Grexit: Why Amartya Sen and Thomas Piketty are right about Germany

thomas piketty
The French economist Thomas Piketty whose bestselling book Capital in the Twenty First Century was published last year, in an interview to the German newspaper Die Zeit recently said: “What struck me while I was writing is that Germany is really the single best example of a country that, throughout its history, has never repaid its external debt. Neither after the First nor the Second World War.”

In the recent past, Germany has been insistent that Greece repay the money that it owes to the economic troika of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. As Piketty remarked: “When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: what a huge joke! Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.”

In order to understand what Piketty meant we will have to go back nearly 100 years. At the end of the First World War in 1918, Germany had to compensate the victorious Allies (read Britain, France, and America primarily) for the losses it had inflicted on them.

At the reparations commission, the British delegation wanted Germany to pay $55 billion as compensation to the Allies. This was a huge number, given that the German gross domestic product (GDP) at that point of time stood at around $12 billion.

The Americans were fine with anything in the range of $10 to $12 billion and did not want anything more than $24 billion. The French did not put out a number of what they were expecting but they wanted a large reparation from Germany.

This was primarily because when the French had been in a similar situation in 1870 they had paid up Germany. After France had lost the Franco-Prussian War, Germany had asked France to pay 5 billion francs to make good the losses that it had faced during the course of the war. The French had rallied together and paid this money in a period of just two years.

Given this historical back­ground, they saw no reason why Germany should not be made to pay for the losses that France had suffered. The French assumed that like they had paid the Germans 50 years back, the Germans would also pay up. As Piketty put it in the interview: “However, it has frequently made other nations pay up, such as after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when it demanded massive reparations from France and indeed received them.”
In May 1919, it was decided that Germany would pay the Allies an initial amount of $5 billion by May 1, 1921. The final reparation amount to be paid would be decided by a new Reparations Com­mission.

Finally, the total reparations amount that Germany would have to pay the allies was set at $12.5 billion, which was equal to the pre-war GDP of Germany. To repay this amount, Germany would have had to pay around $600–$800 million every year.

Germany was in a bad state financially and at the end of the war had a budget deficit that ran into 11,300 million marks (the German currency at that point of time). As the government did not earn enough revenue to meet its expenditure due to the high-reparation payments, it started to print money to finance pretty much everything else.

This finally led to the German hyperinflation of 1923. Inflation in Germany at its peak touched a 1,000 million per­cent. Interestingly, one view prevalent among economic histori­ans is that Germany engineered this hyperinflation to ensure that it did not have to pay the reparation amounts. The hope was that, with inflation at such high levels, the Allied countries would deal with Germany sympathetically when it came to deciding on repa­ration payments. And this is precisely what happened.

By the time the hyperinflation came to an end, the economy was in such a big mess that the repa­ration payments had slowed down to a trickle. And it so turned out that over the next few years more was paid to Germany in the form of various loans than it paid the Allies in reparations. After this, Germany regularly continued to default on the pay­ments and finally when Hitler came to power in 1933, he stopped these payments totally.
As mentioned earlier, after the hyperinflation of 1923, money had started to pour in from other nations into Germany. A substantial part of the preparation for the Second World War was financed through this money.

The Second World War started in 1939 and ended in 1945. Given the fact that Hitler had used foreign money to get the Second World War started, the directive at the end of the Second World was that nothing should be done to restore the German economy above the minimum lev­el required to ensure that there was no disease or unrest, which might endanger the lives of the occupying forces.

Eventually, the realization set in that an economic recovery in Europe was not possible without an economic recovery in Germany, the largest economy in Europe. The American Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, after having returned from Moscow in April 1947, was convinced that Europe was in a bad shape and needed help. This eventually led to the Marshall Plan. From 1948 to 1954, the United States gave $17 billion to 16 countries in Western Europe, including Germany, as a part of the Marshall Plan.

So what does all this history tell us? One is that Germany did not repay the debt that it owed to the Allied nations and hence, as Piketty said: “Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.”
But there is a bigger lesson here—that demanding austerity from Greece in order to be able to repay the debt isn’t exactly the answer. The German experience after the First World War precisely proves that.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, writes about the German experience after the First World War, in a recent column. As he writes: “Germany had lost the battle already, and the treaty was about what the defeated enemy would be required to do, including what it should have to pay to the victors. The terms…as Keynes saw it…included the imposition of an unrealistically huge burden of reparation on Germany – a task that Germany could not carry out without ruining its economy.”

And this is precisely what has happened in Greece over the last few years. The country now owes close to 240 billion euros to the economic troika. The austerity measures have had a highly negative impact on the Greek economy. As Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote: “Of course, the economics behind the programme that the “troika” foisted on Greece five years ago has been abysmal resulting in a 25% decline in the country’s GDP. I can think of no depression, ever, that has been so deliberate and had such catastrophic consequences: Greece’s rate of youth unemployment, for example, now exceeds 60%.”
This has essentially led to a situation where the total amount of debt with respect to the Greek gross domestic product (GDP) went up instead of going down. Currently the total debt to GDP ratio of Greece stands at a whopping 175%. And this number is likely to go up further in the days to come. In comparison the number was at 129% in 2009.

