Serial Bus

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Small Change for India’s Piggy-bank!!

with 5 comments

(I must admit upfront that this post is inspired by the Tipping Point theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, who in turn was inspired by several serious researchers.)

Very often, policy makers and newspaper editors recommend heavyweight reforms for India’s development. The trouble with such ideas is that they get mired in interest-group politics and snail-pace legislation, making implementation nigh impossible. I think we need small triggers that will unleash bigger change in the long term however, their immediate purpose would be much more obvious and un-disagreeable.

I suggest below ten changes that may be small to start with but will help India leapfrog in a big way ultimately. Some of these have already been identified as important while others may still be obscure. Some have significant immediate impact per se but a much huger impact in the long term. Some have already begun to pay dividends while others have yet to achieve critical mass. Please add to the list.

1. Mobile telephony for masses: It is difficult to say exactly how many percentage points in India’s GDP growth over the last 3-4 years have been a direct result of better and wider communication infrastructure but it undeniably has contributed a few notches. Mobile phones (Reliance, BSNL et al) have broken the so-called digital divide of India and allowed people to connect for social and economic reasons.

2. Reality TV shows: The social consciousness (or as Germans put it elegantly, zeitgeist) churns faster when people vote for a contestant of Sa Re Ga Ma or when an enthusiastic family from an uncharacteristic neighborhood in Jamnagar auditions for ‘Rock & Roll Family’. Reality shows are continuation of democracy through other means. A selection process that provides equal opportunity to street-side vendors & college-going youngsters is a great leveler. This process of empowerment and social inclusion got a shot in the arm when ‘Dus Ka Dum’ recently invited an auto-rickshaw driver, a paanwallah, a eunuch and a sweeper to share the same stage with Salman Khan that famous celebrities did. Admittedly, rural India is still out of the spell of these shows but the way middle class has been energized by a ‘Boogie Woogie’ or an ‘Indian Idol’ is mind-blowing.

3. Digitization of government records: Long back, when I did not know what a four-letter word meant, I saw someone wearing a t-shirt that said ‘govt is a four-letter word’. The statement seemed a bit tautological (this is to let you know that it was really long back). A common man in India has to face the tyranny of the ironically-named ‘civil servants’ almost on a daily basis. From the beat havaldar to the clerk at the RTO; from the kanungo at a court to the CMO at a public hospital; from the patwari at a land records office to an apathetic railway station master at Delhi Junction, most Indians wish away the possibility of interaction with the government. We can take away a lot of bite from the process by creating an electronic interface between the government and the masses. If Google Books can digitize some really obscure books written by English missionaries traveling the remote province of Kumaon in the early 19th century, I am sure we can provide online digitized records of land, court cases, bills, budget, accounts, electoral spending and other similar documents that have no strategic importance. This would be a logical extension of the Right to Information legislation; after all, why reveal information only after one goes through the bureaucratic triplicate! Subsequently, private information should be accessible through secure online platforms – filing a police case, court case, business license application or a driver’s license application should be possible in the same way as an ICICI or an HDFC Bank allows a customer to transfer funds online.

4. Interstate highways: The Golden Quadrilateral project is India’s big brown hope. The process has not been easy and importance of this project is not lost on anyone. However, the ripple effects of this project, once complete and functional, will be felt for centuries in India’s social and economic landscape. By bringing economic opportunity closer to the masses who appear excluded from India’s economic juggernaut, the GQ project will also nullify caste divisions and cultural barriers that no legislation has ever been able to repeal.

5. High-speed internet access: In nineties, several long distance under-ocean fiber optic cables were laid out connecting Indian peninsula and rest of the world. After the dot com bust, this excess capacity provided a big boost to India’s fledgling BPO industry. Now, we need more in order for the 3G/4G technologies to take off in India. If more frequencies (currently cornered by the Defense Forces) are made available and access to them is commercialized, it will again spurt economic and social developments in ways which we can only begin to visualize. While a big majority of India’s population may not be computer-literate yet, even if we can get the thought-leaders to freely start a business (e.g. a KPO provider) or express themselves (e.g. blogging), it will create good momentum for larger change.

6. Vouchers for education: Reform of India’s education system has been a priority for decades now however there is a great divergence of views on the best path to nirvana. Education vouchers that put school (& college) choice in the hands of consumers is a great way to put focus back on the purpose of educational institutions and the importance of that purpose. For more information, please check out the excellent School Choice campaign run by Centre for Civil Society, Delhi. India’s human resources have earned laurels across the globe due to some centers of excellence; any progress otherwise has been made despite the system, not due to it. Education vouchers will bring competition and quality to our centers of learning. Of all changes suggested here, this has been the most unappreciated and disputed. Again, the obstacles to this process pale in comparison to the benefits that India stands to reap in a generation or two, if this can be pushed.

