Return and reforms

Will Manmohan Singh’s return to the finance ministry result in some reforms?

Pranab Mukherjee, an over-rated, over-respected and over-portfolioed cabinet minister presided over the finance ministry at a time when the results of UPA government’s gross mismanagement of the Indian economy began to show. His remedies worsened the malaise—not only has the economy slowed down, domestic and foreign investors have been given reason to believe that India’s economic managers are not only unserious, but also nearly banana. Retrospective taxation—Mr Mukherjee’s gift to economic policymaking—is an abomination and exemplifies how awfully perverted the UPA government’s thinking has been.

So, with Mr Mukherjee out of the cabinet (and undeservingly heading for Rashtrapati Bhavan) and Manmohan Singh taking over the finance portfolio, what are the prospects for reforms? None at all, argues the astute Swaminathan Anklesaria-Aiyar. Quite a lot, contends Sanjaya Baru. The truth may be in the middle, but despite Mr Baru’s valiant cheerleading, the odds are stacked up in favour of Mr Aiyar’s prognosis.

Samanth Subramanian sought my views for his report in The National. Here is my full response to his questions:

Q. Do you think the PM has the political capital he needs to make bold changes? Do you think, for that matter, that the government will risk making possibly unpopulist changes with the elections less than two years away?

Whether or not there will be any reforms depends on how much Manmohan Singh is willing to face down the Congress party establishment in order to secure his own place in history. It’s not so much about political capital but as he said in his 1991 speech “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai/Dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qatil mein hai.” Does he have Sarfaroshi ki tamanna?

Q. How much can any possible economic reforms redeem Manmohan Singh’s otherwise awful leadership of this UPA government?

What Manmohan Singh can do at this stage is revive the narrative of reforms, by setting out a long-term road map and by implementing the ones he can. The signal this will send will help set the economy back on track and hopefully redeem his own record.

Q. If you had to make a short, three-item wish list of reforms you hope he could enact, what would that list be?

Liberalise education, liberalise labour laws and start fixing land acquisition. Toying with fuel subsidies, reversing GAAR etc is mere signaling…the fundamental strengths of the economy can be reinforced only by liberalising education, labour and land acquisition. Playing around with financial markets and FIIs is mere tinkering. He must do what is necessary to revive direct investment, both domestic and foreign.

TAPI’s confused objectives, risky implications

India should not invest in making itself vulnerable to geopolitical blackmail

Kabir Taneja quotes me in an article in the Sunday Guardian on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project. Here are my views in greater detail.

What is your general consensus on TAPI? Does it benefit India geo-politically?

It is unclear what India’s primary purpose is with respect to the TAPI and the IPI gas pipelines. If it is energy security, then clearly placing an important source of fuel in the hands of a hostile actor like the Pakistani military-jihadi complex defeats the purpose. If it is geopolitics, it raises the question if energy security is being sacrificed at the altar of wishful thinking about potential geopolitical gains.

India would do well to invest in LNG terminals and infrastructure, enabling it to purchase gas from anywhere in the world, including from Iran and Russia. Energy security lies in trying to make the international natural gas market as competitive as possible.

What are your main reservations on the project?

Any project that relies on Pakistan is fundamentally risky.

First, even before the resurgence of the Baloch insurgency, pipelines were routinely targeted in inter-tribal political violence. Now with a full-blown insurgency, the extent of which is unclear, but where Pakistani air power and armour is being employed, the political risk rules out any pipeline investment.

Second, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex has entirely different incentives compared to the the putative Pakistani state. It’s tendency to pursue actions that undermine Pakistan are well-known: it conducted nuclear tests in 1998 despite knowing that this will cripple the economy. More pertinently, it has blocked the transit routes for US & NATO forces since Dec 2011 even at the cost of more than $1.2 billion in coalition support fund payments that it is owed. The transit route business is highly profitable to the army and its business empire. A conservative estimate is that the Pakistani military establishment collected around $360 million in different forms of rent, over the last five years.

