On net neutrality and the national interest

Net neutrality might be an optimum compromise in the absence of full liberalisation of the telecom industry

This is a comment I wrote for the Hindi newspaper Naidunia (Indore). Given that Takshashila might submit an official response to the TRAI public consultation on the subject, it is important to state that this is my personal opinion.

The ongoing debate on net neutrality reveals clashes of several public goals and interest groups. Should service providers have the freedom to sell products of their choice to customers of their choice, or should they not have this freedom? Do consumers have the right to use internet services as they have always been used to? Should the open “ethos of the internet” continue to remain so even after it has passed out of the US government’s management and into the hands of the international community? Will an internet with different lanes for different traffic remain the internet as we know it? Should application and content providers like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp enjoy greater profits despite making much smaller investments than telecom service providers?

The issue is complex and entangled, and we should resist the temptation to see it as a fight between good guys and bad guys. There is nothing wrong in corporations trying to maximise their profits as long as they conduct business in a legal and ethical manner. It would be wrong to project telecom service providers who are seeking to improve their profitability as villains. Similarly, it is rather pointless for them to look at over-the-top (OTT) services like Facebook and begrudge them their profits. Different industries have different risks and different rewards. Consumers too cannot claim that things should be as they are and every change is a negative development.

So what should we make of this issue? I would like to answer this question by asking “what is India’s national interest with regard to IT in general and the internet in particular?”. There are three aspects to our national interest:

First, given that less than one in ten Indians has access to broadband, it should be a national priority to increase penetration. There is a correlation between broadband penetration and economic growth rate. India’s development needs our economy to leapfrog into the information age: for this we need reliable, affordable services. So when thinking about net neutrality at this stage, the government must give the highest priority to ensuring the maximum number of people take up broadband in the shortest duration possible.

This, however, should not come as a result of price regulation. Fixing prices and a government that worships at the altar of “low cost” will result in damage. Low prices should come as a result of market forces and competition.

Second, given that India’s IT industry is an engine for growth and development, we must ensure that it remains globally competitive. The industry is worth more than 100 billion dollars and employs more than 10 million people. There are thousands of startups in the country aiming to become the next Infosys and FlipKart. Our IT policy should not create more hurdles for entrepreneurs and ensure that they have the best possible start to build world-class companies. Without Net Neutrality, the risk that startups will face even greater “unfair disadvantages” against established firms is higher.

Third, it is in the public interest for the telecom and mobile service provider industry is healthy and competitive. In the past decade, the regulators pursued the goal of forcing the telecom providers to lower user tariffs. While India has one of the lowest costs of telecom services in the world, the service quality is patchy. Calls drop frequently. Broadband service often is of lower speed and suffers outages. Billing services are terrible. Anyone who has tried calling the customer service helpline of any telecom provider will attest to the fact that it is very difficult to get anything done. All this is because telcos are cutting costs in these areas. There are few lucrative or premium services left where they can increase their profitability. The only protection they enjoy is through licensing — the government limits the competition they face.

When deciding what to do about net neutrality, we must keep all three considerations in mind, and optimise them simultaneously. If the government opens up the telecom service market to greater competition, perhaps by issuing unlimited licenses, then there is a case to allow them the freedom to discriminate among customers. As the state-owned carrier, BSNL can provide a neutral internet. However, if the government does not open the sector to further competition, therefore shielding the telecom service providers from more competition, then mandating net neutrality provides a reasonable approach to promoting the public interest.

The current debate calls for the government to review the entire licensing regime and consider full liberalisation of the telecom industry.

Why a Swachch Bharat cess is a bad idea

A tax break will work better

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to clean up the country showed that he was prepared to tackle the most difficult problems India faces—cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation are Mahatma Grade Problems, caused by a simultaneous combination of individual, social, market and government failures. The Swachch Bharat initiative has come about because he used both his popularity and power to try and change mindsets and attitudes. To succeed, it needs the government, business and social leaders to change peoples’ minds and moral incentives. If it becomes yet another government programme, it is bound to fail.

So the Modi government’s proposal to impose a cess on telecom services to finance the Swachch Bharat campaign should cause us disappointment and alarm. It is the wrong approach to the problem, using the wrong method. Here’s why.

