Tag Archives | Pragati

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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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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In Pragati: infographic on foreign aid out of India

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

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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 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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No food security without sanitation

Debate has been raging on the Food Security Bill in India for quite a while now, at least in the English press and online commentary. Until recently, the role of sanitation in malnutrition (and by extension, in food security) was largely missing from the public discourse. This prompted me to write an article in Pragati back in May:

While the National Food Security Bill proponents have been looking at nutrition as a ‘gross’ problem which requires more input in the form of cheaper food, the reality is that it is largely a ‘net’ problem. Far too much nutrition is lost to recurring diarrhoea, dysentery, persistent worm infestations and chronic environmental enteropathy linked to open defecation and a lack of sanitation. People in 69 percent of rural Indian households continue to defecate in the open. While most of the urban population uses toilets, little human waste gets collected and treated properly.

It is ludicrous that sanitation has not been made a priority in development policies addressing malnutrition. While the official government of India position has always been that malnutrition is ‘complex, multidimensional and inter-generational’, the interventions have largely been about targeted and non-targeted nutritional interventions, subsidized healthcare, and with token mention of clean drinking water supply and sanitation. This is like giving dysentery patients subsidized food and medicine, and asking them to eat more, and stopping the medical advice there. In the absence of focus on sanitation, what we have is taxpayer-funded diarrhea and little else. [Think Sanitation, Not Food Security | Pragati – May 2013 PDF]

It has been encouraging to see that the popular discourse has changed significantly in the last month, with sanitation and clean water getting  due recognition for their role in nutrition and food security. Several excellent articles have been written on the subject in that time.

Business Standard published an editorial early in June, questioning the assumptions behind the food security bill and arguing against rushing it through, while citing a lack of sanitation as one of several important reasons behind malnutrition.

Arvind Virmani wrote in the Times of India on how we need a ‘hunger elimitation’ act coupled with a strong policy focus on clean water, sanitation and communication about good nutrition instead of a gargantuan food security bill. Dr. Virmani, a former advisor to the Planning Commission and a Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, has written extensively on the topic even in the past as well.

Adi Narayan wrote a well-researched piece in Bloomberg on how extra food means nothing to stunted kids with bad water.

Robert Chambers (most famous for his development of Participatory Rural Appraisals) co-authored an article with Gregor von Medeazza in the Economic & Political Weekly on sanitation and stunting in India, on the link between sanitation and undernutrition in the country.

And most recently, Sadanand Dhume also critiqued the ‘hunger games’ in India, calling instead for a fix of the woeful public sanitation in the country.

Much of the credit for this goes to some excellent research done by Dean Spears, currently heading a start-up RICE Institute in Uttar Pradesh. While there is a whole body of research on sanitation and health, Spears catalysed the field with original analyses of large, disparate datasets.

All said, it is unlikely that anything will stop the current government from their pursuit of this ill-considered bill. One can but hope that in the long run, sanitation occupies a larger portion of the public mindspace when it comes to matters of nutrition, health and food security.

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In Pragati: From Open Data to a Culture of Openness

This week, I write in Pragati, the Indian National Interest Review about thinking beyond open data and creating a culture of openness in India:

Building sound public policies requires robust information systems and data. The state has the primary onus on provisioning for the public good that is knowledge – and traditionally the working of the Indian state involved secrecy as a core principle. The state enjoyed a monopoly on generation and access to large parts of knowledge and data relevant to public affairs, with its citizens often kept in the dark. Thanks to almost two decades of campaigns in the country, this paradigm has been overturned significantly.

When it comes to knowledge, information and data – the form of opening up determines how usable it is. Since the passing of the Right to Information Act into law, the focus of many advocacy efforts has shifted to usability and ease of access to government information and data. Release of information suo moto decreases the time cost of accessing information, and when it comes to data it is quite obvious that whether it is shared as a photocopy, PDF or an excel file makes a world of difference. Unfettered open access to data and information generated through taxpayer funds may remain a distant goal, but there are constant signs of progress. The Census of India is an exemplar of openness and friendliness as a data provider, and the Government Data Portal: data.gov.in was launched just last year is being populated with more datasets every month.

Increasing openness of official information is but one leg of improving the ‘public good’ quality of knowledge. Along with openness, the contestability of information has also increased in India over the last two decades. As Pratab Bhanu Mehta mentions, when official pollution numbers are not trusted, you have private organisations like the Centre for Science and Environment to monitor the pollution on their own and provide independent evidence.

Research institutions, not-for-profit organisations and the media are playing a larger role in generating data that is relevant to public affairs. Many private players routinely engage in data collection exercises, and conduct large surveys for research and to answer specific questions. Not only is this being done on a local scale, but nationally as well. Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre conducted a national analysis of public services in India about a decade ago, and the ASER Centre provides state and district level information on children’s learning levels and education across the country, year after year. These are but two examples out of many.

While citizens of India are demanding more openness from their government and private entities are playing a greater role in contributing to public knowledge, openness as a culture has been far slower off the mark. Barring exceptions, research and not-for-profit organisations are far from open with their data in India today.

Data is collected with great care, cost and effort and is often used with great effect – but rarely more than once or twice. The original researchers often do not have the inclination, incentives or the luxury of going beyond their original mandates in analysis. Just like government data is underutilised if it only remains in an official report, the utility of privately generated data may far exceed this limited use.

Data and information are also network goods. Data sets can complement each other and together they can yield  richer knowledge than they would on their own. A lack of public sharing of data sets and a culture that does not expect that of its knowledge creators prevents this from happening.

None of this is to say that individuals are not generous with what data is at their disposal. While rent-seeking remains a problem, many researchers and organisations are happy to oblige requests for data. However, this remains sub-optimal as personally investigating and enquiring after data results in very high costs for searching – if not monetary, then certainly in time and effort spent. The only way to change this is if more people adopt online, open disclosure of data.

While an open culture around data is desirable, it takes several complementary actions to get there. Access to private data, whether it is generated by a business or by an NGO, cannot be treated as a rights issue. Individual freedom and private property need to be respected while creating enabling incentives and encouraging voluntary efforts to open up information.

As research and data get exposed, the first problem that arises is that faults and errors become evident and can cause people to beat a quick retreat. What needs to be kept in mind is that pioneers who open their data sets before others can reap a large signaling dividend. Modest research with openness could have a higher impact than a superior quality study that remains closed. If sustained, open data researchers can build a reputation that is several notches above those who keep their data closed.

The second problem is that open disclosure results in a loss of control – where unknown anonymous users could use it without giving proper credit and for radically different ends. While this can indeed happen, the public benefit from open disclosure and the credit for it remains higher than such losses.

The third problem that can arise is that as the culture of sharing is weak and data science is still nascent in India, the benefits of opening up data sets may take a lot of time to yield impressive results. What is also needed is a kick starter – perhaps in the form of scholarships for students and researchers to use high quality datasets and publish new results.

Donors and foundations funding research and analysis also have an important role to play here – by committing to openness and providing platforms that enable sharing, they can change the work cultures in organisations that they fund. Official mandates to that effect government-funded research would work the same way. In India there is ample precedent for comfort: agencies such as the World Bank and others have embraced open data, it is for others to keep up.

If India is to transition to a true knowledge economy, open access, availability and contestability of public knowledge is paramount. A narrow campaign to liberate government data will have far less of a lasting impact than a broader attempt at creating a culture of openness and sharing around information and data. It is time we started on the latter.

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