Saturday, August 28, 2010

Whither Caste Census - issues and options

We have been reading alot whether 'caste' should be included in the ongoing Census 2011 or not, lately and here's my take on this issue:
(I wish to highlight various issues, both for and against, taking up ethnographiv census survey before giving my opinion)
Why it shouldn’t be taken up
1. It is retrogressive step and will continue reinforcing ‘imagined communities’ (Benedict Anderson 1983).
2. It is a colonial creation. The institution of census (alongwith caste enumeration) was one of the outcomes of 1857 uprising so that a knowledge of the ‘natives’ could provide allies an insurance against the possibility of such uprising in future. In that sense it’s not just for ‘intellectual curiosity’ but solidified hitherto fluid identities.
3. There is an apprehension that Other Backward Classes (OBC) lobbyists may ask for increase in OBC reservation if the actual OBC count turns out to be more during 2011 census than 52% as estimated by Mandal Commission. The 27% reservation for OBC is based on a quota set at 50% of the OBC population after excluding the creamy layer (those not poor or backward) from original estimated 52% of OBC population.
4. At a lesser vocal levels, a similar apprehension that reservation for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) may be demanded to be increased from the present 15% & 7% respectively if their numbers turn out to be more than the proportionate assumptions presently followed.
5. There is another argument that the development dynamics of Nehruvian model of modernization characterized by land reforms & green revolution has changed the socio-political fabric in rural India and has led to a situation where the ‘backward’ class are in social control, dominate politics and a significant part of rural economy. The caste dynamics, in a traditional sense has blurred thus over a period.
However, most of these apprehensions and perhaps rightly so are based on the perceived direct linkage between the percentage of OBC, SC & ST in total population as will emerge from the Census 2011 and reservation.
6. The most important reason to my mind is the ‘logistics problems & challenges’ in taking up such an enumeration (Despande & Mary John- EPW, June 19th 2010). Caste has no precise definition and perhaps, can’t be classified in an objective measurable category such as income, age, gender & education and is rather subjective depending upon various sub-categorization within a broad identified caste. The major issue will be how the enumerator would classify the castes as informed during the census. At very conservative estimates, there are more than 5000 castes within Hindus and then there are categorization among Hindu converts, Muslims and some other religions too. How would the enumerator place a particular caste as informed is a major worry and a serious logistic challenge among the census officials.
Arguments in favor of Caste Census:
1. While there may be reasons to be apprehensive, some argue that there exists well documented research and empirical data linking caste based inequalities to Human Development Index (HDI) and dimensions of well being including basic health & education, income, social exclusion and access to employment. While it can be argued that some of these exclusions and deprivations are income based and exist in castes not classified as OBC or SC/ST, the fact remains that the degree of co-relation between caste and HDI is rather striking and can’t be wished away. If it is clearly emerging that most of the inequalities are not imagined and reflect social processes and intrinsically linked to caste based exposure/deprivations, inclusion of caste details in the census becomes imperative.
2. The present classification of SC, ST and to a large extent of OBC is based on 1931 census data and it is extremely important to have the latest data if any fresh exercise is to be taken up to reclassify in order to sanitize the caste categorization from exclusion and inclusion errors or to remove creamy layers from among those included based on income or education. Obtaining accurate data for proper targeting is essential.
3. With my little knowledge and interest in Demography (I indeed took couple of courses including ‘survey problems in Demography’ and ‘research methods in Demography’ during my MPP in Princeton!), I personally am of the opinion that caste enumeration is a must to (i) correlate all that has been discussed so far and been feared of caste enumeration – a causal linkage will clearly establish whether our welfare policies have yielded any results so far and what should be the direction of reservation in future; (ii) it will help us enable a policy decision whether caste should be the basis for reservation or should it be economic reasons; (iii) it will throw up so so much data for mining the linkage between caste and other categories such as education, income, employment, housing and so on and will (iv) help take decisions to weed out exclusion and inclusion errors in caste categorizations and caste based reservation.

The logistics problem, in my opinion can be taken care of. At a central level, the Registrar General of India (RGI) office should list down all possible castes and sub castes. A system somewhat similar to the new system of National classification of Occupations (NCO-04), which follows the hierarchical structure of Division, Subdivision, Group, Family and Occupations, can be devised for accommodating all caste references in a scientific manner. The enumerator should just write the caste ( & category as informed to him/her during the survey) and once it’s fed in the system, it should automatically be classified in the appropriate category. A great deal of research and care is required to mine such a huge data and assistance of Ministry of Social Welfare should be taken by RGI at the earliest. It becomes even more crucial as the actual survey is going to commence soon.

