Issue 6

MSP: What has it Meant Historically and What does it Mean Now?

We must keep in mind three  things – 1) price systems are symptoms, not solutions 2) all group interests have sub group interests, which further disintegrate to individual interests and  3) agricultural political economy is shaped by history. So when someone calls farmers protesting  “khalistani”, not only is that horrible behaviour but also a disservice to the nation & detrimental for national interest.

Recently, the parliament passed three bills that were hailed to be both anti farm and farm liberating. This led to widespread protests throughout the country, more so in north india. The main summary is – farmers can sell their produce outside the government controlled mandis, they can get into contracts with agents as they prefer. When and  how depends on  their judgement & capacity.

During the 1960’s owing to war, and political instability, India suffered a food shortage which made the idea of “High Yield Variety” seeds attractive in order to ramp up agriculture. The MSP, or Minimum Support Price was hence brought in, to a) Incentivise  crops like wheat, rice & b) to create a sense of agricultural stability. 

In 1965 an Agricultural Price Commission (renamed as CACP now) was set up to estimate and advise the price policy. It is a price floor, under which the government ensures all the listed crops. Since it is a five decade old policy, scrutiny is natural. Normally there are around two  dozen crops under it. It was after all, , a temporary reform to boost production..

The APMC or Agricultural Produce Market Committee formed by the government . has two major roles – tackling exploitation coupled with  fixing power asymmetry between farmers & bigger agents and reducing farm to retail prices. By dividing states into geographical spots it runs mandis where there are charges and licenses for participation. Now many mandis have been brought to online mode of operation like e-mandis through digital means & token systems. All MSP procurement is not through APMC either. There are other ways like through the arhatiya (agents) who are generally powerful figures.

The next major economic reforms came in 1990, needless to say, bypassed the farm.

Our focus is primarily on the MSP. Is it a right? Is it a solution? In my opinion, it is not. Price assurance isn’t belling the cat, it is rather negotiating with the cat at the expense of another cat, with heavy consequences. Prices are indicators of the market, they are a product of people’s preferences. They cannot arise out of legislation. The birth of MSP took place to boost certain crops. Today it leads to overproduction (and wastage) of these crops at the expense of the taxpayer. Another important concern is the diversion of resources. Since MSP makes these crops attractive it leads to diversion of resources that could be used for growing other suitable crops (only where MSP is accessible). 

At best, the MSP is a symptom of inefficiency and need of a safety net, not a solution to it. It distorts the market in the promise of safe outcomes. The FCI currently stocks more than twice the buffer stock requirement (97mt in 2020 vs 41 mt req.). This is not just overproduction but dead capital. Other concerns are the inequality in the policy itself. A small number of farmers concentrated in a few states are beneficiaries of the scheme e.g. Punjab, Haryana, MP vs Odisha. Therefore farmers do not benefit equally from it. In fact there are large inequalities which are reflected in the outcomes. Smaller farmers in states like Odisha (which in fact produces 1/10th of rice) depend on public welfare, not  price insurance.  There are also information barriers as not many small farmers are even aware about the MSP, let alone derive their income from it. It is quite possible that this policy makes rich farmers richer and poor ones poorer. An average farming household in Punjab enjoys 1.2 lac per annum in subsidy, 2.5 times of national avg. More importantly, by definition, the government . cannot “predict” prices, it will most certainly predict it wrong. 

APMC’s hurt both the freedom of selling and the freedom of movement as per one’s wish. There is excessive cartelization and barriers to entry and trade. In that sense there’s fundamentally nothing revolutionary about these bills as the government claims while they may be more freedom enabling. They do little to address the broken system. The fear or misconception that the private sector will consume the farmers is not exactly true. Firstly it is a fact that agriculture, which is heavily state regulated is ironically one of the largest private sectors in the country. It runs on trust, contracts, promises and so on, much of which are informal. Mark that only about 6-7 percent of total farmers have access to MSP. More than 90 percent are doing trade in their personal capacities voluntarily in local markets, through agents and supply chains which are private sector transactions. If the government starts buying all the production of all MSP crops, it will go broke. Moreover the govt claims the MSP isn’t going anywhere. Neither are the mandis. Though if people find better opportunities by this increase in freedom, they will become obsolete. The bigger question is how many farmers have the resources to deal directly?  The blame towards the “middlemen” is unwarranted as they play a crucial role in any supply chain.

Another misconception is that farmers are driven by other politics and belong to certain states. Such claims aren’t well founded either. The reason is simple. Even though the protests are widespread, Punjab & Haryana have  been at the forefront of agro movements, historically. They were the biggest beneficiaries of the Green Revolution and they’re biggest beneficiaries of MSP and mandi systems. Wheat & Rice contribute to huge parts of agri-revenue. They have bigger and more connected unions unlike say Odisha. Punjab has avg land holdings of 3.7 hectares vs national avg of 1.08 hectares. Involvement in states such as Bihar (avg 0.4 hectares holding) isn’t very wide spread as they have already abolished APMC

The point is whether they’re aware about how good/bad the alternatives (which haven’t been tested) are or they realise the trade-offs which may come at the expense of someone else. With these bills some speculations are obvious. What about the price support? What about volatility without it? Are there not going to be any mandis anymore? It is only natural that we dissent. With these bills that will supposedly “liberalise” agriculture, some sections might suffer losses too and then move from farming to manufacturing or other productive sectors as most developed nations do. But are there enough opportunities ? How smooth is this transition? Will this lead to alienation of traditional occupation? What about power asymmetry, negotiation and information barriers? These are genuine questions and the government response to them have been lacklustre and opaque. The problem of agriculture is two fold – productivity and accessibility. The removal  of APMCs in themselves does little to solve either. However it is worth pointing out that most parties protesting or disapproving of the bills demanded similar reforms. Some even included them in their manifestos.