This puts paid to the assertion that the Pakistani army will permit transit if it benefits financially. Clearly, its behaviour shows that is not the case. The Pakistani army is likely to use the gas pipelines as leverage against India and Afghanistan, regardless of the economic consequences to itself.

Supporters of TAPI suggest that it will help tame the populations of troubled regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan by creating mass employment. Thoughts?

This is a dubious suggestion. In fact, it would be terrible to impose a “resource curse” on a population wracked by radicalism and violence. What the region needs is investment in human capital and political stability that allows normal economic activity to take off. Putting gas fields and pipelines in regions of turmoil will create political economies that might worsen the conflict by providing more funds to warlords. Unless the fundamental security problem is tackled, gas revenues, like drug revenues, flow into the war chests of militant groups.

Everyone loves a good outrage

The reform agenda must be defended from Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s attackers

As far as op-eds go, this one marks a new low from P Sainath. It is not uncommon for him to frame grave issues in a divisive manner by conflating them with unrelated matters—like, for instance, agrarian crises and beauty pageants. This technique seeks to arbitrage outrage, as if decent people cannot be anguished at a tragedy without having to contrast it with an unrelated celebration. But when Mr Sainath links the poverty line, expenses incurred by the Planning Commission chief while traveling on official business overseas, the lavishness with which some tycoons spend their private funds and dubious dealings of crony capitalism, it can’t merely be his usual, unfortunate and misguided conflation.

Make no mistake: Mr Sainath’s hatchet job on Montek Singh Ahluwalia is part of an internal campaign against reform-minded individuals within the UPA government. This week’s manufactured controversy over renovation expenses of toilets in the Planning Commission’s headquarters is another manifestation of the same campaign.

Let us examine Mr Sainath’s cleverly framed allegations. His case is that at Mr Ahluwalia’s travel expenses are exorbitant, at an average of $4000 per day abroad. You would think he would give you some comparable data to prove Mr Ahluwalia has been unusually proliferate in spending public funds. Say, for instance, the average daily expenditure when cabinet-ranked Indian officials travel abroad on official business. Or for instance, the average daily expenditure incurred by Mr Ahluwalia’s counterparts from other countries. These would be like-for-like comparisons. Mr Sainath, however, does not do that. He compares these to a income of a person on India’s poverty line. All this proves is that $4000 is much higher than Rs 28. It does not even come close to proving that public funds were misspent, nor does it show that Mr Ahluwalia was unusually liberal with his expense budget. The onus of doing this research is on Mr Sainath, the person making the argument.

How Mukesh Ambani spends his personal wealth is irrelevant to the argument—he is free to spend his money as he pleases, even if it does not suit our tastes—, so is a discussion on cronyism and corruption in IPL. You don’t need to read the Planning Commission’s response to conclude that Mr Sainath’s allegations are sensationalistic nonsense.

But why choose Mr Ahluwalia at all? Mr Sainath’s arguments against profligacy would have been worthy of respect if he had compared the travel expenses of the top officials of government—from President Patil to the lowest ranking minister of state. How much, for instance, does Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, spend on her foreign trips? Whatever her political role, she’s an official of equivalent rank. How much do the members of the National Advisory Council spend on their foreign and domestic trips? Unless we have some numbers to compare with, we can’t say anything about Mr Ahluwalia’s trips.

What we do know is that Mr Ahluwalia is among the few people known to be advocating economic reforms in the UPA government. Singling him out with a view to making him the lightning rod for public outrage has all the signs of a political hatchet job. The objective is to discredit the reformist agenda by associating it with imaginary wrongdoing. After running the Indian economy to the ground, the socialists that haunt the UPA government’s policymaking are now trying to bury the narrative of reform, liberalisation and markets through subterfuge and intellectual dishonesty.