Caste based enumeration need not be linked with reservation. The logic behind extending reservations on caste lines is almost getting abused for political reasons and is being exploited by the creamiest among the ‘reserved’. We do need to stand up and take a decision regarding the policy of extending reservations blindly. The number of castes in the category requiring reservation has only been increasing and its time we should delink the two and for that, a caste based census is required. I am in favor of caste based census as that’s the only way one can argue, based on hard data, the need to have a caste based reservation or otherwise.

The Group of Minister (GoM) gave its nod on August 11, 2010 to include caste in census from biometric stage of enumeration. The GoM, headed by Finance Minister, recommended to the Union Cabinet for inclusion of caste in census from biometric stage which is set to commence from December once the head count is over.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"1411" versus a million killings - You decide

I find it amusing everytime I see an advertisement or hoarding highlighting ‘1411’ . Yes, I am talking of the ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign taken up by ‘Aircel’ and lately joined by NDTV. It’s a fact that almost all the elite schools and page 3 crowd does know about the number “1411”. It’s almost unsocial and ‘not so in thing’ if one doesn’t know, doesn’t talk about or doesn’t show concern about the losing battle of tigers in India. I wonder whether someone actually counted them to the exact 1411 (the number originally was popped up by WWF in 2008 as the ‘average estimate of India’s wild tigers’ ). Pardon my ignorance but what’s so average about 1411? No new cubs born since then? Or the newborns got neutralized by the killings/deaths by the same count and thus the magic figure of 1411 remains static over the years! If we bring Tiger from the woods to India, will it make it 1412? ( is he not wild? Oh, okay, I get it, he is not Indian wild!)
I was curious and went through the official site of Aircel & NDTV sponsored campaign . First thing that strikes is the numbers (of people) registered on the site (joined the roar as the site boasts) pledging their support and the number is 229171. Well, I wonder what that means. Since I am totally ignorant and a bit cynical, I went through the page – what can I do? And the headings are i) Roar online – share concerns online from twitter to blogs, from youtube to facebook; ii) donate – for the cause?; iii) be informed; iv) speak up; v) Tiger reserves and vi) be the change. I went through each of these heads in detail and I am still clueless as to how can I save even a single tiger/cub sitting in my air-conditioned room and surfing internet. Is it not armchair concern for a cause where common people like us can do little? Yes, I agree that the cause is good and that tigers must be saved and that their numbers must increase but is this kind of cheap blaring an answer? Is it not the case where problem lies somewhere else (Reserves- answer lies not in making them ‘tourist reserves’ but to leave them untouched and unvisited), the culprit is somebody else (tiger mafia who is organized and does deal in tigers systematically and often with the collusion of lower rung forest officials & involvement of traders, including exporters, who all are aware of the illegality and yet do it blatantly )and the agency who can do something to save the tigers (Government agencies and law enforcing agencies) and when such a campaign in not aimed at any of them then what’s the purpose of such a campaign? Is it not a clear case of mis-targetting an advertisement campaign? Wait…in that case, is it not self serving for the agencies who have initiated this campaign to carve out a carefully manipulated image of ‘corporate social responsibility’ ?
We – the great Indian middle class, are basically innocent gullible lot given to emotions and do feel like doing something good (giving alms to beggars, feeding leftovers to cows, talking about poverty in five star seminars and so on) and it is this middle class urban Indian spirit that these corporate agencies are exploiting in the name of save the tiger. Most of us have seen a tiger either in a movie or in a zoo and it is one of the remotest things to our daily cores. The best way, I sincerely feel is to keep it that way and let the concerned responsible for its extinction be taken to task so that it never happens. The more we talk about, the more is the premium attached to the tiger and the bigger catch it becomes in the process. Its reverse advertising and we are doing more harm to the tigers than any good (the site actually has a map of India showing the locations of tiger reserves and the number of visitors to these reserves increased manifold ever since this campaign has been initiated!
