Déjà vu

India’s Aadhar is often compared to the Social Security Number system of the United States. Most of these comparisons are about how they are in use today.

The US SSN is necessary for you to draw a salary, open a bank account, it’s linked to your credit history, it’s linked to your taxes, tax waivers and a lot more. In India, it’s a similar set of linkages that is up for question at the Supreme court today.

But how did the SSN come into being in the first place?

The story is fascinating. NPR’s Planet Money podcast has an excellent episode on the Social Security Number:

A few things that jumped out:

The Social Security Number came into play in 1935, with the Social Security Act getting signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt. The original aim of the number was to track workers’ earnings through their career, such that they could receive appropriate social security benefits on retirement.

Europe said that it couldn’t be done. (Europe’s current extreme stances on data protection today are eerily reflective of similar sentiments)

The Americans decided to not use a fingerprint, because fingerprints had a criminal connotation, and the optics of hauling all workers in to get their fingerprints taken were… bad, to say the least.

The Number 666 is never used in the SSN!

Initially, people did not fully understand the need for secrecy with the SSN. Giant printed versions of social security cards, with the numbers intact, would be used in TV shows.

The SSN’s ambit gets expanded, starting 1943. The US Federal government started telling its other departments to not invent a new ID for any purpose, but use the SSN instead.

  • In 1962, it starts getting used for people to pay taxes.
  • Around the same time, it starts getting used for enrollment into Medicaid, a large healthcare programme.
  • In 1977, it’s used for distributing food stamps, or food subsidy.
  • In parallel, the number is being used by the Federal government and the military as personnel ID numbers.
  • In 1982, for loans from the federal government… and the list goes on. Driving license, Marriage registration, everywhere. And eventually, credit ratings.

The Social Security Administation did not have the legal authority to stop people from using the number for other purposes.

…and then these numbers got hacked.

History, it seems, often repeats itself.

EPFO Releases Payroll Data

The Employees Provident Fund Office has, for the first time, released data on payroll enrolment in India. This data shows, by age group, the number of enrolments with the office by month, and this is the first instance that we’re having such data being available.

While it would be easy to start those “data science machines” churning to process this data right away, a closer look suggests a more careful approach.

Screenshot source: Somesh Jha on Twitter https://twitter.com/someshjha7/status/989095752411570176?s=12

Firstly, the data for September 2017 for the 22-25 age group is clearly an error, being an order of magnitude lower than the number for the same age group in all subsequent months. Hopefully this will be corrected in a subsequent release.

Next, what explains the age bands? Why do we have 18-21 and 22-25 (4-year bands) and then a 3 year age band (26-28), and a 7-year age band (29-35)? And why is everyone in the 35+ age group put together into one band?

Then, the note attached to the data release states that this includes temporary employment as well. While the number of enrolments of temporary employees might be low, it would have been far more useful to have that data separately.

Notwithstanding all this, the publication of this data is welcome, since the Indian policy environment is so data-poor that any new data release is welcome! It is fair to expect that these errors will get corrected in time, and this might yet become a great source of data on formal employment in India.

 

Reservations don’t affect bureaucratic performance

Bhavnani and Lee have a counterintuitive insight.

the performance of bureaucrats hired through affirmative action is similar to those who were not, is striking within the context of the polemical debate on affirmative action, in which strong claims are often made for the positive or negative effects of affirmative action. We find that reservations have neither led to hiring of officers unable to perform their jobs or led to a dramatic change in institutional output, at least for one important government program.

They use the provisioning of MGNREGA at the district level as a proxy for bureaucratic performance. Their major finding is that MGNREGA provisioning does not worsen in districts where the IAS officer is a beneficiary of reservation.

Two possibilities arise if this result is reflective of the reality. One, UPSC exam performance does not reflect aptitude for governance. Or two, getting into the IAS is so competitive that despite reservations, efficiency of those with lower ranks is not compromised.

 

Incels and Tinder Taming

When I read Amit Varma’s post on Incels, I couldn’t help but think of this piece I’d come across while doing research for my book Between the buyer and the seller.

Written by Dustin Silgardo in Man’s World, this piece talks about Incels (yay, now I can use that word!) in India, and how dating apps such as Tinder have suddenly laid (no pun intended) bare the possibility that a large section of Incels in India can’t get dates because nobody wants to date them.

