Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
TWO chapters in The Economic Survey 2018-19 focused on public policy based on behavioral economics and data to influence people and mold their behavior to achieve desirable outcomes make for interesting reading.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is nothing but a technophile. He strongly believes that technology should be used to improve his standing – in his words “Ease of Living” – and he does not have much apprehension that technology can become a nightmare if not used properly.
There is a certain innocence and naiveté in Modi’s faith in technology, which even Jawaharlal Nehru despite all his talk of scientific temper did not have similar trust in science and technology. The Economic Survey apart from its quotidian strategies to make India a $5 trillion economy by 2025 through savings, investments and exports, and Sanskrit quotations, has in two main chapters created a futuristic landscape based on behavioral economics and big data.
Chapter Two, titled, Policy for Homo Sapiens, Not Homo Economicus: Leveraging the Behavioural Economics of “Nudge” and Chapter Three, titled, Data “Of the People, By the People, For the People. The chapters on behavioral economics and on use of data seem to have been written keeping in mind the Prime Minister’s penchant for public policies which will make India a cleaner and happier and comfortable.
Chapter Two, under the sub-heading, “The Influence Spectrum of Policy”, states the issue quite clearly. It says, “Public policy affects all aspects of our lives. Public policy influences people to act in a socially desirable way, be it driving safely, conserving natural resources, educating children, respecting the human rights of fellow citizens or saving for retirement. Some policies subtly influence by fostering the right incentives while others mandate desired behavior or ban undesirable ones.”
The second paragraph explains further: “Public policies can therefore be graded on a spectrum capturing how strongly they influence (or coerce) behavior. On one extreme is laissez faire i.e. doing nothing and leaving individuals/firms to chart their own course. Laissez faire works well when markets achieve socially desirable outcomes on their own. Where markets fail, laissez faire fails. For instance, individuals/firms in a free market would not restrain pollution. Public policy – in the form of regulation – mandates people to act in a socially desirable manner.” And in the following paragraph we are introduced to one of the tenets of behavioral economics, where people are not forced but ‘nudged’ towards socially desirable behavior. The Survey says, “Nudge policies gently nudge people towards desirable behavior even while preserving their liberty to choose.” These sentences could almost have been from utopian/dystopian novels like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (1924), Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) and American behavioral psychologist’s fictional work, “Walden Two” (1948). But the authors of the Survey led by Chief Economic Adviser Subramanian Krishnamurthy have no such apprehensions or misgivings. They are innocent technophiles like Prime Minister Modi.
The chapter highlights the so-called and much touted success of two of Modi’s programmes in his first term as prime minister, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP). In a box, titled, “Use of Behavioural Insights in the SBM”, it is written: “SBM, as a nationwide cleanliness drive, was launched on 2nd October,2014, the birthday of India’s most revered ‘role model’ Mahatma Gandhi. The day was chosen to leverage the values propagated by him and thereby create a mass movement on the lines of ‘satyagraha’ for a cleaner India. The symbol (the pair of spectacles worn by Gandhi) used by the SBM invokes Gandhiji’s ideas. Behavioral economics emphasizes the role of context in influencing choices and decisions, which has been effectively adopted by the SBM campaign.”
With regard to the success of BBBP, the box titled “Effective use of “Social norm” in BBBP” devoted to the case study says, “The success of the BBBP Scheme demonstrates a powerful use of the insight on ‘social norm’ in its ‘Selfie with Daughter’ initiative… The selfie campaign showcased examples of parents around the country who were exactly doing that. The celebration of the girl child quickly became the norm. Most people wanted to conform, and more and more parents posted selfies with their girls. Started by one proud father in a village in Haryana, the campaign went viral and #SelfieWithDaughter became a worldwide hit.”
This chapter began with an interesting and unattributed epigraph in Sanskrit and English, which is both ironical and intriguing. The Sanskrit line reads: tarko apratishto shrutayo vibhinna-aneko rishiryasya matam pramaanam which has been roughly translated into: “We cannot rely totally on rational thinking to gain information as it is not without its bias.”
The epigraph for the chapter on data is from Chinese leader who unleashed economic reforms in China in 1978, Deng Xiaoping, and it says, “Cross the river by crossing the stones.” In the summary at the head of the chapter, Deng’s aphorism is explained: “Navigating in an uncertain, wobbly world requires constant monitoring of the path followed by the economy using real-time indicators. Thus, data can serve as the stones that enable one to cross the river.” And in the context of privacy as a fundamental right as spelt out by the Supreme Court of India, the survey keeps the issue of privacy constantly in view. In the summary it is stated, “Given that sophisticated technologies already exist to protect privacy and share confidential information, governments can create data as a public good within the legal framework of data privacy. In the spirit of the Constitution of India, data should be “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
The Survey makes a persuasive argument as to why government should be involved in creating data which then can become a public good. It recognizes the limitations of even the largest data-collecting companies like Amazon, Facebook and Instagram. And there is a bold suggestion that so vast is the data about citizens collected by different institutions and ministries which may be of use to private companies, there is a suggestion that government should monetize the date and allow private companies to access it. It is noted that the data about citizens available with the government is transparently collected. It says, “Consistent with the notion of data as public good, there is no reason to preclude commercial use of this data for profit. Undoubtedly, the data revolution envisaged here is going to cost funds. Although the social benefits would far exceed the cost to the government, at least a part of the generated data should be monetized to ease the pressure on governmental finances. Given that the private sector has the potential to reap massive dividends from this data, it is only fair to charge them for its use.”
An innocuous example is given of the use of government-collected data by the private sector: “Consider, for example, allowing the private sector access to data about students’ test scores across districts (with all personal information completely obfuscated). Using test scores of students, demographic characteristics of each district and publicly available data on the efficacy of public education schemes, a private firm may be able to uncover unmet needs in education and cater to these needs by developing innovative tutoring products to the specific needs of the specific districts.”
This is of course convoluted thinking at its best, and the writers of the survey are grappling with hypothetical issues that are embedded in big data. There will be many false steps on the way before the right path emerges.
What lies behind all this thinking about data is that the government realizes the importance of data and how best it can be used in the targeted delivery of public services.
But what is not clear and what creates suspicion is that the data can be misused both by the government as well as the private sector. The attempt to keep the digital data free of human interface is both interesting and ominous. Data burglary or hacking remains a potential danger in more senses than one. By spelling out the data dreams of the welfare state that the Modi government is keen to run, the Survey has done yeoman service by putting it all out in black and white as it were, an antiquated figure of speech. Ideas, facts are all there in bits and bytes and they are all embedded in the mysterious cyberspace.
There is need to challenge the government and other experts on the field and the citizens cannot sit back and allow the information about themselves being thrown around for various purposes. What is needed is general awareness about data among all the citizens. They should know that they are all embedded in the matrix. They cannot wriggle out of it, but at the same time that they have to bend their knee to the masters of big data, whether it be the government or the private firm.
Prime Minister Modi’s simplistic thinking about the advantages of technology should not stop others from raising the moral, political, economic and even philosophical questions regarding data about ourselves which is now a click away to others. There is a possibility of utopia in this data revolution, but one must be aware of the dystopia that awaits us if things were to go wrong.