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In Business Standard: Setting our sights beyond Mars

On the day after India’s successful Mars orbiter insertion, I write in Business Standard that India and ISRO must now focus on achieving human spaceflight, and that we have to do things differently in order to achieve it:

The target of human spaceflight is necessary because successful space programmes need visible goals to orient themselves and not get lost along the way. They also need public confidence and steady government support since the development cycles are long.

Space exploration is primarily a pursuit of excellence: of exploring the unexplored, doing the impossible and pushing the frontiers of knowledge and human ability. As India has seen in the last decade, having ambitious plans to get to Mars and the moon inspired ISRO to step up its game.

Clear targets like human spaceflight breed innovation and spark creativity. For the Mars mission to succeed, various ISRO wings had to align their objectives and work at their best, as a complex mission requires flawless execution. ISRO needed to figure out deep space communication, precision orbital planning for such a long and complex journey, as well as mechanics and electronics that leave little room for error – and they had to do all of this within a tight deadline.

Similarly, human spaceflight will require ISRO to develop technologies for more powerful launch vehicles capable of transporting larger capsules to space. It will need the ability to re-enter the atmosphere and reach back to earth safely. It will also need all the trappings necessary for humans to survive and thrive while in space, and more. These skills and technologies are transferable, and will eventually aid ISRO’s other efforts and the economy at large.
[Full Article: Setting our Sights Beyond Mars, September 24, 2014]

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Markets and Maamis

What I learnt about the state of markets in India from a conversation with my grandmother.

My maternal grandmother belongs to a rarified subset of people: she falls at the intersection of all who have read the Valmiki Ramayana in Sanskrit, and the Lord of the Rings in English. I always learn something new when I talk to her, given the five odd decades of difference in our perspectives. A recent conversation with her sparked a few thoughts on how markets work in India when I spoke to her about cotton wicks.

My grandma makes her own cotton wicks for lighting lamps. She takes a tuft of cotton, twirls it around her fingers and keeps adding cotton till there is a bushy tuft at the base and a stiff stem of cotton leading up top from it. This can be easily lowered into a variety of different lamps, doused with oil and lit aflame. With age and with softening hands, she uses a dab of water to retain her grip on the cotton.

IMG_0339

This sounds like a very natural thing for grandmothers to do, if you asked the average Indian grandchild. But it would also seem rather odd to an observer who has no context – why would a well-to-do old woman spend so much of her time labouring over something as simple as cotton wicks? Why would she not just buy them in the market instead? It is easy to dismiss such behaviour as the pedantry of the old, but there are often better explanations.

When asked why, my grandmother explains. Apparently the cotton wicks that are available in the market are too ‘loose’, where the wick is not tightly wound and is liable to get droopy and annoying to deal with. They also are often too thick, containing far too much cotton in the wick, leaving residues upon burning. What she makes remains far superior to what is commercially available, and she prefers to stick to that. She even goes far as lamenting how a couple of her daughters are forced to buy the inferior ones from the market.

What this actually means is that the market is not yet mature enough for cotton wicks. If the supply of cotton wicks were more sophisticated, someone would have figured out that tightly wound cotton wicks can perhaps be sold at a higher price to the discerning grandmotherly customers. It means that while the market is currently flooded by generic cotton wicks, there is the potential for the market to attract new buyers if they do two things: increase quality; and through signalling differentiate the two products. While this is true, there is also a lack of maturity on the demand side. A mature set of conumers will acknowledge that quality often demands a premium and are willing to pay for it.

This little nugget illustrates a lot of what people in India are going through while dealing with markets. Till the 90s, the Indian economy had not opened up and we used to highly regulate most markets. Incomes were also lower, whereby most families figured out how to produce a large variety of small goods that they consumed themselves. At best, they would be barters from a kind grandmother to some of her children.

As markets slowly developed, many people developed a disdain for goods that were commercially available, preferring the quality of home-crafted goods, romanticising the notion at the same time. Along with the disdain came a distrust of what the market could offer. This also means that the most discerning consumers retreated from the market, thereby making markets mature a lot slower. The notion of paying higher for better quality is being discovered rather slowly, with cost-saving being the primary reason for engaging with the market.

Forget cotton wicks, this explains the state of Indian markets in most goods – from agricultural produce to home food, Indian households prefer to consume a lot of things that they produce themselves. This retreat from markets denies people the opportunity to specialise, and reduces the amount of welfare one can gain by engaging markets.

