must be reserved for dealing with an oil price shock. These could be occasions when drawing down capital from a highly capitalized Reserve Bank of India (the survey labels it second only to Norway in being highly capitalized) can help without increasing the debt burden.

At least Mint Street is like Norway – we like that

Drawing down RBI reserves to fund dodgy capital investments in the public sector is a bad idea. It would be ok in Norway but not if accountability levels are low.Oddly, to an average India, the fact that we are close to being like Norway, as least with respect to the RBI is comforting and gives hopes. Indians are notoriously miserly and magnificent savers.

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RBI Governor Raghram Rajan – firm as a Norwegian rock: photo credit: businessindia.com

Tax revenue complacency

The survey skirts around the advisability of increasing the ratio of tax to GDP above the 10% achieved last year. It appears  complacent that tax buoyancy in the first three quarters of current year exceeds the average of the last three years- particularly for indirect taxes. The full year’s data would only be available with a lag but the budget documents would show if this happy trend has persisted in the last quarter also and whether the revenue deficit is indeed on track as a consequence.

Ignoring the impact of committed and contingent revenue expenditure

The significant burden (Rs 100,000 crore) imposed by the 7th Pay Commission has been dealt with lightly. Enhanced government salary and pension can increase expenditure by 0.6% of GDP for the Union government alone and threaten the revenue deficit target. The jury is still out on its possible beneficial impact on stimulating demand.

More importantly, the survey deals unduly summarily with the issue of enhancing rural income support and social protection as necessary adjuncts of macro- economic stability. Marco-economic stability can be the first victim if India’s political stability is compromised by concentrated high growth, which is not reflected in shared prosperity. The survey notes that 42% of Indian households are dependent on the rural economy. What it does not mention is the low ability of 60% of households to adapt to income shocks emanating from loss of insecure jobs, medical emergencies or other social obligations. Food for this segment accounts for approximately 40% of their expenditure. Rural wages are down 2.5% this year. Around 40,000 jobs have been lost per the Labour Bureau’s September 2015 report. Even the IT industry has reduced jobs and IT majors like INFOSYS -under a new leadership- are automating processes and putting employees out to pasture. These ground signals fit the survey’s assessment of India being in a hard place. But the survey is short on the best options for dealing with this economic shock.

The historical inadequacy in dealing with out-of-control and poorly targeted power, fertilizer, food, water, public transport subsidies hinges around the inability of elected governments to be seen to be heavy handed with income strapped households. These resultant fiscal pressures amounting to around 5% of GDP (all of government) can only escalate in the highly charged political environment during the next two years on account of state level elections.

A soft Railway Budget- harbinger of the main budget?

The Rail Budget 2016-17 could be a harbinger of such populism. Despite a large number of facilities and passenger amenities being announced there was no increase in the passenger fares which recover on average only around one half of the cost of services. Air India continues to be heavily subsidized. Loss making PSUs continue to sap public resources. How credible the fiscal consolidation plan can be in the face of these risks remains unclear.

Hopefully the Finance Minister will show the way on Monday in the Union Budget 2016-17. We await with bated breath.

Adapted from the authors article in The Wire February 26, 2015 http://thewire.in/2016/02/26/the-bewildering-optimism-of-the-economic-survey-22864/

NitiAyog’s China style CEZs a big, bad idea

Bad ideas are as resilient as cockroaches — the only living being guaranteed to survive even a nuclear holocaust. Both have a tendency to resurface even after being squashed.

One such bad idea, originating from the Niti Aayog, is to revive the plan of special economic zones (SEZ) on a much larger scale as a carbon copy of SEZs in China. It’s called coastal economic zone (CEZ).

Shenzen

Shikao area, Shenzen at dusk. Photo credit: Xinhua

The ostensible drivers are the need to create more decent jobs- NitiAyog says these are generated only by large industries- and the desperation to revive exports. Both objectives are above reproach. It is the strategy to get there which is perverse.

India is not new to the concept of enclave development for export manufacture. Export processing zones (EPZ) have existed since 1965 when the first one was established in Kandla-Gujarat, followed by Santacruz electronics export processing zone in Maharashtra. These gave way in the 1980s to the stand-alone 100 per cent export oriented units. Next were SEZs with a legislation to support them in 2005.

Niti Aayog’s CEZ proposal focuses on coastal development. Nothing new here — 68 per cent of the 329 notified SEZs existing in 2015 were in eight coastal states. The only problem is that coastal states are far richer than the hinterland so CEZs will make them even richer enhancing spatial inequality.

The big change is that only two CEZs are envisaged, each of 2,000 to 3,000 sq km, to simulate the network benefits of regional development. Compare this with the 626 sq km notified for 390 SEZs, of which just 6 per cent or 25 SEZs exceed two sq km in size. But do we have excess land of this magnitude?

Consider, if Goa wants a CEZ. It must cede 50 per cent of its area of 4,000 square kilometers. With regulatory powers in the CEZ transferred from the chief minister to Union government appointed development commissioner, Goa would effectively revert to the status of a Union Territory.

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Goa. Photo: Wikipedia.

Should Kerala want a CEZ, it needs to convert 10 per cent of its land area into a “deemed foreign territory” managed from Delhi. How well this will go down with the fiercely combative citizens of Kerala is anybody’s guess. Contiguous states can join hands to reduce the area surrendered by each. But this could invite administrative complexity and delays in harmonising norms and work practices across states.

The NitiAyog paper says Shenzen in China before it became the first SEZ had just 300,000 people. Today 11 million people live there. Only problem, in coastal India the average density of population is around 940. In a 3000 square kilometer area there would already be 3 million living there.

So is the CEZ proposal just old wine in a new bottle? And is it pragmatic?

Tax havens are yesterdays means of boosting exports

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) surveyed 100 developing country export zones in 2015. They concluded that islands of excellence, with special set of laws, rules and practices — as proposed in a CEZ — can create enormous political risk by excluding others from development. Political risk is not an issue in single-party, authoritarian China. But India cannot afford to segment development and exclude large swathes of the “cow belt” where a large number of the poor exist. Unlike China, we have an open domestic migration policy. This makes segmented development politically impractical, especially on the scale envisaged in the CEZs. In any case, in the emerging plurilateral international trade environment, it is questionable if tax breaks and investment incentives are the route to trade competitiveness or whether strategic membership of free trade agreements will be key.

