Bihar’s APMC Story Does Not Inspire Much Confidence

This is the third piece in the agriculture reform series. You can read the first two pieces here and here. While this piece stands on its own, for a better context on the overall issue, it makes sense to read the two pieces published earlier, before reading this piece.

Chintan Patel and Vivek Kaul

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 became a law on September 27, 2020. It is one of the three farm laws passed by the Modi government that has been met by stiff opposition from farmers. The law supposedly creates a mechanism allowing the farmers to sell their farm produce outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs).

As we pointed out in an earlier article, the fate of the APMCs or mandis, under the new laws is a topic of much debate. Proponents of the bill claim that allowing farm trade outside the APMCs will encourage competition and help farmers get better prices for their produce. The idea being that there will be more competition for agriculture produce and in the process, farmers will make more money. QED.

Farmer organizations opposing the bill argue that unregulated transactions outside the APMCs will actually result in a price squeeze for the farmers, given the asymmetry or the huge difference of negotiating power between the individual farmer and corporate-backed buyers. As is often the case, both sides can lay claim to a logically coherent argument backed by economic theory. So, which argument has higher odds of manifestation?

When the future is uncertain, the past is often a reliable guide. Using that rationale, it is instructive to look deeper at the Bihar experience vis-a-vis APMC markets. Bihar had done away with APMC markets in 2006. But before we get into the specifics, let’s zoom out a little and take a look at the bigger picture first.

Bihar’s Backdrop

Bihar is India’s poorest state. Given below are tables that chart the per capita income of India’s richest and poorer states.

Source: https://statisticstimes.com/economy/india/indian-states-gdp-per-capita.php

Source: https://statisticstimes.com/economy/india/indian-states-gdp-per-capita.php

As the above tables show, Bihar has the lowest per capita income in the country. It is about 18 percent of the income of Haryana and less than 10 percent of the income of Goa. Ironically, Bihar is endowed with abundant natural resources, especially fertile soil and groundwater, and yet it continues to remain one of the poorest states in the country.

The state has a population of 11.52 crore (2016), with a very high population density of 1,218 per square km as compared to the national average of 396 per square km. It is largely an agrarian rural economy with approximately 88.5 percent rural population out of which 74 percent of the workforce is reliant on the agriculture sector for a livelihood as per the 2011 Census.

Even accounting for shifts in the economy away from agriculture and migration out of rural areas since the last Census, the poverty in Bihar is closely linked to state of its farmers.

The high population density is clearly reflected in the land holding pattern in Bihar. Compared to other states, Bihar has highly fragmented landholdings. As the same piece of land has got divided among more and more family members over the generations, the average holding has fallen dramatically. Even though quite a few migrate to the cities, they still keep their farmland. This also stems from the fact that selling agricultural land in India is not easy.

As the table below indicates, marginal holdings of less than one hectare (around 2.47 acres) constituted about 91.2 percent of all land parcels in 2015-16, compared to the national average of 68.5 percent. Additionally, 97 percent of all holdings are  less than 2 hectares in Bihar. This high skew towards small land holdings is an important statistic, as agricultural marketing policies affect small and marginal farmers differently from those with larger holdings.

Land holdings in Bihar.

APMC Abolishment in Bihar

In 2006, the Nitish Kumar state government made the decision to abolish its state-level APMC Act allowing private players to directly purchase agricultural produce from farmers. Under the erstwhile Bihar APMC Act, both farmers and buyers would pay 1 percent of the sale price to municipal bodies. After the APMCs were abolished, the government introduced Primary Agriculture Credit Societies (PACS). PACS are panchayat level cooperatives with farmer members that fulfil 3 roles in Bihar.

1) Help farmers borrow money for buying farm equipment, farming inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, etc., or to tide through losses. PACS in turn are given credit by cooperative banks which are funded by the state government.

2) A one-stop shop for high-quality seeds, fertilisers, and other inputs.

3) Most importantly, PACS are responsible for procurement of grains particularly rice-paddy and wheat from the farmers at the government-announced minimum support price (MSP). Thus, PACS act as an intermediary between the farmers and the eventual purchasers of wheat and rice – which can be any of the following; Food Corporation of India (FCI), state procurement agencies or private mills, for that matter. For other produce (other than rice and wheat), farmers interact directly with private traders.

