Renu Pokharna

Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

Shankar Acharya: Agriculture: be like Gujarat

In Agriculture, Gujarat on January 23, 2012 at 6:49 am

In the 60 years since 1950 Indian agriculture has recorded an average growth rate of 2.7 per cent per year. In the past 30 years, the rate has crept slightly above three per cent, well short of the four per cent target set in successive recent Five-Year Plans. Most analysts infer that it would take great good luck (with weather) or a sweeping revolution in policy design and implementation to achieve and sustain four per cent growth. Is that really so?

For a more optimistic answer let’s look at the variation in agricultural performance across India’s 20 largest states (by population) in the last decade (see Table). It’s striking that agriculture in seven sizeable states (Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa) grew faster than four per cent between 2000-01 and 2007-08. And that fact doesn’t change when the relatively bad agricultural years of 2008-09 and 2009-10 are included. What’s more, most of these states are more water-stressed than average. The star performer is semi-arid Gujarat, clocking eight per cent (nearly triple the national average) agricultural growth over the decade.

So let’s dig a little deeper into the reasons behind Gujarat’s stellar agrarian success, especially as it comes after the decade of the nineties when growth averaged less than five per cent. The story is persuasively documented in the recent monograph compiled by Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, professors Ravindra Dholakia and Samar Datta: High Growth Trajectory and Structural Changes in Gujarat Agriculture (Macmillan, 2010). Broadly speaking, professors Dholakia, Datta et al (henceforth, DDEA) identify six factors that were given a concerted push by the Gujarat government from 2002-03 onwards:

  • a sustained programme of water conservation and management;
  • a massive and well-coordinated extension effort;
  • a successful overhaul of rural electricity distribution;
  • a strong emphasis on non-food crops like horticulture, Bt cotton, castor and isabgol;
  • sustained and comprehensive support to livestock development;
  • major revamping of agriculture-supporting infrastructure, including roads, electricity and ports.

Some of these factors merit elaboration.

With only a quarter of its agricultural land irrigated, efficient conservation and management of water has been a continuing challenge for Gujarat’s agriculture. Three major programmes received a fresh impetus from 2000 onwards. With assistance and encouragement from the Planning Commission, watershed development programmes were rapidly scaled up, adding about 100,000 hectares per year. By 2009, nearly 2,000 projects covering 2 million hectares had been completed and another 900,000 hectares were under execution. Second, the Jal Kranti programme for constructing check dams, recharging wells and reviving village ponds/tanks was vigorously pursued. By the end of 2008, “a total of 113,738 checkdams, 55,917 bori bandhs and 240,199 farm ponds were constructed by the Water Resources Department” (page 25, DDEA book). Third, micro-irrigation (through drips and sprinklers) received an enormous boost in the past decade spearheaded by the Gujarat Green Revolution Company. During 2006 to 2010 nearly 2 lakh hectares were covered, benefiting a similar number of farmers.

AGRICULTURE GROWTH (GROSS VALUE ADDED) ACROSS INDIAN STATES                                                                       (Percentage)
Sectoral share of
agriculture in state
GSDP* (2007-08)1
Gujarat 11.7 8.0 16.0
Chhattisgarh 9.4 6.7 17.0
Rajasthan 5.8 3.5 23.9
Maharashtra 5.6 4.0 13.0
Andhra Pradesh 5.6 4.7 22.4
Madhya Pradesh 5.5 6.2 24.2
Orissa 4.6 4.8 23.3
Himachal Pradesh 4.0 1.6 19.4
Jammu and Kashmir 3.6 3.1 24.1
Haryana 3.6 3.4 21.0
Uttarakhand 2.5 2.2 16.1
Tamil Nadu 2.5 2.0 12.2
Punjab 2.4 2.2 31.7
West Bengal 2.1 2.0 18.5
Uttar Pradesh 1.7 1.8 27.3
Bihar 1.5 1.1 23.0
Karnataka 1.2 0.6 15.4
Kerala 0.7 0.9 12.4
Assam 0.5 1.6 24.6
Jharkhand -0.7 1.1 8.6
(1)  Based on national income data at 1999-2000 prices
(2)  1999-2000 prices data up to 2007-08 and 2004-05 base data for growth in 2008-09 and 2009-10
*Gross state domestic product                                                    Source: Central Statistical Organisation

As in the rest of India, the system of agricultural extension established in the years 1950 to 1970 had suffered serious entropy and decay in next 30 years. In the early noughties, a systematic and massive renewal of agricultural extension systems was carried out under the Krishi Mahotsav programme. It included an “ambitious programme for issuing soil health cards and kisan credit cards for each farmer and micro level planning for each block and village for recommending profitable alternative crop patterns…” (page 27, DDEA book). The programme required a month-long deployment of about 100,000 personnel from across 18 government departments. It has been carried out each year since 2005.

Along with revamping water management and extension services, the Gujarat government also achieved a major breakthrough in rural electrification. The Jyotigram Yojana was launched in 2003 and ensured 100 per cent electrification of the state’s villages and reasonably regular supply in three years. The scheme included a crucial component of power supply for groundwater management with eight hours a day of full voltage power made available on a pre-announced schedule.

These major initiatives on the supply side facilitated a robust response of the agriculture sector to the changing composition of demand as Gujarat’s overall economy grew at double-digit rates during the decade. The state was quick to seize the opportunities for diversification into non-food crops. Despite some controversy, Gujarat was an early and successful adopter of Bt cotton, which fuelled rapid growth in cotton production. Other commercial crops such as castor and psyllium (isabgol) also did very well. Household incomes grew apace, so did the market for horticulture products. The production of both fruit and vegetables was about four times higher in 2008-09 compared to 1991-92 and the output of spices was almost five times greater. This robust growth in horticulture owed a lot to improvements in infrastructure and marketing.

Apart from crop production, agricultural policies also encouraged rapid expansion of the livestock sector. During the past decade, milk production grew at five per cent per year, egg production at 19 per cent and meat output at 10 per cent. With rapidly rising incomes the mainly vegetarian orientation of the state’s population has gradually lessened. Besides, cross-border sales have also grown.

How much of Gujarat’s agricultural success story can be replicated in other Indian states? In the preface to their book, professors Dholakia and Datta claim that “this story is certainly replicable by other states and regions within and outside the country”. Well, maybe. A few sentences earlier they write “It is not a miracle that happened exogenously. It is fully endogenous, systematically led by long-term vision and comprehensive strategy requiring solid commitment and dedication to the cause, political will to pursue market-oriented reforms of policies and institutions, interdepartmental and inter-ministerial coordination and cooperation, and a responsive and entrepreneurial farming community”. Well, in much of today’s India that doesn’t sound too “endogenous”; it seems closer to an “exogenous” miracle!


