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Of money good or black, digital or paper

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500 and 1000 Indian rupee banknotes are kept in front of an image of the Hindu deities at a cash counter inside a bank in Jammu, November 10, 2016 REUTERS/ Mukesh Gupta

500 and 1000 Indian rupee banknotes are kept in front of an image of the Hindu deities at a cash counter inside a bank in Jammu, November 10, 2016 REUTERS/ Mukesh Gupta

The decision by the BJP government on 8 November to demonetise the 500 and 1,000 rupee currency notes has been presented as “strength in the fight against corruption, black money, money laundering, terrorism and financing of terrorists as well as counterfeit notes”.

The release added: “Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi made these important announcements during a televised address to the nation on the evening of Tuesday 8th November 2016. He said that these decisions will fully protect the interests of honest and hard-working citizens of India and that those five hundred and one thousand rupee notes hoarded by anti-national and anti-social elements will become worthless pieces of paper.”

Rs 14 lakh crore – 86% of the value of Indian currency currently in circulation – became useless from midnight of November 8, 2016. The Rs 500 notes amount to Rs 7.85 lakh crore and Rs 1,000 notes amount to Rs 6.33 lakh crore, according to Reserve Bank of India data. The immediate result was panic, in hundreds of towns and cities, as citizens ran for ATMs. Confusion prevailed as on the next day, 9 November, all banks were to shut to the public and ATMs too.

There was chaos outside hospitals, railway stations and petrol pumps which were allowed to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes till Friday (but interpreted the directions as they pleased). Smaller denomination notes such as Rs 100 and Rs 50 were in short supply due to the heavy demand. Small traders, rickshaw pullers, taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers, daily wage labour, and unorganised sector workers said they have been hit hard.

This public inconvenience was necessary, said the government, to have the time to restock bank branches and ATMs with new currency notes and to prepare the bank branches for the exchange services they would have to begin on 10 November.

The government explained that:

1. A law was passed in 2015 on disclosure of foreign bank accounts. In August 2016 strict rules were put in place to curtail benami transactions. During the same period a scheme to declare black money was introduced. These efforts have over the past two and a half years, brought more than Rs. 1.25 lakh crore of black money into the open.

2. These efforts have led to India emerging as “a bright spot in the global economy”, a preferred destination for investment and an easier place to do business in. “Leading financial agencies have shared their optimism about India’s growth as well.”

3. Indian enterprise and innovation has received a fillip due to the ‘Make in India’, ‘Start up India’ and ‘Stand up India’ programmes for enterprise, innovation and research in India.

There is no doubt that India’s economy has been plagued by the creation of wealth in some quarters that is obscenely disproportionate to the stated sources of individual and family income (see the press release from the Department of Economic Affairs, pdf). This has for long signalled corruption, and the means by which the corrupt (both giver and taker) become so is cash (but not only). The demonetisation has affected the political class and bureaucracy which accounted for the bulk of the corrupt money. The other difficulty the government and enforcement agencies have grappled with especially over the last decade is counterfeit currency notes, which have been used to maintain anti-national, secessionist and terrorist networks.

With about 86% (by rupee value) of currency in circulation being in the notes that have been demonetised. There are 16.5 billion Rs 500 notes and 6.7 billion Rs 1,000 notes in circulation now, and replacing them with lower denomination notes, and also the new series of Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes, will take several weeks.

Old high denomination bank notes are seen kept in buckets at a counter as people stand in a queue to deposit their money inside a bank in the northern city of Kanpur, India, November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Old high denomination bank notes are seen kept in buckets at a counter as people stand in a queue to deposit their money inside a bank in the northern city of Kanpur, India, November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

I have several concerns about the demonetisation of the 500 and 1,000 currency notes, and the accompanying directions that the banking and financial services sector in India is now pushing the public.

Question 1 – Estimates are that currency in public circulation in 2006 was around Rs 4 lakh crore. In 2016 it was about Rs 16 lakh crore. If this estimate is of what RBI printed, why did it for ten years print physical currency at a rate higher than top annual GDP growth estimates?

This article explains the extraordinary rise of cash economy through high denomination notes, powered by generation of black money in real estate, stocking of gold, bribery and corruption. But it does not help answer my question above. “While the high denomination notes made illegal businesses, including hawala transactions to transfer money out of India easy to execute, it has facilitated huge tax evasion even in the otherwise lawful businesses. High denomination notes have made it easy for the bribe taker to handle huge bribes with ease.”

Question 2 – As the 500 and 1000 notes are ‘high value’ and so used for hoarding ‘black’ cash, why is the higher of the two (1000) being replaced by a note twice its value, that is, Rs 2000?

Since yesterday, there have been explanations offered about the effect of demonetisation on consumption and on slowing down an economy whose GDP growth is rated as the best amongst the large economies. “Consumer spending will likely fall in the immediate weeks as households adjust to the new system. India’s economy grew 7.1 percent during April to June, the slowest in 15 months, but the government and experts have been pointing out that a pick-up was likely in the next few months riding on good rains, a pay bonanza for government employees and festive-season buying.”

According to the national income data for the first quarter (April-June) of 2016-17, private final consumption expenditure (PFCE) – which measures household spending – at current prices is estimated at Rs 21.19 lakh crore, or about 55% of the gross domestic product (GDP). These are the numbers that a new class of ‘growth’ advocates in India are betting on. There is a connection to inflation – in the price of services, cost of manufactured articles and the prices of food – which however has not been answered as yet. Raising the denomination of the highest value currency note from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 is in my view such a signal.

A person stands with his documents in a queue outside a branch of the State Bank of india as people wait to exchange old high denomination bank notes in Old Delhi, India, November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

A person stands with his documents in a queue outside a branch of the State Bank of india as people wait to exchange old high denomination bank notes in Old Delhi, India, November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

A number of petitions challenging the notification by the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Government of India (which is the order for demonetisation) have been lodged at various High Courts and with the Supreme Court. Some protest the order as “illegal and arbitrary” and others for the order not granting reasonable time for ordinary citizens (presumably with legitimate cash in hand) to comply without jeopardising livelihood (by having to spend time in bank branches, for which leave is to be taken or a day’s income has to be foregone). While the Supreme Court may hear a petition next week, the response of the Madras High Court – that it cannot interfere in the policies of the government related to monetary system – should help prise open to greater public scrutiny one of the most opaque areas of policy making: the public monetary and fiscal system.

