During a period of emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the public needs immediate assistance. Governments need the necessary infrastructure of last mile and last person connectivity to provide such an assistance, and the universal access to bank accounts and digital payments can go a long way in making such immediate assistance possible. How is India placed on these parameters? The World Bank Global Findex Database can provide with some answers.
The number of individuals with a bank account in a financial institution has significantly gone up in India in the 2010s (from 35% in 2011 to 80% in 2017) as per the World Bank Global Findex survey, with a larger fraction having debit cards (33%), and making/receiving digital payments (29%). Among those who still don’t have a bank account, the key reasons cited are a lack of sufficient funds (54%) and a family member already having a bank account (52%). Other factors leaving many unbanked are issues related to accessibility - financial services being too expensive (27%), too far away (23%), lack of necessary documentation (22%) and a lack of trust in financial institutions (20%). This creates a complication - the poorest and the most vulnerable are likely to not have sufficient funds and documents, and can find financial services to be too expensive. But at the same time they are also the ones who are in imminent need for bank accounts so that necessary public assistance and welfare support can reach them on time, especially during the period of emergency.
During the times of emergency, more than half of the respondents in India said that they were not able to raise emergency funds within a month (52%). For those who were able to raise emergency funds (45%), the chief source of such funds was family or friends (48%), followed by money from working (25%) and savings (23%). Compared to developed countries like Norway, Japan, UK and the USA, an alarmingly larger number of respondents are unable to raise emergency funds in India, and are dependent on family or friends for support. Government payments can become a salient form of funding for Indians in times of emergency, and can be an important policy goal especially given that the majority of Indians are unable to unable to raise any such funds.
Government payments of social benefits has not significantly increased (14%) over time in India, but the mode of these payments has become more cashless (cash payments are down from 49% in 2014 to 20% in 2017), with a large fraction of such payments reaching the beneficiaries directly in their accounts (59%). Among those accounts that receive government payments, a large fraction were opened for the first time to receive government payments (57%). Compared to other developed countries government payments still reach a small fraction of Indians (14%). While there is a thrust on digital penetration and cashless payments in India, very few Indians do digital payments (29%). In developed countries, digital payments are ubiquitous (>90%) and government payments in hard-cash are minimal (<5%).
In conclusion, based on the data it appears that India has significantly improved its capabilities in banking and digital penetration. Yet the most vulnerable are still to be reached. Especially, the most important fact that policy makers should address is this: a majority of Indian respondents in the survey say that it is not possible for them to raise emergency funds within a month's time, and if they can then they rely primarily on their social networks - family and friends. In times of a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, such a precarious support system leaves the most vulnerable at risk. With government payments reaching a meagre 14% of the population in India, there is a lot of scope for improvement so that every Indian can be reached out and helped in times of crisis.
(update) As the Economist points out in its latest edition (4th April 2020), India's outlay to the coronavirus pandemic is a paltry 0.8% of the GDP ($23 billion), when other countries are spending much higher. The social welfare infrastructure is today ready in India; now is the time for making the last mile and last person connections, so that most vulnerable Indians can be reached. Indians await a new deal, and we should come together as policy makers to provide it now.
During the national lockdown, lacks of vulnerable migrant workers are leaving for their hometowns, often in large crowds. For example, thousands of migrants crowding at the Delhi bus station are most certainly going to accelerate the pandemic. However, the situation without a lockdown would be worse. The fear that migrant workers have today is decades in the making. Consider New Delhi. The whole city rests on the low paid labor of the migrants, but many Delhiites look down upon them with derision - as unwanted outsiders. Those who work from paycheck to paycheck have no safety net or savings, no local government support (they do not vote) and their employers have little responsibility towards their health and safety. They are the expendables of society.
Many do not appreciate the significance of bank accounts (Jan Dhan Yojana) and promoting cashless transactions (Digital India) in providing safety net to migrant workers. Such schemes have opened a channel of assistance between the central government and migrant workers that did not exist before. Migrant workers have been brought out from the shadows, although the assault of demonetization, mismanaged GST implementation and now COVID-19 has also made their situation more precarious. A major reason why the BJP government is back in power is because it achieved social welfare penetration greater than any government in the past - it pursued "programmatic politics" at least on the economic front. It would be prudent for the government to seriously consider some form of basic income at this time, and to communicate with the vulnerable groups in a targeted manner through their mobile devices. This is also an opportunity to build the social safety net India did not have in the past.
India is better prepared to manage this lockdown, and protect the vulnerable, than anytime before in the past. So, lets not panic. In an exercise of this scale, there will be setbacks, and these setbacks will get coverage (thanks to a free media), and such coverage will make the government learn and act better. This is how government is supposed to work in such times of the uncertainty and crisis. We act, we learn, and we improve.