Levying a cess dilutes the moral incentive that a borderline conscientious citizen faces. Instead of a gnawing feeling when she sees garbage in public places, the marginal citizen is likely to feel the same-old, “I’ve done my part but the government is not doing its job properly”. There is evidence that compliances rates (for tax payments and other rules) goes up when citizens see the government delivering honestly and effectively. Similarly, the perception that government is inefficient and corrupt reduces compliance. In other words, levying a cess on citizens is not only likely to cause them to outsource their guilt and responsibility, but also try and avoid having to pay the cess. Swachch Bharat should be about emphasising that hygiene and sanitation are about personal honour and dignity, not about pay-tax-and-forget.

That’s not all. A cess is a bad way to raise revenues. A cess on an unrelated activity is a terrible way to implement a bad way to raise revenues. As this blog commented on the previous government’s use of a cess on restaurant bills to finance education, there is no better way to signal that a government has confused public finance priorities than a cess. If a programme is important, it should be financed through the core budgetary revenues. Clearly, one of the prime minister’s most important priorities ought to be enough of a priority to be funded through the conventional budget.

If at all a cess has to levied, it should be on non-essential spending. Furthermore, a specific tax on an unrelated economic activity merely to raise revenues is a very bad idea. Telecommunication services are already subject to heavy price regulation, leading to very bad quality of services across the board. An additional tax on these services will burden consumers, impact telecom service provider revenues (and hence the license fees they pay the government) while doing nothing to improve service quality. Telecommunications services appear to have been chosen for the cess mainly because it is easy to collect from them, and people will have to make calls and access the internet anyway.

Why could the tax not have been levied on entities and industries that dirty public spaces? At least that would have attempted to recover the cost of the negative externalities.

But here’s an even better idea to implement Swachch Bharat: give a Swachch Bharat tax break to all income tax payers. When filing their taxes, let taxpayers tick a box saying “I have done my best to make India clean”. Of course, a lot of people will claim the tax exemption without changing their behaviour, but a some will. It is better to trust the citizens more to do the right thing, than to tax them more on the premise that they will do the wrong thing. That’s the only way Swachch Bharat can work–when the relationship between the citizen and the country changes into one of mutual trust and mutual concern. The campaign is about capturing hearts and minds, not more rupees.

The Modi government would do well to resist the temptation to use age-old sarkari methods to solve a nagging social problem.

Overpopulation is not the problem

The real problem is undergovernance

People say and believe many things to explain India’s failings. The most popular is that many things are broken in India because “India is a poor country.” A discussion on this is for another day. The second most popular explanation is that India’s problems are because “India is overpopulated.” Let’s interrogate this further.

The claim that any place can be overpopulated presumes that there is a optimum level of population. Well, there isn’t. Whatever the geography, there is no ideal number of human beings. To argue that there is an optimum population would be to ignore history, geography, biology and technology.

The human population has grown, and the population at any time appears shockingly large to a person from an earlier epoch, perhaps even an earlier decade. That same person is also likely to be shocked by the advances in material well-being over time. There doesn’t seem to be an ideal population beyond which human well-being falls apart…in living memory and fossil record.

It is easy to believe, like Malthus, that human beings are outstripping the capacity of the land to provide for their food and other necessities. Educated people in the 18th century can be forgiven for believing this. Educated people in the 21st century believe this only by ignoring three centuries of empirical evidence. Current day environmentalists, like Malthusians of an earlier era, ignore or underestimate the capacity of human beings to adapt, innovate and thrive in any environmental context. Yes, the great march of human innovation can stall, ingenuity can come to a halt, and humans might take the ecosystem to a point where the species will be destroyed. One serious response to it is “so what?”. The other serious response is to put the onus of those who believe in such things to show why innovation and ingenuity should falter now, when it has not done so in living memory and fossil record.

Humans will transform the environment—driving some species to extinction, creating entirely new species, changing the physical landscape—but only those romantically wedded to any particular status quo will place a negative value judgement on this. The rest will enjoy brave new worlds day after day as we have throughout living memory. (Imagine how beautiful the countryside in Wiltshire, England would have looked before those humans put some big, ugly stones there).

So there is no ideal population size. Some of those who accept this conclusion will argue that that being so, surely overcrowding is a problem. The evidence for this argument is weak: Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and the Netherlands have higher population densities than India and few would argue that they are worse governed than India is. Yes, Indian cities have among the highest population densities in the world, but there are many cities outside India with high densities that do pretty well on the governance front.