It’s no different with the renovation expenses of public toilets in Yojana Bhavan, the Planning Commission’s headquarters. One of the earliest reports on this, in the Times of India, again compared toilet renovation expenses with the the poverty line. Few in the mainstream or social media bothered to ascertain the scope of the renovations and compare it with similar renovations conducted in New Delhi’s public and private buildings. The purpose of the revelations was to insinuate wrongdoing on the part of Mr Ahluwalia, rather than to establish whether there was any wrongdoing at all.

Mr Ahluwalia is guilty: of not throwing his credibility on the line to compel the UPA government to launch the second-generation reforms, and to prevent it from engaging in monumental fiscal irresponsibility that has put India’s future at risk. Like his mentor Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, he becomes complicit in the UPA’s misgovernance. He will have to answer these charges both to the nation and to history. This does not mean he’s lavishing public funds on unnecessary foreign excursions, building gold-plated toilets or taking a cut from the renovation contractor.

It is fair for the Opposition parties to politically exploit the situation to their advantage. However, it is in the national interest not to allow a campaign of unfair personal calumny to discredit the reform agenda—or indeed, to prevent Mr Ahluwalia from a chance to redeem his reformist record—to succeed. The Acorn completely agrees with Mint’s editorial defence of Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Mr Ahluwalia has “done far more for the poor than the busybodies and peddlers of poverty porn who are now attacking him.”

Calculating Pakistan’s Al Faida income

The military establishment seeks more rent

Pakistan, the United States and NATO are currently engaged in negotiations over a transit fee for the route from Karachi to the Afghan border. Pakistan has demanded $5000 per container (in either direction) although other reports suggest that it would seek a ‘nominal fee’ of around $1800. It is important to note that these are over and above what Pakistan has already been making from the container traffic.

Here’s a conservative estimate of how much the Pakistan makes from permitting US and NATO troops transit routes from Karachi to the Afghanistan border. Between 2005 and June 2010, Pakistani military and civilian government entities made $290 million (Update: At least $360 million, including toll revenues—see details below], or a little over $1000 per container, from allowing US and NATO transit to Afghanistan. The military establishment’s share of this is just over half, all of it in terms of pure rent or, as we like to call it “Al Faida”. The civilian government’s share came from taxes and through port charges.

Click to enlarge

An earlier post, from February 2009, has another estimate of the takings. Those figures are higher than these because they involve a different period and perhaps a different count of the number of containers. In the present analysis, the number of containers is taken from a report on the ISAF container scam by the Pakistani government’s Federal Tax Ombudsman, from January 2011. That report provides some interesting details about the political economy of the transit business—how a lot of people make lot of shady money. Also, it notes that 3544 US/ISAF containers are ‘missing’.

Update: According to Gen William Fraser, US Transcom commander, more than 35,000 containers were delivered through Pakistan in 2011. This would give the Pakistani military establishment $18.375 million in rent and an income of $17.5 million for the civilian government entities for the year.

If the US/ISAF traffic is in the range of 600 trucks per day, then Pakistan will earn around $129 million in 2012, of which the military establishment will pocket $66 million. Note that this excludes the transit fee/tax that is under negotiation.

Update (May 23, 2012): A senior Pakistani government official has testified to the Public Accounts Committee that the Pakistani army’s construction wing, the Frontier Works Organisation, has occupied all toll plazas along the route, and pocketed all the Rs 6.5 billion in toll revenues. That’s around $71 million at the current exchange rate, but higher given that the Pakistani rupee has been depreciating over the last few years.

Related Links: Pragmatic Euphony on the truth about the NATO supply routes.

Mostly dogmas

More of the same gives you more of the same

One of the positive outcomes of the controversies sparked by General V K Singh is that it has, even if it is ephemerally, triggered a public debate on defence policy. Carrying it forward is important. In today’s Business Standard, Ajai Shukla responds to my arguments for reform in defence procurement.

