How Many Governments Does it Take to Fix a Light Bulb?

In a series of surveys conducted over the last five years, the Lok Foundation and the Centre for Monitoring the Indian economy have been attempting to understand the attitudes that the Indian people hold from everything from jeans to caste and privatisation. Some interesting and counterintuitive attitudes have come up, pointing to a need for policymakers to re-prioritise the problems they aim to tackle, and re-evaluate possible solutions.

(This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I will aim to unpack some of these attitudes).

Privatisation, especially for key utilities, seems to be catching on – with three cities in Maharashtra announcing earlier this year that they will privatise power supplies. Consumers, though, are likely to be less than overjoyed. Here are results from a January 2016 survey on a nationwide sample of 158,624 households:

 

Two interesting takeaways: on average, a whopping 65% of Indians prefer that the Government provide electricity – and the richer they are, the more likely they are to say so. I suspected that this may be due to the fact that richer Indians tend to be urban and are thus used to larger amounts of affordable electricity with relatively few interruptions. It turned out that this was indeed the case. Here are responses for urban Indians:

And electricity is hardly an exception: the exact same pattern appears in responses to the question of who should provide piped water. But note that poor and middle-class respondents are around 3% less optimistic about the government in this question:

Why is there such a high degree of trust for the government? Here’s my theory: perhaps the State is perceived as a paternalistic and essentially benevolent (if not exactly efficient) institution, thanks to its decent track record in expanding the provision of basic services. And if a government isn’t able to provide affordable utilities, it can always be replaced by one that will (long-term effects be damned!) On the other hand, Indians who are more exposed to government inefficiencies – especially rural Indians – prefer that the private sector take over instead. This may not necessarily reflect an actual awareness of how the private sector operates, but rather a case of “if A couldn’t provide it, and we voted them out in favour of B, and they couldn’t do it either, maybe C will.”

Not convinced? Check out this article that I wrote a while back. Next week, I’ll look at attitudes towards government jobs to support the case that the “government” is seen as a magic wand which will solve India’s knottiest problems despite its patchy record at actually doing so.

UDAN May Come Crashing Down

The government’s low cost, regional connectivity scheme is facing massive turbulence on route (Do excuse the terrible airline puns). Though it initially led to the development of a few airports and the introduction of new routes, three out of the four airline carriers relying on UDAN are set to shut shop.

Except TruJet, the other three regional airlines – Zoom Air, Air Deccan, and  Air Odisha – are in a terrible financial state. While Zoom Air has not flown a single passenger since July, Air Deccan and Air Odisha have managed 3,000 and 1,000 passengers, respectively, in these four months. This is despite the government providing viability gap funding – a fancy term for subsidising low fares.

Unfortunately, the seeds of destruction were sown in 2016 itself, when the scheme was announced and the 4 companies started operations. Since established commercial airlines deemed it commercially unviable to fly on the routes that were proposed by the government, UDAN tried to bring in newer airlines. A company with paid up capital of Rs 5 crore could apply for a regional airline permit. Further sops followed- airport charges and taxes on fuel would be waived off and the government would even pay the airlines to sell half of the seats at Rs 2,500. The 4 airlines in question were enticed by this offer and decided to take up on the offer.

These regional airlines were quite aggressive when bidding for routes. Air Deccan and Air Odisha bagged 84 routes- 60 percent of those on offer. However, just one year later, these airlines are operating in only 10 out of the 84 routes. Basically, though it was easy to enter the sector, operating and sustaining business in it was really hard. The ecosystem was just not conducive.

This excellent piece in Business Standard by Arindam Majumdar explains why the scheme failed for the regional airlines:

Start-up airline operators in India, without any credible background, pay around 10 months of lease as a security deposit. Then the aircraft remains grounded for at least 2 more months waiting for clearance from DGCA and other regulators.

ZoomAir had to wait 5 months for the required license and lost out 6 crores in the process. Also, as the government had put a deadline for registering under the scheme, the airlines did not have the required time to plan the routes and choice of aircrafts. They bought small aircrafts (19 seaters), though it is much more expensive to run. Add to this the problem of finding pilots who are trained to fly these outdated smaller aircrafts and the entire thing is an operational mess.

The smaller the plane, the more expensive it is to operate. Cost of pilot, crew — everything remains the same. If you divide that over a lower number of seats, it becomes more expensive.Without pilots and spare parts planes are frequently grounded leading to high cancellation. Data from aviation regulator DGCA shows that the two airlines had an average cancellation rate over 50 percent since starting operations.

