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Posts tagged ‘PM Modi. India’

Delhi babus – between a rock & a hard place

delhi strike

The breakdown of a working relationship between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government of the National Capital Region and its officers is a seminal moment. On February 19, AAP legislators heckled, abused and allegedly assaulted Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash, the Delhi government’s topmost bureaucrat, at the residence of the Chief Minister (CM). Both CM Arvind Kejriwal and deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia were present.

The legislators allege that the chief secretary (CS) used intemperate language in the shouting match between them. Cross-first information reports have been lodged by the two rival parties with the police. Further investigations would reveal the facts.

Chief Secretary’s complaint is, primae facie, more credible

But the circumstantial evidence favours the chief secretary’s case. He was summoned to the CM’s house for discussions at around midnight. He found a group of 11 legislators and/or partymen — notably all male — assembled. He was made to sit on a sofa, sandwiched between two legislators, who subsequently assaulted him. The bone of contention, according to the CS, was that the legislators were outraged that TV advertisements on the completion of three years of the AAP government in Delhi were not approved in time. The CS avers the advertisements violate the Supreme Court guidelines for government advertisements. The AAP contends that holding up the advertisement, churlishly, is yet another instance of how the Central government uses the office of the lieutenant-governor (L-G) to shackle the state government.

The state government-level staff and officer unions have demonstrated and resorted to work-to-rule tactics against the criminal assault on a government servant while on duty — which attracts severe punishment under the Indian Penal Code. Two legislators — the alleged assailants — have been arrested. The Delhi government is in turmoil.

Partial devolution creates potential for conflict in operations 

Beyond the inter-personal behaviour issues, which may have sparked the conflict, a larger problem looms. Are institutional arrangements for governance in Delhi so fraught that they breed conflict between politicians and the hapless bureaucrats, who have to play to the tune of two masters?

Long-term observers would say that no, that is not true. After all, for over two and half decades since 1993 — when elections were first held for the Government of the National Capital Region — this is the first instance of violent conflict.

Delhi is just a “half-state government” — to twist Chetan Bhagat’s evocative phrase. The management of land, the police and the civil service remains with the Union government, represented by the L-G. If the same party is in power at the Centre and in the state government, any conflict can be resolved internally. This safety valve is taken away when different parties are in power.

In the past – guile, maturity and sagacity avoided a breakdown of governance

However, this is hardly the first time that different parties have been in power. In 1993-98 the BJP under Madan Lal Khurana ruled the state, while the Congress under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ruled the Union government till 1996. In 1999-2004 the tables were reversed with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of the BJP heading the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre and chief minister Sheila Dikshit, of the Congress, at the state level. So why the open conflict this time?

One difference is, that on the previous occasions, when power was split in Delhi between two parties, both were national parties with mature leaders, well versed and socialised in working within the constitutional constraints of the separation of powers. Put simply, ever since Independence in 1947, a “Lutyens’ political set” has evolved, which often seems to have more in common with each other than their own party brethren from out of town. This is not unlike the Washington “Beltway” syndrome in the United States.

Its different now – the Lutyens consensus is shattered

Since 2014, this “Lutyens’ consensus” lies shattered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi shuns the airy, closeted politics of the Lutyens kind. He draws power directly from the masses. Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, is cast in a similar mould. He exults in being “common” — preferring sweaters to jackets even in Delhi’s winter, with a trademark muffler around his head to keep the wind at bay and is usually clad in sandals rather than shoes. His partymen emulate his casual dress style.

PM Modi and CM Kejriwal are zero-sum people

Mr Modi and Mr Kejriwal are both visceral men. Every election is a zero-sum game which must be won. Compromise is akin to defeat. This strategy has worked for both of them. Neither is likely to change.

Delhi has become the battleground for Goliath Modi to slug it out with David Kejriwal. When elephants fight, the bureaucratic grass is bound to get trampled. Anshu Prakash, the incumbent chief secretary, finds himself between a rock and a hard place. A mild-mannered old-school bureaucrat, he has none of the Machiavellian skills needed to become a trusted adviser, simultaneously, to two implacable political adversaries.

Poor devolution impacts all municipalities in India

Is this sorry state of governance an outlier? Unfortunately, no. Till 1993, Delhi was a Metropolitan Council working under the Union government. In the states, municipalities work under state governments. There is inevitably a potential for conflict, or at the very least neglect (as in Calcutta through the long years of communist rule in West Bengal), if different political parties are in power in the state government and the municipality. Delhi municipalities are currently ruled by the BJP. Their staff have demonstrated in favour of the Chief Secretary. They face symmetric harassment too.  Fuzzy separation of powers and functions and inadequate devolution of finance make local bodies dependent on state governments. This stops cities from becoming the fulcrum of participative democracy and keeps them from becoming vibrant growth centers.

Delhi is a tinder box for igniting urban class-conflict – restraint is advised

Delhi violence

More immediately, in Delhi, we need a truce. The AAP would relish being dismissed by the President of India on the charge of a breakdown in the constitutional machinery. Even as traditional Communist parties remain immersed in obscure, internal ideological battles, it is the AAP which has succeeded in igniting a genuine class war in Delhi, between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Alas, there are too many of the latter. In this classic struggle, it is the establishment — the bureaucracy and the police — which bear the brunt of public frustration. A dangerous trend, which could be a tipping point, in urban governance.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, February 24, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/240218/trouble-in-lutyens-land-babus-as-political-fodder.html

Union taxes are scraping the bottom

old men

The introduction of a 10 per cent tax on capital gains (with effect from April 1, 2018), accruing from the sale of equity, after holding it for at least one year, has generated a great deal of angst. But it is unconscionable that stock market investors who have earned windfall gains of 30 per cent over the past year should mind paying three percentage points out of that windfall as tax.

