Nitin Gadkari’s highway jumla

Roads and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari likes to present himself as the singlehanded builder of Indian highways. He has repeatedly claimed — most recently at the 2016 India Today Conclave — that the pace of highway construction has increased by close to ten times under his watch:

This would be brag-worthy if it were true, but it isn’t. Check the table below:

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There has been an increase of 30% in the pace of highway construction between 2014-15 and 2015-16, from about 12 to just under 16 km/day. While that’s commendable, it is the same pace of highway building that the policy-paralysed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) achieved in 2012-13.

Mr Gadkari has a penchant — like others in his government — for exaggeration. Perhaps he should hold the boasts for when the pace of highway construction actually exceeds the (did I mention demotivated and paralysed?) UPA’s.

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A tax too far

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s minority status in the Rajya Sabha has proven to be a big impediment to its legislative goals, and the long-delayed Goods and Services Tax (GST) — which needs a 2/3rds majority in the Rajya Sabha to pass — seems as distant as ever.

In the Rajya Sabha elections held for 12 seats this week in Assam, Kerala, Nagaland, Punjab and Tripura, the Indian National Congress (INC) dipped from 66 to 63 seats (in the 245-seat upper house), while the BJP was flat at 48. The INC might drop another seat in the Rajya Sabha in the coming 4-5 months while the BJP could gain another three, but the ruling coalition is unlikely to make any meaningful gains in the upper house until 2018, close to the end of its term.

This is what the Rajya Sabha could look like by August:

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Clearly, the BJP will need the support of several uncommitted regional parties to pass bills through the upper house until at least 2018, and probably beyond.

And what of the GST? In a recent investor note, Morgan Stanley argued that:

The key to the bill’s passage is a reduction in the number of Upper House members opposing the bill. That number currently stands at 91 and it needs to fall to 82 for the bill to clear – we forecast that to happen by July 2016.

Not so fast.  It seems as if the Morgan Stanley analysts are treating the Janata Dal (United) as a GST supporter and placing the AIADMK — a vocal GST opponent — into the “opposing” column. But that’s overly optimistic: the JD(U) has a coalition in Bihar with the INC and is unlikely to vote for the GST bill. Neither are the two Left parties that control nine seats between them. And the Kerala, and Tam

The conclusion: this round of Rajya Sabha elections changes nothing for the BJP, it’ll still need INC support to pass the GST.

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.

BJP-ruled states still more communally violent

In an article posted on the website Newslaundry on 14 October, Rupa Subramanya argues that government statistics do not support the view that “there’s been some sort of upsurge in communal violence since the election of Narendra Modi”, contending that figures that show an increase of 25% in communal incidents in January-May 2015 vs. January-May 2014 are unlikely to be statistically significant.

She also states the following:

This is a reference to my 15 February 2014 blog post titled BJP ruled states more communally violent. In her article, Subramanya asserts that:

  1. These findings are questionable because “one can get just about any result [by] using different start and end dates”; and
  2. The persistence of communal violence among a variety of different states makes it “impossible for a fair minded person to assert that there’s a greater prevalence of communal violence in either BJP or Congress ruled states.”

Note that the original one-and-a-half year old blog post used 2010-13 data because that’s what was available at the time. So let’s be fair-minded and run the analysis with the data used in the Newslaundry piece (2010-January 2015).

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Lo and behold, there’s no change in the ranking of states. Zip, zero. BJP-ruled states have an intensity of communal violence (measured by casualty rates) that is 61% higher than that of INC-ruled states. Note that both INC- and BJP-ruled states are above the national average, which means that states ruled by other parties are, on average, more peaceful. I’d say that debunks the debunker.

Let’s include communal violence data from 2007-09 to include as much information as we easily can. And here is what we find:

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There is some reshuffling in the ranking of the states, but the basic pattern holds: BJP-ruled states have 64% higher intensity of communal violence than INC-ruled states, and 78% higher than the national average. The only states where neither the BJP or INC was dominant thoughout this period are Jharkhand, Kerala and Rajasthan. The BJP was in power for most of the time in Karnataka and all of the time in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The INC was in office in Assam throughout and in Andhra Pradesh (including Telangana) for most of the period.

The Newslaundry piece does note that several states changed government in 2013 and 2014 (and earlier), so let’s focus only on those that have experienced lengthy periods of government by one party.

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(No) surprise! BJP-ruled states still have a casualty rate 73% higher than INC-ruled states, and 60% greater than supposedly polarised Uttar Pradesh (UP) (remember, the UP figures include the Muzaffarnagar riots).

These findings, though robust, need not comprise the whole story. A thoughtful critique would note that the political party running a state isn’t the sole determinant of communal violence, and that factors such as the nature of party competition (Wilkinson 2004), the presence of institutionalised riot systems (Brass 1997), the density of civic ties among communal groups (Varshney 2002) and other contending explanations could also shape levels of communal violence.

A considered critique might also seek to distinguish between low-level communal friction at the level of locality, town or village, and outbreaks of communal violence that go beyond these. Subramanya hints at this in her observations about Uttar Pradesh but appears too focused on trying to fix the responsibility for the 2013 riots on Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav to look at this in a considered way.

Instead, we get baseless generalisations about cut-off points, and a digression involving temperatures and climate change. Sorry, Newslaundry, this just doesn’t cut it.

Does Bihar’s kidnapping industry embody “Jungle Raj”?

In a fiery election speech in Munger, Bihar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that the coming state election was a choice between “Jungle Raj” and “Vikas Raj”, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance representing the latter.

Modi cited widespread kidnappings in Bihar as an indicator of how lawless the state has been under Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) (JD[U]). Let’s leave aside the obvious objection that the BJP bears some responsibility for this, having run Bihar in coalition with the JD(U) for the past decade. In a heated election campaign, the BJP needs to differentiate itself from Nitish and his newfound ally, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad Yadav.

