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Cities and the Swachh Bharat Mission

Arunima Rajan interviewed me recently for an article in Healthcare Executive, on what ails India’s cities, and whether the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission can tackle these ailments. Here is the full text of the interview:

Q1. Can clean cities lead to healthier cities?

Pavan: Absolutely. Cities are prosperous because they promote proximity – allowing large numbers of people to live and work close to each other. Serendipity and the ease of meeting diverse people are what make cities innovative.

However, when lots of people start living close together, managing waste and pollution of various forms becomes challenging. In Indian cities, it is unclean water, surroundings and air that contribute to a majority of the communicable disease burden.

If less solid waste can be managed, sewage can be processed and drinking water kept clean – diseases like Dengue, chikungunya, cholera, diarrhoea and others would drastically come down.

Q2. Has Swachh Bharat provided a good framework to address public health problems? Do you think the policy has been successfully implemented?

Pavan: The Swachh Bharat programme has correctly identified that human behaviour is a key reason why our cities and villages are not clean. Changing people’s behaviour is critical to having high hygiene standards, enabling segregation at source, ensuring toilet use, and more. By making ‘Swachchata’ a moral cry — the mission has become the biggest political attempt against open defecation and for public cleanliness since Gandhi’s efforts.

In India, we often talk about good policies that are unable to be enforced properly. No new policies can be implemented if say 90% of the people violate it. What makes policies work is having 90% of the people follow the new rules on day one, with enforcement only playing a role with the 10% who don’t. Thus, Swachh Bharat with its focus on changing behaviour has a good chance of success and making India cleaner.

However, Swachh Bharat may work better in villages, where public systems and infrastructure are less relevant. Swachh Bharat has not adequately considered how to put better municipal systems in place, and fund better infrastructure.

Q3. Does the policy draw the links between public health, sanitation and solid waste management to an effective manner?

Pavan: The idea of ‘Swachhata’ is powerful because it can be used to mean various things from personal hygiene to public cleanliness to toilet use. However, this ambiguity is a double-edged sword. In some places, it could promote solid waste management but ignore sanitation. Or, act against littering but ignore the state of public toilets. The mission may also fall a victim of its ambition — toilet use, avoiding littering and waste segregation are all independently difficult to promote even with focused action, and the mission seeks to do it all.

Q4. Do you think Swatch Bharat can be successfully implemented by inter-ministry/inter-government collaboration? Can top-down approach help in successful implementation of the initiative?

Pavan: Swachh Bharat mission’s best chance of working is to provide an umbrella framework that encourages independent action by states, cities, localities and leaders. While the union government may be successful in getting the Indian railways to clean up trains and stations, it cannot dictate what states and cities can do.

For example, the MLA and the citizens of Malleswaram in Bangalore have started an initiative called ‘Smart Swachh Malleswaram’ — where they want to make their locality cleaner using technology and data, as well as citizen action.

While the goal of Swachhata remains the same, the activities, the ideas, the management — all remain locally driven. Such a style of the Swachh Bharat mission is most likely to work in India’s many cities, rather than a purely top-down bureaucratic exercise that is thrust on cities and localities.

Read the full article on Healthcare Executive.

(Disclaimer – Takshashila’s Centre for Smart City Governance is a training partner for the Smart Swachh Malleswaram initiative.)

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Why can’t India attract research talent?

A few Takshashila alumni and friends Kunal Singh, Varun Goel & Aravind Ilamaran have started a new opinion-analysis portal called Policy Wonks.

I write about how there’s an oversupply of PhDs and research talent in the US and elsewhere, but not enough of them have come knocking on India’s doors just yet:

American academia has been in trouble for the better part of the past decade. Till the advent of MOOCs, productivity has not changed much in higher education for about a century. As a result, university education has seen a high amount of inflation. To keep costs low, universities started supplying ever higher number of PhD students – who can be cheap research and teaching labour as RAs and TAs respectively. Thanks to this oversupply, you have hundreds of talented people applying for each tenure-track position in the sciences, for example. As Ajit Balakrishnan points out in Business Standard, this has led to the creation of a lot of “adjunct” temporary faculty positions in a space considered to be dominated by tenure.

Unfortunately, India has been poorly positioned to take advantage in this acute oversupply of talented PhDs and post doctoral researchers. This is especially surprising given that a significant number of them are Indian or of Indian origin. With the salient exception of a few people and a few Indian institutions, most researchers prefer to eke out a modest living on uncertain terms rather than come back and work in Indian academia.