The overpopulation argument does not hold up. That should lead us to ask what is the problem that we are describing as overpopulation. The answer is undergovernance. To say that our public institutions have the capacity to handle only so large a population is not an argument to reduce the population. It is an argument to enlarge the capacity of our public institutions. Like Procustes, we cannot chop off the legs of sleepers who were too tall to sleep on his bed. We need longer beds. Enlarging capacity is about better ideas, better technology, better people and more people engaged in governance. It is wholly wrong to attribute our failure to scale up governance to keep pace with population growth to ‘overpopulation’.

The overpopulation argument is prevalent in many democracies where the state has to perform welfare functions. It is particularly popular in India because of our history (why only history, our current reality) of being a socialist welfare state. When “mouths have to be fed” then having more mouths than the money to feed them is a problem. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the most socialist government of them all was also the one attempting the worst methods to control population growth.

If the governance mindset changes to equipping people to feed themselves then the number of mouths is less of a concern. Straitjacketing human capital, limiting its ability to grow, constraining its ability to develop and then complaining that there are just too many people is an astoundingly self-defeating argument. It is time to stop indulging in it.

(This is an unedited draft. There might be typos)

What causes corruption and erosion of moral values?

Ans: The abridgement of economic freedom

Click to enlarge


An illustration showing how government interference in economic activity increases corruption, crime and leads to the moral degradation of society. Although the chart only refers to bans, it also applies to lesser interventions like price caps, price floors, excessive tariffs, quotas, reservations and so on. The difference is one of degree.

Robbery is not right

The ‘rights-based approach to development’ is immoral and illiberal

Why was there ideological collusion in the passage of a bill that promises ‘food security’ but is certain to severely undermine India’s development path? Several reasons can be adduced—from the electoral to the conspiratorial—but what gave both the terrible bill and the even more terrible scheme it seeks to implement the impression of inevitability was the underlying narrative of a “rights-based approach”. And, as Narayan Ramachandran writes, “[the] apostle of the rights-based approach in India is the National Advisory Council (NAC).”

Over the last decade, the NAC’s narrative of a “rights-based approach” to development has acquired dominance. It has pervaded government policy because Sonia Gandhi, its chief and Congress party president, in all likelihood, genuinely believes in it. The power of narratives is such that even if you replace Mrs Gandhi and her NAC with another political leader and his or her own clique, they will be compelled to persist with the same policies as before, or undertake the Hanumanian task of countering the rights-based narrative before rolling back or changing tack on the massive entitlement schemes. (See my previous post on this).

Narayan argues that the rights-based approach is the wrong development model for India. In fact, “rights-based approach” is a misnomer. It is a clever way to refloat the failed policies of socialism under a new, fashionable but dubious political philosophy. In essence, this ‘development model’ identifies an ever-growing list of life’s needs and necessities, declares that they are ‘rights’ and suggests that these be provided by the state.

A lot of well-meaning people are fooled by this sophistry. Since few good people will dispute that people need food, education, healthcare and jobs to live in this world, they become susceptible to the argument that such necessities are rights. Moreover, since a lot of famous people, including Nobel laureates and rock stars, advocate this approach, the notion that such things are rights acquires wings.

Yet for all the celebrity endorsement, warm fuzzy feelings it creates, the so-called rights-based approach is immoral and illiberal. The only true rights are those that do not come at anyone else’s cost. Preetam’s right to life, equality, freedom and property do not come at Palani’s cost, and vice versa. The state might have to incur a cost to protect these rights, but not to provide them. [Meet Preetam and Palani, in Redistribution as Theft]

The entitlements that the NAC-types call ‘rights’ are different. It costs someone something to provide them. If Preetam and Palani are the only two citizens in a hypothetical state, the cost of providing Palani’s right to food, education, healthcare and jobs must be borne by the state. If the state, in this example, is financed by Preetam’s tax payments, Palani’s entitlements come at the cost of further infringing on Preetam’s rights (in this case, the right to use his money as he pleases).

It is sometimes reasonable to argue that Preetam must be made to pay for Palani’s necessities in order to have a equitable society. Or because Palani might be contributing to Preetam’s welfare in other ways. What is wholly wrong, though, is to contend that food, education, healthcare, internet connections, jobs and suchlike are ‘rights’, in the same way as life, freedom and property are rights.