14 July 2011, Business Standard

Media Inc.

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2012 at 6:42 am

The diversity and the continuous growth in the Indian media and entertainment industry have been a matter of curiosity for global observers. The country has close to 650 television channels, more than 2,000 publications and more than 30 FM radio operators running 245 stations across the country. It sees the release of more than 1,000 films a year. This has no parallel anywhere in the world. Add to it the fact that there is still a long queue of aspirants wanting to hop on to this already crowded bandwagon. It leads to a legitimate question: Is media and entertainment a thriving business churning out billionaires in hordes? The answer is no.

On the contrary, we have seen astute businessmen such as Raghav Bahl, the promoter of Network18 Group, who in 15 years put together one of the country’s largest broadcast news networks, struggling hard to stay afloat. His business, comprising some of the market-leading channels such as TV18, CNBC Awaaz, CNN-IBN, IBN7, Colors, MTV and Nickelodeon, had accumulated more than Rs 2,100 crore losses on a group revenue of around Rs 1,600 crore. In the wake of Reliance Industry ‘s proposed loan of Rs 1,700 crore, which may go up to Rs 4,000 crore, to Network18 Group, it is being speculated in the market that Bahl might have sold out his stake to RIL.

The story of many of Network18’s rivals is not much different. The non-news players also have it tough as they operate in the midst of stifling competition and survive on thin margins. One of the country’s largest and most profitable broadcast companies, Rupert Murdoch owned Star India, for instance, had profits of only around Rs 600-650 crore on a revenue of about Rs 2,500-2,600 crore in 2010-11. Most leading media companies in the country would be clubbed with the largest corporations in terms of their influence and recall but in terms of the size of their operations and the weight of their balance sheets, they will be categorised with medium and small enterprises.

While the media and the entertainment sector has been one of the fastest growing in the economy, this has largely been a factor of the overall economic growth seen after liberalisation. The size of the entire sector, for instance, is only around Rs 65,000 crore, much less than comparatively new sectors such as telecom service providers whose current aggregate revenues will be in excess of Rs 1.5 lakh crore. And if one narrows one’s attention to only the print and broadcast sector, the pie shrinks to a mere Rs 49,000 crore.

Big Fish in Small Pond

Even as the industry remains small and scattered, there has been a gradual emergence of big players in the sector with a large mainstream footprint (see graphic). In the past five years, homegrown mainstream media owners have moved horizontally and vertically and established their presence across segments such as print, television, radio, digital and films. With no restrictions on cross-media holdings, the big media houses that were already well-entrenched in the business and had the on-ground intelligence made only incremental investments to build these new businesses.

Then it is the global media houses that have consistently built their mainstream, so-called national presence. With restrictions on foreign direct investment in the news and current affairs business, their focus has been limited to non-news broadcast and film entertainment segments (see graphic).

“The potential of one-billion-people market and the free media environment attracted Rupert Murdoch. These two factors continue to motivate the other big global companies besides the fact that globally, India is one of the very few markets left where media industry is still growing and is likely to continue growing,” says Uday Shankar, CEO, Star India.

The third kind of entrants, the most recent, have been the non-media domestic corporate houses making strategic investments in segments that fit in the overall scheme of their business. With convergence already making inroads, it has largely been telecom operators, such as Bharti Airtel, Tata Group, Reliance ADAG and now, RIL with its broadband venture, who have made such moves.

“The media and entertainment industry remained small despite the fast economic growth of the past two decades because it entirely depends on advertising for its survival, an oddity seen only in India. With their revenues constrained, the existing players never had the resources to grow at a faster pace, to expand and become bigger or develop newer sources of sustenance,” says Farokh Balsara, leader of media and entertainment practice at Ernst & Young (Europe, India, Middle East and Africa). E&Y, incidentally, was involved in the deal between Network18 and RIL. It is to this end that the emergence of big players is being hailed by the business community and the investment by RIL in Network18 has been welcomed by those in the business of business.

“It is a good development. One, it means a company such as Network18, which has created strong media brands, doesn’t sink into oblivion but instead, gets a lifeline. That is good news for its own stakeholders and investors and also, the industry. Two, it leads to consolidation as after the deal, Network18 will have a pan-India footprint with news channels across north and south, which, again is good for the industry as it will see scale being build up in the sector. And three, it brings in a lot of optimism for the entire industry when a sound corporate house such as RIL enters the sector,” says Salil Pitale, executive director at Enam Investment Banking. Like Pitale, the stock broking community is happy that media stocks that have been wilting for sometime will see some sunshine now and attract more investors, which will ultimately reflect on the overall health of the industry.

Media business experts predict that these big media companies will not initiate the process of consolidation but begin moving into smaller media pockets in a significant way besides making aggressive efforts to wrangle out market shares from one another. “It is a natural aspiration of a businessman to grow. It is a natural progression in the evolution of any business,” says Abhijit Pawar, managing director, Sakaal Media Group, a Maharashtra-based leading media company that publishes several newspapers and has broadcast interests as well. “We ourselves grew bigger by acquiring Gomantak Times, Sakaal and Sakaal Times. Survival of the fittest is an established principle and those who deserve to be in the business will survive,” he adds.

The fear of the ‘C’ word

The consolidation of media interests, especially news, in the hands of a few big corporate entities is a subject that has been debated at length in the developed markets such as the US and the UK where media behemoths such as News Corporation and Time Warner own and operate ventures across the media and entertainment sector and have extensive interests across the globe as well. In India, this debate has yet to enter mainstream consciousness.

Unlike the print business, broadcast and radio are a new and emerging phenomenon. Regulations have ensured that news and non-news interests are housed separately. While the non-news mainstream broadcast space has already been claimed by big global players, TV news has had its own issues and challenges that have kept the industry occupied.

RIL’s investment in Network18 is the first big intervention by a large non-news corporation (indeed, there are several real estate companies, politicians, and political parties running news channels but they are too small to call their entry the corporatisation of media. Besides, their entry, though with questionable objectives, has added to the diversity in the business and hence raised eyebrows.

“Media houses adopting corporate structures, processes and policies is the need of the hour. It’s about being able to fit well into the overall economic and business environment,” says Ravi Dhariwal, CEO, Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd. “The same media houses consolidating their interests and expanding their footprint across segments is also understandable. Scale, after all, is important for not only creating value for stakeholders, such as advertisers, but it also helps in bringing efficiency and better utilisation of one’s resources,” he says.