Almost all countries protect their primary sector and so should India. But not through price supports where there is overproduction. Incentives to increase productivity and shift to other beneficial crops, transition to farm entrepreneurship etc.The alternative should be to have a more universal, decentralised and direct support e.g. an income support. A Universal Basic Income could be on the cards but it is still a long long time away. Some policies that have delivered results the Rythu Bandhu scheme or the Kalia scheme by the Odisha govt. Welfare is a tricky, slippery slope and old policies must be tested and retested before they get politicised. Farm prosperity must be the priority, even if it comes at the cost of knee jerk decisions. The image of a poor farmer representing the country seems patronising and representative at the same time. But it must go.

Amlan is a final year student at Ashoka University who hails from Odisha.

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Issue VI: Editors’ Note

Come December, we always look back at the year gone by – introspecting, making resolutions for the coming year, and subconsciously accepting that these promises won’t be followed through. 2020 has been different. We have seen the repercussions of being lax with our concerns about safety. We have had a lot to think about, much of it being intense questions about the global systems, difficult realisations about failures and acknowledgement about the need to change old paradigms. In this issue, we reflect upon hopes and concerns, looking back at 2020 while also looking ahead to 2021.

We look at how the pandemic has changed us: we have been compelled to have certain conversations, and working from home has become the norm. To understand how our everyday struggles may have taught us more about ourselves than we realise, we explore humour as it creates a channel for a personal look at the lockdown. 

From the point of view of economics, where exactly does India stand in the world now? Domestically, what challenges does the future hold for India’s business families? Drawing the lens away, what is the history of the minimum support price in the Indian agro-market and what are the two sides that make it contentious now? How then, do we combat misinformation and ‘make the world add up’? 

In dreary times, many of us have taken to the online space to find corners of entertainment. In the move towards more diverse and accessible content, we bring Indie film recommendations, the five you must watch. Has our patriotism evolved with our films? What can we learn about the different literary prizes? These are all extremely important questions to take into the next year as we consume an ever-increasing plethora of content. What we must also keep in mind are the impact of social media, and technology on the ethics surrounding journalism.

2020 has also faced us with intense climate change calamities and it has become more important than ever to look at 2021 with hope for genuine action, but is the world up for it? Despite the pandemic, we have seen environmental protests sustain, but what does it take for environmental movements to truly work?

Bringing our gaze back to the personal, we look at how masks have been incorporated into fashion, while our daily fashion itself seems to have been metamorphosed by the culture of work-from-home.

2020 has been bizarre and intense. This issue looks at transformation, what can this year tell us about what’s to come? Is it possible for the transition to 2021 to be seamless?

–Aradhya Sharma, Mansi Ranka, and Sanya Chandra

Picture Credit: Getty Images

Issue 6

India and the World: Looking into 2021

“I firmly believe that 2020 will be known, not as a year of external disruption, but as a year of internal discovery, for our society and for our nation,” 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote these words for an exclusive article in the Manorama Yearbook 2021. While his words were meant to bring hope for India in times of crisis it also raised questions of how the pandemic altered the country’s position in the international community. 

Claims that India will be a superpower by 2020 have been thrown around by academics, economists and patriotic bhakts for over two decades. These claims can be traced back to India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium by APJ Abdul Kalam. In this book Kalam laid down his prediction of an India that would have eliminated poverty, have a high amount of women in the work force and would be an economic giant by the year 2020. These predictions could now be considered optimistic at best and completely delusional at worst. 

Coming into 2020 it was quite apparent that we hadn’t even touched the surface of becoming a poverty free nation. The World Economic Forum (WEF) released a report in January 2020 claiming that it will take seven generations for Indians born in low income families to even approach the country’s mean income. The 2020 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) identified 27.9% of the population as multidimensionally poor,  the number was 36.8% for rural and 9.2% for urban India. Even promises about the increasing involvement of women in the workforce has proved to be quite inaccurate. India’s female labour force participation rate fell to a historic low in 2018.  India is currently the most disadvantaged country for women participation in South Asia. Economic predictions about India becoming a super power also seem like a big joke. Coming into 2020 the country’s 5% inflation-adjusted growth was the lowest since 2013 and the 7.5% nominal rate was the lowest since 1978. The country that once had one of the fastest growing economies, has not seen success over the last few years mainly due to several blunders in national economic policies and actions. 

While the above numbers may just seem like confusing statistics they shed light on a much larger issue the Indian economy needs to counter. Low participation of women in the workforce doesn’t just shed light on the gender disparity that is evidently prevalent in the Indian patriarchal structure, but also showcases wastage of a large chunk of the country’s working population. 

A high poverty rate in the country’s population is a clear result of poor fiscal management on part of the government. The fact that a majority of the country’s workforce is employed in a sector that contributes the least to its GDP should be a clear indication that the Indian economy is in desperate need of a transformation. The record low inflation rates shows that the country is displaying minimal growth. All of these indicators point to one answer – India is nowhere close to being a developed nation.

India stepped into 2020 with an economic slowdown characterised by high poverty rates and increasing unemployment. The country was in turmoil as mass protests broke out in all states surrounding the people’s outrage towards the government’s discriminatory citizenship laws (NRC/CAA). This year was also not free of obstacles for the country, the biggest obstacle obviously being the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian economy that was already suffering before the year started has taken massive hits, as the country has now officially entered a technical recession. The country is now faced with farmer protests due to the government’s new Farm Bills that potentially threaten the stability of their income. So what does all this mean for India’s position in the world?

