Why do caste-religion identities still persist in India?

Caste-Religion identities put group over an individual. People who argue for individual's freedom often wonder why the caste-religion identities run deep in India, even after 70 years of independence. There are no easy answers but here are some explanations.

1. The relationship between caste and democracy: Pratap Bhanu Mehta points to the paradox of social justice that deepens the identities. It's like this.

Caste is the unit of social discrimination. So, the demand for equality and justice has been on the basis of “caste”, which deepens group consciousness. Thus, paradoxically, the struggle against identity entrenches these identities. 

2. Politics of recognition: In multicultural societies, when certain minority groups face discrimination, they seek recognition, often in terms of politics and other avenues. Taylor calls this the "politics of recognition". The struggle for caste representation in politics is rooted in this. This entrenches group identities. 

3. Nature of Hinduism: Sociologist Dipankar Gupta says that humans want to belong somewhere but Hinduism provides some sort of rootlessness. There is nothing that two Hindus can do that one cannot. This is unlike Islam and Christianity, where you have to come together. For instance, one needs congregation for actual prayers. Even in Sikhs, it’s a Sangat only when you are together. 

In Hinduism, the case is different. You can build own temple, have own guru, do your own prayer and so on, without the necessity of a group. That is why Hindus need to belong somewhere. This longing to belong somewhere is filled up political leaders rallying people along this unit.

4. Caste networks as a source of emergency safety net:. In India, in the absence of proper social nets, caste groups became the source of social insurance in times of emergencies. Prof. Kaivan Munshi documented this phenomenon. He also says that presence of caste security nets in villages is one of the main reasons for relatively low rural-urban migration in India. 

So, better not be in bad terms with the caste group. The dependence on the caste group again entrenches the group identity. 

5. Politicians' actions: Politicians have deliberately deepened the fissures along these lines, for electoral purposes, creating more consciousness and rigidity of the group. 

The idea of citizenship is new and artificial. Its purpose is to combat these group identities. It will take longer than 70 years for citizens to shed their primordial loyalties and owe their primary allegiance to what Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism”.

One immediate thing that can be done is to make politicians stop deepening fissures along identity lines. They can be rallied around important issues, not around identities.

Misleading article in Mint on effects of minimum wage law

Anupam Manur and Archit Puri have an article in Mint on proposed minimum wage law. They broadly argue against the minimum wage law. They give the following arguments. 

They cite George Stigler’s work on minimum wage saying that minimum wage doesn’t reduce poverty and instead increases unemployment. They also cite a study in the US that found a decrease in employment due to the minimum wage. They further argue that the minimum wage will speed up automation in Indian manufacturing. They question the implementation feasibility of the act 

All these are genuine concerns but this is a misleading picture of minimum wage literature. To start with, let’s consider the authors’ summary of Stigler's argument “minimum wage does not satisfy its original intentions — elimination of poverty — and will tend to increase unemployment and reduce family income.” This isn’t a complete summary of Stigler’s argument. 

While Stigler did say that minimum wage doesn’t reduce poverty and can increase unemployment, he also added that the minimum wage can increase productivity because well-paid workers are motivated to work better. This is partly because of increased motivation and partly because it is costly to lose the job now. Also, remember that this seminal work of Stigler was way back in 1946. Much has happened since then. 

Apart from this, there are other famous theoretical papers on minimum wages. One by Stiglitz, Kaushik Basu and Genicot, where they argue that people are financially insecure at lower income levels and hence they are willing to supply “more labour”. They argue that providing “wage floors” reduces their risk. Other papers argue that people face uncertainty risks during a job transition. Hence, it tilts the balance in favour of employers, making them pay only retention wage. 

Thus, increased productivity, need to address labour market frictions are two other important arguments in favour of minimum wage law. The Mint article should have ideally mentioned these too if it were an objective analysis. 

Let’s come from theory to empirics because minimum wage law has always been a puzzle because it defies many textbook effects. For instance, the most famous prediction is that minimum wage law increases the cost of business, forcing them to close down. But this didn’t happen in many cases. 

David Card’s famous 1993 paper analysed the effect of minimum wages on fast food restaurants and find no effects of unemployment. A host of other studies that followed also found similar results in minimum wage laws. Several economists had also written a letter to Obama a few years back to increase the minimum wage. Paul Krugman neatly summarised the broad trend of the findings — for the level of which the wages are currently, there is no compelling evidence to say that minimum wage laws cause unemployment. 