Upon procurement of the crop, especially in the case of paddy, it goes to the Bihar State Food and Civil Supplies Corporation, and then on to the Food Corporation of India, who direct it to the Public Distribution System or ration shops as they are more popularly known. The payment is expected to reach the farmer within 48 hours of selling the crop at PACS.

It should be noted that PACS exist nationwide and have long been a part of the cooperative banking system in India, formed to provide credit to rural areas. Bihar however is unique in that it expanded the scope of PACS to b) and c) above. As we shall see later in the article, PACS have not been able to deliver effectively on these objectives.

The deregulation of agriculture market transactions in Bihar in 2006 shares significant similarities with the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 . Although the central law does not call for the closure of state APMCs or creation of PACS-like entities, the core idea of deregulating agriculture trade outside of APMCs is the same.

Thus, there is merit in examining the outcomes of what has happened in Bihar over the last decade and a half,  to form expectations from the new law.

Several leaders of the Bhartiya Janata Party including prime minister Narendra Modi  and other supporters  of the new laws have touted Bihar’s abolition of APMCs to make their case. At the same time, critics have invoked Bihar as a cautionary tale of deregulating agriculture market.   So, the same scenario is being presented to suit diametrically opposite arguments.

What gives? As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between two extremes.

Prices

The bane of Indian agriculture is the price difference between the first transaction – what the farmer gets for a commodity, and the last transaction – what you and I pay for the same commodity.  Any changes to agricultural markets like the abolition of APMCs in Bihar needs be assessed against its impact on prices.

The government recognizes the importance of collecting data on prices. Each year, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare publishes data on farm gate prices based on data received from the state governments “to facilitate fine-tuning of agriculture policies aimed at farmer welfare”  .

The average wholesale price of a commodity (e.g. wheat, rice, etc.) at which the farmer sells to a trader at the village site during the specified marketing period after the harvest of each commodity, is termed as the Farm Harvest Price (FHP) for each commodity.  The next few charts track both the FHP and MSP of four commodities (paddy, wheat, maize, and ragi) from 2000- 2017. The central government announces MSPs for 23 agricultural crops during the course of any year, but primarily buys only rice and wheat directly from farmers.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

The above chart shows that for rice paddy, the MSP has always been higher than the FHP. From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP was around 26 percent. This basically means that  the FHP was 26 percent lower than the MSP on an average. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference reduced to around 18 percent. 2015-16, onwards the difference has inched up to around 24 percent, for the last two years for which the data is available.

                                                                            Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

For wheat, the difference between MSP and FHP has been less stark than that for rice paddy.  From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for wheat was around 7 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference barely moved up to  around 8 percent . However, for the last two years 2015 to 2017, for which data is available, the difference has spiked to around 17 percent.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

For maize too, the difference between MSP and FHP has been less stark than for paddy but higher than that of wheat.  From 2001-2 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for wheat was around 19 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference reduced to around 12 percent . However, for the last two years 2015 to 2017, the difference has spiked to around 18 percent.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

Finally, for ragi, the difference between MSP and FHP has been quite high and has kept increasing.  From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for ragi was around 26 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference increased to around 31 percent. Finally, for the last two years, 2015 to 2017, the difference has increased to around 37 percent.

The following table summarises the data from the above four charts.

Price Trends Summary
Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

What can we infer from the above charts. Let’s take a look pointwise.

1)  The span from 2001 to 2017 can be divided into three periods : 2001-06, 2007-13, and 2015-17. Farm prices improved for paddy in the second period (around 18 percent lower than the MSP)  compared to the first period (around 25 percent lower than the MSP). Of course, they were lower than the MSP during both the periods.

Similarly maize prices improved in the second period (around 12 percent lower than the MSP) from the first period (around 19 percent lower than the MSP). Of course, they were lower than the MSP during both the periods.

For wheat, difference between the farm prices relative to MSP stood at 7 percent during the first period and at 8 percent during the second period. Hence, the difference increased though marginally.

Rice, wheat and maize are the three major cereals produced in Bihar and make up for 80 percent of the cropping area. The difference in prices between the FHP and the MSP, largely came down in the seven year period after the removal of the state level APMC Act. This finding weakens the argument that market deregulation will necessarily lead to lower prices, even though the farmers did not get the MSP.

