Tag Archives | India

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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In Business Standard: Indian Cities, New and Improved

I write in Business Standard today on the 100 smart cities plan announced by Venkaiah Naidu and the lessons they must learn from JNNURM almost a decade of centrally-sponsored urban development schemes:

JNNURM had a tantalising premise when it was first launched: the Union government will give cities money for infrastructure as an incentive for states to devolve power to cities, and for these cities to reform. The Union government was a third party in the state-city equation, hoping to tip the scales in favour of cities and true decentralisation.

The promise of JNNURM was lost for two broad reasons. One, the ministry of urban development had to perform two conflicting functions: it had to spend money by disbursing it to states, but it also had to audit and verify the reforms process. The outlays were conditional on meeting reform targets. Though the ministry did a lot in checking whether cities had completed enough reforms, the spending mandate usually won through, and poor reformers were rarely punished. This made it a weak incentive for genuine urban reform. Some cities like New Delhi also received large infrastructure funds from sources such as the Commonwealth Games, making JNNURM irrelevant as an impetus for reform.

Two, the Union ministries demanded an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and control for the projects approved. For example, if a town in Karnataka wanted to finance a water supply project under JNNURM that improved the lives of its residents, often the project had to meet extremely trying norms such as 24/7 water supply or complete metering of connections, which were enforced by Union ministries and attached bodies. While these are desirable, the lack of state-level decision-making led to the projects losing local relevance, apart from being subjected to an excruciatingly long and difficult process of approval. If the intent of the Union government was to incentivise reform, then perhaps it should not have controlled the type of infrastructure projects beyond setting broad norms.
[Full Article: Building Blocks to Smart Indian Cities, June 3, 2014]

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Education and bilateral relations

A significant number of Indian students in the United States add great value to both countries, while flying under the radar of bilateral policymaking.

Migration is the foundation stone of India-US relations, if not the bedrock itself. Indian immigration into the United States of America has come a long way since Bhagat Singh Thind fought for citizenship in US courts about 90 years ago.

While the China-US economic relationship leans heavily on trade via the movement of goods, the India-US economic relationship is based more on the movement of people and services. Apart from a sizeable population of Indian origin in the US of about 2-3 million, Indian citizens also form the highest number of H-1B and L-1 visas, both dominated by technology and software professionals.

At Takshashila, we recently had an excellent talk on US immigration policy by Edward Alden, Senior Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. This blog post is limited to a few observations on immigrant Indians studying in the US on student visas.

A little over 23,000 Indians availed a US student visa in FY2012, less than 5 percent of the overall student visas issued in the country. This is down from FY2007 as the chart below shows, when Indian students availed more than 10 percent of all student visas issued. In contrast, Chinese students are being issued with visas at a rapidly increasing rate since 2007, and now hover close to 200,000 student visas a year.

US F1 Visas Total

This rapid increase in Chinese students studying in the US has received some policy response from the Americans, with the US government expressing a desire to bridge the gap between the number of Chinese studying in the US and the number of Americans studying in China. While there appears to be state support promoting Chinese students to study in the US, some reports have questioned whether they are getting sufficient returns on a US education. The increase in numbers likely stems from two factors: one, from rising incomes in China and two, from state support for foreign study. These numbers started going up before the global financial crisis and stayed high through out it.

Indian students in the US, while much smaller in number, arguably add greater value to the US economy per person. For one, Indians in the US are more likely to be studying at the masters or PhD level instead of an undergraduate education. This implies a higher threshold for selection, more number of years spent in the country, and a higher productivity and skill of the labour that comes after education.

Two, the number of F-1 student visas to Indians dipped slightly in FY2009, along with the overall number of F-1 visas issued. This was around the time of the financial crisis, a period when scholarships and university funding of masters and doctoral programmes started reducing in number, as well as the availability of jobs in the US started becoming uncertain. This implies a sensitivity of Indian students in the US to the American job market. This is in contrast to the increasing Chinese students who are likely to head back home immediately after education, at their rapid rate of increase.

Three, it is also likely that a higher proportion of Indian students are funded by US universities for their study, with the rupee-dollar exchange rate being unaffordable for most Indians. This could explain much of the drop in student visas between FY2008 and now.

US F1 Visas India China

The last decade in the US has seen a sharp rise in the number of Chinese students, a plateauing of South Korean and Indian students and a fall in the number Japanese students. The reasons for these changes can be multiple. Certain student cohorts are seen as revenue sources for US universities, certain others as high-skilled labour in research, tech and other sectors. The Indian student cohort, though small, punches above its weight. Binning luddite notions of ‘brain drains’, both US and India need to think about how they can enable the student cohort to do even better.

Immigration does not feature high on the agenda for strategic dialogue between India and the US, and student immigration even less so. It’s about time that people in Washington DC and New Delhi paid a little more attention to this as a policy issue much as it remains a social and cultural one.