Question 3 – Is the net monetary gain by Government of India – more physical money from the ‘black economy’ brought onto the national accounts books – a way to ensure that India will next financial year also record the ‘fastest GDP growth’ (without the manufacturing, service and agriculture sectors doing so)?

For this question I can see only a few partial answers. These have to do with the enlargement of the digital rupee and digital payments, and this is the most serious concern. A government-appointed panel was set up in August to suggest ways such as tax rebates and ‘cash back’ to incentivise card and digital transactions. The government is also examining the feasibility to create a history for all card and digital payments, how to use the Aadhar database for authenticating card/digital transactions, providing low-cost micro-credit based on credit history.

Another partial answer comes from the Ministry of Finance, which said that “weak global demand” is among the “strongest challenges” in the near term for Indian economy. “Weak global demand is one among the strongest challenges in the near term. Exports and imports together constitute 42 per cent of the GDP (gross domestic product), even at the reduced levels in 2015-16.” The ministry said that reviving the savings and investment cycle in economy is challenging. The savings rate that stood at 34.6% in 2011-12, declined to 33% in 2014-15. Investment rate declined from 39% of GDP in 2011-12 to 34.2% in 2014-15. So these are the conventional macro-economic arguments, but the demonetisation will as I see it push any revival in savings and investment in quite a different direction from what the rural and agricultural base of the population require.

That direction is the ‘cashless’ one, with cash being blamed for fuelling the black economy. This is a danger-filled direction, one which we have already had a troubled history to look back at recently – the micro-credit bubble of the 2000-10 decade – to serve as a guide of what not to do. The banking and financial services industry has been expanding over the last two years, in tandem with the mobile telecom industry, with mobile payments and ‘wallets’.

“You cannot have 12% of India’s GDP in shape of currency,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said. “Ideally developed countries have only about 4% and therefore you have to squeeze the amount of currency available and you need to get people into the habit of using digital, cheques, plastic currency and so on.” This – apart from the short-term gain by herding cash hoards into banks to be taxed – is what the direction is: the rupee as a bit, the rupee’s already tenuous basis in a physical standard now becoming more virtual, and this in a monetary and fiscal environment about which the public has scant understanding and in which the public has no participation.

Such a direction only widens the already troublesome gap between an acceptable physical basis for a value that the rupee represents (we have no gold standard, or any other acceptable equivalent) and the assigning of a notional value to a digital rupee whose issue, transfer and control will be entirely electronic. When viewed against the increasing “liberalisation” (or increasing “reforms”) of the banking, insurance, non-banking finance, financial services, small credit industries that has taken place in the last two years, and especially the opening up of these new services to foreign direct investment (FDI), the picture of the cashless economy so strenuously advocated by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Consider this gleeful reaction from what is called the fintech sector (we had IT, BT and there’s FT): “We might grow 10x when it comes to digital payments. Today, three to five percent of the transactions happen digitally, but we will see a 10x growth to almost 15–20% when it comes to digital transactions in the country. This is huge and this rise in digital transactions will lead to a digital exhaust where better credit risk scoring will happen, catapulting into exponential growth.”

This is the very troubling new landscape that the demonetisation decision – taken with the good reason of weeding out a black economy – has brought the rupee into.

Written by makanaka

November 10, 2016 at 09:26

Disband the ministry for women and children

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Perhaps better known for her penchant to find ways to police social media, the ministry headed by Maneka Gandhi has accommodated NGOs and their agendas easily.

There have in 2016 been several occasions when the work of the Ministry of Women and Child Development has come into the public glare. Not for reasons concerned with the welfare of women and children but instead for the words and actions of its minister, Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, on matters such as abuse of women in social media and paternity leave.

It is however with regard to the subjects that this ministry is concerned with – women and children of Bharat – that the most serious questions arise. As a separate ministry it is only a little over ten years old, having earlier been a department in the Ministry of Education (as the Ministry of Human Resources Development was earlier known) and with the department having been created in 1985.

What does this ministry do? In its own words: “The Ministry was constituted with the prime intention of addressing gaps in State action for women and children for promoting inter-Ministerial and inter-sectoral convergence to create gender equitable and child-centred legislation, policies and programmes.” The programmes and schemes run and managed by the ministry deal with welfare and support services for women and children, training for employment and the earning of incomes, gender sensitisation and the raising of awareness about the particular problems faced by women and children.

The ministry says that its work plays “a supplementary and complementary role to the other general developmental programmes in the sectors of health, education, rural development etc” so that women are “empowered both economically and socially and thus become equal partners in national development along with men”.

In my view there are several problems afflicting this ministry, not only in terms of what it says its work is, but also in how it goes about its work. As was the case in other countries that were once called the Third World (later called “under-developed” or “developing” countries and now called “emerging markets”), the creation of such departments or ministries came about as an adjunct to the worldwide concern about population growth, and which in Bharat had been through a particularly contentious phase in the 1970s.

Programme promotion material from the WCD. Nice pictures of children, but where are the families they belong to?

Programme promotion material from the WCD. Nice pictures of children, but where are the families they belong to?

That in our case a department was turned into a ministry needs to be considered against a background that has become very relevant now, for the year was 2006 and the Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs) had gone through their first set of comprehensive reviews and ‘corrections’. It is relevant because the problems concerning how the Ministry of WCD is now going about its work has to do with the successor to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Looking back even only as far as recent weeks, the view, conduct and agency of this ministry calls into question, in my view, the need for it to continue as a separate ministry. Do read TS Ranga who provides a trailer into the bewildering whims and fancies of the minister. And here is a short list of the very substantial problem areas:

1. “Healthy Food to Pregnant Women-Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)”. This means provision of supplementary nutrition to children (6 months to 6 years), pregnant women and lactating mothers. A variety of measures are needed to ensure provision: ‘Take Home Ration’, a conditional cash transfer scheme to give maternity benefit, ‘Village Health and Nutrition Days’ held monthly at anganwadi centres, tackling iron deficiency anaemia, a national conditional cash transfer to incentivise institutional delivery at public health facilities.