Well, a positive feature of ‘save the tiger’ campaign is that it has a close approximation of the number of tigers ( it may not be exactly accurate though). Now coming to a more grim issue- are we aware how many human fetuses ( a fetus or foetus is after embryo stage and before child birth) are aborted illegally in India every year just because they happen to be that of a girl? Any guess? It’s atleast a million(some estimates actually fear it to be around 2.5 million per annum – a million female fetuses get aborted every year in India. And the irony is that nobody talks about it. A mindset for ‘son-preference’ has led to a situation where parents, not desiring to have daughters, go for sex selective abortion if the fetus is that of a girl. This results in a million girl fetuses getting aborted every year due to “gender cleansing”. This ‘silent genocide’ is leading to serious imbalances in Sex Ratio at Birth. Despite having strong laws, which forbid the disclosure of the sex of the fetus, it is routinely violated. And it is the greed of making fast and easy money that there has been a volcanic mushrooming of Ultrasound Scan Machine in the country. Most of the States don’t have the record of these machines and some States such as Andhra Pradesh where records are maintained show an alarming growth of about 150% in the number of scan machines in just three years in some of the most backward Districts such as MahboobNagar. The malaise which was initially confined to urban pockets in North India, mainly in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi in early nineties has quickly spread to semi-rural, rural areas and almost now afflicts all parts of the country. Reasons can be many for not wanting a girl child- dowry system, prevailing mindset, boy looking after ‘vansh’ and so on but all these are excuses and excuses can’t justify a murder – it’s a silent gendercide we don’t wish to talk. We wish to be in a denial mode. The Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) is falling at an extremely alarming rate and the ongoing census will be a shocker. I only wish it’s not already too late.
We think it’s not happening around us? Consider this – the worst affected areas from female feticide are the richest, poshest localities of South Delhi – South Extension & Greater Kailash . The profile of a typical parents going in for female feticide is middle & upper middle income, literate, single family and someone who is totally aware that doing such a thing is illegal. And what does the Government do – start a campaign ( ) where financial aid is given to the parents to bring up their daughters. But is the meager amount offered as a dole a big enough incentive for the murderous parents not to do so? True to our mindsets, these schemes are aimed at families ‘Below Poverty Line’ or those belonging to socially disadvantaged classes such as Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes! But the data reveals that SRB is better in all these categories and that sex selective abortions is done in educated, affluent and socially ‘advantageous’ families. The Government’s action is to ensure that nobody can blame them for not doing anything and basically a feel good factor with closed eyes and without application of mind.
So, where lies the problem and what does one do? The problem lies in the blatant misuse of scan machines for sex detection leading to illegal abortions if the fetus is that of a girl. There’s an Act called ‘Pre Conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic (prevention of misuse) Techniques Act 1994’ and it has to be implemented properly. There are instances where proper implementation of the Act has ensured that the SRB is restored in favor of girls . Let us be honest and think how many of those known to us have gone in for such sex selective abortions? Are we not a party to it by keeping quiet or continue to be in a denial mode? It’s something that’s happening right in front of our eyes. We can control it. We need not look for excuses to change mindsets and wait for the day when dowry no longer exists. We can arrest this feticide today and now.
And this is an area I feel campaign such as ‘Save the tiger’ should focus on. There is ‘Save the girl child campaign’ but it doesn’t have the same visibility and status. Lets re focus our priorities and do something we can and feel proud of.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Game Banks Play - Car loan @ 8.5% and Food Grains @ 11.25%

Under the present policy of procurement of Food grains, all the food grains ( wheat, rice & coarse grains) brought by farmers and confirming to required specifications are procured by Government agencies such as Food Corporation of India (FCI) & agencies of the State Governments such as HAFED, PUNSUP, NAFED & various State Civil Supplies Corporations for the Central Pool at Minimum Support Price (MSP). Procurement this way is open ended in the sense that whatever quantity is offered by farmers has to be procured by these agencies. While it leads to increasing procurement, the logic behind such a policy is to ensure that the benefit of MSP reaches as many farmers as possible. Farmer has the option of selling his produce to Government agencies at MSP or in the open market to traders/wholesalers/private operators if he is offered a price better than MSP. It is interesting that MSP , in absolute terms and as a percentage of cost of cultivation, has been increasing impressively over the years and as a result, procurement has been increasing both in absolute terms and as a percentage of Production. The 3 years moving average of procurement (wheat+rice) which for long was around 25% of production now stands at 31% for 2007-10.
The production of Food Grains itself is on the rise. Agriculture in India primarily continues to be dependent on vagaries of rains. It is worth noticing however that the combined production of wheat and rice which averaged 158.48 million tones since 1999-2000 till 2006-07 increased to an average of 174.9 million tones for the period 2007-08 onwards showing a healthy growth of 10% plus. And it is in this light that increasing procurement (as a percent of increasing production) becomes even more impressive. While there is a reason to feel happy that MSP is reaching the farmers and that part of it will be ploughed back in capital improvement in productivity, it raises a serious question whether MSP is not fixed too high and not in tune with market prices of foodgrains as determined by the forces of demand & supply and thus distorting the market operations and inflating the official foodgrain inventory.
