Friday, December 30, 2016

Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income is an idea whose time has come. Universal basic income will be a form of social security in which all Indian citizens below the poverty line regularly receive an unconditional sum of money from the government. The amount may be as little as Rs2000 - Rs3000 a year, but that's a lot of free money in the bottom rungs of the income pyramid. Poor families are always destabilized due to their lives irregular cash flows and looming expenses. This will act as small cushion for critical times.

Why the time is ripe politically ? Demonetization has also created a disaster effect on Indian economy and market. Hence, NDA government has changed the demonetization narrative from one of fighting black money to bring about pushing for a cashless economy. NDA had prominently highlighted the issue of black money and had promised to bring it back in Lok Sabha election campaign. Universal Basic Income into Jan Dhan Account will be seen as commitment to a political agenda and a smart way to fight poverty.

There are two major school of thoughts under Direct Cash Transfer (DCT) - CCT and UCT. A comprehensive review of the evidence around cash transfers, Berk Ozler of the World Bank suggests that an unconditional cash transfer (UCT) can provide a critical foundation, on which policymakers can layer carefully designed, targeted CCTs to encourage specific outcomes, such as education or health behaviors. Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCTs) consist of cash grants with means testing to ensure funds go to the intended recipients, but without extra requirements on recipient behavior. Universal Basic Income comes into category of Unconditional Cash Transfer. Those who are further interested in the subject, this video does an excellent job:

While the number of Jan Dhan bank accounts opened as per the latest estimates stands at 26.03 Crore, reaching the last-mile user remains a problem and large number of dormant accounts. Only 14.43 crores of them are aadhar seed hence a verification and duplication is tough to avoid. But universal basic income will help banks to reduce current number (23.85%) of zero balance accounts. A 2013 CGAP report actually points that electronic Payments and social cash transfers in India can improve the business case for banks and agents.

Concept of universal basic income is utilized in developed countries currently. The available routine, process-oriented jobs job of people may be automated in a few years’ time due to the digital revolution, artificial intelligence and robotics. Finland has begin paying basic income to unemployed citizens. A recent research paper suggest that even done for short–term unconditional cash transfers (UCT) will create longer-term impacts.

Cash transfers are an effective, low-cost social protection tool, but they don’t on their own move people out of poverty. The cash transfers should not be seen as a substitute for state actions. There is always investment required in improving infrastructure for health services, education, skill training, and other social programs. The policy question remains still to be answered as universal basic income may sound great but questions remain over whether India can afford it. How much money can be termed as a true “basic” income for household? Should it be truly be both unconditional and universal? Can the program be tailored for more gender sensitive in nature? The debate has just begun and can be read at LivemintGlobal dialogue. More time will be needed for individuals to understand how universal basic income will affect institutions, and their relevancy to their daily lives.

Friday, December 23, 2016

World Bank Report on Behavioral Economics

Humans in the real world behave in ways that are strikingly inconsistent with rational models based in economics. Bounded rationality, bounded self-interest and bounded self-control in human is a pure fiction, not a reality. With these assumptions, the profession of economics with its obsession with mathematical modelling has, over time, hopelessly removed from the complexities on the ground. Global Recession of 2008 was a jolt to the the neoclassical free market purists who were unable to predict market failure. The shock led to to the mainstreaming of behavioral economics. Behavioral economics is a subfield of economics that draws on the psychological, social, and cultural foundations of human decision making.

A Mckinsey report: Redefining Capitalism has summarized this quite good -  Over the past several decades, though, some of the bedrock assumptions of neoclassical theory have begun to unravel. Behavioral economists have accumulated a mountain of evidence showing that real humans don’t behave as a rational homo economicus would. Experimental economists have raised awkward questions about the very existence of utility; and that is problematic because it has long been the device economists use to show that markets maximize social welfare. Empirical economists have identified anomalies suggesting that financial markets aren’t always efficient. And the macroeconomic models built on neoclassical ideas performed very poorly during the financial crisis.

