The UPA government is going to roll out the Direct Cash Transfer scheme for Kerosene, Cooking gas, and fertilizer in the next few months. There is plenty of material in the media already so I wont bore you with a recap. There is one major piece of the puzzle no one is talking about – it is easy to miss it if you aren’t as obsessed with monitoring of benefits as I am. So what’s the big hole ?
The Interim Task Force report that I base this blog post on itself isnt very interesting. It is like a giant IT Solutions Provider sales pitch trying to upsell everything from Biometrics, ERP systems, Call centre software, cloud solutions, POS, mini ATM, all kinds of modules interfacing with outside systems, etc. I want to focus on the most basic stuff. Consider this.
In the three sectors above (kerosene, LPG and fertilizer), the State is the provider of the subsidized goods, directly or indirectly, to the intended beneficiary. The Task Force does not recommend substitution of public provisioning by the State. Instead it recommends a solution whereby the subsidies that are being provided by the State now can be more efficiently provided to the intended beneficiaries directly. It complements public provisioning by the State, rather than supplanting it.
Interim Task Report DTS Page 5 – Link
For a moment ignore the administrative costs of this system and also the absence of pilferage data. If the proposed cash transfer only complements what is available, then you can have no complaint. All the good is carried over to the new system and none of the bad is made worse. Is that really the case ? No. The proposed system destroys one fundamental check and does not replace it with anything remotely comparable. The built-in feedback that flows from a visible benefit platform. Let me explain this.
Lets not lose sight of the main problem with any welfare program – the identification of beneficiaries and continuous monitoring of them. This is a monumental problem that turns intractable in the Indian context when politicians introduce all kinds of eligibility criteria. Given this, I assert that the current scheme of subsidy works better.
Take ration rice for example (I know PDS isnt rolled out in this round, but easier to illustrate)
- Today : You pick up your bag, your BPL (green) ration card, and stand in line along with everyone else. In full view of your locality. When your turn comes, the vendor weighs 10Kg rice . You put it in your bag, pay the subsidized price, leave the line and go home.
- Post Cash Transfer : You go to Reliance Fresh, buy 10Kg of rice, pay and go home. No on sees you. Even if they did, they have no idea if you are about to use DTS cash for this purchase. You later check your bank account and find new cash.
The second has no visibility whatsoever. It is a private deal between you and the government. You can walk into a room full of people and have no idea who is getting what. Today, a social disincentive is baked into the scheme. You are really going to think twice before driving over in your car in full view of your immediate society and partake in the welfare program. This is simply not done or if you do it people who observe will react appropriately and increase your cost in other ways such as rent seeking.
At this point, many of you might say – “You are wrong, people send their servants all the time to stand in line“. That just reinforces my point. People are able to send their servants to the ration shop because they have illegally obtained a BPL card. Once again, the servant knows, her friends know, the vendor knows, and this knowledge acts as a check on the system. There is nothing in the Direct Transfer that has this feature. Can they catch the the illegal BPL card ? Grand analytics is touted as the answer. At best, analytics may catch the extreme cases at a terrifying cost of privacy. An example cited to me was : If you buy a lot of air tickets using your credit card, that is linked to the Aadhar via your cards bank, that in turn feeds back and can cancel out your entitlement. In this scenario the deep state knows what you are up to. What is even more terrifying is : You dont get to choose what analytics they run or dont run, they do.
Blocking a rich man like Nandan Nilekani from taking a 5 Kg rice ration is the insignificant boundary case. The real story is the masses who are spread around the entitlement line. Today they watch each other and even co-operate – everyone’s entitlement is known in advance and the delivery happens in full view.
Algorithmic benefit tweaking
Remember India is all about adhoc benefits, so this scheme will be used to that end. Since the cash transfers are private, to the extent that someone isn’t motivated enough to look you up specifically or use RTI, a lot of things can happen that are not possible with the current system.
- Late payment – you need rice today but payment hasnt happened yet.
- Scaled payment – you got less than last time because someone tweaked something.
- Suspicion of others – you have no idea if your neighbours got their payment. They just bought rice from Reliance yesterday.
- The govt rolls out an algorithmic increase or decrease for your state, district, tribe, caste, religion.
- You got more, but you wonder if others got even more.You got less and wonder if others stayed the same.
I have also read some material about the programs as they have been deployed in Mexico and Brazil. To me they appear to have limited utility in our Indian context. Their classifications are very simple and they are wealthier countries than us.
Tonight I watched a show on NDTV featuring former auditor RP Singh. In the wake of the failed 2G auction questions are being raised about the motives and competence of the CAG Vinod Rai. Various Congress politicians have even launched a broad-spectrum attack on the institution itself. In parallel, some sections in the media are seeking to exhume the zero loss theory that was given a state burial.
2G scam simplified – it is the low price or the arbitrary allocation ?
The basic issue is one of allocation. Here is the question : If there are 500 applicants for 122 licenses, how would you go about selecting who should have it ? Economics demands that the applicants who are most efficient should win. You can find out who the most efficient ones are by
- an entrance exam or a powerpoint interview – aka beauty contest (such as Coalgate)
- who applied first
- who pays the most upfront yet is confident enough of its business abilities to compete in a market which already has powerful incumbents.
