Tag: india

Constructing Influence

VoxDev: A pervasive politician-developer nexus exists in Indian cities, where politicians receive illicit financial support from real estate developers in exchange for favourable building policies and accelerated approvals. This “quid pro quo” facilitates the flow of “black money” — income hidden from tax authorities — into campaign coffers. The nexus is difficult to discern in detail due to the opacity of the system, but we uncover what is plausibly a natural consequence: when politicians turnover, building construction slows down.

From a summary in VoxDev of my Journal of Development Economics piece (with Tandel and Gandhi) on the politics of development in Mumbai.

Addendum: See also my Journal of Urban Economics piece on the dangers of public interest litigation in slowing development and also my videos Skyscrapers and Slums and Rent Control in Mumbai for more on these issues.

The Indian Challenge to Blockchains: Digital Public Goods

In my post, Blockchains and the Opportunity of the Commons, I explored the potential of blockchains to create new commons:

Blockchains and tokenization are a way to incentivize the creation of a commons. A commons is an unowned place, platform, or protocol that helps people to meet, communicate and transact. Commons underlying modern life include TCP/IP, SMTP, HTTP, GPS and the English language. We don’t see these commons clearly because they are free, ubiquitous and, like air, taken for granted. What we do see are platforms like Airbnb, Uber and the NYSE and places to meet and communicate like OkCupid, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. What blockchain and tokenization offer is the possibility of creating commons to replace all of these services and much more.

For the most part, the potential has not been realized. But the core idea of substituting a protocol for a firm has been taken in a different direction in India. Instead of blockchains, India has been experimenting with digital public goods. A digital public good is open source software with open data and open standards–available for use or even modification and adaption by anyone. The blockchain community, for example, has long aspired to develop a blockchain-based Uber, connecting drivers and riders without a corporate intermediary. India has achieved this through digital public goods instead.

Namma Yatri is an open-source, open-data Uber-like protocol with 100% of the commission flowing directly from rider to driver. Namma Yatri is built on the Beckn Protocol, a product of the Beckn Foundation which is backed by Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani (Tyler and I had the opportunity to talk with many people behind the project including Nandan on a recent trip to India). Namma Yatri has booked over 15 million trips in just one year of operation, mostly in one city, Bangalore. I expect it will expand rapidly.

Namma Yatri is only one example of a digital public good in the India Stack, a collection that includes identity (Aadhaar), payments (UPI) and digital data sharing (e.g. digital lockers). Since its launch in 2008, for example, India’s Aadhaar system has created a digital identity for over 1.2 billion people allowing them to open some 650 million bank accounts. This has enhanced financial inclusion and facilitated direct government payments of pensions and rations, reducing corruption. Likewise, the UPI system built modern payment rails which are then leveraged by banks and firms such as Google Pay and WhatsApp. The resulting payments system does some 10 billion transactions a month and is one of the fastest and lowest cost in the world.

Challenges remain. The development of digital public goods relies on funding from non-profits, governments, and private consortiums, raising questions about long-term sustainability. These goods need regular maintenance and updates, and some require backend support. Namma Yatri began as a completely free app for drivers and users but if there is a problem who do you call? To support the back-end office, and to pay for updated inputs (such as maps) the service has started to use a subscription fee. Nothing wrong with that but it’s a reminder that firms are not so easily dispensed with. Privacy is another concern. While blockchains offer privacy at the technology layer, privacy for digital public goods depend on legal and normative frameworks. For instance, India’s Aadhaar system is legally restricted from police use, a smart balance that needs to be maintained in changing times.

Despite these challenges, there is no denying that India has built digital public goods at scale in a way that demonstrates an alternative pathway for digital infrastructure and a challenge to blockchains.

