National dishonour

Source: By Harsh Mander: The Indian Express

The abiding disgrace of new India is that despite unprecedented quantities of wealth and the vulgar ostentation which has become customary in the gaudy glitter of city life, India is unable to overcome hunger and malnourishment. This is even more unconscionable when government warehouses are overflowing with stocks of rotting rice and wheat. The 2019 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report brings sombre tidings this year: India’s poorer neighbours — Bangladesh, Nepal, and even Pakistan — have overtaken India in the battle against hunger.

Hunger is the failure to access the calories that are necessary to sustain an active and healthy life. It results in intense human suffering and indignity, as parents are forced to helplessly watch their children ache as they sleep hungry, as their brains and bodies are unable to grow to full potential, and, as they fall ill too often and are snatched away too early.

This is a colossal national dishonour for two reasons. One, this suffering is entirely preventable. Given appropriate public policies — sensitively designed, adequately resourced and effectively implemented — the country has both the wealth and the food stocks many times over to end hunger entirely. The relative success of our neighbours in combating hunger — Nepal emerging from 15 years of civil war and Pakistan still torn by internal conflict — is a sobering reminder of what India has not accomplished. Two, this failure does not spur public outrage and the introspection that it should.

The GHI report ranks India at a lowly 102 out of 117 countries listed. The GHI scores are based on four indicators — undernourishment (the share of population with insufficient calorie intake); child wasting (children with low weight for height, indicating acute undernutrition); child stunting (children with low height for age, reflecting chronic undernutrition); and child mortality (death rate of children under five).

Among all the countries included in the report, India has the highest rate of child wasting (which rose from the 2008-2012 level of 16.5 per cent to 20.8 per cent). Its child stunting rate (at 37.9 per cent) also remains shockingly high.

The report is instructive as it explains why Bangladesh and Nepal have surged ahead of a much wealthier India. The Bangladesh success story is attributed to pro-poor economic growth raising household incomes as well as significant improvements in “nutrition-sensitive” sectors like education, sanitation and health. Nepal, likewise, shows increased household wealth, maternal education, sanitation, health and nutrition programmes.

We observe the cruel irony of the largest population of food-insecure people being food producers — farm workers, tenants, marginal and small farmers, fish workers and forest gatherers. To end hunger, food producers must be supported to receive adequate remuneration. We recommend sound measures to protect farmer incomes, including income transfers to farmers, minimum support-price guarantees and crop insurance, and a massive expansion of farm credit. For farm workers, a refocus on land reforms is called for, and, a greatly expanded and effectively managed rural employment guarantee programme with attention to land and watershed development, small irrigation and afforestation. There must also be an urgent and comprehensive shift to sustainable agricultural technologies less dependent on irrigation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, to reverse our agri-ecological crisis.

The other large food-vulnerable population comprises informal workers. Hunger can’t be combated without addressing the burgeoning job crisis. It also entails labour reforms which protect job security, fair work conditions and social security of all workers. We also argue that the time has come for an urban employment guarantee programme, to help build basic public services and infrastructure for the urban poor — especially slum and pavement residents, and the homeless. This should also include employment in the care economy, with services for child-care, children and adults with disability and older persons.

The Public Distribution System must be universalised (excluding income tax payers), and should distribute not just cereals but also pulses and edible oils. Further, we need to reimagine it as a decentralised system where a variety of crops are procured and distributed locally. Both pre-school feeding and school meals need adequate budgets, and the meals should be supplemented with nutrient-rich foods such as dairy products, eggs and fruits. Social protection also entails universal pension for persons not covered by formal schemes, universal maternity entitlements to enable all women in informal work to rest and breast-feed their children, a vastly expanded creche scheme, and residential schools for homeless children and child workers.

Malnourishment results not just from inadequate food intake, but also because food is not absorbed due to frequent infections caused by bad drinking water, poor sanitation and lack of healthcare. India’s nutrition failures are also because of persisting gaps in securing potable water to all citizens, and continued open defecation despite optimistic official reporting. There is an urgent requirement for a legally enforceable right to healthcare, with universal and free out-patient and hospital-based care, free diagnostics and free medicines.

All of this is not unknown. Yet, India continues to fail children born in impoverished households, to homeless people and single mothers, and to oppressed castes and social groups. Our economic policy continues to be trapped in an elite capture, dominated by measures that support big businesses to the exclusion of farmers and workers. Social rights are broken and betrayed.

At its core, the reason for India’s continuing failures to end hunger and malnutrition of its millions is the indifference of people who have never known the agony of involuntary hunger. This is ultimately the result of our enormous cultural comfort with inequality, our gravest and most culpable civilisational flaw.

 

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Naga talks — Long road, issues

Source: By Abhishek Saha: The Indian Express

The deadline set by the Centre for wrapping up the Naga peace talks, October 31, arrives this week. While the Centre’s interlocutor and now Nagaland’s Governor, R N Ravi, has stressed that the government intends to meet the deadline, some key issues remain unresolved with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M).

What are the Naga peace talks?

The talks seek to settle disputes that date back to colonial rule. The Nagas are not a single tribe, but an ethnic community that comprisesseveral tribes who live in the state of Nagaland and its neighbourhood. One key demand of Naga groups has been a Greater Nagalim that would cover not only the state of Nagaland but parts of neighbouring states, and even of Myanmar.

The British had annexed Assam in 1826, in which they subsequently created the Naga Hills district and went on to extend its boundaries. The assertion of Naga nationalism, which began during British rule, has continued after Independence, and even after Nagaland became a state. Along the way, the unresolved issues gave rise to decades of insurgency that claimed thousands of lives, including of civilians.

How has the Naga assertion played out historically?

The earliest sign of Naga resistance dates back to 1918, with the formation of the Naga Club. In 1929, the Club famously told the Simon Commission “to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times”.

In 1946, A Z Phizo formed the Naga National Council (NNC), which declared Naga independence on August 14, 1947, and then, in 1951, claimed to have conducted a referendum in which an overwhelming majority supported an independent Naga state.

By the early 1950s, the NNC had taken up arms and gone underground. The NNC split in 1975, the breakaway group being the NSCN, which split further in later years, most prominently into the NSCN(I-M) and NSCN (Khaplang) in 1988.

And how have the peace talks played out in recent years?

Before the ongoing talks, which followed a framework agreement in 2015, there were two other agreements between Naga groups and the Centre.

1975: A peace accord was signed in Shillong in which the NNC leadership agreed to give up arms. Several NNC leaders, including Isak Chishi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and S S Khaplang refused to accept the agreement and broke away to form the NSCN. In 1988 came another split, with Khaplang breaking away to form the NSCN (K) while Isak and Muivah headed the NSCN (I-M).

1997: The NSCN (I-M) signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1997, preceded by rounds of talks since 1995. The key agreement was that there would be no counter-insurgency offensive against the NSCN (I-M), who in turn would not attack Indian forces. The NSCN (I-M) had then announced to “every citizen of Nagalim wherever they may be”, that a ceasefire agreement was entered into between the Government of India and the outfit “to bring about a lasting political solution to the long drawn out Indo-Naga issue”.

2015: In August that year, the Centre signed a framework agreement with the NSCN (I-M). Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it as a “historic agreement” towards settling the “oldest insurgency” in India. This set the stage for the ongoing peace talks. In 2017, six other Naga armed outfits under the banned of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) joined the talks. Today, Muivah remains the senior-most Naga rebel leader. Isak died in 2016. In the NSCN (-K), its leader Khaplang died in 2018.

What was in the framework agreement?

The government has not yet spelt out the details in public. Following the agreement, the government had said in a press statement: “The Government of India recognised the unique history, culture and position of the Nagas and their sentiments and aspirations. The NSCN understood and appreciated the Indian political system and governance.”

On the other hand, the NSCN (I-M) issued a statement earlier this year that said, “Nagaland State does and will not represent the national decision of the Naga people.” The statement was in opposition to the proposal for a Register of Indigenous Inhabitants of Nagaland (RIIN) in the state of Nagaland.

Where does the territorial demand currently stand?

In 2018, The accord being finalised “does not change the boundary of states; provides autonomous Naga territorial councils for Arunachal and Manipur; a common cultural body for Nagas across states; specific institutions for state’s development, integration and rehabilitation of non-state Naga militia and the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act”.

The map of Greater Nagalim in the NSCN(IM) vision, on the other hand, covers a 1,20,000 sq km sprawl across the Northeast and Myanmar — the area of Nagaland state itself is only 16,527 sq km, a fraction of this vision. Amid the anxiety this has caused among citizens in neighbouring states, state governments have assured them that their respective states’ territorial integrity would not be compromised.

