India’s Defence Production Optimisation Problem

The Caravan has an excellent in-depth story on the Rafale controversy. Beyond the specifics of the current controversy, the investigation throws light on the problems in defence production that continue to haunt India’s strategic ambitions.

On the face of it, defence production suffers from an acute case of what I had referred to earlier as hyper multi-objective optimisation. My argument was that the reason some government policies in India fail is because they try to optimise several objectives simultaneously, ultimately creating a solution that meets none of the objectives.

Now defence procurement is essentially an oligopsony i.e. it is a market where only a few buyers exists — only a few nation-states in the world have the financial muscle to buy 10 submarines or 100 multirole aircraft for example. My argument is that this oligopsony makes the optimisation problem even worse. The government believes that because it has more weight in the market, it has the luxury of optimising many more objectives in the process.

Let us look at what the government is optimising when it sets out to purchase defence equipment today.

  1. defence preparedness: primarily determined by the end users i.e. the armed forces
  2. costs: both explicit and opportunity costs
  3. strategic value: every defence purchase from foreign players raises the question that should we buy from existing trade partners or not
  4. creating an indigenous defence-industrial complex: this is further divided into two sub-goals. One is sustaining the ailing government-owned public sector companies. The second one is spurring investment from private Indian entities.

Now, even without any prior background, optimising all these objectives appears to be a herculean task. But even while India’s procurement processes were notoriously lethargic, new objectives were being added. The fourth objective was explicitly added  through an offset policy in 2005 and more recently through a strategic partnership model in 2016. And quite naturally, it is this fourth objective that has become the main sticking point in the Rafale controversy.

So with the government’s flagship reform failing, we are back to the starting point: what should be the mechanism to address India’s defence requirements? What principles should govern procurement and purchase?

One of the ways to resolve hyper multi-objective dilemmas is withdrawal. The government could let go of the aim to indigenise when it is looking to make a specific defence purchase. Get rid of the offsets policy altogether for a few years. The indigenisation problem should then be targeted at a later point of time. This is just one method. There could be other variations of choosing objectives that can work better but what is clear is that the current method needs a complete and urgent shakeup.



Employment Elasticity of Growth in India

Recently, there have been a spate of articles on employment elasticity of income in Indian newspapers and how important that is to job creation in India. The Hindustan Times has a series on India’s job challenge, Mint’s editorial discussed quality of jobs created, and the Economic Times cautions against India mimicking China’s strategy in creating jobs.

But what exactly is employment elasticity? And why is it important?

According to an RBI working paper by Sangita Misra and Anoop K. Suresh, employment elasticity is a measure of the percentage change in employment associated with a 1 percentage point change in economic growth. It indicates the ability of an economy to generate employment opportunities for its population as a per cent of its growth or developmentprocess.

An employment elasticity of 1 denotes that employment grows at the same rate as economic growth. Elasticity of 0 denotes that employment does not grow at all, regardless of economic growth. Negative employment elasticity denotes that employment shrinks as the economy grows.

This is crucial as it is commonly believed that economic growth alone will increase employment. However, as we examine the data, we see that despite India’s impressive economic growth, employment has not grown alongside. Ideally we would like to see an employment elasticity >=1, but, from the Misra and Suresh paper, we see that employment elasticity in India declined from 0.44 in the first half of the decade 1999–2000 to 2004–05, to as low as 0.01 during second half of the decade 2004–05 to 2009–10.

YearsEmployment Elasticity
1999-2000 to 2004-050.50
2004-05 to 2009-100.01
2009-10 to 2011-120.18

Similar trends have been witnessed at the sectoral level. In agriculture and manufacturing, employment elasticity between 2004-05 and 2009-10 has been negative.

Sector1999-2000 to 2004-052004-05 to 2009-102009-10 to 2011-122004-05 to 2011-121999-2000 to 2011-12
Mining & quarrying0.870.20-1.76-0.140.34
Trade, transport, hotels0.45-0.020.540.130.25
Finance, real estate1.400.34-2.32-0.450.06
Other services0.46-0.112.960.480.47
All sectors0.500.