Enclave development for exports are “walled gardens” of the real world

Indian SEZs were primarily tax arbitrage havens with the added sweetener of access to land. The relative export competitiveness of SEZ units versus exports from the domestic trade area, declined significantly in 2013, as soon as the exemption from Minimum Alternative Tax was withdrawn in 2012. This shows that state-driven market distortions do not boost exports in a sustained manner. Another reason why the SEZ scheme floundered was that import taxes and licenses got rationalized across the board and it became easier to import for export across the country. Coupled with the advatngaes of free access to the Indian market locating outside the SEZs became more attractive. SEZs remain a favourite for IT industries, which are mainly export driven and have a culture of enclaved bubbles.

Freedom_Park

Freedom – Bangalore style Photo; wikipedia

There is no alternative to maintaining a competitive exchange rate; managing inflation and broad based, deep administrative reform to enhance exports.

Between 2006 and 2014, 1.4 million jobs were created in SEZs — an impressive 50 per cent of the total increase of 3 million in private employment. But it is unclear if these were all new jobs or the result of existing domestic area export units simply shifting into a SEZ to avail tax advantages.

Land scams accompany if Union government usurps what should be done locally

Consider the 2014 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG): “Land appeared to be the most crucial and attractive component of the scheme (SEZ)”. In a replay of the coal mining scam, the regulatory gaps emanating from the constitutionally mandated division of oversight between the Union and the state government were exploited. The Union government notifies and de-notifies SEZ land. But it turns a blind eye to the responsibility of the state governments to ensure against scams in the acquisition and subsequent use of such land. Instances of inclusion of ineligible land for notification; allotment of land far in excess of need and protracted non-use of notified land by SEZs, all resulted in the diversion of SEZ land for more lucrative commercial exploitation.

The suspicion of mala-fide intentions is strengthened because state governments sold land, acquired for public purpose prior to 2007, to developers rather than giving it on lease, which would have retained their oversight over its use. Estimating the resultant undue benefits is tough without a forensic audit. It is telling that documents relating to 47 SEZs, including most of the biggest ones, were not provided to the CAG for audit by the Ministry of Commerce.  But even with what was handed over to CAG the results are shocking.

73 per cent of the land notified for nine SEZs in three states was for “restricted” use only – forest, defence and irrigated land, which was not eligible to be notified. Operations started only on 62 per cent of the 456 square kilometers of land notified till March 31, 2013. In eighteen SEZs, operating across eight states, only 17 percent of the 42 square miles notified was actually used for “processing” against the norm of using at least 50 per cent. With large amounts of unused land available, private developers successfully approached the government to de-notify SEZ land which could be used for more lucrative commercial purposes. Assuming that just 25 per cent of the 456 sq km, notified till 2013, was misused, the potential extra-legal earnings would have been to the tune of Rs 4,500 crore — minor pickings by the standards of contemporary scams.

Good policy is never backward looking and can benefit from past errors. If CEZs are to be headline-grabbers in the 2016 Budget, they must have caveats: No new land should be acquired for them. If land is needed the private developer should follow the negotiation route popularized in Punjab and now by Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh; No fresh public finance should be available for CEZs; All additional infrastructure needs must be funded by the private developer; Instead of the Union government, the state governments should be in the driver’s seat; and, states should enact their own CEZ legislations (as was done by Rajasthan in labour laws) which could be approved by the President, if constitutionally required.

Adherence to the fiscal deficit targets requires conserving public finance. Developing the richer coastal areas runs contrary to the Prime Ministers vision of development for all. Most importantly, getting directly involved in land and urban development — both of which have been fertile ground for scams — is unwise for a reformist Union government. This high risk strategy is not the best option for sustainable gains in private investment, employment and exports.

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The duality of Indian ports: Photo credit : alamy.com

Adapted from the authors  article in Asian Age March 17, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/z-coastal-economic-zones-590

 

Indian angst

Abandoned Faujis

abandoned faujis

Delhi. Fauji veterans agitate, unsuccessfully thus far, for implementing the One Rank One Pension principle. This is a promise, unadvisedly made to them, by both the previous and the present government. They boycott the celebrations commemorating the 1965 war. Even those who fought to win that war stay away effectively devaluing the event. An unintended and unfortunate outcome is that scores of disciplined ex-soldiers and one prominent fauji brat get on-the-job training, on how to enter politics to safeguard your rights.

Mandal revisited

Patel

Ahmedabad. An angry, young man clad in faux fauji combat fatigues, conducts a caste maha-panchayat of half a million Patels. The occasion is the demand for inclusion in the list of backward castes, eligible for affirmative action (reservation) as a fast track route to a government job or admission into schools and colleges. The young leader’s social media profile has him posing with a gun in hand-very much like Bihar’s notorious upper-caste Ranvir Sena or the face-book friendly young militants in Kashmir today.

Life on the edge

Mumbai, the city of dreams, a sordid, family drama unfolds of a possible filicide; secret serial marriages and shady doings, so bizarre that it could only happen in star crossed Bollywood.

The Proletariat strikes back

strike

Across India, labour unions prepare for a general strike of all workers on September 2 to express their rage. The cause- dissent against dilution of the regulatory ambit of the labour laws; opposition to privatization of State Owned Enterprises and Foreign Direct Investment in Railways, Insurance and Defence; support for regularization of contract workers and the demand for better social protection measures.

Were all these happening in the 1970s it would be pretty commonplace in that decade of social unrest and hartals. But this is 2015, with a stable BJP government in place and more than half way through the first quarter, of what was once touted, as the India Millennium.

Have we than gone horribly wrong already even before we have begun? or is there a grand design behind this ripple of disquiet?

Has the OROP been deliberately allowed to fester so that it can be settled, with a flourish, just prior to the Bihar elections with the personal intervention of the PM, making the fauji vote thereby indebted to him?

Is the Patel agitation merely a manufactured storm? Is it calculated to subside with strong and reassuring intervention from Delhi to help the floundering Chief Minister Anandiben, thereby reinforcing the “strong leader” image of the PM?

