governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Poverty reduction’

Modi: Unassailable at three

Modi parliament 2014

Modi enters Parliament for the first time in 2014 in a characteristic “Indian” manner – prostrating himself at the steps of this very British institution. Stooping to assimilate is the Indian way. Photo courtesy Indian Express 

Three years ago, when Modi’s BJP entered Parliament in May 2014, with a never before majority, the “realtors of Raisina Hill” (policy wonks and public intellectuals in Delhi) were full of doubt about whether a country bumpkin from Gujarat could navigate the gilded and suave avenues of Lutyen’s Delhi –  that part of the city, designed by the British for themselves in the 1930s, where todays rich and powerful elite lives and conspires in self-interest.

Modi does a pincer on Dehi elites

True to his Gujarati heritage and much like Gujarati emigrants to the west have done for ages, Modi made no effort to integrate or ingratiate himself into the elite. He cut his own lonely, furrow going around the established elite. Over time the furrow deepened into a moat which effectively encircled and confined Delhi’s elite to gossiping amongst themselves. Admittedly, his was an easier task than what confronted Gujarati emigrants overseas. But the tactic employed was the same. First, entrench yourself in the eco-ystem – get a job or start a small business; next, deepen your control on resources – build up capital and develop local relationships and finally look for gaps to fill – do what the lazy locals will never do.

Patels

The Patels – intrepid survivors in foreign lands – a smooth blend of modernity and tradition that makes them outstanding achievers and harmonious assimilators. 

There were initial hiccups. The BJP – essentially a north Indian, middle class party till then – first tried the babu approach of distinguishing itself from the previous government by rejecting even the good things the UPA had done – like NREGA and Aadhar. But Gujarati pragmatism and performance orientation won. The approach changed to building on what existed and exponentially expanding the scale and ambition of projects and policies, to shock and awe the public into abject Modi bhakts (followers). Nothing it seemed was impossible.

Modi’s ratings better than the BJPs

Three years on, the mood within the party is upbeat – not surprising after the massive electoral victories in Uttar Pradesh and then in the Delhi municipal elections. In sharp contrast to Trump, Modi’s popularity ratings beat those of his party. The inanities of the BJP’s rant on protecting cows rather than Dalits or projecting Hindu populism rather than political equality and security for the minorities is attributed by the common person to vested interests in the party – vigilantes who use the party’s hard line as a business or “God men” who use the saffron they wear to encroach on government land. Prime Minister Modi stands tall above this desperate fray for the crumbs of political power.

Sour grapes?

Detractors and cynics say it is hype which is keeping Modi in the stratosphere.  This is lazy analysis. There are three reasons why Modi has embedded himself into the public mind as the harbinger of a better future.

India’s Bill Clinton – responsive, charismatic peoples’ person

First, being of humble origins he feels the pulse of the people and responds to it. Demonetization was a temporary set-back for the economy and cost workers their wages or their jobs. But, they saw it as a plan to punish the corrupt and applauded the effort. Modi did not just rest on the laurel of public acclaim. He has successfully pushed the tax bureaucracy to unearth black money and investigate shady deals. Is this sufficient to end corruption? Clearly not. But it is sufficient to establish Modi’s credibility as having the gumption to take on the corrupt, rich and make them pay for their sins.

Neither Right, Left nor Liberal – for Modi, transactions matter, not ideology

Second, the expansion of social insurance schemes for the poor; progressive expansion of crop insurance; the 200 million Jan Dhan accounts opened; the switch to the direct transfer of benefits for the poor to their accounts; kick -starting the moribund highways program; the proposals to reform agriculture by legalizing the leasing out of land; freedom for farmers to market produce outside the clunky and corrupt, public sector Agricultural Marketing System; the boost in coal production by whipping the public sector Coal India; making Indian Rail more efficient with better services; the improved functioning of government offices – all serve to illustrate positive change.

Stellar stabiliser of the economy

Lastly, the Modi government’s biggest achievement has been to stabilize the economy. Wasteful public spending has been restrained by fiscal discipline; the growth momentum has been maintained and consumer price inflation kept low within the targeted 5 percent per year. New institutional mechanisms are in place now, with the Reserve Bank of India specifically charged to deal with the bad loans of public sector banks amounting to over 12 percent of their average assets.