The negative employment elasticity in agriculture indicates movement of people out of agriculture to other sectors where wage rates are higher. This migration of surplus workers to other sectors for productive and gainful employment is necessary for inclusive growth. However, the negative employment elasticity in manufacturing sector was a cause of concern particularly when the sector has achieved 6.8 per cent growth in output during Eleventh Plan. It did bounce back during 2009-10 to 2011-12, but the average employment elasticity in manufacturing between 2004-05 and 2011-12 was still only 0.10.



Misra, S., & Suresh, A. K. (2014). Estimating Employment Elasticity of Growth for the Indian Economy. Reserve Bank of India.

Planning Commission, India. (2013). Twelfth Five Year Plan, 2012-2017. Sage Publications, India.

The Opportunity Cost of Counter-terrorism

Today marks seventeen years since 9/11 happened. If terrorism is theatre, all its shows have been running full house since that fateful day in September 2001.

India has of course been dealing with the threat posed by terrorism long before 9/11. But that attack made the rest of the world take notice of the dangers posed by terrorism. In the US for example, new strategies were made, new intelligence organisations were setup, and armed forces were retrained for counter-terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.

Similarly, India underwent a change to add teeth to its counter-terrorism strategy and the question that I want to focus on in this blog post is: at what cost have we achieved counter-terrorism effectiveness? Let me explain.

The cost of terrorism is a subject that’s been discussed in great detail. But lest we forget, a cost is incurred for countering terrorism as well. By cost here, I mean the economic cost and not merely the explicit accounting cost. Economic cost is the sum of accounting cos and opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the opportunities lost (Cowen and Tabarrok). So, is the value of the opportunities lost by India in choosing to focus on counter-terrorism significant enough that we should lose our sleep on it?

To be sure, counter-terrorism requires spending money and deploying resources. At a macro-level, every resource spent by the government on counter-terrorism could’ve instead been used on something else. But because the threat of terrorism is so potent, it probably makes sense to incur the cost of letting other opportunities slip by. But is there any component of this opportunity cost that needs a relook?

I believe there is one component that needs some rethinking – the opportunity cost of getting R&AW involved in counter-terrorism. Because we probably will never have solid data to understand the resources diverted from R&AW to focus on counter-terrorism, my claim is only based on statements made by intelligence officers.

One such statement I came across was in a recently televised interview of two highly respected retired intelligence officers Tilak Devasher and Vikram Sood. At 10:25, Mr Devasher paraphrases from Mr Sood’s book The Unending Game, saying:

The focus is on terrorism and immediate actionable intelligence. What everybody is looking for is an instant coffee book report. So nobody is looking at the longer-term picture. What happens six months or six years down the road, where is that country headed, what are the vulnerabilities of that country which will affect us, those capabilities have been diminished.

Assuming this is how R&AW has actually transformed itself for countering terrorism, the opportunity cost is not at all trivial. This is because R&AW is a small organisation with limited resources at its disposal.  On the other hand its mandate is huge – it is perhaps the only Indian organisation that is tasked with collecting intelligence and conducting operations in other countries. If such an important organisation is disproportionately focused on counter-terrorism, it means that there is diminished focus on extremely critical questions such as: what will happen in China over the next six months? What should India’s stance be with respect to persecution in Xinjiang? How should India influence political events in Afghanistan? What will be the security implications of a water crisis in Pakistan?

This is a huge opportunity lost. Particularly so because terrorism is not just the only threat facing India. The conventional threats of an arrogant China and an irreconcilable Pakistani military-jihadi complex are just two others in a larger list of long-term threat vectors that India needs to be worried about. The US can afford to focus on counter-terrorism disproportionately because probably it really is the largest threat, given its geography and relative power. But India’s threat matrix looks very different and hence an assessment of opportunity costs of counter-terrorism is necessary.

PS: I suppose the same case of high opportunity cost applies to the Indian army. With its focus on countering terrorism in J&K, one needs to ask, what is the value of other opportunities being lost.



A Test with Imran Khan

If India wants to have a stable and constructive engagement with the Imran Khan government, it must temper its enthusiasm for a quick breaking of ice and totally avoid any attempt to secure a “big” breakthrough.