The government has gone further and “grandfathered” from the tax all equity-related capital gains accruing till January 31 — the day prior to the Budget 2018-19 proposals being made public. The stock market slid by about six per cent thereafter. Future gains will depend upon better profitability in Indian corporates; the options for alternative risk-free returns in developed markets (US treasuries, for example, which are likely to have higher spreads) and growth in India.

Even wealthy Indians dislike taxes

The new long term capital gains tax is not onerous in the present context. But at the heart of the discontent with it, is a corrosive aversion to pay tax, even by the very wealthy. There are good reasons why we are habitual benders of the rule of law.

To find the reason for this national shame, look no further than our political leaders. The Election Commission turns a Nelson’s eye to the yawning gap between actual election expenditures and the income of parties on the books. The recently introduced Election Bonds are unlikely to bring about a transformative reform.

No crony capitalist wants to be identified while buying these bonds from designated banks. Privacy of information arrangements are easily breached, to ferret out who contributed how much to which party.

Demonetisation did throw up big data on the ownership of cash. But following up on suspected tax evaders is quite another matter. The options of bribing their way out or legally delaying a final decision reduces the incentive to respect the rule of law. We are then back to square one. During the demonetisation of November 2016, 99% of the cash came back into the banking system, because tax evaders innovated, on the fly, to escape the tax net.

No wonder then, that the tax revenue at the Central level is stuck at just below 12 per cent of GDP with an additional 10 per cent in the states and local governments.

scraping bottom

Growth need higher public spends

The conundrum is that higher growth needs higher public spends of around 6-8 per cent of GDP on infrastructure, health and education. India has underinvested in these for decades. The real problem is that tax revenues are difficult to increase with 40 per cent of the population being either poor or vulnerable to fall into poverty.

China innovated best-fit solutions to boost public revenues

China had the same problem. Their solution was to decentralise development decision-making within a broad party line of priorities. Local government and local party offices worked together to monetise government assets — principally land — for private development projects. The proceeds from such monetisation generated the resources to finance infrastructure and increase spending on health and education. Without a doubt, the dynamics of working with the private sector also lined the pockets of party and government officials. But both were held to account if there were failures in achieving development targets.

India too is turning away from template solutions

The good news is that India is changing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made chai vendors respectable. Our next Prime Minister may do the same for pakora sellers — much derided today by some, who look down their noses, at anything but formal sector jobs. But Shekhar Shah, director-general of NCAER, a New Delhi economics think tank, cautions that formalisation, China style, can be a double-edged sword.

Formalisation of work and rising inequality

Yes, formalisation does improve work conditions and facilitates production at scale. But formalisation is often linked to capital intensive production, which results in disproportionate benefits to those, with access to capital. Unless managed with great care formalisation takes away from rewarding livelihoods for people in the bottom 40 per cent with traditional or low-level skills. President Kagame of Rwanda — till recently a darling of donors, because of his rapid adoption and implementation of the “doing business” type of performance metrics — runs a spotlessly clean capital, Kigali, with neat markets. But this is at the expense of street vendors who were priced out by the prohibitive cost of a licence.

Innovations in public finance lacking

We need to innovate, to increase government revenue, without trying to copy China. The 15th Finance Commission could be crucial in tweaking the transfer of resources to states and local government in a way which incentivises them to generate more local revenues. That is where a significant contribution to aggregate government taxes can be made, as suggested by the Economic Survey 2018-19.

Every Rs 100 spent from the budget can leverage an equal amount from the private sector.

The mantra for government spending is simple. Big ticket public development spending (both revenue and capital) must generate at least a similar level of private investment as extra-budgetary resources. Funding the premia for providing health insurance to 100 million poor families is one such scheme which can change mindsets and provide the forums for productive collaborations between the Central and state governments and the private sector. There is enough fat hidden away in the 2018-19 Budget to fund the scheme.

The National Health Insurance scheme can lead by using insurance permia to establish private or not-for-profit hospitals  

A ready market already exists — in urban and peri-urban areas, covering around 40 million poor families, as private hospitals are accessible. With an annual premia amount of Rs 20,000 crores, a similar sum as private investment can be leveraged in new healthcare facilities. Insurance companies, which will enjoy the bonanza of publicly-funded premia, will need to work with the healthcare industry to enlarge access to hospital facilities in under-covered areas. Similar state-level health insurance schemes should be allowed to lapse. States should divert their funds instead, to primary care, nutrition and public health.

Government should pull out of being the interface with citizens for service provisioning 

The government must, in a sequenced manner, pull out of the business of direct provisioning of services, except in disaster situations. Central,  state and local governments must learn to use the power of public finance to leverage private capital and management. A big push for outsourcing public services might be the only way to fill the financing gap between aspirations and today’s sordid reality.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in Asian Age February 13, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/130218/innovate-outsource-to-fund-deliver-services.html

BJP’s new script – defending the losers

Modi grim

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

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

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

Protect children from malnutrition

stunted

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

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

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

Social protection for the elderly- 50+ and poor

old man 2

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

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

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

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

Respect land ownership rights

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

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

land protest

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

Penal sanctions for public delinquency

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

death 2

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

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

How Ivanka Trump can revive our exports and create jobs

Mumbai local

The future of work is uncertain. Within this global conundrum, India has a peculiar problem. The International Labor Organization estimates that less women in India are opting to work. In 1990 there two men for every woman in the workplace. Now there are three men for every woman in the workplace. Despite women becoming better educated and overweight in the honors list of colleges, two thirds of graduate women do not work.

Men “crowd out” women in a stagnant jobs market

This statistic does not align with the over-crowded “Ladies” section of the Mumbai local trains or how the workplace looks in metros, particularly InfoTech heavy Bangalore, where gender diversity is the norm.  What seems more likely, is that with low-skill jobs declining in significant numbers, women step back to allow their men to get such jobs. It helps that men are implicitly preferred by employers, despite costing more than women for similar work.