2) As can be seen from the above table, starting in 2015, difference between FHP and MSP has increased for all the four commodities. Let’s take the case of maize. Between 2007 and 2014, the difference had stood at around 12 percent. It has since jumped to around 18 percent, almost back to pre-2006 levels.

A similar trend can be seen for the other three crops as well.

The official government data is only available till 2017, but this divergence between FHP and MSP is also reported in recent articles discussing the farmer situation in Bihar.

An article from People’s Archive of Rural India on Feb 20, 2021  reports  that “In 2019, a farmer sold his stock of raw paddy at the rate of Rs. 1,100 per quintal – this was 39 percent less than the MSP (minimum support price) of Rs. 1,815 at that time”.
Another article from December 2020 reports that “Paddy has sold for Rs 900-1,000 a quintal in Bihar, almost half the Rs 1,868 fixed by the Centre as MSP”.

The farm prices at which farmers sell continue to be depressed compared to the MSPs and given that difference has only increased in recent years, weakens the argument forwarded by supporters of the new farm laws which extrapolates deregulation to improved price realization for farmers. Economic theory doesn’t always fall in line with things actually happening on the ground.

A key underlying rationale behind dismantling of the APMCs in Bihar was that it would lead to an increase in the number of buyers in the marketplace. A similar argument is also being made in the case of the new farm laws. However, that is not how things have worked out, in markets across Bihar.

In fact, anecdotal evidence from newsreports emanating from Bihar suggests that sales to private traders are often distress sales since farmers don’t have access to a sizeable pool of local buyers .

A 2019 paper by the National Council of Economic Research makes a similar observation: “Despite the abolition of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act in 2006, private investment in the creation of new markets and strengthening of facilities in the existing ones did not take place in Bihar, leading to low market density. Further, the participation of government agencies in procurement and the scale of procurement of grains continue to be low. Thus, farmers are left to the mercy of traders who unscrupulously fix lower prices for agricultural produce that they buy from farmers..”

Of course, there are other reasons that push farmers to make these distress sales such as a deficient transport network, poor storage facilities, and lack of capital. All of these are exacerbated for small and marginal farmers who form the bulk of agriculturists in Bihar. Given these harsh conditions, it is unsurprising that farmers are unhappy with the present system.

The disillusionment of the Bihar farmer can also be understood looking at incomes of farmers, because ultimately the proof is in the pudding.

Income of Farmers in Bihar

 Source: Study on Agricultural Diagnostics for the State of Bihar in India, 2019 report by NCAER

                                   
The above chart shows that while the net income of farmers in Bihar rose from 2007 to 2010, nevertheless, it has been declining continuously since 2010, up to the point we have data for. The declining income is explained by a rise in costs of agriculture inputs (seeds, power, labour, fertilizers, cost of finance, etc.) without a commensurate increase in sales revenue. The net income per hectare farmed, has moved alarmingly towards zero.

Government procurement of foodgrains 

Farm prices and farmer incomes are significantly affected by the level of government procurement of foodgrains in Bihar. The Central Government extends price support to paddy and wheat through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and state procurement agencies across the country.

As per this policy, state governments are supposed to purchase paddy and wheat (conforming to certain specifications) from farmers at the declared MSP. Farmers have the option to sell their produce to private traders if they can get better prices in the open market. The objective of foodgrains procurement by government agencies is to ensure that farmers get remunerative prices for their produce and do not have to resort to distress sale. The central government accepts the responsibility to fund the procurement operations.

The next two tables give a breakdown of foodgrain procurement in the recent few years for major rice and wheat producing states.

State wise FCI Procurement of rice-paddy 
Source: Food Corporation of India.

State wise FCI procurement of wheat

Source: Food Corporation of India.

Procurement of paddy in Bihar is around 20 percent of the state’s total production, and that of wheat is almost negligible (less than 1 percent). Compare this to Punjab and Haryana, where procurement levels for paddy are over 80 percent and that of wheat are over 60 percent. This is primarily because of historical reasons, in order to promote the green revolution in the states.

This is one of the reasons for the disparity of wealth between Bihar and the other states. Since government buys paddy and wheat at MSP rates, low levels of government procurement in Bihar negatively impact the FHP for wheat and paddy, and in the process farmer incomes.