Is the impending general strike and the prospect of extended labour unrest; lost jobs and forgone income, meant to scare voters in Bihar into opting for stability and the BJP, rather than taking a punt at the alternative politics of the rag-tag combination of Nitish Kumar, Lalluji and Arvind Kejriwal?

Truth is stranger than fiction, so none of these scenarios can be summarily discounted. But one thing is clear. The government needs to tighten its boot straps if it is to be an instrument of economic and social change.

Four priorities emerge:

Legally correct but bi-partisan

First, the rule of law must prevail in spirit. This is not yet visible. Using the letter of the law for one’s own ends is not the same as the rule of law prevailing. The golden rule is to err on the side of administrative effectiveness, simplicity and comprehensive reading of the law. Delhi presents an opportunity. The electoral mandate of the Delhi government is unquestionable. Respecting it and developing a positive functional relationship with it is in the long term interest of democratic governance. After all in every harmonious family-as the Speaker Mahajan of the Lok Sabha views Delhi to be- the youngest – even a rebellious, member’s foibles are accommodated.

Where are the tough economic reforms?

Second, clear signals for undertaking tough economic reform are a must. This is a government which garnered far reaching support on the basis of its reformist credentials. The government agenda is long on “win-win” options but not so impressive where there is no option to causing some pain. Initiatives crying out for attention are- (a) restructure electricity utility debt to make them financially viable; use the energy and commodity price decline to move to a “hands off” regulatory regime for energy prices; (b) make State Owned Entities/Public Sector Banks autonomous. Delink them from the control of their administrative ministries. (c) Enhance government effectiveness by boosting the availability of specialized, functional skills at decision making levels. The absence of even a game plan towards these objectives is worrying.

Make one, keep one-the mantra for government employees

Third, make jobs not skills. People learn better on-the-job. Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises (MSME) are ideal for maximizing the jobs per unit of capital. Facilitate them by- (a) Ensuring metered supply of 24X7 electricity on priority feeders (b) Supply electricity at the actual cost of grid supply (c) Provide incentives for such businesses to meet environmental standards. Forge a compact with state governments to make the rural development, panchayati raj, labour and industries department staff focused on employment and migration at the Development Block level. Encourage monitoring using rapid survey techniques. Remember what is monitored gets done. Reward Blocks which excel at growing employment in MSME. These measures fit well with the financial inclusion and social protection initiatives already underway.

Junk the colonial district management architecture

Fourth, change from the bottom-upwards is always the prudent way to start. End a relic of colonial rule, under which the District Magistrate is mandated to exercise oversight of the police via judicial powers under the Criminal Procedure Code. It is high time that the Police Commissioner system, already functioning in metros, is extended to all districts. The district level civilian administration would consequently be free to focus on development- for which they are best trained and equipped. This simultaneously empowers Police Officers and makes them squarely responsible for maintaining law and order- an unpardonably ambiguous mandate today. It also kick starts the process of modernizing the somewhat creaky, colonial legacy of district level general management- often the missing link in speedy implementation today.

The calendar from now to 2019 is chock a block with state assembly elections starting with Bihar later this year. The die has already been cast, the major populist decisions have been taken, including special aid for Bihar and Smart Cities. Now the outcome will depend on smart vote management- an area where the BJP excels. Time to strategize on improving the knotty fundamentals of growth and development with decisions kicking-in as soon as the votes are cast in November.

CM Kejriwal’s plunging popularity

Kejriwal plunge

(photo credit: fundamental.bogs.com)

How justified is Mr. Kejriwal, the Chief Minister (CM) of Delhi in assuring auto rickshaw (tuk tuks) owners and drivers -his niche supporters numbering around 100,000 – annual rate revisions in tandem with rising costs, when he denies a similarly supportive regulatory regime to the three private companies which supply power to consumers in Delhi?

As a Dilli-walla, who has not had to use an inverter during the last five years because electricity is available on tap- a saving of Rs. 5000 per year- it seems obvious to me that privatizing electricity supply has been the biggest boon for citizens.

But to sustain supply at a reliability level of 99.5%, the DISCOMS have to buy sufficient power to meet peak load and maintain the wires, related transmission and distribution equipment and meters sufficiently well, to avoid breakdowns and to meter consumption accurately. Privatisation has given Delhi what only Bombay (also privately supplied) used to have a two decades ago – reliable electric supply.

Build institutions, don’t undermine existing ones

The Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission’s (DERC) consistently fair, participative and effective decision making has supported this achievement. Not surprisingly, a recent independent survey, done by the premier Jaipur based, consumer advocacy institute- CUTS, which reviewed institutional arrangements and consumer perception, assessed the DERC as the state electricity regulator most responsive to citizen grievances.

It is consequently, decidedly odd, that the Mr. Kejriwal should try and undermine the institutional credibility of the electricity regulator by insinuating that the private DISCOMS are being favoured by the DERC tariff determination process at the cost of consumers.

Most recently Mr. Kejriwal has alleged that the newly appointed in-charge Chief Secretary (who apparently was not his choice) is also in cahoots with the two Reliance power DISCOMS.

Mr. Kejriwal has erred in mixing up the issue of whether or not the CM should choose the Chief Secretary with the unrelated issue of whether, or not, the person appointed to that position, by the Lt. Governor, has the right credentials to occupy that post.

On the first issue, good governance norms would dictate that, at the very least, the CM should be consulted and preferably should concur in the appointment of the Chief Secretary (CS). After all, unless the CM and the CS trust each other, government will become dysfunctional. The worst thing for a government is to admit publicly that it is out of control. This holds irrespective of the legal position that the Lt. Governor is not bound to seek the CMs advice on the issue since Delhi is only a “make believe” State Government with limited functions.

Populism is not sustainable

The Kejriwal government is coming across as populist, anti-reform and anti-organised private sector. Add to this the constraint that being recent rulers, with no administrative experience, it appears ham-handed at doing what it wants. The result is that even good intentions get warped by inept execution.

Why Messers Kejriwal and Sisodia seem bent upon wasting time and political capital on burnishing their populist image, even though there are still more than four long years to go before elections, is puzzling.