I have previously written on World Bank reports too in a grim sense. But this is different and big. Mind, Society, and Behaviour is a World Bank report of 2015 that will lead to major redesign in the field of Development Economics and Development Policy. The resource material is good for a detailed study and can be utilized as an example for a beginner as well as expert. As per Kaushik Basu, Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank :"This Report distills new and growing scientific evidence on this broader understanding of human behavior so that it can be used to promote development. Standard economic policies are effective only after the right cognitive propensities and social norms are in place." (Source)

The report considers the importance of irrational and often unpredictable behavior in human decision making. It is based on theoretical and investigative work that comes with uncovering the underlying rhythms and rules of human behavior. The report stresses that focusing more closely on correctly defining and diagnosing problems with human element can lead to better designed interventions. The report applies the three principles to multiple areas, including early childhood development, productivity, household finance, health and health care, and climate change.

I will quote a passage of the report (page 22) for the glimpse: From the hundreds of empirical papers on human decision making that form the basis of this Report, three principles stand out as providing the direction for new approaches to understanding behavior and designing and implementing development policy. First, people make most judgments and most choices automatically, not deliberatively: we call this “thinking automatically.” Second, how people act and think often depends on what others around them do and think: we call this “thinking socially.” Third, individuals in a given society share a common perspective on making sense of the world around them and understanding themselves: we call this “thinking with mental models.”

Solving last mile challenges and Behavioural Change and The Making of Homo Honoratus: From Omission to Commission are examples of how behavioural quirks lead to success in the public policy. Economics without debates, politics or history is a dead mathematical exercise devoid of any intellectual and humane base. The past is already gilded with Locke, Bentham, Mill and Rawls. In the current age of techno-utopianism, the new star in town is Professor Daniel Kanheman. The transformation of Homo economicus to Homo sapiens has began.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Riddle of SHG Movement

Why SHG movement failed in *North-East India but successful in Kerala ? Kerala and North East are both quite high in literacy rate and women dominated society.  Even recently Tripura has become the most literate state in the country overtaking Kerala. This question was asked by a government officer in Ganjam district where I was deputed in my stint at Odisha Livelihood Mission.  The argument seems valid but I had three reasons for the failure now.

1. These are matrilineal societies, not matriarchal ones. Matriarchy is not just about descent and inheritance being traced through the female line. The matriarchal system means a system where women have power in “all activities relating to allocation, exchange and production, as well as socio-cultural and political power." When descent and inheritance are traced through women it’s called a matrilineal system. Matrilineality is only a sub-system of matriarchy and the power in the social power structure remain in the hands of male only. Traditionally, it was communities like the Nairs, Ezhavas and Warriers in Kerala & it’s the the Khasi, Jaintias and Garo tribes (majority of the population of Meghalaya) who practice or used to practice this system. For more about women in North East, please read Status of Women: North Eastern Region of India versus India by Dr Ira Das

2. Population Density is the biggest difference between them. Kerala is home to 2.76% of India's population; with a density of 859 persons per square km, its land is nearly three times as densely settled as the Indian national average of 370 persons per square km. [Reference] This is the major reason as sparse population in the hilly region create a high operational cost and challenges in the last mile connectivity in North-east India.

3. Lack of penetration of financial services is the major reason behind failure of SHG drive. There are only 2.3 per cent of total account in Northeast India.while the maximum no of 27.44 per cent of total account in South India. Read more Financial Inclusion in India:A Brief Focus on Northeast India. Stronger presence of MFIs in the Assam and Tripura helped reduce the disparity but there is a long way to go.

4. In a region ravaged by conflict, business as usual is no longer an option. The political risk due to constant terrorist and insurgent activities with AFSPA have also led as a major hindrance for investment in infrastructure. There has been chaotic process of creating a peaceful state, an economy and a workable political settlement from the violent, corrupt, and poverty-ridden area shows the development process in all of its historical reality.