I was quoted in the Economic Times, in an article (.png) by Dinesh Narayanan on "Data blackhole in Q1 2020 would challenge govt policymaking and corporate decisions". Here is the quote:
Unavailability of data would have implications for firm and individual level decision making. "This is a Black Swan event. Firms can plan for risk. But what we are facing is uncertainty not risk. Current forecasting techniques and methods would be useless,’’ according to Prateek Raj... Raj says true uncertainty leaves firms clueless. Government-supplied data, while important, would not be enough anymore. Firms would have to constantly search for signals in other data such as Uber orders and Amazon deliveries. ``What they would need is an ensemble of data from various sources.’’...Raj says experience from the 2008 economic meltdown showed that firms that were more decentralised and whose local managers were empowered coped better after the crisis. A similar experience may be in store now as well for both firms and governments although the trend in India seems to be towards centralisation.
Now some context. Information is the chief driver of how business gets done, something that is one of the main learning points in my PhD course on Evolution of Business and Markets. Just as the printing press revolutionised business, triggered the decline of guilds in Northwestern Europe, and gave rise to modern corporations, the same way too much uncertainty and data can force firms to change the very structure of their business. In a 2016 article for LSE Business Review, I wrote that "in uncertainty, strategic advantage comes from organisational form not plan". Firms in times like this coronavirus pandemic need to recognise that uncertainty is different from risk. While risk can be mitigated by careful planning, uncertainty requires firms to recognise that blueprints become less useful, and hence firms need to start opening all their eyes and ears for any new information, responding quickly to changing situation. The idea seems obvious, but it is not so obvious, because such a change in form of doing business requires giving more autonomy to local managers, and moving away from a centralized top-down approach. A useful research that also supports this idea is by US-based economists Aghion, Bloom, Lucking, Sadun and Reenen, which found that "firms that delegated more power from the Central Headquarters to local plant managers prior to the Great Recession out-performed their centralized counterparts in sectors that were hardest hit by the subsequent crisis." as they were better at gathering local information.
The New York Times just wrote an editorial today, requesting Donald Trump to order a national lockdown in the United States, citing India's national shutdown which affects 1.4 billion people.
Mr. Modi's actions during the coronavirus pandemic are exemplary. He has taken timely and balanced actions. The 21 day national lockdown is yet another important and timely step at a time when India's coronavirus cases were at the cliff of explosion. This is exemplary because Mr. Modi has placed the national public health interests above economic interests, something which western governments like the USA and UK have still not been able to come to terms with. The Lt. Governor of Texas went so far to say that he was willing to risk his own life to save the economy, and had urged other Texans to "get back to work".
If Mr. Modi focuses on politics of substance - the everyday common-man issues like healthcare and economy through out his tenure, India would be better prepared for such pandemics. If the pandemic spreads despite this lockdown, we will once again be in a dangerous territory, as India has just not invested in its healthcare, and instead prioritised the divisive cultural issues a lot more than it can afford to. The last few years, and NOW, is a golden opportunity for a healthcare transformation (the Ayushman Bharat is a welcome scheme), but Mr. Modi and his party/government needs to empower the doctors and nurses on the ground - whom we badly need, and not the xenophobic beasts on social media. While the last few years were a lost opportunity, but now the coronavirus pandemic is at India's doorsteps, and Mr. Modi has begun to listen to the experts, and is doing a good job. This shows that Mr. Modi is indeed a good executive, but only if he is willing to listen to the advice of experts, and does not act as a maverick or heeds to the xenophobes that infest India's entire social media ecosystem.
I hope the pandemic ends, and Indians - esp. middle class Indians (who enjoy an amplified voice) change their understanding about the role of a government. Indians must recognize the global goodwill Mr. Modi generated for India and himself, when he followed the Raj Dharma of putting the public interest first, over a divisive cultural agenda. I hope Indians do the same, and when the pandemic ends, I no longer get to see those awful Whatsapp forwards that belittle and demonize other groups, and obsess over their narrow religious identities rather than their collective nationhood. That we do not get distracted by divisive, emotive, angering and hateful propaganda and instead we talk about, and force the government to focus on healthcare, jobs, water, infrastructure, agriculture, law and order, defense, and all such things that really matter for strenthening the nation.
We need solidarity and common sense in India, not just during these times, but for all the times to come in the future.
The coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity for countries around the world to invest and expand their healthcare capacity to fit the needs of the modern world. It is a rare opportunity, where the stress test of our healthcare system, help us improve and if needed redesign the system to dramatically expand preventive, hospital and critical care capacity using new technologies.
Can India fight coronavirus, and rapidly scale its health capacity? If you have visited Kumbh at Prayagraj, you will believe yes it can. Kumbh is simply put - astonishing. Beyond the spiritual domain, administratively and in terms of planning and management, Kumbh is an event with no global parallel. A massive city catering to tens of millions a day emerges out of nowhere at the bed of Ganges for a few months, with almost every amenity one could look for. And then it dissolves into the river. India organizes the Kumbh periodically and has learned the ability over time to live in organized chaos. It is a skill that not every country has acquired. Hence, can India deal with coronavirus? Can its health capacity expand drastically to meet the challenging needs ahead? Yes it can.