India: The Revolution in Private Schooling

A whopping 50%+ of secondary school students in India are educated in private schools. Do private schools increase human capital or merely skim the best students? My paper, Private Education in India: A Novel Test of Cream Skimming made a simple but telling point:

…As the private share of school enrollment increases simple cream skimming becomes less plausible as the explanation for a higher rate of achievement in private schools. If the private schools cream skim when they are at 10% of public school enrollment how much cream can be left in the public school pool when the private schools account for 60% of total enrollment? Thus, if this simple form of cream skimming is the explanation for the higher achievement rate in private schools, we would expect the “private effect,” the difference between private and public scores, to be smaller in regions with a high
share of private schooling.

In fact, what I find is the private advantage, although larger in districts with smaller shares of private schooling (suggesting some skimming), stabilizes and doesn’t disappear even as the share of private schooling heads towards 100%. I also show that mean scores across all students, public and private, increase with the share of private schooling which is inconsistent with cream skimming (which predicts a constant mean). At right a picture showing that private scores continue to outpace public scores even in districts where private schools educate a majority or larger share of students.

In a new paper, Bagde, Epple and Taylor study 4 million students in thousands of villages in India during 2004-2014. In the early years of the study, none of the villages have private schools but entry starts to occur in 2007-2009 and the authors look at who switches to private schools. They find significant selection from higher income, higher caste, higher ability, and males towards private schools but no evidence that public school students are harmed.

The authors give a nod to the possibility that stratification could generate problems down the line if it increases inequality but they don’t mention the key point that, as with arguments for cream skimming, stratification concerns diminish the more students are in private schools and disappear altogether if 100% of students are in private schools.

More generally, India is pioneering private education on a grand scale and the entire world should pay attention to these innovations.

Addendum: See also my previous post on a key paper by Muralidharan and Sundararaman, Private Schooling In India: Results from a Randomized Trial.

The Anarchy

William Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers of non-fiction. He burst upon the scene in 1989 as a precocious, if occasionally a bit snotty travel writer, with In Xanadu in which he traced the path of Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Xanadu in Inner Mongolia. He really hit stride, however, with City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, an essentially perfect example of the “Year in” genre that combines humor, history and analysis and remains to this day an excellent guide to historical Delhi. In From the Holy Mountain Dalrymple traveled from Greece to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to understand the ancient roots of the Christian populations in these countries. Sadly, Dalrymple’s trip has become in some respects a last document of cultures now disappearing under the stress of war, revolution and suppression. As Dalrymple aged he turned more and more to pure history. In The Last Mughal and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Dalyrmple gives what I think are the definitive accounts of the Indian mutiny of 1857 and the British invasion of Afghanistan of 1839-1842. Especially notable in both of these books is that Dalyrmple draws on previous ignored or underused Indian and Afghani accounts. There are other books, collections of journalistic essays, photographs and more but I will mention just one more, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a beautiful and unforgettable account of nine people in modern India each walking a unique religious path.

In his latest book, The Anarchy, Dalrymple recounts the remarkable history of the East India Company from its founding in 1599 to 1803 when it commanded an army twice the size of the British Army and ruled over the Indian subcontinent. I review The Anarchy at EH.net. Here’s one bit from my review:

The Mughal emperor Shah Alam, for example, had been forced to flee Delhi leaving it to be ruled by a succession of Persian, Afghani and Maratha warlords. But after wandering across eastern India for many years, he regathered his army, retook Delhi and almost restored Mughal power. At a key moment, however, he invited into the Red Fort with open arms his “adopted” son, Ghulam Qadir. Ghulam was the actual son of Zabita Khan who had been defeated by Shah Alam sixteen years earlier. Ghulam, at that time a young boy, had been taken hostage by Shah Alam and raised like a son, albeit a son whom Alam probably used as a catamite. Expecting gratitude, Shah Alam instead found Ghulam driven mad. Ghulam took over the Red Fort and cut out the eyes of the Mughal emperor, immediately calling for a painter to immortalize the event.

Read the whole review and buy the book. It’s a hell of a story.

Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State

Walking around one of the tonier districts of Mumbai I came across a sign, “Avoid Using Plastic Carry Bags.” The sign would not have been out of place in Portland or Berkeley but less than a block away cows and people were sleeping on the street. The incongruity motivated my new paper, Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State (with Shruti Rajagopalan). We argue that one reason that India passes laws which are incongruous with its state of development is that Indian elites often take their cues about what is normal, good and desirable from Western elites. There’s nothing wrong with imitation, of course. We hope that good policies will be imitated but imitation in India is often premature. Premature because India does not have the state capacity to enforce the edicts of a developed country.

India has essentially all the inspections, regulations, and laws a developed country such as the United States has, but at approximately $235 of federal spending per capita the Indian government simply cannot accomplish all the tasks it has assumed. Consider: U.S. federal government spending per capita was five times higher in 1902 than Indian federal government spending per capita in 2006 (Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock 2017, 58). Yet the Indian government circa 2006 was attempting to do much more than the U.S. government did in 1902.

Premature imitation doesn’t simply mean that proportionately less is done it results in tensions that lead to corruption and a flailing state, a state that cannot implement its own rules because it is undercut by the incentives of its own agents. Premature imitation amplifies a development trap.

What then is to be done? We argue that the ideal policy regime for a government with limited state capacity is presumptive laissez-faire.

The Indian state does not have enough capacity to implement all the rules and regulations that elites, trying to imitate the policies of developed economies, desire. The result is premature load bearing and a further breakdown in state capacity….At the broadest level, this suggests that states with limited capacity should rely more on markets even when markets are imperfect—presumptive laissez-faire. The market test isn’t perfect, but it is a test. Markets are the most salient alternative to state action, so when the cost of state action increases, markets should be used more often.Imagine, for example, that U.S. government spending had to be cut by a factor of ten.Would it make sense to cut all programs by 90 percent? Unlikely. Some programs and policies are of great value, but others should be undertaken only when state capacity and GDP per capita are higher. As Edward Glaeser quips,“A country that cannot provide clean water for its citizens should not be in the business of regulating film dialogue.” A U.S. government funded at one-tenth the current level would optimally do many fewer things. So why doesn’t the Indian government do many fewer things?

Presumptive laissez-faire is not an argument that laissez-faire is optimal but an argument that state capacity is a limited resource that must be allocated wisely. The idea runs against the “folk wisdom” of development economics. The folk wisdom says that developing countries today can leap over the laissez-faire period  that most developed countries went through and instead move directly to the middle way.

In the alternative view put forward here, relative laissez-faire is a step to development, perhaps even a necessary step, even if the ultimate desired end point of development is a regulated, mixed economy. Presumptive laissez-faire is the optimal form of government for states with limited capacity and also the optimal learning environment for states to grow capacity. Under laissez-faire, wealth, education, trade, and trust can grow, which in turn will allow for greater regulation.

Read the whole thing.

The Indian School of Public Policy

India is changing very rapidly and launching new programs and policies at breakneck pace–some reasonably well thought out, others not so well thought out. Historically, India has relied on a small cadre of IAS super-professionals–the basic structure goes back to Colonial times when a handful of Englishmen ruled the country–who are promoted internally and are expected to be generalists capable of handling any and all tasks. The quality of the IAS is unparalleled, of the 1 million people who typically write the Civil Services Exam the IAS accepts only about 180 candidates annually and there are less than 5000 IAS officers in total. But 5,000 generalists are not capable of running a country of over 1 billion people and and India’s bureaucracy as a whole is widely regarded as being slow and of low quality. The quality of the bureaucracy must increase, deep experts in policy must be encouraged and brought in on a lateral basis and there needs to be greater circulation with and understanding of the private sector.