The picture with inclusion in the development emerges is of increasingly nuanced collaborations and partnerships: business-state, business-society, and between formal and informal business. The promise of financial inclusion in India has been for long time but has never materialised.The Reserve Bank of India is navigating the path to financial inclusion by means of regulations and guidance. RGVN (North East) Microfinance Limited, the only micro-finance company from the region to be selected by the RBI to set up a small bank. The development of financial services will also be a source of growth in North East in the future.

*The Northeast India comprises of contiguous eight states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim - is geographically, ethnically and culturally different from the rest of the country.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

HR Policy in Development Sector

Incentives, capacities, norms and professional identities of the organization are the reasons behind success or failing in branding. Brand name is also created mostly by network of ex-employees, partners and vendors. Hence, managing human capital and relationship becomes key in creating brand value. There comes the massive role of HR Manager in the mapping the environment to identify : Unique Employee Allegiance Proposition & Distinctive Competitive Advantage.

Why people switch organization? The answer to the question is same for each sector & development sector is no anomaly. Most Companies/NGOs have tendency to neither invest in the people nor provide mentors for the career guidance. This led to migration of the talented people who have quality of leadership. The mutual trust deficit leads to an organization which will be optimized to hire and keep people who merely want the next job. When organization sees people as true assets,they empower them with knowledge.

I always like the advice of Simon Sinek:When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.Massive HR problems are the dirty secret of a social sector. There is no talent crunch but mismanagement of human resource in Indian social sector. There is a good article on challenges of human resource in development sector in India.

Limitations of HR Manager in development sector:

1. Usually Indian NGOs are entirely one man show and thus giving massive issues of employee grievances to HR. The centralized decision making leaves HR quite toothless in the overall decision making process. In the board meetings of a national level NGO taking place in an AC conference hall, the focus is never on HR policies.

2. The budget and time constraint lead to HR going for the safe route for seeking the degree and relevant experience in job profile. The recruitment ends up with people who are merely good enough without probing fit of new employee into organization culture. Nobody in HR ever got fired for hiring MBA guy in India. When faced with the prospect of failure, HR seeks protection by hiding behind the brand name.

3. HR Manager in NGOs has literally no say in serious issues like gender ratio and the glass ceiling of the organization. They have maximum set targets for recruiting female front-line staff and lower management positions.

4. It's unreasonable to find someone truly talented to switch to your organization with brand name and low package only. Even with limited budget in the NGOs, an organization seldom improve quality by cutting costs, but can often cut costs by improving quality of the workforce.

5. Sometimes current employee don't understand the dynamics of a hiring, they don't understand why certain new employee have been recruited for so much money and why someone else has gone for such less. HR Manager has to unearth and address such insecurities with proper communication.

Recruitment Strategy:

1. Staffing skills and requirements have already altered rapidly in line with the growth of technology and social media but is expected to become more fluid in terms of cross-organisational collaboration with PPP mode, P2P ventures & even CSR activities. The old strategy of recruitment with lowest bidder will always be misleading in case of innovative projects.

2. A good recruiter scout first for competent person with potential and then for professionals. That comes with the experience and people management. Scratchy knowledge of the sector and human behaviour can lead to poor people choice in filtering process.

Whenever a good manager recruits, the single question to be looked:“Is this person likely to replace me one day?” And if the answer is yes, that’s the sort of person an organization want. Further, the top management has to do everything possible to make sure such careers flourish and vision of organization is fulfilled by new recruit.

3. There's a great danger when it's all about process - students getting into the MBA, then smoothly into the high profile job. Sometimes what's important is to get the late developer, or the guy who's just missed out or has taken unconventional path. The guys who've gone out the profession due to personal reasons and are desperate to get back in - they just want to devote the skills. They're there for all the right reasons. The brownie point for HR, they don't even talk about money sometimes.

Retention Techniques:The tough part is retention of employees. Best place to work organization always ensure this parameter to be one of pillars in building organization

1. A Harvard study suggests that the key to sustaining loyalty in employees is making sure they get to do the things that are most important to them outside of work. The regular one to one communication with all, flexibility in hours, non monetary rewards, appreciation from top management matters most for an employee.