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In Pragati: Spending for a Modern Armed Force

I write in Pragati–The Indian National Interest Review along with Rohan Joshi on the sorry state of defence modernisation in India:

As Ajai Shukla highlighted in February, only 4 percent of the 2013-14 capital budget is allocated for new acquisitions, down from 38 percent in 2010-11. The interim defence budget announced in February 2014 appears to do little to alleviate this systemic decline. Although a 10 percent increase in the defence budget was announced, there was only a paltry 3 percent increase in capital outlay, with revenue expenses garnering a large part of the increase. What little money will go towards defence modernisation from the overall capital outlay is as of yet unknown.

In the context of the budget, Mr Antony’s admission that there was no money left for the MMRCA deal in FY 2012-13 is surprising. Capital allocation for the IAF was increased in FY 2012-13 by 22 percent, conceivably in order to account for the first installment of Rs. 10,000 crore due to be paid to Dassault after the deal was to be signed in FY 2013.  If we are told that the IAF has spent all but 3 percent of its allocated capital acquisitions budget for FY 2013, where has the rest of the money gone?  The interim budget for FY 2014 has decreased the IAF’s capital allocation budget by about 15 percent (over FY 2013 beginning estimates) to Rs. 31,818 crore.  Worse, if the worrying trend of committed liabilities accounting for 95 percent of the capital acquisition budget lingers, this effectively means that the MMRCA deal cannot be concluded in FY 2014-15 either.
[Full Article: Spending for a modern armed force, March 14, 2014]


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Openness in Space – more bang for the buck

India can get more value out of its earth observation satellite programmes if ISRO embraces a culture of openness.

Praveen Bose in Business Standard reported yesterday that a second Indo-French climate observation satellite is being planned between ISRO and CNES (National Space Agency of France).

India and France jointly launched the satellite Megha-Tropiques in 2011 to study tropical weather and climate. Equipped to profile radiation, humidity, atmospheric water content and more, the satellite passes over a huge swathe of tropical atmosphere every day and uses four different sensors and sounders to collect data. With a planned life of five years, the two nations are now contemplating a second satellite that would serve as a replacement starting in about 2016. This replacement will be essential as a lot of value from climate data comes when it can be generated for longer periods that capture interannual and decadal climate variations.

Megha-Tropiques is neither the only nor the first such tropical climate monitoring satellite. NASA and JAXA’s (Japan’s space agency) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) has been running since 1997, and its replacement, the core Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) is set to be launched in February 2014. These are apart from a host of other Earth Observation satellites from around the world that tell us a lot about how complex earth systems work.

By all accounts, the sensory systems on Megha-Tropiques is of comparable quality and technology to NASA’s climate missions. But Megha-Tropiques takes a big hit in research impact because of the closed nature of the data it generates. While NASA has a high commitment to open access and open data, Indian satellite missions remain opaque and closed. For example, the TRMM website contains various rainfall-related datasets, products and visualisations that are open not just for principal investigators at NASA and partner organisations, but also open to any researcher in the world. Megha-Tropiques on the other hand has a website built by the French that provides a bunch of technical information and stops there.

Tropical climate science is a public good – where everyone is benefited by making the data and knowledge public. The good news is that the planned Indo-French satellite will contribute to the GPM network by complementing the data collected by NASA and JAXA’s core mission. Unlike the standalone Megha-Tropiques, the second climate mission is more integrated into a global effort. However, data sharing policies for the proposed satellite still looks opaque:

The data products are made available to the principle investigators of international announcement of opportunity for validation activities, according to ISRO. As the first of Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) constellation of eight satellites, Megha-Tropiques data would contribute to the global scientific community to study and understand the dynamics of climate system, ISRO added.
[Full Article – Business Standard, January 23, 2014]

While deigning to open up the data to select international researchers for validation, there is a lot of value lost because of the lack of a more public audience and use of the data. This is a standard feature of most national Indian research activities, from ISRO to the Indian Meteorological Department. Data access is restricted to a select few who have a monopoly or oligopoly over publishing research papers.

There are three broad reasons one can decipher for this lack of openness. First, government agencies have had a historical mandate of serving their parent department or ministry, and not the public. Some of this stems from colonial establishment of many government agencies, which were designed to serve a more extractive state under British rule.

Second, the lack of openness often stems from an insecurity of government-funded researchers. Many fear that they may not be able to complete globally if the information they had access to was made public. Government agencies do provide workarounds for other research institutions to access their data, but this if of a form and style that has huge search costs and transaction costs. Also, what ought to have been a public good ends up getting shared through a patronage network.

Third, there is a fear of commercial use and resale of the data. This is extremely shortsighted and is misguided about the idea of private profit. What matters with climate and other information is how it can be used to derive maximum societal benefit. This benefit can arise from both government use of that data (like with say the IMD) and with private use of the same, say in the form of weather channels using publicly generated data to send out public alerts. Private agencies should also be allowed to legitimately sell publicly produced data where they add sufficient value. While there may always be unscrupulous companies that repackage public data and try to con people into paying for it, the solution to this is more openness and not less.

