Important summits in the USA, Russia, Copenhagen can be attended by the Prime Minister of India as he is not a Member of the Lok Sabha

Subroto Roy notes that since Dr Manmohan Singh is the first Indian Prime Minister ever to have chosen with deliberation not to be a member of the Lok Sabha, he has been free to hold important summits at the White House, Kremlin, Copenhagen etc while the Lok Sabha debates mundane matters like the Liberhan Commission report, inflation etc.

“But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last.

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy  is hurt that Christopher Booker says “Not for nothing was Copenhagen the city in which Hans Andersen wrote his story about the Emperor whose people were brainwashed into believing that he was wearing a beautiful suit of clothes” because he always thought Hans Andersen meant it for modern New Delhi.

Reflections on Mr Zoellick’s reported claim

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy says that there are no viable macroeconomic models or time series data in the possession of the World Bank, IMF, the Govt of India’s Finance Ministry, Planning Commission, Reserve Bank etc, or any professor from Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford to the University of Timbuctoo to justify the reported claim yesterday of World Bank President Robert Zoellick that India is headed to “8-9% growth”. Growth may be higher, may be lower or something else altogether, no one knows because national income measurements have yet to reach SNA standards (in any case it should be *per capita real GDP*… and *even then*, there is no adjustment for inequality...)…

What *is* clear though is that Indian public finance at Union and State level is a mess and paper money has been growing at more than 20% per annum…. (And if you happen to believe the Government of India’s apologists and propagandists about Indian inflation being in single digits, might I interest you in a marble structure in Agra, or a steel bridge over the Hooghly perhaps? Very nice, just like Brooklyn Bridge itself….)

New compradors in old bottles? Old compradors in new bottles?

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy is amused to read in today’s business press in India that the most prominent declared lobbyist in the country wishes to be credited with having promoted economic liberalisation. The mendacity & self-delusion that capital cities are capable of seem boundless.

Sketching India’s Rupees 35 (?70?) trillion (lakh crore) public debt?

Exactly nineteen years ago, in late October 1990, I advised the then-Congress Party President Rajiv Gandhi as follows:

“The prime indicator of economic mismanagement today is not the annual deficit, but rather the vast public debt today of more than Rs. 273,000 crores (Rs.2.73 trillion). Our Government has borrowed something like Rs. 3500/- on behalf of each man, woman and child in the country — and spent it. A pile of rupee coins adding up to the public debt of India would stretch 4.55 million km into the sky, or be as long as six trips to the moon and back. That is the size of the problem….”

In recent years I have estimated the stock of India’s public debt has grown to perhaps Rs 30 trillion; after the lobbyist-induced corporate pork aka the “fiscal stimulus” since 2008, it has  perhaps risen to Rs 35 trillion, along with States’ debts, Rs  70 trillion!

[From Facebook July 31 2010

Subroto Roy reads in today’s pink business newspaper the GoI’s debt level at Rs 38 trillion &  that of each of three large states (WB, MH, UP) is at Rs 6 trillion, add another 18 for all other large states together, another 5 for all small states & 3 for errors and omissions, making my One Minute Estimate of India’s Public Debt Stock Rs 70 trillion (70 lakh crores). Interest payments at, say, 9%, keep the banking system afloat, extracting oxygen from the public finances like a cyanide capsule.]

(1 trillion = 1 lakh crore  ie. 1,000,000,000,000 = 100000,0000000)

Now when I advised Rajiv it was still early days in the IT-revolution and in fact I wrote the words quoted above on the first laptop I had ever used which was Rajiv’s own (enormous) Toshiba laptop in an office of his staff.

It was eight years before Google was launched — and now there is even something called Google Sketch which I am downloading as I write.

Today on Facebook, I have reposted this wonderful link sent by a friend of a Google Sketch of what one trillion dollars (or one lakh crore dollars) looks like:

Ten thousand dollars:


1million dollars (i.e. ten lakh dollars):


100 million dollars (i.e. ten crore dollars):


One billion dollars (i.e. one hundred crore dollars):


One trillion dollars (i.e. one lakh crore dollars):


So much for dollars.

May I ask someone to use this link and this one to re-sketch India’s public debt, of perhaps Rs 35 70 trillion, and annual interest-payments, at perhaps 9% per annum on average? (Before the next “Budget” please…)

Subroto Roy

Postscript: Of course, most of this exists intangibly as deposits or accounting-entries, not as tangible cash, but it is fun anyway — and an illustrative way to explain things to politicians and citizens.