2. “Universal Food Fortification”. Fortification of food items like salt, edible oil, milk, wheat and rice with iron, folic acid, Vitamin-D and Vitamin-A “to address the issue of malnutrition and to evolve a policy and draft legislation/regulation on micronutrient fortification”.

3. “Beneficiaries of Supplementary Nutrition Programme under ICDS”. The increase in the number of beneficiaries is linked to the “Development Agenda for 2016-2030 of the United Nations” (the SDGs). The ministry delivers three of six ICDS services through the public health infrastructure under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.

4. “National Plan of Action for Children 2016”. The draft plan is based on principles contained in the National Policy for Children 2013 and categorises the rights of the children under four areas. The draft is being developed by ministries, state governments, and civil society organisations.

5. “ICDS Being Completely Revamped To Address The Issue Of Malnutrition”. The ministry is undertaking a complete revamp of the ICDS programme as the level of malnutrition in the country continues to be high. The digitisation of anganwadis is being taken up for real-time monitoring of every child and every pregnant and lactating mother. The ministry wants supplementary nutrition to be standardised through both manufacturing and distribution.

A great deal about 'nutrition', but nothing about the agricultural environment which supplies the nutrition. Unless by 'nutrition' the WCD considers only what MNCs produce as supplements and food 'fortification'.

A great deal about ‘nutrition’, but nothing about the agricultural environment which supplies the nutrition. Unless by ‘nutrition’ the WCD considers only what MNCs produce as supplements and food ‘fortification’.

6. “WCD Ministry and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sign Memorandum of Cooperation”. The memorandum is for technical support to strengthen the nutrition programme in Bharat and includes ICT-based real-time monitoring of ICDS services. The motive is for national and state capacities to be strengthened to deliver nutrition interventions during pre-conception, pregnancy and first two years of life. There will be technological innovation, sharing best practices and use of data and evidence.

7. “ICT enabled Real-Time Monitoring System of ICDS”. The web-enabled online digitisation “will strengthen the monitoring of the service delivery of anganwadis, help improve the nutrition levels of children and help meet nutrition goals”. This will help draw the nutrition profile of each village and address the problem of malnutrition by getting real-time reports from the grassroot level. It will start with a project assisted by International Development Association (IDA) in 162 high burden districts of eight states covering 3.68 lakh anganwadis.

8. “Draft National Policy for Women, 2016”. The policy is being revised after 15 years and is expeceted to guide Government action on women’s issues over the next 15-20 years. “Several things have changed since the last policy of 2001 especially women’s attitude towards themselves and their expectations from life”.

9. “Stakeholders Consultations Held For Policy On Food Fortification“. A consultation with stakeholders was held to evolve a comprehensive policy including draft regulations on micronutrient fortification.

What do these tell us?

a) The ministry does not consider either women or children to be part of a family, or an extended family, or a joint family, nor are they part of a village community consisting of peers and elders. The extremely essential months during which women conceive, the post natal period, and the life of the infant until the age of two or three is – under this view – to be monitored and governed by the ministry and its agents. There is in neither of the draft plans mentioned in the points above the briefest mention of culture or community.

b) Such a view, distasteful and profoundly disruptive as it is to the institution of family, has come about because of the influences upon the ministry. Women and children are seen in this view as factors of consumption even within the family, and the decisions pertaining to what they consume, how much and when are to be controlled for lengthy periods of time by implementers and partners of the ministry’s programmes and schemes, which themselves are shaped by an international list called the SDGs in whose framing these women, children and their families played no part.

c) Sheltering behind the excuse of delivering the services of the ICDS, the ministry through its association with the Gates Foundation plans to collect at an individual level the medical data of millions of infants and mothers, for use as evidence. By whom? By the partners of the Gates Foundation and its allies which are the multi-national pharmaceutical industry, the multi-national agriculture and crop science industry and the multi-national processed foods industry. Hence we see the insistence on biofortification, micronutrients, ready-to-eat take-home rations and the money being provided (by the government through cash transfers) to buy these substances. The ICDS budget for the duration of the Twelfth Five Year Plan which ends in March 2017 is Rs 1,23,580 crore – a gigantic sum distributed amongst several thousand projects with a few hundred local implementing agencies including NGOs.

d) These objectives alone are reason enough to have the officials concerned, including the minister, immediately suspended and charge-sheeted for conspiracy against the public of Bharat. It is far beyond shameful that the valid reasons of malnutrition and gaps in the provision of essential services are being twisted in a manner that can scarcely be grasped. The 10.3 million children and women that are in the ICDS ‘supplementary nutrition’ net today form potentially the largest legitimised medical trial in the world, but with none of the due diligence, informed consent and independent supervision required for such trials in the so-called developed countries.

e) The ministry is entirely in thrall to its foreign ‘development partners’ – UNICEF, World Bank, DFID, WFP and USAID. For this reason the ministry has had the closest and cosiest of arrangements, from amongst all central ministries, with non-government organisations (NGOs) foreign and national. The international bodies such as UNICEF and the World Food Program (WFP) and the large national aid agencies (Britain’s DFID and the USA’s USAID) provide programme funding to NGOs international and national who work with and advise the WCD ministry. In the 2000s this was in order to comply with the Millennium Development Goals, now it is for the SDGs, and this is why the policy view of the ministry aligns with the UN SDGs rather than with the needs of our families whether rural or urban.

What is the remedy? The ministry manages several programmes that are critical for a large number of families all over Bharat. However these are programmes that have much in common with the aims and programmes of three ministries in particular: the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, and the Ministry of Human Resources Development (for matters pertaining to regulation and policy, the Ministry of Law and justice). These three ministries become the natural recipients of the responsibilities borne thus far by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and when such a transfer of allied duties is effected, some of the most important years in the lives of the children and women of Bharat will not become data points and consumption instances for corporations but return to being families.