Even my grandma readily admits that she’s much happier using clean cotton today compared to the seed-ridden, dirty cotton from a decade ago. She does not have to clean the cotton and she is happy to pay the premium for it. Here’s to hoping that Indian markets mature soon to deliver the kind of cotton wicks she wants, and more.

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Wordlens and an Indian babel fish

Varun Ramakrishna pens a guest post on what it would take to get an Indian babel fish. 

Wordlens is a company that makes an impressive translation app that was recently acquired by Google. A good step towards Douglas Adams’ fantastical Babel fish, the app lets you point your smartphone at a street sign in another language, and a translation appears on your phone’s screen, superimposed on the sign, as if the sign was always in the translated language. Currently, the app only allows translations between a few European languages.

In a nation as diverse as India where so many languages are spoken and written, often in their own unique scripts, we cannot fail to ask the question: what would it take for us to get a Wordlens for Indian languages?

Pictures2

The computer vision algorithms used in Wordlens are mostly well understood and fairly straightforward. The real technical achievement is that they have managed to get these algorithms to run in real-time on the phone’s processor. The processing involves detecting the region of the image that corresponds to text, unwarping it followed by binarizing the text image to normalize for color, background and illumination and separating out each character.

Once the text has been reduced to a standard form, what remains is to use an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) engine. The OCR engine does exactly what it says – it examines a pattern and identifies any language characters that are present. An answer on the website stack-overflow by a wordlens engineer seems to suggest they use an OCR engine they developed in-house rather than a commericially available or open source implementation. This is probably because commercial and open source engines have been designed and trained to work on documents which are usually imaged in controlled conditions, while for OCR to work “in the wild” (such as reading signboards on the fly) it would probably require some modification.

With the multitude of Indian languages and scripts, it seems like an app like this would find lots of users in India. So can this be done for Indian languages?

In principle, yes. The processing required is common across all languages except for the OCR. While OCR has been around for a while and commercial OCR engines have pretty high accuracies for latin languages, there seem to be strikingly few good OCR engines for Indic languages. The gold standard open source OCR engine Tesseract originally developed at HP labs but now under Google’s patronage (they use a version on the Google Books project), supports 34 languages but no Indian language. Although there are many academic publications on indic OCR, without a robust usable implementation it is unlikely that it will reach the masses.

Our best hope at this point is probably Google. If they do decide to extend their Google Books project to Indian language books, they will need to invest in improving indic OCR, which should be easily ported to an app like wordlens.

Varun Ramakrishna is a graduate student in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University working on making computers see. He believes that high technology can transform societies. [Email]

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Do cash transfers make people spend more on alcohol?

The most oft-cited reason in favour of in-kind subsidies against cash transfers is that the latter will make people waste the money on alcohol or other “temptation goods”. It turns out that all the evidence we have today debunks this as a myth. 

Rohit Pradhan shares a new research paper from the world bank, ‘Cash Transfers and Temptation Goods: A Review of Global Evidence‘ by David K Evans and Anna Popova. In this short paper, the authors review all empirical research on the topic to date. Since the success of Bolsa Familia and other experiments, conditional cash transfers have become an increasingly successful reform measure in welfare policy, moving away from an old idea of the state providing in-kind private goods to those considered deserving.

Cash transfers have also been slowly but unsteadily making their inroads into Indian welfare policies – with a Direct Benefits Transfer programme that was launched in January 2013. Linked to the Aadhar unique-ID system, the DBT if well implemented could bring about a welfare policy that is both more targeted and has lower delivery costs. That said, the parliament during the same UPA regime also passed a massive National Food Security Act that legislated the provision of food grains to two-thirds of India’s households. This schizophrenia awaits resolution with a new cabinet soon to be sworn in, and this paper could not have come at a better time to quash the last remaining refrain against cash transfers.

Perhaps the most persistent criticism of cash transfers is the misuse of transferred money by the beneficiaries who may spend it instead on alcohol or tobacco. These “temptation goods” could range from the frivolous to the obnoxious. The notion is that cash transfers would allow a callous husband to waste more money on booze that is meant instead for the wellbeing of a household. As the authors explain, past reports have been replete with anecdotes about the same. Without doubt, alcoholism (especially in adult men) and an iniquitous household structure have huge social costs on poor families. This cannot be dismissed or made light of. But it is also not something you can fix through lazy welfare policies, the problems are far beyond their scope.