The only way Greece can perhaps be able to repay some of its external debt is if economic growth comes back. And that is not going to happen through more austerity. As Sen puts it: “Keynes ushered in the basic understanding that demand is important as a determinant of economic activity, and that expanding rather than cutting public expenditure may do a much better job of expanding employment and activity in an economy with unused capacity and idle labour. Austerity could do little, since a reduction of public expenditure adds to the inadequacy of private incomes and market demands, thereby tending to put even more people out of work.”

As economic history has shown more than once, whenever people in decision making positions forget what Keynes said, the world usually ends up in a bigger mess.

The article originally appeared on Firstpost on July 7, 2015

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Food Security – The biggest mistake India might have made till date

250px-Gandhisonia05052007Vivek Kaul 
Historians often ask counterfactual questions to figure out how history could have evolved differently. Ramachandra Guha asks and answers one such question in an essay titled A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri, which is a part of the book Patriots and Partisans.
In this essay Guha briefly discusses what would have happened if Lal Bahadur Shastri, the second prime minister of India, had lived a little longer. Shastri died on January 11, 1966, after serving as the prime minister for a little over 19 months.
The political future of India would have evolved very differently had Shashtri lived longer, feels Guha. As he writes “Had Shastri lived, Indira Gandhi may or may not have migrated to London. But even had she stayed in India, it is highly unlikely that she would have become prime minister. And it is certain that her son would have never have occupied or aspired to that office…Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi would almost certainly still be alive, and in private life. The former would be a (failed) entrepreneur, the latter a recently retired airline pilot with a passion for photography. Finally, had Shastri lived longer, Sonia Gandhi would still be a devoted and loving housewife, and Rahul Gandhi perhaps a middle-level manager in a private sector company.”
But that as we know was not to be. Last night, the Lok Sabha, worked overtime to pass Sonia Gandhi’s passion project, the Food Security Bill. India as a nation has made big mistakes on the economic and the financial front in the nearly 66 years that it has been independent, but the passage of the Food Security Bill, might turn out to be our biggest mistake till date.
The Food Security Bill guarantees 5 kg of rice, wheat and coarse cereals per month per individual at a fixed price of Rs 3, 2, 1, respectively, to nearly 67% of the population.
The government estimates suggest that food security will cost Rs 1,24,723 crore per year. But that is just one estimate.
 Andy Mukherjee, a columnist with Reuters, puts the cost at around $25 billion. The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices(CACP) of the Ministry of Agriculture in a research paper titled National Food Security Bill – Challenges and Optionsputs the cost of the food security scheme over a three year period at Rs 6,82,163 crore. During the first year the cost to the government has been estimated at Rs 2,41,263 crore.
Economist Surjit Bhalla in a column in The Indian Express put the cost of the bill at Rs 3,14,000 crore or around 3% of the gross domestic product (GDP). Ashok Kotwal, Milind Murugkar and Bharat Ramaswamichallenge Bhalla’s calculation in a column in The Financial Express and write “the food subsidy bill should…come to around 1.35% of GDP, which is still way less than the numbers he(i.e. Bhalla) put out.”
The trouble here is that by expressing the cost of food security in terms of percentage of GDP, we do not understand the seriousness of the situation that we are getting into. In order to properly understand the situation we need to express the cost of food security as a percentage of the total receipts(less borrowings) of the government. The receipts of the government for the year 2013-2014 are projected at Rs 11,22,799 crore.
The government’s estimated cost of food security comes at 11.10%(Rs 1,24,723 expressed as a % of Rs 11,22,799 crore) of the total receipts. The CACP’s estimated cost of food security comes at 21.5%(Rs 2,41,623 crore expressed as a % of Rs 11,22,799 crore) of the total receipts. Bhalla’s cost of food security comes at around 28% of the total receipts (Rs 3,14,000 crore expressed as a % of Rs 11,22,799 crore).
Once we express the cost of food security as a percentage of the total estimated receipts of the government, during the current financial year, we see how huge the cost of food security really is. This is something that doesn’t come out when the cost of food security is expressed as a percentage of GDP. In this case the estimated cost is in the range of 1-3% of GDP. But the government does not have the entire GDP to spend. It can only spend what it earns.
The interesting thing is that the cost of food security expressed as a percentage of total receipts of the government is likely to be even higher. This is primarily because the government’s collection of taxes has been slower than expected this year. The Controller General of Accounts 
has put out numbers to show precisely this. For the first three months of the financial year (i.e. the period between April 1, 2013 and June 30, 2013) only 11.1% of the total expected revenue receipts (the total tax and non tax revenue) for the year have been collected. When it comes to capital receipts(which does not include government borrowings) only 3.3% of the total expected amount for the year have been collected.
What this means is that the government during the first three months of the financial year has not been able to collect as much money as it had expected to. This means that the cost of food security will form a higher proportion of the total government receipts than the numbers currently tell us. And that is just one problem.
It is also worth remembering that the government estimate of the cost of food security at Rs 1,24,723 crore is very optimistic. The CACP points out that this estimate does not take into account “additional expenditure (that) is needed for the envisaged administrative set up, scaling up of operations, enhancement of production, investments for storage, movement, processing and market infrastructure etc.”
Food security will also mean a higher expenditure for the government in the days to come. A higher expenditure will mean a higher fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is defined as the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
The question is how will this higher expenditure be financed? Given that the economy is in a breakdown mode, higher taxes are not the answer. The government will have to finance food security through higher borrowing.
Higher government borrowing by the government as this writer has often explained in the past crowds out private borrowing. The private sector (be it banks or companies) in order to compete with the government for savings will have to offer higher interest rates. This means that the era of high interest rates will continue, which will not be good for economic growth.
Also, it is important to remember that the food security scheme is an open ended scheme. 
As Nitin Pai, Director of The Takshashila Institution, writes in a column “The scheme is open-ended: there’s no expiry date, no sunset clause. It covers around two-thirds of the population—even those who are not really needy. This means that the outlays will have to increase as the population grows.”