Written by makanaka

August 30, 2016 at 22:43

The ideologies about knowledge

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RG_TERI_terragreen_201605

The few paragraphs that follow are taken from my recent article for the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) magazine, Terragreen. Published in the 2016 May issue, the article links what we often call traditional knowledge with the ways in which we understand ecology and the ways in which we are defining ‘sustainable development’.

quotes-blueSustainable development has today become a commonly used term, yet it describes a concept that is still being considered by different kinds of societies, by each in a manner of its choosing. This has happened because while historically how societies grew to be ‘developed’ was a process that took a variety of pathways, today the prescribed pathway to the ‘modern’ scarcely changes from one country to another.

Hence culturally what these societies have considered as being ‘sustainable’ behaviour – each according to its ecological context – is being replaced by a prescribed template in which interpretations are discouraged. Such a regime of prescription has led only to the obscuring of the many different kinds of needs felt by communities that desire a ‘development’ that makes cultural sense, but also of the kinds of knowledge which will allow that ‘development’ to be sustainable.

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Click for image pdf (600kb) of article

Some of this knowledge we can readily see. To employ labels whose origin is western, these streams of knowledge and practice are called traditional knowledge, intangible cultural heritage, indigenous wisdom, folk traditions, or indigenous and local knowledge. These labels help serve as gateways to understand both the ideas, ‘development’ and ‘sustainable’. It is well that they do for today, very much more conspicuously than 20 years earlier, there is a concern for declining biodiversity, about the pace and direction of global environmental change, a concern over the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the diminishing of community identity.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation – this is perceived across cultures, geographical scales (that is, from local units such as a village, to national governments), and knowledge systems (and this includes both formal and non-formal ways of recognising these systems). The need for such a new dialogue on the situation is expressed in several global science-policy initiatives, both older and recent, such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) which is now 22 years old, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), whose first authoritative reports became available in 2015.

Development whose sustainability is defined locally and implemented locally means that the ‘investment’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ (terms that have become popular to describe development efforts) comes from the people themselves. Many diverse agencies at this level – civil society, youth groups, vocational networks, small philanthropies – assist such development and provide the capacities needed. This is the level at which the greatest reliance on cultural approaches takes place, endogenously.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and bearers of traditional knowledge, together with the communities to which they belong, who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with. Besides, they possess the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.

Ten years of India’s great rural guarantee

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RG_Nrega_20160203Ten years of a rural employment guarantee programme in India is well worth marking for the transformations it has brought about in rural districts and urban towns both, for the two kinds of Indias are so closely interlinked. The ten year mark has been surrounded by opportunistic political posturing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the ruling National Democratic Alliance and by churlish accusations from the Indian National Congress (or Congress party, now in the opposition).

When the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act came about (it is now prefixed by MG, which is Mahatma Gandhi) ten years ago, it was only the newest in a long line of rural poverty alleviation programmes whose beginnings stretch past the Integrated Rural Development Programme (still a touchstone during the Ninth Five Year Plan) whose early period dates from the 1970s as a more coherent manifestation of the ‘Food For Work’ programme. Democratic decentralisation, which is casually dropped into central government communications nowadays as if it was invented only last week, was explained at length as early as the Sixth Five Year Plan. And in the Fourth Five Year Plan, in the guidance section it was stated that measures were needed for “widening opportunities of productive work and employment to the common man and particularly the less privileged sections of society” which “have to be thought out in a number of different contexts and coordinated in to effective, integrated programmes”.

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Work demand patterns in four districts (all in Maharashtra) from 2012 April to 2016 February. The cyclical nature of work demanded usually coincides with crop calendar activities in districts and sub-districts. This aspect of the MGNREGA information system can be used as a good indicator for planning by other line ministries, not only rural development. We can see the difference between the set of two districts of Akola and Gondiya, and the districts of Washim and Hingoli: the cyclical nature in the first two is more pronounced. The April to June demand is seen common, and increasing over the three years recorded by the charts.

This is only the barest glimpse of the historical precursors to the MGNREGA. The size of our rural population in the decade of the 2010s transforms any national (central government) programme into a study of gigantism over a number of dimensions, and so it is with the (MG)NREGA whose procedural demands for organising information over time and place became a discipline by itself, leading to the creation of a management information system whose levels of detail are probably unmatched anywhere in the world.

For its administrators, every week that the MGNREGA delivers money to households in a hamlet for work sanctioned by that small panchayat is one more successful week. There have over this last decade been considerably more successful weeks than unsuccessful ones. This has happened not because of politicians of whichever party of persuasion, but because of the decision made by many households to participate in the shape that NREGA (and later MGNREGA) took in their particular village. The politicians, like the parties they belong to, are incidental and transitory. At this stage of the programme’s life, it is to be hoped that it continues to run as a participatory pillar of the economy of Bharat, and assimilates in the years to come new concerns from the domains of organic (or zero budget) agriculture, sustainable development and ecological conservation.

At this stage the commentaries look back at the last year or perhaps two of the programme. “It is unclear, however, what the present NDA government thinks about the performance of the scheme,” commented the periodical Down To Earth. “Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called MGNREGA a ‘monument of failure’. Now, the rural development ministry has termed it as ‘a cause of national pride’.” The magazine went on to add that MGNREGA “started losing steam when wages were kept pending, leading to the liability being carried forward to the following year”.

“What is relatively less known is the impact of MGNREGA on several other aspects of the rural economy, such as wages, agricultural productivity and gender empowerment,” a commentary in the financial daily Mint has pointed out. “While most critics lament the quality of assets created under MGNREGA, there is now increasing evidence based on rigorous studies, which suggest that not only has the asset quality been better than comparable government programmes, they are also used more by the community.”

The finance minister has been quoted by the daily Indian Express as follows: “A kind of indifference towards it (MGNREGA) was growing by 2013-14, when the scheme entered its seventh and eighth years. When there was a change of government in 2014-15, there was talk on whether the scheme will be discontinued, or its fund allocation curtailed,” Minister Arun Jaitley is reported to have said at the MGNREGA ‘Sammelan’ in New Delhi. “The new government [the BJP] not only took forward the scheme but also increased its fund.”

In a Press Information Bureau release, the Minister for Rural Development, Birender Singh, said that 2015-16 has seen a revival of the MGNREGA programme. He also said that more than 64% of total expenditure was on agriculture and allied activities and 57% of all workers were women (well above the statutory requirement of 33%), and that among the measures responsible for the “revival of MGNREGA are the timely release of funds to states to provide work on demand, an electronic fund management system, consistent coordination between banks and post offices besides monitoring of pendency of payments”.