We witnessed a smaller version of something similar happening when NASA started getting budget cuts in the last two decades, thereby being forced to lay off good aerospace talent – again with a lot of them being of Indian origin. India’s space agency ISRO benefited little by maintaining an insular hiring policy. Quite unfortunate for an organisation whose second director – Dr UR Rao – was wooed back to India by a visionary Vikram Sarabhai well before India had a dedicated space agency.

[Read the full piece over at Policy Wonks]

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Arranging a market for lemons

My fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar (and his wife Priyanka Bharadwaj) started an interesting conversation on his personal blog on the grand old market in India: arranged marriage. They assert that the arranged marriage market has become increasingly illiquid, and hence unattractive.

Both Priyanka and Karthik raise an important point that can look obvious in hindsight – that as people exit the arranged marriage market in India, the market becomes smaller, more “illiquid”, and as people are unable to find suitable partners there – they continue to exit. Almost all markets have positive network effects too – the more the number of “buyers” and “sellers”, the healthier a market usually is. However, in a society divided by caste, class and religion, marriage markets were always small and illiquid, and it requires greater evidence to establish that arranged marriage markets today are necessarily less liquid than markets of previous generations.

Marriage is a curious contract that is both a labour union and a union of capital, which usually ends up creating a larger labour pool over time. ‘Arranging’ the marriages of suitable men and women has been the done thing for centuries if not millennia among large numbers of people. Finding a spouse involves heavy search costs no matter how you go about it and failed relationships constitute a significant sunk cost too. (Though apparently, people can learn from their failures. As Douglas Adams said it, “You live and you learn. At any rate, you live.”) There’s also significant information asymmetry involved – marriage is a serious affair after all, and you need to know a good amount of details any potential spouse before entering into such a contract. Further, in large families, it wasn’t just two individuals who got married, but two households.

“Arrangements” were an ideal solution to the marriage market, and it can be argued that arranged marriages provided better outcomes. Extended families and networks solved the search cost challenge, and the same networks could also solve the information asymmetry challenge – of whether the spouses were well off, were from “good families” and more.

I would argue that in the marriage market in India today, two things have happened: one, that the nature of information asymmetry has significantly changed; and two, that the arranged marriage market has become a market for lemons.

The nature of information asymmetry has changed because people look for different things in spouses – for shared interests, temperaments, greater personal compatibility and more. While financial and familial backgrounds may still matter, the asymmetry in that information is usually more readily solved. Traditional arranged marriage market mechanisms and networks fail to provide symmetry in the new kinds of information, and this makes the arranged market start failing. Also, this is happening in parallel with dating and other competing mechanisms that are making new marriage markets.

So this means that a “good” partner is unable to differentiate themselves from a “bad” partner in an arranged marriage market – and the lack of differentiation results in an overall devaluation of the “goodness” of a partner or a match. As the more high-value partners and people start moving out of the arranged marriage market to others, you are increasingly left with people who continue in the arranged marriage market because of poor choice – with them being adversely selected. Thus arranged marriage markets can become markets for lemons.

This is not to say that it’s impossible to have a happy arranged marriage these days. Nor is it inconceivable that both technology and society can evolve new ways of disrupting markets for lemons. The classic lemon market, that of second-hand cars in the US, is now a thriving one where information asymmetry is a thing of the past.

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Internet as a public good: A case for net neutrality

The internet has public good characteristics, and telecom liberalisation will not be sufficient to keep the internet healthy and growing.

Classic OPTE Project Map of the Internet 2005

Classic OPTE Project Map of the Internet 2005: Flickr

Knowledge is the currency of power today. Land, capital and unskilled labour will not matter as much as knowledge as ‘factors of production’ beyond a point in achieving growth and prosperity.

The internet is both the manifestation of the power of knowledge, and has allowed knowledge to have so much value by interlinking vast amounts of it. In the net neutrality debate, a lot of analogies have been drawn about what the internet is, on why you should either enforce neutrality or stick to market competition. People have compared the internet to highways, to cable TV, to milk cartons, to electricity grids and to many more things. Rather than improving clarity, metaphors are distracting here – as the internet is only very poorly comparable to most other things.

A basic notion about the internet is that it is a networked good, which means that its value increases with its size. As my colleagues Karthik Shashidhar and Saurabh Chandra have pointed out, the utility of a network increases as the square of the number of nodes on it. Any barriers in this network will fragment it, and reduce the overall value of the network. It can however be argued if the size of the network needs to increase, then there needs to be sufficient private gain for the network provider. Enforcing something like net neutrality, they argue, could come against that. This logic is certainly used in many other networks including that for cable TV.