The Indian economy took a larger hit than any other major economy. In the April-June quarter, the country’s GDP shrank by 23.9% , the worst contraction in its history. India also entered a technical recession for the first time since 1947. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculations showed that the Indian economy had taken a “uniquely” larger hit than most other countries. While their 2020 growth projections showed upward trends for countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, India’s GDP dip due to the pandemic was more than double the global average fall. Infact China’s trade surplus widened to a record, gaining a 21% increase (for the month of November) in exports from a year earlier. 

The Modi government has tried to ensure the public that this fall in the GDP is temporary and promised that the economy will rebound rapidly, calling it a “V shaped recovery”.  In reality though this is quite unlikely. Sabyasachi Kar’s model predicts that it will take up to 2033 for India to get back on the pre-Covid growth path if the country’s GDP grows at a rate of 7% for the next 13 years. Another projection made by shows that if India’s GDP grows at a realistic 6.1% instead of Kar’s 7% estimate, it will take almost three decades (upto 2049) for the country’s GDP to get back on a growth path. While the Indian government is planning on introducing policies to ensure growth, the country’s standard growth policies are being ineffective. States across the country are seeing a reduction in their capital expenditures (CAPEX) , this is mostly due to the fall in revenue due to the pandemic. This reduction in revenue and CAPEX basically means that the government isn’t investing close to enough money on roads, energy plants and other necessary infrastructure. An increased investment in infrastructure is peremptory if the country is to get back on its feet, and the current spending capacity of the states is only going to make post covid recovery much harder. 

Nirmala Sitharaman had stated that the COVID-19 pandemic was an “Act of God” which may result in a contraction in India’s growth. But India’s position as a potential superpower has been threatened for the last 6 years, and the pandemic has only acted as a catalyst for an economy that was already crumbling. While we can try to stay optimistic and hope that the government’s plans pay off, it’s almost impossible that the country can get back to the growth it enjoyed in the 1990s and 2000s.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

Picture Credit: “India Map 2 N” by Mark Morgan Trinidad A is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 6

Politics of Viewership : What can Patriotic Films Tell Us?

While some films and shows have explicit propaganda and political alignments that they aim to put forward, there is content that handles the ideological waves shifting around us in much more subtle ways. With the global far right and Populist Waves gaining momentum, as observed in the administrations all around the world (recently disrupted by the fall of Trump’s administration in the US), is there a shift in storytelling on screen and how viewers converse with the content they are consuming? 

In the Indian context, we’ve had films like Uri (2019) being highly celebrated for portraying the valor of the soldiers for the surgical strikes in our neighboring country of Pakistan. The general conversations that the film provokes are not completely new, Pakistan has been in the cinematic realm since the 1947 Partition and has been villainized more so post the Bangladesh war in 1975 and Kargil war in 1999 – like in Border (1997) which is based on the Bangladesh Liberation  War of 1971. Films like this bank on the invocation of patriotism from the viewers, India wins at the end and the audience is rooting for the Indian soldiers to survive the war. But Border was released 26 years after the war that it was based on; by virtue of the distance of time it ended up making an appeal against war and the trauma it causes to soldiers and their families on both sides. Thus, the shift from Border to Uri lies in the fact that the latter’s audience was prompted to make a connection between the success of the mission and the upcoming elections, and the eventual re-formation of the BJP led government. 

Also, in light of the 2019 general elections – The Accidental Prime Minister (January 2019) and PM Narendra Modi (May 2019) are important to note. The former looks at India’s former PM Manmohan Singh and his term and the latter at the rise of Modi; the timing and the titles are enough to indicate the propagandist nature of the releases. 

The above-mentioned films were a little too on the nose about their affiliations and ideological leanings. But let’s look at other Indian films and how the patterns of invoking patriotism seem to be shifting. 

In the early days of our country’s independence movement, filmmakers were making films that would be against the empire, songs and stories based on the concept of swaraj. Nationalist agendas and patriotism were achieved in these through rebellion and attacking the ones with power. The British administration would fight back by trying to censor any inflammatory songs or messages, although language was an obstacle they had to get by first. Post-independence, films critiqued the conditions of the 1947 partition and the violence that had happened, and would continue to point out the corruption, unemployment and other vices that the government needs to deal with, while also celebrating the newly formed democracy. 

More recently, the quantity of sports biographical films, based on real life incidents and successes where Team India won and made its citizens proud has increased. Chak De India (2007) was a fictional narrative about the Indian women  hockey team winning the World Cup. But in the next decade, prompted by the success of Bhaag Mikha Bhaag in 2013, we had lieu of real-life sports victories – Dangal (2016), Saala Khadoos (2016), MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) and Mary Kom (2014). Though Chak De India had an additional victory in the acceptance of Shah Rukh Khan as a Muslim coach – the patriotism had widened from being just a sports win to a reinstatement of India’s status as a multi-cultural, secular country. 

Fictionalized true life events make it easier for connections to be made between real and reel life politics, like with Uri. The conflation may or may not be co-incidental, the inspirational incidents may be old and the films new – but the rise in the top-grossing films that invoke patriotism only through real life wins indicates that the space for losses, for the state’s vulnerabilities being explored and exposed, has reduced. Dangal does mention the ill conditions of the country’s sports facilities, but such critiques are too far and too few. 

The biographical patriotic films aren’t limited thematically to just sports. Films like Mission Mangal (2019) celebrate the success of India’s space triumphs. And Pad Man (2018) pats the country’s back in terms of social awareness movements. Also, Parmanu:The Story of Pokhran (2018), based on the Indian army’s nuclear test bomb explosions in 1998. These are a stark contrast from films being made in the previous decade – films like Rang De Basanti (2006) and A Wednesday (2008) or even Nayak (2001) which implore patriotism through protest and rebellion. 