I was member of a IIMB based study that studied the 2019 Kumbh at Prayagraj. Kumbh is a floating city serving 3-5 crore visitors on its peak day. The Kumbh was incidence free and deployed a temporary sanitation system, healthcare infrastructure, transport and housing facilities for millions of visitors. How could such high levels of effectiveness be achieved at scale, when otherwise India's state capacity is considered weak? Some features of Kumbh governance model are worth emulating for the rest of India.
Each of these factors helped the government achieve scale in a manner that is uniquely suited for a diverse multistakeholder democracy like India's.
“Faith sees best in the dark.”
I often wonder what values our children and the young are imbibing when they look at the current stock of world leaders - who may have many qualities, but are bereft of moral courage. The Bhagwat Gita says:
यद्यदाचरति श्रेष्ठस्तत्तदेवेतरो जन: |
स यत्प्रमाणं कुरुते लोकस्तदनुवर्तते || 21||
Whatever actions great persons perform, common people follow.
Whatever standards they set, all the world pursues.
When leaders sacrifice human dignity at the altar of power, and when every action is acceptable to achieve certain factional goals, then the social order collapses. Without the acknowledgement of human dignity, every person is a means to an end and in such a transactional world chaos is inevitable. Hence, we need decent leaders. Leaders who lead with moral courage, by which I mean, those who have the grace to see dignity in other human beings, even in the most adverse of circumstances, even when making the most difficult decisions. Today, we need leaders who are decent, and who have passed through fire and have still come out with grace.
Former US Vice President, Joe Biden has lived an extraordinary life. Generally, with public personalities we talk about their public accomplishments and platforms. But Joe’s life, in all its fullness, has been one with many highs and lows. Amidst all of it, Joe has maintained his grace. So much so, that I have turned to Joe Biden’s many personal interviews to seek guidance in times of struggle. When Joe says, “faith sees best in the dark” he is not repeating a catchy quote; he is sharing his lived experience of coping with love and loss. That tells me, that Joe is a man of faith, faith as it should be - patient, kind, and one that sees the dignity of others. He is a leader, who has through his lived experience, found grace and steadiness in life, and is capable of leading by example. This makes me believe that Joe Biden will be a good President of the USA.
After pondering for several months, I have decided to leave Twitter.
Twitter has been a very productive companion for me. It helped me interact with academics and researchers from around the world, and kept me updated with their work. I may still sneak into the public Twitter pages of my favourite academics to learn what's up with them and their connections.
I am leaving Twitter because of its very flawed design that enables hate in the public with real world consequences. Along with WhatsApp (about which I wrote last year in ProMarket), Twitter is the favoured platform for spreading misinformation, disinformation and xenophobic call-for-action in India. In the US, there is a significant discourse on the role of Facebook and YouTube in spreading visceral and false information (see the Stigler Center report (blog here) on digital platforms). However, the negative impact of platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter on our public conversation has been ignored. Both these platforms are wild and anarchic. I like this aspect of these platforms. Twitter is a massive list of billions of 280 character messages that millions of people are posting from around the world. I appreciated this anarchic nature of Twitter. It was raw and hence vibrant. But, the "trending" column of Twitter - although meant to be an organic reflection of public sentiment - has been hijacked by coordinated and strategic coalitions dedicated to the spread of propaganda.
Over the lasts few years, thanks to a barrage of xenophobic public misinformation on Twitter and WhatsApp, I have seen dehumanising language become the new normal in private conversations. A significant fraction of people are today convinced of conspiracy theories about inter-civilisational conflict. The world has become more hysterical. Such "clash of the civilisations" narrative has turned normal people into active belligerents, and people are viewed as soldiers on "their" side of the fight, or of the "others". Such a narrative - of a state of perpetual war - helps autocrats gain and maintain power, but it only fools people. The only way to stop such a narrative that dehumanises the "other" is to improve the systems of public conversation such as Twitter. I have a very simple request: Twitter, please remove your "trending" column, which is being used today to promote outright Nazi propaganda. This call is not new. Last year The Verge also wrote an article on the same.
My trigger for leaving Twitter came during the recent deadly Delhi riots, Twitter began to nationally trend a call to economically boycott Muslims. Both the riots and such a call for economic boycott were orchestrated, and Twitter was a willing amplifier of it. I find it rather odd that a company with such technical expertise is incapable of identifying organic trends from inorganic/orchestrated/coordinated ones. I would not protest as much, if such controversial sentiments were organic. I support unfettered free speech. But it is irresponsible for Twitter to amplify orchestrated hate campaigns through its "trending" column that remind of the 1933 Nazi Germany.
As I see it, Twitter may be a useful tool for me as an academic - to network, share and connect. But at a broader societal scale, Twitter has become an enabler of visceral hatred and falsehoods, which has left scores of people dead in Delhi's streets. This is inexcusable, and I can not be a part of such a hate machine.
I hope Twitter fixes its problems, and removes its "trending' column. I support uncensored free speech, including the ones that are controversial, blasphemous or offensive, but I can not support the muzzling of the original voice of the people by orchestrated hateful and false propaganda, that platforms like Twitter amplify. Once Twitter becomes a more dignified place for public discourse, I will be happy to be back on Twitter again.