2. It's unreasonable to expect that you'll develop amazing people when you don't give them room to change, grow and fail. It takes a very self assured person to compliment talent of others. An insecure top management scavenges on the failure of new recruits and create negative environment in the organization.

3. Leadership that grooms only frugal, non-confrontational and smooth-tongue employee will always have succession problems. HR job is to ensure diversity in the management and as well as workforce. Talent management is not about social standing in organization but inspiring employees to on own strength and performance. Sharp analysis and straight talk promotes reform in the all type of organization. Hence, a culture of praise closes the feedback loop for HR only and best of talent slips away to other firm discreetly.

It's a tricky work being HR in the development sector as criticizing the organisation is very easy but correcting the course without any support from top is much difficult. HR ends up either looking after employees or an organization in long term. The latter is the majority phenomena. It’s a nice idea to change a system from inside. It just happens to be untrue with time. An established structure will change one before one can change it. Accomplishing all three objectives – quality, quantity, and cost efficiency – simultaneously is difficult, and the likelihood of compromise is great.

In the figment of public imagination, development sector is staffed entirely by self-sacrificing and below market standard worker bees. I would term worker bees as "Development Mujahideen" who have given any decent wages and working in remote location for universal betterment. It is still assumed that social work is a sector for people who could not do anything else in life. And that the sole aim of good students is to become rich for personal gains. There is a lot of suppressed frustration in the professional of this sector. I had once urged my friend,Manu Bansal to ventilate the frustration through words and please read the personal anguish in blog post with a pint of beer.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Demonetization & Rural economy

In the mid 1960s, India faced a severe food shortage (mainly in Bihar) and nearly escaped from a major famine. Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri started lots of policy initiatives to curb food shortages and such initiatives in turn paved the way of Green Revolution. When India was throttled again economically in 1990, and that's what changed the country forever. The opinion of researcher Suyash Rai at the National Institute for Public Finance and Policy and Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on black economy is required to understand the depth of the situation.

The announcement of demonetization of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes came on 8th November 2016. Problem in rural economy had appeared as Kharif harvest is sold in hard cash, an investment is required for Rabi season and marriages in community will happen in this time of year. Farmers, landless labourers, domestic servants, pensioners, small traders, all these and many other groups have taken a terrible hit  First, there is huge liquidity crunch in the informal and rural sector. The effects is felt by both supply and demand side.

The MFI industry is a cash intensive with its large network base of 3.2 crore clients in India. Most of the borrowers take loans in cash and they repay loans in cash. MFI operations will be most affected due to this decision as there are for lot of women with loans between Rs 10000 to Rs 50000. The disbursements will be delayed and collections drops can lead to situation of operational paralysis in the rural sector. Even then fight for market share could lead to weakening of credit appraisal standards for achieving required sales target. Such conditions for the failure of the industry to defer payments temporarily will be milked by political class. MFI sector has already shown relative slowness towards going ‘cashless’. This can be attributed to fact that India is among the most cash-intensive economies in the world with a cash-to-GDP ratio of 12%, almost four times as much as other markets such as Brazil (3.93%), Mexico (5.3%) and South Africa (3.73%) .

There is huge requirements of seeds, fertiliser and pesticides for Rabi season. The farmer will be forced to buy on credit or take loan from informal credit sources at exorbitant interest rates. Even with decent monsoon rains, the farmers is willing to invest heavily this year as they were hit by drought in 2014 and 2015. Government has allowed withdrawal limit to Rs 25000 for the farmers but this will not solve problem as rural banks are already overloaded with responsibilities of exchange. Many people simply do not have active bank accounts and even ATMs are working under capacity.  A lot of housewives, artisans, and workers may have cash lying with them at home. This isn't part of hoarded illegal money but a traditional way of saving money for women without seeking permission from husband or other family members. This little amount, concealed from everyone, usually grows as time passes and is used in the time of needs. This revelation isn't "small price to pay" and can't be termed as collateral damage in fight against black money. This kind of policy debate ignoring women leads to is a less empathetic society .