What the authors show is that alcohol and tobacco consumption are agnostic to cash transfers – things are no better and no worse with other kinds of policies. Whether the state provides a kilogram of grain or the amount of money to buy one, it makes no difference to the household. People will continue to spend as they have, and what all transfers do is augment the income of the household. It is this aggregate effect of all cash and kind transfers that matters most. If the consumption pattern does change, it’s because of an ‘income effect‘ rather than anything else.

In-kind welfare policies for those in need are patronising, brimming with the arrogant assumption that the State knows best as to what a person or a household needs and what they should spend their money on. Now there is sound evidence to show that not only are in-kind welfare policies normatively problematic, but also hold no advantage over cash transfers, and several damning disadvantages.

You can read the full working paper here.

David K. Evans, Anna Popova ‘Cash transfers and temptation goods : a review of global evidence.’ Policy Research working paper; no. WPS 6886 (2014).

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In Pragati: The Strategic Import of India-US migration

I write in Pragati–The Indian National Interest Review on why the movement of people is the most important component of India-US relations:

There are two challenges facing Indian migration to the US today. The first is that while the rich contribution of Indian Americans to the US economy has been widely noted, this has not translated into thought on policies that make it easier for talented Indians to work in the United States. The second is that migration finds little purchase in government-to-government relations that policymakers in India and the US have been trying to boot up over the past decade.

While visa policies can be dismissed as pedestrian concerns beneath the notice of strategic thinkers, immigration is a tie binds the two nations and the two states with greater strength than anything else today. More dinnertime conversations in India revolve around US visas every month than the sum total of all discussions on India’s nuclear cooperation with the US. It is immigration that is the main reason why Indians have had a uniformly high positive attitude towards the United States, across years and presidential regimes. A sound strategic partnership has to start by strengthening this.

The two governments, and analysts on both sides have rarely looked at immigration as a matter of strategic import. From before the introduction of Senate Immigration Bill in April 2013, legislators in the United States mostly considered the US-Mexico bilateral relationship in relation to immigration. The India-US bilateral relationship has had a weak influence, if any, on the drafting of immigration policy.
[Full Article: The strategic import of India-US migration, April 18, 2014]

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Warfare in ancient India and high school football

I’ve spent the last week reading KA Nilakanta Sastri’s magnum opus, the History of South India, that spans from prehistory to the fall of the Vijayanagar empire. Among the many insights and curious facts that the book reveals, it throws some light on military prowess of kingdoms and empires over the ages.

By the 13th century, warfare in South India was internally competitive but had lost the edge to armies from the north of the Vindhyas. This was certainly not the case earlier – notable examples of southern victories include the Chalukya Pulakeshi II defeating Harshavardhana of Kannauj in the 7th century and Chola Rajendra I conquering up to the Ganges in the 11th century. Southern armies were no longer competitive after the formation of the Delhi sultanate.

The Khilji and Tughlak sultanates from Delhi began making inroads south of the Vindhyas starting in the latter half of the 13th century. One finds that the southern kingdoms did not offer a whole lot of resistance immediately. Allaudin Khilji’s famous slave general, Malik Kafur raided deep into the Deccan and Tamil heartlands, and they are referred to repeatedly as daring. they caught almost everyone off-guard. For example, kings like the Hoysala Veera Ballala III appear to have capitulated almost immediately, instead of putting up a fight. Ballala was busy trying to sort out affairs in Tamil country while Kafur came marching up to his capital Dwarasamudra (present day Halebeedu near Hassan, Karnataka). On full reading, it appears that extended supply lines, the limited objectives of the initial incursions and an increasingly hostile Hindu populace were the major reasons why Kafur and his successors did not fare better. Nothing that can be pinned to a competitive armed force.

This reminded me a little of the way a few of us played football (soccer) while in high school and later. A few of us friends played regularly with each other on a basketball court and the games were fun and competitive, and continued that way for years. But if we had to play with other groups, or play on a full-size football field, the game suffered immensely. While we were enjoying the sport within our little group, we were not even remotely competitive against anyone good outsiders.