This wealth of unused woman power in India, is what Ms. Trump could tap into, at Hyderabad next week, where she will be a key note speaker at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

Ivanka and global supply chains

Ivanka trump

Ms. Trump, now in honorary public office, as an Advisor to the President of the United States, was previously a businesswoman in the luxury goods market. She knows first-hand, the potential of global supply chains, to drive development and growth, across networked economies. India needs all the help it can get in boosting exports.

Standards and Poor’s assesses India’s external position as strong

Exports have lagged economic growth since 2014 and this trend is projected by Standard and Poor’s – the international rating agency – to continue, at least, till 2019. Curiously, S&P is simultaneously bullish about the resilience of India’s external position. This is principally due to our sound monetary management; a “liquid” rupee, trading for which constitutes around 1 percent of all forex transactions; low external debt levels at around 20 percent of GDP and our ability to finance the sizable trade deficit of 7 percent of GDP from surpluses in the export of services; our net balance of remittances from expatriate Indians and inward net flow of foreign investment.

But oil price increase can upset the finely balanced external account

But left unsaid is the fact that low oil prices over the last three years have significantly decreased the trade imbalance. Nevertheless the risk of potential external imbalance remains if the oil price strengthens. Pumping up exports is not just necessary for a healthy and sustainable external balance. Booming exports are a signal of increasing competitiveness of the domestic economy and its enhanced integration into global supply chains.

Rational pricing of currency can boost exports and price imports competitively

It is less easy to define how to boost exports selectively, without distorting incentives for domestic producers. Creating “walled” export enclaves with superior facilities means “ghettoizing” the rest of the country. China can do this, because of its repressive labor and immigration policies and its top down, centralized, party managed, authoritarian State. India is closer in values; in diversity and in political architecture to the US. Out of the options for incentivizing exports – tax breaks; cheaper finance or better infrastructure facilities, the least distorting and the most efficient is maintaining a realistic exchange rate.

The Rupee is currently overvalued by around 20 percent. This strategy is great for limiting the public expenditure on import of defence and transport related equipment and on the subsidy for installation of imported solar panels for generating power.  It is also great for households which buy “cheaper” imported products – ranging from LED backlit plastic Gods to iPhones – from China. But it is a killer for domestic industry. It is not just the exports which suffers. Small and medium enterprises also take a direct hit if ceramic tiles from Turkey can out price domestic production.

Agriculture also suffers. If the exchange rate was realistic, government would not need to impose an additional duty to discourage the import of cheaper, imported onions. A seasonal glut of vegetables could be avoided if a realistic exchange rate made the export of agricultural produce more competitive, thereby increasing farm incomes without a subsidy.

Three takeaways

If Ms Trump is truly concerned about empowering women, the lessons from India are the following. First, women suffer more from economic downturns than men. By losing their income they slide into the traditional role of being financially dependent – not a happy position to be in, for anyone. Second, higher exports help women, particularly if production is decentralized to exploit localized skills, like high value embroidery and handicrafts. Finally, integrating domestic production into global supply chains seamlessly, is key, for empowering women sustainably.

The Pearl Price Index

pearls

One hopes Ms. Trump will ponder over these issues. Over dinner, in the lavishly ornamented Falaknuma Palace, one wishes she would nudge Prime Minister Modi into depreciating the Rupee to realistic levels, by exclaiming, she was shocked by the dollar prices quoted for the pearls, she had intended to buy, at Charminar. She would only be  furthering US interests. Robust exports, increase India’s capacity to buy American. Down-at-heel Indian exporters and the women of India will also thank her for this collaborative gesture.

 

FM Jaitley, aim for the sweet spot

Manmohan Jaitley

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

The reform baton passes on

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

Pressing the economic accelerator is not enough

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

Burying past negativities is good but not enough

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

GST – the corruption buster

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

Bankruptcy & NPA resolution – The crony capitalism killer app

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

Big brother must watch use smart analytics

Big data

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

Aim for the sweet spot

cricket sweet spot

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

Defang the trade Unions

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

TU

Grow private banking rapidly

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

Nail large. serial loan defaulters as criminals 

Modi nail

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

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

Remain a classic, fiscal fundamentalist

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

cricket defense

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

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

NITI’s vision 2032 disappoints

NITI vision 2

NITI vision 2032 : foggy, disjointed & barely hanging together

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the chief ministers of states spent most of Sunday deliberating over the plans and prospects for India in the next 15 years to 2031-32. The third governing council meeting of the Niti Aayog seems to have been an underwhelming affair, judging from the two presentations put up on its website. Why this listless thinking?

Great expectations

Three years ago, when the dowdy Planning Commission was transformed into a glitzy Niti Aayog, expectations were high that it would be the loci of innovation and cutting-edge analytics in public policy. The Planning Commission was merely an extended office of the Prime Minister. Chief ministers, whilst supposedly integral to the National Development Council (NDC), which the commission serviced, felt like interlopers rather than participating members. The flamboyant J. Jayalalithaa used the NDC forum like a television station — walking in to deliver her speech and then walking out. Others stoically suffered the process, making debating points, that no one heard.

New beginnings

Some of that has changed. Mr Modi has done away with the elevated podium of yesteryear for the PM and Union ministers. Now all are seated at the same level around a round table. Another first — the meeting was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Symbolic, as our head of state is not the PM, but the President, with whom the Union and state governments have an independent constitutional equation. In deference to the beacon ban, the long line of official cars streaming into the venue were minus their flashing red lights, thereby letting the tricolour atop Rashtrapati Bhavan take pride of place. On optics, the arrangements were perfect.