Dhariwal, however, raises the red flag over the entry of non-media corporations in the business. “Media companies do not have any corporate or political agenda. Whereas when big corporations with distinct interests enter the business, there is a risk of they influencing editorial decisions. Even if they remain hands-off, there will be a lurking concern or suspicion over the stands their news room takes on issues that concern them or their rivals,” says Dhariwal.

His fear, however, is dismissed by his own fraternity. “India is perhaps the only country of any size where there is zero cross-media restrictions…where a media group can and does, for example, operate a newspaper, news channel, radio stations, web platforms and also, sell their media for a price as advertising in the name of news,” says UTV founder chairman Ronnie Screwvala. “This has been happening for so many years, so there cannot be a fresh threat (corporatisation and consolidation) bigger than what is already there,” he says.

Pawar echos Screwvala’s views. “I do not see any conflict of interest in a big non-media corporation entering the business. Look at ToI’s (Times of India) private treaties, HT’s connection with the Birlas and Kotak Mahindra’s stake in Business Standard.”

Going by the experience in the West and the larger business trends within and outside the country, corporatisation and consolidation of media interests seem a foregone conclusion. What is also clear is that the process will be examined, debated and opposed by those fighting for the society’s need for unbiased, objective and honest communication.

In the meantime, some are demanding the institution of an independent regulator that may check the excesses from either side.

“There is too much commotion and confusion in the industry. It is time we had an independent and strong media regulator,” says Subhash Chandra, Chairman, Essel Group.

MNC players

News Corporation–Star India Pvt Ltd Owned by Rupert Murdoch, the company runs India’s most popular broadcast network with channels such as Star Plus, Life OK, Star Sports, Star Gold, etc. Produces and distributes film. Has a 26 per cent stake in the company that runs Hindi news channel Star News and also manages ad sales of news broadcaster NDTV. Has produced films. Owns a stake in one of the largest cable distribution companies Hathway and in DTH service provider Tata-Sky

Time Warner–Turner Broadcasting System Inc– Turner General Entertainment Networks India Pvt Ltd Owns and operates Hindi general entertainment channel Imagine TV; a world cinema channel Lumiere and film production house Imagine Film Company; Turner India Pvt Ltd that operates Pogo, Cartoon Network, HBO and WB.

The Walt Disney Co–The Walt Disney Co India After its proposed acquisition in UTV Software Communications Ltd will own Hungama TV, Bindaas, UTV Movies, UTV World Movies, UTV Action, and UTV Stars in the broadcast space. In the film business, it will acquire UTV’s pan-India interests in script development, production, marketing, distribution, merchandising and syndication and its gaming business. It also has a stake in the company that operates ESPN Star Sports.

Sony Corporation–Multi Screen Media Pvt Ltd–Operates Hindi general entertainment channels Sony Entertainment, Sab TV, movies and special events channels SET MAX, Hollywood movie channels, among others. Sony Music Entertainment Pvt Ltd —an integrated music company. Sony Pictures Entertainment Films India Pvt Ltd—produces and distributes films and television content


8 Jan 2o12, Indian Express

If science seems stuck, so do the Prime Ministers

In Civil Services Reforms, Uncategorized on January 23, 2012 at 6:31 am

* I would like to see a hike in investments in R&D from the present 0.86% of the GDP to 1% this year, and to be further increased to 2% over the next five years: Prime Minister A B Vajpayee at the 2000 Indian Science Congress, Pune.


* We must aim to increase the total R&D spending as a percentage of GDP to at least 2 per cent by the end of the XII Plan Period from the current level of about 1 per cent: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 2012 Indian Science Congress, Bhubaneswar.


A coincidence? May be. But consider this.


* We will promote public private partnerships, to increase funding for frontier areas of scientific and technological research: Singh at the 2005 Indian Science Congress, Ahmedabad.


* We have to increase public private partnerships and catalyse significantly increased interaction between publicly owned Science and Technology institutions and industry: Singh at the 2012 Indian Science Congress, Bhubaneswar.


The Science Congress is the largest congregation of scientists in the country, held every year from January 3 to 7 and inaugurated by the Prime Minister. It started in 1914 and the 99th edition just completed in Bhubaneswar. It is a permanent engagement on the Prime Minister’s calendar and after Independence there have been only two occasions when the Prime Minister has not been able to make it.

The event is supposed to showcase the best in Indian science and an occasion for the Prime Minister to announce the big-ticket policy initiatives of the government related to science.

But the speeches of the Prime Ministers in the last 10 years reveal how repetitive this exercise has become reflecting either a policy stasis in the sector, lack of bold reforms or both.

Each year, the PM underlines the same themes: increase in investment, de-bureaucratisation of scientific establishments, public-private partnerships. So much so that sometimes the Prime Ministers use the same quote to make the point. Like Vajpayee in 2000, when he quoted Nehru to say: “As we enter the new century, I recall the stirring words of the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who said, ‘Scientists are a minority in league with the future’”. Vajpayee used Nehru’s same quote two years later in Lucknow.

Singh followed him a few years later. He quoted Winston Churchill as having said that “The empires of the future are going to be the empires of the mind” in 2008 and then reused the same quote in 2009.

The intention of increasing the investment on R&D to at least 2 per cent of the GDP has been repeated almost every year in recent times — in 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2009. Of course, the growth in GDP means that in absolute terms the money going to science has gone up even if it has remained stuck at just under 1 per cent of GDP.

Similarly, freeing the lab from bureaucratic red tape has been a refrain down the years. In 2002, Vajpayee said that “bureaucratism is an enemy of a result-oriented approach and must be shunned, for it demotivates our scientific talent.” The next year, he echoed this: “We have to ensure that our scientific institutions do not become afflicted with the culture of our Governmental agencies…the main cause leading to frustration among young scientists is seniority displacing merit and talent suppression.”

Singh then struck the same notes in 2005 on the “tyranny of bureaucracy” and the perils of bureaucratic systems in 2009. In 2010, he reiterated the need to “liberate Indian science from the shackles and deadweight of bureaucratism and in-house favouritism.”

Another favourite, enduring theme: the decline of universities. In 2007, Singh referred to the “widespread concern about the decline in the standards our research work in universities” and called for a “massive” upgrade. Two years later, he said: “We need strengthening of institutional leadership in universities and research institutions.”

The one visible movement forward was in the spread of institutions. In 2008, the PM announced the launch of eight new IITs, 30 new Central universities, five new Indian Institutes of Science Education, seven new IIMs and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology. Three years later, the PM announced the establishment of the eight new IITs and the five Indian Institutes of Science Education.