The branding of what it means to be patriotic has itself shifted for Indian cinema. 

The influence of populist waves, films seem to be choosing safer narratives, to only talk about the successes of India instead of critiquing the state and invoking the administration as an accountable figure in the context of nation making. The shift can also possibly be marked down to the lack of funding support or production feasibility of rebellious films and stories. Considering the losses that film productions can bear when they run into trouble with certain right-wing Nationalist groups (self-appointed protectors of the administration that is being critiqued) maybe playing it safe is the future for cinema.

Jaskiran is an English and Media Studies graduate from Ashoka University. She is now working on her capstone project on representations of terrorism and nationalism in cinema as a student of Ashoka’s Scholars Programme.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 6

India’s Dominant Family Businesses Need Newer Challengers

The great Indian business family is dead. Long live the next great Indian business family. Like taxes and death, this key pillar of life in this country is ubiquitous. But like much of society around it, there are clear signs it is atomizing. No longer is the son of the rice merchant destined to continue the family tradition. He, and in some rare cases she, is experimenting with newer opportunities being constantly thrown up by a rapidly changing economy. 

That though doesn’t mean the end of the business family’s  dominant role in the Indian environment. Family Business Network, the Lausanne-based federation of business families, estimates their contribution to India’s gross domestic product at a whopping 70%. 

Not that there’s anything particularly aberrant about this. According to consulting firm Ernst and Young, 85% of companies in the Asia-Pacific are family-owned. Similarly, family businesses make up more than 60% of all European companies ranging from sole proprietors to large international enterprises. What’s more these businesses create value for themselves but also for the broader markets. Across the world, including in India, returns generated by family-owned businesses have been consistently higher than those by non-family owned ones.

For this they have been amply rewarded. According to the Billionaires Insights Report 2020 published by UBS and PwC the net worth of India’s billionaires has surged 90% in the 11 years since 2009.

It mirrors a worldwide trend of big businesses getting bigger. Thus, the Wall Street Journal recently advertised for the position of Reporter, Google. It isn’t uncommon for media outlets to assign reporters to cover specific sectors or countries but doing that for selected companies is rare. But so dominant are some global companies and so pervasive their influence that it may be blasphemous but not entirely untrue to say that Google matters more than many countries. As WSJ goes on to say in its job description: “Google’s impact on business and society is vast. Beyond its core search-and-advertising business, it is one of the world’s biggest video distributors through YouTube, the largest smartphone-software supplier thanks to Android, a leader in developing self-driving-car technology through Waymo, and a top contender in the booming cloud-computing industry.”

As it is with Google today, so it has been with others like McDonald’s, WalMart and General Motors in the past. Size leading to market dominance has ensured that some businesses have a disproportionately large influence on the world. It has led to the constant tussle between big business and regulators keen to ensure they don’t squeeze smaller competitors out of the market.

That’s where the biggest danger of business family dominance in India lies. The first two decades following the liberalization of the economy threw up new names in the business landscape of the country. Entrepreneurs like Sunil Mittal in telecom, Uday Kotak in banking, Naresh Goyal and later Rahul Bhatia and Rakesh Gangwal in aviation, rushed to take advantage of the opening up to the private sector of areas that had hitherto been reserved for state-run monopolies. Some like Naresh Goyal came to grief. Others soldiered on and have become the business families of today. At Wipro, the software-to-consumer products conglomerate that was set up by Hasham Premji in 1945, the third generation of Premjis, in the form of new chairman Rishad Premji, is now in charge.

It is the way economies with relatively free markets grow. In fact, crystal ball gazing in the late 1990s led several analysts to predict that in the future Indian business would be driven by companies like Ranbaxy, Samtel, Infosys, ILFS, Kotak Mahindra and Yes Bank, as much as it would by existing powerhouses like Reliance and Tata. 

The future is here and sadly most names in that list of future stars have dropped off with only Kotak and Bharti holding fort. In fact, over the last few years, a disturbing trend has  emerged with a handful of powerful families mopping up businesses across sectors. Despite a surge in entrepreneurship generously funded by private equity and venture capital, there aren’t too many start-ups that look like challenging the incumbents whether it is in existing business areas or even brand new ones like e-commerce, green energy, telecom or retail.  

Worse still, if some recent changes proposed by the country’s central bank are implemented, that dominance may grow to dangerous levels. With capital being the first need of any new venture, RBI’s proposal to allow business groups to set up banks may just add more heft to their existing clout. In a linkedin post two former deputy governors of the RBI, Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel warned that allowing corporate entry into banking “will further exacerbate the concentration of economic (and political) power in certain business houses.”  

The tragedy is that going forward the Indian business world could end up looking more like that of the pre 1990s era when a handful of names reigned supreme. Groups like Aditya Birla, Ambani, Mahindra and Mahindra, Vedanta, Bajaj, Jindal, Munjal, RPG, Hinduja, Murugappa, Lalbhai and Adani are a throwback to our past. In the 21st century, they need to be challenged by newer groups. That’s not going to happen if regulation, and regulators, continue to throw their lot with the incumbents. 

Picture Credit: “India Map on Indian Map” by Kush Patel is marked with CC0 1.0

Sundeep Khanna is a columnist, business writer and executive editor at the Mint.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 6

Indie Films You Probably Missed and Must Watch

Even without theatres, 2020 had a constant flow of movies to watch. In the hustle to keep up with the dominant Twitter conversations, we spent the year watching some of the most talked about movies out there, like Tenet, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and that Taylor Swift documentary. Inevitably, some of the smaller releases slipped through the cracks. Here are five indie films released in 2020, three of which I’ve seen and highly recommend, while the other two I am myself eager to check out.

5. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

“There are a lot of ugly things about our history, but I think we have to know them.” This quote from the documentary Disclosure sums up the driving philosophy behind the film. Made by trans filmmakers, it presents the history of Hollywood from the eyes of trans audiences and actors, and asks its viewers to reckon with the good as well as all of the bad. I can’t speak about whether it makes for a necessary or a good watch for a trans person, but if you’re cisgendered, I can assure you that you need to hear what this film has to say.

4. The Forty-Year-Old Version

This music biopic doubles as an underdog story, telling the inspiring story of Radha Blank, an almost 40-year-old Black playwright who decides to make a rap mixtape. With a beating heart and sharp wit, the black-and-white drama keeps a fast pace without skimping on quieter character moments. Blank, who writes, directs, and stars, pokes fun at the kind of poverty porn that white people think counts as progressive, while an undercurrent of anger makes sure we never feel like she’s making light of the issue.

3. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson isn’t actually dead. Yet. As far as I know. But he’s getting close, and his daughter, documentarian Kirsten Johnson, made this movie to try to process that fact. This morbidly funny film is made up of scenes where the father-daughter duo enact various ways he could die, as well as a fake funeral ceremony. But much of the heart of the film comes from the scenes where they’re just talking, discussing the making of this film or remembering Kirsten Johnson’s late mother. Keep tissues handy.

2. First Cow

What would an indie film list be without an A24 release? First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt, sounds no less unique than we expect from the studio, and I’m kicking myself for not having watched it yet. Critics have started compiling their best-of-2020 lists (yes, before watching the December releases, it’s weird), and First Cow seems to be dominating. Like with any A24 film, I suggest watching this one knowing as little as possible going in.

1.Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Another movie gracing a lot of year-end lists, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells the story of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. One of them faces an unintended pregnancy, and the two set off to get her to an abortion clinic, something for which they cannot expect local support. By all accounts, the film appears to be a quietly devastating drama. And the fact that the director has said that she was inspired not only by a true story, but by the flaws she noticed in earlier abortion dramas, only serves to pique my interest even more.

Utkarsh is a student of Philosophy and Creative Writing and a writer-editor for the in-house film journal of Navrang, the film society of Ashoka University. Tanvi is a student of English at Ashoka University and is head editor for the Navrang Journal

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 3

How the Economics Nobel Laureates help us Understand the Way the World Works

Image credits: Niklas Elmehed for Nobel Media

When we think about the word “auctions”, we may conjure images of high society bidding for expensive paintings, or banks selling off indebted property. It seems to be a distant phenomenon that doesn’t impact our daily lives. But as it turns out, auctions play crucial roles in our lives – from deciding the price we pay for electricity in our homes, to the limit of carbon emissions allowed to different countries. In a mission to learn more about how auctions work, Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson studied various auction formats and designed an optimal auction mechanism for governments to sell complex public assets. For this, both won this year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Officially the ‘Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’, this prize has been awarded to researchers in economics from 1969 onwards, to 86 individuals so far. The ideas studied in the prize-winning contributions, and the methodology followed to reach certain conclusions, often tell us a great deal about how economics has been practiced in the respective times. 

As explained by The Economist, the initial winners were often those who tried to model the economy into a few neat equations, while winners in the past two decades have tried to pick more specific topics, and conducted empirical research to back their results. In the course of the past half a century, the winners of this prize have made several contributions to help us better understand the way in which the world around us works; whether it’s auctions, the role of psychology in the making of economic decisions, alleviating global poverty, governing common resources, and so on. In this article, we have a look at some of the recent prize winners, and understand the impact their contributions have had on our everyday lives.

2020 – Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson “for improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats” 

Milgrom and Wilson studied how different formats for auctions–specifically the bidding process, final prices, information available to bidders about the product as well as other bidders’ prior knowledge–all affect the outcomes of the auction such as the revenue generated for the seller, and the broad societal benefit. Through the theoretical study of auctions, they came to design practical auction formats that have real-world implications. In one such instance, they helped the US government auction interrelated objects simultaneously, like radio frequencies to telecom operators. Their contributions ensure that these public assets are sold in the most efficient manner possible, such that buyers (here, telecom operators) get the optimum allocation of their choice, and society’s benefits are maximised (revenue for governments that can be used to fund other public goods.) This auction format can be useful for India’s 5G spectrum auction that is scheduled for next year.

2019 – Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty” 

Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer extensively conducted field experiments using Randomised Control Trials (RCTs), to examine causes and effective solutions to address poverty-related issues such as poor education and health, lack of microcredit, and so on. By comparing a particular outcome (for instance, academic scores or morbidity rates) across two groups that have similar average characteristics, and differ only in having received a particular treatment (receiving textbooks or deworming pills), they try to quantify the impact of various poverty alleviation measures. The results of these experiments have significantly contributed to policy creation in developing countries globally. A series of experiments found that “poor people are extremely price-sensitive regarding investments in preventive healthcare.” This can inform government policies for pricing vaccines (COVID-19 and otherwise); a shift from highly subsidised vaccines to free ones to even giving additional incentives like free foodgrains, can vastly increase vaccine take-up.