Such bulgeoning of foodgrains in Government accounts comes with its set of headaches. The first issue is storage. There are two types of storage in India. There are ‘Covered’ godowns belonging to FCI, Central Warehousing Corporations (CWC) and State Warehousing Corporations (SWC). Most of these godowns are hired by FCI. Once all these godowns are full and if there still remains procured foodgrains stocks, they are kept in ‘Cover & Plinth’ (CAP) – a pucca plinth constructed in open and covered (okay-supposedly) from top. The total capacity under ‘covered’ storage in India is around 47.5 million tones. Any stocks, in excess of this have to be kept under CAP and that’s where the issue of rotting/damage comes in ( or just switch on tv sets).
The second issue is concerning cost of these food grains procured. State agencies & FCI while procuring foodgrains have to pay @MSP to the farmers. However, Government releases funds to State Governments ( who procure directly for their agencies) and to FCI, not on the basis of procurement done by them but based on the average offtake of foodgrains under Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) – the subsidized foodgrains distribution to the ration card holders, during the last six months in these States. Let me explain. Suppose a State procures 500 units of foodgrains from the farmers and the average monthly offtake under TPDS is 30 units. The State will be released subsidy only for 180 units thus leaving a gap for 320 units which the State has procured. The annual requirement under TPDS for such a State will be 360 and the State will still have an excess procurement of 140 units for which it will not be reimbursed any subsidy till such time this stock is actually lifted under TPDS. And by that time, next cycle of procurement would have commenced. This does imply dis-incentivizing efforts of the State Governments to maximize procurement and impedes efforts in increasing procurement to meet requirements under the proposed Food Security Act. This is a flaw in the method of meeting the cost of foodgrains procured we need to address at the earliest.
This brings us to the question as to how do States & FCI meet this differential (cost of foodgrains procured minus what’s lifted under TPDS)? This Cash Credit (CC) requirement is met by borrowing from ‘Food Credit’ consortium of Scheduled Commercial Banks chaired by State Bank of India. It has 60 Banks in it. Till June 2010, it was based on 245 points less than the Prime Lending Rate (PLR) for FCI, as Government of India had extended a ‘Single Default Guarantee’ Scheme for an amount of Rs 34000 crores. The State’s rate was 100 points higher. The actual interest charged by Banks, however was 10.25% from FCI & 11.25% from the State Governments (in violation of their own norms of 245 points for FCI and 145 points for States whereby it would have implied 9.30% for FCI & 10.30% for States and no reasons are given by Banks for unilaterally enhancing the rates).
During a recent meeting held with the consortium where RBI top officials too were present, this point was raised that while car loans are available at 8-9% interest why should foodgrains credit be at 11.25%? The response was that interests are determined by the realizable value of the asset in question and since cars have greater realizable value in case of default it is charged less. Foodgrains as per ‘Banking credit rating norms’ ( whatever that means) has got zero value after six month and is treated as a ‘dead stock’! and it has, as per banking wisdom, little or no realizable value even during first six months and that’s the reason interest rates are higher on food grains. What baffles me is their interpretation despite the single default guarantee of Government of India which is a sovereign guarantee and Bankers refusal to take cognizance of State Government’s guarantees on the ground that their credibility is low! The excess amount paid by the State Governments and FCI on this account could be around Rs 3000 crores! (which could certainly, despite all the inefficiencies, have been put to better use such as creation of additional storage facilities). This is a careless, monopolistic arm-twisting by Bankers while all of us become a victim of accompanying inflation.
FCI and State Governments, in order to avoid such high rates of interest, hitherto , were resorting to Short Term Borrowing from Banks which carries a much lesser interest. Food Credit Consortium, not so surprisingly, in its recent meeting held on August 11, 2010 has banned the Short Term Lending for the purpose of Food grains!! ( and to imagine they are Nationalized Banks catering to the needs of priority sector).
Banks have switched to Base Rate based lending w.e.f. July 1, 2010 and instead to reworking the interest rates for foodgrains on a scientific and rational basis, this is how they re-fixed the interest for FCI
Earlier Maximum PLR – 245 points = 930 (or 9.30%)
So Banks decided that this will be the rate under the new Base Rate regime! And how did they justify?
930 = average Base Rate of Consortium (7.9%) + ‘X’
And thus ‘X’ = 140 points or 1.4% ( and this is defined as risk liability of FCI!!)