The chaos spread in this time will be used by black money hoarders in rural areas too. The illegal exchange of currency notes with lesser monetary value notes will be the first move of brokers. Brokers will use KYC of common man for siphoning of money into Jan Dhan Accounts of illiterate populace for small time. The main challenge will be of cash logistics for banks in far and remote places. Rural economy will be forced to run on deferred payments and barter system for few months. Rice, wheat and other staple crops will be used as exchange currency. The slowdown of economy will wipe out a large number of small entrepreneurs from the market. There is an urgent need to tackle middleman-transporter nexus in this scenario that has always dominated rural marketplace. The issue with farm in India is not that farm income is exempt from tax but farmers don't even have to report it. The small traders in villages have agriculture land holdings and always can show the illicit wealth as farm income.

The short term effect will be slowdown of economy and hence a reverse exodus of labour will happen in upcoming months. NREGA expenditure must be increased in this financial years as there is lot of rural populace who have no asset base and mainly depend on wage labour as their primary source of income. MNREGS, ICDS and even NRHM are only source of livelihood for many women in an already crippled rural economy, with little avenues for non-agrarian work is fast depleting with the effect of demonetization.

The long term effects of this policy decision will surely lead to both innovation and protest. Most labour intensive businesses (such as tea-gardens, factories, transporters, cab services, construction and civil engineering works and so on) pay wages in cash. There will be impact on the mode of payment in near future. There will be promotion of financial transactions using digital, paper-less modes like mobile money, mobile wallets, debit cards, ATMs, and ePOS machines. MFI sector is focused on credit and maybe some insurance with , while the m-banking world is focused on transfers and payments with sophisticated back end systems. There will be convergence between them to avoid such situation again. MFI, customer and banks will ultimately move towards unison as a part of the financial inclusion drive of the government.

Reform is often waylaid by hidden priorities and even slow when implemented fairly. There is always unwanted effects due to complex nature in rolling out any new scheme. Structural reform in 90's have proven this mantra and the long term actions taken in cleansing financial sector by current government is no exception. There was always an urgent need to have radical changes keeping ten years time ahead. A strategy can't be sought with incremental thinking by the state. RuPay, Payment banks, Demonetization, Aadhar Cards & Jan Dhan Yojna has brought up winds of disruption and innovation through technology, regulations and government action, will fundamentally alter the banking sector. The future will belong to those who show speed, imagination and the boldness to embrace change towards cashless economy and targeting BOP clientele.

Still, I will argue that a rationally argued cause-and-effect connection within the limits of the evidence is required from experts, as it is essential to investigate facts while debunking fantasy element spread in social media. India has to understand and address positive changes, failures and externalities of demonetization drive in rural economy.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Default Management in CBFO

Microfinance means different things to different people. There is difference between working of regular MFI companies and Community-Based Financial Organizations (CBFO). Community based microfinance model, owned and governed by community members has always served cost-effectively and provided financial services to the end users. Too much scaling without proper assessment could drive CBFO to financial indiscipline at the SHG level, lead to over-borrowing and potential default. While working with few clients will be unsustainable for the CBFO itself.

Loans can benefit the poor and their community only if properly managed. In most of the default, the pressure on giving loans without proper risk assessment mounts on both supply and demand side. A debt becomes bad when it’s not paid for three consecutive months. Here are few pointers that are learnt with the experience -

How to avoid delinquency ?

• Peer monitoring and group pressure is the main influential factor in loan recovery performance of the SHGs. Even the family of loan applicant must be in the loop when loan is sanctioned.

• Due diligence must be carried out in loan appraisal to ensure the repayment capacity of the customer and assessing the customer's capacity to repay and avoid over-indebtedness. Educating clients on ill effects of over-borrowing will go a long way in reducing arrears and defaults.