If the government purchased 100 percent (hypothetically speaking) of the paddy grown in the state, the FHP for paddy would more than likely be the same as the MSP. At 2016-17 prices, that would mean the farmer would get Rs 1,510 per quintal instead of Rs 1,147 per quintal for paddy – an increase of around 32 percent or Rs 363 per quintal. This additional revenue would directly pass-through as added income for farmers. This explains why procurement at MSP rates is a pressing demand by farmers during any policy debates on improving farmer incomes.

Low procurement of foodgrains by the state of Bihar can be attributed to two main reasons: a) inadequate funding by the state and b) Poorly functioning PACS.

There are several deficiencies in how PACS operate including restrictive registration requirements which limit who can sell to PACS, limited windows of procurement, sub-optimal timing of procurement, rejection of crop by the PACS due to excessive moisture content, and excessive delays in payment.  In fact, the number of PACS  in Bihar has declined by over 82 percent, from 9,035 in 2015-16 to 1,619 in 2019-20.

While the specific problems of PACS are less relevant to the national debate on the farm bills, they point to an important fact. The success or failure of market deregulation is highly dependent on the alternate systems that emerge in that environment, which will be unique for each state. Hence, the “vocal for local” mantra should also be applied when implementing policy solutions that strengthen federalism over a one solution-fits-all approach.

Conclusions

1) The so-called opening up of the agriculture market in Bihar to private players has not fundamentally altered the state of the Bihari farmer. The data on farm prices and farmer incomes is mixed after dismantling the APMCs. The difference between FHP and MSP for commodities like paddy and maize did decrease after APMCs were abolished, but those gains have reversed since 2015. The lived experience of farmers as reported by ground reports and the data on farmer incomes and prices paint a grim picture.

2) The PACS created by the state government for procuring food-grains have proven to be inefficient and non-responsive to farmer needs.

3) The government procurement at MSP continues to be a key contributing factor in improving FHPs and farmer incomes. This underlines why MSPs continue to be a key issue for farmers protesting the new farm laws.

4) The Bihar experiment is pertinent to the 2020 Farm Laws, but extrapolating the outcomes in Bihar to the current farm law debate needs some nuance. The data can be presented selectively, both by opponents and proponents of the farm laws to further their argument. But based on the analysis presented here, it is clear that deregulating agriculture markets in Bihar, did not cause prices to crash, though the difference with the MSPs has risen in the recent years. Neither did it usher in a wave of private buyers vying for agriculture produce, buoying up farmer incomes and prosperity in its wake.

It must be noted that the total output of an agrarian economy is affected by a host of factors including crop yield (how much crop is produced per unit area), land usage (how much area is used for cropping), cropping patterns (choice of high-value vs low-value agricultural produce), and prices . Of these, only prices are affected by the new law.

The other factors are influenced by variables such as irrigation, power availability, fertilizer usage, seed quality, rainfall, weather events, mechanization, among others. In a 2017 paper on agriculture in Bihar, the authors identify the following factors as drivers of agricultural growth. These are, irrigation, flood protection, energy for agriculture, roads, procurement system and agriculture markets.

While government policy has a role to play in shaping some of these variables, Bihar’s APMC abolishment law in 2006 and the central laws in 2020, are limited to procurement and agriculture markets. Thus, commentary correlating the abolishment of APMCs in 2006 with changes in macroeconomic metrics in Bihar such as total agricultural output or agricultural growth is disingenuous.

PS: Such a detailed data dive takes a lot of time and effort and you won’t see it anywhere in the mainstream media. Given this, our work needs your constant financial support. 

Ruminations on the Bihar election

009_lalu_prasad_yadav
I normally stay away from writing on politics given that I don’t track it closely enough. Nevertheless, having been born and brought up in erstwhile Bihar, the politics of Bihar has always interested me. And given this, I was closely tracking the state assembly election results when they were declared earlier this month.

As the election trends started to come in, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance seemed ahead. The experts and analysts on news channels immediately started offering reasons for the same. They said that the Grand Alliance leader and the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, had turned arrogant during his second term. He had lost the connect with the youth of Bihar, who were now batting for Narendra Modi. The caste factor had finally been destroyed in Bihar (something remarkably stupid to say on live TV) and so on.

I did not hear any of these experts say, let’s wait for more trends as well as results to come in. Things started to change after sometime and the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance raced ahead and eventually won the elections convincingly, winning 178 out of the 243 seats in the state assembly.