Then, there was the problem of infrastructure. Large airports in the metros did not want to waste precious real estate on the small regional flights and the airports in rural areas did not have the adequate infrastructure to be functional, even though they were inaugurated with pomp and show.

But electoral compulsion meant that the first flight could not wait. After all, an airport gives a government bragging rights in election season.

So, Bastar Airport in Chattisgarh was inaugurated by PM Modi in June. Nothing like getting air connectivity to a Maoist hit area in a poll bound state. Except that the airport was not ready for a landing in monsoon. Bastar is a VFR (Visual Flight Approach) airport meaning if visibility drops below 5,000 metre, landing is cancelled. “We used to prepare every day for take-off from Raipur and then cancel it as Bastar was not ready for landing,” said an Air Odisha executive. Then the aircraft remained grounded for maintenance which meant more cancellations. “Imagine the loss of revenue and public confidence in the service”.

Since July, the airline has cancelled flight for at least 30 days. It flew only 45 passenger in entire July- that’s barely one per day.

The entire scheme seems to be in shambles for the regional carriers. Some of the big carriers who have the ability to scale and can take advantage of the scheme are doing well though. However, they will still not fly on all the routes that the government wants them.

A Global Shift in the Nuclear Weapons Narrative

It’s quite fascinating to observe the global conversation on nuclear weapons. It resembles a simple pendulum oscillation with a time period of ten years.

Back in 2009, the then US president pledged to seek an arms reduction treaty with Russia, ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and convene a global summit to discuss the eventual elimination of nuclear stockpiles. It was the first time that a US president spoke of a roadmap for nuclear disarmament.

And yet that goal seems even more distant nine years later. An excellent article titled ‘The Vanishing Nuclear Taboo‘ in The Foreign Affairs describes the situation well:

After decades of arms control agreements, security cooperation, and a growing consensus about the unacceptability of nuclear weapons, the world is now headed in the opposite direction. Geopolitical tensions have heightened. New arms races have started. States have reverted to valorizing nuclear weapons. The nuclear taboo is weakening. But nothing about this is inevitable; it is a choice our leaders have made. Nuclear disarmament will have to be a long-term project. Today’s decision-makers may not be able to complete the task, but they have an obligation to pursue it.

The taboo is vanishing fast. Apart from the usual suspects, the European states have also changed their tones. This excellent paper gives an idea of the possible scenarios in Europe that seem likely as a result of the ongoing churn. While rejecting the idea of a single European deterrent, the paper argues that the following scenarios appear realistic:

  1. In the current context, Paris can consider extending nuclear deterrence to Europe as a whole including rotations of Rafale fighter-bombers (without their nuclear missiles) to allied bases across Europe.
  2. If the US-Europe relationship worsens further, France can consider these options:
    • base part of its airborne arsenal (say, in the order of ten missiles) in Germany or in Poland (basing) and/or agree that they could be carried by European fighter-bombers (sharing).
    • replace the NATO SNOWCAT (Support of NATO Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) procedure with an identical European one, where non-nuclear nations commit themselves to participate in a nuclear strike with non-nuclear assets.
    • create the possibility of a European nuclear maritime task force, with accompanying European ships and, possibly, a European nuclear squadron based on it.

The fact that such themes are even being discussed seriously in Europe is just another indication of the fact that the NPT regime is falling apart. Consequently, the terms of the debate now need to shift from the ambitious goal of zero nuclear weapons to the more realistic goal of nuclear restraint by a global commitment towards no first use and by taking weapons off high alert to reduce possibilities of accidental use.

The terms of the nuclear weapons debate are definitely up for a change; it would be interesting to see which nation-state will declare itself as the next nuclear power. Any guesses?

 

 

Cities and their names

We, the people of India, have been in a flux over the recent proposals being made to change the name of our beloved cities based on their historical or religious past. There are various sides and nuances to the conversation. In the past decades, the names of the cities were changed either to reclaim the names they had before the colonial rule or based on the linguistic preference of the local community. The argument against the recent change of names is that it has religious connotations and is biased towards one majority community’s preference. Although an interesting conversation, as someone who has been studying urban governance for half a decade now, I wonder how does it help the cities.