Before the framework agreement, the Nagaland Assembly itself had endorsed the demand for “integration of all Naga-inhabited areas” as many as five times — in December 1964, August 1970, September 1994, December 2003 and July 27, 2015.

What are the other issues?

The government and the NSCN (I-M) have failed to agree on issues relating to a separate Naga flag and a constitution. In its latest statement, the NSCN (I-M) has said it will not budge from the demand for the flag and the constitution — and that it is looking for a lasting solution.

Earlier this month, a statement from Governor Ravi’s office said the government is determined to “honourably conclude” the Naga peace talks and it has reached a conclusion stage. But it noted: “Unfortunately at this auspicious juncture, the NSCN (I-M) has adopted a procrastinating attitude to delay the settlement raising the contentious symbolic issues of separate Naga national flag and constitution on which they are fully aware of the Government of India’s position. They have mischievously dragged in the Framework Agreement and began imputing imaginary contents to it.

Ravi, 67, is a retired IPS officer who served in the Intelligence Bureau, including in the Northeast. He was appointed the Centre’s interlocutor for the Naga peace talks in August 2014, and facilitated the signing of the framework agreement a year later.

Where could the disagreement lead to?

The statement from the Governor’s office has given rise to speculation that the government is ready to sign a final peace agreement with other groups without the NSCN (I-M), the largest group, and with which the talks had begun in the first place. Civil society groups in Nagaland are divided in their opinion. Some have said the talks should be wrapped up with whatever is offered now and keep other issues open for later negotiations; others believe all issues should be settled and the NSCN (I-M) should be on board, even if it takes longer than the deadline.

 

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What is quantum supremacy?

Source: By Kabir Firaque: The Indian Express

THIS WEEK, Google announced that it has achieved a breakthrough called quantum supremacy in computing. What does that mean, and why is it important?

So, what is quantum supremacy?

It is a term proposed in 2012 by John Preskill, professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. It describes the point where quantum computers can do things that classical computers cannot. In Google’s case, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have claimed to have developed a processor that took 200 seconds to do a calculation that would have taken a classical computer 10,000 years.

But what is a quantum computer?

Our traditional computers work on the basis of the laws of classical physics, specifically by utilising the flow of electricity. A quantum computer, on the other hand, seeks to exploit the laws that govern the behaviour of atoms and subatomic particles. At that tiny scale, many laws of classical physics cease to apply, and the unique laws of quantum physics come into play.

Developing such a computer has been a goal of scientists for nearly four decades. In 1981, the physicist Richard Feynman wrote: “Trying to find a computer simulation of physics seems to me to be an excellent program to follow out… Nature isn’t classical… and if you want to make a simulation of Nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly it’s a wonderful problem, because it doesn’t look so easy.”

What difference would such a simulation make?

It is about processing speed. Let us look at how a classical computer processes information. Bits of information are stored as either 0 or 1. Every string of such digits (bit strings) represents a unique character or instruction; for example, 01100001 represent the lowercase “a”.

In a quantum computer, information is stored in quantum bits, or qubits. And a qubit can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. Quantum physics involves concepts that even physicists describe as weird. Unlike classical physics, in which an object can exist in one place at one time, quantum physics looks at the probability of an object being at different points. Existence in multiple states is called superposition, and the relationships among these states are called entanglement.

The higher the number of qubits, the higher the amount of information stored in them. Compared to the information stored in the same number of bits, the information in qubits rises exponentially. That is what makes a quantum computer so powerful. And yet, as Caltech’s Preskill wrote in 2012, building reliable quantum hardware is challenging because of the difficulty of controlling quantum systems accurately.

Is that what Google has achieved?

The researchers demonstrated what a quantum computer is capable of. They built architecture of 54 qubits with Sycamore, Google’s quantum computer. While one of these did not perform, the other 53 qubits were entangled into a superposition state. The team composed a random sequence of about 1,000 operations. Each time they then ran this random algorithm, the quantum computer would produce a bitstring.

Now, some bitstrings are more likely to occur than others, and it is possible to identify which ones are more likely. However, the more complex the random quantum circuit, the tougher for a classical computer to identify the likelier bitstrings — and the difficulty grew exponentially. Supremacy was achieved when they demonstrated that the quantum processor just took 200 seconds to compute a super complex random algorithm, while the fastest supercomputer would have taken 10,000 years, Google said in an email.

So, what good does that do?

None, as far as practical applications are concerned. The task performed isn’t super important for this milestone; it’s much more about the fact that the milestone happened in the first place, the email from Google said. It cited the Wright brothers as an analogy: “For them to demonstrate that aviation is possible, it didn’t matter so much where the plane was headed, where it took off and landed, but that it was able to fly at all.”

Is everyone convinced?

IBM has disputed Google’s assertion that its quantum calculation could not be performed by a traditional computer. In a blog post, IBM has claimed that the computation described by the Google researchers could be achieved by an existing computer in less than two-and-a-half days, not 10,000 years.

Incidentally, IBM itself claimed a quantum computation breakthrough. Its researchers made a breakthrough in controlling the quantum behaviour of individual atoms, demonstrating a versatile new building block for quantum computation, IBM said on its website. The paper is published in the journal Science. Google’s research appears in Nature.

What next?

The scientists are looking to improve on their work, including detecting and fixing errors. The University of California, Santa Barbara noted that the research has already achieved a very real tool for generating random numbers. Random numbers can be useful in a variety of fields — including protecting encrypted keys for decryption, which could be a potentially thorny issue for governments. Quantum computers could one day result in huge advances in science research and technology. Among areas that stand to gain are artificial intelligence, and new drug therapies. All that, however, is a long way away.

 

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A non-random approach to policymaking

Source: By Madhav Malhotra: The Financial Express

This year’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences—awarded in the memory of Alfred Nobel—to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer, for their pioneering work in the use of experimental methods in development economics was undoubtedly a well-deserved one. While some academics would argue that the committee has overlooked some veterans better suited for the prestigious award, both in age and contribution to the discipline that chronologically precede that of the awardees, it is difficult to downplay the impact that experimental methods have had on the discipline of economics. Also, when has there ever been a unanimous approval of the Nobel committee’s decision? Rather, it may be worthwhile to take a constructive approach and use this opportunity to address some important questions that this year’s prize has raised, namely where do experimental methods fit in with the discipline of economics and how should they be used to formulate better policies for development?

One of the most commonly used experimental methods in economics is Randomised Controlled Trials, or RCTs. In their simplest form, RCTs involve randomly assigning a sample of individuals, or any economic agent, into two subgroups—a treatment and a control group. Not unlike in medicine, the former is then administered a ‘treatment’, which can be any intervention such as prenatal care for expecting mothers or cash vouchers for households below the poverty line. Subsequently, the difference in averages of the outcomes of interest between the two groups is recorded, with the aim of identifying the causal effect of the intervention on the outcomes. The popularity of RCTs can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the methods in use earlier often captured other confounding factors that could obfuscate the causal relationship and, therefore, provided misleading results. Randomisation simply ensures that the effect of the intervention is independent of possible confounding factors to the extent the experiment design permits.

The success of RCTs as a methodological tool in economics is in no small part due to research and policy advocacy organisations like J-PAL (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab) and IPA (Innovations for Poverty Action). Their network of researchers and surveyors, accompanied by several others in the academic community, has contributed their insights on how to design robust experiments and tackle problems that emerge in practice. Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer have been at the forefront of this ‘Randomista’ movement and have popularised the use of these methods, particularly in the context of public interventions in health and education. Indeed, it is nothing shy of a revolution if one looks at the sheer volume of research published in economics using RCTs in the last few decades. Martin Ravallion, a notable economist, offers numbers to substantiate this claim. In 2015, there were 333 published research papers using randomisation as a tool in impact evaluation in economics, with an annual growth rate of 20%, almost double of that for all scientific publishing post World War II (Ravallion, CGD Working Paper 492, 2018).

The use of these methods in economics helps respond to a classic criticism of the discipline—that economic policies are often shaped by outdated theoretical models or thumb rules, and not founded in empirical reality. By importing from the discipline of medicine, economists have been able to develop tools that approximate scientific experiments and obtain informed answers to specific policy questions.

As an academic exercise, this is right on the mark in an applied economist’s never-ending pursuit to identify exact causal relationships in an otherwise complex world. It would also not be surprising to observe an exponential rise in the use of these methods in other social sciences in the coming years. As Banerjee put it himself, it allows the researcher to design an experiment and tailor the questions she wants to ask the relevant context, rather than be restricted by the available data.