That Mr. Kejriwal looks to the common man for his support is welcome. After all more than 40% of Delhi residents live either in slums or in slum-like colonies. But more than “freebies”- like cheap power and free water- what each of these “slum dwellers” want is a better life for their children and a job.

Generating new jobs

Generating 1 million “good” jobs in Delhi over the next four years is a colossal task and the CM would do well to focus his energies on this task. He will need the active collaboration of the private sector to achieve this goal. The continued availability of reasonably priced, good quality electricity will be crucial so tinkering with what is working well (privatized electricity utilities) is dangerous and irresponsible.

It is all very well to grandstand by dis-allowing the entry of multi-brand retail in Delhi. In any case, these space-intensive, “deep pocket” entities which seek to provide a “complete shopping experience”, would rather locate in adjoing NOIDA or Gurgaon, where commercial space is cheaper. But what does the government plan to do to “clean up” the existing local market places and make small shopkeepers more competitive?

Why not create new jobs by servicing public spaces better with private security; better maintenance; toilets; take-a-break-spots; green spaces and parking facilities to enhance the shopping experience.  The popular Dilli Haat (market) started two decades ago is one such example.

Make the rich pay for using public road space

Delhi has around 2 million cars. Most of them are parked overnight on the streets and adjoining side-walks. Why not charge car owners for this privilege, especially at a progressive rate? Rate progression would mean that for every incremental car per household, the rate increases. Even a flat charge per car of Rs 500 per month would yield an additional revenue of Rs 1000 crore per year (rule-of-thumb basis) equal to 3% of the 2015-16 Budget estimate of Rs 35,000 crores.

The incremental proceeds could be used, in the colony where it is collected, to provide and maintain colony roads; drains; sewage systems; street lights and water supply systems. More importantly, the fee will provide a disincentive to own multiple cars; encourage owners to dump old, unused cars and free up public parking, cycling and walking space.

Public transport

The CM should also note that whilst today electricity in Delhi is of the same quality as in Mumbai, the same cannot be said of the public buses. Ensuring a 24X7 public transport system, which is secure and accessible within a maximum ten minute walk from any urban mohallah (community), is an enormous challenge which goes beyond just buying more buses. Meeting this public transport infrastructure gap will hurt he CMs support group the most – the 100,000 auto rickshaws who provide an inefficient, insecure and costly substitute for public buses. But it can garner the CM the support of 60% of the 25 million Dilli-wallas who can only afford to travel by bus.

There are still more than four years to go for the Delhi elections and it is sad to see the Kejriwal government not using this time to deliver substantial gains to Delhi citizens. Grandstanding by “taking on” the Government of India via the Lt. Governor is unlikely to get it votes. Delhi is not a city which tolerates “whiners”.

BJP ruled municipalities provide no “benchmark” competition

The only silver lining for Mr. Kejriwal is that the three Municipal Corporations, all controlled by the BJP, are even worse. It is shocking that the Modi “magic” has not brushed-off on its local worthies and the municipalities remain mired in inefficiency and corruption.

Far from setting governance standards which would force Mr. Kejriwal to up his game and perform better, the Delhi municipalities are making it absurdly easy for Mr. Kejriwal to “shine” by comparison. This is shortsighted of the BJP and bad for Delhi citizens.

End game

Mr. Kejriwal has already lost the support of the middle class. Sadly he is in danger of losing the poor also, unless he takes service delivery beyond the level of rhetoric. He knew the limited character of the Delhi government before he contested. If he now feels constrained for power he has to wait till 2017 when he will get a chance of consolidating his power base in the three municipalities. Alternatively, he has to wait till 2019 in the hope of getting a congenial partner at the national level, who will cede fuller powers to Delhi State.

Either way he has a clear three years in which he can focus on improving what lies squarely within his ambit today- electricity supply, roads, public lighting, water, drains, sewage collection and treatment and social services. Even this seems a handful given the shallow bench strength of the AAP.

Packaging Budget 2015

jaitley face

(photo credit: india.com)

The annual ritual of the government’s budget with allocations of money in billions is just gobbledygook for the average citizen. It is the “tone” of the budget which people tune into first and foremost. What must Finance Minister Jaitley do to get the tone right?

First, clothes make a man, as they do a woman. One hopes that the FM will avoid the intricately embroidered shawls he has shown a preference for through winter. He would do well to wear a tailored, dark “bandh gala” (Nehru jacket), now that he has the figure to flaunt one, perhaps with a low- key, accessorized collar. More importantly, the jacket would set the tone of the budget to follow- non-frivolous; cut to a reduced shape to fit the cloth available; modern with a link to the India’s rich past and prescient of India’s glorious future.

A budget theme

Second, he should depart from the tradition of the FM rambling on, in the early part of the speech, about the state of the economy. This is already adequately covered in the Economic Survey released a day or so earlier. Instead, he could usefully spend this time defining a “budget theme” which he must then follow through in the rest of the budget speech by linking specific allocation and taxes to the overall theme.

This writer suggests the theme of “open economy, markets and poverty reduction”. All three fit nicely with the “growth” expectations unleashed by PM Modi. Also these are the three legs for equitable growth.

Open Economy stance

An “Open Economy” policy stance has been consistently followed since 1991 in external trade. It is just that, India has not benefited as much as our neighbours in East Asia. The fault is clearly ours.

Our governments have not seized opportunities overseas which could be dovetailed with domestic comparative advantage, to make the economy part of global value chains. This becomes vital now if jobs are to be added in India.

The real issue is what must we do next to “open” the economy to competition- domestic and international? Four steps suggest themselves.

First, linking markets physically by a first rate “infrastructure grid”-ports, roads, rail and electricity is key to create a seamless national market.

Second, a digitized “tax grid” linking national, state and local level tax systems can enhance revenues; prune evasion and reduce the aggregate tax burden by avoiding “the pancaking of multiple autarchic taxes”. The ongoing Goods and Services Tax (GST) initiative barely scratches the surface.

Third, aggressively privatizing state owned enterprises, including in arms and ammunition, can provide the required business momentum for competitiveness; assist in reaching fiscal deficit targets and benefit consumers.

Fourth, why not open, hitherto closed, domestic markets in land, legal and media services to foreign investment except where considerations of national security exist.