Mr Shukla raises two broad points. First, that we ought not to throw away indigenisation while reforming the defence public sector; and second, that economic liberalisation that gave us a modern, competitive automotive industry cannot give us a modern, competitive defence industry. Let’s consider them in turn.

The argument, as I explicitly state in my article, “is not say indigenisation is an unworthy goal. Rather, it is to suggest that the longstanding approach to indigenisation has not only met with limited success but also that the same goal can be achieved using different means.” Mr Shukla shows how reliance on foreign technology causes problems of denial, interoperability and sabotage. The answer, however, is not a “sharper focus on indigenisation” which can easily become wrapping paper for the reform-resistant status quo. No amount of tinkering with the structure and management of India’s defence PSUs can make them competitive enough to provide for our defence requirements.

In fact, the Mr Shukla’s own points support my argument that PSUs have captured our defence procurement policy. “DPSUs,” he writes “notably BEL and BEML, have undermined indigenisation by serving as fronts for the back-door induction of foreign technology through partnerships with foreign vendors.” The political economy of the Indian public sector enterprises will not make them do any better if they are given a sharper focus or placed under a different ministry.

Next, the argument that the defence industry as a whole is different from the automotive (or any other industry) is untenable. Beyond the point that the defence industry has fewer customers than other industries, they are all made of the same people, have the same economic incentives, draw capital from the same economy, react to competition in similar ways and so on. It is unfathomable why Mr Shukla should consider this naïve. Of course, you can’t expect a private sector defence industry to emerge if the government creates disincentives for it, or if it refuses to purchase from it, as happens today. I recall similar charges of naiveté being thrown about when telecommunications, banking and insurance sectors were liberalised. People deeply involved in an industry feel that their industry is different. Well, it’s not. The laws of economics apply to defence as much as they do to the vada pav industry.

Similarly, it is not at all strange to see arguments that free trade or entry of foreign players will weaken the domestic private sector. That is an argument that has been made since Nehruvian times, much to the detriment of the nation. Sadly, it continues to be made despite being proven wrong. Did allowing foreign automobile manufacturers, telecom companies or insurance providers hurt our car makers, telcos or insurance companies? The reality is quite to the contrary. You can have a debate on whether or not Indian consumers should be allowed to purchase from multi-brand retail chains owned by foreigners. But how can you have a debate on whether the Indian armed forces should be prevented from having the best possible equipment to protect us?

The danger with the kind of attempted middle-ground approaches suggested by Mr Shukla is that they end up as a cover for inaction. The onus is on those who prefer mild variations of the status quo to explain why persisting with policies that have failed us for decades will suddenly begin delivering promised results now.

The dogmas that undermine our defence

Reforming defence procurement, mindset first

This the unedited version of my op-ed in today’s Business Standard.

Why is it that on the one hand India is the world’s biggest arms buyer, and on the other, the outgoing army chief has complained that we are short of basic war-fighting equipment like tank ammunition and field guns? Why is it that our defence procurement takes years to complete and can be halted or reversed by allegations of corruption? Is corruption so rampant within the top echelons of our armed forces that the both the army chief and defence minister could shrug off a brazen attempt to bribe the general in his office? How come the defence ministry has spurned and blacklisted vendors from countries whose geopolitical interests are aligned to ours?

It is easy to treat these issues as merely the failings of individuals and the shortcomings of the latest procurement rules. It is easy to park the unholy affair under the general head of how corruption is undermining our nation. To do so would be to ignore the underlying causes of why things have some to such a pass.

The first is the dogmatic pursuit of indigenisation, a mindset that pervades the defence establishment. It has resulted both in policy capture by public sector unit (PSU) network and introduced layers of complexity in procurement rules. Ordinarily, as end users, the armed forces would want the best possible equipment for the rupee, but they too are prisoners of a narrative that involves the pursuit of a chimerical indigenisation. For in New Delhi, it is still nearly heretical to suggest that an enemy killed by a foreign-made bullet is as dead as an enemy killed by a partly-indigenous bullet.