However, RCTs are extremely costly to run, often millions of dollars, even in the narrow context that they are usually administered in. That many, if not most, RCTs are not scaled up and do not translate into policy at the national or sub-national levels of operation, begs the question whether this really is a worthwhile exercise? Critics argue that the latter is often due to issues of external validity, i.e. the effect of an intervention may be context-specific and inapplicable for a broader setting. Another reason, closer to home, is possibly the lack of political will to deal in evidence-based policymaking. Irrespective of the rationale, there seems to be an insufficient return for these experimental methods in the realm of policymaking.

RCTs are also consistent with a general trend in economic research that gives primacy to the study of individuals and firms as primary decision-making agents, a focus on understanding the micro-foundations of relationships and precise mechanisms for the transmission of effects between economic agents. Any normative implication of such research would typically be, at worst, non-revelational or at best, revelational, but contextual. But this seems at odds with the game-changing macro-level trade and industrial policy initiatives witnessed in the development transformation of East Asian countries in the late 20th century and more recently in China, which have been credited for the improvement in living standards and poverty eradication at an unprecedented scale and pace.

This apparent disconnect has been acknowledged by this year’s Nobel awardees. In a paper prepared for the World Bank’s ‘The State of Economics, The State of the World’ conference in 2016, they admit “The view is that the ‘academic’ desire to come up with the cleverest research design may not line up with the practitioners need to identify scalable innovations (the next cellphone), or ‘change systems’ (healthcare) or reform institutions (democracy).” The question then is where does the middle ground lie in the debate on the role of RCT in policymaking?

The answer may depend on the camp that one is a part of academics or policy practitioners, and how these groups envision their role in society. The privilege awarded to academics in running the experiments they do bestows upon them a responsibility to generate returns beyond the incentives given to the sample of participants involved in their studies. Such considerations should feature significantly in the determination of their research agenda and research design.

At the same time, practitioners should be subject to stricter ‘perform or perish’ standards, not unlike their academic counterparts. They must think of causality as the gold standard to aspire for, but need not be beholden to strict adherence to that objective. Indeed, collectively, they need to provide the best possible answers, with best signifying proximity to causal identification and possible the need to be as close as feasible to the relevant context. There is also a stockpile of existing research (both experimental and observational), which is often ignored in the formulation of new policies. With it, an equally large supply of young researchers and graduate students in economics, and closely related fields, who can be hired to aid in the process of consulting this overlooked material? Importantly, even if research in development economics veers towards randomisation, the collective approach must move beyond trial-and-error, and involve a non-random process of policy formulation and implementation.

Observational and experimental research approaches need to be seen as complementary and their use in policy formulation non-negotiable. Indeed, where experimental methods are infeasible or highly contextualised, the use of large observational datasets is vital for decision-making and priority-setting, particularly at national and sub-national levels. This contention rests on two underlying requirements.

First, practitioners in the government should have the requisite analytical expertise and a workplace environment conducive to consult rigorous evidence in taking policies from the drawing board to the real world. Second, the integrity of grant-making institutions in the arena of policy-oriented research should be uncompromised by ideological considerations and dedicated to the goal of encouraging academic research that responds to what developing countries actually need.

If these institutions cooperate in their pursuit of ‘truth’ and Help Bridge this gap between policymaking and academia, it will make the former more effective, and give the latter a better name.

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Legislative action and behaviour

Source: By Biju Dominic: Mint

Will the striking down of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) change society’s attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community? Will the passing of the triple talaq bill change the status of Muslim women in this country? Will the abrogation of Article 370 make Kashmiris emotionally closer to India? Will the dramatic increase in fines under the amended Motor Vehicles Act, 2019, change our driving behaviour?

There are many instances when legislative action has been an utter failure in changing the behaviour of a nation. Attempts to make citizens stop drinking alcohol by introducing prohibition have failed across the world, from the US to the Indian states of Gujarat and Kerala. Every time a law tried to curb alcohol consumption, consumption disappeared from the mainstream of society to its underbelly. This created even bigger problems for the state.

Several laws have been passed in the US to end racial discrimination. Despite these, discrimination based on race is still a reality in that country. In a study among Airbnb customers, researchers at Harvard Business School found that African Americans were 16% less likely to be accepted as guests than Caucasians. The study could not find any variable beyond race to explain this attitude.

But there are also cases where legislation has gone on to create fundamental changes in social behaviour. Several measures, including health warnings, were used to curtail smoking. But one factor that has demonstrably contributed to a sustained decline in smoking was a ban on it in public places. One of the first pieces of legislation to curb smoking in public places followed an order of the Kerala high court, way back in 1999. Why are some laws effective in managing the behaviour of people, while most of them do not make much of an impact?

Dopamine is the brain chemical critical to it’s “pleasure" centres. As Susan Weinschenk writes in an article in Psychology Today, dopamine makes us feel enjoyment and pleasure, thereby motivating us to seek out pleasurable experiences such as sex, drugs, food and speed. This reward system doesn’t have satiety built in. So, it is not easy for any legislative action to curtail this pleasure-seeking behaviour initiated by the brain’s dopamine release system. That is why, despite the combined effort of all organized religions and governments for thousands of years, harmful behaviour related to sex and alcohol continues unabated.

Cognitive biases are short cuts the brain takes to go about its day-to-day affairs. But some of these systematic deviations tend to create a tendency or prejudice toward or against something or someone. Many of the biases are implicit and escape conscious detection. It is almost impossible for legislation to erase deep-rooted biases about race, gender, ethnicity, etc. So, legislation alone will not be enough to create equality for women, especially when it comes to issues involving religion. Several other behavioural interventions will have to be introduced in organizations and society to achieve gender parity.

Duelling was outlawed in France in 1626, yet the practice continued long afterward. Mathew O. Jackson, William D. Eberle Professor of Economics, Stanford University, says that laws against duelling were ineffective because they went against a deep-rooted norm, which also discouraged others from intervening to stop the blood-letting.

To change social norms, we need interventions beyond legislation. There has been a greater transformation of attitudes towards gay rights in the past 30 years in the US than there has ever been in recorded attitudes on any other issue. This dramatic shift did not happen because of any legislation, but the knowledge that someone within one’s personal world—family or friends’ circle— may have this sexual orientation. Research has shown that people who got acquainted with at least one gay person were more likely to later change their minds, and become more accepting of gay and lesbian people in general. Similarly, the solution to the Kashmir problem lies in the government’s ability to get ordinary Kashmiris to interact with others outside their state.

Legislation has a higher chance of success when it is trying to manage a public behaviour. Many a time, an individual’s action in a public place can have an impact on others too. This wider impact of an individual’s action on the larger society can be used as a valid excuse to instil more responsibility in the individual’s action. The success of the ban on public smoking can be attributed to this facet.

Driving is an activity that is done in a public space. Most driving-related violations of rules, like not wearing a helmet or seat belt, are not the result of any deep-rooted brain processes. Over speeding is the only exception. So the attempt of the government to mitigate such behaviour through a drastic increase in fines has a high chance of success, provided it is implemented well.

Humans tend to make judgements on whether to engage in a prohibited activity based on the expected cost of that behaviour. If the severity and probability of punishment exceed the expected benefit or pleasure of the act, then the actor will refrain from that behaviour. Now that the law has been amended, the fines for bad behaviour are steep enough to cause significant pain to the offender. With stricter traffic policing, the likelihood of getting caught and punished goes up as well. In all, the loss caused by stiff fines is likely to leave a deep imprint on the memory of the offender. This will surely deter future offences.

This particular legislation has another benefit too. The very sight of all two-wheeler riders on the road wearing helmets will form a vivid image of India taking an important step towards becoming a more law-abiding society. This will have cascading impact on other spheres of society too. India has a golden opportunity to initiate broad behaviourial changes across the country, one that must not be missed.

 

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Some space for the private sector in the race for space

Source: By Nitin Pai: Mint

In an earlier column on what India needs to do to become a proper space power, I argued that we must ramp up both our capacity to use space and our capacity to deny our adversaries the reliable use of space. Other spacefaring nations are investing good money in both these, with the bulk of the investment going into enhancing their capacity to use space. What is striking about their approach compared to ours is the involvement of the private sector in the commercial use of space.

Indeed, it is ironic that India—whose space-faring tradition is decidedly in the service of human development—is lagging in harnessing the power of private innovation in the space domain. This not only limits the exploitation of space for economic development, but has serious national security implications.

The most basic way to secure our space capabilities is to distribute them across many different satellites and spacecraft, so that business continuity is unaffected even if an adversary manages to disable one or more of our satellites. The more critical the function, the more the diversity required. The US is highly vulnerable in space because it depends on thousands of its satellites. But it is also best equipped to deal with a potential attack on its space assets because it can find alternatives to switch to. Furthermore, with private US firms set to put thousands of satellites into orbit in the next few years, its security in space will improve. Similarly, China is significantly increasing the number of its active space assets through massive public investment as well as opening its skies to private entrepreneurs.

