Friday, April 3, 2015

Is the Net Neutrality and Telecom Pricing Dilemma for real ?

Indian Telecom service providers (TSPs) such as Airtel, Idea and Vodafone have been complaining about over-the-top service providers (OTT SPs) such as Whatsapp, Facebook and Viber for more than a year now. Their complaint is two-fold. First of all, these OTT SPs are able to provide competing services of voice calls/text messages without having to pay spectrum license fees, termination charges to other service providers or abide by other security/statutory regulations. Secondly, these OTT SPs are rapidly growing at the expense of, and as if to add insult to injury, on top of the very telecom infrastructure created by these TSPs.
Last year, Airtel proposed a policy of price discrimination, to charge data usage differentially for these communication services. But Airtel was taken aback by the big public outcry especially on social media on the principle of “Net Neutrality” and deferred the price discrimination scheme. Meanwhile, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) seized on the issue and produced a white paper. TRAI has invited suggestions/responses from public on questions raised by the white paper. The objective of this article is to review some of the grievances expressed by Indian TSPs and analyze some of the solutions discussed in the white paper / proposed by policy experts.
For reading the complete article from Swarajya Magazine click here 

Part-III: The Vicious Trap of LARR Resettlement & Rehabilitation

In the first part of this series we explored the need for government intervention in the land acquisition process. In the second part we addressed the ethical question of who owns the premium accruing out of change of land use purpose. In this third and final part we discuss some of the important clauses in the Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) part of the LARR Act 2013. The LARR act 2013 is different from the Land Acquisition Act 1894 because of the inclusion of rehabilitation and resettlement clauses within the same act. Hence the R&R part is perceived by activists as the crowning jewel of social justice. In this article we discuss some of the darker sides of the act and explore whether such a crowning jewel of social justice, truly stands up to the welfare of all sections of the society. 

For reading the complete article click here

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Part-II : Who Owns the premium accruing out of change of land use purpose? An ethical perspective

The first part of this series focused on the need for a land acquisition act. In this part we focus on a substantive issue on one particular component within the compensation and rehabilitation package. The premium accruing out of change of land use purpose from agriculture to the amended purpose. The LARR act 2013 passes this entire premium to the titleholder. This is as much as 2 times for urban land and 4 times for rural agricultural land. Now is it fair that the title owner claims ownership of the entire premium? Who exactly owns this premium, considering the history of land tenure in India? Who exactly owns this premium, by taking an ethical perspective of value addition?  
 Click here to read this complete article. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Part-I : Why do we need a Land Acquisition Act ? - A Game theoretic perspective

Agricultural land is much more than a mere capital asset owned by farmers. It is not only a source of livelihood but also a source of financial security, lifetime memories and emotional strength. Hence any parting with farmland, whether by volition or by force is always an emotional act for the farmer. That is why many argue, even if the farmer was compensated with a land of equal size and arability, things will no longer remain the same in his life. But for a rapidly growing and urbanizing country like India, industrial growth and urban expansion is inevitable. 

The objective of this article is restricted to one controversial aspect of the land acquisition process viz. Why do we need government intervention in the land acquisition process in the first place? Why can’t we let the buyers deal with the sellers directly via market mechanisms? 

Click here to read this full article that was published in Swarajya Magazine. 

Review of the Research Paper - Does Affirmative Action Affect the Productivity of Indian Railways?

A research study appeared recently that analysed the impact of affirmative action (caste based reservation system in India) on the productivity of a PSU (Indian Railways in this case). The study was conducted by Ashwini Deshpande & Thomas E. Weisskopf in 2011. A link to the pre-published version of this paper is available (here). This blog post is a review of this paper (strictly) based on the version hyper linked here. 

The objective of the study was to prove that caste based reservation system does not impact the productivity of an organization. A systematic study would not only shut the voices of people raising this concern against the reservation system, but also provide valuable supporting evidence for the Supreme Court of India to make a decision on several different Mandal Commission related cases pending before it. Although the claim of the authors may be true, is the study really producing such a clinching evidence to make such a claim in support of caste based reservation system? 