RG_Nrega_MAH_wages_201602So far so good. What MGNREGA administrators need to mind now is for managerial technology and methods to not get ahead (or around) the objectives of the programme because these tend to keep the poor and vulnerable out instead of the other way around. The evaluations and studies on NREGA – and there have been a number of good ones – have shown that the more new financial and administrative measures there are, the greater the decline in participation in the programme. Administrative complexity also provides fodder to those, like this pompous commentator, who try to find in data ‘evidence’ that NREGA does “not help the poor”.

The MGNREGA’s usefulness and relevance is not only about creating employment when it is needed and its generally positive impact on wages. For all its shortcomings the MGNREGA programme has also helped revitalise the need to understand labour dynamics in rural areas particularly as it pertains to agriculture and cultivation. At a time when the flashier sections of the modern economy have lost their shine (if ever there was a shine) and when the need for panchayat-led, village-centric development that is self-reliant in deed and spirit is growing in Bharat, a programme like the MGNREGA has all the potential to serve the country well for another generation.

Written by makanaka

February 3, 2016 at 19:04

The uses of a Nobel prize in economics

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The 2015 Nobel prize for economics has been awarded to Angus Deaton, who is based in the Princeton University, in USA. Deaton’s work has been on poverty and his contemporaries in the field are Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze; all three have focused on poverty, malnutrition, consumption by households and how to measure these.

Herewith my view which I set out in a series of 37 tweets:

1 – like every single Nobel award category, the one for economics is calculated recognition of the use of Western ideas.
2 – There is no Nobel in economics for, say, Pacific islander economics or nomadic/pastoral economics. The boundary is clear.
3 – There is the additional problem, and it is a weighty one, of what is being recognised: a science or a thought experiment?
4 – Western economics can only ever and at best pretend to be a science (ignore the silly equations). There’s more.
5 – It has to do with food and food consumption choices. Do remember that. For the last 5-6 years the food MNCs and their..
6 – collaborators in Bharat have moved from hunger to nutrition. Remember that we grow enough food for all our households..
7 – and there are in 2016 about 175 million rural and 83 million urban households. So, food is there but choice is not yet..
8 – as clear as the marketeers and retailers pretend. No one truly knows, but economists claim to, and this one does.
9 – What then follows is the academic deification of the thought experiment, done carefully over a decade. The defenders..
10 – of the postulations of Deaton, Dreze, Sen et al turn this into a handmaiden of poverty study. And India is poor..
11 – (but Bharat is not). So we now have consumer choice, poverty, malnutrition and a unified theory to bridge the mess..
12 – for such a third world mess can only find salvation through the scientific ministrations of Western economics. The stage
13 – was thus set some years ago, when the Congress/UPA strove abundantly to craft a halo for this thought experiment..
14 – and in the process, all other explanations concerning food and the manner of its many uses were banished from both..
15 – policy and the academic trend of the day. But Deaton’s experiment is only as good as his references, which aren’t..
16 – for the references, as any kirana shop owner and any mandi bania knows, are more unreliable than reliable. What our..
17 – primary crop quantities are have only ever been a best estimate subject to abundant caution and local interpretation..
18 – for a thought experiment which seeks to unify food, malnutrition, poverty and ‘development’ this one has clay feet..
19 – which nevertheless is good enough for the lords of food crop and seed of the world, for it takes only the shimmer of..
20 – academic respectability such as that accumulated by Deaton, Dreze and Sen to turn postulate into programme. What we..
21 – will now see is what has been seen in medicine (and therefore public health) and in ‘peace’ (hence geopolitics) because..
22 – of the benediction the Nobel aura confers. This work will be press-ganged into the service of the new nutritionists..
23 – whose numbers are growing more rapidly than, a generation ago, did the numbers of the poverty experts. It is no longer..
24 – food and hunger and malnutrition but consumer choice, nutrition and the illusions of welfare. This is the masala mix..
25 – seized upon by those who direct the Nobel committee as they seek to control our 105 million tons of rice, 95 of wheat..
26 – our 43 million tons of coarse cereals, 20 of pulses, 170 of vegetables and 85 of fruit and turn this primary wealth..
27 – of our Bharat into a finance-capital manifesto outfitted with Nobel armoury that is intended to strip choice (not to..
28 – support it) from our kisans who labour on the 138 million farm holdings of our country (85% of them small and marginal)..
29 – and from our 258 million households (as they will be next year) towards whose thalis is destined the biofortified and..
30 – genetically modified menace of hyper-processed primary crop that is digitally retailed and cunningly marketed. This..
31 – is the deft and cunning manoeuvring that has picked on the microeconomist of post-poverty food study aka nutrition..
32 – as being deserving of Nobel recognition (when five years ago the Nobel family dissociated itself from this category).
33 – And so the coast has been duly cleared. The troublesome detritus of poverty macro-economics has been replaced by the..
34 – big data-friendliness of a rickety thought experiment which lends itself admirably to a high-fashion ‘development’..
35 – industry that basks in ‘sustainable’ hues and reflects the technology-finance tendencies of the SDGs. Food is no longer..
36 – in vogue but the atomisation of community crop and diet choice most certainly is. The pirate pennant of Western macro-
37 – economics is all aflutter again, thanks to the Nobel wind of 2015, but I will not allow it to fly over my Bharat. Never.

Greece against a cast of contemptible characters

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These images (taken from various news agencies) show how ordinary Greeks, but particularly elderly pensioners, have been tormented by EU politicians. This has been portrayed as a Greek debt crisis, but it is much more a crisis about what Europe is and stands for.

These images (taken from various news agencies) show how ordinary Greeks, but particularly elderly pensioners, have been tormented by EU politicians. This has been portrayed as a Greek debt crisis, but it is much more a crisis about what Europe is and stands for.