However desirable, however necessary, if it costs (someone else) to provide, it is not a right. It is an entitlement. Liberal democracies can agree to make some entitlements obligations of the state. But it is important to keep these obligations distinct from rights. The framers of the Indian Constitution made this distinction when they separated Fundamental Rights from Directive Principles. Unfortunately, their successors in parliament lacked the same moral clarity, and proceeded to undermine Rights even as they attempted to rightify the obligations that fall under the Directive Principles.

Because it violates (someone else’s) rights, the rights-based approach is universally immoral. India cannot afford the luxury of this ‘international development’ fashion. The cost of providing an ever-growing list of entitlements is prohibitively large, and will severely undermine India’s future. Right-minded people and political parties (no pun intended) should reject the rights-based approach.

Tailpieces:
1. The Two-Person Test to determine what is a right (also known as the Preetam & Palani Test). If it costs Preetam to provide Palani something (and vice versa), then, however desirable it might be, it is not a right.

2. If we accept the rights-based approach, then we urgently need to legislate the “Right to Richer Spouse.” If every citizen has an enforceable right to marry a richer person, then poverty will disappear fairly quickly. Such a right will take away some freedom from the richer persons, but that’s no different from the rights to food, education, jobs and suchlike. If you find the Right to Richer Spouse absurd or repugnant, just remember that it is based on the same logic as the right to food, education, healthcare, jobs, internet connections and so on…

3. A storified series of tweets on the topic.

How the government will keep its entitlement commitments

You won’t like any of them

No one really knows how much the Food Security Bill (or Act, if it becomes law) will cost the exchequer. Given the way the legislation is framed, it is impossible to make an accurate assessment of its costs. That doesn’t mean we are short of proponents who argue that it should be (or, worse, normatively must be) affordable. We also have a few opponents who argue that it’s more expensive that what the proponents suggest. We’re talking about numbers whose order of magnitude is in the range of single-digit percentages of GDP.

The scheme is open-ended: there’s no expiry date, no sunset clause. It covers around two-thirds of the population—even those who are not really needy. This means that the outlays will have to increase as the population grows.

Obviously, finding the money to keep this scheme going year after year will be a big problem. There’s worse news though—this programme is over and above other open-ended spending commitments like the NREGA, fuel and fertiliser subsidies which are in the vicinity of 2%-3% of GDP. These are the explicit subsidies. We will not even attempt to calculate the implicit subsidies and opportunity costs in this post.

Many of these schemes work such that the subsidy load will increase when growth slows down. In other words, at such times, subsidies as a fraction of GDP will increase—tightening the government’s budget constraints and reducing its fiscal space.

The nature of these schemes is such that governments will be scared to cut them during times of distress, forget ending them altogether. So how will the Indian government finance the gargantuan entitlement economy and what might be the consequences?

First, through new and higher taxes. This has already happened. Didn’t you notice the ‘education cess’? Didn’t you notice the higher marginal taxes on high income earners? Expect more of the ‘Good Cause Cesses/Surcharges’, a fiscal sleight of hand to raise new taxes by citing a plausible good cause. (See this post on education cess for more). As the economic and fiscal situation gets worse, expect higher tax rates lower down the income pyramid. Corporate profits are also an easy target—so they too will be taxed in increasingly creative and extortionary ways.

The consequence of higher taxes are lower investments and higher tax evasion. Lower investment means lower growth. Higher taxes when you are already in a low growth phase is a recipe to stay in the low growth phase longer than otherwise.

The second way for the government to raise resources is through borrowing. It can borrow money abroad (and incur foreign debt) and borrow money from the domestic market. The former puts the Indian government at the mercy of its foreign lenders to the extent of its borrowings. If you do not recall the days of the 1960s-80s, when India was mired in foreign debt, ask someone who does.

The Indian government can borrow from Indian citizens and corporates through the bond market and other instruments (a new -Vikas Patra can be invented quite easily). While it transfers money into the government’s budget, it crowds out the private sector. Interest rates will rise because of the large government demand for funds, making it harder for entrepreneurs and businesses to raise funds to expand their economic activity. This too puts the brakes on economic growth. Higher interest rates during an economic slowdown will prolong it.