This might also lead to the government printing money to finance the scheme. It was and remains easy for the government to obtain money by printing it rather than taxing its citizens. F P Powers aptly put it when he said that money printing would always be “the first device thought of by a finance minister when a large quantity of money has to be raised at once”. History is full of such examples.
Money printing will lead to higher inflation. Prices will rise due to other reasons as well. Every year, the government declares a minimum support price (MSP) on rice and wheat. At this price, it buys grains from farmers. This grain is then distributed to those entitled to it under the various programmes of the government.
The grain to be distributed under the food security programme will also be procured in a similar way. But this may have other unintended consequences which the government is not taking into account. As the CACP points out “Assured procurement gives an incentive for farmers to produce cereals rather than diversify the production-basket…Vegetable production too may be affected – pushing food inflation further.”
And this will hit the very people food security is expected to benefit. A
 discussion paper titled Taming Food Inflation in India released by CACP in April 2013 points out the same. “Food inflation in India has been a major challenge to policy makers, more so during recent years when it has averaged 10% during 2008-09 to December 2012. Given that an average household in India still spends almost half of its expenditure on food, and poor around 60 percent (NSSO, 2011), and that poor cannot easily hedge against inflation, high food inflation inflicts a strong ‘hidden tax’ on the poor…In the last five years, post 2008, food inflation contributed to over 41% to the overall inflation in the country.”
Higher food prices will mean higher inflation and this in turn will mean lower savings, as people will end up spending a higher proportion of their income to meet their expenses. This will lead to people spending a lower amount of money on consuming good and services and thus economic growth will slowdown further. It might not be surprising to see economic growth go below the 5% level.
Lower savings will also have an impact on the current account deficit. As 
Atish Ghosh and Uma Ramakrishnan point out in an article on the IMF website “The current account can also be expressed as the difference between national (both public and private) savings and investment. A current account deficit may therefore reflect a low level of national savings relative to investment.” If India does not save enough, it means it will have to borrow capital from abroad. And when these foreign borrowings need to be repaid, dollars will need to be bought. This will put pressure on the rupee and lead to its depreciation against the dollar.
There is another factor that can put pressure on the rupee. In a particular year when the government is not able to procure enough rice or wheat to fulfil its obligations under right to food security, it will have to import these grains. But that is easier said than done, specially in case of rice. “Rice is a very thinly traded commodity, with only about 7 per cent of world production being traded and five countries cornering three-fourths of the rice exports. The thinness and concentration of world rice markets imply that changes in production or consumption in major rice-trading countries have an amplified effect on world prices,” a CACP research paper points out. And buying rice or wheat internationally will mean paying in dollars. This will lead to increased demand for dollars and pressure on the rupee.
The weakest point of the right to food security is that it will use the extremely “leaky” public distribution system to distribute food grains. As Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya write in 
India’s Tryst With Destiny – Debunking Myths That Undermine Progress and Addressing New Challenges “A recent study by Jha and Ramaswami estimates that in 2004-05, 70 per cent of the poor received no grain through the pubic distribution system while 70 per cent of those who did receive it were non-poor. They also estimate that as much as 55 per cent of the grain supplied through the public distribution system leaked out along the distribution chain, with only 45 per cent actually sold to beneficiaries through fair-price shops. The share of food subsidy received by the poor turned out to be astonishingly low 10.5 per cent.”
Estimates made by CACP suggest that the public distribution system has a leakage of 40.4%. “In 2009-10, 25.3 million tonnes was received by the people under PDS while the offtake by states was 42.4 million tonnes- indicating a leakage of 40.4 percent,” a CACP research paper points out.
Bhagwati and Panagariya also point out that with the subsidy on rice being the highest, the demand for rice will be the highest and the government distribution system will fail to procure enough rice. As they write “recognising that the absolute subsidy per kilogram is the largest in rice, the eligible households would stand to maximize the implicit transfer to them by buying rice and no other grain from the public distribution system. By reselling rice in the private market, they would be able to convert this maximized in-kind subsidy into cash…Of course, with all eligible households buying rice for their entire permitted quotas, the government distribution system will simply fail to procure enough rice.”
jhollawallas’ big plan for financing the food security scheme comes from the revenue foregone number put out by the Finance Ministry. This is essentially tax that could have been collected but was foregone due to various exemptions and incentives. The Finance Ministry put this number at Rs 480,000 crore for 2010-2011 and Rs 530,000 crore for 2011-2012. Now only if these taxes could be collected food security could be easily financed the jhollawallas feel.
But this number is a huge overestimation given that a lot of revenue foregone is difficult to capture. As Amartya Sen, the big inspiration for the 
jhollawallasput it in a column in The Hindu in January 2012 “This is, of course, a big overestimation of revenue that can be actually obtained (or saved), since many of the revenues allegedly forgone would be difficult to capture — and so I am not accepting that rosy evaluation.”
Also, it is worth remembering something that 
finance minister P Chidambaram pointed out in his budget speech. “There are 42,800 persons – let me repeat, only 42,800 persons – who admitted to a taxable income exceeding Rs 1 crore per year,” Chidambaram said.
So Indians do not like to pay tax. And just because a tax is implemented does not mean that they will pay up. This is an after effect of marginal income tax rates touching a high of 97% during the rule of Indira Gandhi. A huge amount of the economy has since moved to black, where transactions happen but are never recorded.To conclude, the basic point is that food security will turn out to be a fairly expensive proposition for India. But then Sonia Gandhi believes in it and so do other parties which have voted for it.
With this Congress has firmly gone back to the 
garibi hatao politics of Indira Gandhi. And that is not surprising given the huge influence Indira Gandhi has had on Sonia.
As Tavleen Singh puts it in 
Durbar “When she (i.e. Sonia) refused to become Congress president on the night Rajiv died, it was probably because she knew that if she took the job, she would be quickly exposed. In her year of semi-retirement she learned to speak Hindi well enough to read out a speech written in Roman script, and studied carefully the politics of her mother-in-law. There were rumours that she watched videos of the late prime minister Indira Gandhi so she could learn to imitate her mannerisms.”
Other than imitating the mannerisms of Indira Gandhi, Sonia has also ended up imitating her politics and her economics. Now only if Lal Bahadur Shastri had lived a few years more…
The article originally appeared on on August 27, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Why Amartya Sen is right about India's education system