But there are still promises to keep…

Critics of the government point to the unfulfilled promises on new jobs and the linked poor performance of industry and exports; lack of performance on the promised recovery of black money stored overseas and the continuing civil unrest at home in Kashmir and in the tribal belt, even though the BJP is now in power, directly or in an alliance, in these states. To be sure domestic violence – not least the violence injected by self-proclaimed vigilante groups- is worrisome.  The poor performance in exports is partly a function of a strong Rupee which makes exports uncompetitive but keeps imports, particularly oil, cheap – thereby restraining inflation.  High domestic interest rates protect small savings, particularly of pensioners; restrain the creation of yet another realty driven bubble economy and dissuades gold-plated, bank financed, industrial investment.

Talking freely with people, sharing and learning can build long term credibility

Modi in varanasi

Prime Minister Modi greets the people of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh – his parliamentary constituency

Trade-offs between economic priorities are always contentious. The key is to evidence why government acts in a certain way and who benefits. Mere rhetoric will not do. It is here that the Modi government falters because of its irrational stand against spelling out how the outcomes of its policies benefit minorities. Consider that, ironically, Modi’s BJP has probably helped more poor Muslims and Dalits, than ever before, via financial inclusion, higher allocations for NREGA and the new crop and social insurance schemes. Yet, the government does not highlight this. Nor does it share granular data, whilst defending its track record on inclusion, which many regard as its Achilles heel. Talking with, not at the people, in an evidenced manner, about one’s achievements, especially when it can silence critics, is good. Try it.

A version of this blog is also available at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/modi-unassailable-at-three/

 

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 

closed 2

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

migrants 2

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

SmartCities: Making the rich smarter

The latest public “dog and pony show”, unveiled on Thursday in Delhi, is the selection of 20 cities across the richest 11 states of India for accessing the governments Smart Cities fund.

smartcitiesindia

Photo credit: smartcitiesindia.com

The near-complete exclusion of the poor “cow belt” states, except Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, can be explained by the need to first push public money to where elections are to be held in 2016 — Assam, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala — West Bengal being a surprising exclusion.

But what takes the cake is the inclusion of the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), comprising just three per cent of Delhi’s area, which is directly administered by the Centre. The Central government owns nearly 90 per cent of the 44 sq km it comprises with marginal ownership in and around the prestigious Lutyens’ zone of power brokers, lobbyists, old-economy business people, big time realtors and other hangers-on of this rarified ecosystem — the Indian equivalent of the Washington DC Beltway.

lutyens

Lutyens Delhi a lush, green bubble in the heart of the capital. photo credit: indiatravelite.com

The NDMC is already a profitable municipality, as indeed it should be. It spends over Rs 3,000 crore ($450 million) every year on serving just 300,000 people — a per capita expense of Rs 1 lakh ($1500) per resident, per year. Compare this with the average spend in the other three municipalities of Delhi of just Rs 7,300 ($110) per capita per year — all currently managed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. More starkly, the average spend for all urban areas, across India, is a shockingly low Rs 1,000 ($15) per capita per year.

Why is the selection of NDMC for yet another barrel of “pork” so disappointing? Three reasons strike out:

First, that this should happen days before the “reformist” budget expected to be presented by the Union minister of finance for 2016-17 is unnerving. The budget is, or should be, about spending public money well and wringing out the maximum public value from it. Allocating subsidies to the rich cannot be part of a pro-poor paradigm. It symbolises all that is wrong with a bureaucracy which is all “spin” and no heart.

crown

Second, the bane of China style “big government” has been soft budget constraints and poor accountability. Big budgets lead to profligate spending. Bureaucrats are more interested in shovelling money out of the public door into private pockets and marking up their “performance” sheets, than in ensuring that the money is spent in areas where growth and poverty reduction can most be impacted. The casual allocation of Rs 500 crore to the richest local body in India, with the highest per capita income, just so that it can shine even better, speaks of a pernicious tendency in new public financial management to mimic private finance by allocating money where it can be quickly absorbed, rather than risk it where it would create the maximum social and economic value.

Third, it is no one’s case that redistribution of wealth can be done by pulling down those who are well off. But Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan’s recent diatribe against the lack of public concern about the optics of vulgar displays of wealth strikes a chord.

Lutyens’ Delhi is the “Kohinoor” of Delhi. A small self-absorbed bubble of power, privilege and wealth. One acre of land here costs Rs 500 crore and sales happen rarely. Why can’t the power elite pay for the privileges they enjoy? Why is it so difficult to convince the 4,000-odd large private property owners — each with a minimum net wealth of at least Rs 100 crore — to pay for retrofitting their beautiful municipality? Isn’t that what participative governance means? Why must poor Trilokpuri in east Delhi comprising the marginalised, poor and the shabbiest of public services pay for keeping Lutyens’ Delhi shining?