The overwhelming evidence contrary to textbook economics is because there are labour market frictions that markets don’t address. Minimum wage law corrects those. The Mint article doesn’t mention this broad trend of results from numerous studies, instead, picks a one-off study which shows the opposite result. 

A fair question now may be— will the minimum wage laws have a different effect in the US and in India? Again, one can always quote studies that suit one’s argument but many such studies tend to be simulations, projections, estimates and are not rigorous enough. 

The best evidence of minimum wage laws comes from this large RCT on NREGA by Muralidharan et al, with large sample size. Literally, the whole of erst-while united Andhra Pradesh was part of this sample. So, the results are generalizable. Also, this RCT captures the General Equilibrium effects, meaning that it captures effects such as employment in one village leading to unemployment in others, instead of focusing on only a narrow area. 

The key argument is that NREGA provides a “wage floor” to workers, similar to Basu, Stiglitz and Genicot’s paper discussed above. It means that NREGA provided a bargaining tool for workers. They can choose not to work for wages below NREGA, thereby pushing up their wages. This is similar to the effect of minimum wage laws. 

It was initially argued that such bargaining phenomenon can occur only during the NREGA season)thereby downplaying its ability to increase wages of other jobs in other seasons. On the other hand, some argued that NREGA does increase the wages of labour in other sectors but it led to closure unemployment, similar to minimum wage law effects. 

Muralidharan’s paper finds that NREGA resulted in the best of both worlds. It both increased the wages in other sectors, even during the non NREGA season, and also did not cause unemployment. This demonstrates the existence of labour market frictions. Shamika Ravi also admits that NREGA corrected the labour market wages, reducing the frictions and inefficiencies. This is quite contrary to the textbook economics and also against the key argument of the Mint article. 

This doesn’t mean that minimum wage law can never cause unemployment. The level of wage is obviously important. If the minimum wage is fixed at Rs.50,000 per month for an unskilled job, it will definitely cost distortions. But, wages are generally not at those levels to cause distortions at the commonly envisaged levels. The sector also matters. 

An objective analysis of minimum wage law should also outlay both the theoretical arguments in support of minimum wage law — increased productivity, higher wages, ability to correct market frictions— and also a general trend of insights from empirical studies’ that find no impact of such laws on unemployment. I find the Mint’s article misleading because it doesn’t touch these aspects.

Comments on “Education chapter” of Economic Survey Vol 2, 2017 August

It has been my wish to see separate chapters on education and health care in the survey. They only find a brief mention, even this time. The analysis and recommendations are only cursory. 

Broadly, it reiterated the needed to focus on outcomes. It suggests categorizing initiatives into three categories 

  • Green (that can result in outcomes): Mid day meals etc. 
  • Yellow (promising initiatives) 
  • Red (need not result in outcomes): increasing teachers.

We usually hear that teacher shortage is a big issue but the survey recommends not to increase it, at least puts it as the least priority. This is because of misinterpretation of ASER data. 

Looking at ASER and PTR data, the survey says that “States complying with PTR provision of RTE Act have lower learning outcomes” (para 10.11, p 258). Hence, it categorizes “increasing teachers” under Red Box in the recommendations. 

There are several issues with this inference. 

1. “States complying with PTR provisions have lower outcomes” may be a misleading interpretation, as it implies causation

2. Looking only at PTR vs. Outcomes graph [Fig 3, p 259] may not be the correct way to understand the data in this context. It’s because, on a macro level, “no single input” can alone result in outcomes. It needs a combination of several critical inputs. For instance, states with higher PTR might have other enabling factors and so on. 

One needs to have a lower PTR to do anything meaningful. Any good classroom pedagogy is built on this. 

Experimental evidence [paper, ppt] also suggests along similar lines. Lowering PTR alone results in outcomes only when the initial class sizes are high.  For smaller classrooms, PTR reduction results in outcomes when one combines it with other interventions. 

This doesn’t mean that we should keep classrooms large. We should thus be advocating for reducing class size and complementing it with other interventions instead of recommending against lowering PTR. 

3. The Survey’s section on recommendations reflects the issue with comparing Outcomes and PTR to draw insights. Remedial education is one of the recommendations. Remediation is an intensive activity requiring personalized attention, that means a lower PTR. But, the survey categorizes “increasing teachers” under “Red Box”, an inference from comparing PTR and Outcome data, resulting in a contradiction. We can’t both NOT reduce PTR (NOT increase teachers) and also do remedial education. 