Vivek Kaul 
It has become fashionable these days to criticise Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen. This writer has also been guilty of doing the same on at least one occasion. But there is nothing wrong with the points that Sen makes on the Indian education system and its weaknesses, in his new book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, which he has co-authored with his long time collaborator Jean Drèze.
Several surveys conducted over the years have clearly shown the low level of learning among a wide number of students that prevails across the length and breadth of India. Drèze and Sen cite a few such surveys in their book. The ASER Survey 2011, which was an all India representative survey of school children in rural areas found that only 58% of children enrolled in classes 3 to 5 could read Class – I text. Less than half (47%) were able to do simple two digit subtraction. And only half of the children in classes 5 to 8 could use a calendar. These were not difficult tasks by any stretch of imagination.
Several such surveys with dismal levels of learning among children in rural areas keep coming out. But surprisingly even urban areas don’t seem to be doing any better.
The WIPRO-EI Quality Education Study 2011, surveyed more than 20,000 students in 83 ‘top schools’ in five metro cities (Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai). And the results were surprising. “For example, only third of these ‘top school’ students in Class 4 knew who was the alive person in a list of four: Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi ( a small number thought, interestingly enough, that it was Mahatma Gandhi who was still alive). About two-thirds of the students in Class 4 could not master the measurement of the length of the pencil with a ruler,” write Drèze and Sen.
When compared to other countries, India comes in right at the bottom. In the PISA Plus survey conducted in 2009, the Indian performance in a list of 74 countries or economies that were a part of the survey was very bad. “And this is the case even though the two Indian states that participated in PISA Plus happened to be two of the better-schooled states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. In a comparison of overall reading ability of 15-year-old students in these 74 countries or economies, both Indian states figure among the bottom three (in company of Kyrgyzstan),” write the authors.
The bureaucrats and politicians like to point to the fact that India has more schools now than ever before. 
The 8th All India Education Survey which was released earlier this year found that the number of schools in the country increased by 27% between 2002 and 2009. Shashi Tharoor, minister of state of Human Resource Development writes in a column in The Indian Express today “Take education, the subject of my own ministry. Literacy rates have risen to 74 per cent; more than 75,000 schools were opened and nearly a million teachers appointed in just the last three years.”
But Tharoor doesn’t tell us anything about the learning process. Opening, more schools doesn’t really mean anything on its own. Despite this increase in the number of schools there seems to be a lot that is wrong with the way things are being taught in Indian schools. One reason often offered for the poor state of India’s education system is that the teachers are not paid enough and hence they lack the motivation to teach properly.
Drèze and Sen prove this to be wrong. “Consider primary-school teacher salaries as a ratio of per capita GDP. In 2001 this ratio of teacher salary to the GDP per head was estimated to be around one in China, somewhere between one and two in most OECD countries, and a little higher in developing countries, but not higher than three for any of the countries (except India) for which data is available. More recent data suggest similar ratios of teacher salaries to GDP in 2005 and 2009. For instance, the OECD average hovered around 1.2 between 2002 and 2009. In India, however, it seems that the corresponding ratio was already around three before the Sixth Pay Commission scales came into effect (in 2009, with retrospective effect from 2006), and shot to around 5 or 6 after that,” write the authors.
What it means that Indian teachers get paid five to six times the amount of money that an average Indian makes. In fact the ratio is higher in a few states when we compare the average teacher salary in that state with the average income in that state. In Uttar Pradesh, the ratio is at 15.4. In Bihar, it is even higher at 17.5. For the nine major states of India the ratio in 2012, stood at 4.9. This leads Drèze and Sen to conclude that “whatever may be the source of the problem of low teaching efficiency, the blame cannot be placed on any alleged lowness of salary of school teachers.”
These high salaries have forced state governments to stop recruiting regular teachers and move onto contract teachers. As Drèze and Sen point out “Faced with the cost of escalation involved in these salary hikes, many states have stopped recruiting regular teachers and have increasingly come to rely on hiring ‘contract teachers’ to do the teaching. The salaries of contract teachers are typically a fraction (as low as one fifth or so, in many cases) of what the regular teachers earn.”
A large proportion of these teachers are untrained or are trained through what the authors call en masse correspondence courses.