Warfare in south India appears to have become equally stultified – there were known kingdoms, empires and fiefdoms spread across the land whose relative power varied with time. But by and large there was a code of the conduct for warfare. For one thing, temples were rarely destroyed. They were deprived of their wealth at best, and the priestly class were rarely harmed. For another, governance and civilian life continued without too much change. Caste groups, village leaders and corporate guilds provided much of the governance (iniquitous as it might have been) – from dispute resolution and policing to developmental works like irrigation and road building. The entry of new forces changed this status quo irrevocably.

Even if you were to discount the earlier example of Malik Kafur as having the advantage of surprise, the story remains the same even a century later. While Harihara and Bukka Raya of Vijayanagara were rapidly consolidating their hold on regions south of the Krishna river in the 14th century, they barely met with any success in military engagements with the rival Bahmani sultanate. If anything, only the incessant in-fighting and intrigue between various ruling muslim factions in the Deccan appears to have blunted the impact of their victories against Vijayanagara. It is only by the time of Krishnadeva Raya in the early 16th century that Vijayanagara starts winning large scale victories on the Northern border of their empire that were not quickly reversed.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Clothing of Bisnagar (Vijayanagar), a Dutch engraving by Cornelius Hazart, 1667.

Krishnadeva Raya managed to achieve this only by creating a more martial state, fostering a competitive military culture with games and contests of physical feats, as well as a modernisation of the army with gunpowder technology and horses via the Portuguese, and other sweeping changes.

North Indian powers were equally blind to events outside the subcontinent, as noted by historian KM Panikkar in a speech in 1961, ‘Before the enemies reach Panipat‘. They probably paid for it a lot more. South Indian states paid for this blindness to people outside the basketball court less frequently, but this deserves no excuse. Perhaps a key failure was in not looking for military technology through oceanic trade routes and restricting trade largely to luxury items and commodities. The only major defence import via the seas was the horse – and it is quite telling that south Indian armies never developed the ability to care for horses well, with many of them dying regularly of disease. Not even the Vijayanagara empire managed to change that. For Arab and Persian traders, south India remained a happy export destination for horses, with an ever-present demand.

Religious taboos on sea voyages likely resulted in a complete lack of parity in trading ability, and it is little wonder that maritime powers from Europe conquered India from the south. With the exception of the Cholas, Indian powers never had a blue water navy. One can only imagine the possibilities if an Indian power had developed a blue water navy after the invention of gunpowder.

Though India sort of has a blue water navy in the 21st century, we should really be asking ourselves – have we really left the basketball court?

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The Growth of Bangalore

The city of Bangalore grew from about 5.7 million people in 2001 to 8.7 million in 2011. Earlier, the official city area was 226 square kilometres under the erstwhile Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) which expanded to 716 square kilometres in 2007 with the creation of Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike.

However, these area numbers only reflect the official administrative boundaries, and are not always reflective of the organic growth of cities in various directions. Below are two land use images from ISRO’s Bhuvan portal of Bangalore from 2005-06 and 2011-12. Built-up area in the region is marked in red.

Bangalore 2005-06

Source: Bhuvan

Source: Bhuvan

In the period of five years, Bangalore has grown in area mostly only on the southeastern side. It has grown considerably along Hosur road, forming a continuum between the city, spanning Electronics City until the edge of the state boundary. The bulk of the rest of the growth has happened along the southeastern section of the outer ring road.

We can rail against ‘unplanned’ growth all we want, but this misses the point that people and companies are essentially free agents who move to places conducive to their requirements. Urban planning in India often centers around rigid control in things like land use, where the state has little capacity to enforce anything, and gets subverted. If instead urban planning favours nudges and incentives (the setting up of electronic city in Bangalore in the late ’70s is a great examples of the latter) then it might have a better chance of working. Official actions are largely unresponsive to the housing needs of incoming migrants and increasing wealth of our cities’ residents. “Irregular” colonies and housing but spring to meet the legitimate need.

Besides, as Karthik Shashidhar finds, Bangalore’s fastest population growth rates were actually in the 1940s and 1970s.

This was a part of my lecture on an ‘Introduction to the Bangalore Municipal Ecosystem’ to B.CLIP students on December 7, 2013.

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Toilets and access

The National Sample Survey Office released new findings this week from the 69th round of the National Sample Survey conducted in 2012, providing the latest state-level data on sanitation, water supply and electricity access.

The last set of reliable numbers on rural sanitation came from the 2011 census, where we found that about 30.7 percent of rural Indian households had their own toilets in 2010. As covered by The Transition State, this had improved in the previous decade by about 9 percentage points.