The third way for the government to raise resources is to get the Reserve Bank of India to print more money. This has the effect of increasing inflation and depreciating the value of the rupee vis-a-vis other currencies. Higher inflation makes people poorer. It makes poorer people even more poorer (because they do not own assets like real estate, shares or foreign exchange that can weather inflation). A drop in the value of the rupee will make it tougher to service foreign debt, both for the government and for private firms. If the rise in exports on the account of a cheaper currency does not outpace the higher cost of imports, the current account deficit will grow. It could even result in a balance of payments crisis, like the one seen in 1991.

The fourth way is what is termed an “austerity drive”—for the government to cut expenses. Because politics will not allow cutting back on salaries, pensions, subsidies and entitlements, the government will cut two things: office expenses and capital expenditure. So you’ll probably get to see ministers photographed coming to work on bicycles and civil servants working without air-conditioning. Other than schadenfreude, these measures achieve nothing substantial. Cutting down on capital expenditure—roads, power plants, defence equipment—does create fiscal space, but at the cost of future growth.

Where does this leave us? Well, at the edge of a vicious cycle of low growth, high inflation, low investment, higher unemployment, higher taxes, greater evasion and higher out-migration of talented individuals and firms. We’ve been there before. It’s unconscionable that we are being taken there again.

The only way to avoid this vicious cycle is to suspend entitlements and rekindle growth. It is unlikely that growth can be rekindled without sustained pro-growth measures: greater liberalisation, simpler taxation and coherent economic governance. The Delhi Straitjacket must be dismantled.

Related: INI9 Conversation with V Anantha Nageswaran on the falling Indian Rupee.

Redistribution as theft

Alleviating poverty requires economic growth alone.

It is not often that Indian public discourse seriously discusses big ideas. So it was nice to see, a few days ago, a debate in large sections of the mainstream and social media on economic growth vs redistribution. This debate received wider public attention because it was conflated with a personality clash between Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen, because it became entangled with the hottest political topic of our times and because it came at a time when the issue itself is important.

When faced with two sharply different points of view, it is common—not least in India—to insist that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. This is celebrated as being reasonable, as representing the compromise that is the hallmark of democratic practice and as being the mystic middle path. So when some economists insist that growth is the best way out of poverty while other champion redistribution of wealth, it is to be expected that there will be reasonable people who will say “we need both more growth and more redistribution”. This is a good way to end the debate amicably and drink to reasonability and democratic compromise.

Unfortunately, there’s a difference between appearing reasonable and being right. “We need more growth and more redistribution” is not a reasonable middle position. It is essentially an argument for redistribution but stated in a different form.

Without growth, redistribution is at best a transfer and at worst, theft. If a community earns the same amount of money (or produces goods of the same value) every year, then redistribution takes from Preetam to pay Palani. If Preetam consents to the arrangement, it is a transfer. If he doesn’t, it is theft. Over a period of time, it will make the community more equal, but it doesn’t necessarily make the community less poor, for even after achieving income equality, the average income can be below what is required to subsist.

Growth is the only way to increase the overall income of a community. It can raise the respective incomes of both Preetam and Palani, although Preetam’s income might rise faster than Palani’s. Inequality will rise in such a community—perhaps because Preetam was born into a better endowed family, perhaps because Preetam works harder or perhaps because Palani faces greater social hurdles—but because both Preetam’s and Palani’s incomes rise, the whole community can climb out of poverty. There is vast empirical evidence for this, and growth is the best antidote to poverty. It’s the most effective anti-poverty scheme known to humankind.

Here’s the best thing: in such a society, there is no inherent need to take from Preetam to pay Palani on the grounds of poverty alleviation. There might be other issues—for instance, progressive taxation to finance public goods based on the ability to pay, but not to help a poor Palani out of poverty.

Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t inequality rising? Isn’t that a bad thing? Aren’t Palani’s prospects not handicapped by historical social hurdles? Aren’t Preetam’s disproportionate gains coming from exploiting Palani? The reasonable people who argue that “we need both more growth and more distribution” usually raise these questions to argue for more redistribution. (There are unreasonable people who raise these questions for other reasons, but let’s stick with responding to the reasonable).

Yes, inequality will rise, especially during periods of high growth. But inequality is a social problem only if it is permanent and ossified. However, growth is the best way to ensure that it is not—with growth comes mobility, and the expectation that one can improve one’s life allows societies to thrive despite the inequalities. Ask migrants to New York or Mumbai. Many also see a moral problem with inequality, but why expect the state to solve moral problems? Let the moral conscience of society address its moral problems.