There is another minor issue in the survey. It says “While ‘The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act’, 2009 (RTE), has significantly improved the enrollment level in primary schools across the country…..”. I am afraid, this isn’t true because we had already reached near 100% enrollment before RTE came into place. 

Hope the survey dedicates a separate chapter to education, going into more depth, summarizing existing research, putting it in a policy perspective. Currently, no important document does that.

10 pitfalls of Indian education reform discourse

Swarajya Magazine has started a series on education reform. It’s a good initiative to document diverse views. However, most of the discourse is repetitive and also exhibits common pitfalls. I am listing some of them below. 

1. RTE is THE education policy: Most of the education policy discourse in India has been only on RTE, in recent days. The Swarajya series also reflects the same. As I have blogged earlier, RTE is NOT THE education policy. There’s much more to education policy. Also, RTE is NOT the hurdle holding back governments from reforming. 

Think about it — nothing in RTE stops the governments from initiating revamp of critical areas — teacher recruitment, teacher training, infrastructure, strengthening SMCs, providing career counselling to students and so on. Reasons are something else. It’s high time we stop blaming RTE and think beyond it. We should instead focus energies on getting governments to work on these critical areas, instead of being distracted by single point agenda of RTE. 

2. Learning outcomes declining due to RTE: The decline of learning outcomes since 2010 is widely quoted and is attributed to RTE. This isn’t even a problem of “mistaking correlation for causation”. People miss that learning outcomes have been on decline much before RTE, that can observed ever since ASER began in 2006, much before RTE 2010. As I blogged earlier, there is diversity in this. Not all states showed decline. Some in fact have improved. We thus need to look beyond RTE and not attribute the decline solely to it. 

3. No-Detention Policy (NDP) is the cause for declining learning outcomes: Within RTE, NDP is cited as cause for decline. There isn’t strong evidence for this. As I discussed earlier:

a) Outcomes have been declining even before NDP when there was detention in place. They have been on a declining trend ever since ASER started in 2006 (RTE started in 2010). Why were outcomes declining when there was detention in place? It means that NDP is not the sole reason.

b) Learning outcomes in private schools slightly increased after 2010. How does NDP explain this?

c) As per DISE data, even during the pre-NDP era (2006-2010), only 5%-6% students were detained at the maximum. From ASER, we also know that learning outcomes were poor and students weren't at grade levels even during this period. If learning outcomes were poor and students were not at grade level, how is it that only 5%-6% students were detained at the maximum? This raises questions on the feasibility of its implementation.

Overall, it seems that NDP is being made a scape goat for other systemic deficiencies. Excessive emphasis on NDP is shifting our attention away from the other real and important constraints. Doing away with NDP may in fact make us complacent, thinking that we have addressed a major issue, which in fact might not be an issue at all!

4. Misunderstanding of inputs-outcomes evidence: The words “inputs don’t result in outcomes” are being thrown around loosely. The inference being that any initiative on inputs front won’t yield outcomes and hence shouldn’t be taken up or given less priority. This is a complete misreading of evidence. If you do a controlled study of each of the inputs individually, none of them will likely show results. It doesn’t mean that these aren’t essential inputs. It only means that working only on these specific individual inputs may not yield outcomes. There could be many reasons for this, one of which is lack of complementary inputs. 

This calls for initiating reforms across wide spectrum to make these effective. It doesn’t mean we abandon them. Outcomes are necessary but outcomes don’t arise from vacuum. They arise from inputs. These are called inputs for a reason. Inputs are like bare shoes. Laces are the “capacity” that holds these shoes firm, translating it into good experience. We now lack these laces. Abandoning shoes is not the solution for lack of laces. 

5. No need of money or excess money is being spent: As with the case of inputs, only money may not yield outcomes. But it doesn’t mean that money isn’t needed. It is a fact that education system has deficiencies in many critical inputs. Even if one focuses on outcomes, very soon one would realise that it needs addressing challenges in many critical inputs, all of which need money. 

The other strand of criticism is that the per-child spending in public schools is high. This is another misplaced criticism. Governments are obligated to provide education irrespective of financial feasibility of setting up schools in remote areas, even if it means few students. It naturally drives up the per-child costs. This isn’t a metric that the governments shouldn’t be judged up on. 

6. “Focus on outcomes”: "Focus on outcomes and inputs" is another loosely used term. One should be clear on what focusing on outcomes means. If not, it may lead us into same old strategies that led us into this situation. For instance, "focus on outcomes" is taken to be equivalent to focusing only on pedagogy since that’s the one that directly leads to outcomes. This is leading to same old mistake of picking up a complex pedagogy and laying it over a weak system, which will eventually not yield results. Further, initiatives on anything other than the pedagogy, on the input front are blamed for not focusing on outcomes. We need to be thus careful about the meaning of "focus on outcomes".