This is not say indigenisation is an unworthy goal. Rather, it is to suggest that the longstanding approach to indigenisation has not only met with limited success but also that the same goal can be achieved using different means. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the government couldn’t produce an indigenous passenger car no matter how many it purchased from Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles. It was only after the liberalisation of the economy and the entry of foreign competitors that Tata Motors, Mahindra and others could produce automobiles that are not only indigenous but also in the same league as their foreign competitors. The route to effective indigenisation, therefore, is counter-intuitive. We must open our defence sector to foreign investors so that Indian industry can acquire the capabilities to produce the equipment our armed forces need.

This cannot be achieved by offsets that require foreign suppliers to spend part of the contract price in India. Offsets might re-inject part of the defence expenditure into the domestic economy but will not result in the transfer of knowledge, skills and human capital that are essential for India to build a modern defence industry. The most effective way to get there is to open doors for foreign direct investment in defence manufacturing. Capping the foreign equity at 26% has attracted few investors. Instead of arguing over another arbitrary level at which to set the cap, we should do away with it altogether.

The second is the equally dogmatic anti-middleman mindset. Going by the statements of the defence minister, it would appear that middlemen—like their lobbyist cousins—are uniformly evil and therefore ought to be banned outright. Yet middlemen are not the cause of corruption. Rather, both middlemen and corruption are the twin offspring of the same parent—complex procurement rules.

The more complex a set of rules, the more the need for ‘specialists’ to help navigate through them. The reason lawyers and chartered accountants exist is because the law and the tax code are complex. Middlemen exist because they perform a useful economic role. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or immoral about them. It is our rules that make them so, driving underground a genuine economic activity.

Why do we have complex procurement rules? Because we have overcrowded them with multiple, sometimes conflicting objectives. Changing our approach to indigenisation as argued earlier can simplify them to some extent. Even so, it is unlikely that they can be simplified enough to eliminate the need for agents. That is why instead of prohibiting middlemen in defence procurement, a far better policy would be to create a regulatory framework under which they can operate legitimately.

Agents could be required to declare their past and current affiliations, and disclose relevant family connections. Former defence officers and their civilian counterparts could be required to serve out a cooling off period before getting into the business. The policy objective ought to be to align—to the extent possible—the economic incentives of the middlemen to the organisational interests of the armed forces. We don’t have to like lawyers and chartered accountants in order for us to let them discharge their economic roles. Why should it be any different with middlemen?

The final cause of the mess in our defence procurement is that we often ignore the geopolitical consequences of our purchases. Awarding the tender to the lowest bidder might be the best method to resurface parade grounds but not for billion dollar purchases of equipment. To treat both purchases the same way would be to lose strategic leverage that comes from being able favour a country which can give us something else that we need. Blacklisting companies from friendly powers exposes us to purchases from less friendly ones.

The biggest argument for indigenisation is that reliance on foreign suppliers is risky because supplies can be withheld in order to coerce us. That risk can be mitigated if we procure military equipment from countries with which we have extensive economic ties, and vice versa. Reducing the incongruence between our top trading partners and our top arms suppliers ought to be an important policy goal.

The ghost of Bofors continues to haunt our defence procurement. Avoiding stepping on the dung on the road is now more important than getting to the destination. As the defence minister admitted in parliament, the pace of modernisation is slow because every allegation of corruption is investigated. This leaves us with the unfortunate implication that that anyone, from an inimical foreign power to a disgruntled equipment vendor, can apply brakes on the modernisation process. The ghost must be exorcised by liberalising the defence manufacturing sector and getting rid of the superstition that passes off as strategy.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Why levy a Cess for education?

A question of priorities and an excuse for extravagance

Taxpayers and restaurant-goers in India will find a cess (2%) and a higher education cess (1%) added to their taxes and bills. The cesses are earmarked taxes collected to ostensibly finance education and higher education.