In this new space economy, India is playing with one hand tied firmly behind its back. While the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is continuing on a successful path, there is no one at the private-sector end of the business. So, we must deregulate the space sector and create an environment for private industry to serve India’s commercial and strategic needs, and perhaps become a global space technology hub.

In November 2017, the government placed a draft Space Activities Bill for public consultation, but the legislative process has since not moved forward. With tiny Luxembourg seizing opportunities to become a big space economy player, and private space companies in nominally-Communist China having attracted more than half a billion dollars in investment since 2016, the race to be a leading space economy is well on its way. Once money, talent, innovation and infrastructure make their home elsewhere, India will struggle to compete. The Modi government must accord space policy greater importance, and Parliament must expedite the enabling legislation.

As Narayan Prasad, a leading satellite maven, points out, the official mindset still sees the private sector as a dependent part of the ISRO ecosystem. While this might have been the case as recently as a few years ago, the new space economy consists of independent private players across the value chain, from launch vehicles to satellite payloads. Without a proper governance framework, they lack a firm basis to operate in India and thus find it hard to attract private investment. The most important objective of the new space bill ought to be to clear the decks for the private sector.

India’s new space policy must also incorporate our learning from the successful deregulation of telecom, insurance and civil aviation. In each of these sectors, the government created an independent regulator to govern the industry, including the incumbent. This has worked well for India, as private telecom players, insurers, and—inopportune as it may be to say it now—even airlines have grown on the back of private investment.

The space sector should adopt the same model, with the department of space creating an independent regulator to govern ISRO and its affiliates as well as new private sector firms. Separate licences can be awarded for different classes of launch vehicles, orbits and services. At the same time, the government must raise ISRO’s budget and encourage it to take up missions that push the technological frontier.

Space policy should aim to grow the industry and create the resilience that space security requires. This means not constraining the number of licences or seeing licence fees as a revenue extraction opportunity. The purpose of regulation must be to ensure compliance with India’s international obligations, ensuring safety, covering liabilities and perhaps some standardization. The self-inflicted nuclear power legislation warns us against making liability conditions into a millstone so heavy that nothing ever takes off.

Back in the 15th century, the Chinese built bigger ocean-going ships than anything Europeans could manage. Under Zheng He, they sailed up to Africa. Chinese seafaring remained a fully state-owned enterprise, an imperial monopoly. The Dutch and the English, on the other hand, started off with smaller, inferior ships, yet managed to land in America, Africa, India and Indonesia. Their private joint-stock companies subsequently established global empires. It was the difference in policy environments for seafaring that contributed to the relative fates of early-modern China and England. Beijing has learned that lesson. It is dangerous for India to ignore it.

 

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Perilous path

Source: By Devendra Saksena: The Statesman

The publication of Global Hunger Index 2019, which ranks India at 102 out of 117 countries, indicating a widespread prevalence of hunger, has generated a fair amount of controversy. The Indian National Congress has latched on to Global Health Index statistics to pillory the Government while the Vice- Chairman of Niti Aayog has coauthored an article in a national daily debunking the GHI methodology used for calculating ranks and has gone on to claim that India would have ranked 91, had data from the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS), commissioned by the Health Ministry of the Government of India, has been used.

However, the learned authors have not re-ranked other countries by using the same methodology. In any case, standing at the 91st rank in the Global Hunger Index cannot be a cause for celebration for a country with the seventh largest economy in the world. The Global Hunger Index ranks countries on the basis of four parameters ~ undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality with undernourishment being calculated for the entire population and the remaining three parameters only for children below five years. According to GHI, 14.5 percent of our population is malnourished. Our child wasting rate is extremely high at 20.8 per cent ~ the highest wasting rate of any country and the child stunting rate, 37.9 per cent, falls in the very high category.

The GHI Report has concluded that in India, just 9.6 per cent of all children between 6 and 23 months of age are fed a minimum acceptable diet. The statistics in the GHI Report and even those put out by the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey, are extremely disturbing. Acute malnutrition in children results in lack of physical growth and cognitive skills which would perpetuate poverty and malnutrition in future generations. This year’s Noble Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, have in their book, Poor Economics ~ A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty given an excellent example of what ill- effects food deprivation could have for a growing child: “A poor girl from Africa will probably go to school for at most a few years even if she is brilliant, and most likely won’t get the nutrition to be the worldclass athlete she might have been, or the funds to start a business if she has a great idea.”

Unfortunately, this example applies to India as well. Poor Economics is an excellent study of the causes and remedy for poverty and hunger across the world with a focus on Asia and India. Unfortunately, the Government is not much enamoured of Abhijit Banerjee’s economic policies because he was the author of the Nyay scheme of the Congress in the last elections. Ministers have described Abhijit Banerjee as a “leftist” and there has been a sustained campaign on the internet to highlight some aspects of Mr. Banerjee’s personal life with a view to discredit him, regardless of the fact that an application of the simple insights for poverty and hunger reduction, suggested in Poor Economics could be transformative for our country. To the consternation of the Indian public, the Global Hunger Index indicates that our neighbours, Nepal (73), Sri Lanka (66), Bangladesh (88), Myanmar (69) and Pakistan (94), whom we consider a shade below ourselves, have done a far better job of eliminating hunger in their countries.

Our poor ranking in the Global Hunger Index is not a bolt from the blue, we have been consistently ranked near the bottom; we were ranked 103 out of 119 in 2018, 80 out of 104 in 2015, 67 out of 84 in 2011 and 96 out of 119 in 2006. Our underlying GHI scores have also been fairly consistent; for 2010 our score was 32 which have come down only marginally to 30.3 in 2019, in both cases showing the prevalence of hunger on a “serious scale.” Our ranking has worsened because other countries have improved their score over the years. For example, Pakistan’s score has come down from 35.9 to 28.5 between 2010 and 2019 and Nepal’s score has come down from 24.5 to 20.8. Our arch-rival China’s score has come down from 10 to 6.5, taking it into the group of nations with a “moderate” severity of hunger.

In the last decade, many countries in Asia and Africa have made spectacular progress in reducing hunger and are now well on their way to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger in their countries by 2030. The Global Hunger Index Report 2019 prescribes certain measures to combat hunger like supporting and diversifying agricultural production; improving farmers’ access to extension services, resources, and markets; and creating non-agricultural jobs in rural areas; significantly increase investments in rural development, social protection, health services, and education; enacting and enforcing regulatory frameworks to ensure that production of globally traded agricultural commodities does not impede the right to food or infringe on land rights in areas where those commodities are produced.

Interestingly, Union Budget 2019 lists 122 Schemes with objectives almost identical to the remedial measures prescribed by the Global Hunger Index Report. A sum exceeding Rs.12 lakh crore is to be spent by the Union government on these schemes in the current financial year. Looking at the earlier Budgets, we find that most of these schemes have been continued with similar outlays for the last many years. The lack of tangible progress in eliminating hunger and poverty despite humongous expenditure can well be the subject of an enquiry. The Government would be better advised to measure the success of the myriad existing schemes before allocating resources for them in succeeding Budgets.

The bitter anomaly between our economy being the fastest growing in the world with the aspiration of reaching the figure of $5 trillion by 2024 and our rock bottom rank in the Global Hunger Index cannot be more pronounced. According to the India Wealth Report published by Karvy Private Wealth, individual wealth increased by 9.62 per cent in 2018-19 and by 211 per cent between 2000-2015. Surprisingly, this increase in wealth did not lead to any appreciable improvement in our ranking in the Global Hunger Index which would indicate that “trickle-down economics” is not working in our case; the lot of the poor does not seem to be improving while the rich are definitely getting richer. The inescapable conclusion is that better and leak-proof implementation of poverty alleviation programmes and more direct interventions to end poverty and hunger are needed.

Inequality, poverty and hunger are the reasons why crime has burgeoned in our country. Women’s safety has become an issue and we are one of the unhappiest people in the world. Saying that some flaw in our DNA is responsible for these aberrations is itself flawed; hungry, poor and dispirited people cannot make ideal citizens. The Mahatma once said: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Sadly, the Mahatma’s statement has come true for his own country.

 

 

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India’s crime report

Source: By Deeptiman Tiwary: The Indian Express

On 21 October 2019, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) released the much delayed crime data for 2017. While it was without some crucial data categories, the data included were more fleshed out than in the 2016 crime report. The NCRB has introduced more than three dozen new categories and sub-categories of crimes under various heads.

The report omits data on mob lynchings, khap killings, murder by influential people and killings for religious reasons. Data on farmer suicides after 2015 are yet to be published although, sources said, the fully compiled data had been sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs 20 months ago.

