Archive | July, 2013

Bias to scientific reason

Issues of scientific complexity occupy a lot of space in public affairs – be it the extraction of shale gas, the effectiveness of alternative medicine or the alleged dangers from cell phone tower radiation. A strong position on many of these issues is often tied to a political ideology rather than a deference to scientific reasoning and evidence.

So what is the easiest way to figure out if someone defers to scientific reason above and beyond ideologies?

I say that you can do it by understanding their positions on three cardinal topics of today: anthropogenic climate change, the safety of nuclear power generation, and the safety of genetically modified foods. Broadly, people leaning towards the left of the political spectrum agree only with the first, and those leaning right agree only with the last two – be it with evidence or not. Ascertaining people’s views on all three is a good barometer of their deference to scientific evidence.

It is important, however, to note the core arguments that define these issues:

The core argument in climate change is that the earth’s surface warmed significantly in the 20th century due to human-linked emissions of greenhouse gases.

The argument with nuclear safety is that health risks from nuclear power generation, both chronic and acute, have been grossly exaggerated and that due to an obsession with nuclear safety for the past 6 decades, nuclear power is now safer than most other sources of energy.

The argument with genetically modified crops is that they are just as safe as other crops, both for growing and for consumption. Additionally, crop modification through targeted molecular biology techniques is in fact less genetically invasive than conventional hybridisation techniques.

All three arguments have overwhelming scientific evidence on their side, and the nature of the scientific debate is very different from the public and political discussions regarding the same.

Together, anyone’s views on all three topics – nuclear safety, GMOs and climate change – can be very illuminating. The discussion is moot, however, if people start questioning evolution.

Addendum. Subsequent to this post, we ran a short survey of opinions on these three issues and analysed the results.

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In Pragati: Not quite over the moon

I write in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review this week about the Indian space programme and the challenges it is facing today.

Space exploration is a public venture in more than one sense. It has traditionally been taken up by nations and it rarely escapes public regard and reason, be it for better or for worse. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) completed its one hundredth mission last September, by launching two French satellites into a low earth orbit. While space exploration is a public venture, discussions around it in India remain limited and fall into two categories. There is an endless refrain about how a poverty-stricken country like India can spend public money on space, and there is often significant discussion around the popular scientific and technical aspects of space missions. Beyond this, there is little critical debate around what the Indian space programme needs to do to stay relevant and useful to India at large.

Third, ISRO needs to accelerate its transformation to an outward-facing organisation. ISRO developed its culture of innovation in isolation, but today foreign states, international and Indian corporations are all capable and willing to partner with India. As a credible player in space, ISRO is in a position to do so on equal footing. Space and defence are two high technology sectors where having a diverse set of innovators allows for greater spinoffs that benefit the larger economy. While the United States and other countries are reducing the size of their much larger space programmes and laying off talented people in the process, India has the opportunity to absorb as many of them as possible. FDI in space is an equally attractive option that has unfortunately garnered little discussion to date. Indian commercial needs, especially of transponders for broadcasting TV channels, has been growing at a faster rate than what ISRO can provide for. This begs the question of whether commercial space technology needs to be provided by a monopoly public institution, or if some competition can be incrementally introduced.

Thanks to human ingenuity and the establishment of strong institutions, Indian space exploration has come a long way since the launch of a sounding rocket in 1963. Going forward, the Indian Space Research Organisation has to aim high and pursue lofty goals like human spaceflight, take the public into confidence and embrace a more open culture of innovation.
[Full article – Pragati, July 2013]

We cannot stop today at just cheering successful satellite launches, but need to expect a lot more from ISRO. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, going into low earth orbit is to boldly go where many have gone before. The Indian space programme needs loftier goals to truly benefit Indian society at large.

PS. You may also be interested in reading the very first post on this blog, on why we should stop using poverty as an excuse to reduce public spending on space.

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What right to whose water?

I write in Citizen Matters today about the futility of any right to water legislation:

(T)he provision of clean, adequate water to Bangalore’s residents has numerous challenges: resource management, administrative reform, infrastructure provision, financing and payment for scarce resources.

Will a legally enforceable right to water improve its provision in the city? Maybe a little, at the margin – in those few cases where accountability can be pinned to someone.