• Recovery and repayments depend on the mutual trust between CBFO and its members. Agent dormancy, or inability to deliver service due to vacancy, has a corrosive effect on trust, which is the bedrock for any system of financial services.

• The clarity on installments, penalty & expected vs actual must be with agent as well as member for bringing clarity and smooth information flow.

• It is the responsibility of the staff to clear overdue and facilitate the grievances readdressal with the community. There must be refresher training for the staff and office bearers on risk management, sustainability, accountability and ownership.

• Knowledge dissemination of Panchasutra : Regular Meeting, Regular Saving, Inter Loaning, Timely Repayment, & Up to date Books of Accounts.

• Reminders or calls up the customer for recovery is common practice. Weekly SMS reminders before scheduled repayment date with detail of loan amount will serve as a nudge in the behavioral change of members.

• Documenting and communicating answers of questions like -What was the main single factor that motivated you to repay? Are they consistent or not? If not, why not?

Do’s of Overdue Recovery

• Try to motivate borrowers to repay and root cause analysis of the default must be filed. The default happens either due to fraud or real time emergency. The distinction between them makes easy for recovery down the road.

• Only one person must be Point of Contact (POC) for default/ delinquent group. Recovery for default must be done in the team of office bearers and members of SHG or cluster with the staff.

• There must be a notice served to members having defaulted loan before visit. Regular follow-ups with proper communication messages are the best way of ensuring recovery.

• The emotional factor must be utilized in recovery process by giving successful examples of other members in such position. There must be pressure exerted from two sides. One person must explain her social angle of the default while other person must focus on self interest and future options.

• The defaulted member must be invited in the meetings with respect. Staff must facilitate that positive environment is maintained in the meetings. There must be carefulness on the gender and caste issue.

• Recovery should normally be made only at a mutually agreed designated place. Field staff shall be allowed to make recovery at the place of residence or work of the borrower only if borrower fails to appear at the designated place on 2 or more successive occasions.

Don’t of Overdue Recovery

• Team especially consisting all men shouldn't go for recovery from women member and no abusive language should be used. The contact time is between 7am to 7pm excluding inappropriate occasions such as death. RBI norm must be followed with rigor in the recover process.

• Police complain is the last option to be used by the team. There should be strictly no mention of claiming Land/ Gold for recovery of default amount.

• Field staff shouldn't give any commitment of either rescheduling or restructuring of the loan without any consent to the superiors. To rework household budget and make provisions to accommodate changes in the repayment amount must be made in written agreement.

• A very high level of indebtedness and tough recovery techniques can led to many villagers seeking government intervention that will be political risk for the operations.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

What people think of Microfinance?

Microfinance is financial services for poor and low-income communities, people who have been excluded from the mainstream financial system. Yet, there are the diverse opinions people have about Microfinance. I have encountered few in last 5-6 years and presenting them in summary format.

1. The MBA: "Truly amazing business model & poverty reduction tool."

2. The arrogant: “Unsustainable and too risky! Does it actually work?”

3. The over-informed: “Yes, I know about it, you give money to poor. Social enterprise!”

4. The ill-informed: “Thugs lending money to poor at high interest rates and brutal recovery techniques.”

5. The devout fan: "This is the future, only we need investment and scaling and may be P2P."

Microfinance is not panacea from all troubles, this also means that not any poor person can obtain the loan. I can vouch with my experience that only micro loans can't solve poverty. There is enough evidence to support my claim : Microloans Don’t Solve Poverty But research might reveal what will. I always go for the advice of Wayne Dyre before deciding for myself:"The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don't know anything about."

Friday, June 17, 2016

Distinct Honour to Chaitanya

Governor CH Vidyasagar Rao has appointed social researcher Dr Sudha Kothari and Founder of Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) Milind Kamble as expert members on the Rest of Maharashtra Development Board on 6th June 2016. Sudha Kothari serves as the Managing Trustee of Chaitanya, a developmental organization established by her in 1993. Chaitanya is one of the pioneers of community based microfinance institutions in Maharashtra state and promotes 42 SHG federation with an outreach of 1 Lakh women members across 18 districts of Maharashtra. Dr. Kothari also serves as a Member of Board of Trustees at FWWB India.