The internet is all but a public good – which means that the marginal social benefit of consuming internet services is much larger than the private benefit of doing so. Human civilisation as a whole is better off when it is more interconnected, more radically networked, and capable of doing things previously unimaginable. In that context, the internet defies comparison to any other network previously built by humanity. After proto humans manage to walk upright, the quest for knowledge has been central to their progress. Since the invention of language and of writing, the internet might be the biggest radical jump in making the quest for knowledge easier.

It is true that the internet was not always open (remember AOLnet?) and that it took a series of accidents to get us where we are today. It is also true that future networks could be even more radical and we must not constrain our imagination to what is presently possible with the internet. Many argue that sufficient competition in the network provider space can ensure network health – that regulations enforcing net neutrality are both unnecessary and counter productive. My colleague Nitin Pai in fact bats for net neutrality because the ISP market is uncompetitive in India, with high entry barriers and intense regulation.

However, if  the internet is a public good – will competition ever be sufficient to ensure the vibrancy of the network? Will competition be sufficient to improve the effective network size? I would argue that it might fall short of the mark. Thus, regulations that enforce net neutrality may be necessary to prevent ‘walled gardens’ from springing up. Competition must certainly be encouraged, but restrictions must be placed both on differential pricing of data from different sources, and of content providers from directly paying for the data their consumers use. While this will lead to a few inefficiencies, it is a necessary trade-off to keep the internet as open and flat as possible.

PS. Read the takes of Pranay Kotasthane, Gautam John, Anupam Manur, Varun Ramachandra and Devika Kher on the net neutrality debate.

PPS. Also read Deepak Shenoy on how telcos aren’t really hurting and Nikhil Pahwa‘s useful definition of net neutrality.

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In Mint: Let India’s urban poor pay for good water

I write in Mint this week on how thinking along the lines of micro finance principles can change how we approach water pricing. Instead of an ideological stand on keeping water free, it’s better to ask how we can make clean water cheaper and more affordable for urban India’s most deprived.

In microfinance, people also acknowledge that it costs more to lend to the poor. When most people have to take a big loan from a bank, they have a steady income to show. They have a credit history. They also have assets they can pledge as surety, in case they default on the loan. The poorest of the poor don’t have salaries to showcase. They don’t have assets to pledge. The risk of defaulting on a loan is higher, and it is humane that they be allowed to default when the circumstances are dire. By allowing microfinance institutions to charge higher interest rates, the policies allow them to service these needs.

Similarly, the costs of supplying water for a city’s poor can be high. People often don’t have address proofs or any proofs of legal residence, making installing water connections harder. Getting even basic piping to reach the heart of a slum is not always cheap, given that there is hardly any road space to dig up. Maintaining pipes is even tougher. Installing and maintaining water meters is difficult, thereby making bill collection costlier.

It is highly disingenuous to ignore all these real issues and shout for a right to free water.The better approach is to ask, “how can we make water cheaper for the poorest?” And that line of thinking can birth an entirely new range of solutions.

Read the full article at Live Mint, February 13, 2015.

Live Mint e-Paper - Mint - 14 Feb 2015 - Page #11 Pavan Srinath


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On counting and marrying out of caste

Most measurements of caste dynamics are flawed by a lack of good numbers, but that’s a good thing.

A few months ago, my fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar had looked at how inter-caste marriages are happening in India. He had visualised the results of an interesting paper out of European Population conference hosted on the Princeton university website, which looked at how people were marrying outside their own caste. Researchers had used data from two consecutive National Family Health Surveys (NFHS), the researchers tried to identify the proportion of people who marry someone from an ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ caste, and how this varies across gender and across states.

While theirs was a valiant effort, they end up dramatically undercounting marriages outside caste, to the extent of near-complete irrelevance of the paper. This happened due the nature of the dataset. There are only four caste groupings listed in the questionnaire: General, OBC, SC and ST. Both the husband and the wife’s caste grouping is recorded, and the researchers ranked these groupings in the same order listed, and ran their comparisons.

It is obvious that this in no way comes close to what might be the true amount of cross-caste marriage taking place in India. We still have little robust evidence of whether intercaste marriage is increasing or decreasing — whether subcastes are weakening, or castes are weakening, or if they show different trends in different parts of the country. The remainder of the paper’s analysis on the correlation of intercaste marriage with education, media consumption etc can all be similarly discarded.

While we don’t know any of these (fascinating) details about caste dynamics in India with any degree of robustness, this is arguably a great thing.