Like with most of the budget, few ask why this must be so.

The fundamental purpose of government revenue—the reason it collects all sorts of taxes on income, sales, excise—is to fund development expenditure. What could be more important for our country than spending on basic education, public health and basic infrastructure? Whatever the government spends on these heads must be fully financed from its primary revenues. In other words, these subjects should have the first claim on the government’s resources. Whatever might be our politics or ideology, no one can deny that these should be our priorities, and after we have adequately provided for these, we should spend on other things.

Why then does the government charge a cess for education and another cess on higher education? This seems to suggest that the fundamental priorities of the government are not concerned with improving the lot of the poor, the needy and the citizenry as a whole, but something else. The message is “Ladies and gentlemen, since we’ve allowed other things to have the first claim on the government’s revenues, we don’t really have money for the most important priority, so we’re raising earmarked funds for education.” Beyond the technicalities of the economic effect of the cess, and without regard to ideological positions on how education ought to be delivered, the fundamental signal here is that the government’s priorities are wrong. The government is like an irresponsible husband wasting the family income on useless things and then seeking help to support his children’s school fees.

The cess is what is known as an earmarked tax. In terms of its economic effects, it has been found that “earmarking can be beneficial, but the conditions for this are quite strong and are rarely met in practice. The earmarked tax (which may be a separate tax or a fixed proportion of a broad tax) needs to be kept separate from other revenue, be applied exclusively to the expenditure programme for which it is identified, and fully fund (but not over-fund) that programme rather than being mixed with general revenue.”

Money is fungible. If you give 100 rupees to a college student to buy his books, and he uses 100 rupees of his own pocket money to buy cigarettes, it’s tantamount to your money being used for cigarettes. This is the gimmick involved in the education & higher education cess. People who might object if the government had charged a “Moon Mission cess”, a “Nuclear Arsenal cess” or a “Petrol Subsidy for the Middle Class cess” are less likely to do so if the cess were collected for a “good cause”. That does not change the fact that every rupee collected in the name of an education cess is a rupee being spent on the most wasteful, most extravagant and most unnecessary items.

The finance minister needs to explain why a cess is necessary when tax revenues have been growing steadily over the last two decades. If the government has the money to subsidise unwarranted tablet computers for college students, why does it burden with cesses?

Trading across the Partition

The liberalisation of India-Pakistan bilateral trade is a good thing. Now leave it to market forces

This blog has been a longtime advocate of India liberalising bilateral trade with Pakistan. The very first op-ed essay I wrote, for Mint in 2007, argued that the real ‘peace process’ lay in free trade. The argument is based on creating political economies in Pakistan that have something to lose if bilateral relations worsen.

Far more than civil society, trade—more than culture—will benefit Pakistan’s elite society. To the extent that it does, and further, to the extent that this creates vested interests among Pakistan’s rich and powerful to prefer stable bilateral relations, better trading relations will be good for India.

Since there is no direct empirical evidence, this is only a hypothesis. But it is verifiable, involves modest risks and is reversible. Which is why I have argued that India should consider unilaterally dropping trade restrictions. Cultural exchanges might not work the same way because they won’t fatten up the Pakistani elite as commerce is likely to.

So you do not need to believe that a Pakistani civil society will rise, will challenge extremism and dismantle the military-jihadi complex to consider the merits of the trade argument. But it’s important to recognise that better trading relations will, at best, reduce Pakistani attacks against India. Destroying the military-jihadi complex is an entirely different and a much more important project. [Fattening the elite]

But why weren’t the Pakistani elite interested in trying to benefit from India’s growth process?

