Yogesh Upadhyaya

Yogesh

0

Renewable Energy : Penetrating the veil of hypefeatured

June 18, 2018

vre_hype_1

Almost daily, I come across articles gushing about renewable energy. It could be a single column piece in a newspaper or a video or a blog passed on to me in one of the too many social media platforms. Some of these pieces are thoughtful and well written. However, most of them seem to be produced by partisan drumbeaters. People, who I am sure, moonlight as supporters or opponents of President Donald Trump or Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given their black and white way of seeing things.

In hyping up Renewable Energy, these articles make many conceptual and technical errors. In the process these articles end up ignoring what we call the hidden costs of renewables. I have detailed here three common types of errors of omission or commission. I end with why the hype created by these erroneous articles may be bad for the sector.

I should clarify here that I am talking mainly of Solar Photo Voltaic (Solar PV) and wind based electricity generation plants – units that generate electricity only when the conditions are right and not when the user need the electricity. Such plants are called Variable Renewable Energy (VRE) plants. Hydro power plants and plants based on waste are also classified as renewables but they are not the same as VRE as we have some control on when the electricity from these plants would be generated.

Country ABC gets xx% of its electricity from Renewables

Wind power generates 140% of Denmark’s electricity demand. You see many variations of this headline, in which we are told that Solar or Wind has generated a very high percentage of a country’s or a region’s electricity requirements. The first question I ask myself when I see such a headline is did this happen on a part of the day, or did it happen for a whole day or more? More importantly, what does the country do when the wind is not blowing (or the sun is not shining)? To answer these questions in context of Denmark, we have to understand how that country gets its electricity.

Denmark’s electricity grid is a part of Nordic Synchronous Area (NSA). A significant part of the NSA’s electricity comes from hydro power plants based in Norway. Hydro power plants are particularly good for starting and stopping and this flexibility is an excellent technical fit for the intermittent nature of wind power. Also, many of these hydro power plants are pump storage units. In such plants, any excess electricity generation can be used to pump water back up the dam and this water can be used to generate electricity again when the wind is not blowing or when the demand is high during the day. As the article points out, the electricity from wind turbines was being produced in excess of demand in Denmark and this excess was exported to neighboring countries. So, the Nordic Synchronous Area acted as the storage for Denmark’s excess electricity generation.vre_hype_2

Most grids around the world will not have a similar level of hydro power plants and would need to invest in storage to cater to the intermittent nature of wind or solar plants. For example, California is planning to invest in 1.3 GW of stationary storage by 2024. The cost of this storage would be much higher than that of pumped storage and this will significantly increase the cost of electricity for the consumers. Furthermore, battery technologies are not yet mature.

vre_hype_3

We should also note that Denmark is small. The population of the country is 5.7 Million. When we say all of electricity of Denmark was generated by wind power, it is like saying all of electricity of Bangkok (population 5.8 Million) or London (population 8.8 Million) or Ahmedabad (population 7.02 Million) was generated by wind power.

In short while it is a positive that Denmark has managed to invest so much in wind energy, it is able to do that because it is a relatively small part of large grid that is flexible. The grid is providing reliable power generation and / or storage to back-up the intermittent nature of wind power and this reliability comes at a cost. Other grids may have to find ways to overcome the challenges presented by VRE in a different way and at much higher costs.

The electricity price in country xyz crashed to zero

Chile Is Producing So Much Solar Power, It’s Giving It Away For Free. Articles such as these, especially in not so thoughtful publications, imply that the low electricity prices are somehow a triumph of renewables energy over fossil fuel. Not so.

The demand for electricity varies through the day. The generation from solar power plants is highly correlated. That is, solar plants work at the same time of the day. Also, they do not work at same times of the 24-hour cycle such as nights, early mornings and evenings. So, when VRE capacity becomes a large proportion of the grid’s capacity, there is a surplus of electricity when the conditions for VRE generation are good. That is because both VRE and conventional power plants are available to generate electricity at those times.

In grids that have a relatively freer pricing, the price of electricity falls at the time of peak VRE generation and this is bad for VRE producers. This happens in other commodities too. For example, Maharashtra has seen years of excess production of onions, chilies and most recently eggplant. The crash in price of these vegetables forces farmers to dump their produce and suffer ruinous losses.

In grids without free pricing, the distribution companies take the financial hit and could instruct solar plants not to generate electricity in case of excess supply. My discussion with industry experts leads me to believe that it is already happening in China and to some extent even in India.

In either case, the enthusiasm of investors to back renewable energy plants will be severely reduced. This can but not have negative consequences for Variable Renewable Energy.