As the Grand Alliance surged ahead the narrative of the experts and analysts on TV also changed. They now offered reasons on why Nitish Kumar was such a star. Apparently, there was no anti-incumbency at work. The women had come out in full support of Kumar. Further, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s supporters (the Muslims and the Yadavs) had voted whole-heartedly for the Grand Alliance, even though they knew that Lalu would not become the chief minister.

At the same time, it was said that Modi and Amit Shah’s brand of divisive politics had not worked. The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s comment of taking a relook at reservation also did not go down well with the voters of Bihar.

The entire analysis offered on TV during the counting of votes and after the declaration of results was an excellent example of what economists call the teleological fallacy. As John Kay writes in Obliquity—Why Our Best Results Are Achieved Indirectly: “The teleological fallacy, which infers causes from outcomes, is one of the oldest mistakes people make…In the business and political spheres the assumption that good or bad outcome derives from good or bad design remains pervasive.”

Why does this happen? As Kay puts it: “The human mind is programmed to look for patters and to seek causes.”

So what did really happen in Bihar? In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA had got 38.8% of the votes. In the 2015 state assembly elections this fell to 34.1%. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the alliance comprising of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Congress Party and the Nationalist Congress Party, had polled in 30.2% of the votes.

Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal(United) had polled in 16.04% of the votes. But Kumar was not in alliance with Lalu and the Congress. Hence, their vote was split and the NDA won the majority of the seats in the state during the Lok Sabha elections.

If there had been an alliance between Nitish, Lalu and the Congress, they would have polled in a little over 46% of the votes, which would have been more than the 38.8% that the NDA polled.

This time around Lalu, Nitish and Congress got together and they got 41.9% of the votes. The NDA on the other hand won only 34.1% of the votes. The point is that the anti-Modi vote was always in the majority, only this time around the votes were not spilt.

This was the real reason why Modi led NDA lost Bihar so badly. Now whether the voter voted against Modi because of cow politics, Shah’s Pakistan comment or Bhagwat’s reservation comment, that only he knows. And the vice versa is also true i.e. whether the voter voted for Kumar because of his development policies or caste affiliation, that only he knows.

The analysts and the experts can only speculate.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected] )

The column originally appeared on Bangalore Mirror on November 25, 2015

Bihar elections: Why TV channels declared that Nitish Kumar had lost

220px-Nitish_Kumar
In Friday’s edition of The Daily Reckoning
I had mentioned that on Monday I will be discussing the recently launched sovereign gold bonds. Nevertheless, there is something else that I wanted to share today, in the aftermath of the Bihar election results.

Given this, the column dealing with the sovereign gold bonds will now appear tomorrow (November 10). Today I want to discuss the Bihar election results. Or to put it more specifically, the analysis that happened on TV and the social media after the counting started and the first trends (and not results) started to come in.

The counting started at 8AM and within a period of 30 minutes the first trends stared to come in. Over the next hour and a half, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was way ahead of the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance (comprising of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal(United), Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal(RJD) and the Congress Party).

Experts on a whole host of TV channels and social media started offering reasons for this trend. Some experts and TV anchors more or less declared a BJP victory. One senior journalist surmised on an English news channel that Nitish Kumar’s arrogance during the second term had cost him this election. He also said that Nitish had misread the youth.

On a Hindi channel an expert said that the “annihilation of caste had started in Bihar,” as Dr Ambedkar and Dr Lohiya had predicted. A senior Muslim BJP politician belonging to Bihar also said the same thing: “humne jatiya ganit ko toda hai (we have broken the caste arithmetic).”

Within the Grand Alliance, initially Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), was leading in many more seats, in comparison to Lalu’s RJD. An expert on a Hindi news channel explained this in a very interesting way, which sounded quite convincing at that point of time.

He said all of Lalu’s voters (i.e. primarily the Muslims and the Yadavs) had voted for Nitish (in constituencies where a JD(U) candidate had been put up by the Grand Alliance), but the vice versa has not happened (i.e the Kurmis and the Extremely Backward Classes, who are supposed to the supporters of Nitish, hadn’t voted for the RJD in constituencies where the RJD candidate had been put up).

An Indian American who is known to be a Modi bhakt (though in the recent past he has been very unhappy with the economic policies of the Modi government) tweeted saying: “Please don’t feel bad, JDU+RJD. At least you won the exit polls.”