The traditional approach of reform has been a "sequential approach", where schools are built first, then efforts are made on ensuring student attendance, then textbooks and once all these are resolved, come to the outcomes. When we say "focus on outcomes", what we mean is to reverse this pyramid. Focus on outcomes, and in the process, if you feel the necessity for any input, provide it. In this approach, inputs aren't the end, they are only the means. It's not sequential, it's simultaneous where initiatives are taken across the spectrum simultaneously. This approach also means that one shouldn't completely write off initiatives that focus on inputs, instead one should attempt to create value for the inputs.

7. Language of accountability: “There is lack of accountability” are other loosely used terms in education policy discourse. The language of traditional accountability is for usual situations where outcomes can be measured, in short term, and can be attributed to specific person. All of these don’t hold true in case of education where the mechanisms are fuzzy and often factors are beyond the purview of teachers. 

In fact, as several studies show, there is too much of accountability in system, but on wrong metrics. For instance, teachers are always in a rush to complete syllabus, a metric on which they are made accountable. Similarly, the academic mentors are made accountable for data collection. This form of traditional accountability has reduced the personnel in education bureaucracy into what Yamini Aiyar calls “post-office state” where personnel feel that they are mere cogs in the wheel and are only meant to follow instructions. 

This "let me catch and punish" form of governance, aiming to make people adhere to rigid rules and mechanisms is disastrous in sectors like education where the personnel are supposed to use discretion and empathy. As Akshay Mangla's study shows, places with a healthy dose of discretion perform better than those with rigid bureaucratic structures. The language of "traditional accountability" of "let me catch and punish" paradigm based on inherent suspicion prevents fostering of such practices and hence is antithetical to governance in education.

We thus need to move away from the traditional language of accountability to more dynamic forms suitable to education.  

8. Public schools haven’t worked till now - Private schools are better than public schools: It is often said that public systems haven’t worked till now and hence it’s time to look beyond them. The problem with this inference is — i) nothing worked till now. Neither public schools nor private schools; ii) enough attention has never been paid to public systems till now. We are only doing this slowly, only time. Thus, trying to dismiss something without even trying to do something about it doesn’t make sense. 

Similarly, it is widely believed that low-cost private schools are better than government schools. A wide range of evidence now shows that this isn't necessarily true. The difference in outcomes is driven by the type of people who attend these schools and it has nothing to do with the teaching or value addition of low-cost private schools.

9. "X is the major problem": There is a tendency in policy to advocate their own “pet reform” (X)., which often takes the narrative of "X is the major constraint, we need to address it." For instance, either a recommendation to address political participation of teachers or teacher training etc. Lant Pritchett calls his as "Selling Solutions vs. Selling Problems". It means that you want to suggest teacher training as the solution and hence you being by saying that saying that teacher training is the constraint. 

There's also what I call "expertise bias" driving the piecemeal recommendations. People tend to give recommendations only on aspects of education that one's expert in.

The problem with such diagnosis and recommendations is that such they narrow your vision to only few aspects, neglecting other crucial elements of reform. Once you narrow down teacher as the main problem, you are blinkering yourself to other important aspects like community engagement, career counselling etc.

Often, these "X"s are only symptoms of an underlying problem. For instance, there may be issues with pedagogy. But the more important question is - what is it that made us take so long to recognize this? What is it that's making systems not to address this? Probing in this manner enlarges one's vision.

In other words, "X" may be a problem, but so are "A", "B", "C" and so on. We need to work on all. Thus, what we need is NOT a laundry list of X, Y, Z that blinkers our view and narrows our vision; what we rather need is a strategy that enables us to identify all these and work on all of them simultaneously.

10. Per-student funding and linking outcomes to teacher’s salary: We need to exercise caution over some of these seemingly good ideas. They are incredibly complex and tough to get, especially in context of weak state capacity like India. There’s a reason why they haven’t worked else where in the world. 


For a detailed diagnosis of Indian public education system and strategy for reform, read my book UnpackED — The black box of Indian school education reform” (pdf is free to download). 

My book seeks to answer two fundamental questions - Why don't government's efforts lead to outcomes? and Why do governments do what they do?

Refer the following four posts for the summary of the main arguments of the book.