8 Jan 2012, Indian Express

Accountability in education

In Corruption, Education, School Vouchers on January 19, 2012 at 8:08 am

I was shocked by Lant Pritchett’s note on the appalling performance of India’s best two states on the international PISA assessment. Actually, I was not really shocked; I didn’t expect anything else as I’ve been listening to Lant for years now. By the same token, I agree with Jishnu Das that we really don’t know much about what works in education (other than that good teaching makes a difference) and that our bean-counting of inputs into education may be completely wrong headed. From conversations with him (also over years) I surmise that the only thing we really know about what leads to more learning is that it is correlated with how many years children stay in school. What that suggests, though, is that attention be directed towards the choice of parents and students to stay in school.

In my opinion people choose to do things if it is worth it to them. This is a common assumption for economists. While challengeable in some circumstances, does it make any sense to think that people send their children to school if they don’t think it’s worth it? If it is compulsory: sure. With compulsion, attention of policy makers and carefully watchful observers such as Pratham should be to make sure school is worth the year of children’s attendance since people would not be able to decide for themselves. Until we see compulsory schooling enforced, though, years of education remain a family’s choice and we have to understand how and why people make that choice.

Unless we think parents are utterly clueless about the value of education and totally incapable of telling if teachers are doing anything or their children are learning anything, the effectiveness of teaching and the amount of knowledge imparted must be a major factor in their decision as to whether school is worth it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met dozens of educators and education officials in India who believe parents are, indeed, clueless and such decisions should be out of their hands. But they are the very people who gave us the PISA ratings and are indeed throwbacks to the License Raj where only bureaucrats were assumed to know anything. Further, with the explosion of private schools, even in rural areas, it is laughable to think that there are so many parents who value education so little. They are willing to forego free public education in order to pay for something more worthwhile.

Which brings us to accountability.

What could parents be looking at, that makes them think school is worth it? It must be based on performance: parents don’t really see the inputs, they mostly just see their children learn. Or not learn as is the case. So how can they translate their concern for learning into actual learning? They have to be free to pick the educational context that they see is working for them or their neighbors. That’s where accountability comes in.

A provider of any good or service is likely to be most accountable when their livelihood depends upon attracting customers. If what they provide is worth it, people will take the service, and the provider can make a living. If not, parents won’t pay and teachers won’t get paid. As of now, there is no mechanism to allow families to make that choice. There is no such compulsion for teachers to provide a service worth paying for. No doubt there are many teachers (probably most) who are doing the best they can regardless of how they are paid. But with over 24% absenteeism, large numbers of teachers observed to be doing anything but teaching, and many sub-contracting their position to under-qualified replacements at a fraction of government salaries, there is substantial room for improvement.

Further, if we are going to get more students (and, hence, teachers) into classrooms, the dedicated teachers may be the ones who are already on the job. People induced to enter the profession may not be as dedicated and, hence, need some other way to hold them accountable than internally felt professional ethics.

I am an educator (of sorts) but have no opinion about what the bottleneck in children’s learning really is. Jishnu says the most successful headmasters all say different things (after good teachers – but then, don’t we judge the goodness of teachers by whether their students actually learn? It’s an output based judgment, too.) I know little of pedagogical theory. But I know just as little about the inner workings of most complex things I use — computers and the Internet, water systems, bicycles. I can tell when they work and when they don’t, though. Similarly, I know that my sons learned to read and write, become responsible citizens and to develop and exercise critical intellectual capacities (sometimes way too critical for my taste) even though I have no idea how they learned them. I did know that their teachers were in school almost every day and doing things that sounded like teaching to me. I did not have to be an expert on pedagogy to hold the schools completely accountable for my children’s education.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to take (or threaten to take) them out of government schools if I thought otherwise. Funding for government schools (in the U.S.) follows enrollment, if not so directly and obviously as for private schools. So my threats about shifting my children out of government school directly mattered to their teachers.

There is no reason why Indian parents can’t do the same. They, on average, may not have my education but after talking to hundreds of families in rural areas, tribal villages, urban slums and SC hamlets, I hear no less concern for their children’s future than I have for mine and no less ability to tell if a teacher appears to be doing his job. They may be more capable than me since they are more likely to see the teachers themselves — I needed to ask my children.

In many rich countries, the issue of vouchers to pay for schools is emotionally charged. Historically, free compulsory public education was a result of fights between church and State (even in Japan where `church’ doesn’t quite fit — but religion and State does). Children were already attending school in high percentages and there was a fight for their hearts and minds. In rich countries currently, suggestions to provide vouchers instead of State-run schools re-kindle this old antagonism against religious instruction.

India never had this fight nor this evolution of public provision. Our view of schooling here in India was imposed based on the final result of universal free education seen in rich countries without the history from which that final result evolved.

India needn’t go through the phase of fighting over who gets to teach students who are already highly motivated to learn and have seen learning take place. If India wants to see all children educated, she can certainly pay for the cost of education (in fact, the job can be done for much less per student is presently spent) so that families don’t have to. But the government doesn’t have to provide it directly (though government schools should be free to compete for this money if it can). The fight is the State against society (families), not against the church.

What the State can do is make as much information known to parents as possible. What should children know after how many years of school? How do you know if your child is keeping up? How do you know what you’re paying for is worth it? As of now, this information is certainly not given to parents. Maybe State run schools don’t want parents to know (and, unfortunately, most Indian parents will not know about PISA). And as of now, there is nothing parents (particularly poor parents) can do about it anyway.


18 Jan 2012, Indian Express

The first PISA results for India: The end of the beginning

In Corruption, Education, School Vouchers on January 19, 2012 at 7:58 am

     Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning
of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Winston Churchill, November 1942

The PISA 2009+ results are the end of the beginning. For the last decade there has been a debate. Some argued the levels of learning inside Indian elementary schools (primary and upper primary) are a national scandal and a threat to the future of India’s society, polity, and economy. Others appeared to believe that the main, if not only, problem with Indian schools was that not enough children attend them and that with more money and more of the same, all would be well. The last five years saw a relentless accumulation of evidence about the crisis of learning. The establishment has tried to deny, deflect, and dismiss the evidence on learning. Eventually the Government of India agreed to participate in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) – but only for two states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh – and both sides agreed PISA was the litmus test. The PISA 2009+ results, which are both official and are beyond gain-saying are unspeakably bad. They confirm the worst of what anyone has been saying about the levels of learning in India elementary education.

  • In reading of the 74 regions participating in PISA 2009 or 2009+ these two states beat out only Kyrgyzstan.
  • In mathematics of the 74 regions participating the two states finished again, second and third to last, again beating only Kyrgyzstan.
  • In science the results were even worse, Himachal Pradesh came in dead last, behind Kyrgyzstan, while Tamil Nadu inched ahead to finish 72nd of 74.