More optics than substance

The substance, however, seems not to have been as uplifting. Five examples will illustrate.

Lacks credibility

indian dream

A car for every household – is this the Indian dream?

First, a 15-year vision which is not nuanced enough to reconcile trade-offs lacks credibility. To aim to make India a prosperous economy by 2032 is a pie in the sky. India can, at best, and that too with enormous effort, go from being a lower middle-income country (per capita at current $1,600) to become a middle-income country (per capita current $4,800). A very long shot from being prosperous. The per capita income (at current US dollars) in Latin America and Caribbean today is $8,415, while in East Asia it’s at $9,512. There is no way we can catch up to even these levels by 2032. Consider also that the high growth rates required to make this jump could negatively impact equality. The international experience amply demonstrates that high levels of growth come with the risk of increasing inequality. There is not a whisper in the vision statement of how we propose to navigate the trade-off between growth and equality — the latter being part of the PM’s vision.

More of the same

brick stacks

Second, the Niti Aayog’s vision statement is backward looking. It ignores the dislocation caused by technological developments which technology leaders like the Chinese entrepreneur, Jack Ma have been warning against. NITI aims to make India a highly-educated country by 2032. Should we not be looking, instead, at becoming highly skilled? We are already battling progressive robotisation. By 2032, artificial intelligence would have squeezed jobs further in traditional sectors. New jobs, 10 million a year, which we require and still don’t have, are only likely in highly specialised areas — like space travel, frictionless transportation and psychological counselling — niches which are not easy to robotise, rather than general education which we value today. By 2032, just as plumbers, carpenters, masons and welders would be obsolete so would equity traders, bank clerks, low-level lawyers and IT workers. We will still need pure scientists, social scientists and engineers, but in limited numbers, We already produce 2 million of these every year. But very few are of cutting edge quality. Our challenge is to develop innovative minds with appropriate skills, not to educate 400 million of our under 18 years population to become “thinkers” – the bulk of the thinking will soon be done by machines. Humans will need the skills required to choose and make wise decisions, intermediate between humans machines and train other humans to work with machines. No sign of this transformation in the vision.

Not joined up – conflicting objectives

oil pollution

Third, the vision statement wishes India to become “energy abundant”. But being energy abundant is a retrograde desire tinged with the potential for waste. Energy abundance means energy prices tumbling, spurring even more per capita consumption of energy. Surely this is incompatible with the other objective of being “environmentally clean”? Are we really aiming to provide a car or a motorbike to each household, as the vision proclaims, or do we wish to make public transport the most convenient option? Should we not be allocating funds to become energy efficient rather than spending on acquiring or developing more energy resources? The hunger for energy abundance is a stale ambition.

Mushy & emotional, not pragmatic

Fourth, the Niti Aayog aims to make us a “globally influential nation”. How is one to go about this Dale Carnegie-type revamp? India has thumped the tables of the United Nations for over five decades. And yet, suddenly today, we are more influential globally than ever before because of our large, growing markets, relatively easy access for foreign capital and technology, facilitating internal institutional arrangements and stable polity. Influence is an outcome of domestic capacity, confidence and conviction. These 3C’s are the drivers we should be looking at. Best, like Arjun, to aim for the eye of the bird and not get distracted by the clouds floating around.

Process matters for cooperative federalism

Fifth, the Niti Aayog was constituted to showcase cooperative federalism and be the entry door for its implementation. But it remains poorly organised for living by this principle. Its staff should be deputed both by the Union government and directly by the state governments, much like multilateral entities operate. It must have a permanent secretary-level board to review and clear documents to be presented to the governing council, and provide a forum for discussion and implicit negotiations between officers from the Union and the states deputed to the Aayog. The governing council should structure meetings to provide for negotiations at the political level to evoke the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. Currently, the council functions more as a receptacle for the views of state governments and offers an opportunity for the Union government to tell states what it is doing, just like the Planning Commission used to do.

Put some flesh on the vision

famine

The vision unveiled, yesterday, is muddied by a vast array of disjointed initiatives, thereby reducing the clarity of purpose expected from such a document. Words matter and must be used selectively and deliberatively. Otherwise a vision is nothing but a laundry list of wishes. For years the World Bank “dreamt” about a world free of poverty. It now recognises that wishes need to disciplined to the takable actions to convert wishes to reality.

The public expects much, much more than old wine in new bottles from Mr Modi- especially over the next decade. He and the outstanding talent in the Aayog, must allocate time for thoughtful negotiations at multiple levels. There is no other way to make others — particularly the state governments — feel like valued members of the same Team India!

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age  April 25, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/250417/niti-aayogs-vision-2032-disappoints.html

PM NITI 3 GC

 

Basic income transfer- Modi’s next big thing?

poor woman

Irrespective of its economic virtues, demonetisation — an aggressive, unprecedented initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, brought rich dividends for the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh election. Above all, voters were impressed with his determination to punish those who have become fat on black money. That the move also “punished” those who had no black money — via extended inconvenience, loss of business or employment — was collateral damage.

An incredible 41 per cent of voters gave a thumping majority to the BJP, including possibly those who were collateral fodder or the target — proving, yet again, that in politics, good intentions trump technically appropriate action.

The next frontier

So what can the Prime Minister do next to shock and awe the Opposition and win minds and hearts across India? Elections loom in Karnataka in 2018, currently ruled by the Congress, and national general election is in 2019. The chosen programme must be elegant not clunky; effective not merely palliative; quickly deliverable and fiscally prudent.

The Union government currently uses clunky, partially- or fully-funded schemes, implemented by the state governments, to establish its human face. There were 1,500 such schemes, which the Modi government has pruned to around 657. Most are massively inefficient. Arvind Virmani, a former chief economic adviser, claims they follow the one-third rule. Only one-third for the targeted beneficiary, one-third for administrative expenditure and one-third for corruption.