Shouldn’t we account for historical social hurdles that hobble some citizens? Yes, but these are addressed by creating equality of opportunity, not by insisting on equality of outcomes (where Preetam and Palani end up earning the same income). You can achieve equality of opportunity without redistribution—affirmative action and reservations (without subsidies) are ways to address this challenge.

Isn’t Preetam exploiting Palani? This blog post will not attempt a comprehensive critique of Marxist thought. However, the ideas of economic freedom, property rights, voluntary exchange and comparative advantage together prove that Preetam’s gain is not at Palani’s cost. Although the sort of people who argue that Preetam exploits Palani will seldom acknowledge that redistribution, by definition, means that Palani’s gains come at Preetam’s cost. Unlike redistribution, growth creates non-zero-sum or win-win situations. Only growth creates such situations.

From this alone, we should conclude that “we need growth, not redistribution”. But reasonable people will go to great extents to be reasonable. It’s about sequencing, they’ll say, and contend that some redistribution is necessary for growth. It’s unclear why this is called a reasonable argument—if we accept that both Preetam and Palani will be better off with growth, then the decision to take some from one and give it to the other is unnecessary, whimsical and entirely arbitrary. Instead, why not spend extra effort to ensure that there are no constraints to growth in areas that benefit Palani?

Ergo, what appears reasonable is not quite reasonable: we need growth, not redistribution. The state can ensure growth by getting out of the way of private enterprise, ensuring public goods are provided, acting as an impartial referee, ensuring equality of opportunity and a level playing field. Governments are not good at redistribution: it involves taking money from people who don’t want to give it up and passing it through a system where everyone wants to grab as much as they can get. That is why redistribution is attractive to politicians who are keen to listen to intellectuals who say it is necessary.

The use and misuse of poverty lines

The undesirable consequences of using a macroeconomic indicator as a criterion for entitlement.

Earlier this week, the UPA government’s Planning Commission announced that there has been a significant reduction in poverty in India over the last decade—essentially, during the UPA’s two terms in office—from 37.2% in 2004-05 to 21.9% in 2011-12. In other words, while there were 407.1 million poor people in India in 2004-05, the number had come down to 269.3 million by last year. The Planning Commission uses the Tendulkar method (see Rathish Balakrishnan’s explainer on the brief history of poverty lines in India) but it is quite likely that poverty will show a decline regardless of the method adopted to measure it. This is good news.

What was meant to advertise the UPA government’s achievement has actually put it in a spot. How can the UPA government now justify providing deep, open-ended food subsidies to over 822 million people? Does subsidising food for the non-poor, at tremendous cost and contingent liability to the exchequer, have the same justification as delivering essential food to those who absolutely cannot afford it? Not quite. If the Opposition parties mount a political challenge along these lines, it is unlikely that the UPA’s dubious poverty arithmetic will prevail. If.

Let’s consider a broader issue. What is a poverty line good for? Whatever the formula used, a poverty line provides a useful estimate of the level of poverty in a population. How it changes tells us whether public policies are helping or hindering poverty alleviation. The rate of change allows us to compare—albeit in hindsight—which set of policies are more effective in raising incomes. As the Planning Commission’s figures show, poverty declined at an average rate of 0.74% between 1993-94 and 2004-05, and at 2.18% between 2004-05 to 2011-12. This correlates with the higher economic growth rates achieved in the 2000s compared to the 1990s. This is consistent with the empirical observation that economic growth lifts people out of poverty.

What the poverty line is not good for is as a selection tool to identify beneficiaries for entitlements. This is because it is practically impossible to estimate whether a particular person earns more or less than the given poverty line income. This fact is lost on many policymakers and intellectuals—just how does one assess whether a person earns less or more than Rs 33 a day? There are no objective methods to test and verify incomes—no financial records, salary slips, bank accounts and so on. So we are left with self-declaration. However, if people know that those deemed below the poverty line will receive benefits from the government, they are likely to declare themselves poor. To take one example, in 2006, 91% of the families in Karnataka state declared themselves below poverty line.