The FM could signal the second wave of liberalization and reform to follow up on the 1991 wave- external trade reform and industrial delicensing, by (A) tweaking competition thwarting domestic regulations and (B) supporting Indian business to reap the benefits of an open economy internationally.

Living by market logic

The BJP has always enjoyed the trust of business. But their commitment to expand markets and competition is not deeply etched enough. There is a lingering fondness for using and growing, the already vast powers of the State to bypass markets and “fast-track” development in a top- down “Developmental State” mode.

Examples include the loss of focus on privatization of state owned enterprises- partially attempted by the Vajpayee government (2000-04); a growing tendency to use the already iffy balance sheets of public sector companies and banks as leverage for funding “impossible public dreams”. Examples are a larger than feasible or necessary target for horrendously expensive and as yet commercially unviable, renewable energy systems and the development of a hundred SMART cities with even the concept remaining undefined nine months down the road.

Neither of these “public dreams” can be funded by market based finance. Both require huge subsidies, either direct budgetary allocations or indirect like “directed” loans from public sector banks. Bad loans which are artificially rolled over in government banks are, as a proportion of total assets, more than double the proportion in Indian private banks. Government owned businesses and banks need to be made autonomous if they are to survive. RBI should censure banks, which make irresponsible “dream” commitments and SEBI should do the same for listed government companies to protect minority shareholders.

The FM must set the record straight on both fronts. The fiscal constraints on public finance are unlikely to permit massive direct allocations for renewable energy or urbanization. He must further clarify that whilst both goals are laudable they should be achieved through projects, which are technically sound and financeable through market instruments.

Commercial finance for renewable energy and urban development

The FM must point out that renewable energy development, whilst a flag ship project, is hampered by the disincentive of subsidized conventional energy supply. Allowing market prices to prevail for retail energy supply is the first step to making renewable energy financeable.

The World Bank initiated a new program of Green Bonds which tap “specific institutional and retail investors with a yen for green development” internationally. Of the US$37 billion Green Bonds issued in 2014 nearly one half were corporate Bonds. Such debt instruments could also be developed for the US$ 1 Trillion Indian domestic Bond market, 25% of which is corporate debt.

Similarly, realism on urbanization agendas is urgently needed. For orderly urbanization the funds must be found within urban areas by rationalizing property and land tax and raising revenue by leasing government land banks for development to private developers. China successfully unleashed Municipal entrepreneurial energy to finance local development. Using national tax resources for urbanization is a poor use of scarce resources. Cities, which on average are 50% richer than rural India, must finance themselves through user charges, local taxes and monetization of local government resources. There can be no free lunch for a city.

Ending poverty by creating jobs

For starters, the FM could usefully adopt the international metric for defining the very poor as those who earn less than $1.25 per day and the poor as those who earn up to $2 per day. But what is much more important is to share a time bound vision for ending poverty.

The World Bank has set 2030 as the year by when world poverty (per capita income >$1.25 per day) is expected to be reduced to a residual economic and social challenge. India could simply align with this challenging target.

Today, 25% of the 1.2 billion poor people are Indian. Setting 2030 as the target for graduating them out of extreme poverty is aggressive. Even with an 8% annual growth, India could only be where China is today. China took 30 years to end extreme poverty (1985 to 2014). India would do well to achieve the same in 50 years (1980 to 2030)

The international consensus on poverty reduction is that strategies which allocate more resources for human development, livelihoods and private sector employment work best. India has lagged in enhancing budgetary allocations to education and health (including water and sanitation), as compared to any other growth oriented economy. One hopes the FM shall redress the skewed allocation since it affects the poor the most.

Small is still beautiful

If this logic is followed, the small and medium scale manufacturing sector, rather than mega projects, should be the focus for jobs and poverty reduction. This is where manufacturing is the least capital intensive; can use existing infrastructure with some rejigging; is most easily related to agriculture and could more easily grow incrementally as business expands.

We must avoid the trap of subverting the “growth” agenda into glitzy but lazy action points. To grow jobs for the poor it is the small things that count, like removing municipal and police harassment of street vendors; simplifying tax assessment processes and “problem solving” by getting local and state governments in growth mission mode.

The FM must pledge to blur the dualism in “well-being”, between 10% of the workforce in the “large, formal” sector and the 90% in the informal sector. The lot of employees in the informal sector can only be improved by “facilitating” employers to grow their businesses. This will happen only if labour regulations are light handed; permit flexible and fair employment practices and adopt a sequenced, incremental strategy for improvement in labour welfare supported by adequate public fiscal support for social protection.

Poverty and jobs filter for budget allocations

Applying a “poverty and jobs filter” to the budget allocations could be an innovative way to present the inter-se allocations across sectors and relate them to the budget theme. This would also discipline government departments to relate their work to the objective of private sector jobs and poverty reduction.

There are many ways of packaging a budget speech which very few actually read though more may hear it through. It should therefore be written for this audience and not the specialist, who will anyway delve between the lines. Best to outline the inflection points in Indian public finance history the budget seeks to create and leave the rest to the TV channels.

1558 words

Budget 2015: Swap higher outlays for efficient spending

jaitley dnaindia.com3  

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

A cold Republic Day had FM Jaitley looking dapper under his stylish cap as he snuggled into his overcoat on a rain lashed Rajpath munched nuts and broodingly watched the parade go past.

PM MODI’s OFF-SWING

Was he fleshing out what he would say in his budget speech to the Indian Parliament just one month away?  Should he bowl a leg-spin veering sharply left towards equity or an off-swing veering right and towards growth? Around him, on its 66 Republic Day, Modi India was visibly exhilarated celebrating its “off-swing” to the right.

China, possibly stung by this sudden change of events, after the cozy, bon homie of the recent jhula swing on the banks of the Sabarmati, retorted by clasping Pakistan even tighter as an eternal friend. Meanwhile the Greek “loony left”, united with the “loony right” to aspire to become a sovereign debt defaulter with the rest of Southern Europe waiting to follow, should their anarchic tactic succeed.

SOVEREIGN DEBT STRATEGY

Avoiding payment by default is not a new strategy. Latin America similarly exploited the short memories of lenders with serial debt defaults.  In contrast Asia, in general and India, in particular, has been very puritanical about its debt obligations, never having defaulted even once in the last forty years, though we came close to it in 1991.