In fact the irony is that the contract teachers despite their lack of training do no worse than regular teachers when it comes to teaching. This has led to a dualistic system where trained permanent teachers work side by side with teachers on contract who have been hired at a fraction of the former’s salary. A good system would have been something in between. As Drèze and Sen write “It would have been nice to see some sort of a middle path emerging from this dualism: new terms and conditions for the teaching profession, with decent salaries, good qualifications and some security of employment, but not unconditional, permanent plum jobs that undermine work incentives and ruin the integrity of the profession.” The system as it has evolved is neither here nor there. A good education system cannot be built on the back of teachers whose contracts are always running out.
The Right to Education Act which came into force as on April 1, 2010, prescribes a pupil teacher ratio of not more than 30:1. This has become very difficult for state governments to fulfil given that following the Sixth Pay Commission pay scales is a very expensive proposition for a large number of states. “On the other hand, meeting them (i.e. the conditions under Right to Education) by hiring untrained contract teachers would become, strictly speaking, illegal,” write the authors.
Also, the bigger trouble is that the Right to Education allows automatic promotion from one class to the next. Board examinations are not allowed till Class 8. Imagine the consequences of a student who is not picking up things in a certain class being promoted to the next class. As Drèze and Sen put it “If a large proportion of children learn virtually nothing for years on end in a particular school, it is important to know it,well before they are sent for slaughter in the Board Examination (if indeed they reach the end of Class 8 without dropping out).”
Economist Abhijit Banerjee, who is also the co-author of Poor Economics, explained this scenario 
very well while speaking at a literature festival in Mumbai late last year. He said “Think of all the class IV children who cant read. They are learning social studies and all kinds of other wonderful things except they can’t read. They are learning nothing. They are sitting in a class watching some movie in some foreign language without subtitles…The dropout rates are high. And I am always shocked that why does anybody comes to school at all? You are sitting there in class and you can’t read, you can’t write, why are you even there? What is going on?” Now imagine what will happen to students who will keep getting promoted without any exams.
The only people who gain through no exams are the teachers, especially in a system where learning is so low and there is very little supervision of what is really going on. As Banerjee put it “
The public education education is a system for the teachers, by the teachers and in the interest of the teachers. This is a system which essentially does not want any metric of performance. The excuse they give is that we don’t want children to be tested because children feel bad if they don’t do well. Its true that children feel bad if you tell them in public that they have done badly. But there is no reason that testing means public declaration of results. In Massachusetts(in the United States) where I live, test scores are only revealed at the grade level. So, for example, all fourth graders may have done badly at some school, but I don’t have to know if someone did well or badly.”
The Right to Education is thus creating more problems. The trouble is that like all such big Acts which try to address everything, it has ended up addressing nothing. The basic thing that any Act on education should be addressing is the lack of learning among students in schools. But that is clearly not happening.
Small experiments have been carried out around this problem. And they seem to suggest that addressing the lack of learning is neither very difficult nor very expensive. As Banerjee put it late last year “
We did one experiment in Bihar which was with government school teachers. This was in summer around two years ago. The teachers were asked that instead of teaching like you usually teach, your job for the next six weeks is to get the children to learn some basic skills. If they can’t read, teach them to read. If they can’t do math, teach them to do math. At the end of six weeks, these teachers were given a small stipend. They had also been given a couple of days of training. At the end of six weeks, the children had closed half the gap between the best performing children and the worst performing children. They had really improved enormously.”
What changed suddenly? W
hy did the government school teachers do so much better? “The reason was they were asked to do a job that actually made sense. They were asked to teach the children what they don’t know. The usual jobs teachers are asked to do is teach the syllabus – which is very different. Under the Right to Education Act, every year you are supposed to cover the syllabus,” said Banerjee.
The solution to the problem is very simple. For the first few years of school the children need to be taught the basics like being able to read, write and do simple Math. Such a system is likely to lead to better results. As Banerjee put it “One thing that we forget is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We are trying to have an education system that is perfect and that every child should come out with wisdom at the end of it and as a result they learn nothing.” 