The problem for Modi is that two BJP-run states in the neighbourhood have higher rates of kidnapping, according to data provided in Table 1.6 of the 2014 Crime in India report (released earlier this year by the National Crime Records Bureau):

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As you can see, Bihar sits somewhere in the middle while Madhya Pradesh, ruled for 12 years by the BJP, has a kidnapping rate 61% higher than Bihar’s.

What about the trend line; does it support the charge of “jungle raj”? It certainly seems that Bihar’s kidnapping rate has jumped between 2007 (2.7 per lakh population) and 2014 (6.4 per lakh population). But that’s not the whole story: India’s overall kidnapping rate has actually risen a bit faster in the same period, and Bihar’s share of national kidnappings has in fact dropped from 9.2% (2007) to 8.5% (2014). This may be little consolation for the 3,940 additional Biharis who were kidnapped in 2014 versus 2007, but the chart below is illustrative.

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What’s not clear is if there has in fact been a national upsurge in kidnappings or whether there are technical or procedural reasons that have raised the numbers. But what is clear is that, while Bihar certainly has law-and-order issues, the state’s performance in this particular area has been only slightly worse than the national average.

The charge of “Jungle Raj”, at least so far as kidnappings go, isn’t supported by the data.

Update on Oct 17

The Wire carried this piece:

Does the New York Times really have an India problem?

The New York Times (NYT) has long been a lighting rod for criticism, and things are no different regarding its India coverage and analysis.

Economist Vivek Dehejia for one has criticised what he calls the “rabid anti-India editorializing of today’s New York Times” and attributed it to the “unremitting hostility of the Anglo-American liberal media establishment” towards the BJP.

An analysis on the website Newslaundry examined three NYT op-eds written in the last 18 months and concluded that none of them held up to scrutiny using hard data, and the author concluded that the paper’s editors seemed to “”outsource” stories to who they consider to be India “experts” without the same rigorous fact-checking as US stories.”

So does the NYT have an “India problem”? Between 1 January and 6 October 2015, the NYT carried 49 commentaries about India, of which 18 were written by the NYT editorial board and reflect the paper’s own opinion. Keep in mind that these commentaries are entirely separate from the NYT’s news reporting, and are meant to reflect the opinions of their writers.

And this is what I found:

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The editorial board is clearly critical of government policy, of Modi and of Hindu nationalism, but has also commented on topics such as the national budget, air pollution and Delhi state elections without taking an overt political or ideological position. Note that there is nothing illegitimate in the editorial board taking ideological stands.

The op-eds are, however, more diverse. An overwhelming majority relate to topics that either do not call for a political stance, or the writers choose not to adopt one. There is some criticism of Modi and of government policy, but there is also some support for both. Which means that strong Modi critics like writer Sonia Faleiro do not represent the entirety of India content on the NYT op-ed page.

The paper does, on the other hand, display a clear ideological stance.

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This should not surprise anyone who pays attention. In a 25 July 2004 comment, then NYT Public Editor Daniel Okrent answered the question of whether the NYT is a liberal newspaper with a succinct: “Of course it is.” He added that the NYT editorial page is so “thoroughly saturated in liberal theology that when it occasionally strays from that point of view the shocked yelps from the left overwhelm even the ceaseless rumble of disapproval from the right.” Furthermore, he contended that the op-ed editors “do an evenhanded job of representing a range of views in the essays from outsiders they publish”.

The first chart above does show a greater diversity of views among op-ed contributors than in the editorial board, but even op-ed contributions are overwhelmingly liberal in their orientation (in US terms). This arises, to quote Okrent again, because “the paper’s heart, mind and habits remain embedded” in the culture of New York City, and “because getting outside one’s own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning”. Fans would no doubt consider this a good thing (words like cosmopolitan, progressive and multicultural come to mind), while critics would not (and apply labels such as elite, East Coast establishment, godless). And liberal east coasters are unlikely to be sympathetic to Narendra Modi and Hindu nationalism.

But that might not be enough for those critics who see the NYT on a mission to denigrate Indian greatness. And even though I don’t subscribe to that view (finding the above explanation more compelling), here is some ammunition for them:

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Note that the editorial board has zero “good stuff” to discuss, and the op-ed pages carried all 11 pieces in this category. Hate away.

Gassing about LPG

In a recent interview, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed full credit for transferring LPG subsidies directly to consumers. He also took a potshot at the Congress Party, saying that “the so-called pro-poor have been just repeating that there is leakage in subsidy”, implying that his government had done all the heavy lifting here.

The Modi government’s achievements with the Direct Benefits Transfer for LPG (DBTL) scheme, now christened the PAHAL Yojana, certainly seem impressive:

But, once again, Modi has misspoken. The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government launched the DBTL scheme in pilot form on 1 June 2013 and expanded it to 291 (of 676) districts on 1 January 2014, when it covered 96 million consumers. Between 1 June 2013 and 8 March 2014, the scheme disbursed Rs 54 billion (US$900 million) in subsidies to 28 million consumers.

Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government relaunched a rejigged DBTL on 15 November 2014 in 54 districts, and expanded it nationwide on 1 January 2015. The scheme now has enrolled 129 million LPG consumers and disbursed a total of Rs 122 billion (US$1.9 billion) in fuel subsidies (though we don’t know how many consumers have actually benefited).

In short, the UPA enrolled 74% of all DBTL consumers, and the NDA has distributed about the same amount of cash to LPG consumers (albeit in a shorter period). Frankly, it’s a little silly to compare the records of two successive governments regarding a single scheme, since the second is obviously building on the work of the first, which in this case designed and rolled out the programme.