The Planning Commission can set up expert groups that propose formulas involving automatic exclusion, automatic inclusion and scoring indices. Such methods only create an illusion of accuracy while creating a political economy—read corruption and political patronage—for the procurement of Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards. Note also that once a person acquires a BPL card, she is BPL for life. Such is the bluntness of poverty line-based schemes that they presume that a person, once deemed poor, will remain poor for life. This makes the BPL card even more valuable.

Moreover, for the sake of argument, even if we assume that it is possible to perfectly assess incomes, is it sensible to deny an entitlement to a person earning Rs 34, because the poverty line is set at Rs 33? What about Rs 35? Rs 36? Where do we stop? Any number you pick is arbitrary.

What this means is that while poverty lines are useful as macroeconomic performance indicators, they are useless when used as ‘entitlement lines’. If budgets were infinite, we could live with the leakages and inefficiencies in the knowledge that those who really deserve assistance are not deprived. However, budgets are not infinite, which means that public funds end up in the hands of undeserving people, while there isn’t enough money for essential public goods like education, health, security, roads, electricity and communications. Look at the state of our government schools, hospitals, police stations and roads and ask why they are in such a decrepit condition. It is politically suicidal for any government to cut back on subsidies and entitlements. It is fairly easy, in comparison, to cut down on capital expenditure on public goods.

That’s why misusing the poverty line as an entitlement line is counterproductive—it slows down the rate at which poverty declines.

Related Link: My Takshashila colleague Pavan Srinath’s critique of the poverty line, on the INI Transition State blog.

Tagore on the welfare state

Why a welfare state will fail in India

I often argue that the fact that the Indian Republic arrogated to itself the task of social welfare has made the Indian citizen, at the margin, less inclined towards that cause. The argument goes something like this: “Why bother about doing something about the poor because it’s the government’s job. After all, most of our taxes and government revenues are allocated for social welfare, rather than providing us with public services.” Charity and philanthropy exists, but it is difficult to sustain an argument that the average citizen feels responsible for helping the poor and the less privileged.

Rabindranath Tagore had thought about this, long before India became independent and set itself up as a welfare state. Here’s an extract from Partha Chatterjee’s essay on Tagore’s views on nationalism. (Tagore, by the way, was opposed to nationalism, as he felt that it was contrived from the European historical experience and unsuited to the Indian context).


Rabindranath’s argument was this: before the English arrived in India, the samaj would carry out through its own initiative all the beneficial works necessary to meet people’s needs. It did not look to the state to perform those functions. Kings would go to war, or hunt, and some would even forsake all princely duties for pleasure and entertainment. But the samaj did not necessarily suffer on this account. The duties of the samaj were allocated among different persons by the samaj itself. The arrangement by which this was done was called dharma.

That which is callcd “the state” in English is now called, in our modern languages, the sarkar. The sarkar, has always existed in India in the form of the royal or sovereign power. But there was a difference between the power of the state in Britain with the power of the king in our country. Britain has entrusted the entire responsibility of looking after the welfare of the country to the state. In India, the state only had a partial responsibility… From giving alms to the destitute to teaching the principles of religion and morality to the common people, everything in Britain depends on the state. In our country, such activities are founded on the system of dharma among the people. Thus, the English are happy when the state is alive and well; we are relieved when when preserve our system of dharma.

But even if it is true that we never had a universally benevolent sovereign power in the past, could we not through our own efforts build such a state now? Rabindranath’s answer is clear: “No, we cannot.” He says: “We must understand this: the state in Britain is indissolubly founded on the general consent of the entire society; it emerged out of a process that is natural to that country. We cannot have it here simply by the force of argument. Even if it is inherently of outstanding quality, it will still remain beyond our reach.”

Extracted from: Tagore’s Non-Nation, “Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy”, by Partha Chatterjee, pp99-100

This appears to be an argument for investing in social capital, rather than charging the state with the task of social welfare. Tagore was onto something. But it was Gandhi who carried the day.

Cash transfers will work, if…

…there are economic reforms, astute targeting and restructuring of government

Cash transfers are here. Okay, some cash transfers will be here in some districts for some people early next year, after which the programme will be implemented across the country. No one is in any doubt that this is a pre-election move by the Congress party—it was announced in the party headquarters and not a government office (See Soma Banerjee’s article in Economic Times). It is an election sop. However, unlike loan waivers and the national rural employment guarantee scheme, it is not a bad one. It can even be a good one provided certain important conditions are met.