The trouble is that small simple solutions do not seem to have enough vote grabbing potential.
The article originally appeared on on July 23, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Five questions govt needs to answer on food security

 sonia-maino-la-fidanzata-italiana-di-rajiv-gandhi-29-gennaio-1968-ap2Vivek Kaul 
Sonia Gandhi wants the chief ministers of fourteen states in which the Congress party is in power to role out the food security scheme in letter and spirit, and in quick time. Some media reports suggest that the scheme will be rolled out on August 20, which also happens to be the birth anniversary of Sonia’s late husband Rajiv.
While there seems to be a great hurry to launch the scheme there are some basic questions that the government needs to answer.

a) It has been pointed out time and again that the right to food security is likely to benefit 82 crore Indians. It seeks to cover 50% of the urban population and 75% of the rural population. The trouble is that no clear eligibility criteria for identifying the intended beneficiaries has been specified. It has been left to the state governments. As Jean Drèze wrote in a recent column in the Business Standard “For instance, the identification of eligible households is left to the discretion of the government. In the absence of clear eligibility criteria, no one is really entitled to anything as a matter of right; this defeats the law’s purpose.”
So the question is how will be the intended beneficiaries be identified.? The lack of a mechanism already seems to be causing problems. A report in the Daily News and Analysis points out that a presentation being made Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, was cut short by food minister KV Thomas. As the report points out “Dikshit’s presentation was cut short by food minister, when she mentioned that 32  lakh beneficiaries of existing schemes would be covered by the food security ordinance. She was reminded that in Delhi 72 lakh people are estimated to gain from the food security scheme. She had mentioned that Delhi had 2.62 lakh BPL card holders and 2.21 lakh are in the rehabilitation colonies and other 40,500 are in slums. Even these figures made just 26 lakh persons. Delhi CM then added another 10 lakh beneficiaries covered under the Antyodaya Ann Yojana and Anna Shri Yojana. She was told to undertake a fresh survey and draw the list of beneficiaries.”
Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda was in a similar situation. “Similarly, Hooda also come out with a figure of just 39 lakh beneficiaries.  He was also told that as per the population of his state, he needs to draw a list of not less than 1.69 crore,” the DNA reports.
So the calculations of the Delhi chief minister tell her that there should be 36 lakh beneficiaries(26 lakh + 10 lakh beneficiaries under the Antyodaya Ann Yojana and Anna Shri Yojana) of the food security scheme in Delhi. The food minister feels that there are 72 lakh estimated beneficiaries. Dixit has been asked to do a fresh survey and draw up a list of beneficiaries. The gap of 36 lakh (72 lakh minus 36 lakh) need to be filled.
Hooda needs to fill in an even bigger gap of 1.3 crore (1.69 crore minus 39 lakh). Both Hooda and Dixit want to launch the scheme on August 20, which is a little over a month away. How are so many people going to be identified in such a short period of time? And the bigger question is why has no method for identification of intended beneficiaries be prescribed? Sheila Dikshit plans to distribute food security cards to those eligible for the scheme. 