Broadly consistent with that rate of increase, the NSS round from 2012 reports that 31.9 percent of rural households had their own toilets in 2012, an increase of ~1.2 percent in two years. What the NSS press release dwells on at greater length is the number of rural households with access to toilets, which is a significantly greater number in most Indian states.

This access is self-reported by surveyed households and can mean that they share or use a neighbour’s toilet, have access to a community/public toilet or perhaps have access at their workplace, especially if they live close to towns and cities. However, the access data is likely an overestimate as there is nothing to prove that every member of the household avails the use of toilets, or uses them all the time.

Nationally, 40.6 percent rural households have access to toilets, as opposed to about 31.9 percent of them owning or having exclusive access to toilets. Since there is a two year lag between the two data points collected (as shown below for all states) this gap can be treated as a minor overestimate.

Toilets vs Access2

As one can see, there is a phenomenal range of differences between households owning toilets and households having access to them. A state like Karnataka has almost no difference, implying that toilets are treated as private, household goods in the southern state. Meghalaya is the other extreme, where the number of households with access to toilets is almost double the number of households who own them. If only access were to be measured, states like Nagaland, Delhi, Sikkim, Mizoram and others could declare themselves to be free of open defecation today.

The chart below illustrates the difference between the ranking of states on rural sanitation between the two measures.

Toilets vs Access

As one can see, most of the change happens in states with higher toilet ownership. Delhi, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are the biggest gainers when access is considered, with Kerala, Manipur, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh losing the most ground.

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India from space

A small step for ISRO, a giant leap for building consensus around space exploration in India.

India MoM Image of Earth

Humans have looked up at the stars even before language was invented, and the lights above us have always been a part of human imagination and curiosity, be it in religion, philosophy, science or the arts. What changed in the last century is that not only could we look up, but humanity got the ability to go up high and look down. The photograph Earthrise by astronaut William Anders is easily among the most iconic images to date, where a blue earth rises above the scarred lunar surface.

Exploration in general and space exploration in particular have always excited and inspired people in a manner that few other ideas could. Organisations like NASA figured out early on that beyond any scientific or utilitarian purposes, beautiful images from space have immense value in and of themselves. With human spaceflight, astronauts could take photographs manually. But with improvements in photography, image processing and visualisation technologies, even satellite images can now have great aesthetic and communicative value.

Anyone who has glanced at Google Earth or seen any of NASA Earth Observatory’s exquisite pictures already knows the value of visually observing the earth from space.

ISRO and the Indian space programme have been quite slow in realising the same and acting on it. Though India has been sending satellites to space for over three decades now, there are hardly any memorable images one can think of. Rakesh Sharma in his cosmonaut suit comes to mind, and the other is of space launches. Little from the satellites themselves. While several Indian satellites have imaging capabilities of various kinds, they have been put mainly to technical and scientific uses and almost never for public consumption.

India’s Mission to Mars providing the above simple and elegant image of the Indian subcontinent is the latest step in establishing a culture of communicating with the public on the national space programme. Compared to NASA’s high quality, you can see that the image is far from perfect – the clouds are overexposed, the image has been rotated and cropped, and resolution is sub-optimal. But instead of descending into snobbery, we really need to appreciate the increasing effort ISRO is putting in doing this. Earlier in the year ISRO provided some stunning images of the Kumbh mela and the disaster at Kedarnath. Nothing illustrates the changing mindsets at ISRO better than the contrast of these examples to the rather lacklustre photograph of the earth from Chandrayaan – shared below.

chandrayaan-pic-of-earth

Space exploration is a very public affair – for better and for worse. It is exceedingly difficult to hide success or failure from the public eye, and one has to constantly address questions of poverty while spending public monies on space. Visually engaging the public is essential if ISRO wants to think bolder, aim higher and go farther.  One picture from above can help people understand floods or urban growth or complex natural phenomena like no amount of explaining can.

The good news is that NASA has already paved the way for ISRO, and they could also possibly help the latter in setting up a team in-house which can work on a visual exploration of India from space. Below are a curated set of images of India from space, taken by various NASA spacecraft and satellites. Here’s to hoping that their tribe grows larger.

Follow Pavan Srinath India from NASA’s eyes on Pinterest

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Taxing our way to better health?

The idea of taxing junk food to tackle obesity is silly at best and dangerous at its worst.