That’s because dealing with Pakistan is playing cricket simultaneously against two distinct teams on the other side, each of which has a different interest and expection from the game. The Imran Khan government might well have been helped to power by the Pakistan Army, but the military-jihadi complex is a distinct entity and has interests of its own. Based on historical experience, whenever there is an expectation of an upswing in bilateral relations, we should expect the complex to throw a spanner in the works. This usually takes the shape of a military adventure, cross-border terrorism or some other ugly rabbit out of the khaki beret. This creates an impasse and an inevitable downswing in relations.

The way to avoid this is for New Delhi not to demonstrate any eagerness for new beginnings. Don’t try for quick wins. Don’t create expectations. Don’t even fall for photo opportunities. Prime Minister Khan has made sensible statements on dialogue and trade. Let these be worked out at the staff level in the ministries concerned…not by high profile political leaders and government functionaries.

(As an aside, I do think the Pakistan Army will realise they got more than they bargained for by promoting Imran Khan. They don’t learn from their previous experience. From Junejo to Jamali, the army has found that once in office prime ministers develop backbones and don’t always yield to the generals’ diktats. If Junejo could stand up to Zia, imagine what a personality like Imran can do.)

What New Delhi does need to think about seriously is having an official outreach to the military establishment. Diplomatic protocal and normative policies are one thing, but if the Army calls the real shots and will do so for the foreseeable future, realism demands that we find a way to engage the generals directly. We should stop pretending that dealing with foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of Pakistan is an effective way to deal with that country on political and security issues.

As for how to deal with Imran Khan and his government, New Delhi should adopt the temperament of playing a test match. If you play with a Twenty20 or one-day international mindset, you’ll come to grief.

Quotable Quotes from Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is an intellectual tour de force. While there are enough ideas in the book to write a full-blown thesis, I will restrict this post to highlighting two quotes that are reflective of the state of the country today, in the light of the recent spate of mob lynching.

The first quote goes thus:

Coercion is the least efficient means of obtaining order.

And the second one:

You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them.

What do these passages tell us about tackling mob lynching?

First, is a new law, as the Supreme Court recommended in its order last week, the best way forward? A law is a blunt instrument and is coercive more often than not. Amit Varma has already written about this in a recent post, where he mentions the lack of a rule of law as being of more concern than the absence of a legal provision.

Second, are there more subtle solutions for addressing the rumours that spark a lynching than restrictions on services like WhatsApp or a blanket shutdown of internet in a region? The second passage might hold the key here. However, I would argue that the ignoring that is mentioned there cannot be passive. This is a case where there might be merit in fighting fire with fire, instead of being a firefighter.

Scott Alexander, Bryan Caplan and Nitin Pai on fighting crime (feat. Matt Levine)

The basic idea is that coming down hard on a small number of high-profile crimes can have disproportionate effects in terms of curbing crime

It all started with the pseudonymous blogger Scott Alexander, in what seemed like a justification of outrage. Or maybe it started earlier – with a post by Bryan Caplan deploring outrage. Caplan was commenting about the propensity of people to jump on to bandwagons deploring seemingly minor crimes while not caring enough about worse crimes that were not in the public spotlight already. Caplan had then written:

I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the greater evil, but not the lesser evil. But I can’t understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the lesser evil, but care little about the greater evil. Or why they would have strong negative feelings about one evil, but yawn in the face of a comparable evil.

Now, while “Alexander”‘s response seems to justify outrage (and I’m no fan of online outrage), he did so with an interesting analogy, on how to curb crime when the police has limited resources. He writes:

[…] the police chief publicly commits that from now on, he’s going to prioritize solving muggings over solving burglaries, even if the burglaries are equally bad or worse. He’ll put an absurd amount of effort into solving even the smallest mugging; this is the hill he’s going to die on.

Suppose you’re a mugger, deciding whether or not to commit the first new mugging in town. If you’re the first guy to violate the no-mugging taboo, every police officer in town is going to be on your case; you’re nearly certain to get caught. You give up and do honest work. Every other mugger in town faces the same choice and makes the same decision. In theory a well-coordinated group of muggers could all start mugging on the same day and break the system, but muggers aren’t really that well-coordinated.