b)What is the food security scheme going to cost every year? The finance minister P Chidambaram in the budget speech he made earlier this year said “I have set apart Rs 10,000 crore, over and above the normal provision for food subsidy, towards the incremental cost that is likely under the Act.” The total food subsidy in the government budget for 2013-2014(i.e. The period between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014) is set at Rs90,000 crore. Chidambaram’s estimate will be lower for this year simply because the scheme will be launched in large parts of the country only during the second half of the year.
Economist Surjit S Bhalla writing in a column in The Indian Express puts the cost of the food security scheme at Rs 3,14, 000 crore. Bhalla’s calculations are fairly simple and straightforward to understand and put across the likely cost of the scheme more than clearly.
The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices of the Ministry of Agriculture in a research paper titled 
National Food Security Bill – Challenges and Options puts the cost of the food security scheme over a three year period to Rs 6,82,163 crore. During the first year the cost to the government has been estimated at Rs 2,41,263 crore. Andy Mukherjee, a columnist for the Reuters, puts the total cost of food security at $25 billion or Rs 1,50,000 crore (assuming $1 equals Rs 60).
And if all these numbers aren’t enough there is the original estimate of Rs 27,000 crore when the idea of the Right to Food Security was first mooted in the National Food Security Bill tabled in the Parliament in December 2011. As Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen write in 
An Uncertain Glory – India and Its Contradictions “The additional resources required to implement the Bill were officially estimated, at that time, at Rs 27,000 crores per year.”
So how much is the food security scheme eventually going to cost the government and in turn the taxpayers? The estimates as one can see vary anywhere from Rs 27,000 crore to Rs3,14,000 crore. Can the government at least provide us a clear estimate of that? Or would that even be possible for the government to do, given that it has specified no method to identify the intended beneficiaries. Hence, it has no idea of how many people it will eventually end up covering under the scheme. So how does it calculate the cost? 

c) The food security scheme aims to provide subsidised wheat and rice to nearly 82 crore people. In order to procure the required rice and wheat the government already has an elaborate procurement system in place. It uses the Food Corporation of India and various other state agencies to buy rice and wheat directly from the farmers. The rice and wheat thus bought will be later sold at a subsidised price by the government.
What does the government plan to do in bad years when the production and/or procurement of rice and wheat are hit? In the current year the procurement of wheat by the government has declined by 33 per cent to 25.08 million tonnes. This has been attributed to aggressive buying by private traders. As of now this is not a reason for worry for the government primarily because of the excess wheat that it had bought during the previous years.
But what happens in a year during which production of rice or wheat is hit. As the CACP research paper cited earlier points out “With 60 percent of India’s farmland dependent on monsoon rains, drought years can slash production and force the country to import large quantities. The government already procures one-third of the cereals production and any increase in procurement will have enormous ramifications on the cereal economy/markets and would crowd out private sector operations with a consequent effect on open market prices.”
The government has the option of importing grains. But that is easier said than done, specially in case of rice. “Rice is a very thinly traded commodity, with only about 7 per cent of world production being traded and five countries cornering three-fourths of the rice exports. The thinness and concentration of world rice markets imply that changes in production or consumption in major rice-trading countries have an amplified effect on world prices,” the CACP paper points out.
Andy Mukherjee of the Reuters explained the consequences of what would happen during a year of bad harvest, a lot more clearly, in a recent column. “When the domestic Indian crop is insufficient, the programme may destabilize a thin global rice market…Once the bulk of Indian consumption bypasses the local open market – where prices can and do rise in years of bad harvest – the full brunt of the country’s demand will have to be met by supply from Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and the United States. That will in turn cause prices to surge for countries dependent on imports, such as Nigeria, Senegal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines,” he writes. Not only is the price of rice going to go up in India, the world prices will go up as well. We will start exporting food inflation in the years to come.

d) Are the states really ready to launch the food security scheme? Of the fourteen Congress governments in the country only two have committed to launch the scheme on August 20, 2013, the birth anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi.
The government plans to use the public distribution system (PDS) to distribute rice and wheat. Estimates made by CACP suggest that the currently the system has a leakage of 40.4%. “In 2009-10, 25.3 million tonnes was received by the people under PDS while the offtake by states was 42.4 million tonnes- indicating a leakage of 40.4 percent,” the research paper points out. This is a marked improvement from 2004-05 when the leakage was around 54.1%.
Drèze and Sen in their book An Uncertain Glory – India and Its Contradictions divide the PDS into ‘old-style’ PDS and ‘new-style’ PDS. “Basic features of the old-style PDS include narrow coverage, large exclusion errors, erratic supply of food and massive corruption. The new-style PDS is based on a focused effort to tackle these interrelated problems, and to achieve broad coverage, low exclusion errors, regular supply, and relatively small leakages,” write the authors.
States like Tamil Nadu, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan, are a part of the new style PDS, Drèze and Sen point out. But large states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are still on the old style PDS. This will ensure a tremendous leakage of rice and wheat that is distributed at a subsidised price in these and other states which still have old style PDS. 

e) The government ultimately plans to move food security onto the cash transfer system from the current PDS. So beneficiaries will be paid in cash which they can use to buy rice and wheat from the open market. But what will happen to the elaborate grain procurement system that the government has built through the Food Corporation of India in that case? As Drèze and Sen write “If the PDS were to be replaced with cash transfers, the government would have to devise good ways of using all the rice and wheat it procures every year. The procurement system has a momentum of its own, and is unlikely to be dismantled any time soon. Upbeat estimates of massive ‘food subsidy’ savings in the event of a transition to cash transfers effectively assume a discontinuation (or at least a sharp reduction) of foodgrain procurement, but this assumption is rarely discussed. Nor is the political feasibility of discontinuing food procurement given any room in these calculations.”
These are important questions for which the government needs to answer or they will comeback to haunt us in the time to come.
The article appeared on on July 15, 2013

