Sharan has a Masters degree from the Delhi School of Economics and was awarded a fellowship by the EPW foundation to research competing methods of identifying the poor. He is currently a Research Associate for The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), established as a research center at the Economics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yup, we’re trying to figure out what a poverty lab is too.
A Not-So-Minty Fresh Defence
The debate on the somewhat hasty introduction of Aadhar-based Cash Transfers has been shrill and often polarising, with a quickly vanishing middle-ground. The government seems keen on this being rectified. However, rather than taking more nuanced positions, it seems as though it is, predictably, doing two things: One, playing up its own version of events, to the extent that the boundaries between reporting and propaganda get blurred; Two, hurriedly clamping down on any semblance of opposition from amongst its own ranks. If there is no opposition, one can imagine the government smugly stating, then there is no need for a middle-ground.
Consider, for instance, this bizarre pair of pieces in the Hindustan Times: (http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/NMadhavan/Aadhar-should-be-a-smartphone-not-just-a-card/Article1-973624.aspx, http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/NewDelhi/Smartphones-free-with-government-s-cash-plan/Article1-973708.aspx). First, N Madhavan, Associate Editor, HT, writes a piece on how Aadhar should be more than just an ID Card. “My contention”, he writes, like he has just struck upon the idea, “is that Aadhar should not be a smart card but a smartphone or sorts, given to poorer citizens free…Let us say”, he continues in the same hypothetical vein, “the government decides to incentivise the use of Aadhar by offering a free touchscreen phone, called the ‘Aadhar Phone’ to every registered voter below the poverty line and at a nominal cost”. He then proceeds to do some quick, crude calculations to arrive at the cost of such a move to the government – around Rs 40,000 crore for 400 million people. Subsequently, he suggests that these phones act as “interactive service delivery instrument[s]” and that cash transfers could also be done through mobile phones.
The very next day, a HT headline screams: “Smartphones free with Government’s cash plan”. What’s more, these phones are, actually, “Aadhar-enabled smartphones”! A senior government official, channelling his inner Madhavan even goes on to say that these phones would act as “direct interface[s] with the beneficiaries” and would “empower the poor” by keeping them informed about the money the government provides for them”.
Of course, two independent agents can come up with the same idea. Indeed, a cynic would argue that there is very little that is said nowadays that hasn’t been said or thought of by someone else previously. However, it is the timing of the pieces that is suspect. In my Patna edition of the HT, the two pieces actually appeared side-by-side, on the very same page!
Mint has no qualms about being “a supporter of Aadhar”. However, on December 6, 2012, it carried a piece by JNU-economist, Himanshu (http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/3y6fRkVy2Wzkp1qfCl1MQM/Cash-transfers-and-other-dreams.html) – Cash transfers and other dreams. In essence, this piece questioned the sudden urge to recklessly push through Cash Transfers. The summary of his piece, presumably written by someone at Mint, reads: “Far from reducing India’s fiscal pressures, direct transfers are, in reality, an effort to rescue UIDAI”.
Roughly, he arrives at that conclusion through these arguments: First, the direct cash transfer is being proposed for 29 programmes, but does not cover food and fertiliser – the two costliest subsidies for the government; Second, there is little clear evidence of there being significant corruption in the delivery of these other subsidies and even if there is, plugging small leaks will really not cause a major dent in the deficit per se; Third, therefore, there must be an ulterior motive for this hasty move towards cash transfers. He contends that it is to save Aadhar – a project that has, up until now, little legitimacy.
I could think of various adjectives to describe the piece – for instance, clear, intelligent, precise, biased, thought-provoking, daring or far-fetched.
By corollary, those that I wouldn’t associate with the piece are: specious, incendiary, erroneous or ridiculous.
And yet, reminiscent of the HT pieces, the very next day, the editor of Mint, R Sukumar, writes a piece, boldly titled – Free Markets, Free Speech (http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/DGxD5DrYo7rFfHRNWiq7dN/Free-markets-free-speech.html), that seems to occupy the amorphous space between an apology, a clarification and a defence. In over 600 words that are beautifully summed up by Voltaire’s (or Beatrice Hall’s, take your pick) stirring claim – “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Sukumar simultaneously attacks and mounts a defence of Himanshu’s article. Mint, he says categorically, does not agree with Himanshu’s views (indeed, at one point, Sukumar suggests that Himanshu’s arguments may constitute a “leap of logic”), but equally forcefully, he argues that Himanshu may have his reasons. After all, Himanshu is “one of Mint’s smartest columnists and perhaps one of the few people in the country who understands the agricultural economy”. Towards the end, he defends the Aadhar-cash transfer combination on the grounds that while it may not be perfect it is still an improvement over the status-quo: “I’ve noticed”, he says, “that most people critiquing a possible solution always evaluate it from the perspective of the ideal and perfect one, while conveniently ignoring that it is far better than the one currently in use”.
Most baffling of all is a post-script that is so strikingly defensive that it demands to be reproduced here in its entirety:
“I did [emphasis mine] read the column before we carried it. Mint believes in hiring columnists on the basis of their intelligence and ability to make people think with their writing, and then giving them adequate room and freedom to express their views, irrespective of the opinion of the newsroom and the editor of the newsroom. The only things we watch out for are: libel, slander, and conflict of interest.”
All of this borders on the absurd because there is very little visible opposition to the piece – there is a solitary comment on the website. It does question Himanshu’s views, not his arguments. Moreover, the comment does not question Mint’s decision to carry the piece. Maybe an avalanche of emails came the newspaper’s way, perhaps questioning its right to carry such a “poorly argued” piece. Or is it that a small influential group of persons dwelling in the hallowed Lutyen’s bungalows of Central Delhi were alarmed that one of their primary, unqualified supporters in the media on cash transfers carried a piece that rankled and spun the other way – and demanded an explanation? And no less than the editor stepped in to provide one.
Maybe Sukumar or Mint could have also included the reason behind penning their counter-piece to Himanshu’s, because one can only wonder what motivated the editor to write it.
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