The Indian government has started to show significant interest in hiring people from outside the bureaucratic ranks. NITI Aayog, the in-house government think tank, which replaced the Planning Commission, has hired young graduates from the world’s top universities as policy consultants. The Prime Minister Fellowship Scheme is an interesting initiative to attract young people to policymaking. A range of government departments and ministries do hire young, bright graduates in various disciplines to engage in research and advisory services. In fact, in a marked departure from tradition, the Indian government recently recruited 9 people working in the private sector into their joint secretary level (senior bureaucrats). Nine people doesn’t sound like a lot but these are hires at the top of the pyramid and

[T]his is perhaps the first time that a large of group of experts with domain knowledge will enter the government through the lateral-entry process.

The demand for policy professionals is there. What about the supply? I am enthusiastic about The Indian School of Public Policy, India’s newest policy school and the first to offer a post-graduate program in policy design and management. The ISPP has brought academics, policymakers and business professionals and philanthropists together to build a world-class policy school. I am an academic adviser to the school along with Arvind Panagariya, Shamika Ravi, Ajay Shah and others. The faculty includes Amitabh Mattoo, Dipankar Gupta, Parth J. Shah and Seema Chowdhry among others. Nandan Nilekani, Vallabh Bhansali and Jerry Rao are among the school’s supporters.

The ISPP opens this year with a one-year postgraduate program in Policy, Design & Management. More information here.

Where India Goes

Where India Goes, a book about the problem of open defecation in India, is the best social science book I have read in years. Written by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes, examines an important issue and it does so with a superb combination of human interest storytelling and top-notch empirical research made accessible.

Drawing on the academic literature, Coffey and Spears show that open defecation sickens and kills children, stunts their growth, and lowers their IQ all of which shows up in reduced productivity and wages in adulthood.

The dangers of open defecation are clear. Moreover, Gandhi said that “Sanitation is more important than independence” and Modi said “toilets before temples,” yet in India some half a billion people still do not use latrines. Why not? Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (2013), offer a typical explanation:

In 2011 half of all Indian households did not have access to toilets, forcing them to resort to open defecation on a daily basis…

The phrasing presents the problem as a lack of access that forces people to resort to open defecation. From this perspective the solution seems obvious, provide access. After all, if you or I had access to latrines we would use them so if someone else isn’t using latrines it must be because they don’t have access. A bit of thought, however, dispels this notion.

Latrines are not expensive. Many people in countries poorer than India build their own latrines. If access is not the problem then building latrines may not be the solution. Indeed, India’s campaign(s) to build latrines have been far less successful than one might imagine based on the access theory. Quite often latrines are built and not used. Sometimes this is due to poor construction or location but often perfectly serviceable latrines are simply not used as latrines. In fact, surveys indicate that 40 per cent of households that have a working latrine also have at least one person who regularly defecates in the open (Coffey and Spears 2017).

For many people in India, open defecation is preferred to latrine use. The reasons relate to issues of ritual purity and caste. Latrines in or near homes are considered polluting, not in a physical so much as a spiritual or ritual sense. Latrine cleaning is also associated with the Dalit (out)-caste, in itself a polluting category (hence untouchable). That is, the impurity of defecation and caste are mutually reinforcing. As a result, using or, even worse, cleaning latrines is considered a ritual impurity. The problem of open defecation is thus intimately tied up with Hindu notions of purity and caste which many do not want to discuss, let alone condemn.

In the villages the idea of open defecation is also associated with clean air, exercise, and health. Thus, in surveys “both men and women speak openly about the benefits of open defecation and even associate it with health and longevity.” Even many women prefer open defecation if only because it gives them a chance to get out of the house and have some freedom of movement.

Eventually, flush toilets and sewage will eliminate the problem of open defecation, but many people will die before sewage comes to rural India. Building latrines is not enough but is there an opportunity for an Indian entrepreneur? If standardized latrines were bundled with service contracts and provided by professional, uniformed workers who emptied the latrines mechanically (and thus had dignity), demand could well be high. A Walmart for latrine construction and management.

Coffey and Spears, however, offer no silver bullets. Problems brought about by belief and behavior are usually more difficult to solve than material problems. Nevertheless, by demonstrating the importance of the problem and by facing the causes squarely, Coffey and Spears have done India a tremendous service.