Update 11 July: The Greek parliament supported a so-called package of spending cuts, pension savings and tax increases with a majority of 251 votes in the 300-seat parliament. This is what the 61.3% ‘NO’ vote rejected six days ago! Naturally, this has set the stage for massive internal turmoil in Greece. Heavyweights of Syriza, parliament speaker Zoi Konstantopoulou and energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, and 15 other members either voted against the plan, abstained or were absent from the vote. Another 15 Syriza members of parliament said they also opposed the proposed measures and could reject them in future votes even though they supported prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his template of borrowed proposals. With breath-taking cynicism, the Syriza leader has presented this direct repudiation of the will of the Greek people as a “triumph of democracy”. Who is this man Tsipras working for?

The newest alumnus of the Transatlantic School of Austerity and Misery, with a special interest in 'haircuts'

The newest alumnus of the Transatlantic School of Austerity and Misery, with a special interest in ‘haircuts’

Beyond the beggaring calculations made by the economists and financiers of the Troika and the ahistorical stubbornness of the Berlin-Paris ruling cliques who will still not deviate from their ‘austerity’ prescription, is the legitimacy of Greece’s claim to autonomy. “Autonomy, the willingness and capacity to question and change our collective laws, is a universal principle and one that should be at the heart of the European project,” writes Giorgos Kallis. “Greece’s disobedience to the rule of the markets is a universalistic call for reclaiming democracy for all Europe, not a particularist protection of its own backyard. This is not a demand for the rest of Europe to obey to Greece’s will, but a plea to listen, reflect and genuinely co-decide.” Ah but Berlin cannot abide any other will than its own.

It is finanzpolitik, or perhaps the political economy of occupation by austerity. Whatever it is called in Eurolingua it has proved politically effective for European elites in general to present the Greek problem as their own debt problem. Doing so has provided a powerful ideological and moral justification for the brutal austerity policies prescribed to the countries of the European ‘periphery’ (and especially Greece) in recent years. And so, as Thomas Fazi has narrated, Euro-leaders’ “deeply moral interpretation of the euro crisis – which pitted the profligate, debt-ridden wrongdoers of the periphery against the virtuous, responsible countries of the core – rapidly became conventional wisdom among European politicians, commentators and bureaucrats”.

On Sunday 5 July 2015 Europe was shown to be imprisoned by its institutions. But the people of Greece chose with dignity and in solidarity to expose the prison, and walk away.

The landslide ‘no’ (or OXI) vote in the 5 July referendum on austerity in Greece is an overwhelming repudiation of the European Union and the austerity agenda pursued all over Europe since the 2008 economic crisis. The weapon of austerity is the euro, and it works by wiping out genuine economic and social progress through productive systems composed largely of small and medium enterprises, because this weapon pries open these local ‘markets’ (a despised term) to raids by financial monopolies.

RG_greece_20150710_gr3Such raids have the sanction of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank – together known as the troika which has waged war on the Greeks. The troika has waged such war as punishment (in the words of European politicians such as Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Martin Schulz, Wolfgang Schäuble and David Cameron) to the Greeks for their own failed design of the Euro in a system that is economically unsustainable and socially perverse.

“Shame on all those who have accepted the idea that the troika represents the European peoples,” wrote Samir Amin. “Shame on the governments that have installed in the presidency of ‘their Europe’ a Luxembourgian functionary in the service of a tax haven; installed in the management of ‘their central bank’ a character who made a career at Goldman Sachs, the bank associated with all the financial villainies of the century.”

RG_greece_20150710_gr1The ‘OXI’ (no) in the referendum means the Greeks voted for a socially just distribution of the burdens for the sustainable reforms necessary in their country to fight corruption and nepotism. They voted for sustainable reconstruction and growth of their economic structures, to reduce military spending and for mandatory negotiations on debt restructuring. Those who so voted on 5 July were 61.3% of the Greek people, drawn largely from the working class and poorer layers of the population.

But what happens now?

There is not much belief that the Syriza government will fulfil the ‘no’ vote mandate and bring austerity to an end. Reportage via independent media say that most people fear there will be new austerity measures, which the mass of the population can no longer take.

RG_greece_20150710_gr2Should the Greek Parliament approve talks on the new proposal (it may be acceptable to the Eurozone’s negotiators but has will still have to be approved by the European Parliament) there will be a short period during which the people of Greece will reflect on what is being done. They may decide to tolerate more ‘negotiation’, or not. They could rise up against a government that has gone back on its promises and disregarded their will as expressed in the referendum.

On the other hand Germany will balk at offering any debt relief. The European financial press (such as it is) is carrying reports that a section of German capitalist strategists are calculating that it is now cheaper to kick Greece out of the euro (provide a ‘humanitarian relief aid’ dollop) than continue to negotiate a formal bailout. A French publication reported that the Greek negotiation team was asked by Schäuble, “how much money do you want to leave the euro”, underlining how execrable the Euro political class has become.

These have been disastrous times for people in Greece. Salaries have been cut by half, taxes have increased eight times (not by 8% or 80% but eight times more), there are 1.5 million people unemployed and that is a full third of the working class, those who have jobs have often not been paid in weeks or months. There is misery and 60 euros as pension for those who can find 60 euros to draw out, but the Greeks want to their overthrow of austerity to be historic and permanent.

To localise and humanise India’s urban project

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Cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of inhabitants. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of inhabitants. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four partspart one may be read here, part two is found here, part three is here and this is part four:

The reason they pursue this objective in so predatory a manner is the potential of GDP being concentrated – their guides, the international management consulting companies (such as McKinsey, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, Deloitte, Ernst and Young, Accenture and so on), have determined India’s unique selling proposition to the world for the first half of the 21st century. It runs like this: “Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth, creating 70% of net new jobs while contributing in excess of 70% to India’s GDP.” Naturally, the steps required to ensure such a concentration of people and wealth-making capacity include building new urban infrastructure (and rebuilding what exists, regardless of whether it serves the ward populations or not).

"Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth" is the usual excuse given for the sort of built superscale seen in this metro suburb. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

“Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth” is the usual excuse given for the sort of built superscale seen in this metro suburb. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

The sums being floated today for achieving this camouflaged subjugation of urban populations defy common sense, for any number between Rs 5 million crore and Rs 7 million crore is being proposed, since an “investment outlay will create a huge demand in various core and ancillary sectors causing a multiplier effect through inter-linkages between 254 industries including those in infrastructure, logistics and modern retail… it will help promote social stability and economic equality through all-round development of urban economic centres and shall improve synergies between urban and rural centres”.