I have a proposal. Let’s allow the person who grants the largest amount to the city municipal corporation to name the city. This would not only make the process immune to the religious and linguistic impositions but would help the cash-strapped urban local bodies raise money to provide better public service. For instance, if a rich businessperson can afford to pay for it, she should have the option to rename one of our metropolises to her parent’s name. This would be a classic win-win situation.  

The municipal corporations that have been highly reliant on union and state governments to make the ends meet would gain significantly from the grants for a small price of changing the city’s name. The grants would have a provision for the grantor to provide a pre-defined amount to cover for the administrative costs that may be incurred in the process of changing the name. While the city would make financial gains, the grantor would be able to give one of the most significant forms of homage to an individual or an institution of their choice. This won’t be very different from the schools and institutions being renamed based on the wishes of the grantors.

To keep the cost of the transactions to a minimal, cities can restrict bidding to once every 25 years. This way the cities can plan large scale expenditures based on when the next grant would be flowing in. Of course, the large-scale expenditure can range from building a statue or creating a robust public health system. The final decision will be with the city municipal corporation or the state government, that oversees most of the significant urban functions. I believe this proposal would be appealing to all sides as it caters to none and the final winners would be the real underdogs, the cities.

BBC on Fake News in India: Nothing New

The BBC recently released a report on fake news in India as part of a larger project aiming to investigate the effects that fake news is having on societies across the globe.

The key finding of the report is that the majority of sharing in India is driven by two factors. The first is “sender primacy” – there is an implicit assumption that news shared by someone known to an individual is more trustworthy, given the low levels of trust which traditional media houses enjoy. The second is the validation of identity – both in broadcast platforms (Facebook) and narrowcast platforms (WhatsApp), individuals tend to share information that supports their identity and reject other information as being fake or otherwise part of a conspiracy.

Neither of these conclusions is particularly earth-shattering: in fact, I wrote about exactly this behaviour in a series for Pragati last year, and it is not a problem that is confined to India alone. The biggest innovation that the report makes, in my view, is shifting the onus of the spread of fake news from platforms to individuals. Understanding the particular social context within which a technology is adopted and used is critical to understanding its use, and that’s a conversation that has been long been overdue in India.

Here’s an example. Social media and smartphone use flood users with a deluge of information and notifications. In Western societies, this has been identified as a cause of anxiety as users struggle to stay up to date. In India, it’s a cause of irritation at worst – Indians seem to be more attuned to constantly wanting to stay up to date for a variety of reasons ranging from the fear of appearing uninformed to wanting high general knowledge scores in exams. Social norms may also explain why Indians tend to forward so many messages – sending “Good morning” messages or forwards about health and policy updates, for example, are considered civic duties. It helps that for such messages are seen as imposing a low cost on recipients even if they turn out to be fake. One is expected to be engaged in a social group – whether this is because Indians see identity in different ways from Western societies may be a question worth exploring – but it is clear that behavioural norms like these lead to a somewhat different sort of online behaviour, and a different way of consuming and sharing information.

As a result, the conclusion that “nation-building” is behind the spread of fake news isn’t really that surprising. What is surprising is that India still lacks public discourse on the social norms that contribute to this sort of behaviour – a lack of self-introspection that will prove extremely damaging to our democracy in the long run.

What Hate Speech Is Not

The CEO of Twitter, the social media platform, recently found himself the subject of some heckling on, irony be damned, Twitter. The reason was a photograph taken of Jack Dorsey holding a poster that read ‘Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy.’ Some claimed that this amounted to hate mongering and hate speech, a notion that is as misguided as it is dangerous.

To begin with, the plain text of the poster is not directed against any individual and arguably, it does not target a particular community either. What it does is call for the end of a regressive tradition of patriarchy that anyone can subscribe to.

Which brings us to the second point: the inordinate amount of focus on the use of the word ‘smash’ and how this is tantamount to a call for violence. It is almost as if the hecklers have seen one too many movies containing a certain green-skinned comic book character who likes to wreak havoc and now cannot help but associate the said word with violence. In reality, the word is little more than an example of the usage of a forceful verb.

This examination of the plain text of the poster must also be seen in the context of what the intent behind it was. In the Shreya Singhal judgement, the Indian Supreme Court looked at the conditions under which the right to freedom of speech and expression can be restricted. It held that speech and expression that amounts to either discussion or advocacy, howsoever unpopular, cannot be restricted. The only valid ground is that of incitement. Can the language of the poster be categorised as incitement? Clearly not, judging by a measured understanding along the lines of the first two points above. Does it fall within the scope of discussion or advocacy? Yes.