2017 – Richard H. Thaler “for his contributions to behavioural economics”

Thaler’s work incorporates insights from psychology into economic models, to create a more realistic understanding of human decision-making. For instance, the lack of self-control that occurs when one’s long-term goals are defeated by short-term actions, such as difficulty in making healthier lifestyle choices, and saving for the future. To incorporate this finding into useful policy measures, Thaler and his colleagues suggested that governments try and nudge citizens in the right direction (provided they are not misled or coerced.) This has been used extensively to improve pension savings, organ donation and even handwashing. His research has also shed light on common marketing practices that take advantage of human irrationality; this includes “overexposing the rare winners and covering up the multitude of losers” in lotteries, to inflate people’s expectations of winning. Such insights from Thaler’s work can thus help us self-evaluate how we interpret information and guide us to make better decisions. 

2015 – Angus Deaton “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare”

Deaton’s work delved into understanding how individuals distribute their spending across different goods and how they choose to save. This is important because until the 1980s, work in development economics was largely theoretical, or limited to aggregate data from national accounts. Deaton’s work paved the way for linking individuals’ choices to understanding aggregate outcomes in an economy. For instance, his analysis of household consumption data in India showed that during adverse periods, there are lesser resources allocated to female children compared to males. This helps us quantify the extent of gender discrimination in an individual household as well as across a country, thus helping us design apt policies to adequately address it. It also informs governments about the importance of frequent and accurate data collection, to track and analyse the micro-level causes for macro-level economic outcomes. 

2009 – Elinor Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons” 

Ostrom’s work challenged the traditional economic thought of “tragedy of the commons”, which suggested that common property be privatised or regulated by central authorities to prevent mismanagement. Ostrom studied various common resources from fisheries to groundwater basins, and found that its exploitation could be avoided by collective local action. Her work delved into understanding the sophisticated methods followed by people to ensure the sustainable and non-exploitative usage of common property. She also explored the diversity and complexity of the combined social and ecological world, and stressed the importance of different approaches to problem-solving rather than a one-size-fits-all institutional approach. This has largely contributed to contemporary discussions around issues like climate change.

Through these contributions by economists, Laureates and otherwise, we find important ways in which we can understand the world around us. What started out as a means to model the working of our economy, has now shifted to understanding how humans interact with the world around them, and the search continues for more efficient and equitable ways to do so. This shift towards making economics more human, beneficial and practical is a hopeful and welcome change in the fate of the ‘dismal science’.

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 3

Forget the Rhetoric: India cannot be the next China!

Image credits:  bmnnetwork

You have to be living under a rock if you haven’t noticed the global backlash against China.

China holds a position of producing a majority of the world’s products and probably will continue to do so in the near future. The industrial giant grew in a rapid and very unsustainable manner over the last few decades becoming a hub for outsourced manufacturing – from making toys and clothes to medical equipment and electronics. China’s aggressive economic growth and unfair trade practices coupled with diplomatic tensions (surrounding the pandemic and border disputes) have given life to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a multilateral group comprising India, Japan and USA and Australia. The four nations resumed dialogue after November 2017 in an attempt to temper Chinese dominance in the Indo-pacific region. The dialogue has raised many questions, the most crucial being – who will now take the role of the ‘world factory’?  

Can India be the next China?

No. At least not in the near future…

While we have heard rhetoric that  often revolves around  how India has a young workforce while China has an ageing population or how the aggressive attributes of China are going to lead to its downfall and create room for new hubs of manufacturing . I beg you to open your mind past the rhetoric and consider some evident issues that won’t allow India to ‘replace’ China in the global market. 

All it takes to break down this rhetoric is a look at employment and GDP statistics through the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors.

I’m not saying that demographic figures aren’t  important, of course they are. But simply basing the fact that India can become the next manufacturing hub simply because of a younger population  is simply absurd. Let’s look at the Indian agricultural industry for example – while over  42% of the country’s man power is employed in the primary sector, it only contributes to approximately 17% of the GDP, making it the most populated and least efficient wing of the Indian economy. So if demographics and economic output was proportional, the Indian primary sector would be the pillar of our economy. 

Unlike most economic giants, India skipped industrialisation trying to build an economy that was driven by the tertiary sector, heavily reliant on a digital infrastructure and not a physical one. It’s hard to deny that the focus on the tertiary sector was a success looking at how it has formed the backbone of the Indian economy. While it only employs 32% of the country’s population it contributes to over 54% of the GDP. But a country that has a literacy rate of less than 78% and an inefficient primary sector, cannot simply rely on one wing of the economy. India needs to increase investment in manufacturing.

What can India do now?

Increasing investment and innovation would be an ideal first step…

Dynamic efficiency, a term any high school Economics student would know (and a concept China mastered) holds the key to India’s reign over global manufacturing. The term in this context would translate to high investment in innovation and technology in the short run that would allow industries to manufacture products at an efficient and economical manner in the long run. Chinese growth was and continues to be driven by some of the world’s highest investment rates, which has allowed the creation of the manufacturing muscle China proudly owns. While India only invests about 30% of its GDP into infrastructure, China has consistently invested 50%. 

China is continuing to innovate and invest, increasing the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in manufacturing. The Chinese State Council introduced an Artificial Intelligence Development Plan aiming to build a $150 billion national AI industry in the near future. Part of this plan involves  integrating AI technology in China’s factories . The application of AI in Chinese factories aims to target production R&D as well as the production process including: manufacturing, product development, logistics, monitoring and environmental safety. Companies like Shanghai STEP have created industrial robots along with control systems and software for industries that have effectively transformed welding, packaging, construction, and machining. Even logistics technologies are being powered by AI, to bring productive efficiency in Chinese factories to a whole new level. The use of  AI in Chinese factors holds great potential, taking away the threat posed by the country’s ageing population. While the Indian economy is still taking baby steps towards an industrial economy, the Chinese manufacturing sector is already evolving to suit the needs of the future. It is peremptory that India dedicate their efforts to increasing infrastructure if they are to compete in the global manufacturing market. 