What about the oil rich states investing in Solar?

Periodically, my Facebook timeline gets filled up with stories about the oil rich Gulf States investing in solar plants. Indeed, many countries have invested or have announced an intention of building large solar capacities. However, these investments may not be about these oil rich countries seeing the solar writing on the energy wall as many of us would love to believe.

Varun Sivaram, in his excellent book Taming the Sun, has a very interesting passage about him speaking on the future of solar in the Middle East Electricity Summit. He describes how there was no interest in his keynote address while he spoke of solar coating on skyscrapers, slower rates of climate change and cheap power for developing world. However, he observed everyone perking up as soon he spoke about how Solar PV could offer Middle Eastern countries a way to burn less oil and gas at home.

The delegates at the conference were very interested in this proposition. If they could meet their domestic obligations using solar, they would have more oil to sell abroad! Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar provide electricity to their citizens at a very low rate and this electricity is generated from oil or Natural Gas. The more the citizens consume, the less the country has available to sell abroad. Saudi Arabia, with its relatively large population, is especially vulnerable as it consumes a quarter of the oil it produces in generating electricity for its citizens!

Of course, if the solar electricity generation in these countries could be exported to distant Europe then the world as whole would be reducing its dependence on fossil fuel. However, such exports would need large investments in transmission capacity and perhaps more dauntingly would need to leap over almost intractable geo-political hurdles.

Why does it matter?

VRE technologies have made very significant measurable progress. So if news writers take creative liberties while writing about it, what is the harm? At least this hype is about an unquestionably good thing.

The problem is that there are many challenges left to be tackled in VRE and there is a danger that decision makers, swayed by this hype, may ignore them. A dispassionate view of Renewables would allow decision makers to mitigate some of the hidden costs of VRE. For example, here is an idea on how Electric Vehicles could be used to store the electricity generated from VRE.  If such mitigating measures are not taken, there is a danger that these hidden costs would fall on consumers and the government.

That will not be good for the future growth of Renewable Energy.

Author –

Yogesh Upadhyaya

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)

0

Resources – Air Qualityfeatured

May 23, 2018

We went through many papers and reports in preparing our InfoCapsule “How can we breathe cleaner air?” Here is list of some of them in case you want to dwell deeper into the topic.

Overall picture

1. Without a doubt, the place to start is our InfoCapsule. Here is the link

http://bit.ly/AHIonAirPollution

2. This is an excellent place for understanding many different aspects of Air Pollution
http://www.urbanemissions.info/

Health Effects of pollution

3. The report from WHO, “Health Effects of Particulate Matter” is very readable and informative. Do note that the report is primarily for Europe where the PM levels are much lower than in India

http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/189051/Health-effects-of-particulate-matter-final-Eng.pdf

4. In 2015, the Ministry of health and Family Welfare came up with a report on health effects of pollution. The report is also a good source for understanding different sources of pollution. The report title is “Report of the Steering Committee on Air Pollution and Health Related Issues.” The report can be found at various place including
http://ehsdiv.sph.berkeley.edu/krsmith/publications/2015/MoHFW%20AP%20Steering%20Com.pdf
Recommended maximum pollution levels

5. The WHO document referenced above gives the Air Quality Guideline (AQG) from WHO. The Indian levels can be found in a notification from Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) – National Air Quality Standards
http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/notification/Recved%20national.pdf

Actual pollution levels

Figuring out the best time to go for a walk? Look at the real time data from stations near you. For policy data, look at aggregates.

6. Many agencies report pollution levels at a point of time. The most authoritative source is CPCB
http://www.cpcb.gov.in/CAAQM/mapPage/frmindiamap.aspx

7. SAFAR also has measuring stations in four cities. If you live in one of those cities, you may want to check this out
http://safar.tropmet.res.in/

8. Indiaspend has installed measuring devices in many cities. Their on-line output can be found here.

http://api.indiaspend.org/dashboard/?utm_source=hashtags360.com

9. We weren’t able to get a good resource for getting yearly averages and number of days the pollution levels crossed limits. This data is needed for policy understanding, this is an exception. However this is not measured data but inferred from satellite observations.

http://www.urbanemissions.info/india-satpm25/

10. Urbanemissions.info has a summary page drawing on real time data from various sources

http://www.indiaairquality.info/ambient-monitoring-data/

11. Urbanemissions.info recently came out with pollution estimates and their attribution to different sources for 20 cities. The estimates can be found here.

http://www.urbanemissions.info/wp-content/uploads/apna/docs/apna_program_summary_booklet.pdf

12. OpenAQ.org collects and stores all real time data from all over the world. If you are looking to get yearly averages for a particular station, this is the place to start.