But just coming in last (if we can dismiss as a relevant comparator for India a tiny Central Asian state) does not convey the enormity of how bad these results were, as not only was India last, it was far, far, behind its aspirations, both at the bottom and at the top levels of performance.

PISA expresses the levels of performance in two ways, an overall index number and the fraction of students achieving various “levels” of achievement. The PISA index numbers for each subject are scaled so that the typical OECD student is at 500 and the standard deviation across OECD students is 100. The testing of thousands of students allows the results to present not only the average but also the worst (5th percentile) and best (95th percentile) students do in each country/region. PISA also classifies student performance into “levels” that represent different degrees of mastery of the material.

Table 1 compares India’s performance to three groups of countries. The economic superstars have successfully completed the transition from poor to rich economies in just two generations – Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea (China’s only results are just for the city of Shanghai, which are the highest scores of any region tested, but this is too a typical to really be comparable) and India aspires to their sustained success economically. The current super powers are represented by the USA and the OECD average reflects India’s aspirations as a superpower. The rising powers are represented by the BRIC countries of Russia and Brazil which reflect the rise of the emerging markets.

Compared to the economic superstars India is almost unfathomably far behind. The TN/HP average 15 year old is over 200 points behind. If a typical grade gain is 40 points a year Indian eighth graders are at the level of Korea third graders in their mathematics mastery. In fact the average TN/HP child is 40 to 50 points behind the worst students in the economic superstars. Equally worrisome is that the best performers in TN/HP – the top 5 percent who India will need in science and technology to complete globally – were almost 100 points behind the average child in Singapore and 83 points behind the average Korean – and a staggering 250 points behind the best in the best.

As the current superpowers are behind the East Asian economic superstars in learning performance the distance to India is not quite as far, but still the average TN/HP child is right at the level of the worst OECD or American students (only 1.5 or 7.5 points ahead). Indians often deride America’s schools but the average child placed in an American school would be among the weakest students. Indians might have believed, with President Obama, that American schools were under threat from India but the best TN/HP students are 24 points behind the average American 15 year old.

Even among other “developing” nations that make up the BRICs India lags – from Russia by almost as much as the USA and only for Brazil, which like the rest of Latin America is infamous for lagging education performance does India even come close – and then not even that close.

To put these results in perspective, in the USA there has been huge and continuous concern that has caused seismic shifts in the discourse about education driven, in part, by the fact that the USA is lagging the economic superstars like Korea. But the average US 15 year old is 59 points behind Koreans. TN/HP students are 41.5 points behind Brazil, and twice as far behind Russia (123.5 points) as the US is Korea, and almost four times further behind Singapore (217.5 vs 59) that the US is behind Korea. Yet so far this disastrous performance has yet to occasion a ripple in the education establishment.

Table 1: Comparing Indian (Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh) students mastery of mathematics to economic superstars, current superpowers, and rising superpowers
Country/Region  5th   mean   95th  HP+TN average to comparator average HP+TN average to comparator 5th percentile HP+TN best (95th) to comparator’s average HP+TN best (95th) to comparator’s 95th
Points TN/HP is behind (-)/ahead(+)
Economic Superstars
Singapore 383 562 725 -217.5 -38.5 -99 -262
Hong Kong 390 555 703 -210.5 -45.5 -92 -240
Korea 397 546 689 -201.5 -52.5 -83 -226
Current Superpower
OECD avg. 343 496 643 -151.5 1.5 -33 -180
USA 337 487 637 -142.5 7.5 -24 -174
Rising Superpowers
Russia 329 468 609 -123.5 15.5 -5 -146
Brazil 261 386 531 -41.5 83.5 77 -68
Indian States
Tamil Nadu 241 351 468
Himachal Pradesh 223 338 458
Average of TN and HP 232 344.5 463
Source: PISA 2009 Plus Results, Table B.3.1 for first three columns and author’s calculations.

I have emphasised Mathematics because many believed math was an Indian strong suit. The results for reading and science are similarly bad. Table 2 shows science results in a different format, which shows the proportion of children in various categories of performance. There are three points:

  1. “Below level 1” doesn’t even have a description as it implies that so little proficiency is demonstrated it is impossible to distinguish from not knowing anything at all. In the USA, even with its socio-economic and racial inequalities and language inequalities and its failing inner city schools, only 4.2 percent are in this category. In HP 57.9 percent of 15 year olds in school cannot be distinguished from not having learned any science at all and in TN 43.6 percent all in this category – ten times as many as the USA.
  2. PISA considers “level 2” as the minimum level that provides the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology. Since more than 80 percent of students in both HP and TN are level 1 or below this most students in these states have reached age 15 ill-equipped for the century they will face.
  3. While a thin elite that competes for the few highly selective technical institutes are globally competitive, this is a tiny fraction of the population. The estimate of the fraction of TN or HP students at level 6 in science proficiency was zero. Their estimate of the fraction at level 5: also zero. Of course this does not mean there are not such students in these states, of course there are, just that from the samples available in the study the best estimate was so small as to be indistinguishable from zero.
Table 2: Comparison of science proficiency in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh to India’s aspirations
Country/Region Below level 1 Level 1 1 Level 5 5 Level 6 6
Singapore 2.8 8.7 15.3 4.6
Hong Kong 1.4 5.2 14.2 2
Korea 1.1 5.2 10.5 1.1
OECD avg. 5 13 7.4 1.2
USA 4.2 13.9 7.9 1.3
Russia 5.5 16.5 3.9 0.4
Brazil 19.7 34.5 0.6 0
Tamil Nadu 43.6 40.9 0a 0a
Himachal Pradesh 57.9 30.9 0a 0a
Source: PISA 2009 Plus Results. Description of levels Table 3.2, percentages Table B.3.4.

1) At Level 1, students have such a limited scientific knowledge that it can only be applied to a few, familiar situations. They can present scientific explanations that are obvious and follow explicitly from given evidence.

5) At Level 5, students can identify the scientific components of many complex life situations, apply both scientific concepts and knowledge about science to these situations, and can compare, select and evaluate appropriate scientific evidence for responding to life situations. Students at this level can use well-developed inquiry abilities, link knowledge appropriately and bring critical insights to situations. They can construct explanations based on evidence and arguments based on their critical analysis.

6) At Level 6, students can consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge and knowledge about science in a variety of complex life situations. They can link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions. They clearly and consistently demonstrate advanced scientific thinking and reasoning, and they demonstrate willingness to use their scientific understanding in support of solutions to unfamiliar scientific and technological situations. Students at this level can use scientific knowledge and develop arguments in support of recommendations and decisions that centre on personal, social or global situations.

a) In Table B.3.4 these are reported as blank but the estimated percentages in below 1 to level 4 sum to exactly 100 percent. Obviously this not imply that there are exactly zero students in all of these two states meeting these levels but that with the sample sizes assess students of 1616 in HP and 3210 in TN there was insufficient information to create a non-zero estimate.