What role do politics play?

An important one for sure…

While the Indian democratic system has its many positives, it also has its own limitations, especially when it comes to economic reform. When working on infrastructural projects such as construction of power plants, the Chinese government can simply acquire land and compensate the affected people. Taking on similar projects in India would have several barriers because of the limitations of central control on states, political procedure and legal disputes. For example if a decision to contract a high speed railway line passes in the Lok Sabha, the process maybe delayed and blocked by the Rajya Sabha. Let’s assume that the project is approved in both houses, issues such as raising government revenue or displacement of minorities more often than not hinders the process. The Indian democracy hence has to fight many battles (one at a time) as part of this infrastructure politics.

‘It is impossible to make one generation better off without making any other generation worse off.’

This is a basic rule for an economy that needs to achieve dynamic efficiency. It is going to take a lot of planning, spending and sacrifice if India is going to even be a contender for becoming the world’s factory. While political and economic reform of such extent is too much to ask for, it is the need of the hour. The country has abundant raw material and a mammoth working population, but falls short on investments and planning. India will have to completely shift its economic structure, which will have repercussions that the Indian society and economy may not be prepared to handle.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 3

Remembering Eddie – 6 Essential Songs

Eddie Van Halen was an idol for an entire generation. Van Halen, along with bands like Journey, KISS, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue defined the 1980s fantasy of being a rockstar. Thanks to MTV and the popularity of music videos, band members were as recognizable as movie stars. Eddie was able to break the stereotype that virtuosos should always be serious or brooding characters. Van Halen brought joy to rock and roll.

The name of Van Halen is synonymous with incredible solos and lightning fast shredding, but what made Eddie special wasn’t his skill or flawless technique, it was his creativity and limitless passion for music. 

Perhaps the easiest place to find his bag of tricks on full display is the solo in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” one of the biggest singles of all time. The story behind that track encapsulates his approach to life, he decided to record the legendary solo for a case of beer and dancing lessons from the King of Pop because he didn’t want to complicate their equation with contract work, initially uncredited on the track from Thriller.

Van Halen, who passed away on Oct 6th after a long battle with cancer, managed to push the boundaries of the electric guitar in a way the world hadn’t seen since Jimi Hendrix. His unique style has left an indelible imprint on all rock music that has come out since the 80’s. He expanded the repertoire of guitar players to include fireworks like tapping, tremolo picking and blistering legato (playing only with the left hand) runs across the entire fretboard.  When people heard the unaccompanied guitar track “Eruption” off Van Halen’s debut album for the first time in 1978, they couldn’t believe what they were listening to. Getting those sounds out of a guitar was unheard of. 

Reducing Eddie to just his solos would be doing him a disservice – many professional guitarists will tell you that he was one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time. Eddie was an innovator, an inventor of sounds and styles that keep him relevant to this day, more than 40 years later. He was a master of the keyboards, responsible for the unmistakable intro to “Jump”. He built his own guitars, hot-rodding different parts from his favorite models to create the “Frankenstrat”, the iconic red and white striped guitar. He didn’t stop there, he modified his amplifiers with a light dimmer to coax a rawer, more powerful sound that is instantly recognizable. It became so popular that it was even given a name, the “Brown Sound”. Head into any recording studio today and you will find some kind of replica of that particular sound, which is plastered across modern rock music.

Six songs are not nearly enough to define his legacy, but in my opinion this is the best entry to discover Eddie’s work.

Runnin’ With The Devil (Van Halen I, 1978)

The first line of their first song signifies what Van Halen is about – “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow.” This song began the Van Halen era, introducing Eddie and the band to the world with a bang. Melting horns bring in the staccato bass and legendary intro. 

Ain’t Talkin Bout Love (Van Halen I, 1978)

This song gives you everything you want from a classic Van Halen tune –  iconic riff, catchy chorus, a steady beat and a great solo. This is a tune that sticks in your head from the moment you listen to it, one of the band’s best. 

Hot For Teacher (1984, 1984)

I must confess, this is my favourite Van Halen song. The lyrical content is meant to be relatable and frivolous but the musicianship on this track is par excellence. The breakneck pace of the song seems effortless because of the years that Eddie and his brother Alex (the drummer of the band) spent practicing together in their garage. Listeners get treated to the Eddie show with leads, dynamics and intelligent rhythm on full display. 

Jump (1984, 1984)

This is Van Halen’s most successful single and perhaps their most well known song. A perfect blend of pop and rock, this song rocketed to the top of the US charts. The song is defined by its instantly recognizable keyboard line. Eddie shows off his entire synthesizer arsenal with acrobatic arpeggios sprinkled all over the track, most notably in the pre-chorus where he plays a 4:3 polyrhythm over the drums.

Panama (1984, 1984)

The band wrote this song after lead singer David Lee Roth was accused by a reporter of singing about only women, partying, and fast cars. He realized he’d never written a song about fast cars, and decided to write one. During the bridge of the song we can hear Eddie revving his vintage Lamborghini Miura! The rhythm guitar work on Panama is quintessential Eddie and this strong is a strong contender for having the best Van Halen riff. This song is a staple in pop culture, heard everywhere from Superbad to Family Guy.  

Why Can’t This Be Love (5150, 1986)

This single is often unfairly criticized as it marked a departure from the original vocalist, David Lee Roth. However, Sammy Hagar shines on this synth driven catchy track which is a perfect 80’s time machine. An interesting fact about this tune is that on the first two world tours after this song was released, Sammy Hagar played all the guitar parts and the solo while Eddie Van Halen only played the keyboard sections.