After 10 AM the trend started to change and the Grand Alliance started to move ahead and ultimately overtook the NDA by a huge margin. The Hindi news channels caught on to this very quickly. The English channels took some time. And that’s how it stayed till the end. The NDA was washed out. The Grand Alliance got 178 seats and the NDA ended up with just 58 seats.

The RJD emerged as the largest party with 80 seats. The JD(U) came in second at 71 seats. And the BJP was third at 53 seats.

So that is the background to the issue I want to write about today.

Analysing on TV and the social media forces people to come up with instant analysis. There is no scope for nuance or words like possibly and maybe. The experts can’t wait either.

The instant analysis can be shaky given that many times it’s based on very small sample sizes. This leads to analysts and experts on TV and the social media, becoming victims of the law of small numbers. And this is precisely what happened in the first two hours after the counting of votes started yesterday.

As Leonard Mlodinow writes in The Drunkard’s Walk—How Randomness Rules Our Lives: “
The misconception—or the mistaken intuition—that a small sample accurately reflects underlying probabilities is so widespread that [Daniel] Kahneman and [Amos] Tversky gave it a name: the law of small numbers. The law of small number is not really a law. It is a sarcastic name describing the misguided attempt to apply the law of large numbers when the numbers aren’t large.”

And what is the law of large numbers? As Mlowdinow writes, the law of law large numbers essentially states that “a large enough sample will almost certainly reflect the underlying makeup of the population being sampled.”

How does this apply in the context of the Bihar elections? When the first trends started to come in, only a few votes had been counted. Hence, this sample of votes was a small portion of the total votes that had been polled. And it showed that the NDA was well ahead. Nevertheless, it did not reflect the underlying reality. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “Large samples are more precise than small samples. Small samples yield extreme results more often than large samples do.”

The extreme result yielded in this case was that the NDA was ahead in many constituencies. This led analysts and TV anchors to declare an NDA win. But the votes that had been counted initially (the small sample) were not a correct representation of how the public had actually voted (the overall population).

A few hours after the counting started, when a large number of votes had been counted (a large sample), the Nitish led Grand Alliance emerged clearly ahead.

And all the analysts on TV and the social media predicting an NDA win, ended up with eggs on their faces.

In any election analysis, the experts need to wait till a decent number of votes have been counted, so that these votes are a good representation the way the overall voting has happened. But in the days of instant analysis on TV and the social media, waiting is simply not possible.

To conclude, as Kahneman puts it: “We pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify. Jumping to conclusions is a safer sport in the world of our imagination than our reality.”

In fact, the NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar summarised the situation the best when he said: “pal pal badalti khabron par, pal pal badalta vishleshan. Hum log chalak log hain (As the news changes second by second, so does our analysis. We are smart people).”

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on November 9, 2015
 

Switch off the TV tomorrow and don’t waste time on Bihar election results

009_lalu_prasad_yadav
A cottage industry has emerged these days around trying to predict which way the Bihar election will go. I don’t want to add to it. And this is not a column explaining who will win the Bihar elections and why. Enough of that has been written and discussed in the media.

The irony in all this is that people sitting in television studios and writing editorials in newspapers, who have never visited Bihar, are perhaps the most confident on which way the election will go. Don’t ask me how.

Nevertheless, there is some logic to it. Dan Gardner explains this in Future Babble—Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway: “There is a “confidence heuristic”. If someone’s confidence is high, we believe they are probably right: if they are less certain, we feel they are less reliable, this means we deem those who are dead certain the best forecasters.”

As Gardner further writes: “Another problem with the confidence heuristic is that people may look and sound more confident than they really are. Con men do this deliberately. We all do, to some degree. Of course most of us don’t do it brazenly as con men – one hopes – but we all sense intuitively that confidence is convincing. And so, when we are face to face with people we want to convince, we downplay our doubts, or bury them entirely.”

So being confident and forceful about what you say makes for good television and great reading. And that explains why people sitting in studios in Delhi and Mumbai are making the most confident forecasts about who will win in Bihar.

Research also shows that when there is a competition to make forecasts, the forecasts people make get more and more confident. as we go along.

What does this mean during election time? When every political analyst is busy making forecast, if someone wants to standout then he has to make clear and confident forecasts. And that is precisely what has been playing out in television studios up until now.

