Sugar-coating urea

At a 21 Feb 2015 rally in Bargarh, Odisha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused an array of “unscrupulous forces” of trying to bring down his government. In the rogues’ gallery he included the owners of chemical factories who he said were angry at his government’s distribution of neem-coated urea, which had ended the profitable diversion of subsidised urea — meant for farmers — to their factories.

Compared with standard urea, neem-coated urea is said to improve productivity and reduce the diversion of subsidised fertiliser to those who can afford to pay market prices. It doesn’t make a meaningful dent in the country’s gigantic fertiliser subsidy bill (see below), but there are some savings.

So what’s the problem? As usual, Modi’s tendency to hog credit for initiatives that his predecessors have substantially contributed to. For once, Modi managed to acknowledge previous governments in his 15 August 2015 Independence Day speech, in which he identified urea pilferage as an issue. Modi admitted that neem-coating was “an idea propounded by scientists and this idea has not only been brought before my government, it has come before previous governments as well.” But he went on to imply that those governments had done little, and stated that “pilferage of urea cannot be stopped unless we go for cent per cent neem-coating of urea”. Modi has since taken “cent per cent” credit for the scheme (here and here).

So what are the facts?

One is that state-owned firms like National Fertilizers Limited have been making neem-coated urea for the past decade:

Another is that the UPA in 2011 raised the ceiling on neem-coated urea production from 20% to 35%, which led to sales of 63 lakh tonnes in 2013-14, about 28% of total urea production in the country. This represents genuine momentum.

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The figure for 2014-15 isn’t available yet, but neem-coated urea sales for National Fertilizers Limited and KRIBHCO were up 8% and 25% respectively, which appears to be in line with this trend.

The next big push came from the government’s 25 May 2015 decision to make all domestically-produced urea neem-coated, which should lead to a big jump in its output in 2015-16. A recent Department of Fertilizers presentation stated that 77% of domestic urea production already consists of neem-coated urea. If so, Modi should genuinely be able to take credit for a substantial jump in neemification.

That said, all this rhetoric about neem-coated urea distracts from the government’s failure to raise the highly subsidised price of urea, unchanged for six years at Rs 5,360/tonne — about a third of what it costs to make. The urea subsidy not only adds Rs 50,000 crore to the fiscal deficit but contributes to the rampant overuse of urea (neem-coated or otherwise), harming soil productivity and poisoning our food chain. If the “weak” UPA was able in February 2010 to decontrol non-urea fertilisers and increase the urea price (by an admittedly token 10%), what’s holding back Modi’s “strong” majority government?

Modi’s autopilot achievements

In a 13 Feb 2016 speech at the recent Make in India jamboree in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took credit for many economic achievements. These included India’s climb in various World Bank and UN indices, and all-time records in coal and vehicle production, software exports and cargo handling by ports.

The claims were taken from the BJP’s 31 Jan 2016 press release, which proclaimed that “it is necessary to show the statistics because in the Congress-led UPA-1 & UPA-2 regime, many of these indicators were moving in the opposite direction” and to counter “baseless propaganda and criticism”.

And this is what it had to say:

That’s quite a collection of achievements. The problem with claims of this nature is that there is a good chance — particularly in an economy that’s been among the world’s fastest-growing for a couple of decades — that each year will break some record or the other.

So how to judge? One way is to examine how commonplace these achievements actually are:

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Pretty common, it turns out.

The good news for the BJP is that only two of its 13 claims are outright false. But the fact remains that most of these economic achievements are so much the product of past momentum that the UPA, supposedly paralysed into inaction in its second iteration, could also have made 12 of the 13 claims, one more than the BJP. Even the short-lived United Front government in 1996-97 could have made at least four of these claims without batting an eyelid.

Political parties are entitled to seek credit wherever they can. But the current government’s obsession with topping lists and rankings produces empty claims such as these. Instead, Modi should spend more time listing what he sees as the main hurdles to faster growth, and what he did to fix them.

Ab ki baar, cut-and-paste sarkar: the case of Make in India

In his 25 Sep 2014 speech at the launch of Make in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the initiative as a “lion’s step” towards promoting Indian manufacturing and generating millions of jobs. Amitabh Kant, who oversees the programme, stated in a subsequent interview that “Make in India is like a movement reflecting a new mindset of growth in India.”

The Congress Party begged to differ and ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Make in India as a “carbon copy” of the UPA’s manufacturing policy, but in the public perception Modi is the prime maker of Make in India.

Turns out Singh was right.

Okay, so the goals are identical, but surely the Modi government is bringing its own set of policy instruments to the challenge?

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Hmm. What about regulations? After all, Modi has proclaimed himself as the brusher aside of regulatory thickets.

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So the goals are the same, the policy instruments are identical and there is little difference in the approach to regulatory reform. But Singh is still being unfair describing Make in India as a carbon copy of the UPA’s National Manufacturing Policy: the Make in India document is better edited, tighter, uses more active voice.

Sure, Modi deserves credit for taking this manufacturing policy forward with his trademark salesmanship, and he may yet make a success of it. But it also undeniable that governments build on their predecessors’ work, something that Modi has so far lacked the grace to acknowledge. Whether it is road building, direct benefit transfers or financial inclusion, the Modi government has tried to hog credit, even when much of the groundwork and implementation had been done by the UPA. And it would seem that this is also the case with Make in India.

Ab ki baar, cut-and-paste sarkar.

Still no sign of “Jungle Raj” in Bihar

The Feb 5 daytime killing by AK-47 wielding gunmen of Lok Janshakti Party leader Brijnath Singh, himself a murder accused, has revived allegations that Bihar is witnessing a return to “Jungle Raj”, the period of lawlessness that occurred under former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has attempted to play up voters’ fears of that period ever since Chief Minister Nitish Kumar entered into an alliance with Lalu in 2014; Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched Bihar’s 2015 assembly election as a choice between “Vikas Raj” and “Jungle Raj”. (In Does Bihar’s kidnapping industry embody “Jungle Raj”? this blog showed that Modi’s claims regarding kidnappings in Bihar were off the mark.)

The latest version of the “Jungle Raj” charge builds in a Jan 3 CNN-IBN news report according to which Bihar had witnessed 578 murders over the previous two months. Although this number is in line with Bihar’s five-year average (as I pointed out at the time), it turns out that the actual number of murders in November and December 2015 was a considerably lower 442. But these details haven’t stopped BJP-leaning social media from criticising the state government for its supposed failures on the law-and-order front.

A proper test of whether Lalu’s return to power in early November 2015 has contributed to a spike requires us to compare murders reported in November and December 2015 with the equivalent period in previous years. This is partly required because there is a seasonal pattern evident, with more murders committed in the summer than in the winter (one possible explanation here).

And this is what we find:

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Not only is the number of murders reported in Bihar in November-December 2015 at a six-year low, but the murder rate when the BJP was in government (in 2010-12) was higher.

Perhaps Lalu Yadav should level the charge of “Jungle Raj” at the BJP instead.