One of the great delights of my job is the daily encounter with Dr. Kothari. She is a great mentor and her whole life mirrors commitment to poor women. It’s an honor to work with people whose contributions make us proud and inspiring. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Good Governance & Public Policy

What is Public Policy ? Public policy focuses on the processes by which various types of policies and regulations that affect members of the public are created and enforced. Public Policy deals with public goods delivery – political economy, taxation, law and order, good social and physical infrastructure, including better education and health facilities – and facilitate provision of private goods (cheaper power, flexible labour laws and other subsidies). The guiding principles for better public policy include building people’s ownership and participation in the governance and decisions affecting their lives. Regulation, Redistribution and Equity came to the forefront of policymaking.

Resources be it human, natural or financial are limited in a country and a government must utilize them in the most productive manner can achieve the best possible growth. That is the essence of good governance. The first and foremost requirement of good governance is broadly distributed political rights among citizens and the government accountability and and transparency in public administration. An ideal public service institutions will be decentralized, professional and autonomous management structures.

The theoretical framework however doesn't work smoothly in the real world. Governments in many developing & underdeveloped countries are corrupt and never work in favor of the people. They work for the interests of specific groups. It would be naive to think that governments work for the public all the time. Economics works alongside and interacts with social and political forces framing the policy. Politically motivated decisions, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest, the vested interests, & the bad experiments with good intentions can lead to the flawed policy making process. So how the end objective is achieved ?

Policy makers must be open-minded and open-armed to combat such conflicting interests arising due to potentially corrupt motivation. They must have sound knowledge of the local context of a community – its history, politics, social structure, and culture, along with its economics. More the diverse the stakeholders in policy making, the probe in the issue will examine ground realities, re-validate assumptions on which our policies rest, and evaluating  new initiatives. The real impact of policy decisions are measured by three factors:

* Number of beneficiaries covered under the policy
* Number of beneficiaries who experience a positive change with the implementation
* Participation of the people and innovation springing from the outcomes.

Public opinion is varied and contested space, continually shaped and reshaped over time. Popular opinion in India generally overlook corrupt vested interests or don't want to go for long term reform. Hence, Indian state has always insulated public policy from open debate. The bureaucracy in India has never let the control of policy shifts to an autonomous institutions and public has suffered the ill results of lack of knowledge among civil servants. Bureaucracy seldom promotes creativity and, under the cover of neutrality, preserves the advantages of the powerful by dominating the weak. In the government systems, professionals are always crowded out by the imprisoning logic of bureaucracy. As described aptly by Prof Ajay Shah: In the West, leaders choose the direction of public policy. Government is like a car, which goes where the leader directs. But in India, the car is broken, and just turning the steering wheel is ineffective. To do public policy in India, the skill required is that of an engineer and not the driver. It is about opening the hood, understanding what is wrong with the institution, and fixing it.

Each policy must face several test: Are the policies realistic? How will they be implemented? What results will they produce in the long run? Were there more reasonable, less risky, cost effective, user friendly, & more inclusive policy measures that would have yielded as much benefit as the rolled out one ? There is no ultimate policy measure but always a solutions-oriented approach means more innovative outreach and trade-offs in a wiser way. I will be putting more on the non academic and self learned diagnosis of public policy in coming days. Watch this space and hear buzz words like committees, accountability, check and balances, transparency. Have I lost you yet? I will.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Agricultural Commodities - Pulses

Market at the micro level has to serve three main stakeholders with different expectations. Farmers wants good price and constant demand, distributor wants fat margin and consumer wants low prices and quality product. In the market scenario at macro level- production of the pulses, demand-supply conditions within India, volatility in global commodity prices, variation in exchange rate, policy of the government and surge in import can lead to determination of final price of the any commodity.