The police chief’s public commitment solves mugging without devoting a single officer’s time to the problem, allowing all officers to concentrate on burglaries. A worst-crime-first enforcement regime has 60 crimes per day and solves 10; a mugging-first regime has 30 crimes per day and solves 10.

And then it is again Caplan’s turn to respond. I’m bad at detecting satire, so I’m not sure if he is being serious (I don’t think he is). But he proposes a “sure fire way to end all crime”:

Step 1: Credibly announce that all levels of government will mercilessly prosecute the first crime committed in the nation each day.

Step 2: There is no Step 2.

But then, I’m sure that Nitin Pai is being serious in proposing a similar method to curb the spate of violent crime in India based on WhatsApp forwards. In his piece for the Quint, he writes:

the Home Ministry ought to use its considerable powers to tackle the problem. It’s not hard either. One well-advertised arrest, prosecution and sentencing will deter the cowards that comprise lynch mobs. Three high profile arrests and prosecutions – and see how quickly lynchings stop. The smallest police station in the remotest village can stop lynchings if the local sub-inspector has received clear political messages against it.

Finally, the reason why I figured Caplan’s “solution” is satire is because of this passage from Matt Levine’s excellent Money Stuff newsletter (likely it’s behind a Bloomberg paywall, but it’s free if you subscribe by email). Commenting about high frequency trading, Levine writes:

But the answer in actual U.S. market structure is, come on, there is no such thing as “the same time.” Do you know how many nanoseconds there are every single second? (A billion.) The odds that each of us would hit the “Buy” button at the exact same nanosecond are infinitesimal. So if I put in my order to buy the stock at 10:45:06.543210876 a.m., and you put in yours at 10:45:06.543210987 a.m., then I got there first and I win.

Is this a good answer? It has a simple appeal. It just gets rid of the question “who gets the stock if we put our orders in at the same time?” It replaces an economic question about how to allocate the stock with an empirical question of who got there first.

So the problem with fighting the first crime of the day, or year, or whatever, is that a criminal will know fully well, given a reasonably high enough crime rate, that the probability of his crime being recorded as the first in the year or day or whatever is less than one. And the higher the crime rate, the lower the probability that his crime will be recognised as the first one. And so there is a high chance he can get away with it.

And that is where Nitin’s idea scores. Rather than going after the “first crime”, pick a few crimes arbitrarily and “go after them like hell”. Since in this case most of the people who are forwarding dangerous forwards are “ordinary people”, this will likely shake them up, and we’ll see less of these dangerous forwards.


Which States are Financially Underdeveloped in India?

Which states are the least (most) financially developed in India? To answer this question, I construct a Financial Deprivation Index (FDI); the higher the FDI, the less financially developed a state is. FDI is based on three dimensions: branch coverage, deposit mobilisation and credit disbursal. The first dimension relates to the financial infrastructure, other two are the variables relevant for the long-term saving, consumption smoothing and investment.

To construct the FDI, deprivation scores are calculated by dividing the population of each state by the number of reporting branches, total deposits and credit outstanding as on 31st March, 2017, respectively. A simple average of these scores would be misleading as they carry different units. To get around this problem, the scores are centred about the mean and normalised by dividing by the range. Finally, a simple average of the normalised score is calculated which serves as the Financial Deprivation Index.

So much for the data and methodology. As for the results, they are depicted in the map shown above. The least financially developed states in India are Manipur, Bihar, Assam, Nagaland and Uttar Pradesh.

The most financially developed states/UTs in India are Chandigarh, Goa and NCT of Delhi. Given the level of urbanisation, this is hardly surprising. Among the larger units, Punjab, Kerala, Haryana, Karnataka and Maharashtra are the most developed states. Somewhat surprisingly, hilly states such as Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Himanchal Pradesh have fared well.

One surprising finding of the analysis was the extent of heterogeneity in the North-Eastern states. Assam, Manipur and Nagaland figure among  the least financially developed states in the country; Arunanchal Pradesh, Mizoram and Sikkim show decent performance in terms of FDI. Understanding the reasons of uneven development may provide valuable lessons for policy formulation.