You are likely to see more of that once election results start coming in and by 10AM tomorrow morning, it will be more or less clear who is likely to form the next government in Bihar—the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance—or the Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Once the results are out political analysts will offer us explanations on why the results happened to turn out the way they have. If Narendra Modi led NDA wins, then we will hear stuff like the Modi magic is still at work, people have taken Modi’s promise of a separate Rs 1.25 lakh crore development package for Bihar seriously and so on. Some cheeky analyst might also suggest that all the statements made by the “so-called” fringe elements in the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), also helped bring in the votes.

If the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance wins, you will hear analysts stay stuff like there was no anti-incumbency at work. The development carried out by Nitish Kumar has worked. The women have come out in full force to vote for him given all the development projects targeted towards women Kumar carried out. And voters in state elections have once again shown that development gets you votes.

Given that it is Bihar election results that the analysts will be analysing, there is bound to be some analysis along caste lines. You are likely to hear stuff like the Muslims plus Yadavs, the base on which Lalu Prasad Yadav ruled Bihar for a long time, voted for the Grand Alliance en masse. Hence, all the statements made by the so-called fringe elements in BJP did not work.

So if the BJP wins we will be told that the statements by fringe elements may have added the icing on the cake. If it loses, we will be told it didn’t work.
Long-story short, we will be told a lot of stories explaining why things happened the way they did. As Gardner writes: “People love stories, both the listening and the telling. It’s a central part of human existence, found in every culture, in every place, in every time…For explanation-sharing to work, however, a story cannot conclude with “I don’t know” or “The answer isn’t clear.”” The narrative should be complete. Incomplete stories do not work.

Hence, there will be no shortage of explanations and stories on why things happened the way they did in Bihar. Political analysts will come up with extremely coherent reasons on why things happened the way they did. You won’t hear phrases like “I don’t know” or words like “maybe” or “possibly”. In fact, some analysts will even say stuff like “as I have been saying all along”. In case of television channels the “I” will become “we”.

Even those who get their forecast wrong (and believe me there will a lot of them) will revise their forecasts. As Jason Zweig writes in The Devil’s Financial Dictionary: “Once you learn what did happen, your mind tricks you into believing that you always knew it would happen. Contrary to the popular cliché, hindsight is not 20/20; it is barely better than legally blind.”

This tendency is referred to as hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is also referred to as “I knew it all along effect”. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness: “Our minds are not quite designed to understand how the world works, but, rather, to get out of trouble rapidly and have progeny…Psychologists call this overestimation of what one knew at the time of the event due to subsequent information…the “I knew it all along” effect.

The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about this phenomenon in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, in the context of the financial crisis which broke out in late 2008.

As he writes: “I have heard of too many people who “knew well before it happened that the 2008 financial crisis was inevitable.” This sentence contains a highly objectionable word, which should be removed from our vocabulary in discussions of major events. This word is, of course, knew. Some people thought well in advance that there would be a crisis, but they did not know it. They now say they knew it because the crisis did in fact happen.”

Something similar will play after the Bihar election results as well. Depending on the result, people will adjust their analysis and say “I knew this will happen”.

So if Nitish wins they will say, I knew this will happen, even if they had been predicting a Modi win earlier. And vice versa.

This is not a good thing. As Kahneman writes: “What is perverse about the use of know in this context is not that some individuals get credit for prescience that they do not deserve. It is that the language implies that the world is more knowable than it is. It helps perpetuate a pernicious illusion. The core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do.”

Given this, it’s best not to waste time watching all the analysis that will pour in on Bihar elections, all through the day tomorrow and on Monday.

Switch off the television.

Take your kids out for a spin.

Buy some gold for your Mother. And your wife. Or your girl-friend (It’s Dhanteras after all).

Or just pick up a good book and read.

Happy Diwali!
The column originally appeared on The 5 minute Wrap Up on Equitymaster on Nov 7, 2015

Why Lalu Yadav had a change of heart towards Nitish Kumar

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Lalu Prasad Yadav has gulped “poison” but is still alive. As he told reporters yesterday: “I want to assure the secular forces and the people of India that in this battle of Bihar, I am ready to gulp everything. I am ready to consume all types of poison. I am determined to crush the hood of this snake, this cobra of communalism.”