However, will the move for a right to water come with huge opportunity costs? Almost certainly. Each of the challenges listed above requires significant expenditure of political capital, it needs able leadership that can inspire sufficient trust in the city’s residents to walk them through the myriad challenges. Like the RTE, a right may come backed with funds from the union and state governments for adequate water provision, but again, the latter provision may be better achieved by forgoing the right and focusing instead on the attendant reforms.

Thanks to India’s overburdened courts, we have lost the right to justice while pursuing the right to education, food and more. No system can work if even 10 percent of the people have to approach the court for redressal. Rights are relevant when defaults are rare, possibly malicious and are within the capacity of the judicial system to enforce. Water supply provision hardly meets this criterion.

Spending public time and political capital on a morally superior right instead of a genuine effort at reforms is counterproductive. While pursuing the right to water, the chance at its universal provision may be lost.
[Citizen Matters, 25 July 2013]

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Lines in the sand

The latest poverty figures for India show that it has declined to just 22 percent as of 2011-12, based on data from the National Sample Survey. At a time when information such as this is coming out, many including my colleagues have asked why heavily subsidised food grains are aimed at some 67% of the population, when only 22 percent are poor. This is a question that cannot be asked often enough, but it is important not to make the mistake of linking any government schemes to the poverty line.

The ‘poverty line’ is a line in the sand. There is always a certain amount of arbitrariness to it. However, its primary (and perhaps only) purpose is to see how many people cross it over time. There are two main reasons why this line is tricky to draw: first, we are not a country where all citizens and residents pay income tax. So there are no direct ways to measure income. We measure incomes indirectly, based on surveys of what people consume – through national sample surveys. Warts and all, these surveys still provide the best information we can get on people and their habits. It was this data on consumption that was used by the economist Suresh Tendulkar to revise the ‘poverty line’ based on expenditure on food, education, health and a few other things.

The second reason why the line is tricky to draw is because the cost of these items of expenditure changes. Not only that, but people’s preferences (especially for food) are also changing with time. It helps to look at the poverty line as a rubber band that’s stretched and held taut, while people move across it. Over time, the rubber gets fatigued and droops a little, and needs to be made taut again, to accurately make a line that is comparable to the older one. To look at this as numerical jugglery or falsehood is just plain wrong.

This objective drawing of the line has shown that since the 90s, millions upon millions of Indians have crossed above the poverty line from below. The same was shown to be true for the most recent period of 2004-05 to 2011-12 as well, with the latest numbers.

Linking schemes with entitlements and benefits to this poverty line is an exercise that will ruin the objectivity of the line, and subject it to more political pressures than what it already subject to. The ideal situation is one where using NSS data, economists can come up with robust inclusion and exclusion criteria (like owning a refridgerator, for example) that is capable of doing two things with reasonable accuracy: select ~22 percent of the  population, and have the highest achievable overlap with those considered below the poverty line. This is notionally done even today for most schemes targeted at the poor, but the criteria are updated very slowly and the extent of mis-targeting is immense.

Just today, an argument is made in the Hindu that the government of India is slowly rejecting the legitimacy of the Tendulkar line and various departments are de facto drawing a much higher poverty line, one which includes about 65% of the Indian population below it.

We can argue endlessly about what “true” poverty is, whether the Tendulkar line only represents “kutta-billi” poverty, to use NC Saxena’s colourful phrase, and whether the de facto attempt at redrawing this is more “humane”. What matters is this: even and especially if the criteria for the Tendulkar poverty line is low, 22 percent of India lives below it. And they do so whether we lump them with 45 to 50 percent of the population above them or not. Economic growth, education and better provision of public goods are steadily increasing incomes and prosperity across India.

The simple question is: while people are pulling themselves out of poverty, do we support 1 in 5 people with some form of welfare with the limited resources at the state’s disposal, or do we use those same resources to support 3 out of 5 people? Which is more humane? And let us not forget, it is those same resources that are also used to provide better public goods and services.

We need an objective, consistent poverty line to reliably measure the outcome of poverty reduction. And we need to target welfare schemes only to those who need it the most.

Addendum. My colleague Nitin Pai also writes in The Acorn on the use and misuse of poverty lines.

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Hybrid buses: An exercise in vanity environmentalism

Missed opportunities outweigh any gains hybrid buses make in terms of  fuel efficiency.