It will be 10.30% for State Governments (100 points extra because of their low credibility)
How scientific is this? It is a mockery of the Banking system which is supposedly based on a rational method of considering risk factors and other factors.
I leave it for your judgment. And all this while, car loans continue to be available at 8.5%!!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Unraveling '100 days' mystery - Obama, Pratibha Patil & now Cameron

The only thing I related with ‘100 days’ till 2009 was a 1991 Madhuri Dixit, Jackey Shroff starrer Hindi mystery thriller and another English flick by the same name, directed by Nick Hughes in 2001, till Obama arrived in 2009 and along with him came the famous ‘first 100 days in office’ (check - ) !
I gather it’s important to make the first impression. If you've ever been employed, you know how important it is to make a good first impression on the job. If you mess up as a newbie, you (and your boss) may never get over it. The job of a Country’s commander-in-chief is no different. Historians, politicians, reporters and the public want to get to know their new leader – his/her personality, ideas, habits and ways of talking -- so they watch the early days very carefully. Those crucial first 100 days can set the tone for the rest of a president's term and provide clues to what's to come in the remaining part of the party in power. It was the US’s 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who started the "100 days" tradition when he was inaugurated in 1933.
Such had been the hype around Obama in his initial days that the media sang ‘first 100 days of Obama’ almost on a daily basis. While his advisers are only too happy to tick off a flurry of accomplishments on the economy in the administration’s first hundred days such as passage of $787 billion recovery plan, release of additional $350 billion as second tranche for troubled banks, a $ 275 billion housing program to rescue 9 million house owners from foreclosure and ‘stress tests’ for financial institutions, the initial hullabaloo petered out on its own and the first thing the White House wants you to know about assessments of a president's first hundred days is that those assessments don't matter. “It’s the journalistic equivalent of a Hallmark holiday," I read an article quoting a senior administration official "They don't mean anything but you have to observe them." However, the circumstances under which Obama administration came into being and he, being hyped as a ‘we the change’, had to come out with a plan and sooner. If Obama continues the direction of the first 100 days, his rhetoric may be seen to be merely sugaring the pill. However, it is also possible that the erosion of patience with government and with economic conditions can combine with those aspirations for change expressed in the election to force Obama’s government leftwards to deliver real reform. I am not too surprised with a recent survey where almost one fifth of Americans take him to be a non-Christian and his criticism of not being able to stand up for the basic right of freedom of religion, its time he delivers on the hopes of change.
I didn’t intend to make it serious. And so, we are back in India. How could it be left behind in the rhetoric of 100 days? And so, soon after the 15th Lok Sabha elections, the President of India, in her first speech to the joint session of parliament on 4th June 2009 laid down the priorities of ‘her government’ (speech is available at ) and it was here that ‘100 days’ came haunting to Indian Bureaucrat in terms of ‘performance and action taken report’ on the announcements and fulfillment of assurances! This is at a time when the same UPA government (Congress led) and the same President are continuing since 2004!
And I read with great interest and comic curiosity the latest to join the bandwagon of ‘100 days’ – David Cameron. There has been a talk of ‘radical Britain’ and how Britain looks like West’s test tube baby yet again! ( Economist- August 14, 2010). The con-lib coalition’s push for reforms in Schools, the Health services, the Police and welfare and how the spending cuts are enforced to stave off Grecian disaster are being highlighted as Britain’s audacity in creating ‘a Big Society’ during its first 100 days.
I often nowadays wonder whether the World leaders actually take this concept of ‘100 days’ seriously or it’s just thrust on them by the expectant media by forcing their teams to put these promises and hopes in their mouth!
Coming back to ‘100 days’ of Madhuri Dixit starrer Hindi movie ( I haven’t seen it though but I remember watching one of its songs ‘sun beliya’ on television), there could be other applications of 100 days such as:
- First 100 days of a child (since her/his birth) ( I suppose that’s where the concept ought to have come in);
- Falling in love – first 100 days (and comparing it with all that follows!);
You are welcome to add to the list!!
The images of ‘100 days’ can be seen at
As per wikipedia ‘The Hundred Days sometimes known as the Hundred Days of Napoleon or Napoleon's Hundred Days for specificity, marked the period between Emperor Napoleon I of France's return from exile on Elba to Paris on 20 March 1815 and the second restoration of King Louis XVIII on 8 July 1815 (a period of 111 days). This period saw the War of the Seventh Coalition, and includes the Waterloo Campaign and the Neapolitan War. The phrase les Cent Jours was first used by the prefect of Paris, Gaspard, comte de Chabrol, in his speech welcoming the King’.