These results on PISA 2009+, while tragic for what they imply for Indian youth and perhaps shocking to newcomers to this subject, come as no surprise to those who have been working on basic education in India:

  • Das and Zajonc (2008) used results from Orissa and Rajasthan to create indices on mathematics performance similar to those of TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) and found these states near the bottom of the global rankings.
  • Educational Initiatives carried out an 18 state study using sophisticated testing instruments and found levels of performance on TIMSS comparable items that were stunningly lower. For instance on the open ended question “Write a fraction larger than 2/7” less than 30 percent of Indian students in standard 8 could answer correctly compared to more than 70 percent internationally.
  • The APRest study led by Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman in rural AP asked the same questions of students in grades 2 to 5 and found very slow rates of learning progress.
  • The results year after year from the ASER [2010 2009] study supported by Pratham find that significant fractions of students in Standard 8 cannot master even Standard 2 curricular basics. In rural areas nationwide a third of children in grade 8 could not do a simple division problem and almost 20 percent could not read a level 2 text. The 2011 results, due out in a few weeks will show continued stagnation or even retrogress in learning.
  • Numerous studies by MIT’s JPAL, World Bank, NCAER/University of Maryland and other researchers found levels of performance that were shockingly low compared to curricular expectations.

These PISA 2009+ results are the end of the beginning. The debate is over. No one can still deny there is a deep crisis in the ability of the existing education system to produce child learning. India’s education system is undermining India’s legitimate aspirations to be at the global forefront as a prosperous economy, as a global great power, as an emulated polity, and as a fair and just society. As the beginning ends, the question now is: what is to be done?


5 Jan, 2012, Ajay Shah’s Blog

Our Scissorland

In Bizarre Laws, Politics on January 19, 2012 at 6:50 am

Indian democracy is constantly abridging liberties of its citizens. The number of cases where free speech is abridged may be small, but they are like a poison that vitiates the whole constitutional regime. Everyone utters the platitude that they respect freedom, but they then use the qualifier that no freedom is absolute in the most mendacious way.

What do you call a regime where all the following happens: judges openly fantasise about turning India into China on censorship, where the state sanctions needless prosecution of social media, and where politicians shamelessly rake up the Salman Rushdie issue, as a reminder of how insecure artists are?

The most common argument for censorship is the phrase “cultural sensitivity”. This is not so much an argument as a fig leaf. What is this thing called “cultural sensitivity?” Let us state this clearly. “Cultural sensitivity” is not a pre-given fact about Indian society. It is something manufactured through the exercise of power. It is the structure of the law that gives incentives for mobilisation. P. Ananda Charlu, as early as 1886, had prophesied how mischievous Section 153 of the IPC would prove to be. He described it as “a dangerous piece of legislation by necessitating the government to appear to side with one party against the other. In my humble judgment it will only accentuate the evil which it is meant to remove. Far from healing the differences which still linger, or which now and then come to the surface, it would widen the gap by encouraging insidious men to do mischief in stealth”. Groups mobilise because they know the law and state will cave in. If the law and state were different, the cultural sensitivity would be different.

In the case of new social media, none of the regulation ayatollahs has noticed an interesting dialectic at work. Let us admit that there is often very offensive stuff posted on Facebook or Twitter. But what we paid less attention to is this: in a country where people supposedly resort to violence at the drop of a hat (or an image or a word), there has been almost no violence associated with this content. In fact, the irony is that purveyors of hate speech have become supporters of a regime of toleration. They all want the protection of the law to express what they want to express. The content of what they say may be offensive, but precisely by letting them all loose do you make these distasteful people supporters of freedom. In fact, the claim made by politicians that this kind of content will lead to violence is insulting doubly over. First, it is just a plain lie to justify censorship. Second, what is offensive is that politicians continue to treat Indian citizens as if we were colonial subjects. They infantilise us. They say to us, “you are unable to control your passions, so we have to protect you by censoring”. The truth is the opposite: they want to construct our passions in such a way that they can use that as a pretext to censor.

Most communal violence involves state complicity through commission or omission. Most violence supposedly sparked off by speech has state complicity behind it. When politicians send a signal that those who attack artists will be justified on some grounds of cultural sensitivity, or when they blame the victim, they purposefully embolden those who will attack artists. Why can’t the Rajasthan Congress say: “We are proud of Jaipur as a cosmopolitan city. We may have our individual views on Rushdie’s work. But we will take pride in the fact that he can come without fear”? The so-called Indian sensitivity is constructed through operations of power. In the case of Rushdie, the self-appointed guardians of minority interests maintain their power by projecting a community as a victim of some impunity a free speech regime licenses. Last time, the Rushdie affair exacerbated a tragic cycle of communalism. We can only hope this time it will be limited to a farce.

This backdrop explains the fear over the government’s attempts to censor various new mediums like social networking sites. These mediums pose new challenges for the ethics of expression. Many states are trying to use these mediums as tools of discipline rather than platforms of expression. But remove the fig leaf of technicalities. Holding them pre-emptively responsible for offensive speech is like requiring a profit-making road operator liable for every crime committed on the road because they did not pre-screen every car and driver and let potential murderers drive. But the issue is not technology. Given the Indian state’s record, it is but natural that any whiff of regulatory control is seen as threatening. A measure of this is the fact that a platitude like “no freedom is absolute” sounds more like a threat when the state utters it.

All of us, who are Nehru’s great admirers, have to acknowledge that his stance on the First Amendment was scandalously callow. It set in motion the instrumentalities of state censorship. It also legitimised the insidious idea that it was not the state’s job to protect freedom, but to discipline that freedom in the name of some conception of propriety. It was the likes of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who resisted Nehru on this score. It was K.M. Munshi who had proposed the deletion of sedition from the exceptions to the right to freedom of expression. This history is important. The defence of the spirit of the Constitution cannot be understood in simple ideological terms. The Congress has, for too long, used the ideological secularism card to justify its assaults on freedom, or justify its timidity in the face of small groups who want to hold freedom to ransom. All those who easily use the word “fascist” for the Sangh Parivar let the Congress go scot-free. The Congress’s brand of pluralism is homicidal for freedom and individuality.

There is also another historical amnesia. Justice Markandey Katju waxed about people who write for the media being ignorant of Paine and Voltaire. I doubt the judiciary has internalised their message. But more to the point, Enlightenment was not spread only by sober, non-offensive philosophers. It was created by the most scurrilous lampooning of religious authority, often debasing it. A liberal democratic society can allow us to do that peacefully. But what creates conflict is not offensive speech; it is those using it as a pretext to exercise power over others.