Nivedita Kashyap pointed me to intriguing news coming out of Mexico yesterday: the middle-income country has just approved a tax on junk food in response to an overwhelming majority of its population suffering from obesity. There is to be about 8 US cents of tax on a litre of soft drinks, and 8 percent sales tax on high-calorie foods. [New York Times]

At first glance, this looks like a welcome idea. Frequent intake of sugary and high calorie foods is extremely unhealthy, and a tax can ostensibly start weaning people off of them, even if in small steps. But once the idea is interrogated with a little more care, it starts falling apart.

Taxes can be deft instruments at influencing behaviour. In a country like India where we routinely ban things that we do not like, taxation can look like a surgical scalpel to the chainsaw that is a blanket ban. Wherever there is a strong economic motive or human desire behind a particular action, banning it only drives it underground. Sports gambling is illegal in India, but it happens any way, and without any regulation. Ditto with the supply and consumption of liquor in states like Gujarat, Mizoram and Nagaland – where alcohol is currently prohibited.

However, there is an inherent assumption of elasticity when taxes are used to influence behaviour. The assumption is that the demand for junk food or alcohol will reduce meaningfully with a modest increase in the cost of it. This assumption is very valid in many cases. The higher price with taxes can make alternatives more attractive. Unfortunately, the assumption fails quite spectacularly in known cases similar to junk food: tobacco and alcohol. Both of these are taxed quite heavily in most economies for precisely the opposite reason – not because people start consuming less of them, but because the demand remains steady and high. In the name of curbing ‘socially undesirable’ habits, states can pocket reliable sources of large revenues. To Mexico’s credit, its lawmakers admit that the tax on junk food was “necessary to reduce rising rates of obesity and diabetes, as well as to raise revenue.”

Note the use of the word modest earlier – overzealousness in taxing goods with inelastic demand like alcohol or junk food can have disastrous consequences. About 170 people died in West Bengal in late 2011 by drinking adulterated illicit liquor, as the excise duties on alcohol were between 30 and 49 percent in the state then. The very high taxes forced many to subvert the process and try to distill liquor at home, to disastrous consequences. For all we know, heavily taxing soft drinks and fatty foods at restaurants and supermarkets could drive people in Mexico to start deep-frying more food at home. Further, if frying oil were to be regulated (as a diligent authority keen on reducing obesity might) enterprising individuals could turn to dodgy substitutes again.

An alternate defence of taxes on undesirables is that the money received in taxes could be used to offset the effects of it. This makes sense in cases like asking polluters to pay, where the tax is almost a compensation that can be legitimately redistributed to those adversely affected. But in a case like junk food, what states usually end up doing is running ad campaigns trying to change people’s behaviour. There appears to be a poetic sense of justice to this – taking money from junk-food-eaters to tell others not to do so. Please permit this blogger to guffaw a little though, having watched decades’ worth of ineffective commercials and warnings regarding tobacco smoke or alcohol. As to taxing sugar making sugar-substitutes more attractive: I am yet to see a single person use artificial sweeteners who was sensitive to its price. What they are usually sensitive to is diabetes or obesity.

There is also nothing inherently moral about taxing something like junk food just to raise a lot of revenues for the state. The moral imperative with taxation is that the state extract as small a levy as it can from its citizens to perform its expected and unique functions. There is nothing moral about asking smokers, drinkers or junk-food-eaters to finance the profligacy of a state.

As humanity evolves, we find new challenges that we are biologically and socially ill-equipped to tackle. While food, calories and sugar have been extremely scarce for hundreds of thousands of years, they have become ubiquitous in the last century or two. It will require great feats of innovation and creative thinking, and not incremental taxation to address problems like obesity.

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Postscript. Taxation is closely linked to the idea of redistribution – which is the notion of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. This is often hailed as the hallmark of a compassionate, welfare-oriented society. But as The Acorn puts it, taxation for redistribution is theft: the act of taking from Preetam and giving to Palani. The grand conceit is that Preetam is necessarily richer and that Palani is necessarily more deserving, and progressive taxation on income usually gives us that impression. However, redistribution also happens from all the aforementioned taxes: from beer drinkers to non-drinkers, from cigarette-smokers to teetotallers, and now from the fat to the not-so-fat in Mexico. Similarly we also see redistribution from one state to another, from cities to villages, sector to sector and more. It is time we started acknowledging redistribution as theft and allowing it only where absolutely necessary.

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