The option with the least possibility of intrigue and highest possibility of social benefit is the auction. Be that as it may, selecting the alternatives such as FCFS or a beauty contest is a policy decision. But this decision has a cost, these two methods increase the likelihood you have left money on the table due to the act of not following a market methodology.
The question then is, “Well how much did you leave on the table ?” The Congress and the media channel in question promote that argument that “We didnt leave anything on the table, because there is no table” We didnt want to maximize revenue at all. Enter the social argument.
Social welfare argument
The argument here is that FCFS winners will offer low prices and do rural telephony in line with the benign government vision. This conveniently omits the fact that all aspirants have to meet strict rollout obligations as per the UASL license conditions. That being the case, it is counter intuitive to suggest that FCFS winners possess some kind of altruistic gene that will make them go over and above their license obligations. Such policy making is dangerous because you are indirectly mandating some kind of virtuous behaviour at the expense of legitimate profit seeking.
What about what Raja did ?
Lets be honest here, if there was any loss at all to the exchequer A Raja of the DMK didnt cause it. He just rearranged the beneficiaries in some non-random, capricious way. This is of course illegal – for which he will probably pay a price. But lets say, he stayed with the first come first served criteria as date of receipt, and it so happened that the same companies miraculously won. Would we then say that there was no 2G scam and no loss ? Absolutely not.
3G auction figures for 2G, etc, etc
On the NDTV show Mr RP Singh said that since the 3G auction concluded in May 2010, it fell in Fiscal 2011 which was outside the timeframe of the CAG. Such technical talk is important but betray the lack of confidence of Mr RP Singh. Is he saying that if the audit window were to be extended by 2 months to May 2010, then the 1.76 Lakh Crore figure would make perfect sense ? If yes, then he has destroyed his own argument on a technicality. The other arguments about 3G (Basmati rice) numbers (2100Mhz) and 2G (Ration rice) numbers (1800Mhz) have been analyzed threadbare many times over we are not going into it. Also at this point, it is well understood by the public that winners who won the 2008 licenses then conducted private auctions to select a foreign partner and discovered a price on their own.
What about the failed 2012 Auctions
The real disaster is the UPA’s handling of the biggest 2G fallout – the cancellation of all 122 licenses by the Supreme Court. They always seemed to adopt a thinly disguised passive-aggressive resistance to the court ordered auction. Were the auction to succeed, maybe not to the 1.76L Crore extent, but to a lower number, t hat would totally vindicate the CAG. Show the Congress and DMK ministers in very poor light.
The 2008 allocation was not without its positives. A key one was that incumbents could not participate – this was designed to shake off any cartel. Unfortunately this condition was removed in 2012. This leads us to the two basic goals of an auction.
- Prevent collusion
- Increase participation
Both these goals were adversely impacted by various policy decisions a) a one time charge at winning price applied to all holding over 6.4Mhz b) refarming (vacating the 900Mhz band) at the winning price c) pegging the starting bid for CDMA (800Mhz) at 1.3x the winning price d) no clarity on when the 700Mhz band will be available – this is where 4G LTE is most efficient e) no clarity on whether enough spectrum will be available in 800Mhz for data services like Photon+, Reliance, MTS (say 5Mhz or 10Mhz). Into this quagmire , you add a curious tendency to honour any and all “level playing field” arguments brought forth by various players. You never know what you are getting into. In short the policy climate is messy.
Do you want to sell ?
A common tip to newcomers on eBay is “Do you really want to sell your stuff?”
Say you had a guitar which you dont mind keeping, but for Rs10,000+ you will sell it. So you go on eBay and set the starting bid at Rs10,000. If the participants find your starting bid too high they will simply assume you are too greedy and walk away. There are millions of such items on eBay with no bids at all. You dont care because you are in no hurry to get rid of the guitar and are not in immediate need of money. This is the exact effect a stupendously high starting bid of Rs 14,000 Cr for a pan India license has had. Telecom Minister Mr Kapil Sibal boasts that he got down TRAI’s recommendation of an even more ridiculous Rs 18,000 Cr figure.
So in effect, a high starting price combined with all the other factors decreased competition. Did it increase collusion ? We dont know, but obviously if one of the Big 3 (Idea, Vodafone, Airtel) bid and won high, it would rebound and impact all of them via the one-time levy. It would also impact the CDMA holders by setting their staring bids at 1.3x and so forth. There is no way this auction could have succeeded.
Increasing competition by injecting disruptive players is key, not just for the auction, but for growth of the sector. China has AT&T why cant India ? What are the policies that hinder their participation ? You need players from the west like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Telefonica to participate. That would certainly make collusion that much harder among the incumbents because it is hard to buyout the big dogs at advanced rounds in an auction. If the meaningless 74% FDI cap on Telecom has to go, so be it.
As the auctions fail to generate any enthusiasm; nationwide a total of 500+ Mhz lies unused. This is causing real loss in spectrum usage charges. Perhaps Mr Vinod Rai can take a look at this next.