 

Trilokpuri

Trilokpuri, East Delhi, a festering sore where only the marginalized exist. Photo credit: Indianexpress.com

Had Thomas Piketty been part of the Smart City selection committee he would have torn out his hair in a fit of Gaelic rage at the callousness with which public money has been wasted and inequality worsened. What indeed was the selection process which has generated such a warped result?

The allocation instrument is a “challenge fund” devised by the usual suspects: Fly in, fly out consultants. As expected, on paper, the process appears transparent and efficient. It is a beauty contest. Municipalities send in their proposals seeking Central government funds for up to Rs 500 crore ($75 million) over four years. But they must match the Central government allocation and also meet the criterion of performance efficiency which includes standard metrics like collection efficiency, proactivity, etc. Nothing wrong with that at all. The killer is that there is no criteria on what impact the project will have on reducing urban poverty or on reducing the depth of deprivation in access to basic public services in poor localities.

Is it any surprise then that the Smart City fund is merely ending up elevating the “boats” which are already afloat? And how is that so different from the infamous National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of the United Progressive Alliance, which similarly incentivised the ability to use funds quickly? Rich states like Tamil Nadu, with average informal wages way above the national average national, quickly pulled out most of the funds, whilst the poor, badly organised states faced an empty treasury by the time they got their act together. As before, the mightiest wins yet again.

Political pork, lazy bureaucrats, the use of public funds for private gain by the elites is all old hat in India and across the developing world. Nothing new in that. The pity is that it needn’t be this way. The anguish is that old style cornering of public funds with no regard for ensuring equity, persists like a deep-seeded rot.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of all people, should know the negative feeling generated from being excluded by the establishment. He must have experienced the chagrin of public money being wasted on “gilding the lily” whilst millions of poor children, like him, had to make do with a subsistence existence. Or is human memory so frail that one quickly forgets the bad times? Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was fond of establishing his humble roots by saying that as a child he studied under the village lamp post. But in the 10 years that he was in power, millions of children continued to study in exactly the same way.

street light

The preoccupations of the “Delhi Durbar” are pretty compelling. That is why they say you can wear a crown in Delhi. But don’t sleep easy — it isn’t permanent.

crown 2

The lonely statue of King George V after it moved from under its domed canopy  in India Gate – since awaiting another incumbent-and relegated to a museum.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age January 30, 2016http://www.asianage.com/columnists/exclusive-cities-715

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.

Liberals; smell the coffee please

police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Class” in diplomacy

coffee

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

“Diplomacy is not instant coffee” said the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs yesterday. He is right of course. If you are the “instant coffee” type,  you are unlikely to be invited to join the international high table.

This doesn’t mean though that, if our MEA mandarins switch from Coffee Board brew to private caches of Hacienda La Esmerelda (US$104 per lb.), the Chinese troops camping so brazenly at Chumar would vanish instantly. The diplomatic high table respects what you do at home not what you pretend to do when you are abroad or what you pretend to be, whilst mixing with the rich and mighty. “Class” is a social stamp affixed to your entire family, not just you, which sticks tighter than glue.

As in diplomacy, class at the individual level, is also increasingly about where you are going rather than where you have come from. The American dream best illustrates this change since the early part of the last century. “You can be what you want” so long as you have fire in the belly.

Ironically, the Soviets had the same ideology, but not the instruments. They ended up with a classless but skewed society where Party based patrimony and cronyism became more important than merit, tested by competition.

The Chinese corrected for this gap between ideology and practice and have prospered since 1979. The results are visible. One third of the people pulled out of poverty in the last decade by job creating growth, are Chinese. A classless “poor” society is becoming a classless “rich” society. To be sure this has resulted in growing inequality, but inequality is to growth, as wine is to cheese.

India has not been far behind in effecting a quiet social revolution with its unique brand of positive affirmation for the marginalized and merit based competitive entry for the excluded, into the heady domain of the powerful via public service jobs.  PM Modi is the best example that this policy has been reasonably satisfactory in giving entry points to make individuals upwardly mobile.

But as a nation, so long as 70% of our population is poorer than the admittedly blunt, international standard of US$2 per head per day (or more colorfully, poorer that the proverbial “Church Mouse”); so long as our external account is fragile and so long as our political parties don’t align, like magnetic strips, in a single direction with respect to foreign policy, we are doomed to remain mere “guests” at the high table. We may be thus honoured for our future potential, but we will continue to be subtly excluded from substantive current decisions, till we become paying members of the club of “classy” nations.