Whilst morally correct, it is unclear if this is a good fiscal strategy. Standard and Poors rates India sovereign debt BBB-, the same as Brazil (which defaulted thrice-1983, 1986 and 1990 in the last 40 years) and lower than Peru-BBB+ (which defaulted twice in 1980 and 1984). From this perspective, debt default is not about “prestige”, “national honour” or about financial rewards. It is merely a game of brinksmanship to be played with the market, if it serves us well.

Was FM Jaitley pondering the merits of doing a Latin America; borrowing recklessly to finance a populist, public investment binge, which “growth-wallahs” are crying themselves hoarse demanding?

Borrowing more is the “soft” option to reforming expenditure since tax collections have dipped. Our borrowing capacity for FY 2015-is limited by a Fiscal Deficit (FD) envelop of 3.8% of GDP, down from the target of 4.1% in the current year. Even the higher FD level severely constrained resources though this constraint remained hidden. The previous UPA-II government put so many non-fiscal barriers on investment-lengthy environmental approvals; land acquisition constraints and contractual inconsistencies which ensured that the project stream froze thereby avoiding additional cash outflows.

The present government is working overtime to unclog the pipes and clear payment arrears. These have built up over time but they do not show up in the budget. Unlike Indian companies, the government follows the “cash” and not the “accrual” accounting system. Both unpaid current liabilities and uncollected current assets are not accounted for in the annual budget. This loop hole enabled the previous government to “sell our future” by collecting arrears whilst falsely showing a robust budget allocation.

GROWTH AND INFLATION

Indian “growth-wallahs” are prepared to risk inflation if it means pushing growth to 7% from the 5.5% it is likely to record in the current year. But the trade off, at the margin, between growth, inflation and jobs is unclear. This is dangerous ground for those living on the edge.

Growth is just a meaningless number for the average citizen. Jobs are welcome of course. But we do not have a “jobs filter” that can assess competing investment.  We do not even measure changes in employment through the year. In comparison inflation is an everyday reality which the poor and the urban lower middle class have to battle with daily.

If there is a choice between growth and more inflation, the FM would be well advised to choose containing inflation to below 5% even at the cost of chugging along at a 6% growth level.

PUBLIC INVESTMENT IS HIGHLY INEFFICIENT

The real question is if the domestic and international private sector is unwilling to invest, as for example in Nuclear energy, how can it be desirable for public investment? Clearly, an unhelpful institutional context makes these investments into “lemons”. Unless the root causes of their unviability are addressed, such projects are neither good for the private nor the public sector.

Public investment stoked growth is strongly dependent on the efficiency of public expenditure and the avoidance of “pork”- gold plated projects which fail to provide social returns and jobs. Excessive investment in new renewable energy (a rapidly evolving technology) has precisely this risk.

NO BUBBLES PLEASE

Of course the stock markets will not be enthused by such fiscal caution. But who really gains from the irrational financial exuberance (or despair) of stock markets except a few savvy speculators with deep pockets- not all of them Indian either.

Real Estate is another sector which should be left to lag not lead growth. It is a safe haven for “black money” fed speculation. Five years of cheap money since 2009, high inflation and massive corruption are the drivers of the Indian realty bubble. We have to guard against such bubbles, which consume the savings of the middle class, as in Japan (1980 to 1990) and more recently in the US (2004 to 2012).

LOOKING BACK TO THE FUTURE

One stratagem to inject conservatism into the budget would be to project the FY 2015-16 budget on the growth and revenue numbers which were achieved in 2014-15.

Looking backwards to define the fiscal envelop will further constrict spending estimates. But this would be a useful, albeit unorthodox mechanism, to drive better collection of tax and non-tax revenues and contain “pork” in the spending estimates.

If there are “happy” surprises – revenue exceeding estimates or growth exceeding forecast levels, the surplus generated could be allocated to pre-defined schemes in a supplementary budget later in the fiscal year. Leaving something on the table is good strategy anyway to keep stakeholders engaged and responsive.

Our biggest worry is that populism will trump reason. Subsidies are the elephant in the room of fiscal responsibility. Rationalizing them has become a political hot potato with potentially high political costs. This is why reform needs to be both well timed and appropriately sequenced.

LIMITED REFORM WINDOW

FY 2015-16 is the only reform window available to India for the next four years. If we can’t do it now we never shall. The 2016-17 budget shall be populist since Bihar (2016), UP (2017) and then Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to the polls (2018) followed by National Elections in 2019.

Can we, for starters at least, legislate a cap on subsidies just as there is a medium term trend and cap on FD? We don’t know enough about the extent, substance, nature and social impact of subsidies. Why not make these aspects more explicit by changing the way in which we present the budget documents?

Two subsidy reform steps are immediately doable.

First, making petroleum prices market determined is a no-brainer in the present scenario of cheap energy. This will plug one gap in the subsidy envelop.

Second, rationalize agricultural subsidies which are provided through multiple mechanisms; assured purchase prices for cereals; cheap fertilizer; cheap power; cheap irrigation water; no tax on income and minimal tax on land. Despite these subsidies, rural wages remain low and migration to urban areas is the only options for landless workers and marginal land owners.

These subsidies have only served to create a class of elite “millionaire” farmers; a tiny fragment at the very tip of the 600 odd million strong farming community. Why not use it to better target the poor, rural folk instead? An additional advantage would be that the rural poor have a significant overlap with Dalits and Muslims, neither of which are part of the BJPs traditional support base.

Will FM Jaitley grasp the moment and push through reform or do we have to wait till 2020 for substantive change?

Can Modi Copy Deng?

China

(photo credit: http://www.deeshaa.org)

The thought of Modi, an original and innovative doer if ever there was one, copying anyone, is so implausible that the first instinct is to perish the thought at birth. But it is interesting to list how Modi could “do a Deng” for India.

Deng Xiaoping inherited a China wracked by the inefficiencies, but blessed by the upside of Communism. Principally, five decades of communism had deadened the innately entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese and sank the economy under the weight of a burgeoning State. But communism had also proliferated a highly disciplined party cadre across the country-much like India’s bureaucracy-except that the Chinese Communist Party marches to a single drumbeat; that of the President/General Secretary/Chairman. In contrast, the Indian bureaucracy is a discordant orchestra with multiple political conductors.