Silgardo writes:

In the online dating world, where men outnumber women by close to three to one, men, thus far protected by the perceived power a patriarchal society heaps upon them, are being forced to face an inconvenient possibility: perhaps they are just not that attractive.

And this:

Indian men, on the other hand, are sheltered from this truth and are cocooned by the promise of a dainty woman served to them on a platter, via an arranged marriage. This complete lack of awareness that Indian men seem to have of their own sex appeal is quite apparent from some profiles on Tinder.

Go read the whole piece. It will give you excellent insight into the world of Indian Incels.

And while you’re at it, read the part of my book where I used this article by Silgardo as well! And hopefully you’ll like that, in which case you might want to read my whole book (tongue in cheek)!

The Incels are Coming

The journalist Arshy Mann has an excellent tweet thread up that introduced me to a new word — and a new movement. Here’s the tweet defining it:

In that thread, Mann writes about how Incels–men who can’t get laid–are “almost entirely men who are laser-focused on their inability to have sex.” They “blame women,” and are “virulently misogynistic.” Incels “often play out violent fantasies online,” and these can include “acid attacks & mass rapes.”

Mann’s thread was in the context of a terrorist attack that killed ten people in Toronto yesterday.

The problem, you think, is far from our shores? Well, do read this piece by Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen that reveals that “men outnumber women by 70 million in China and India.”

That should lead to many homegrown Incels, right? What happens then?

Banning Cryptocurrency is a Terrible Idea

The RBI released a notification recently on virtual currency. In essence, the central bank is trying to ban cryptocurrency in India:

In view of the associated risks, it has been decided that, with immediate effect, entities regulated by the Reserve Bank shall not deal in VCs or provide services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling VCs. Such services include maintaining accounts, registering, trading, settling, clearing, giving loans against virtual tokens, accepting them as collateral, opening accounts of exchanges dealing with them and transfer / receipt of money in accounts relating to purchase/ sale of VCs.

For those who are already engaged in the practices mentioned above, the RBI has given them three months to exit it.

This form of blanket ban has been feared for sometime. There were whispers that such a daft move would be done and the RBI didn’t want to disappoint. They have carried out the ban in order to protect consumer interests, market integrity and to prevent money laundering.

There are several problems with this:

  1. Ineffective: Such a ban will be completely ineffective. By its very nature, and as the name suggests, cryptocurrencies are hard to track and provides anonymity for its users. How does the government actually plans to ban it?
  2. Loss of control: By not banning it, RBI had a better chance of regulating some aspects of cryptos. Now, it has lost all control and all the transactions will go underground. Those who want to use Bitcoins will continue doing so by using cash, or other discreet financial instruments to trade. And as Rahul Matthan says in his editorial, “The only people who abide by the terms of a ban are those who always intended to use the service for legitimate purposes”.
  3. You can’t have one without the other: The government, it seems, is quite keen on developing and using blockchain technology for various public purposes, such as maintaining land records, public health records, etc. However, the best use case of blockchain is cryptocurrencies. By banning one, there will be no innovation and test cases of blockchain in India.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. My guess is that RBI will soon realise that it has no control over this and will backtrack on this move. However, it might have already set a bad precedent and the narrative that these are inherently dangerous and risky.

Cute Cats Are Good for Online Activism

Ever wondered how social media has helped activism in your country? Ethan Zuckerman, an American scholar and activist, coined the “Cute Cat Theory“. This helps make sense of why online movements succeed, especially once they are banished from the web by unhappy governments.

According to this theory, social media is the best stage for activists to rally the masses for a political cause – exactly because the people who visit these websites are there to browse mindless content and not to rage against the system. Digital activists can use these platforms to have easy access to generate mass awareness, and also not be targeted by the government for posting unwelcome content.

And so, although a majority of us who visit Facebook do so to stay connected with our friends or to browse cute cat videos, digital activism is likely to get more traction on these platforms than anywhere else on the web.

Story time!

In the early 2000s, dissatisfaction in Tunisia against its President (Ben Ali) had escalated to a boiling point. Various activist groups started chronicling the shortcomings of the Ali government online. This was also a way of rebelling against the highly authoritarian Tunisian government, which would often censor the internet and online speech. In 2009, when certain dissidents called “Astrubal” posted a video concerning the President on Dailymotion, the government took down the site almost immediately. As knee-jerk reactions go, this is classic – the Tunisian government responded defensively to an action as soon as it could so that any hint of dissent is curbed.