19 Jan 2o12, Indian Express

The crisis in learning

In Corruption, Education, School Vouchers on January 19, 2012 at 5:43 am

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2011 was released on January 16. Data collected from 558 rural districts, over 16,000 villages, 3.3 lakh households and 6.3 lakh children point to two clear national trends. Both of these need to be better understood, as they have important implications for growth and equity in India.

First, nearly 50 per cent of rural children (age 6-14) pay for their education either in a private school or to a private tutor and benefit from this personal investment. As far are private inputs into elementary education are concerned, Indian states and regions can be neatly categorised into slabs. On the one hand, states in the northern belt — Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — have private enrollment levels that are above 30 per cent, and rising. In the Northeast, more than 40 per cent of all rural children in Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya are enrolled in private schools. South of the Vindhyas, between 30 to 40 per cent of rural children in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh go to private schools. And then there is Kerala, where children attending government schools are now in a minority (at 40 per cent).

On the other hand, there are states like Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal, where private school provision is low and most children attend government schools. Here the additional supplement for learning comes in the form of “tuition” classes . On average, across Std 1-5 close to 50 per cent of all children take paid classes outside of school. Adding together the proportion of children who go to tuition classes along with those who go to private schools we find that half of all children access some form of private education services.

The HRD ministry’s calculations for 2008-10 suggest that the current average per child expenditure by government is close to Rs 6,314 per year. The budget for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Government of India’s flagship scheme for elementary education, has gone from Rs 7166 crore in 2005-2006 to about Rs 21,000 crore last year. Despite the rising expenditures on elementary education, parents seem to be increasingly “voting with their feet” and choosing private options. In the last five years since ASER started its annual measurement, private school enrollment across rural India has gone from 18.7 per cent to 25.6 per cent and some states getting close to the 50-50 mark. If this trend continues, then it is not impossible that in five years, children going to government schools will become a minority in India.

The second headline from ASER 2011 has to do with the low level of basic learning outcomes of children, especially in reading and arithmetic. This estimate is half of all children in Std 5 cannot read Std 2-level text. Forty per cent of Std 5 students cannot correctly solve a 2-digit subtraction problem with borrowing. But this is not news anymore. For the last six years, ASER has been reporting similar findings. What is new is the hint that the already low levels may be witnessing a further decline. This year’s ASER findings indicate that learning levels are lower as compared to last year, especially in government schools in the Hindi-speaking states.

Domestic efforts at measurement of learning outcomes such as the annual ASER surveys, periodic studies by Educational Initiatives and NCERT are increasing. There is also an accumulating body of research by internationally known academics such as Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Karthik Muralidharan and Lant Pritchett. Taken together, these point to a serious and deep crisis in learning in primary schools. The recent, much publicised PISA 2009+ result is the latest addition to the list. Many of these studies go beyond pointing to the problem, they also outline what “works”.

The growing body of empirical evidence shows that the increased expenditures in education are not translating into better outcomes. Yet, the Central government remains steadfastly focused on inputs and outputs and does not seem able or willing to bring issues of children’s learning to the centre of the stage either in policy or in practice. There is no shift towards tackling the problem of low learning in a direct manner. Nor is there any effort to understand how expenditures can be made more effective in terms of learning outcomes.

In a way, the provisions and norms of the RTE are used to justify the continued thrust on inputs. Much of the substance of the results framework of the annual planning documents in elementary education continue to be concerned with infrastructure, teacher recruitment and training. There is only a fleeting mention of reporting of learning outcomes towards the fag end of the list.

In the SSA planning documents, there are only two line items where states and districts can directly plan and implement learning improvement programmes if they should wish to do so. These are (a) the innovation grant of Rs 1 crore per district, and (b) the learning enhancement programme. Together these account for less than 1 per cent of the total education budget (and 3 per cent of SSA budget in 2010-11). Expenditure tracking efforts by Accountability Initiative indicate that these expenditures are slow and tend to happen towards the end of the financial year (which is also the end of the school year). Expenditure on teacher training is about 2 per cent of the total SSA budget in 2010-11. Given the current guidelines by Government of India, it is not clear how a massive push for improvement of learning outcomes will be fuelled, if at all the government at any level should want to do so.

The writing on the wall is clear and it is getting bigger and bolder each year. Ordinary people are able to read it. People are voting with their feet and trying to effectively use the resources they have to get the “best” education their money can buy. But policy makers and planners and those who control the expenditure of public funds on education are either unable or unwilling to read this writing on the wall. Without basic education, the future of children is grim. If 100 million children today do not get even the basic skills of reading and arithmetic, it is unlikely that India will grow into a mature economy or a mature democracy.

The right to education promises many things. In addition to teachers in every class, drinking water, boundary walls and so on, it speaks of quality education at the appropriate age-grade for all children. By just providing inputs we are not bringing in equity. Unless the entire expenditure and the effort behind the provision of schooling is translated effectively into learning outcomes, the real battle for equal opportunity will be lost and our large and growing public expenditure in education wasted.


19 Jan 2012,  Indian Express

India sees gains from gender quota

In Progressive Panchayat on January 18, 2012 at 11:12 am

The use of gender quotas to achieve equal opportunity is a controversial political strategy, but one that seems to be achieving positive results in India.  A new research paper co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Rohini Pande finds that the system designating female leaders for selected village councils in India has resulted in substantive gains for girls in those villages — both in terms of aspirations and educational outcomes.

“Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India” is published in the Jan. 12 issue of the journal Science.

In their research the authors analyzed data gleaned from more than 8,000 surveys of adolescents and their parents in almost 500 villages, a third of which were randomly selected to reserve a seat for a female leader, called a “Pradhan,” on the village council.  The data showed that “compared to villages that were never reserved, the gender gap in aspirations closed by 25 percent in parents and 32 percent in adolescents in villages assigned to a female leader for two election cycles.”

The authors also conclude that girls raised in villages with a female Pradhan were more likely to score higher in school exams than girls from other villages, while test scores for boys remained roughly the same.

“These results show that laws can help create role models by opening opportunities that were previously unavailable to a group, and this increased opportunity does not diminish the aspirations of those outside the group,” the authors argue. “Our study shows that, in the Indian context, the positive effect of exposure to a female leader dominated any possible backlash, probably because it gave women a chance to demonstrate that they are capable leaders. And, perhaps most importantly, our study establishes that the role model effect reaches beyond the realm of aspirations into the concrete, with real educational and time-use impacts.”