Tiers of overlapping programmes and a maze of controls via agencies shaded in sombre government hues to bright private sector colours are already well assembled and provided governance fiat to realise this ‘transformation’, as every government since the Tenth Plan has called it (the present new government included). For all the academic originality claimed by a host of new urban planning and habitat research institutes in India (many with faculty active in the United Nations circuits that gravely discuss the fate of cities; for we have spawned a new brigade of Indian – though not Bharatiya – urban studies brahmins adept at deconstructing the city but ignorant of such essentials as ward-level food demand), city planning remains a signal failure.

Typically, democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Typically, democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Other than the metropolitan cities and a small clutch of others (thanks to the efforts of a few administrative individuals who valued humanism above GDP), cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of city inhabitants in general (and of migrants in particular). These plans, where they exist, are technically prepared and bureaucratically envisioned with little involvement of citizens, and so the instruments of exclusion have been successfully transferred to the new frameworks that determine city-building in India.

Democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions and with ‘deliverables’ and ‘outcomes’ attached – organic ward committees and residents groups that have not influenced the vision and text of a city master plan have even less scope today to do so inside the maze of technocratic and finance-heavy social re-engineering represented by the JNNURM, RAY, UIDSSMT, BSUP, IHSDP and NULM and all their efficiently bristling sub-components. The rights of inhabitants to a comfortable standard of life that does not disturb environmental limits, to adequate and affordable housing, to safe and reliable water and sanitation, to holistic education and healthcare, and most of all the right to alter their habitats and processes of administration according to their needs, all are circumscribed by outside agencies.

Managed socialisation in our cities and towns must give way to organic groups. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Managed socialisation in our cities and towns must give way to organic groups. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

It is not too late to find remedies and corrections. “As long as the machinery is the same, if we are simply depending on the idealism of the men at the helm, we are running a grave risk. The Indian genius has ever been to create organisations which are impersonal and are self-acting. Mere socialisation of the functions will not solve our problem.” So J C Kumarappa had advised (the Kumarappa Papers, 1939-46) about 80 years ago, advice that is as sensible in the bastis of today as it was to the artisans and craftspeople of his era.

For the managed socialisation of the urbanisation project to give way to organic groups working to build the beginnings of simpler ways in their communities will require recognition of these elements of independence now. It is the localisation of our towns and cities that can provide a base for reconstruction when existing and planned urban systems fail. Today some of these are finding ‘swadeshi’ within a consumer-capitalist society that sees them as EWS, LIG and migrants, and it is their stories that must guide urban India.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

India’s writing of the urbanised middle-class symphony

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The maintaining of and adding to the numbers of the middle class is what the growth of India’s GDP relies upon. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

The maintaining of and adding to the numbers of the middle class is what the growth of India’s GDP relies upon. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four parts – part one may be read here, part two is found here, and this is part three:

A small matrix of classifications is the reason for such obtuseness, which any kirana shop owner and his speedy delivery boys could quickly debunk. As with the viewing of ‘poverty’ so too the consideration of an income level as the passport between economic strata (or classes) in a city: the Ministry of Housing follows the classification that a household whose income is up to Rs 5,000 a month is pigeon-holed as belonging to the economically weaker section while another whose income is Rs 5,001 and above up to Rs 10,000 is similarly treated as lower income group.

Committees and panels studying our urban condition are enjoined not to stray outside these markers if they want their reports to find official audiences, and so they do, as did the work (in 2012) of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage over the Twelfth Plan period (which is 2012-17). Central trade unions were already at the time stridently demanding that Rs 10,000 be the national minimum wage, and stating that their calculation was already conservative (so it was, for the rise in the prices of food staples had begun two years earlier).

The contributions of those in the lower economic strata (not the ‘poor’ alone, however they are measured or miscounted) to the cities of India and the towns of Bharat, to the urban agglomerations and outgrowths (terms that conceal the entombment of hundreds of hectares of growing soil in cement and rubble so that more bastis may be accommodated), are only erratically recorded. When this is done, more often than not by an NGO, or a research institute (not necessarily on urban studies) or a more enlightened university programme, seldom do the findings make their way through the grimy corridors of the municipal councils and into recognition of the success or failure of urban policy.

Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India's pace of urbanisation was only 'modest' by world standards. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only ‘modest’ by world standards. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

And so it is that the tide of migrants – India’s urban population grew at 31.8% in the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, both census years, while the rural population grew at 12.18% and the overall national population growth rate was 17.64% with the difference between all three figures illustrating in one short equation the strength of the urbanisation project – is essential for the provision of cheap labour to the services sector for that higher economic strata upon whom the larger share of the GDP growth burden rests, the middle class.

And so the picture clears, for it is in maintaining and adding to the numbers of the middle class – no troublesome poverty lines here whose interpretations may arrest the impulse to consume – that the growth of India’s GDP relies. By the end of the first confused decade following the liberalisation of India’s economy, in the late-1990s, the arrant new ideology that posited the need for a demographic shift from panchayat to urban ward found supporters at home and outside (in the circles of the multi-lateral development lending institutions particularly, which our senior administrators and functionaries were lured into through fellowships and secondments). Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only modest by world standards (said in the same off-the-cuff manner that explains our per capita carbon dioxide emissions as being well under the global average).

In 2005, India had 41 urban areas with populations of a million and more while China had 95 – in 2015 the number of our cities which will have at least a million will be more than 60. Hence the need to turn a comfortable question into a profoundly irritating one: instead of ‘let us mark the slums as being those areas of a city or town in which the poor live’ we choose ‘let us mark the poor along as many axes as we citizens can think of and find the households – in slum or cooperative housing society or condominium – that are deprived by our own measures’. The result of making such a choice would be to halt the patronymic practiced by the state (and its private sector assistants) under many different guises.

Whether urban residents in our towns and cities will bestir themselves to organise and claim such self-determination is a forecast difficult to attempt for a complex system such as a ward, in which issues of class and economic status have as much to do with group choices as the level of political control of ward committees and the participation of urban councillors, the grip of land and water mafias, the degree to which state programmes have actually bettered household lives or sharpened divisions.