Pakistan—perhaps because its unaccountable elite are buttressed by liberal Western aid—is unconcerned with improving the lot of its own people. That is its own problem. This does not mean it is not in India’s interests to improve trade with its crisis-ridden neighbour. It only means that it won’t hurt the Indian economy much if it doesn’t happen.[Double talk on double digit]

Things changed this week. The Zardari government deserves praise for political imagination in pushing through bilateral trade liberalisation while stepping back from the semantic trip-wire of according India the “most favoured nation” status. It is too early to tell, but if the trade deal moves ahead and creates vested interests in its continuation, it might become difficult to roll back.

The timing of the deal, however, suggests that it came about not only because of the Zardari government’s commitment and political skills. With US-Pakistan relations still in tailspin, the prospects of the Pakistani economy ticking along on the back of external assistance are weak, and unlikely to improve in the medium term. A good indication is the direct, overt, total economic-related aid Washington gives. According to the latest figures compiled by Alan Kronstadt of the Congressional Research Service, from a peak of $1.727 billion in 2010 it has been reduced to an estimated $874 million for 2012, with a modest increase for 2013. Total direct, overt aid—which includes military aid—has fallen from $4.46 billion in 2010 to $2.11 billion for 2012, with a modest increase for 2013. To get a sense of these numbers, $2 billion is approximately 1 percent of Pakistan’s GDP (2011 figure).

So to some extent, trade with India allows the Pakistani elite to compensate for the loss of external aid to the economy. Bilateral trade could reach levels of $6 billion within a couple of years. However lopsided it might be in India’s favour, the Pakistani economy stands to gain.

Even as he celebrates this achievement, C Raja Mohan worries that a trade surplus in India’s favour would strengthen opponents in Pakistan. He suggests India must consciously facilitate imports from Pakistan. This is advisable to the extent that it is limited to rhetorical facilitation. The best India can do, and ought to, is the removal of barriers. Leave the rest to the laws of competitive advantage.

Cheap tablet, unaffordable mistake

The macabre antics of the India’s human resources development ministry over Aakash are the equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s “let them have cake” attitude

The matter is so serious that mincing words is the irresponsible thing to do. There is a demographic bulge on the horizon and two crucial areas will determine whether that bulge will result in a demographic dividend or severe demographic discount. The first is whether the 30 million children born every year will be educated and skilled enough to be productive members of modern society. The second is whether the Indian economy will generate enough jobs to provide them with adequate livelihoods. The median age in India is around 26 today, which means half the population is under that age. The general shortage of skilled manpower in everything from the armed forces to IT companies to cafe chains indicates that a substantial fraction of this population is not employable—because of the failure of India’s education system.

Unless something is done ten years ago, the demographic dividend will be diluted. Unless something is done now, the demographic dividend will be wiped away, leaving India with a demographic discount. As before, people will call it the “problem of overpopulation” instead of calling it by its real name—the problem of under- and misgovernance. Government exists to ensure the well-being of all its people. It is perverse to contend that population must be controlled because the government is incapable of serving it. It is the government that must boost its competence to ensure that it can perform its functions satisfactorily regardless of how big or small the population is.

In India’s case, the traditional and massively failed approach is to treat both education and jobs as if they were contagious diseases: insulated behind high walls, preventing ordinary people from having easy access to them. The government has failed to deliver education and jobs. So after over sixty years of failure, it’s time to try a different approach. Liberalise education (and labour) and let the solution begin to scale at the same pace as the problem. (See Ajay Shah’s article in this month’s Pragati)

The UPA government’s right to education act is not the answer, although some may claim it’s an improvement over the past. Instead of liberalising education so that the private sector can deliver education at prices and qualities that the people want, the UPA government has placed the entire education sector under the thrall of the Delhi Straitjacket. Disguising a bad policy—which is bound to increase corruption in society—in the language of “rights” may be increase the feel-good factor among sections of the public, but we are still moving in the wrong direction.