13. You can use the Excel sheet made by AskHowIndia.org to process the above raw data. The sheet can be found here
https://goo.gl/gzo1av

Attribution studies

14. What are the major contributions to pollution? How is this determined? This is a good place to start and to get links to 4 studies done on Delhi pollution.

http://www.urbanemissions.info/blog-pieces/whats-polluting-delhis-air/

15. For 20 other cities in India, this is a good link. Please also see the fact sheets for individual cities.

http://www.urbanemissions.info/wp-content/uploads/apna/docs/apna_program_summary_booklet.pdf

Other links

16. The Graded Action Response Plan from CPCB submitted to the honorable Supreme Court can be found here

http://cpcb.nic.in/graded-response-action-plan-for-delhi-ncr/

Note: The links on this page are not maintained. In case of broken links use keyword searches to locate the correct link.

0

The hard problem and the very hard problem in cleaning Gangafeatured

March 27, 2018
Ganga Pollution

(Image not of Ganga and used only for representational purposes.)

Ganga is holy to a majority of Indians. The river and its tributaries supply water to hundreds of Millions and cleanliness of this water is crucial to their health. The political returns to any leader that manages to visibly clean it would be thus, immense. Politicians recognize this. After his election in 2014, the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi said, “Ma Ganga is screaming for help. She is saying, ‘There must be one of my sons who will come and pull me out of this filth’.” Long before this, in 1986, the then Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi launched the first Ganga Action plan.

How is it that the most powerful persons in the country haven’t been able to clean the river for decades?

I got the answer to this question in the book River of Life and River of Death by Victor Mallet[1]. As is usually the case, this answer raised further questions.

Why does a river, or any water body, become filthy? At the most basic level it is because of two reasons. The first one is easily understood; a river becomes dirty because we put shit and other pollutants in it. How to stop these pollutants from entering Ganga is what I call the hard problem. The second reason that a river gets dirty is perhaps not so intuitive – it is because we take large quantities of water out for our use and that is a much harder problem to solve.

The hard problem

One hundred and eighteen towns dump their sewage in the river[2]. The water in Ganga and its tributaries is much cleaner upstream of the towns and much dirtier downstream. A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) study pointed out that as its worst, the Yamuna (which meets Ganga at Allahabad) has 1.1 Billion faecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitres. That is 500,000 x the Indian recommended bathing limit of 2,500. According to the CBCB only one tenth of the sewage[3] produced along the main stream of the Ganga is treated.

The challenge is to connect all inhabitants of the towns on Ganga and it tributaries to sewage lines and build Sewage Treatments Plants (STP) on these lines so that the water discharged back in the river is clean. Of course, STPs have been built in the past. Many of them are however, non operational. For example, when the author of the book visited the STP on Assi Nala, just a little distance upstream of where the city takes in its water supply, he found that it was locked up. Why are these plants non operational? Is it because they were not designed well? Or is it because we have never budgeted for their operational expenses? Or is it because some of our government departments are simply dysfunctional?

The current government has awarded contracts for many STPs. Some of them on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model, under which the builder of the plant would get the money as an annuity and the payment will be linked to the performance of the plant. Press Releases suggest that the plants are not very costly. Rs. 171.53 Crore and Rs. 153.2 Crores for plants of 82 MLD at Varanasi and 50 MLD at Hardwar respectively. So why weren’t these plants bid out and commissioned much earlier? At least in the major cities.

Seven hundred and sixty four factories dump their pollution into Ganga. The challenge of stopping polluting industries should be more straightforward. After all it should be possible to measure the pollution coming out of the wastewater of a factory.

Around four hundred tanneries in Kanpur discharge their effluents into the river. The book has an estimate that a common effluent treatment plan for these could be built at a cost of Rs. 800 Crores. That would increase the price of the output of the tanneries by not much. 90 Paise for a leather belt, 7 Rupees for a pair of shoes and 15 Rupees for a horse saddle. The book also suggests that the current common treatment plant does not work very well because most tanneries do not carry out the pre-treatment required.

Why aren’t our Central and State Pollution Bodies not able to force factories to stop polluting? Is it because they do not have the capability to monitor the pollution? Or is it because the law the way it is written is not easily implementable. Or is it because it is easier and cheaper for a polluter to drag court cases forever? Or is it just good old-fashioned corruption?