This article series aims to provide an introductory overview on the agricultural commodities in India. The first article of this series will carry the discussion by offering an analysis of the pulses in India. India is the world’s largest pulse producing, consuming and importing country. Bengal Gram (Desi Chick Pea / Desi Chana), Pigeon Peas (Arhar / Toor / Red Gram), Green Beans (Moong Beans), Chick Peas (Kabuli Chana), Black Matpe (Urad / Mah / Black Gram), Red Kidney Beans (Rajma), Black Eyed Peas (Lobiya), Lentils (Masoor), White Peas (Matar) are major pulses grown and consumed in India. During 1950-51 to 2013-14, area under pulses increased by 31% from 19.09 million hectares [mha] to 25.23 [mha] and productivity per hectare increased by 46% from 441 kg to 764 kg with significantly disappointing 0.64% CAGR of productivity. Even the area under cultivation for pulses has seen marginal increment, there is shift in the quality of land used for pulses production.
Green revolution has pushed pulses cultivation in tough terrains resulting in declining productivity. As pointed out by Santa Kumar Committee Report: "GoI needs to revisit its MSP policy. Currently, MSPs are announced for 23 commodities, but effectively price support operates primarily in wheat and rice and that too in selected states. This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favour of wheat and rice. While country is short of pulses and oilseeds (edible oils), their prices often go below MSP without any effective price support. Further, trade policy works independently of MSP policy, and many a times, imports of pulses come at prices much below their MSP. This hampers diversification." Hence, the government needs to create a crop-neutral incentive structure for farmers, which is at present skewed in favour of rice, wheat and sugarcane.
Pulses have low carbon emission and water needs which make them ideally suited in India’s farming system. Rainfall in India is highly unreliable both in time and geography, leading to fluctuation in the production. The major driver of food inflation was the hike in prices of pulses, which was caused by the crop loss due to untimely rains. India’s pulses production fell from 19.25 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 17.3 million tonnes in 2014-15, while imports rose from 3.18 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 4.58 million tonnes in 2014-15. With the sky rocketing prices of the pulses, the government has taken haste decision to import 7,000 tonnes of Tur (5,000 tonnes earlier, and 2,000 tonnes now) to tame prices. In a country where the consumption of tur daal hovers between 3.3 to four million tonnes, aiming to control rising prices by importing 7,000 tonnes tur shows both the policy failure in pulse price management and strong cartel of importers artificially jacking up the prices. Ineffective policy measures appear to be knee-jerk reactions more than calibrated responses of policymakers.

No pulses are currently traded in future in international markets and only Chana is traded in future in domestic markets. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), which also regulates the commodities futures market, may consider banning forward trading in chana (gram) as part of the government’s measures to bring down prices of pulses. By suspending futures and forwards markets, the government can simply shot the messenger. This is only evidence of a rather sloppy conceptual framework of policymakers. Merely scapegoating traders as  “hoarders” and “speculators” is not going to be effective in today’s times. Also, traders hold the strings to the political purse, and a crackdown against hoarding would be damaging for ruling political party. Forwards and futures markets are supposed to give signals for effective price discovery and efficient price risk management. It is therefore necessary to develop suitable futures contracts for major pulse varieties separately, as also for all pulses together in the form of index futures.

Pulses are now termed as crops for poor, largely cultivated in marginal lands prone to poor irrigation supplies. Low pulse yield in India compared to other counties is attributed to poor spread of improved varieties and technologies, abrupt climatic changes, vulnerability to pests and diseases, and generally declining growth rate of total factor productivity. Lack of effective market news system and existence of different grades and qualities have also contributed to these imperfections in market. Appropriate reporting with quality differences and graded produce could go a long way to reduce the high price differentials, spatial as well as temporal.

Readers can also read a good article in IPGA examining the price issue of pulses. Jokes comparing  butter-chicken  to pulses are already in the market, and the trend doesn't look good for next year. It will be much shame for current government promoting 'Make in India' campaign while importing pulses, oil-seeds etc from foreign nations. India government needs to get the act together if they are truly committed to the food security of our fellow citizens.


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