NCRB crime report data

At least four categories where significant diversification of data can be seen are crimes against women and children, atrocities against Dalits, cases of corruption, and time taken by police and courts to take cases to their conclusion. For the first time, the NCRB has introduced categories of cyber crimes against women and children.

In the case of Dalits, the NCRB has for the first time published data on offences registered solely under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act with further categorisation of insult, land grab and social ostracism.

The NCRB has also recorded cases of disproportionate assets against public servants besides introducing new crime heads such as abetment, criminal intimidation, simple hurt, credit/debit card and online frauds, Internet crimes through online gaming and kidnapping for begging among others.

More importantly, for the first time, the NCRB has not merely dwelt on pendency of cases with the police and courts but also the period of such pendency, which has thrown up some rather counter-intuitive data.

Women and children

In the case of women and children, the NCRB has this time recorded data for “murder with rape”. In 2017, as many as 33,885 women were reported to have been raped across the country. Of these, 227 were murdered after the rape. As many as 28,152 children were raped with cases registered under IPC and the POCSO Act. Of these, 151 were killed after being raped. The NCRB has, however, removed the category of gangrape that was introduced to the NCRB database following the December 2012 gangrape case.

Crime against women

In the category of cyber crimes against women, the NCRB has recorded 4,242 offences where women were either stalked, blackmailed or their morphed pictures were uploaded on the internet.

In a sub-category for SLL (special and local laws) cyber crimes against women, the number of women-centric crimes is given as 600, of which 271 relate to publishing or transmitting of sexually explicit material under the Information Technology Act. The report has also introduced the categories of sexual harassment at the workplace and in public transport. As many as 479 and 599 cases were reported in 2017 under these categories respectively.

Also, 33,606 cases were registered and 40,420 juveniles apprehended during the year. “Majority of juveniles in conflict with law apprehended under IPC and SLL crimes were in the age group of 16 years to 18 years. These cases accounted for 29,194 out of 40,420, totalling 72.2 per cent cases during 2017,” the NCRB said.

Justice delayed

While the NCRB has always collected data on pendency of cases with police and in courts, this was largely about the number of such cases. In the latest report, the NCRB has also recorded the period of pendency.

The data show police delayed chargesheets in 40% of cases. For IPC crimes, police are supposed to file a chargesheet within 90 days. But data show that in certain cases such as rioting, which includes communal riots, police delayed filing of chargesheets in 60% of the cases. It says there are more than 3 lakh cases pending investigations for more than one year.

The report says in more than 40% of cases with fast-track courts, these courts have taken more than three years to finish the trial. In fact, in as many as 3,384 cases committed to fast-track courts, the trial was finished in more than 10 years.

Of the 38,000-odd cases that fast-track courts completed in 2017, over 4,500 cases had been running for 5-10 years. In only around 11,500 cases was the trial completed within one year. In courts as a whole, 2, 71,779 cases were pending trial at the end of 2017.

Other data

Under the category of rioting, new subcategories have been added which include vigilante action, disputes over water, power and property and rioting during morchas.

Some other new data include spreading of fake news where 257 offences have been recorded. As many as 952 election-related offences were also recorded in 2017 apart from offences relating to religion (1,808) and Obscene Acts and Songs at Public Places (29,557).

 

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Reading the livestock census

Source: By Harikishan Sharma: The Indian Express

On 16 October 2019, the Department of Animal Husbandry & Dairying released the results of the latest livestock census, which provides headcount data of domesticated animals in the country. The census shows a further decline in the indigenous cattle population. It also shows that the cow belt of the country has shifted eastwards with West Bengal emerging as a state with the largest cattle population, leaving behind Uttar Pradesh.

What is the livestock census?

Under the livestock census, various species of animals possessed by households, household enterprises or non-household enterprises and institutions are counted at site — both in rural and urban areas. In other words, it covers all domesticated animals in a given period of time. India has been conducting livestock censuses periodically since 1919-20. This is the 20th one, started in October 2018. The last livestock census was conducted in 2012.

Which animals and birds are counted in this census?

The census tracts the population of various species of domesticated animals such as cattle, buffalo, mithun, yak, sheep, goat, pig, horse, pony, mule, donkey camel, dog, rabbit and elephant and poultry birds (fowl, duck, emu, turkeys, quail and other poultry birds). The breed-wise headcount of animals and poultry birds has been carried out in about 6.6 lakh villages and 89,000 urban wards across the country covering more than 27 crore households and non- households.

However, the key results released on 16 October 2019 do not include the latest animal count for Delhi as the census operations in have not been completed as yet in the national capital. So the Delhi-specific figures are from the previous census.

What are the key results and changes since the last census?

In 2019, the total livestock population is 535.78 million; cattle (192.90 million) is the largest animal group in the country followed by goats (148.88 million), buffaloes (109.85 million), sheep (74.26 million) and pigs (9.06 million). All other animals taken together contribute just 0.23 per cent of the total livestock population in the country.

In 2019, the total livestock population has registered a growth of 4.6 per cent over the last census in 2012 (512.06 million). The total population was 529.70 million at the time of 18th census in 2007. However, the numbers of some animals such as pig, yak, horses and ponies, mule, donkey and camel have come down drastically.

The cattle population has grown marginally by 0.83 per cent and the buffalo population by 1.06 per cent. The populations of sheep (14.13%), goat (10.14%) and mithun (26.66%) have risen significantly, underlining the preference of farmers for keeping milch animals.

What are the population trends for different kinds of cattle?

While the overall cattle population has increased by 0.8 per cent in 2012 to 2019, the population of indigenous cattle has come down by 6 per cent — from 151 million to 142.11 million. However, this pace of decline is much slower than the 9 per cent decline between 2007 and 2012. In contrast, the population of the total exotic/crossbred cattle has increased by almost 27 per cent to 50.42 million in 2019.

How do the data show an eastward shift of cattle, as mentioned earlier?

West Bengal has emerged as the state with the largest number of cattle in 2019, followed by Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. In 2012, Uttar Pradesh had the largest number of cattle but this population has come down by almost 4 per cent since. The cattle population is also down in Madhya Pradesh (4.42%), Maharashtra (10.07%) and Odisha (15.01%). States that registered the maximum increases between 2012 and 2019 were West Bengal (15.18%), Bihar (25.18%) and Jharkhand (28.16%).

What are the implications of the decline in the numbers of indigenous cattle?

Due to continuous fall in productivity, indigenous breeds of cattle have become liabilities for farmers, forcing them to desert the unproductive cows. Farmers find other animals such as buffaloes, goats and sheep much more productive.Unlike cows, if these animals become unproductive, they can be sold and slaughtered for further processing.

Experts believe this could have long term health and environmental impacts because the milk of indigenous breed has higher nutritional value than that of crossbreeds. Moreover, there is a danger of losing these indigenous breeds, which have been developed and sustained by generations from time immemorial.

What are the trends in the population of livestock other than cattle?

The total population of buffaloes in the country has gone up from 108.70 million in 2012 to 109.85 million in 2019. States which have seen a rise in the buffalo population during this period include Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Telangana. However, some states including Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab have seen a decline in their respective buffalo populations.

In 2019, the total poultry in the country is 851.81 million — of which, 317.07 million are backyard poultry and 534.74 million are commercial poultry. While the total poultry has registered an increase of 16.8 per cent over the previous census, the backyard poultry has increased by around 46 per cent and commercial poultry by just 4.5 per cent.

Tamil Nadu is the leading state in poultry population followed by Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Assam, Haryana, Kerala and Odisha. Assam had registered the largest (71.63%) growth in poultry population.

 

 

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What is the furore around the land law case?

Source: By K. Venkataramanan: The Hindu

At one level it is a legal issue over the interpretation of a provision in the new land acquisition law of 2013. At another, it is a question of possible judicial bias warranting the withdrawal of a judge from the proceedings. The reason is that the judge concerned, Justice Arun Mishra, of the Supreme Court of India, had overruled a precedent that had held good for four years and given a new interpretation, but was still asked to head a larger Bench meant to render an authoritative verdict on which of the two interpretations is right.

What is the provision and why does it need interpretation?

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (2013 Act), replaced the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (1894 Act). The new Act provides for higher compensation to those deprived of land by the government for both public and private sector projects. It also mandates consent of a majority of land-owners, and contains provisions for rehabilitation and resettlement.

Under Section 24(2), land acquisition made under the old law of 1894 lapses if the award of compensation had been made five years before the new Act came into force, but has not been paid. In such cases, the process will have to be gone through afresh under the new Act, which mandates higher compensation. There are cases in which farmers and other land-owners have refused the compensation, leading to delay in the government taking possession. In this situation, the compensation amount is deposited in the government treasury. According to one interpretation, if this is done, the acquisition process is saved. Then again, others contend that such cases will fall under the new Act because compensation has not been paid to the land-owners, and the lapsing clause in Section 24 should be applied.