Nandan Nilekani’s Nonsensical Numbering (Updated to 11 January 2013)

Original post: 14 Sep 2009

I have been a rather harsh critic of Indian English-language media but I was pleased to see Mr Karan Thapar with good research systematically expose the other day the nonsense being purveyed by Mr Nandan Nilekani about the idea of branding each of a billion Indians with a government number. This is not Auschwitz.   Nor can India create an American-style Social Security Administration.  Mr Nilekani seems not to have the faintest idea about India’s poor and destitute, else he would not have made a statement like “We need one single, non-duplicate way of identifying a person and we need a mechanism by which we can authenticate that online anywhere because that can have huge benefits and impact on public services and also on making the poor more inclusive in what is happening in India today.”  (italics added)

What does he plan to do?  Haul away the hundreds of thousands of  homeless from the streets  and  flyovers of our major cities and start interrogating, measuring, photographing and fingerprinting them against their will?  On what ploy?  That without the number  he will give them they will not be able to continue to live and do what they have been doing for half a generation?  Or that they will get a delicious hot meal from the Taj or Oberoi if they cooperate?  And what about rural India?  Does he plan to make an aerial survey of India’s rural landscapes by helicopter to find whom he can catch to interrogate and fingerprint? It will be grotesquely amusing to see his cohorts try to identify and then haul away India’s poor from their normal activities — he and his friends will likely come to grief trying to do so!  Guaranteed.  And the people will cheer because they know fakery when they see it.

Mr Nilekani needs to ask his economist-friends to teach him about asymmetric information, incentive-compatiblity theory etc.  There have been several  Bank of Sweden prizes given to economists for this material, beginning with FA Hayek in 1974 or even earlier.

(As for the wholly different stated agenda of preventing crime and terrorism using Mr Nilekani’s numbering, might we recall that Kasab’s dead companions have remained unclaimed in a Mumbai morgue for almost ten months now?)

The whole exercise that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has with such fanfare set Mr Nilekani is ill-conceived and close to complete nonsense  — designed only to keep in business the pampered industry that Mr Nilekani has been part of as well as its bureaucratic friends.   The Prime Minister has made another error and should put a stop to it before it gets worse.   The poor have their privacy and their dignity.    They are going to refuse to waste their valuable time  at the margins of survival volunteering for such gimmickry.

A Discussion Regarding Mr Nilekani’s Public Project

September 15, 2009 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

In response to my “Nandan Nilekani’s Nonsensical Numbering”,

Friendly Critic says:

I don’t think registering everyone in the country is such a bad idea. It may be difficult. But the post office reaches letters to anyone in the country, even the homeless. I don’t think it is doing anything wrong.

I replied:

The post office reaches letters to those with an address.

Friendly Critic replied:

You are mistaken. It reaches letters to beggars, addressed to the nearest pan shop. To repeat, I do not think it is wrong to register all residents; there are some good uses for it. If it is all right to enumerate residents once every ten years, there is nothing wrong in maintaining a continuous inventory. Only the British have an aversion to doing so, on grounds of piracy. But even their electoral registers are based on enumeration. And to attack Nilekani simply because he has taken on a job offered seems excessive to me.

I replied:

Thanks for this correspondence.  We may be slightly at cross-purposes and there may be some miscomprehension.  Of course if a beggar has a pan-shop as an address, that is an address.   But we are not talking about the efficiency or lack thereof of our postal services.

We are talking about the viability and utility of trying to attach a number, as an identification tag, to every Indian — for the declared purposes of (a) battling absolute poverty (of the worst kind); and(b) battling terrorism and crime.

Many Indians have passports, driving licenses, Voter cards,  PAN numbers, mobile numbers etc.    I am sure giving them a Nandan Nilekani Number will be easy.  It will be, incidentally, lucrative for the IT industry.

It will also be pointless to the extent that these people, who may number into the hundreds of millions, are already adequately identifiable by one or two other forms of photo id-cards.   (By way of analogy incidentally, Americans used to cash cheques at supermarkets using one or two photo ids — but the Social Security Card or number was not allowed to be one of them as it had no photo.)

Neither of the two declared objectives will have been explicitly served by giving Nandan Nilekani Numbers to those already adequately identifiable.