Vulnerability in jobs in India

India has been infamous for the magnitude of informal jobs in the country. Though a significant issue, informality is just a part of the bigger issue, i.e, the increase in the number of highly vulnerable jobs. Vulnerable jobs usually include own-account workers and family members working informally. Basically anyone who does not have a stable contract or flow of income, and are open to exploitation. All informal workers are vulnerable to an extent since they aren’t on any payroll or have a formal contract.

This long standing problem has become significant as the number of vulnerable employees has been increasing in the past few years. As per International Labour Organisation (ILO), 77 per cent of workers in India will have vulnerable employment by 2019. In a country where 92 per cent of the employed population is in informal sector, it is a concern if the ratio of vulnerable jobs increase.


Source: World Employment Social Outlook2018, International Labour Organisation

The ILO report also pointed out that

“a significant portion of the jobs created (in India) in the services sector over the past couple of decades have been in traditional low value added services, where informality and vulnerable forms of employment are often dominant.

It is no solace that the problem is global in nature,

Globally, the significant progress achieved in the past in reducing vulnerable employment has essentially stalled since 2012. In 2017, around 42 per cent of workers (or 1.4 billion) worldwide are estimated to be in vulnerable forms of employment, while this share is expected to remain particularly high in developing and emerging countries, at above 76 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively. Worryingly, the current projection suggests that the trend is set to reverse, with the number of people in vulnerable employment projected to increase by 17 million per year in 2018 and 2019.

This is not a surprise as 80 per cent of the casual workers and 31 per cent of the regular/salaried workers in 2016 earned less than the national minimum wage of Rs 66 / day. If looked at on the basis of gender, 95 per cent of women working as casual labour got less than the minimal wage as against 74 per cent men. Lower wages make workers more susceptible to being caught in the low income trap. With income not enough to save and invest, people earning low wages are unable to earn or multiply their money and get stuck at living at basic sustenance levels. The only way to move from the equilibrium is by earning a higher amount and saving it.

With low income levels in the country and substantial number of informal workers, India needs to look at vulnerability within jobs as a criterion in itself while assessing jobs problem. In order improve the conditions, the jobs created in the country need to assure a certain level of stability and redressal mechanisms. More than skilling, the government needs to create avenues for job creation. A good starting point would be to modify the labour laws and reduce the cost of doing business in the country.

No Sympathy for Exam Stress

As Indian high schoolers received board examination marks last week, their Chinese counterparts are appearing for their annual gaokao exams this week. The gaokao system, like the Indian board exams, receives a lot of flak for its many flaws. The gaokao examination in China usually determines where these students can pursue their college-level education. However, the main problem is that colleges require high gaokao scores for students who do not originate from that province. This is linked to the hukou system or the household registration scheme (almost an internal passport) which determines where you can work depending on your parent’s origin. As this Atlantic Times article puts it,

China’s prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University, both based in Beijing, will collectively take about 84 students out of every 10,000 Beijingers who took the gaokao this June; 14 students from every 10,000 who took the gaokao in nearby Tianjin, 10 out of every 10,000 test-takers from Shanghai, and only about three per 10,000 candidates from Anhui,  and a mere two from every 10,000 taking the test in Guangdong.

This has led to a wave of ‘gaokao migrants’- people who move to other provinces or purchase land there so that their children will be able to take the exam in a province that has better universities. So authorities in provinces are now cracking down on those who are hoping to circumvent this system. According to this article in Sixth Tone, the province of Fujian, which has been seeing an increase in such gaokao migration, has cracked down on it:

To stem gaokao migration, Fujian education and police departments issued a joint notice on Monday clarifying the policies for students from elsewhere: Students must have had Fujian household registration for at least one year, and studied at a high school in the province for at least one year, before they qualify to take the exam in Fujian. In addition, their parents must have residency, stable employment, and records of social security payments in the province for at least one year.

Going forward, regulations will become even stricter: For students sitting the gaokao in 2019, the requirements will increase to two years, and three years for those taking the exams in 2020.

What this will mean is that migrants and people from low-income household will lose out either way. This is particularly disheartening, for a system that prides itself on its being a meritocracy.

Women: The Unpaid Workers

“With an increase of 22.3 million in the male workforce between 2004-05 and 2009-10 being virtually cancelled out by a fall of more than 21 million in the female workforce, the need to understand the gender dimensions of employment trends in India has acquired a new urgency.”