Here are some of my critical observations of the study :- 

  1. If you read the statement linking Footnote 4 and what the actual footnote 4 reads, you will get a good idea of how exactly the study flows in terms of linking things.
  2. Firstly at a conceptual level to argue that Labour mix significantly impacts how many passenger KMs are produced or not is a stretch for an asset intensive, capital good intensive industry like Railways. Secondly it is a monopoly and certain amount of captive demand will get filled irrespective of what the Labour mix is. And this captive demand will be increasing over time because of population explosion and increase in economic mobility in the country. This captive demand hike will NOT be captured by fixed effect time variable during regression. We need a dynamic time effect that is increasing with time to capture this effect. A better proxy is to use GDP of that year or for that state(zone) as a control variable. They have not controlled for this aspect. 
  3. Taking passenger KM as a measure of output assumes that demand is infinite and capacity utilization is not a function of demand. It is only the other production factors that influence how many passenger KMs are produced. I am not sure how Railways demand can be modeled this way de-linking from the demand. This is a critical concern that needs to be addressed. 
  4. Railways output in terms of Passenger KM is a function of how many new trains are launched and in which routes (which are budget announcements). One can argue time controls for this during regression. But a pure fixed effect regression may not adequately capture this. We need a better control variable. 
  5. Railways policy of how "crowded" their lines can be has evolved with time. With better technology (and some say reduction in safety standards) they have allowed for more "crowding" i.e. they run two consecutive trains on the same track with lesser time gap. One can argue technology controls for this effect. There is another issue with technology variable they have chosen and we will come to it later. 
  6. They are using FUEL QUANTITY as an independent variable. This is normally a good proxy for technology in many capital intensive industries e.g. Iron & Steel. But during regression this factor should pop up with a negative sign i.e. the quantity of fuel consumed for covering the same Passenger KM should decrease with time. This has not happened and this is already triggering alarm bells on how technology has been controlled for!!! 
  7. Any employee with time "learns" on the job. The rate of learning may be different for different employees. if critiques of caste reservation policy are to be taken seriously, they may argue this rate is different for different categories too. However the model makes no effort to consider the learning effect of employees both general and SC/ST over time. The existing model has a secularly increasing figure of %SC/ST over time. This variable combines older employees with newer employees and can produce a spurious result due to the presence of learning effect over time! This wont be captured by fixed effect time variable as it an interaction variable. 
  8. The first approach to comparison is some what naive and I dont lend too much credence to it. The second approach is a more appropriate to study a problem of this type. But what I don't understand is why has time adjustment not been made in the 2nd step regression in the second approach ? That has potential to throw spurious results. We need to see the exact equation they have used.
  9. Normally such problems should be strictly studied in a "difference in difference" approach by having a dataset that covers zones/time periods where the policy was not introduced with the ones after it was introduced. I understand they have data limitations in attempting to do anything like this. But at the same time they should give benefit of doubt to their limitations. 
To summarize the following red herrings stand out to me :- 
  1. Choose an industry such as Public sector Banks which are service businesses and the quality/productivity/performance will be strongly linked to the human resources they deploy. Furthermore banking sector is competitive and hence if people are unhappy, they will move to another competitor. This will make a more convincing case to study than an asset intensive monopoly like Railways.  
  2. Unlimited Demand assumption. This is invalid and needs to be accounted for. 
  3. Improper use of Fixed time effect as it does not capture dynamic captive demand surge
  4. Not controlling for Govt of India announcements and Railway "crowding" policy changes. 
  5. Not having a good proxy for Technology. In fact having a bad proxy. 
  6. Not accounting for the learning effect of the employees. 
It would be nice if they can overcome these limitations and produce better version of analysis so that we can all appreciate the results better.  

Aavin Scam - The indelible imprints of socialism on Milk cooperatives

Socialism is so deep rooted in Indian polity that its imprints are far reaching and pervasive. If one carefully studies the cause of many of the socio-political scams in India, their origins can easily be traced back to the failed philosophy of socialism. The pattern is usually the same; a noble social goal, misplaced socialistic implementation, opportunistic behaviour of all and concerned leading to massive corruption or cronyism. Although this pattern is commonplace, what baffles is the continued obsession of socialists to “fix” problems with the same set of tools. The kneejerk reaction of media analysts and policy makers to such scams is to either introduce more stringent laws or new bodies with extra policing responsibilities; both lead to more problems than solutions in the long run. It is this extraordinary obsession to address failed social goals with useless socialist tools that we hope to lay threadbare as a part of this article.

Tamilnadu is witness to a huge scam in Aavin (the government controlled cooperative milk dairy) involving siphoning of milk, adulteration and windfall profits to unscrupulous private agents. The scam broke out on Sep 19th 2014, 8 people have been arrested and since then regional media has gone hammer and tongs about this scam. For media clippings of this scam (in Tamil) click here. CB-CID of state police estimates the magnitude of theft to be 1500 to 2000 litres of milk per day per lorry. That is conservatively about 2 Lakhs litres of milk stolen every day, leading to a loss of 10 Crore per day to Aavin. The numbers aren’t quite in the order of national scams to make national headlines; but nevertheless the scam highlights what is wrong with our socialistic polity. Police have arrested the kingpin of this racket called Vaidyanathan; who owned & operated a fleet of container lorries that deliver milk collected from villages to the aavin processing centres. The modus-operandi of this scam is as follows. Farmers in villages supply the milk to the local aavin collection centres; where it is tested for quality and accepted. The collected milk is then loaded into container lorries with sealed tanks; and shipped to centralized processing centres. Quality Inspection of the milk offloaded from sealed containers in processing centres follows a less rigorous process. Vaidyanathan and his associates (who own the truck fleet that supplies logistics to aavin) have been alleged to have siphoned-off 20% of the milk enroute and instead replaced it with water or worse other chemical compounds. Their craft was unnoticed because they had the knack of replacing back the seal. The stolen milk was sold to private players and private dairies to earn windfall profits. The accused have been supplying logistics to aavin for more than 10 years, and hence the scam must have been in vogue for several years before these arrests were made. Media reports suggest that several aavin staffs and officials were in the know of this scam, but chose to ignore in exchange for pecuniary benefits. The story is no different from similar scams reported from Milk cooperatives and PSUs in other states. But what baffles is the set of tools proposed by policy analysts and policymakers to resolve this issue and prevent its recurrence.