It is probably still not a dilemma, provided there is re-education enough and awareness enough of the perils of continuing to inject ‘services’ and ‘infrastructure’ into communities which for over a generation have experienced rising levels of economic stress. At a more base level – for sociological concerns trouble industry even less, in general, than environmental concerns do – India’s business associations are doing their best to ensure that the urbanisation project continues. The three large associations – Assocham, CII and FICCI (and their partners in states) – agree that India’s urban population will grow, occupying 40% of the total population 15 years from now.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

Bharat and its billionaires

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RG_new_India_inequality_panelSeveral times a year, one money-minded organisation or another publishes a ‘rich list’. On this list are the names of the extraordinarily wealthy, the billionaires. Such a list is compiled by Forbes magazine. In this year’s list of billionaires, there are 90 Indians.

Perhaps it is the largest contingent of Indians on this list ever, perhaps their wealth is greater, singly and together, than ever before, perhaps the space below them (the almost-billionaires) is more crowded than ever. What must be of concern to us is the inequality that such a list represents. In the first two, perhaps three, Five Year Plans, cautions were expressed that the income (or wealth) multiple between the farmer and the labourer on the one hand and the entrepreneur or skilled manager on the other should not exceed 1 to 10.

In practice it was quite different, but the differences of the early 1990s – which is when economic liberalisation took hold in India – are microscopic compared to those of today. What’s more, the astronomically large differences in income/wealth of 2015 are actually celebrated as being evidence of India’s economic superpowerdom.

The current per capita national income is 88,533 rupees and it will take, as my disturbing panel of comparisons shows, the combined incomes of 677,713 such earners to equal the wealth of the 90th on the Forbes list of Indian billionaires. Likewise, there are six on the list of 90 with median incomes, and a median income is Rs 11.616 crore, which is equal to the entire Central Government budget outlay for agriculture (and allied activities) for 2015-16.

Written by makanaka

March 5, 2015 at 22:03

The discordant anthem of urban missions

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RG_urban_empowerment_201501

The occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue has described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four partspart one may be read here and this is part two:

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec2The ‘help’ of that period, envisioned as a light leg-up accompanied by informal encouragement, has become instead an industry of empowerment. There are “bank linkages for neutral loans to meet the credit needs of the urban poor”, the formation of corps of “resource organisations to be engaged to facilitate the formation of self-help groups and their development”, there are technical parameters to set so that “quality of services is not compromised”.

Financial literacy – of the unhoused, the misnourished, the chronically underemployed, the single-female-headed families, the uninsurable parents and dependents, the uncounted – is essential so that ‘no frills’ savings accounts can be opened (the gateway to a noxious web of intrusive micro-payment schemata: life, health, pension, consumer goods). Such a brand of functional literacy is to be dispensed by city livelihoods centres which will “bridge the gap between demand and supply of the goods and services produced by the urban poor” and who will then, thus armed, “access information and business support services which would otherwise not be affordable or accessible by them”. So runs the anthem of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission, the able assistant of the national urban mission and its successor-in-the-wings, the Rajiv Awas Yojana.

The existence of the ‘urban poor’ is what provides the legitimacy (howsoever constructed) that the central government, state governments, public and joint sector housing and infrastructure corporations, and a colourful constellation of ancillaries need to execute the urbanisation of India project. Lost in the debate over methodologies to find in the old and new bastis the deserving chronically poor and the merely ‘service deprived’ are the many aspects of poverty in cities, a number of which afflict the upper strata of the middle classes (well housed, overprovided for by a plethora of services, banked to a surfeit) just as much as they do the daily wage earners who commute from their slums in search of at least the six rupees they must pay out of every 10 so that their families have enough to eat for that day.

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec1These deprivations are not accounted for nor even discussed as potential dimensions along which to measure the lives of urban citizens, poor or not, by the agencies that give us our only authoritative references for our citizens and the manner in which they live, or are forced to live: the Census of India, the National Sample Survey Office (of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation), the municipal corporations of larger cities, the ministries of health, of environment, and the ministry most directly concerned with urban populations, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation.

Exposure to pollution in concentrations that alarms the World Health Organisation, the absence of green spaces in wards, a level of ambient noise high enough to induce stress by itself, the weekly or monthly reconciling of irregular income (at any scale) versus the inflation that determines all costs of urban living – these are but a few of the many aspects under which a household or an individual can be ‘poor’. Income and food calorie poverty – which have been the measures to judge a household’s position in relation to a line of minimum adequacy – are but two of many interlinked aspects that govern a standard of living which every government promises to raise.

This catechism was repeated when the Sixteenth Lok Sabha began its work, and President Pranab Mukherjee mentioned in his address to the body a common habitat minimum for the 75th year of Indian Independence, which will come in 2022 (at a time when the many vacuous ‘2020 vision documents’ produced during the last decade by every ministry will have neither currency nor remit). Housing for all, Mukherjee assured the Lok Sabha, delivered through the agency of city-building – “100 cities focused on specialised domains and equipped with world-class amenities”; and “every family will have a pucca house with water connection, toilet facilities, 24×7 electricity supply and access”.

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec3That is why, although concerned academicians and veteran NGO karyakartas will exchange prickly criticisms concerning the use in urban study of NSSO first stage units or the use of Census of India enumeration blocks, it is self-determination in the urban context that matters to a degree somewhat greater than the means we choose to use to describe that context. From the time of the ‘approach’ discussions to the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07) – which is when the notion, till that time regarded as experimental, that the government can step away without guilt from its old role of providing for the poor in favour of the private sector – the dogma of growth of GDP has included rapid urbanisation.

That such GDP growth – setting aside the crippling ecological and social costs which our administrative technorati, for all their ‘progressive’ credentials, do not bring themselves to publicly recognise – is deeply polarising and is especially so in cities is not a matter discussed in any of the 948 city development plans (1,515 infrastructure and housing projects) of the JNNURM. From then on, the seeking and finding of distinctions as they exist within the residential wards of towns and cities has been treated as heretical.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ‘empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]