ISRO has a chance at being a leader in overturning decades of government policy of keeping taxpayer-funded data open to only a select few. It has already made a beginning with projects like Bhuvan. The proposed new climate satellite can lead the way in a new approach to research and data sharing. It can even begin with simple things like making the byzantine MOSDAC data sharing website more user-friendly.

2013 was the year that ISRO realised the value of proactively engaging the Indian public, including using social media. With luck, 2014 can be the year that ISRO embraces openness and open access to data.

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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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Old tricks, New Year

The Indian ministry of defence continues to route capital allocations for revenue expenses.

Manu Pubby reports in the Indian Express earlier this week that the Indian ministry of defence may divert about Rs. 6,500 crore from the capital budget of the armed forces towards revenue expenses.

While the ministry has spent over 80 percent of the capital budget of Rs. 86,740 crore allotted this financial year for purchase of new equipment, it is seeing a shortfall in revenue expenditure from the estimated Rs. 1.2 lakh crore.

Sources say that the shortfall is mainly due to unexpected rise in fuel costs that led to rationalisation of equipment usage and exercises this year. As the armed forces are one of the largest consumers of fossil fuel, the hike in global prices coupled with exchange rate variation resulted in a huge hike in government expenditure. Also, the government announced new measures this financial year for increased pensions that put an additional burden on expenditure.

[Full article: Budget hike turned down, MoD to juggle capital funds, Indian Express, January 12, 2014]

On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense – the fall of the rupee a few months ago hurt both the public and private sectors in India significantly and coupled with the global fuel prices it served as a shock that the country is recovering from.

However, this is not the first year that revenue expenses have eaten into the defence modernisation (capital) budget. As I’d written in Pragati last September, this has been routinely happening, especially in the army budget.


Full Infographic: Understanding India’s Defence Spending

The defence ministry should not be having recurring difficulty in accurately estimating its revenue expenses for the year, especially salaries, pensions and fuel. Also, the demand for grants that most ministries submit to the finance ministry are usually 5-10 percent higher than allocations they end up receiving for the budget. The army’s low capital-to-revenue cannot further be weakened every year. And going for perilously expensive ventures like the proposed mountain strike corps which can worsen the situation.

With the defence of the realm at stake, we need better defence planning that is more robust in estimating spending.

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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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In Pragati: infographic on foreign aid out of India

My second infographic in Pragati this week was on foreign aid going out of India:

4 foreign aid

What makes aid from India different from western aid is that India prefers not to include conditionality clauses such as democracy and good governance, respecting the partner country’s sovereignty. Staying consistent with the Gujral doctrine, the government of India likes to avoid terms like foreign aid or development assistance, both of which are common in the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development’s parlance. India prefers to refer to aid as development cooperation or development partnership, and this flows down to the ethos with which grants are given.

Few are asking questions of the effectiveness of Indian aid – both in achieving development goals in partner countries and in generating benefits for India. It remains largely unknown, beyond anecdotal evidence. As the Indian taxpayer starts paying more, the DPA like USAID in the United States and DfID in the United Kingdom will be expected to provide greater accountability. The creation of DPA also provides an opportunity for the MEA to work with India’s private for-profit and not-for-profit sectors that have amassed expertise in a range of developmental issues.

The Indian government’s increased commitment to foreign aid over the past two years is a welcome change, but one that may be hostage to fiscal crises and change of leadership. How well foreign aid can be used to extend Indian interests abroad will depend entirely on how well we choose to administer and deploy it out of India. [Full article: Infographic: Foreign aid going out of India, December 20, 2013.]

The data story is a part of my ongoing research on aid flows out of India, some of which should be out in January 2014.

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In Business Standard: Running the space marathon

I write in Business Standard this week on how we must not put too much stock into the 450 crore rupee price tag on the Mars mission and spend what it takes to have a successful space programme:

A reading of ISRO’s 2013-14 outcome budget tells us why it is inaccurate to repeat the official line that the organisation spent only Rs 450 crore on the Mars mission. ISRO’s budget for the current fiscal year is a little more than Rs 6,700 crore, which is spent under 69 expenditure heads – of which Mars is just one.

Apart from these heads, the department of space also funds five autonomous institutions.

There are 11 other heads of expenditure under which activities have been carried out either in the current fiscal year or in 2012-13 towards the Mars mission. This includes efforts by ISRO’s Inertial Systems Unit, which helped the mission develop navigation capabilities; the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, which worked on fuelling the mission; and ISTRAC (ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network), which is planning and tracking the vehicle’s movement through space.

There are also three direction and administration expense heads, which include the space secretariat, public relations and that of the top administration of ISRO, most of whose efforts over the last few months have been on the Mars mission.
[Full article: Running the space marathon, December 15, 2013]

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