Mind you, it is expensive to provide access to public services and goods even via a cash support mechanism. Prof. Abhijit Banerjee of MIT assesses the average administrative cost, across countries, of cash support programmes at 50 per cent of the amount delivered.

A universal, unconditional income transfer in cash to all citizens is the most efficient option. But it suffers from bad optics. The same amount of money is given to a beggar as to a real estate baron. But Sudipto Mundle of NIPFP argues that select exclusions are possible without massively retarding efficiency. The most obvious exclusion is anyone in urban areas. The average income in urban areas is consistently higher than in rural areas, where 80 per cent of the poor live.

Substitution or additional support

Others, like Jean Drèze, are sceptical about the cash transfers, specially for food support. We know food prices spike during drought. During such extreme events, the transferred income would be insufficient to buy the targeted amount of food. Those living at the edge cannot afford to be caught in such a situation.

Clearly, basic income transfer is not a substitute for all other existing social support mechanisms in education, health and social protection, but it can substitute those mechanisms which are the most wasteful and poorly targeted.

Reform wasteful, leaky de-merit schemes 

The Economic Survey 2017, lead-authored by Arvind Subramanian, chief economic adviser, does signal service by evidencing the problem of misallocation of fiscal resources in the existing schemes. The share of the districts, where 40 per cent of the nation’s poor live, in allocation for anti-poverty schemes, like the mid-day meal scheme is just 20 per cent and just 24 per cent in the Swachh Bharat Mission. Such misallocation is wasteful.

SEWA pilot shows the way in MP

SEWA

A pilot done by SEWA in four villages in Madhya Pradesh, over a period of two years, covering 6,000 people along the universal coverage principle, transferred Rs 3,600 per year to each adult, with lower amounts to children. The results are impressive. The most significant outcome is that even four years later, many of the initial achievements with respect to the enhanced decision-making role of women; sustainable income from assets — mainly livestock — and the continued productive use of income remained strongly in place. Similar pilots are being done in Africa. But the caveat is that pilots involve significant handholding and oversight without which, as in Ghana, sustainable income enhancement is negligible. This cautions that even with a universal basic income scheme the role of handholding will remain.

A first for India

India could become the first country in the world to use a “qualified-universal” basic income transfer to end poverty. The real problem is how to find the money. Arvind Panagariya, the Prime Minister’s key economic adviser and vice-chairperson of the Niti Aayog, however, highlights the fiscal requirement. At just Rs 10,000 per year per person the cost is equivalent to the government’s entire revenue of 10 per cent of GDP.

Use second best options – sequential implementation; finance the poverty gap

But there are viable second-best options. First, smaller amounts could be transferred. The poverty gap has been estimated at around Rs 3,500 per poor person per year as in the SEWA pilot. The Economic Survey records that an annual transfer of Rs 3,240 to every female would cost one per cent of GDP. The cost can be reduced further by a quasi-universal scheme focused on females only in rural areas, with girl children getting less and women getting more, as in the SEWA pilot.

Subsidy reform is overdue. The Prime Minister had also adopted the approach of “subsidy tyaag” the voluntary giving up of subsidy by those who were well-off. It is also possible to make it administratively more difficult to access demerit subsidies like on cooking gas; fertiliser and income-tax exemptions with the target of eliminating them altogether.

In the meantime, a “quasi-universal” basic income transfer scheme can be started by allocating just Rs 75,000 crores (just 0.3 per cent of anticipated GDP in 2017-18) to one-third of the poorest districts. The programme can be expanded to other districts by allocating just two-fifths of the incremental revenues, especially if growth trends upwards beyond eight per cent per year.

PM should grasp the moment

Prime Minister Modi is not one to be hesitant about funding innovative ideas in the public interest. The quasi-universal basic income scheme is one door that he should consider walking through, specially if he is confident that India shall grow at above eight per cent.

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age, March 31, 2017  http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/310317/basic-income-transfer-modis-next-big-thing.html

poor children

New social compact : wooing the underdogs

voting

Do Indian voters remain deeply aligned with caste, clan and community (read religious) interests, as reported in the ongoing state elections? Possibly, yes, they do. Continued allegiance to traditional identities makes sense, if new ones never had the chance to take root.

Industrial work was one such silo-buster, as is urbanisation. Both, have had a limited impact on India’s social profile. Large, organised industry employs barely 10 million people, or just two per cent of the workforce. The impact of urbanisation is still far too recent to induce a change in social behaviour. Migration by men, for work in the urban, informal sector, has done a lot to contribute to the urban sprawl. But it doesn’t let new urban identities take root, as families remain village bound.

Modi – disrupting the status quo

No surprise then, if the 657 political parties (many are moribund) that are registered with the Election Commission vie for existing group interests as vote banks. There are only two examples in the past three decades which go against this grain of vote bank politics. The BJP came to power at the national level in 2014 by disrupting traditional identity-based vote banks. In a powerful outreach to young, aspirational India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi provided the instant hope of jobs through a government which worked for them, not against them. This enlarged support beyond the BJP’s traditional vote banks — upper caste and bania groups.

tea-3

Modi exults in the hard work and determination that enabled him to overcome his humble origins  – chaiwala (tea server) – in status quoist India. Mayawati – BSP and Mamata Banerjee – Trinamool Congress are female avatars of Modi.

It helped that Narendra Modi is himself from a backward caste. His is a rags-to-riches story. More important, he flaunts his humble origins and makes a virtue of his struggle to make good. More conventionally, he publicly dons the mantle of the selfless “sevak”. Anybody in the audience could be him, if they only had the gumption to succeed.