If, through interpretation, a long-pending land acquisition process is closed under the old law and fresh acquisition proceedings started under the new one, the land-owners stand to benefit, but project proponents will have to pay higher compensation. Therefore, the provision concerned is often a subject of litigation.

What happened in the case before the Supreme Court?

On January 24, 2014, a three-judge Bench, comprising Justices R.M. Lodha, Madan B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph, in Pune Municipal Corporation vs. Harakchand M. Solanki, ruled that the acquisition of a piece of land had “lapsed” because the compensation awarded had neither been paid to the landowners/persons interested nor deposited in the court. The deposit of the compensation amount in the government treasury was held to be “of no avail” as it was not equivalent to the compensation being “paid”. Based on this judgment, subsequent cases were decided on the same principle: acquisition that had taken place earlier than five years before the new Act commenced would lapse if compensation amount was not paid to the land-owners or, in cases in which the owners refused to accept compensation, deposited in court.

How was this precedent dealt with in another case in 2018?

The same question arose in Indore Development Authority vs. Shailendra. Another three-judge Bench, comprising Justice Arun Mishra, A.K. Goel and M.M. Shantanagoudar, did not accept the earlier Bench’s view. On February 8, 2018, the majority, consisting of the first two judges, ruled that the acquisition would not lapse merely because the compensation amount was not deposited in court, but was instead deposited in the treasury. It ruled that the past practice of more than a century, under which the amount was deposited in the treasury, was not taken into account by the earlier Bench.

Some provisions and orders that allowed this practice were not placed before that Bench. Further, the land acquisition in that particular case had been quashed by a High Court in 2008. Since it was not a subsisting process, the question under Section 24(2), whether the acquisition lapsed because of non-payment of compensation or non-deposit in the court, did not arise at all. On these grounds, Justice Mishra and Justice Goel overruled the earlier judgment and held that it was per incuriam, that is a verdict passed in disregard of law and, therefore, wrong. Justice Shantanagoudar dissented on the last point.

What happened next?

Later, when another case came up before a Bench on which Justices Lokur and Joseph were members, the fact that their earlier judgment had been overruled was brought to their notice. Lawyers appearing before them argued that Justice Mishra’s Bench, being of the same size of the one that rendered the earlier verdict, was bound by it, and ought not to have overruled it. In case, it disagreed with the earlier view, it could have referred the matter to a larger Bench. The court, then, put on hold all hearings involving Section 24(2). Later, the question was referred to a larger Bench for an authoritative judgment.

Why is there a demand for Justice Arun Mishra's'' recusal?

It was not until this month that a Bench was constituted. It was a five-member Bench headed by Justice Mishra. Some lawyers and parties commented that it was improper for the judge to hear this matter because he had already taken a firm view in favour of one interpretation. Senior lawyer Shyam Divan demanded Justice Mishra’s recusal in open court, invoking the principle that even the apprehension of bias on the part of a judge was enough to ask for his withdrawal from a case. The judge, however, rejected the idea categorically, contending that a “lobby” was against his hearing the case.

In oral observations, he said there was nothing to suggest that he would be unwilling to be persuaded by new arguments to take a fresh view of the legal questions. Also, he said this question has arisen in many cases, and many judges now in the Supreme Court would have dealt with it as High Court judges. However, arguments on the issue of bias and the principles of recusal went on for two weeks, and the court has reserved its order on this question.

What does the controversy mean for land-owners and project proponents?

A ruling that old acquisitions lapse for non-deposit of compensation will be more beneficial to land-owners and farmers as they stand to get higher compensation and rehabilitation and resettlement measures. On the other hand, project proponents feel such an interpretation would mean that those who refused to take compensation, even after it had been fixed and the money deposited in the government treasury, would be taking advantage of their own wrong.

On this issue, what lies ahead?

If the Bench rejects the demand for Justice Mishra's' recusal, the petitioners will have no choice but to argue the entire question again on merits. Thereafter, the ruling given by the five-member Bench is expected to settle the question. In case there is a recusal, the question will go to a Bench that does not include him.

 

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An Economics for Poor

Source: By Himanshu: The Indian Express

The Nobel Prize in Economics for 2019 has been awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer for “their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. The approach, popularly known as Randomised Control Trial (RCT), has been the buzzword among development economists for almost two decades. Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer have used this technique (inspired by the use of RCTs in medical science) to test the effect of small interventions on individual behaviour.

Most of these interventions carried out under the aegis of Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), co-founded by Banerjee and Duflo, in Africa and Asia, have produced evidence on the response to a particular intervention by the poor using these randomised trials. The approach basically examines the impact of these micro interventions by treating one set of individuals/households and comparing the outcome with another set of individuals/households, which are similar in all other respects but have not been treated with the intervention. India has been among the biggest laboratories of these experiments with several experiments on diverse themes such as literacy, nutrition, health, Micro-finance and so on.

The RCT approach has its share of supporters as well as critics. While it has enamoured a large number of development economists for its simplicity, where inferences on what works or not are drawn from field experiments, it has also been criticised for reducing the study of poverty to small interventions unconnected to the lived experiences of the poor. The discomfort among many established scholars is that this fashionable trend has made the historical, institutional and social structures of the persistence of poverty less relevant to understanding why the poor continue to remain poor.

Others have picked holes in the methodology. However, it has not deterred development economists from using this approach for designing experiments and conducting them to understand how the lives of poor people change as a result of these micro interventions. There have been questions about whether the results can be replicated in different societies, as well as on the ethics of some of the experiments, which have been conducted in collaboration with participating governments. It is also worth pointing out that the method is as good as the range of interventions that can be undertaken.

While critics may have been unfair to RCTs in some respects while correctly pointing out the pitfalls in an RCT-based approach, there is no denying that all the three scholars have contributed a great deal to putting poverty and development economics back on the agenda of economics. Newer methods and approaches are necessary for the discipline struggling to find relevance in an increasingly complex world, which is as much defined by the microeconomics of small interventions as well as the macroeconomics of development such as government policy and structures of production. As Angus Deaton (Nobel Prize winner of 2015) says: “RCTs can play a role in building scientific knowledge and useful predictions but they can only do so as part of a cumulative programme, combining with other methods, including conceptual and theoretical development, to discover not ‘what works’, but ‘why things work’”.

RCT has become almost like a movement, encouraging many young economists (sometimes called “randomistas”) to visit rural areas and observe the lives of the poor. It may not have had any credible and long lasting impact on the lives of researchers and the population studied, but the fact that so many young economists are immersing themselves in the lives of the poor and trying to understand poverty is itself an achievement. More so at a time when economics has often been criticised for being far removed from reality.

The other achievement, although not necessarily for the better, has been the attempt to give scientific colour to the discipline of economics through the use of evidence generated from these experiments. It certainly has convinced many governments to use facts and evidence in policy prescriptions and induced a degree of caution while introducing new interventions. Even in India, there is evidence of RCTs contributing to improvements in financial management and flow of funds for various government programmes including in the field of education.

While it would have been good if RCTs could predict the effects of demonetisation on the lives of the poor, it is also a reality that most such decisions are not contingent on evidence based on hard facts but on the whims and fancies of the government of the day. Despite the tentative nature of much of this evidence, there is no denying that policy interventions do require better facts and evidence for efficient outcomes. This is true not only for evidence generated by RCTs, but also data generated by our statistical systems including the National Sample Survey (NSS).

Incidentally, both Kremer and Banerjee did their PhD work at Harvard University. Banerjee had completed his MA in economics from the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), JNU, before proceeding to Harvard for doctoral studies. Banerjee supervised Duflo’s doctoral work at MIT. While both Banerjee and Duflo remain engaged with research in India, Kremer was one of the first to use these experimental methods and look at micro-interventions to examine their impact on poverty. The Nobel recognition will hopefully encourage more rigorous work on some of the long-standing problems of development economics, including on poverty and social mobility. Hopefully, it will spur our own government to take data and evidence more seriously.

 

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Breaking down Nobel Laureates’ work

Source: By Udit Misra: The Indian Express

The 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel has been awarded jointly to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremerfor their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. The award carries a purse of 9 million Swedish krona (about Rs 6.5 crore) to be shared among the three winners.

When asked what she would do with the “considerable” prize money given that most of her work is on alleviating poverty, Duflo recalled Marie Curie, who had bought a gram of radium with the prize money from her first Nobel (in Physics in 1903): “We will discuss and decide what our ‘gram of radium’ is.”

Like Curie, who won the 1903 Nobel with her husband Pierre, Duflo is married to Banerjee, with whom she shares the honour in part. They have been collaborating for a long, and in 2011 wrote the book Poor Economics: Rethinking Poverty & The Ways to End it together. The couples are at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Kremer is at Harvard University.