Mao built his Party cadres to weed out all those who either were, or could become, dissenters to his thoughts. Deng used the very same party to unleash the Chinese “animal spirits”. Municipalities and provinces competed viciously with each other to achieve the highest growth numbers in a no-holds-barred, single minded commitment to the bottom line, which could put the partners of Lehman Brothers in the shade.

The extraordinarily successful U turn was not surprising. Party foot soldiers are rarely ideologically committed. On top of it, if there is something in the change for them, they take to it with gusto. The Party took to “capitalism” with a vengeance. It is only now- two decades later- that President Xi is trying to unravel the resultant bundling of public and private interests.

When Deng Xiaoping became the President of China, per capita Gross National Product (GNP) was double of India’s but only around two thirds of Indonesia and Philippines (1996 WB data). By 2012 China’s per capita Gross National Income (GNI) had become nearly four times that of India; more than 1.7 times of Indonesia and nearly double of Philippines. Poverty declined in China from “Indian levels” to just 3% by 2012. Rapid economic growth based on exports, manufacturing and jobs was Deng’s mantra. But we musn’t forget the sacrifices of the Chinese people, who suffered personal and economic deprivations at the altar of national economic growth.

Can Modi do a Deng for India?

Unlike China, India is a soft state. Our citizens live in an asymmetric economic and political environment. On average, our citizens are as economically deprived as the Chinese were. But they have become accustomed to significant levels of personal and political freedom, more typical of a developed democracy. The State “includes” everyone in its warm embrace through food, fuel and income subsidies, which successive governments have honed to a fine art. Significant interest groups all receive a special package of subsidies tailored just for them. The package may not be individually very substantial. It may be threatened by inflation and increasing public fiscal stress. But the important thing is that it exists as a symbol that the State “cares”.

The only way of getting citizens to vote beyond subsidies is to rapidly enhance their individual incomes to a level where stagnating subsidies no longer mean much. For this private sector jobs based growth is the key.

Unfortunately, the world economic environment is now even less supportive of inefficient economies than it was in the “go-go years” till 2008. India remains a hugely inefficient economy because of the high transaction cost of doing business, even by domestic entrepreneurs. Some of this is due to a very inefficient and decentralized but systemic corruption.

The magnitude of corruption grabs public attention. It is unseemly but it is not the main impediment to job creation, growth or poverty reduction. In an imperfectly regulated economy, with a large State sector, regulating corruption to reduce its incidence and impact is more important than eradicating it. East Asia in general and indeed China itself, illustrates this.

But bitterly contested democracy does not allow the ruling party the luxury of “plain policy speak” based on cost benefit. A well publicised war against corruption better satisfies the masses that tax money is not being wasted.

More substantively, a policy of adopting increasingly higher levels of transparency and the  depoliticisation of economic regulation by transferring powers to autonomous, technical regulators, can significantly reduce the space for “crony capitalism”.

PM Modi, whilst condemning the “hate speech” of his errant Minister Niranjan Jyoti urged the Rajya Sabha: “let’s get back to work”. His words could well be heeded by government itself. Five fundamental institutional changes can create a Team Modi for targeting poverty; enhancing growth and increasing private sector jobs.

First, Captain Modi has to radically change the manner in which appointments are done in the Union government and adopt a transparently merit based system. For starters PMO should have an HR anchor identifying and tracking potential officers for these positions, using a variety of indicators.

Second, for improving the sustained effectiveness of the Union government, the PM has to ruthlessly prune the political executive and the bureaucracy, of elements who are, or have been ineffective or complicit in corruption. This is not about launching a witch hunt for the corrupt. It is more about identifying effective politicians and bureaucrats (of which individually there is an oversupply) and putting them in the right positions.

Third, it is not enough to improve the Union government. PM Modi has to talk Turkey with those CMs, who are similarly inclined to grow their states. Some, but not all, will be BJP governments. But the real issue here is to form alliances, not for political survival, as was the practice in the past, but for national growth. Network economies spill over across state boundaries and business uses such opportunities to locate where land is cheap, labour is abundant and pre-existing infrastructure is nearby.

CM Naidu previously used this model of cross border spill-over from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh’s benefit. Western UP and Haryana have similarly benefited from the economic dynamism of Delhi, irrespective of what their State Governments were up to. It is not necessary to have every CM on Team Modi’s Bench. Just getting 50% onboard, sprinkled across the country, can generate strong growth impulses nationally.

Fourth, a institutional focal point for getting CMs on board is needed. The National Development Council exists, but needs support. At the heart of the change is the willingness to share with the states, the fiscal and administrative powers available in the erstwhile Planning Commissions. How it’s is structured will be critical. Yet another anemic Think Tank is hardly fit for purpose.

Fifth, the key administrative unit, at the cutting edge level are the 604 Districts in rural areas and around 3255 “towns”. It is at this level that all reform and change is implemented. Unfortunately, this level of administration remains completely divorced from the direct responsibility for achieving the three point agenda of growth, jobs and poverty reduction in their own areas. This has to change if we are to “Do a Deng”. China determines local targets for national objectives. We must do the same.

PM Modi must provide incentives to States to “push back” senior officers from clunky state secretariats to the field. State secretariats (as also the Union Secretariat) must be slimmed down and District and urban Local Bodies strengthened. This can restore technical competence and gravitas to district and local body administration. The minimum service in field postings for IAS/IPS officers, before they can go to the State Secretariat must be increased to 15 years from the 9 years necessary today.

Every District and Town will also need base line studies of jobs, poverty levels and the size of the local economy. Their annual growth and poverty reduction targets and achievements must be available publicly. The share of local resource allocation must increase and be aligned with the path to achieve these objectives at the local level.

Today District Plans are just local segments of state government projects with specified outputs but with less than adequate linkage to the three overarching objectives. Local “Planning” is more about appeasement of local politicians rather than about achieving national objectives. More rigorous project selection guidelines; filters for assessing poverty reduction, growth and job creation potential; better oversight of expenditure and public participation in decision making are the underpinnings of success.