In a move that has been in the making for several months, the Ministry of Urban Development has decided to fund the roll-out of hybrid buses as a part of JnNURM:

The urban development ministry plans to fund hybrid buses — that use a combination of electric battery and diesel engine — as part of the next lot of buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

During the budget session, finance minister P. Chidambaram had announced that the Centre would fund 10,000 buses under the mission. The ministry has not put a cap on the number of hybrid buses, as it will depend on proposals coming from states, but officials said they may not exceed 50.

While normal low-floor buses cost between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 70 lakh, hybrid buses — which are more fuel-efficient than normal buses — cost around Rs 1.25 crore.

The urban development ministry had proposed that there should be additional financial assistance for hybrid buses.“We had suggested that since hybrid buses are expensive but at the same time we want to promote them for their fuel efficiency, we should give state governments 10 per cent additional financial assistance,” said a senior official.

However, last week, the expenditure finance committee, while sanctioning Rs 4,900 crore for the project, rejected the idea of additional monetary help. [The Telegraph]

At first glance, this looks like a good pro-environment move, where switching to fuel-efficient hybrid buses reduces both carbon emissions and urban air pollution. Though the buses cost almost two times what other modern low floor buses cost, it feels justified because of the fuel savings incurred.

Clean air in urban India is a quickly disappearing public good. Just like we feel the need to purify water before its use, commuters in cars effectively purify and control their air through air conditioning before breathing it in. But are hybrid buses in any way a solution to this problem? In foreign cities with widespread public transport, hybrid buses may indeed be the solution. If we assume that the share of public transport in city commutes is mostly saturated, for every regular bus that can be replaced with a low-emission hybrid, the city reduces its overall pollution.

This is hardly the case in India as public transport’s share in intracity travel is far from optimal! Most of our cities do not have metros or commuter rail, and have to rely solely on city buses, private buses and “share-autorickshaws” as modes of public transport. The environmental gain in Indian cities comes from people switching from cars and personal vehicles into public buses. So while a hybrid bus might be low on emissions, the opportunity lost because of its purchase is the acquisition of an extra regular bus – which would have taken more private vehicles off the road. If 50 hybrid buses could be replaced by 100 regular buses, the transport service might spend more on fuel and have higher emissions, but the city as a whole will spend less. Investing our scarce financial resources in hybrid buses is not a very environmentally friendly move.

City buses in India

The chart above (Source: *, **) shows you some quick numbers on buses in India and Karnataka. The first three cities have other modes of public transport that coexist with buses (commuter trains and metros). However, as the graph shows – even the best performing cities have too few buses for our public transport to be saturated.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has been India’s flagship programme to finance urban infrastructure and catalyse urban reforms since 2005. It is noteworthy that the acquisition of buses was not a valid item of expenditure under the mission for the first four years. It was in 2009 that under a union stimulus package, the Ministry of Urban Development decided to finance the procurement of about 10,000 high tech buses, to ‘transform city bus transport in India‘.

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to evaluate whether bus acquisition and deployment served Keynesian ends, but the move was politically astute and was fairly well received. The JnNURM labeled buses on Indian (and Bangalorean) roads today are the most visible output of the mission. The move to deploy high quality buses with low floors, pneumatic doors, good suspension and comfort was also a welcome one. By providing a means of public transport that is on par with cars on comfort and safety, these Volvos and Tata Marcopolos were likely able to get more cars off the road than regular buses. In cities like Bangalore, these high-end buses have appropriately priced tickets, are profitable and are even able to subsidise other bus fares.

In the mean time, many bus manufacturers have come out with hybrid buses, including Tata Motors with a CNG-hybrid. Tempting as they may appear, policymakers in the urban development ministry have to seriously consider whether these are necessary – or an exercise in vanity. As the Telegraph article points out, the ministry correctly ruled out the provision of extra assistance for hybrid buses. However, even giving an identical percentage of assistance is too much – as it can buy two regular buses in its stead.

Good public transport has several outcomes that benefit cities: less air pollution; reduction in congestion and in travel time; and also an opportunity for social mixing. This blog strongly believes in the single-minded pursuit of better public transport in Indian cities – but alas, hybrid buses are an expensive and unnecessary detour from that road.

Note. 40 buses per lakh population appears to be a subjective norm fixed by the JnNURM. One World Bank initiative recommends between 50 and 120 buses per lakh population. That said, these are but useful guidelines to follow. What matters most are outcomes – and among them, the public share of total city transport, a control of travel time with urban growth and an overal reduction in urban air pollution.

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