Why have Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer won the Nobel Prize?

“The research conducted by this year’s Laureates has considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty,” the Nobel citation says. “Their new experiment-based approach has transformed development economics.

In Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo bemoaned how the debates on poverty “tend to be fixated on the ‘big questions’: What is the ultimate cause of poverty? How much faith should we place in free markets? Is democracy good for the poor? Does foreign aid have a role to play? And so on”.

Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer, who have been working together since the mid 1990s, are different in that they do not get stuck with the “big questions”. Instead, they break down a problem, study its different aspects, conduct various experiments and, based on such “evidence”, decide what needs to be done.

Thus, instead of looking for the silver bullet to prop up the 700 million people globally who still live in extreme poverty, they look at the various dimensions of poverty — poor health, inadequate education, etc. They then drill down further on each of these components. Within poor health, for instance, they look at nutrition, provisioning of medicines, and vaccination, etc. Within vaccinations, they try to ascertain “what works” and “why”.

As Duflo said immediately after the announcement, “People have reduced the poor to caricatures without understanding the roots of their problems. (We decided) let’s try to unpack the problem and analyse each component scientifically and rigorously.”

How does this approach work in practice?

The lack of a grand universal answer might sound vaguely disappointing, but in fact it is exactly what a policy maker should want to know — not that there are a million ways that the poor are trapped but that there are a few key factors that create the trap, and that alleviating those particular problems could set them free and point them toward a virtuous cycle of increasing wealth and investment,” Banerjee and Duflo said in Poor Economics. Breaking down the poverty problem and focussing on the smaller issues such as “how best to fix diarrhoea or dengue” yielded some very surprising results.

For instance, it is often believed that many poor countries (like India) do not have the resources to adequately provide education, and that this resource crunch is the reason why school-going children do not learn more. But their field experiments showed that lack of resources is not the primary problem.

In fact, studies showed that neither providing more textbooks nor free school meals improved learning outcomes. Instead, as was brought out in schools in Mumbai and Vadodara, the biggest problem is that teaching is not sufficiently adapted to the pupils’ needs. In other words, providing teaching assistants to the weakest students was a far more effective way of improving education in the short to medium term.

Similarly, on tackling teacher absenteeism, what worked better was to employ them on short-term contracts (which could be extended if they showed good results) instead of having fewer students per “permanent” teacher, in order to reduce the burden on teachers and incentivise them to teach.

And what is their “new experiment-based” approach?

The “new, powerful tool” employed by the Laureates is the use of Randomised Control Trials (or RCTs). So if one wanted to understand whether providing a mobile vaccination van and/or a sack of grains would incentivise villagers to vaccinate their kids, then under an RCT, village households would be divided into four groups.

Group A would be provided with a mobile vaccination van facility, Group B would be given a sack of foodgrains, Group C would get both, and Group D would get neither. Households would be chosen at random to ensure there was no bias, and that any difference in vaccination levels was essentially because of the “intervention”.

Group D is called the “control” group while others are called “treatment” groups. Such an experiment would not only show whether a policy initiative works, but would also provide a measure of the difference it brings about. It would also show what happens when more than one initiative are combined. This would help policymakers to have the evidence before they choose a policy.

Is there a flip side to RCTs?

The use of RCTs as the provider of “hard” and incontrovertible evidence has been questioned by many leading economists — none more so than Angus Deaton, the winner of the Economics Nobel in 2015, who said “randomisation does not equalise two groups”, and warned against over-reliance on RCTs to frame policies.

While randomly assigning people or households makes it likely that the groups are equivalent, randomisation “cannot guarantee” it. That’s because one group may perform differently from the other, not because of the “treatment” that it has been given, but because it has more women or more educated people in it.

More fundamentally, RCTs do not guarantee if something that worked in Kerala will work in Bihar, or if something that worked for a small group will also work at scale. This Nobel, albeit indirectly, for RCTs will likely stoke this debate again.

Other married laureate couples

Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903

In 1895, the year Marie and Pierre married; Henri Becquerel discovered that minerals containing uranium emitted a strong radiation. In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered two new elements — polonium and radium. In 1903, Becquerel won the Nobel for his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity, along with the Curies for their supporting researches on the radiation phenomena.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1935

Irène, daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, and Joliot married in 1926, when they were working at the Curies’ Radium Institute. The couple researched both individually and together, in particular on the projection of nuclei, which was an essential step in the discovery of neutron and positron. They were awarded the Nobel for discovering artificial radioactivity.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1947

Gerty and Carl Cori went through medical school together, graduated, married, and emigrated from Vienna to Buffalo as anti-Semitism rose in Europe. In the US, they collaborated in most of their research on how hormones and enzymes cooperate. After 30 years of team work, they were awarded the Medicine Prize for research on glycogen and glucose metabolism.

Prize in Economic Sciences, 1974, Nobel Peace Prize, 1982

The Myrdals, social scientists, are the only wife/husband team to win two awards in different disciplines. Gunnar and Friedrich August von Hayek won for their analysis of interrelations between economic, social and political processes. Alva was recognised for her work countering nuclear proliferation.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2014

May-Britt and her then husband Edvard were awarded the Medicine Prize for their discovery of our “inner GPS”. In a podcast, Edvard Moser talked about their long collaboration and the importance of their different personalities. In 2016, the Mosers announced they were divorcing. They shared the Nobel Prize with John O’Keefe.

 

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Randomised controlled trial

Source: By Prashanth Perumal: The Hindu

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to three economists on 14 October 2019 for their pioneering research into the use of experimental approaches to fight global poverty. The trio, based in the United States, includes Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who currently works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michael Kremer of Harvard University.

The Prize committee noted that these economists "introduced a new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty." The new Nobel laureates are considered to be instrumental in using randomised controlled trials to test the effectiveness of various policy interventions to alleviate poverty.

A randomised controlled trial is an experiment that is designed to isolate the influence that a certain intervention or variable has on an outcome or event. A social science researcher who wants to find the effect that employing more teachers in schools has on children’s learning outcomes, for instance, can conduct a randomised controlled trial to find the answer.

The use of randomised controlled trials as a research tool was largely limited to fields such as biomedical sciences where the effectiveness of various drugs was gauged using this technique. Mr. Banerjee, Ms. Duflo and Mr. Kremer, however, applied RCT to the field of economics beginning in the 1990s. Mr. Kremer first used the technique to study the impact that free meals and books had on learning in Kenyan schools. Mr. Banerjee and Ms. Duflo later conducted similar experiments in India and further popularised RCTs through their book Poor Economics, published in 2011.  

At any point in time, there are multiple factors that work in tandem to influence various social events. RCTs allow economists and other social science researchers to isolate the individual impact that a certain factor alone has on the overall event. For instance, to measure the impact that hiring more teachers can have on children’s learning, researchers must control for the effect that other factors such as intelligence, nutrition, climate, economic and social status etc., which may also influence learning outcomes to various degrees, have on the final event.

Randomised controlled trials promise to overcome this problem through the use of randomly picked samples. Supporters of RCTs believe that since all random samples are subject to the same array of "confounding" factors, they are essentially identical to one another. Using these random samples, they believe, researchers can then conduct experiments by carefully varying appropriate variables to find out the impact of these individual variables on the final event.

A researcher, for instance, may supply one random set of schools with more teachers while other schools are left alone. This will allow him to gauge the effect of hiring more teachers on learning. Many development economists believe that RCTs can help governments to find, in a thoroughly scientific way, the most potent policy measures that could help end poverty rapidly. 

A popular critic of randomised controlled trials is economist Angus Deaton, who won the economics Nobel Prize in 2015. Mr. Deaton has contended in his works, including a paper titled "Understanding and misunderstanding randomised control trials" that simply choosing samples for an RCT experiment in a random manner does not really make these samples identical in their many characteristics.

While two randomly chosen samples might turn out to be similar in some cases, he argued, there are greater chances that most samples are not really similar to each other. Other economists have also contended that randomised controlled trials are more suited for research in the physical sciences where it may be easier to carry out controlled experiments. They argue that social science research, including research in the field of development economics, may be inherently unsuited for such controlled research since it may be humanly impossible to control for multiple factors that may influence social events.

 

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Why India trails in Global Hunger Index

Source: By Udit Misra: The Indian Express

The latest Global Hunger Index (GHI) has ranked India a lowly 102 among the 117 countries it has mapped. In 2018, India was pegged at 103 but last year 119 countries were mapped. So while the rank is one better this year, in reality, India is not better off in comparison to the other countries. The GHI slots countries on a scale ranging from “low” hunger to “moderate”, “serious”, “alarming”, and “extremely alarming”. India is one of the 47 countries that have “serious” levels of hunger.