PM Modi does not have a centralized Party based executive to rely upon, as Deng did. But he can forge a Team of politicians, bureaucrats and non-government professionals who have a passion for lifting India out of poverty via economic growth and private sector jobs. Many are waiting for his call.

PM Modi’s second governance test

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Success attracts its own supporters. Narendra bhai epitomizes the success of merit and dedication. It is not surprising therefore, that supporters, including erstwhile critics, both national and international, are thronging his doorstep for a darshan.

There are visible signs that the public adulation has not gone to his head. He has shot down an attempt to curry favor with him by BJP governments, by revising the textbooks with a chapter devoted to him as a role model. This is very welcome and good news.

But a big governance test will confront him over the next two months.

Can he support the Finance Minister deliver a “realistic” budget which does not fudge either revenue receipt or expenditure- two favourite tricks of budget managers to fool the public, adopted by the UPA2 in its last budget? Second, can he reduce the fiscal deficit below the level of 4.9% in 2012-13; the last “normal year” data available. The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act 2003 targeted a maximum Fiscal Deficit level of 2% by 2006. We never achieved that level. The best was 2.7% in 2007.  A plan to reach close to this over the next 3 years, by reducing it by 0.5% point every year is sorely needed.

Growth fundamentalists will shout that this is retrogressive. His advisors eager to “kick start” the economy and show dramatic results will advise him to throw fiscal caution to the winds and spend his way out of the economic downturn. But none of the growth fundamentalists can guarantee that “kick starting” growth by public spending actually adds jobs for the poor. Indeed the evidence is adding up to quite the reverse conclusion. Public spending windfalls (as in the Common Wealth Games), line the pockets of the top 1% of Indians, whose business margins soar and of shareholders, whose equity capital appreciates (on which there is no tax at all!). But the impact on jobs is likely to be lagged or minimal.

Narendra bhai’s best bet is to listen to his RBI Governor who is the protector of the poor and the salaried middle class, against the ravages of inflation. The PM should let the RBI Governor set inflation management targets and measures, without restraint. This approach is not sexy, stodgy and reminiscent of IMF style fiscal fundamentalism.

But the short term strategy of boosting the stock market and growth numbers through massive public spending, would be dangerously negligent for an economy, like India, where over 60% of the people are poor, unskilled and live mostly in rural areas and are unable to access jobs in the market economy. For 40% of the people living in urban areas, who are poor, inflation is a bigger calamity, because wages are stickier than prices.

Unearthing black money is being considered as a revenue earning measure, which could painlessly increase the spending power of the government. It also sounds like a “win-win” solution since it responds to the high moral objectives of good governance.

But Narendra bhai, must consider that, Black Money is the lubricant, which keeps the economy ticking today. There are more than 300,000 new, unsold flats clogging the inventory of builders and investors because growth prospects are uncertain. Much of the real estate boom was driven by Black Money fueled speculation, betting on high growth to keep the Ponzi scheme going. But the boom in construction activities did create jobs. A war on black money will directly impact any revival of the listless real-estate market, the economy and jobs. Timing is everything in successful governance reforms. Black money has many negative consequences. But the time to become like Denmark is in a boom, not during a bust.

There are no short cuts to fiscal stability. Cutting back on the governments wasteful recurrent expenditure (which comprises 80% of total expenditure); enlarging the tax base and better tax collection are key priorities.

In this context, good governance, would dictate that tough, unpopular decisions need to feed into the 2014-15 budget:

(1)    Target a real reduction in revenue (current) expenditure of 10% over the previous year. Over 50% of the current expenditure comprises interest payments and subsidies. Salaries account for only 8%. As a result, the wage bill is rarely targeted. But just by restructuring Railways into a corporation and the Postal Service into a bank and a corporation, nearly 50% of the wage bill can be taken off the public payroll. Other benefits from corporatization would also accrue.  

(2)    A majority of central government officials, including in the ministries of coal, power, steel, mines, oil and gas, chemical, fertilizers, civil aviation and telecom spend their time, second guessing, remotely managing or monitoring Public Sector Enterprises. This is a wholly unnecessary job. Transfer the lot of them to the concerned PSE. This will automatically reduce the size of most ministries. Appoint professionals to the Boards of these PSEs, instead of the “shoo-ins” we have today. PSEs are not the “jagirs” of the concerned administrative ministry. “Shoo-ins” are popular today, as Directors of PSEs, because the concerned Minister and the PSE management are comfortable with them. But they do nothing for improving the efficiency of the PSEs.

(3)    A second, large chunk of central government employees spend their time administering development schemes implemented by the state governments, but funded either wholly or partly. by the center (central sector schemes). These are wasteful tasks. Hand the task of monitoring such schemes over to NGOs. Send the concerned ministry officials to these NGOs on deputation and get them off the government’s payroll.

(4)    Cut back the long chain of command in Ministries. Today a file passes through at least five levels of scrutiny (i) Section Officer(ii)Under Secretary(iii) Deputy Secretary-Director(iv) Additional Secy.-Special Secy.(v) Secretary. This is way too long. The Secretary should be at most the third level dealing with a file and not the fifth.

(5)    Filter all incomplete and new projects for their private employment and poverty reduction potential. Fund only the ones with the best “social and economic returns” and review what to do with the “politically sensitive” but wasteful, other projects. Bridges to nowhere and empty but beautifully carpeted roads, are “pork”, not development.

(6)    Finally, target fitting the “core” ministries (External Affairs, Defence, Home, Finance, Power, Coal, Mines, Transport, Agriculture, Industrial and Urban Development, Social welfare and Women and Child development), into the space available in the glorious North and South Blocks, which was meant for them. Make space for them, by shifting the PMO into the Rashtrapati Bhawan complex, which is conspicuously vacant. Lease the vacated Bhawans, along Rajpath, to the private sector to earn additional revenue. This will also spare us the drab view of Soviet era, building blocks.

This is the nit-picky governance agenda which the UPA never attempted. A bloated central government, with lots of fingers pointing at each other, is not compatible with Narendra bhai’s ambition and our expectation of effective governance.

Achieving the Fiscal Deficit target for 2014-15 of 0.5% point below the 4.9% actual deficit in 2013-14 by reducing the current expenditure of the central government, is the PMs second test in governance.  

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