18 Jan 2012, Harvard Gazette

A costly morality

In Agriculture, Bureaucratic Delays, Corruption, NREGA, PDS, Politics on January 11, 2012 at 6:16 am

It is election time, perhaps even time for mid-term polls, after the assembly elections in February. Time, therefore, for a mid-term review of the UPA 2’s policies. Much has been written about the lack of leadership on the part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. So in interests of balance and “equal opportunity”, I would like to discuss the performance of the chairperson of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi. Actually, there is more than equality that dictates that her performance be judged — she has been, after all, the major leader of the Congress for almost 15 years.

It was March 31, 1997 when Sitaram Kesri was ousted from the Congress party leadership and Sonia Gandhi assumed leadership. Her political acumen was tested a year later in February 1998. In the general elections, Ms Gandhi was able to garner 141 seats — one more than those obtained in 1996. But this wasn’t really a test of her political leadership because she had only a year to gear up the moribund Congress, a party in steep decline because of the lack of a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm. A year and a half later, in September 1999, there was yet another general election, this one precipitated by Sonia Gandhi’s statement that she was ready to take over the government because she had 273 seats. In the 1999 Lok Sabha, the Congress hit a historical low of 114 seats.

But it wasn’t really a test of Sonia Gandhi’s leadership because in India, coalition politics really determines who wins. In the May 2004 elections, Gandhi chose well and was able to bring up the Congress tally back up to the 1996 and 1998 mark of 145 seats! So a decade after the decline of the Congress, and with seven years at the helm, she was not able to make any difference to the misfortunes of the Congress party. The political record got much better in the most recent May 2009 election, when the Congress-led UPA came back with the solid achievement of 206 seats. How much of this was due to her leadership, and how much due to the solid 8 per cent-plus GDP growth rate, and how much due to Manmohan Singh’s honesty, is a matter that historians will decide. What we do know is that the accelerated GDP growth rate had precious little to do with any policies that the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government introduced between 2004-2009.

Indeed, the populist policies that were introduced by UPA 1 sowed the seeds of the economic disaster that India has witnessed since 2008. Our GDP growth rate has decelerated more than most other countries, and there has been more volatility in inflation, especially food inflation, in India than any other country in the world. This volatility has been induced and juiced up by the populist policies of UPA 1 and 2. It is an open question whether these economic policies were the doing of Mr Singh or of Ms Gandhi.

The PM can be blamed for many things, including the unnecessarily tight monetary policy, but it is incredible to think that a fiscal conservative like him approved of the Greece and Venezuela-like populism that has been engineered by Gandhi and her social and economic think (not)-camp called the National Advisory Council. Whether it is loan melas for farmers, destructively high procurement prices for foodgrain, employment programmes or the food subsidy bill, it is Gandhi and her NAC who should get the credit — or the blame.

Words come cheap, so let us look at some facts. Soon after Sonia Gandhi came to power, she introduced the national employment scheme, NREGA. True to expectations, the Congress introduced the employment guarantee scheme as its own invention, so it could ostensibly get political and “left intellectual” credit for caring so much about the poor. Proclaiming morality has always come easy to the hubris-filled chests of the Congress leaders. Never mind that the employment scheme was as old as 1973, when it was first introduced by the Mahrashtra government as a “food for work” programme for the poor. Since then, it had been introduced all over the country as an anti-poverty programme. With economic growth and economic development unknown only to the Congress party leadership, such programmes had declined in importance. Until in-your-face populism was introduced by Sonia Gandhi and the NAC, and expenditures on such programmes averaged Rs 40,000 crore over the last few years.

Today it is acknowledged that the NREGA scheme is rife with corruption. But Sonia Gandhi and the NAC want to introduce the food security bill. Again, much like the “invention” of employment programmes, the Congress believes it is introducing this morality into Indian policy making for the first time.

Morality does not come cheap and maybe accompanied with intolerable corruption. At present, the public distribution scheme (PDS) works as follows — the government procures the foodgrain from the farmer and ostensibly delivers the same to the poor at heavily subsidised prices. The table shows the performance of this scheme in 2004-05 and 2009-10, the two years for which NSS data are available, data that can cross check the government’s claims of expenditure. The first two rows show the discrepancy in terms of tonnes of food that disappear into thin air. In 2004-05, the government claimed to have delivered 41.5 million tonnes to the PDS shops for delivery to the people. Only 13.2 tonnes actually got delivered. The difference, 28 million tonnes, was not delivered to the poor or the rich by the PDS shops. This food went from the PDS shops to the market and the market sold it to the poor at, well, market prices.

We can all take heart from the fact that the situation improved in 2009-10 — now close to half of the food delivered to the PDS shops were bought from these shops. How much got lost? 24 million tonnes. The subsidy value of this taxpayers’ loss, and the gain for so-called middle men and women, was a healthy Rs 30,000 crore. This number closely matches the lower bound estimate of 2G corruption.

Scams like the 2G scam happen once in a decade. PDS corruption goes on every year. And the food security bill will only enhance and glorify this ongoing corruption. To be sure, the bill enhances the moral stature of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi and the NAC. But it enhances corruption even more. Anti-corruption stalwarts like Vinod Rai, or even Team Anna, where are you when we really need you?

7 Jan 2011, Indian Express

Photos in govt offices: 8 figure in official list, Ambedkar not yet in

In Bizarre Laws, Civil Services Reforms on January 11, 2012 at 6:06 am

Government offices in the state are allowed to display portraits and photographs of only eight leaders, namely, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, incumbent President and the Prime Minister, Mother (Goddess) India, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, the state government has said in reply to an RTI query, adding that some offices in districts are allowed to have pictures of local martyrs.

Dahyabhai Chouhan, a Dalit rights activist from Bhavnagar, had sought to know from the General Administration Department (GAD) in his RTI application about the photographs authorised by the state government to adorn its offices. Chouhan also wanted to know as to who is responsible for unauthorised use of photographs. He also wanted details of unauthorised temples in government offices. In response, M R Malik, the under secretary (protocol) at the GAD, said no one’s responsibility had been fixed for unauthorised use of such photographs in government offices and that the government did not have a list of temples in its offices.

Chouhan said he the Supreme Court order and the Constitution prohibited use of religious photographs in government offices but in practice, several government offices used them. “Many offices have temples and other religious structures. The purpose of this application is that it’s an unauthorised practice and being a secular state, we shall not do it. I am also going to fight for non-inclusion of Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s photos in the government list. It shows government’s partiality,” Chouhan said.

Malik said in his response to Chouhan’s query that the “non-use of religious photographs in government offices has been an old instruction since 1960 and that instructions have been issued in this regard”.


7 Jan 2011, Indian Express