AAP – the new “Left”  

aap-uk

The Aam Aadmi Party had similarly disrupted traditional identity politics in December 2014. It fashioned a winning alliance of the urban poor and neo-middle class against the corruption of elites in the Delhi state election. This anti-establishment, anti-corruption model is now facing a test, for its resilience and appeal, in the rural settings of Punjab and the BJP stronghold of Goa — both of which are “rich” states.

Its a tough world out these

wire

Like the Congress during the post-Independence period, Mr Modi’s BJP is shaping a new India. It is an India that recognises today’s harsh international realities. First, unlike the rosy expectations of the 1950s, foreign aid, as an instrument of change, is dead. Economies need to fund their own development, by borrowing from the market or collaborating with foreign investors. This requires governments to bend before those who have the surplus capital; ship up to strengthen their own economies or continue to lag. Second, the consensus of the 1980s, that markets could substitute for the State’s inefficiency, is less credible, particularly after 2008. Strong states seem inevitable, albeit exercising judicious restraint while regulating markets.

A Nobel for the Communist Party of China?

china-politburo

For lifting more people out of multi-dimensional poverty that ever before; for adapting ideology to market realities and for standing true to their national objectives, the Nobel goes to ……. 

China has been the most successful economy, post 1990. It deserves a Nobel Prize for overcoming massive poverty and low levels of human development to become the factory of the world. It accounted for 1.5 per cent of world GDP in 1990 — the same as India. Since then it has cornered more than a fifth of growth in world GDP. By 2015 it accounted for 15 per cent of world GDP and has liberated nearly 300 million people — almost as many as the population of the United States — from poverty.

The Chinese story is of a single-party-managed mega-nation. By mixing market principles of merit and competition with the political energy of a proactive state, it has fashioned a massive politico-industrial machine. China has little patience with the effete romance of liberal idealism. Theirs is the classic hunter’s approach to life — smart strategy matters more than social ideology for filling your belly and remaining stronger than your adversary. This approach resonates in a world where persistent vulnerability to poverty; falling real income and increasingly skewed income distribution clouds even the rich world.

Where is the leadership in India?

tamil-nadu

Reverence for the absent trumps concern for the living, for gathering votes, in mystical India

Mr Modi’s world is that of realpolitik. Performance and outcomes matter the most. In contrast, the other national parties seem dated. The Congress — once a people’s movement, albeit led by professionals — is dormant. The Left is trapped in ideological echo chambers, seemingly unaware that organised, permanent workers are a diminishing vote bank. That economic forces have moved value addition beyond the spatially focused, integrated work areas, of the industrial age. The Lohia movements of the late 1970s rallied the backward castes into regional parties. But these lack vision, credibility or sustainability, beyond their narrow vote banks. The dalits have been transactional in their support for parties, although Mayawati has tried to substitute the Congress with a rainbow-style coalition. Muslims remain boxed into a defensive stance, perpetually seeking the status quo rather than transformation.

Where then do we turn to for leadership in India? The BJP is a clear and credible option. The mantra is that the government must focus on economic inclusion and social inclusion will follow. To take a practical example — higher government revenues from a more efficient tax regime can enable transfer of universal basic income to the poor and marginalised. This neatly avoids the clunky and inefficient option of physically providing cheap goods and services to the poor and caste or community-based support for the marginalised. It may also reduce corruption significantly by around one per cent of GDP.

A new social compact – trade entitlements for opportunity

taxi

The existing social compact between citizens and the State should be reworked. Will citizens be ready to give up their entitlements and de facto freedoms, in return for the State providing more economic benefits — security, macroeconomic stability, jobs, infrastructure and access to healthcare? With money and smartphones in their pockets, people — including the poor — will be able to shape their own societies, without being clouded by the past seven centuries of civilisational shibboleths dumped on them. Can Mr Modi get past the elites who benefit directly from the status quo? 2019 will tell.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age March 2, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/020317/can-modi-revise-social-compact-2019-will-tell.html

 

Budget 2017 – say what you mean

professor

Some pictures may be worth a thousand words. But when the two are put together, as in a video, they evoke deep emotions and convey subliminal messages. Watch the master of the spoken word — Barack Obama, in his January 2016 address on the mundane subject of gun control in the United States and you will see what I mean. It is unfortunate, that despite the best talent in branding and outreach we fail to use words which convey our intent unambiguously.

Poor namkaran begets poor results

Consider the name of the government department, which is supposed to privatise the public sector. It was created in 1999 under the BJP-led NDA regime and helmed by finance minister Arun Jaitley. Even way back then, it was clear it would not take root. Mandated to raise capital through privatisation — it ended up being named, hypocritically, the department of disinvestment. “Divestment” would have been more proximate to the intent. But the fuzzy name, matched the lack of sustained resolve for a big-bang approach to privatising the public sector. It muddled along till, mysteriously, in April 2016, it was cumbersomely renamed as the department of investment and public asset management (DIPAM). It does nothing of the sort. Its core mandate remains to sell the industrial Central public sector. Public sector investment and asset management continue to be the mandate of every line ministry, for the state-owned enterprises (SOE) under them. No wonder then that the Central public sector not only lingers but grows.

In 2015, there were 235 operating SOEs. But an additional 63 were coming online. One-third of the operational SOE made a loss of Rs 27,000 crore in 2015. The data for 2016 is yet to be publicly shared. But there are unlikely to be surprises here. Named badly at birth, the department lingers on much like the loss-making SOEs.

Clever acronyms can mislead

bhim

Consider also the new government-sponsored payments app named Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) created by the National Payments Corporation. The app was ostensibly named after Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar — the learned dalit leader and constitutionalist. A payments app named after Babasaheb is quaint just as launching a human rights initiative in his name would resonate. The app is more likely to be associated with the brute power of the legendary Bhim from the Mahabharat conveying that the app is safe and impregnable. Yes, security is one important feature of an app. But it must also be nimble, adaptable, scalable, efficient and convenient to use. Bhim of the Mahabharat was none of these. Legend has it he was pretty resource-intensive — gobbling up nearly as much as all his four other siblings and was difficult to discipline, much like an invincible Robocop. “Killer app” is how kids term an outstanding app. But slang shouldn’t be taken literally to name government initiatives.