But first, cash transfers are based on sound economic rationale. They are generally less inefficient than subsidies for goods and services. Also, because they put cash in the hands of the recipients, they are more respectful of individual freedoms and choices. Whether they are also effective in alleviating poverty is another question. Even so, to the extent that they are an improvement over the status quo—by reducing bureaucratic processes, lowering corruption and shortening delays—we should cautiously welcome the introduction of the cash transfer scheme.

There is some debate on why cash transfers work. In the case of conditional cash transfers—where the cash is allocated for specific purposes like education, food, fuel etc—there is debate as to whether it is the conditions that work or the cash. Abhijeet Banerjee and Esther Duflo, economists whose work this blogger respects, believe in the latter: that it’s the cash that makes the impact. (More at TechSangam)

It might sound heretical, but the best scheme might involve ending all subsidies in kind, closing down as many “welfare” ministries and departments, and using the funds to give unconditional cash transfers to the needy. Give the needy cash, respect their individual freedom and just let them spend it as they wish. (See this post for why the old, corrupt political economy of poverty alleviation resists this.)

We are, of course, far from this goal. Only “the benefits of 29 welfare schemes of the government would now be directly transferred to beneficiaries in 51 districts starting January in a pilot programme and then will be extended to 18 states from April.” A total of 42 schemes have been identified for the cash transfer programme. These exclude the big ticket ones—food and fertiliser subsidies—but might include some fuel subsidies. Whether this is intentional, compulsion or both, the impact will be limited. Despite the hoopla in the headlines, it’s not a game-changer. But it can be one, if accompanied by other policy changes.

First, as warned and subsequently noticed in the case of rural employment guarantee, merely putting more cash into the hands of people without doing anything to make the supply competitive will cause prices to rise. Inflation can eat into the higher incomes, especially if they are in the form of cash, undermining the effectiveness of cash transfers. So how does one make supply competitive? By liberalising land, labour and capital regulations. By completing roads, railways, airports. By breaking barriers to inter-state and intra-state commerce. By liberalising education and agriculture. In other words, we need Reforms 2.0 before we can expect cash transfers to have the desired effect. The UPA government’s commitment to the reform agenda is much weaker than its enthusiasm for entitlements and transfers.

Second, it is necessary to target the transfers correctly. In a diverse society where communities are sensitive to relative gains, this is particularly hard. Exercises to identify the recipients, include those who qualify and exclude those who don’t, and to keep this list updated are very expensive, riddled with inefficiencies and fraught with political controversy. With a degree of flippancy, we could argue that making the scheme universal might save a lot of these headaches. Let everyone from Mukeshbhai to the poorest person in the country receive the same cash amount from the government. Let the “inconvenience factor”—for instance, a requirement to physically queue up at a government office every three months to revalidate the cash transfer account—determine who avails of the facility. The Aadhaar UID could then be used as a tracking mechanism rather than a filtering one. We are far from this, and as Bibek Debroy points out on his ET blog, targeting will be a significant problem.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult one, is that the efficiencies realised through a programme like cash transfers must register in terms of lower government expenditure and, all else remaining the same, to lower taxes. This calls for a radical review of subsidies and transfer almost all of them into the cash transfer programme. It calls for the pruning of ministries and departments that currently administer subsidies. Few governments have the stomach for this kind of overhauling of government—the UPA government certainly doesn’t—but to not do this would be to abandon the real payoffs.

Finally, every spending programme must come with a sunset clause. Cash transfers must be reviewed every few years to assess whether they are still required, and automatically lapse if not renewed. Not doing so presumes that policymakers cannot conceive of a time when a substantial number of Indians will no longer be poor. This is defeatism.

So, for cash transfers to work in the national interest, they must be accompanied by broad economic reforms, astute targeting and restructuring the government. From what has been announced by the UPA government, there is little evidence that the scheme only aims for anything more than limited efficiency gains in welfare disbursements. The Congress party evidently believes that this is sufficient to attain its electoral objectives.

Tailpiece: The final examination of Takshashila’s GCPP programme‘s January 2012 term asked students to design a programme “to support the country’s needy” (more details in the question paper). A few students proposed cash transfer programmes. You’ll find summaries of two of the responses on Logos, Takshashila’s public policy network blog.