However, this plan backfired because of – you guessed it – the Cute Cat Theory.

Although Astrubal’s footage had received only a few thousand views before the site went under, the abrupt, arbitrary unavailability of Dailymotion to the other millions of residents of Tunisia only ended up creating more publicity for this footage and ultimately, sufficient traction to end Tunisia’s regime under Ali.

The Cute Cat Theory shows that it is actually detrimental for a government to ban entire websites to curb dissent – especially social media. What’s better, because of this entire Dailymotion ban debacle, the number of people protesting against the Ben Ali regime on the streets shot up rapidly. If anything, the attempt to shut the digital vigilantes up ended up backfiring badly for the government.

India’s China Reset ≠ China’s India Reset

Global Times carried an op-ed on 12th April applauding India’s reported China Reset policy.

With regard to their ties in the past three years, many Indian media outlets and scholars believe New Delhi has gone astray with its China policy. Following a misjudgment of China’s development and the international landscape, the Indian government chose to confront China and consequently damaged India’s own development.

In typical Global Times style, the op-ed didn’t miss a chance to take a dig at India:

The rise of China actually constitutes an opportunity for India instead of posing a threat. China’s GDP is nearly five times that of India, so the two are at different levels of economic development. New Delhi can hardly expect to exert powerful leverage against China. The primary priority for India is mulling over how to take a ride on China’s development and realize its dream of national rejuvenation.

The bluster aside, what should be clear to us is that a China Reset in New Delhi does not imply an India Reset in Beijing. In fact, China’s recent foreign policy conduct shows that the reverse is likely to be true. With every Indian acquiescence to China’s aggression, China will escalate provocations.

Ask Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam, if you are still in doubt.

Welcome to Pragati Express

This is the most exciting day for me at Pragati since we relaunched the site over a year ago. Today we launch this group blog that you are now reading, called Pragati Express. It has an awesome team of writers, even if I say so myself. (Even if I wasn’t writing on it, and had nothing to do with it, I would want to read it every day.)

There are old-school bloggers like Nitin Pai, Yazad Jal and me. Pragati staff writers will also blog here, as will various policy experts from the Takshashila Institution. The list of writers that you see on the panel alongside will grow with time.

But first, let me address these question: Why a blog? Who reads blogs these days?

I was a prolific blogger with India Uncut back in the day, and wrote more than 8000 posts between 2004 and 2009, averaging five posts a day for quite a while. I slacked off after that, and now use it mainly to archive pieces of mine published elsewhere. I rationalised my laziness by arguing that the Age of Blogging was over: Social Media changed the way people navigate the web and consume content. Twitter and Facebook took over the filtering aspect. The personal posts went on FB and Instagram. Bloggers moved on; and so did blog readers.

So why Pragati Express?

Firstly, all the advantages that blogging held as a medium still hold true: I described some of them in this old essay. Blogging remains an easy and flexible way for anyone to get their thoughts down, unhindered by considerations of length or news cycles. They can go as broad or deep as they want, writing always in their own style, not the house style of someone else.

Secondly — and this is a reader’s point-of-view, not a writer’s — blogs don’t require writers to take hard positions on anything. When you write an opinion piece, for example, you usually plant a flag in the soil: this is my opinion, and I will stand by it. In a blog, on the other hand, you can express thoughts as they happen, and ask questions to others in public that you would usually ask yourself in private. I find that a fascinating process.

If journalism is the first draft of history, as the cliche goes, then a blog is the perfect place to take notes for that draft. And everyone can see those notes, and everyone can think aloud with you.

What kind of posts will you see here? Quick perspectives and insights on events as they happen. Questions that pop up in a writer’s head when they read something interesting in a book. An overheard soundbyte that sparks off a thought. And so on — there are few limits to this medium.

One aim we have for Pragati is that readers should feel smarter after they read an article there. Our aim for Pragati Express is that readers should feel stimulated by it.

It feels too meta to write any more about it right now. All I’ll say is, watch this space. We should have around four or five posts a day, starting today, from different writers with different interests and different voices. Do follow us on Twitter here, and like our Facebook page for updates. Happy reading!