Words without momentum

modi-troubled

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his New Year’s Eve address to the nation, fell into the same rhetorical trap of belting out a preachy sermon but chose the wrong words. He stressed purity, pain and renunciation as key processes for exorcising evil — in this case black money and corruption-fed terrorism, Naxalism and Maoism.

Left unanswered was who should feel the pain more and make sacrifices — the honest many or the dishonest few? Also, conflating Maoism and Naxalism with terrorism, drugs and loss of human rights is okay if you are a right-wing, conservative American. But in India, these misguided socio-economic movements are the consequences of state failure in providing a basic level of welfare to the poorest of the poor. One cannot simultaneously romance the poor for their virtues — fortitude and honesty; finger the rich for their vices — dishonesty in evading tax, wallowing in luxury in big city bungalows — and yet denounce social movements which seek to give voice to the marginalised, however unpalatable their senseless violence may be.

BJP – get your mojo back

The BJP came to power in 2014 as the voice of reform and growth. It has traditionally been private sector-friendly. This resonated with an India fed up with populism and ersatz socialism, unemployment, poverty and a low quality of life. Touting the cause of the poor by pulling down the rich was never meant to be the BJP’s trademark. The Communist parties and the Congress fight from that shrinking corner of the electoral base. The poor versus rich genie will now be difficult to put back into the bottle. This will be particularly so if growth disappoints and economic stability suffers — both of which are near-term probabilities.

A strong government can trample over many citizens’ rights so long as it can stuff the mouth of citizens with money — as in China. But no money, no jobs and no rights are the fertile grounds on which violence, Naxalism and Maoism thrive.

Keep the narrative simple, not simplistic

Multiple objectives in public governance are a recipe for disaster. One hopes that in the waning days of this fiscal the government will shed some of the fluff it has accumulated. Focusing on infrastructure, macro-stability and private sector-led growth is the only option for creating sustainable jobs and reducing poverty. If an all-out fight against corruption is a must, because of electoral promises, let it begin where corruption breeds. This is in the public and not in the private sector.

A trishul for action

trishul

Three initiatives are overdue. First, make the funding of political parties open to public scrutiny. This is a far more important political reform than having simultaneous elections. Second, exorcise the public sector of corruption before terrorising the private sector. The bribe-giver is the victim of an unresponsive governance system. It is the bribe-taker who is delinquent. It is public sector banks, public service departments, the police and the lower judiciary which need to be “purified”, not the voting public. Third, restore the credibility of regulatory institutions by respecting Chinese walls purposefully built between them and the government. The Reserve Bank of India seems to be the latest victim of executive activism in the demonetisation snafu. Let’s ring the curtain down on disruptive, executive muscularity.

Adapted from the author’s article in Asian Age January 11, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/110117/to-create-new-india-3-initiatives-overdue.html

TRAI’s ersatz socialism kills innovation

TRAI

R.S. Sharma the new TRAI chairperson and  architect of “ersatz socialism” in the www. Photo credit: economic times.com

By ruling against Facebook’s Free Basics type of innovation, which offers, hitherto undreamed of, free but limited access to data services, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has regressed to a version of “ersatz Nehruvian socialism”, which persist long after Panditji. It would have astounded him that his thoughts are still evoked to preserve the privileges of a thin crust of 250 million elite Indians whilst doing little for the 700 million poor Indians. Consumer benefit has been sacrificed yet again for ideology.

Nehruvian Socialism and Net Neutrality

Remember the car you used to drive in the 1970s? Most don’t, because it was an expensive, exclusive asset owned only by the rich. Even today Indian cars remain a rich person’s trophy because of the high cost of owning and using one relative to average income. Only 10 per cent of the 230 million Indian households own a car. Ironically, the TRAI order of February 8, 2016, is driven by a similar vision — preserving notional equity and freedom within a small bubble of 250 million well-off, “Internet connected” Indians owning smartphones.

poor buy

India’s poor- ersatz socialism permanently excluded them from the bubble of shiny cars. Net neutrality similarly excludes them from the virtual world. Photo credit: bbc.co.uk

Shunning innovation in the pricing of access to the Net under the garb of Net Neutrality has precisely this bubble effect. TRAI has decided to protect the existing ecosystem which privileges platform managers, content and app developers who today have unpaid access to 250 million netizens. But it ignores the need to grow this market to include 700 million Indians who are too poor to access data services other than phone calls and SMS.

TRAI’s vision of the www is like that of an owner of an expensive mall- keep the poor out.

The net is like a Mall except that you have to pay to get in and guards are actively instructed to keep shabbily dressed people out so that rich customers can float through an air-conditioned heaven- just like in Dubai. The good news is that in the real world business serves the needs of the poor through street markets because the municipality facilitates it. in a TRAI ruled internet the poor are to shunned, exactly as in expensive Malls and no street market is to be made available for the poor. The poor are to be kept invisible – as in China or Rwanda where the strong arm of the State keeps the poor severely controlled.

It is unsurprising that the Congress which has made ersatz socialism into a family business should support “Net Neutrality”. But that this should happen under a government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which has vowed to “free” India from the social and economic chains of the past, shows that this government needs to put on its “thinking” cap.

TRAI order equates porn with socially relevant content

TRAI’s decision is perverse and here’s why. It throws out the baby with the bath water. Whilst banning price “discrimination” for content, it also effectively disallows “positive discrimination” or “affirmative action” for access to socially responsible content. In essence it says a consumer must pay to access content whether it is porn or wikipedia.