My point about incentive-compatibility is that the intended beneficiaries in any program of this kind (namely the anonymous absolute poor) need to have clear natural incentives to participate in order to make it work.  Here there are none.  Taking the very poorest people off the streets or out of their hamlets to be interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted and enumerated against their will, when they may have many more valuable things to be doing with their time in order to survive, is a violation of their freedom, privacy and dignity.   Even if they submit to all this voluntarily, there are no obvious tangible benefits accruing to them as individuals as a result of this number (that many will not be able to read).

If those already adequately identifiable easily get an NNN (at low cost and without violation of indvidual freedom or dignity), while those who are the intended beneficiaries do not do so (except at high cost and with violations of individual freedom and dignity), that would enhance inequality.

Because such obvious points have failed to be accounted ab initio in this Big Business scheme paid for by public money, I have had to call it nonsensical.

Some follow-up  11 January 2013

From Facebook 11 January 2013

A biometrically generated large number is given to a very poor barely literate person and he/she is instructed that that is the key, the *sole* key, to riches and benefits from the state. The person lives on the margins of survival, eking out a daily income for himself/herself plus dependents under trying conditions. It is that absolute anonymous poor — who are *not* already identifiable easily through mobile numbers, voter id cards, drivers’ licenses etc — who are the intended beneficiaries. Suppose that person loses the card or has it stolen. Has the key to the riches and benefits from the state vanished? Those who are already easily identifiable need only produce alternative sources of identification and so for them to get the number as a means of identification is redundant, yet it is they who will likely have better access to the supposed benefits rather than the absolute poor. What New Delhi’s governing class fails to see is that the masses of India’s poor are not themselves a mass waiting for New Delhi’s handouts: they are *individuals*, free, rational, thinking individuals who know their own lives and resources and capacities and opportunities, and how to go about living their lives best. What they need is security, absence of state or other tyranny, roads, fresh water, electricity, functioning schools for their children, market opportunities for work, etc, not handouts from a monarch or aristocrats or businessmen….

Finally, a dozen years late, the Sonia-Manmohan Congress takes a small Rajivist step: Yes Prime Minister, our Judiciary is indeed a premier public good (or example of “infrastructure” to use that dreadful bureaucratic term)

I was very harsh and did not beat about the bush in my Sep 23-24 2007 article  in The Statesman “Against Quackery” when I said in its subtitle

“Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms”.

I said inter alia

“WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason. The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc….Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it. …Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991. The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size….Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.”

Days after the article appeared there were press reports Dr Singh was murmuring about quitting, and then came a fierce speech in Hindi from the Congress President saying “enemies” would receive their dues or whatever – only to be retracted a few days later saying that no more had been meant than a local critique of the BJP in Haryana politics!  (Phew! I said to myself in relief…)

Today I am very happy to learn that Dr Manmohan Singh spoke on Sunday of the importance of the Rule of Law and an effective and efficient judiciary. The new Law Minister in the second Sonia-Manmohan Government has been eagerly saying the same.

All this is constructive and positive, late as it is since Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh both became heavy-duty Congress Party politicians for the first time a dozen years ago.

I was privileged to advise a previous Congress President in his last months from September 1990 as has been told elsewhere. And six years before that I had  said:

“….….The most serious examples of the malfunctioning of civil government in India are probably the failure to take feasible public precautions against the monsoons and the disarray of the judicial system. …The Statesman lamented in July 1980:`The simplest matter takes an inordinate amount of time, remedies seldom being available to those without means or influence. Of the more than 16,000 cases pending in the Supreme Court, about 5,000 were introduced more than five years ago; while nearly 16,000 of the backlog of more than 600,000 cases in our high courts have been hanging fire for over a decade. Allahabad is the worst offender but there are about 75,000 uncleared cases in the Calcutta High Court in addition to well over a million in West Bengal’s lower courts.” Such a state of affairs has been caused not only by lazy and corrupt policemen, court clerks and lawyers, but also by the paucity of judges and magistrates. . . . a vast volume of laws provokes endless litigation as much because of poor drafting which leads to disputes over interpretation as because they appear to violate particular rights and privileges…. When governments determinedly do what they need not or should not do, it may be expected that they will fail to do what civil government positively should be doing.” A few months ago was the 25th anniversary of this statement… ! 🙂

Yes Prime Minister, having an effective and efficient judiciary is indeed a premier public good and one that has failed to be provided to India’s people from Nehru’s time and through Indira’s. I managed to persuade Rajiv about it completely. Might I next be so bold as to draw attention as well to the paragraphs of the 2007 article that followed?

“Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.  Government accounts: Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.”

Subroto Roy