Why is all this relevant to a discussion on a cheap tablet computer? To show how deeply wrong Kapil Sibal’s priorities are. First, instead of working on a war-footing to work out how to strengthen the delivery of primary and secondary education, Mr Sibal is focused on the higher education sector. The clever excuse might be that primary education is a state subject. That still doesn’t mean that he should be tilting at the windmills of higher education at the expense of the taxpayer. The education cess imposed on transactions is grotesque—what does the government do with its ordinary tax revenues that it has to collect more money, ostensibly to improve education, but then subsidise fast depreciating assets solving a non-existent problem?

Second, as Atanu Dey has extensively written in the context of the One Laptop Per Child project, what Indian education needs is good teachers and good schools—not gadgets. Once you have good teachers and good schools you might want to supplement it with gadgets. But go look at any central or state government university, college or polytechnic—look the quality of the teachers, their pay scales, their morale, their working conditions and their work culture. No gadget, however cheap or indigenous, can help when campuses are decrepit shells of what they ought to be. How can anyone with a conscience accept that providing college students with a cheap, indigenous computer will even begin to provide them with education and skills they need to be productive members of society?

Third, let’s say—for the sake of argument—that some college students do need computers. Let’s further assume that they cannot afford the Rs 10,000 that can purchase a decent netbook. Should this mean that the Government of India must immediately procure these from a vendor (while lying to the public that the product is “indigenous”)? That’s what Mr Sibal announced initially when trying to create international headlines with the news of a $35 ‘indigenous’ tablet.

Clearly something—most likely reality—didn’t work out. So Mr Sibal has another announcement. “There have been some problems with DataWind (the company the government had contracted with) I must confess,” he admitted. “Therefore, I have got into the act. The IT ministry has got C-DAC and (state-run) ITI Ltd into the act, and I am going to ensure that this product is fully indigenous and truly an Indian product.” Mint, quoting unnamed government sources reports that the “..government is now planning to launch an upgraded version of the tablet as a completely indigenous product under the supervision of a high-powered committee comprising members from the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), department of information technology, the IITs at Kanpur, Mumbai, Chennai and Jodhpur, and some public sector units.” (Aside: The message to investors is beware of contracts you sign with the Indian government.)

So a bureaucracy will design a gadget and a public-sector unit will produce it, before a subsidised product is ‘sold’ at Rs 2,276. What is the justification for the implicit and explicit subsidies that are being thrown at a gadget, especially in the computer market where the brutal forces of Moore’s Law relentlessly lower prices faster than the speed at which two Indian government departments can organise meetings?

Here’s a simpler, cheaper solution: why not get the government give vouchers (of say, Rs 10,000) to every student it intends to reach. Let the student use it to buy the computer of his or her choice from the open market, paying the difference in case the choice is more expensive. This is still an unnecessary expense but may be a far more efficient way to go about putting computers in the hands of college students. There is no need for Datawinds, C-DACs, IITs, ITIs or any public sector units at all.

Finally, it should shame every thinking Indian that a cabinet minister—ironically, one in charge of education—can get away with lies that every educated person knows are lies. Can anyone, anywhere in the computer industry claim a product is indigenous without being laughed at? After claiming that Datawind’s gadget was indigenous, Mr Sibal now says the new government-produced gadget will be really indigenous. These are lies. Should the national motto be so cheaply sacrificed at the altar of an inferiority complex? When it comes to educating our kids, maintaining our health or defending our country, the right approach is to procure the best that the money can buy, whether foreign or indigenous. Indigenousness is not a virtue, even when it is practical.

In the economic history of India, the UPA government will be held singularly responsible for squandering an excellent decade—of high growth, healthy revenues and a strong fiscal position that it had inherited from its predecessor. It has wasted eight years pushing dogmatic approaches to education and resisting labour reforms. Mr Sibal’s antics—there’s no more civilised way to describe his championing of the cheap tablet—show just how frivolous the UPA government is on a matter intimately concerning our future. “No schools, eh? Let them have a cheap tablet then.”

How India and the US can be geoeconomic partners

A bloggingheads discussion with Dan Runde, Center for Strategic and International Studies