Consider a large Indian company which may want to subsidise a telecom service provider (TSP) for providing free access to educational sites targeted at helping poor or dalit kids crack the JIIT exam. The TRAI order disallows this effort.

Similarly, it bars a poor, pregnant woman, say on the outskirts of Patna, from availing free access to check the cost of having her baby in a decent hospital in Mumbai, where her husband works. Sorry, says the TRAI order. You must pay the TSP to access the Net.

It is hypocritical to simultaneously support free content-unhindered by state control whilst arguing against “affirmative action” for providing free access to the poor to socially relevant content, developed just for them.

It is not just about Facebook

It’s not only about Free Basics. It is the principle of killing innovation that’s the real concern. The Trai order kills innovation in developing socially relevant content for the poor because there is no way now of getting the content to them.

Free Basics is driven by commerce. Free access has to be paid for by someone. Today it is Facebook subsidising access, tomorrow it could be a Tata CSR project. In Africa, Net subscriptions of the poor are subsidised by foreign donors.

Net neutrality is bad economics

More practically, there is money at the bottom of the income pyramid. Activists, platform managers, content and app developers are being short sighted in ignoring the role of “free access” in getting them there. They lack the business vision of Hindustan Lever which innovated shampoo sachets two decades ago to give every woman an affordable taste of luxury. Or do they fear that international players with deep pockets may get there first before they get their act together? Are they using the garb of “Net Neutrality” as a fig leaf for self-preservation? Do existing Indian players, TSPs want to keep Facebook out so they can do the same once they become big enough?

Predatory pricing based on enormous private equity funding is the essence of the IT start up.

All IT start-ups attract customers by subsidising prices. Take Uber, Flipkart or any other. The fear that they will start increasing prices once they get bigger is misplaced because unlike the bricks and mortar world entry barriers are low in the digital economy which ensures sufficient competition to keep each big player on their toes. Guarding against predatory pricing is a slippery slope for TRAI. It can result in taking the fizz out of e-commerce which is growing by out-pricing the corner mom and pop store and traditional taxis by relying on serial funding from investors, not profits to fund unheard of price discounts. In any case India has laws and the Competition Commission of India to regulate dominance and monopoly. TRAI is hardly equipped to rule on anti-trust issues.

Today’s startup is tomorrow’s business biggie

flipkart

The Bansals of Flipkart- value $ 15 billion and counting- give Amazon a run for its money. Photo credit: livemint.com

Ironically, whilst making it easy to do business for “start-ups,” we are killing commercial innovation by business biggies. Can an “innovation” friendly eco-system really be sliced and diced, such that it is a “free market” for start-ups but a stiflingly regulated environment once they become a business biggie, like Facebook? In the virtual economy startups grow on the strength of innovation not government protection. In any case, the record of ersatz socialism in growing small industry via protection is miserable. The Indian Telecom industry, the only success story of privatisation and reform, has grown from being yesterday’s “start-up” to today’s business biggie. Why discriminate against it because it has been successful?

The digital eco-system must be fair to all stakeholders, not just the software and content developers

There is a symbiotic relationship between TSPs, content providers and app developers. TSPs, represented by Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), buy expensive spectrum from the government, install and maintain the telecom network to link-in netizens and ensure that the number of eyeballs grows. If the content available is attractive, netizens spend more time surfing, thereby boosting TSP revenues. They enrich app developers by buying an app off the Net.

To access content on Flipkart, Snapdeal, Amazon, Uber or Myntra there is no additional charge other than the Internet access cost. So are these companies just plain generous? No. Like Facebook or Google, they make their money by selling the data they gather from the netizens — demographics and preferences — to market analysts and sometimes to governments; they leverage their eyeball score to increase advertising revenue and get additional private or public equity funding. This is the money they burn to offer fantastic discounts and out-compete brick and mortar pop and mom stores.

So why does National Association of Software and Services Companies, an Indian IT lobbyist, support the Trai order? Because it is in the interest of the software developers and content providers they represent to try and hang-on to the freebie they have — the roving eyeballs of netizens for which they pay nothing.

Why do the parents of the www (US & the Brit Sir Tim Berner) support net neutrality?

Berner

Sir Tim Berner-Lee inventor of the www. Photo credit Wikipedia.com

Indian activists are fond of using the United States as an exemplar of non-discriminatory pricing access and the trenchant advocacy of Tim Berners-Lee – the inventor of the www-for net neutrality. This is their Brahmastra to clinch the argument for “Net Neutrality”.

This is unsurprising. For most netizens, the US is the mother lode of innovation, which it certainly has been. But cut-paste is bad tactics for good governance. The context in which things work is key. Activists and governments routinely overlook the difference in context in a slavish tendency to adopt best practice international templates.

Why the US is different

US poor

The poor people of the US: photo credit: rediff.com

In the US, the poverty level income is $2,000 per capita per month. Data access costs just 5 per cent of income or $100. In India, the poverty level income is $30 per capita per month. Data access costs $10 or one-third of a poor woman’s income. The cost of Internet access is not an economic barrier in the United States. The US is under no compulsion to abandon “Net Neutrality”, an ideology which sounds noble. For India, TTAI’s ideology of “Net Neutrality” means the economic exclusion of 700 million poor people.

TRAI’s technical incompetence drives the ban on differential pricing

The bottom line  is that despite its rhetoric on “net neutrality” TRAI is technically incapable to monitor data services to detect instances of blocking or preferential access for content favoured by TSPs. This why it has opted for the blunt instrument of a complete ban on commercial innovation in pricing and financing. This is the worst option driven by regulatory incompetence not by high minded adherence to principles. A sad comment on the state of regulation and of consumer protection in India.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age February 10, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/trai-s-socialism-kills-innovation-136

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