So what do the experts say?
As usual opposition parties have called for a CBI inquiry; as if that is a panacea for curing such social ills. Media analysts have called for suspension and arrest of aavin officials who looked the other way when this scam was in the making. Some parties friendly to the government have predictably asked for an inquiry commission headed by an ex-judge. Some media experts have called for introduction of an expensive “sealing” technology to prevent siphoning-off stuff enroute. The more stupid ones have called for introduction of a thorough inspection and additional quality check at the factory gate to catch such abuses. The more ridiculous socialists have called for arrest and ban on private dairies and private processors that benefited from getting cheaper access to milk supplies. However not one analyst is willing to look at the root cause of the issue; the procurement price distortion in the factor market of milk consequent to the policies followed by aavin.

So what really is the scam?
The real scam is the price distortion in the factor markets for milk due to the practices of Aavin. A news report (Kumudam Reporter, dated 03/Aug/14) states that aavin procures milk from farmers for Rs. 21.50 per litre (was only Rs. 18.50 until Feb, 2014) in Vellore district, while the private dairies mostly operating out of the bordering Chitoor district of Andhra pay about Rs. 32 per litre. Estimates suggest that only 30% of the daily production of 10 Lakh litres of milk in Vellore district is sourced to aavin. About 50% of the milk is smuggled across the border and sourced to private dairies in Andhra. The remaining 20% of milk is procured by private dairies of Tamilnadu who are paying significantly more than aavin. Aavin retails processed milk to consumers at Rs. 27 to 31 per litre. It incurs a processing cost of about Rs.8 per litre. Hence estimates suggest that Vellore district aavin alone incurs a net loss of Rs. 80 Lakhs per month. At the state level, the loss to Aavin is about 5 Crores per month. Whereas private players in Tamilnadu procure milk at Rs. 32 from farmers and retail processed milk at Rs. 42 to 46 to make a decent profit. Does it need a PhD in management to realize that the root cause of all these distortionary practices is the uncompetitive procurement prices paid by aavin?

So why really do farmers sell milk to Aavin in the first place?
The first reason is availability of aavin procurement booths in every village; because private booths have limited penetration. Under-development of the procurement market, forces farmers living in these remote villages to sell their produce at uncompetitive rates to the monopsony of aavin. The second reason is the differences in the rigor of quality checks followed by aavin with that of private players. This is a classic case of “market of lemons”. Anyone with a quality produce can sell to private dairies and make higher profit, while the ones who need to “manage” the officials for pushing their low quality produce have to settle for aavin. The third reason is contractual. Government gives loans to farmers at subsidised interest rates for purchase of cows and cattle feed. This loan is disbursed by cooperative societies. As a part of this loan contract, farmers are expected to sell their entire produce to aavin. However this contract is difficult to enforce, because there is no way of determining what the entire produce is. Hence most farmers work around this contract, by selling 20 to 30% of their produce to aavin to remain compliant; while selling the balance to private players. Aren’t these opportunistic behaviours the natural course of players reacting to the market distortion?

So why can’t Aavin truly fix the scam?
So why can’t aavin truly fix this once for all, by bringing its procurement prices in-line with the prevalent prices in the factor market? The first obvious reason is the push back from consumers for any hike in retail prices. More than consumer protests or public antipathy, the ruling party fears that such a hike would hand over a political brownie point to the opposition. The second reason is the unwillingness of aavin officials to adopt any such market-oriented model. The current model suits them because they can hide their uncompetitiveness in processing costs under the garb of low retail prices. It also gives them the discretionary right to fix prices and fudge quality norms. Moving to a market model also denies them the opportunity to earn rents. Hence under the garb of public welfare, their unions are capable of stopping this essential service using dharnas and strikes. The third reason is the push back from cooperative societies whose sole existence is justified by the disbursement and collection of cattle loans. If milk is procured at market prices from farmers, then it makes no sense to dish out commercial loans at subsidised interest rates. Asking such cooperatives to compete in an open financial market exposes their inefficiency in operations and denies them the ability to earn influence rents in selection of borrowers. So the three pillars of socialist legacy in the cooperative milk market; consumers, aavin officials and cooperative societies are ALL unwilling to address the real root cause of the problem.

So where do we go from here?
We go nowhere is the answer! The arrested suspects may be punished. Some aavin officials may be suspended for some duration. An expert committee may recommend an expensive sealing technology, verification of antecedents of logistics providers etc. Already two private processors who make milk halwa (milk guava) out of the stolen milk have been arrested. An inquiry will be launched against private dairies that purchased the milk. This tool of harassment will then need to be ‘managed’ by the private dairies to get certified hat they were unaware of the antecedents of the milk they sourced. The public will be happy that the government has taken prompt action against adulterers; that too without raising retail prices. And then everything will be forgotten; until the next socialist policy pothole will blow right under our nose! And never mind, our policy experts will bring the same set of tools to fix those potholes; only for it to open up elsewhere.