Thus, the claims of hate mongering and hate speech against the poster are ill-founded. Their attempt to lower the bar for the freedom of speech and expression is as regressive for society as the patriarchy that they implicitly champion.

The Durian

Today is the last day of the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore. Many things, including the menu of the gala dinner and napping Presidents, have been making the news. One of the main items on the agenda, however, was Myanmar’s on-going humanitarian crisis. In a departure from the traditional position of non-interference, the ASEAN chairman called the crisis “matter for concern” in his statement. The following days had Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and U.S Vice President Pence making remarks on the lack of progress Myanmar is making towards restoring the situation.

The other high-stakes agenda item was the disputed South China Sea. It has been reported that ASEAN and China would continue to advance their strategic partnership, the joint maritime exercise held last month as evidence, and work towards a more robust Code of Conduct in the waterway. ASEAN countries, however, are hedging their bets. In his intervention during the summit, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that ASEAN countries view the US-China relationship as the most important set of bilateral relations that have profound implications for them, and want to engage with both China and the U.S.

India at the ASEAN summit

The annual ASEAN-India summit, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was centred around the creation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). New Delhi has been hesitant to join the RCEP citing discomfort opening its markets to China. Keen to have India join the RCEP, ASEAN has made a concessional offer –  India can open up 83% of its market against the earlier set 92%. The pact is seen as vital to securing the region’s continued prosperity, especially after a trade war broke out between its vital trading partners US and China. At a time when significant trade is being diverted out of China, India stands to gain a lot by joining the RCEP.

At the summit, Prime Minister Lee noted that India has consistently supported ASEAN centrality and he hopes the strategic partnership between the two continues to grow.

Consent by Default

Trello, the project management app, updated its terms of service recently. This is the notification it used to convey the change to its users:

We’ve replaced the Trello Terms of Service with the Atlassian Cloud Terms of Service. Learn more about the changes here.

By clicking “I Agree” or otherwise continuing to use Trello, you agree to these new terms. If you don’t want to agree to the new terms, you may delete your Trello account. [emphasis supplied]

The highlighted portion assumes consent by default. This is an admittedly loose usage of the term consent because it is questionable if what is being assumed here can even be called consent. For example, would such language be valid if the draft Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018 were to be in effect in its current form? The Bill says that for processing of personal data based on consent to be valid, the consent must have five features. It must be free, informed, specific, clear, and capable of being withdrawn. Are these features present in the language used? The answer is no.

Would this be covered under any of the other grounds for processing data that do not require consent under Chapter III of the Bill? The answer is no again. Besides, a company’s claim of relying on a different ground for processing will be undermined by the fact that they are also providing users with the option of providing their consent. A larger question that needs to be asked here is how often should an individual be required to provide her consent after she is already subscribed to a product or service.

For now, the clumsy framing of the highlighted language might land a company using it in a tricky situation when the law comes into effect. This only goes to show that the data protection landscape is still hazy and much care and foresight will be required when drafting the legalese to govern it.

Of Referenda and Loaded Questions

Reading this excellent review essay by Mohammed Hanif, I realised that when you are a dictator and you want a veneer of legitimacy, you can always conduct a referendum. And to be sure of your victory, you can ask an extremely loaded question with a binary choice.

Sample this question that ‘sought endorsement’ for Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation programme in 1984.

Do you endorse the process initiated by the President of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and are you in favour of continuation and further consolidation of that process and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people?

There’s no way that anyone is going to answer a ‘no’ to that question with such a framing. I’m actually surprised that 1.5 percent answered ‘No” to this question. Maybe it was Zia’s men at work lest anyone accuse the referendum of being unfair.

Then Musharraf also held a referendum in 2002 to seek approval for a five-year extension to his rule. Check out how that question was framed:

For the survival of the local government system, establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms, end to sectarianism and extremism, and to fulfil the vision of Quaid-e-Azam [Great leader – ie Pakistan’s late founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah], would you like to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan for five years?

Another loaded masterpiece to say the least.

Further reading: An excellent question on why the Brexit referendum question was unsatisfactory.

The False Promise of Connectivity in International Relations

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable became operational in 1858, utopians hoped that nationalism would soon perish. And just two years ago Facebook was talking about how it aimed to create one global community.