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Chidambaram and Sharma’s US visit is a waste of time


The finance minister P Chidambaram is currently in the United States trying to solicit foreign direct investment(FDI) into India. This is one of the things that the government is trying to do in order to control the depreciation of the Indian rupee against the dollar.
Foreign investors wanting to start new industries and businesses in India bring in dollars through the FDI route. To do business in India the foreign investors need to exchange their dollars for Indian rupees. Hence they need to sell dollars and buy rupees. When this happens, there is a surfeit of dollars in the foreign exchange market, and this ensures that rupee gains value against the dollar.
At least, this is how it is supposed to work in theory. A big reason behind soliciting investment through the FDI route is that money brought in through this route cannot disappear overnight.
The question is will this work? Just inviting foreign investors to set up shop in India is not enough. The sales pitch needs to be followed up with a lot of serious background work. As Deepak Parekh, Chairman of HDFC, India’s biggest home finance company recently said “Look at our Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy. Ministers go all out to woo investors, but when investment proposals come, we cannot take decisions…Our policy on FDI is akin to inviting guests over to our house, but when they arrive, we refuse to open the door.”
The commerce minister Anand Sharma is also doing the rounds of foreign investors in the United States, along with Chidambaram. He cited some of the things that the Indian government had been doing to address complaints of foreign investors. One of the things that he talked about was the setting up of the Cabinet Committee on Investments (CCI) headed by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The CCI was notified at the beginning of this year, on January 2, 2013, to ensure faster clearances for the implementation of major infrastructure projects.
But nothing of that sort seems to have happened. As 
The Economist points out in a recent article “a new committee headed by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has tried to push forward projects tangled in red tape…But the committee has not made a meaningful difference. On The Economist’s count, the fresh capital investment it has sanctioned (rather than discussed or delegated to other bodies) amounts to 0.4% of GDP, spread over several years.” The bottomline is that the ministers at least need to get their sales pitch right.
Foreign investors will not jump to set up shop in India just because a few ministers from India come calling. Any foreign investor will look at the ease of doing business along with the prospective returns that he can make, once he has got the business up and running.
Every year the World Bank puts out a ranking which measures the Ease of Doing Business across countries. In the 2013 ranking, India came in 132nd on the list. India’s ranking was the same in 2012 as well. When it comes to starting a business India is 173rd on the list. What this means is that foreign investors have an option of starting their business in a much easier way in 172 countries other than India.
When it comes to enforcement of contracts India is 184
th on the list. The broader point is that why will the investors come to India when they have better options available elsewhere? Also it is worth remembering that the Western world in general and the United States in particular is currently dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis. There is great pressure on companies to set up new businesses or expand current ones in their home countries. In this scenario if they do decide to go abroad and set up new businesses, it needs to be a very good proposition for them.
Foreign investors can get money to set up businesses and industries in India, but some basic infrastructure like power, roads etc, needs to be provided to them. And that is missing in India. As 
Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, who are seen as the intellectual gurus of the current Congress led UPA government, write in their new book An Uncertain Glory – India and Its Contradictions “There has been a sluggish response to the urgency of remedying India’s astonishingly underdeveloped social infrastructure and of building a functioning of accountability and collaboration for public services. To this can be added the neglect of physical infrastructure (power, water, roads, rails), which required both governmental and private initiatives. Large areas of what economists call ‘public goods’ have continued to be neglected.”
This is something that needs to be set right if the government wants foreign investors to set shop in India.
What also does not help Chidambram and Sharma’s sales pitch is the fact that Indian businessmen do not seem too keen to expand their businesses or set up new businesses in India. The investment by Indian businesses has fallen from 17% of GDP in 2008 to 13% in 2012.
As Ruchir Sharma points out in 
Breakout Nations “At a time when India needs its businessmen to reinvest more aggressively at home in order for the country to hit its growth target of 8 to 9 %, they are looking abroad. Overseas operations of Indian companies now account for more than 10% of overall corporate profitability, compared with 2% just five years ago. Given the potential of the Indian domestic market, Indian companies should not need to chase growth abroad.”
How will Messrs Chidambaram and Sharma ever be able to explain this dichotomy to the foreign investors?
Foreign investors are no fools and they have realised over the years that it is not easy to do business in India. The spate of scams from 2G to coalgate has also contributed to them staying away. FDI into India has fallen in the last three out of the four years. For 2012-2013(i.e. The period between April 1, 2012 and March 31,2013), FDI fell by 21% to $36.9 billion, as per government data. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in a recent release said that FDI inflows to India declined by 29 per cent to $26 billion in 2012.
In order to attract foreign investors to invest in India and set up new businesses, a lot needs to be set right. And that needs to be done in India. Ministers visiting the United States on junkets is no way to solve the issue.
The article originally appeared on on July 12, 2013.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)