What got me started on this is that the idea of marrying someone of a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ caste is not a commutative property. Think of a couple, each from two subcastes within the same caste. An external observer might classify both subcastes of being at an ‘equal’ level. However, each spouse might feel that they are marrying ‘lower’ by marrying outside their subcaste. Thus it becomes rather subjective. Further, I was curious about how many castes and subcastes got captured in the NFHS survey, given the survey’s focus on family health. The devil is in the details, and this study captures none of it.

It’s probably for the best that we don’t know exactly how caste dynamics are changing. The Indian government’s efforts at doing a caste census (and more recently, Karnataka’s interest in the same) is deeply troubling.

Counting is often political, as Deborah Stone explains in her wonderful book, Policy Paradox. Counting can affirm and reinforce certain identities over others, and can also engender a sense of common-ness among those counted and binned together. For example, the notion that 44% of India’s children are malnourished competes with the number of children who aren’t in school, or are in poverty, or the number who live in villages. While the children overlap, each label competes for mind space, and by extension, for policy prescriptions.

Deborah Stone - Counting Political

Counting caste can only strengthen it, while migration, modernity and education just may be slowly breaking them down.

One hypothesis I offer is that sub-castes were weakening in the 1980s and 1990s in some parts of India, because migration and smaller families were leading to higher search costs for arranged marriages. But with the internet and a plethora of matrimonial sites springing up in the 2000s, the search cost of someone of the same sub-caste might have dramatically reduced, strengthening castes in turn. However, the hypothesis is not testable with extant data – the flux in caste in India today remains unknown, and should probably stay that way.

PS. Chapters from Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox are essential readings in Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy programme. I will be teaching the CP101 Introductory Public Policy Analysis course for it in the February 2015 term.

PPS. Read Saurabh Chandra’s take from 2013 on weakening the mechanisms of caste.

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INI9: 9 minute conversation with Rohini Nilekani

I discuss sanitation, malnutrition and dams with Rohini Nilekani in the latest INI9: 9 minute conversations on strategy, policy and politics.

The conversation happened on the sidelines of the Takshashila-Hudson conference, Shaping India’s New Growth Agenda: Implications for the World, Bangalore 2014.

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A Long Overdue Hike in Bangalore’s Water Prices

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) recently hiked its water tariff, a move that was long overdue.  I am quoted in Citizen Matters on why this hike is a good move.

The hike in BWSSB’s water tariff is a welcome development that was long overdue. BWSBB has been a national leader in the professional delivery of water supply and sewerage services, and it is no accident that Bangalore has the largest number of metered water connections in the country.

Water is an increasingly scarce resource in the 21st century, and pricing it at its highest marginal cost is essential to conserving this vanishing resource. While we talk about excessive or misdirected LPG and petrol subsidies, the water subsidy that even the most prosperous Bangalore receives is much higher.

The higher price of water will also spur more people to do rainwater harvesting and efficient use of water. We must also recognise that people pay many times more for water tankers – a small increase in BWSSB tariffs could in fact reduce overall water cost for the city’s residents.
[Citizen Matters: Should Bengalureans be grateful for BWSSB’s water rates? 11 November 2014]

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In Times of India: No Room for Jugaad on Mars

I write in the Sunday Times of India on how India must pursue high excellence like reaching Mars and get rid of the culture of jugaad.

Think of numbers about Mars. One jumps out at you. Rs 450 crore (approx $75 million). India crossed a technological milestone this week by successfully injecting a spacecraft into Martian orbit. While celebrating the fact that India has been able to achieve an elusive goal, we also want to celebrate the idea that ours is the cheapest mission to make it to Mars. A successful series of ads from Maruti Suzuki in 2010 showcases our love for the “low-cost” like no other. In one ad that was spooky in its foresight, a NASA tour guide is showing off a top-notch new spaceship meant for Jupiter. The first question that an Indian visitor asks is, “Kitna deti hai?”

ISRO did not get to Mars by using duct tape and M-seal to make the orbiter work. ISRO is not trying to repair cars by refashioning cycle chains. It takes several minutes for the ISRO command centre to beam a message to the orbiter and an equal length of time to hear back. The “thoda adjust kardenge” attitude of jugaad with people tinkering on the fly would have failed like a wet cracker here. ISRO built a top-class launch vehicle and payload, and we should not cheapen its success by harping on any number. India’s space programme is a testament to a culture of tackling hard challenges because they are hard, not because they are easy. Of doing the best, and not the cheapest. Jugaad in India was born as a necessity in impoverished conditions, and instead of elevating it to godhood we should be trying to escape a culture of jugaad as quickly as possible. ISRO is showing us the way.

[Full Article: No Room for Jugaad on Mars, September 28, 2014]

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