We are years from getting there. We are still grappling with the fundamentals of infrastructure development and growth. How to make PPPs work? How to integrate world class assets into a creaky frame? How to scale up manufacturing and join the international value chain? These are our current 101 concerns. We have targets for infrastructure: (1) A fast train to Arunachal Pradesh by November 2014- a riposte to President Xi’s rather heavy-handed assertion of brute power by making the Peoples Liberation Army troops pitch camp in a border area, which both China and Indian patrol, even whilst he himself was savouring the delights of an Indian welcome last week.  (2) Fuel supply issues to be sorted out to enhance capacity utilization in electricity generation. (3) Faster project clearances (4) Easier environmental clearances and so on.

But we have no targets as yet for poverty reduction. We spend more “intellectual” effort in arguing about the nominal base line for poverty than on getting people to cross the line and remain above it.

An alternative strategy, one advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, could have been to put poverty reduction foremost. Bullet trains, highways, better airports, more electricity may all be inputs in the log frame defining the sequential path to achieve this key strategic objective. But why is the log frame and the thinking not shared with the public? Do we have a “poverty filter” in place which can help government rigorously evaluate and rank alternative investments for their poverty reduction potential? If we do not, then how can we be sure that our scarce capital resources are being allocated and spent well aligned to the principle of “value for money”?

Diplomacy is really about getting better deals with international partners that would be available automatically given the international market. Our external business strategy should be similar to that followed by the Dalai Lama and earlier by the Mahatma. This would be the 3H strategy characterized by Humility, Humanity and Holding Harmless.

Humility is the ultimate signal of strength. The Mahatma, clad in his spare loin cloth, demonstrated this whilst winning over the world with his message and his thoughts.

Humanity is of the essence to Indian philosophy. Given the extent of poverty and the depth of inequality, the relatively low level of social disorder is striking. The origins of this social-cohesion lie in an essential Rousseauian mind space, which views human nature as essentially benign; which accepts the dirty underbelly of humanity-greed, ego and excess, as human frailties; which accepts that the world is an unfair place; that differences in resource endowments and the standard of living are natural but draws comfort from the belief that there are countervailing social forces, which bring about social justice in the long term. This philosophy was recently well applied to our external relations by Minister Sushma Swaraj in a suave but home-spun manner “There are no full stops in Diplomacy”

Holding Harmless is the classic strategy of a democratic, heterogeneous, soft state and segmented economy like ours. Progress and reform yes, but not at the cost of unbearable pain even for significant minorities and always aligned to the principle of “None Left Behind”.  In external affairs just as we seek differentiated responsibilities to allow us to “catch up” with the rest of the World so must we recognize the special needs of others who are worse off-particularly select countries in South Asia.

How does 4H translate into practice?

First, we must learn to observe, listen, absorb and adapt from the experience of others rather than spend our time, preening and preaching about our practices and policies overseas. Our ways of doing things are contextually good, primarily for ourselves. They do not become better just by marketing them aggressively overseas. Nor do we need overseas endorsement of our ideas and policies.

Second, our officers overseas must resemble tradespeople; annoyingly nosy; curious; people-persons; seeking out deals in national interest, rather than haughty, remote representatives of the Indian State. False pride can be our fall.

Third, PM Modi is right in declaring “make in India” as his leitmotif. Indian big business should heed this call. There is nothing edifying about earning money in India but investing it overseas. It is neither a coup for big Indian Business nor for the government. Rather, it is a cop-out for the country. It illustrates that Indian business has more faith in foreign business environments and opportunities that in those available in India. Such transactions may also be suspect due to the opportunities they provide for “havala” (extra-legal export of either illegal earnings in India, or to evade income tax through dodgy invoicing of imports and exports). The national duty of Indian business is to leverage overseas funds for investment in India.

Fourth, before we wade into securing the World against terror; or showcasing India’s “naval might” it would be prudent to spend a decade on building up our military assets; modernizing our equipment; re-stocking our armories and re-skilling our personnel. Indian peace keeping forces abroad do us proud but that is because of their personal valour and fortitude. They do so despite shoddy personal equipment and arms. We have too many security related issues to resolve at home, to have the mind space or the financial muscle to police the world.

“Class” as a social identity is increasingly an outdated concept everywhere except within the government where such Colonial traditions survive. We must work to restructure government to eliminate class based identities. Baby steps in that direction could be abolishing separate toilets for senior government officers in government buildings. Staff lunch gatherings in offices, at least twice a week is another way to socially integrate senior officers with their junior colleagues. Switching over to digital offices systems and denuding officers of personal secretaries and messengers, is another. We must work hard to replace the steaming Coffee Board brew, currently served by a waiter in colonial livery, with a plebian coffee dispenser at the end of each corridor, although stocked with- what else but Esmerelda?

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