The p-word is essentially a metaphor for Lalu accepting that Nitish Kumar, the current chief minister of Bihar, be projected as the chief ministerial candidate in the assembly elections scheduled in the state later this year. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader had resisted Nitish being projected as the chief ministerial candidate until now.

But with Nitish declaring on June 7 that he no longer wanted an alliance with the RJD for the forthcoming polls, Lalu had no other option but to agree to Nitish being projected as the chief-ministerial candidate.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, the president-designate of the proposed new Janata Party, welcomed this decision of Lalu and said: “I am very happy about the unity of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. Kumar will be the chief ministerial candidate for Bihar. Laluji has proposed Nitish Kumar’s name for the chief ministership. Laluji said he will campaign.”

Lalu may want us to believe that he drank the poison to crush the cobra of communalism, but that is not really the truth. If Lalu had to continue to stay relevant in the years to come he needed to ally with Nitish. He had no other option.

The electoral numbers of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls give us the answer. Data from the election commission shows that the combine of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) got 36.36 per cent (BJP = 29.86 per cent + LJP = 6.5 per cent) of the valid votes polled during the Lok Sabha elections last year.

The RJD and the Congress Party which fought the elections together got 20.46 per cent and 8.56 per cent of the valid votes respectively. Nitish’s Janata Dal(United)(JD(U)) which fought the elections separately got 16.04 per cent of the valid votes. Hence, the vote percentage of JD(U) + RJD at 36.5 per cent was slightly more than that of the BJP + LJP at 36.36 per cent. Further, RJD+JD(U)+Congress got more votes than BJP + LJP. Nevertheless, since RJD + Congress and JD(U) were not in alliance, these votes did not translate into Lok Sabha seats.

The RJD won only four seats in the state and its alliance partner the Congress party, won two seats. The JD(U) also won only two seats. The BJP on the other hand won 22 seats whereas its partner LJP won six seats.

As is obvious from the data, the LJP won six seats with 6.5 per cent of the votes polled, whereas the RJD won four seats with 20.46 per cent of the votes polled. This was simply because the LJP got its alliance right.

Obviously Lalu understands this electoral math well enough. And given this, he is ready to let Nitish be projected as the chief-ministerial candidate, his initial reluctance notwithstanding.

Interestingly, in the by-elections that happened for 10 assembly seats in August 2014, the JD(U) came together with the RJD+Congress and took on BJP+LJP. The data from the election commission shows that the RJD+Congress+JD(U) got 45.6 per cent of the total votes polled. The BJP+LJP got 37.9 per cent of the votes polled.

Given that, JD(U) was not fighting the elections separately, the votes polled translated into assembly seats as well, unlike the Lok Sabha polls. The RJD+Congress+JD(U) got six out of the ten Assembly seats. Hence, there is some evidence of the alliance working.

Lalu and Nitish have had an “edgy” relationship for the over four decades that they have known each other. Nitish became the chief minister of Bihar in 2005, after managing to dislodge Lalu, who had ruled directly as well as through proxy (through his wife Rabri) for a period of 15 years and brought the state to the point of an economic collapse.

Ironically, for the first half of his political career, Nitish propped up Lalu, even though he knew that Lalu wasn’t fit to govern. Journalist Sankarshan Thakur put this question to Nitish in his book Single Man: “Why did you promote Lalu Yadav so actively in your early years?” he asked.

And surprisingly, Nitish gave an honest answer. As Thakur writes “‘But where was there ever even the question of promoting Laloo Yadav?’ he mumbled…’We always knew what quality of man he was, utterly unfit to govern, totally lacking vision or focus.'” Given this, what Nitish thinks of Lalu is totally on record.

So why then did Nitish decide to support him? “‘There wasn’t any other choice at that time,’ Nitish countered…’We came from a certain kind of politics. Backward communities had to be given prime space and Laloo belonged to the most powerful section of backwards, politically and numerically.'”

It is now Lalu’s turn to return the favour to Nitish. Also, Lalu knows that with the alliance of three parties, his party will have as many seats in the Bihar assembly as Nitish’s JD(U) or probably even more. This will allow him to extract his pound of flesh on the pretext of allowing the alliance to survive. And that is what he is interested in. Hence, what Lalu has drank is an ‘elixir’ and not poison, as he would like us to believe.

The column originally appeared on DailyO on June 9,2015