On the whole, the 2019 GHI report has found that the number of hungry people has risen from 785 million in 2015 to 822 million. It further states that “multiple countries have higher hunger levels now than in 2010, and approximately 45 countries are set to fail to achieve ‘low’ levels of hunger by 2030”.

What is the Global Hunger Index?

The GHI has been brought out almost every year by Welthungerhilfe (lately in partnership with Concern Worldwide) since 2000; this year’s report is the 14th one. A low score gets a country a higher ranking and implies a better performance.

The reason for mapping hunger is to ensure that the world achieves “Zero Hunger by 2030” — one of the Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the United Nations. It is for this reason that GHI scores are not calculated for certain high-income countries.

While in common parlance hunger is understood in terms of food deprivation, in a formal sense it is calculated by mapping the level of calorie intake.

But the GHI does not limit itself to this narrow definition of hunger. Instead, it tracks the performance of different countries on four key parameters because, taken together, these parameters capture multiple dimensions — such a deficiency of micronutrients — of hunger, thus providing a far more comprehensive measure of hunger.

How does GHI measure hunger?

For each country in the list, the GHI looks at four indicators:

* Undernourishment (which reflects inadequate food availability): calculated by the share of the population that is undernourished (that is, whose caloric intake is insufficient);

* Child Wasting (which reflects acute undernutrition): calculated by the share of children under the age of five who are wasted (that is, those who have low weight for their height);

* Child Stunting (which reflects chronic undernutrition): calculated by the share of children under the age of five who are stunted (that is, those who have low height for their age);

* Child Mortality (which reflects both inadequate nutrition and unhealthy environment): calculated by the mortality rate of children under the age of five (in part, a reflection of the fatal mix of inadequate nutrition.

Each country’s data are standardised on a 100-point scale and a final score is calculated after giving 33.33% weight each to components 1 and 4, and giving 16.66% weight each to components 2 and 3.

Countries scoring less than or equal to 9.9 are slotted in the “low” category of hunger, while those scoring between 20 and 34.9 are in the “serious” category and those scoring above 50 are in the “extremely alarming” category.

What is India’s score relative to those of the others?

Among the BRICS grouping, India is ranked the worst, with China at 25 and a score of just 6.5. Within South Asia, too, India is behind every other country. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan (in that order) are all ahead of India.

Some of the other countries ahead of India are Saudi Arabia (rank 34), Venezuela (rank 65, even as its score has doubled from just over 8 to over 16, because of the socio-economic and political crisis), Lesotho (rank 79), Burkina Faso (rank 88), and North Korea (rank 92).

In stark contrast to India, which has the world’s largest democracy and one of the biggest economies, most of the countries below India on the GHI — Afghanistan, Haiti or Yemen etc — are either poorly governed or war-torn or ravaged by natural calamities.

Why is India ranked so low on GHI?

With an overall score of 30.3, India finds itself sandwiched between Niger (score 30.2, rank 101) and Sierra Leone (score 30.4, rank 103). In 2000, India’s score was 38.8 and its hunger level was in the “alarming” category. Since then, India has steadily improved on most counts to reduce its score and is now slotted in the” “serious” category.

But the pace of India’s improvement has been relatively slow. Nothing illustrates this better than the trajectory of Niger and Sierra Leone, which in 2000 had scores of 52.1 and 53.6, respectively, and found themselves in the “extremely alarming” category of hunger — and were much worse off than India.

So, even though India has improved its score, many others have done more and that explains why despite achieving relatively fast economic growth since 2000, India has not been able to make commensurate strides in reducing hunger.

What are the reasons for which India’s improvements have been slow?

For one, notwithstanding the broader improvements, there is one category — Child Wasting, that is, children with low weight for their age — where India has worsened. In other words, the percentage of children under the age of 5 years suffering from wasting has gone up from 16.5 in 2010 to 20.8 now. Wasting is indicative of acute undernutrition and India is the worst among all countries on this parameter.

India’s child wasting rate is extremely high at 20.8 percent — the highest wasting rate of any country in this report for which data or estimates were available. Its child stunting rate, 37.9 percent, is also categorized as very high in terms of its public health significance… In India, just 9.6 percent of all children between 6 and 23 months of age are fed a minimum acceptable diet,” states the report.

“In 2014 the prime minister instituted the ‘Clean India’ campaign to end open defecation and ensure that all households had latrines. Even with new latrine construction, however, the population's health and consequently children’s growth and development as their ability to absorb nutrients is compromised,” it said.

 

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Time to go green

Source: By Anil Kumar G: The Financial Express

The “Earth Summit” of 1992, in Brazil, brought in a paradigm shift in concept of development with increasing recognition that environmental and economic policies must work in tandem to improve the quality of human life. One of the ways to incentivise sustainable development is through low-cost financing for sustainable projects. Developed world has already recognised the need of dedicated funds for greener projects at low-cost.

Indian government is implementing the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) to reduce emissions intensity—GHG emissions per unit of GDP—by 33% to 35% below the 2005 levels by the year 2030. Further, at least 40% of energy in 2030 would be generated from non-fossil fuel sources. Achieving this requires massive investment as green tech is largely capital-intensive. Most of the cases fall under the categories of renewable and sustainable energy that use clean technology.

Responding to environmental problems used to be an unappealing, no-win proposition for managers, and economic forces at work.There are a need for a far-sighted programme and innovative, creative solutions to address environmental challenges. Financing, which is normally considered a passive activity, can contribute a lot towards reducing the cost of doing business in a greener way. Green Bonds have emerged as an innovative way to fund green projects. These can reduce the cost of capital and, thereby, improve returns.

Green Bonds are the same as corporate bonds, but their proceeds are pre-allocated to green activities. Fund raising through green bonds was done first in 2007 when European Investment Bank raised €600 million under the label “Climate Awareness Bond” dedicated for renewable energy projects and energy-efficient projects. The latest success story comes from Russian Railway, whose eight-year green bond raised €500 million, and was priced at 2.2%. The issuance was oversubscribed with an order-book of over €1.8 billion. The capital raised will be used to purchase electric trains as part of a modernisation programme.

Transport, the second largest contributor to global GHG emissions, is responsible for 23% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions globally, and 14% of total GHG emissions. Road transportation remains the primary source of emissions in the sector, and is responsible for 73% of the carbon dioxide emissions. India’s scenario is no different.

Hence, leveraging debt capital markets towards sustainable transport infrastructure development and services has enormous potential to help achieve climate goals. 71% of the climate-themed bonds issued relate to low-carbon transport. This is largely due to a number of rail issuers, which have a long history of using bonds to raise finance. As per the Climate Bonds Standard and Certification Scheme of “Climate Bonds Initiative”, there are certain areas which are most likely to get acceptance in the green bond market. These include transport infrastructure (all modes of collective/mass transport and its infrastructure, especially urban rail and Bus Rapid Transport (BRT), ropeways and cable cars); alternative (low-carbon) energy refuelling distribution infrastructure; vehicle technologies to significantly increase emissions efficiency (including fuel efficiency, fuel type and other vehicle improvements); and new vehicle technologies and hybridisation, autonomous /semi-autonomous vehicles. The electric vehicles industry is one of the thrust areas, and the 2019-20 Budget has announced fiscal incentives and measures to ease regulatory hurdles.

The Railways can play a huge role in combating climate change.Indian Railway Finance Corporation Ltd (IRFC) established a Green Bond Framework for fund raising. The proceeds were proposed to be used for financing the Dedicated Freight Corridor project and electrification of the railways. The IRFC had raised $500 million in 2017 from the 10-year green bond through India INX, GIFT City. Very recently, in June 2019, Adani Green Energy issued green bonds worth $500 million through India INX at a coupon of 6.25%; these were subscribed over three times, when most infrastructure companies struggled to raising funds in India. Given the success of Russia in raising green bonds at a coupon rate of 2.2%, the greener pastures are open for rail transportation in India.

The Economic Survey 2018-19 points out that India needs to almost double its annual spending on infrastructure at $200 billion, which will obviously require harnessing private investment. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her budget speech, talked about international debt issuance by the government so that domestic resources would be available to others at comparatively cheaper terms. It will ease the liquidity crisis and give an impetus to the growth momentum.

India is only putting $100-110 billion annually into infrastructure development which requires innovative approaches. Issuing green bonds overseas is one such approach in realising the goal of creating a clean environment. The government can do well by setting up a Green Investment Trust, an agency for green financing, to fund the green infrastructure projects of the country. The trust can tap the green funds abroad and channel the same towards the green projects in India, including clean transportation. The financial incentives in terms of low-cost funds will trigger infrastructure investments in clean transport.

 

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