Shaayak is an Economics and Finance Major at Ashoka University. He is a guitarist at Delhi band Apartment Upstairs and a music producer.  He has also worked with the Centre for Social and Behavioural change to produce an audio adherence program for Iron and Folic Acid pills for pregnant women in rural areas.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 3

Louise Glück Wins a Prize She Never Needed

I don’t know why I picked up The Wild Iris but I did. Maybe it was the shiny stamp that read “Pulitzer Prize Winner” adorning its cover. I’ve always been a sucker for awards of all shapes and sizes. Even awards that I hate. Actually, especially, awards that I hate.

The Nobel Prize in Literature, arguably the ‘O.G.’ (Original Gangster) literary prize, has heard its fair share of criticism— fuel for the flame of my growing disdain for awards of its ilk. The Nobel Committee has been accused of ignoring authors for extra-literary reasons, being too Eurocentric, and being too male-oriented. In the last couple of years alone, we’ve seen controversies surrounding the 2016 prize which was the first to be awarded to a songwriter, Bob Dylan; the 2018 prize which was cancelled due to a sexual assault scandal surrounding an Academy member; and the 2019 prize which was awarded to a prominent genocide-denier, Peter Handke. I bring up these criticisms and controversies because it is important to remember that the Nobel Committee is, at the end of the day, an organisation, like any other, comprised of ordinary humans. They care about their brand.

It is this logic that led many pundits and commentators to expect the 2020 prize to go to a ‘safe’ choice. Now that Louise Glück has won the prize, the reactions, alongside many of celebration and joy, include a sizeable number of folk who believe the Swedish Academy has simply done the expected. She’s a white, American writer who has been perceived as not overtly political; the statement given by the Swedish Academy about her is as bland and vague as it gets, praising Louise for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.  As much as I would like to agree with these cynics and naysayers – walk as I do amongst their ranks too often – perhaps it is my love for Glück, borne solely of the one collection of her poetry that I have read in its entirety, that compels me to pen a defence of her win (although, it goes without saying, it’s not like she, nor the literary community at large, are waiting for me, of all people, to come to her aid).

Let’s start with a common misconception. The charge that she isn’t ‘political’ enough. I think those who bring up this accusation often forget that politics isn’t just the flashy flairs of identity politics laced revolution that permeates a generation of young, slam poets. Politics exist within every relationship of power. And where Glück excels, often, is in using simplicity, wit and vulnerability to interrogate the politics, or the relationships of power, within marriages and love, within loss and grief, and, within our innermost lives. Here’s just an excerpt of one line which illuminates the best of all her biting qualities:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

Who would dare to call this apolitical? A glaring flaw in our evaluation of Glück is the retrospective, ’20/20’ vision which we use, all too often, to judge work being created and published more than half a century ago. Her ability to assert the inner lives of women, the banalities of family and personal tragedy as subject matter worthy of the forefront of the page are political achievements in and of themselves. However, this is not to say that the effect of her poetry is lost on us today. In fact, Glück’s work, old and new, will always be remembered for its seamless, effortless and, almost invisible, quality in its approach to a myriad of thematic concerns. If anything, these qualities make it stand out more today. Reconsider the line presented above with the knowledge that Louise Glück suffered from debilitating anorexia in her youth— to the point of it almost killing her. A poet today would, arguably, waste no time in confronting their suffering on the page. I certainly don’t mean to shame them for doing so, yet, I must appreciate Glück’s restraint. Read the line again:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

How much more tragic is it now? She presents what one can only imagine is a startlingly intimate confession without being confessional. She makes an astute, insightful observation without being observational. She waxes her intelligent, poetic craft into a universal, political statement— without being intellectual or political. Is this not magic?

Louise Glück has spoken about not wanting to be “somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many”. Unfortunately for her, or rather, fortunately for us, she is accessible: understandable, likeable and available. But is any of this easy? No. The experience of reading Glück’s work is far from diluted. It requires an immersion, an imagination and an empathy that will elude not just the instant, clingy, Instagram poets but also many casual readers of all ages who aren’t ready to reckon with the full force of all her meaning. This doesn’t mean Glück writes in riddle or code. She writes, like all the best poets, arguments of the heart. The real question is if you’re willing to engage.

This piece is short and, suffice to say, there is much more to explore about Glück’s work which could not be covered here. In particular, her manipulation of the mythological and the natural are precious, winning parts of the entire Louise Glück phenomena. I would not be able to forgive myself, however, if I didn’t include at least a few lines from The Wild Iris. The premise of this collection, to give proper context, is that each poem is written from the perspective of a flower or a plant. Glück inflicts their inner lives with a devastating level of detail, the closest one can get to granting them a soul. In the following passage, she flips the usual human concern with the transient nature of life and the preoccupation with symbolic immortality – as Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 55, “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” – into nature’s tale of literal immortality:

“I don’t need your praise

to survive. I was here first,

before you were here, before

you ever planted a garden.

And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon

are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.”

This haunting verse reminds us, or me at least, that Louise Glück, no stranger to awards, – having won the Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, poet Laureate of the United States and many more – does not need another one. Her poetry existed before me, and it will exist long after I am gone. Of course, the Nobel prize will bring her a lot more attention, and that’s a great thing, but I truly hope that it is not the Nobel prize for which she is remembered.

Kanishk, an aspiring writer and filmmaker, is a graduate in political science from Ashoka University. His first collection of poetry, ‘Please Glue This Book Together’ was published by Shubhi Publications in 2016.  He is the founder of the humour and satire publication, ‘Kalinga’, and Ashoka University’s filmmaking society, ‘Navrang’. Along with award-winning short films posted on YouTube, he has co-written his first professional short film, ‘Suttabaazi’, set to release on Disney+ Hotstar.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).