But we now know that nationalism has proved to be an adversary deserving far more respect and reflection than what the technologists believed it to be. For an excellent discussion on this topic, I recommend this episode of The Secret History of the Future podcast.

What caught my attention were the parallels between the false promises of information connectivity in inter-personal relations and infrastructure connectivity in international relations.

It is almost an axiom in foreign policy circles today that powerful nation-states should envision and deliver on infrastructure projects in regions where they seek higher influence. China’s BRI has only strengthened this narrative — alternatives to BRI are often just modified variants of infrastructure connectivity projects. This narrative has its own dodgy economic reasoning as well: connectivity projects are thought of as ‘global public goods’ providing initiatives.

Even if we leave the misapplication of economic theory aside, the utility of many connectivity projects is not immediately clear to me. One, these projects will also run up against the force of nationalism. Familiarity will breed contempt regardless of the benefits of these projects. The BRI has started encountering this force in Palau and Sierra Leone. It’s not long before CPEC will face this challenge as well. Two, even from an economic standpoint, assuming the financial risk of connectivity projects in under-governed regions makes no sense for the investing countries. Just like pipeline projects, it is not difficult to sabotage such road projects — warlords and terrorists can easily block them in areas where the writ of the state runs weak.

Maybe converting infrastructure debt to equity control (in the form of transfer of land rights etc) is the primary consideration that makes countries project connectivity as the lynchpin of their foreign policy.

 

Fissures Emerge in the Pakistani Military-Jihadi Complex

Not all’s well with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC). The anti-blasphemy protestors have blocked arterial roads in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi. Led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), they are opposing the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case.

The current showdown — amongst other things — is different in the sense that it threatens the unity of the Pakistani MJC. In our chapter for the Contemporary Handbook of Pakistan 2017, we had argued that there are five factors that keep the MJC afloat. One of the factors was ‘Islam as the ideological refuge’. And it is here that trouble has been brewing now.

The TLP is outdoing the other elements of the MJC in championing the Islamist cause. Having failed in the last elections, they seem to have decided that mobilised violence is their weapon of choice. And this time around, they are leaving no stone unturned. A cleric, Afzal Qadri, speaking to a group of protestors earlier in the week even called for a revolt against the army chief and the putative government. The Pakistani army soon went on the defensive with DG, ISPR issuing a statement that the army had nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s decision. Last time around when the TLP protested in November 2017, the army managed to get the protesters off the streets by throwing money at them. Thus the stakes are much higher now and a similar move will most likely be rejected by the TLP. This means that a showdown within the MJC is likely to take place in the days to come.

PS: It is almost as if Pakistan is hellbent on writing a playbook called Why and How to not be Pakistan.

 

 

CAATSA Implementation Makes US Strategy in Afghanistan Even More Unsustainable

The next chapter in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) saga will unfold on November 5, 2018. On this day, the provisions reimposing sanctions on entities trading with Iran in certain sectors will come into effect.

In India, the primary discussion point has been whether India will receive a significant reduction exemption on November 5. Such an exemption will allow Indian companies to continue importing Iranian oil without coming under ‘menu-based’ sanctions. It is quite likely that India might receive an exemption for both oil imports and for development of the Chabahar port. However that is not the only point of contention for India and the region.

Regardless of the decision on November 5, CAATSA is already closing the door on new solutions for the war in Afghanistan.

First, it increases the costs for Iran and India to collaborate on Afghanistan. We had written last year that not only will the Chabahar port help Afghanistan, the US will have much to gain from a connectivity project for Central Asia which does not have China at its core. But with the threat of secondary sanctions looming, companies at the margin will not invest in any project that involves Iran — why assume the risk of a volatile geopolitical environment which comes at a prospective cost of making business in the US market difficult?

Second, it also closes the door on a Russia – US understanding in Afghanistan. What we often forget is that ouster of the Taliban after 9/11 was made easier by an alignment of interests between US and Russia albeit for a brief period of time. Russia at that time provided critical logistical support from Afghanistan’s north and shared crucial intelligence for US-led coalition forces. CAATSA makes any such arrangement in the future even more unlikely.

Combine these two effects with the fact that the US attempt at talks with the Taliban are making no headways, and what you get is that there are zero new possibilities to end the war in Afghanistan. Only two scenarios remain. One involves the US withdrawing out of Afghanistan completely. The second involves the US returning to its dependence on Pakistan. Both scenarios will leave Afghanistan worse-off.