Let the statistic sink in. The paper on ‘Gender Dimensions: Employment Trends in India, 1993-94 to 2009-10’ by Indrani Mazumdar, Neetha N, drives home the magnitude of the problem in front of us. The authors highlight that “the most striking revelation of the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) 66th round survey is a significant fall in the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FWPR )between 2004-05 and 2009-10.” The paper expands on how the liberalisation, unlike the popular opinion, did not lead to an increase in the female labour force participation.

One of the key insights of the paper is the drastic increase in the number of unpaid women helpers. As per the NSSO, the employment activity categories have been segregated as self-employed, regular salaried and casual labour. Out of all the three segments, the highest proportion of female workforce is in the self-employed group. However within the self-employed group, the largest proportion of women are employed as unpaid women helpers. From 2004-2009, the total number of employed women rose from 61 to 72.5 per cent, while the regular salaried women only accounted for 9 per cent of the total number. These numbers clearly show that the increase in the FLFPR was mostly due to the increase in the unpaid job rather than the formal jobs.

The paper also shows how the characteristics of the unpaid jobs also varied between rural and urban regions. In rural regions, unpaid workers vary from peasant to supervisors. The jobs are also significantly dependent on the economic background of the household. For instances, the women are usually supervisors only if the land is owned by either their husbands or in-laws or fathers or parents. In urban spaces, the nature of the job is largely different as 43 per cent of the women are engaged in community and personal services which includes domestic workers, teachers, launderers, beauticians, and so on. The second biggest sector that hires unpaid women in urban region is the manufacturing sector (primarily home-based, piece-rated work). 

This disparity in the type of jobs and the variety of them is an indicator of how most of the women work at minimal wages and how vulnerable their jobs are. While in rural regions the family income defines their jobs, in the urban spaces they are mostly engaged in low wage and high risk jobs. With the large segment of women working in the informal spaces like domestic help and agriculture, one of the keys solutions to look at can be to formalise these sectors. A good example would be the increase in the number of online platforms like BookMyBai.

Government should divest 100%, not 51% of bank shares

The government plans to merge four state run banks and then sell 51% of its stake in the new merged bank.  Why not sell 100% stake and divest all bank shares? The banks are a drain on government funds, and the government does not need to be present in the banking sector except as a regulator. Even the PM’s Jan Dhan Yojana does not require you to open an account with a state run bank. A private bank will do the job nicely.

The four banks in question are bleeding money. Their combined net losses were over Rs. 21,000 crore (> US $3 Billion) in the year ending March 31, 2018. If the losses keep piling up and divestment is not done quickly, we will end up in with a situation similar to what’s happening with the Air India sale – no buyers!

India Needs an Aggressive China Insurance Policy

What should India’s conduct with China look like? This question is on the minds of a lot of people in India’s foreign policy circles. I currently have a two-part answer to this question:

Part 1: Assuming that yogakshema for all Indians is defined as the national interest, India’s asks from China would be: peace on the borders and investments in the Indian economy. From a Chinese perspective, these asks are extremely beneficial too. Peace on the Indian border allows them to concentrate their efforts towards challenging the US in the South China Sea. And India is perhaps the only market with the scale and the stability to promise returns on Chinese capital currently flowing to weaker economies.

Part 2: Part 1 is insufficient because China’s recent movements – in Maldives, Nepal, and Doklam – are indicative of its tendency to eschew a mutually beneficial path and pick an openly hostile front instead. To prevent this switch, India needs to invest in I call an Aggressive China Insurance Policy. The motive of this policy is simple: should Xi Jinping’s China get aggressive with India, India should have readily available capacity to inflict significant pain to China in return. The insurance “premium” for this policy includes a variety of measures:

  1. Establish contacts with the key members of World Uyghur Congress and other such organisations.
  2. Shift the focus of “Act East/Look East” to one country — Vietnam.
  3. Offer Trump deals that can deepen the US-India engagement.
  4. Sponsor studies that puncture the “Chinese Leaders Do No Wrong” narrative.

This two-part policy can help India modulate its relationship with China.