7. Make electronic payments mandatory for all private and government purposes: A lot of that is wrong with India is attributable to corruption in public and private environments, especially in areas where they overlap. More often than not, the corruption is manifested through a demand for or need to bribe. Instead of enacting laws that outlaw corruption, let us try something simpler – reduce the possibility of illicit money exchange by enforcing NEFT/RTGS payments on every government and private enterprise for all payments above a certain threshold. We should aim to remove the usefulness of black money for all ventures like buying property, jewelery or consumer goods. An audit trail created through electronic payments will at least limit, if not eliminate corruption at high levels. At a lower level, where poor entrepreneurs and common people have to grease the palms of a policeman or a public official, I am not sure what can be done. Any ideas?

8. Encourage non-profit NGOs: The primary characteristic of a non-profit NGO is that it does not coerce; instead, it relies on volunteers to achieve a constituency for its actions. This aspect is self-redeeming for an NGO even if its actual motives may be suspect (e.g. lobbying for business) and its impact may be dubious (e.g. ideological conversion through an economic bait). The volunteerism that NGOs rely on make them a potent instrument of change. Not only can they extend the government’s reach into marginal societies, there is an ample case for them to be an effective substitute for government. In order to multiply the force of this institution, we must make it easy to establish a non-profit and then, we must create incentives for NGOs to succeed. If volunteers are ill-informed and pliable, NGOs have the potential to inflame the society; to avoid this, an NGO must be subject to minimum monitoring that ensures transparency of its charter, its source of funds and its objectives (this information should be available online for media to probe and at public places for citizens to weigh).

9. Tax-free income for home-run businesses: Women who run the house contribute significantly (& invisibly) to the national GDP by providing household services; it is a pity this never gets counted. There is a lot of entrepreneurial energy that is trapped within Indian homes. We can unleash this energy by allowing housewives (& househusbands) to run small-scale businesses from their homes, tax-free & hassle-free. Easy registration, easy audit and no sharing of profits with the government. To ensure nobody erects a reeking contraption in the backyard, there would need to be an approved list of businesses (mostly services) e.g. mail-order, IT services, education, catering, handicrafts. Lest this sound protectionist to anyone, these services would not be reserved for households and the tax-free status would apply only under a certain turnover. Once you cross that threshold, the business would cease receiving any special treatment.

10. Pick up say, two sports and excel: It is said that nation-building is much easier if citizens behave as stake-holders. Indians have long been accused of the bystander mentality; popularly referred to as the ‘chalta hai’ attitude. How do you inspire people to take action and behave responsibly? This is a difficult question however, one of the ways is to instill national pride in people. One of the safe ways we can do this (without being jingoistic) is by excelling at, let’s say, two sports. Alright we are good at cricket but that’s not an Olympic sport. If one gold medal in shooting could create waves, imagine the watershed if Indian athletes won all the track gold medals and if a certain Kaushik Mitra won 8 gold medals in swimming instead of Michael Phelps. This is not impossible; China did something similar in gymnastics this year after being an also-ran in this sport until 10 years back. Can India win all gymnastics golds in 2016? Yes, and once we do, the resulting pride will perhaps cascade into Indians using trash cans more often.

 

Small changes have the advantage of an unfettered passage & quicker implementation. They push the envelope subtly and through proxy ways, they help evolve the mindset of a people without being didactic or imperial. We need a lot of such small change in India’s big gullack (i.e. piggy-bank).

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Written by serialbus

September 21, 2008 at 8:44 pm

5 Responses

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  1. nice post

    kusuma

    September 22, 2008 at 3:13 am

  2. its an interesting post.I think post offices which are situated all over india should also be fully computerised.I don’t understand why this dept is neglected.The post office staff is still using the archaic ledgers when all over india there is cumpterization going on in full swing This will definitely improve the customer service

    VASANTHI

    September 23, 2008 at 1:38 am

  3. Tax free income for housewives and househusbands is a great idea, but how can one regulate or audit it. I have a neighbour in kerala who is excellant in costume design and tailoring. But unfortunately she comes from the upper echelon of the society with enough and more income (from farm lands) and still dont pay any taxes. Should the entire in-home revenue be tax free or should it be combined with the whole household income to be determined to be tax free.

    Will Indian infrastructure and national budget improve drastically if the taxcode of India become less leniant to tax evaders?

    AK77

    September 24, 2008 at 9:43 am

  4. congrates,you have great potential.This is the best way to share your understanding and help the country grow.I want do add that the Indian Post-Office is getting a face-lift very soon.(reference-comment by Ms Vasanthi)Waiting for the next write next week

    vijayasati

    September 24, 2008 at 10:54 am

  5. very good list of Top 10 Reforms, Mohit! glad to see that one of them is school vouchers, the issue that Swaminathan Aiyar, Gurcharan Das and Jerry Rao have written about in just last 10 days.

    Parth

    September 28, 2008 at 4:49 pm


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