The very hard problem

Nearly 250 Million people in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar live in villages and many of them depend on agriculture. The water from Ganga and its tributaries is crucial to their livelihood. As this map shows, many dams and barrages have been built on the Ganga and its tributaries and most of the water is taken by agriculture. Here is Victor Mallet,

“It is the driest time of the year (in May 2016) and Ramesh Chandra, the ‘signaller’ or water regulator, tells me the situation. The barrage upstream at Haridwar is normally supplied with water from melting snow in the mountains and should be receiving 12,000 cusecs, but it getting only half the amount due to drought. Of that, only one-tenth or 600 cusecs, is released for the Ganges (with the reminder diverted to the vital Upper Ganga Canal; the barrage normally sends water to the Eastern Ganga Canal too, but that is closed for lack of water).”

Thus, 90% of the river water is taken by agriculture. This is in line with various estimates that suggest that more than 80% of fresh water use in the country is for agriculture. The challenge is that irrigation is very crucial to agriculture and nearly 40% of our population depends on farming.

As we have pointed out in this piece, the yield of a farm can go up three times due to irrigation. The impact on net income would be many times that. Hence, it is not at all easy to reduce this diversion of water. You could use water saving practices like drip irrigation, but that requires investment. It would be even harder for an inefficient government to put in water saving techniques field-by-field, village-by-village than it is for it to run a few hundred STPs and to stop polluting industries.

Across the country our air is dirty, our water filthy and our land polluted. Cleaning of Ganga is crucial to tackling this challenge. After all, if we cannot clean a river which supplies water to a large number of Indians and which is considered holy by an overwhelming majority, what hope is there for the rest of the country?

Author –

Yogesh Upadhyaya

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)

______________________________________________________________________________

[1] I recommend reading the book in full. It is about much more than just how dirty the river is. It talks of the history, the mythology and many other aspects of the great river.

[2] All facts and figures are from Victor Mallet’s book unless otherwise stated.

[3] I have used the terms sewage and shit interchangeably and that is inaccurate. A city’s sewage would have much more than shit, although my guess is that shit would be a large part of it.

0

Festivals and job automation in a labor surplus countryfeatured

February 21, 2018

 

Over the past few months, I have been meeting business owners and managers whose decisions lead to job creation. Across industries, sectors and firm sizes these business leaders say that they would automate any and every job that they can.

This decision maker’s bias for automation – even for jobs paying minimum wages – is for two reasons. The labor laws in the country is one of them and the laws are indeed numerous, restrictive and illogical[1]. However, it was the other reason that surprised me – the perceived unreliability of an Indian employee. Employer after employer complained about the high turnover and about synchronized leaves.

Consider this tale of a manager in charge of a warehouse in Mumbai. More than half of their employees come from rural Maharashtra. These employees live twenty people to a room, two and a half hour commute away from the place of work. They survive on a diet of Vada pav and chai while performing strenuous physical labor.  At the end of three months they are physically sick in addition to being homesick. So they go home to recuperate and come back to look for a new job when their savings run out. The resultant high turnover means high training costs for the company. Also, the inexperienced replacements make more mistakes making their customers unhappy.

The problem is not very easy for the company to fix. Their business model depends on paying minimum wage. Additionally, it is not clear that paying slightly more would help the situation. In a city like Mumbai reasonable accommodation is unreasonably costly. There is also the issue of the attitude of many young employees towards lifestyle choices. For example, the company experimented with opening a canteen, which served a simple but more nutritious lunch. But the experiment failed, as the employees were not ready to spend the less than twenty Rupees that were being charged.

The issue of synchronized leaves was described to be by a Chief Executive of a manufacturing firm. The company has outsourced the buffing[2] part of their production process to a contractor. The contractor’s employees go back to their villages during the months of April and May to help harvest their crops. This ‘mass bunk’ during the two summer months, means that their production falls by more than thirty percent and they have to stock up inventory in the previous months. This stocking up increases their working capital costs, and hence increases the incentives to automate that job.

Another business owner of a small manufacturing unit in Rajasthan had a similar story to tell. His unskilled and semi skilled workers come from nearby villages and it is expected that they would not come to work during Gauri (the twenty one day period before Dipawali).

This synchronized leave phenomenon has been a recurring theme in my discussions. Many workers are from villages and have strong connections to their farmland. They absolutely have to go back home at certain times of the year for important festivals and to help with the crops. The timing of these ‘mass bunks’ depends on the cropping pattern in their villages and on timing of festivals, which in turn is linked to harvests.

This unreliability of employees, stemming from high turnover and synchronized leaves is problematic for businesses. The employers have to incur higher costs as well as deal with irate customers. This means that decision maker are constantly looking for ways to automate away jobs at all levels even when twenty five Million people turn working age every year.

Just to be clear, I am not judging the choices made by the employees. If I had to work at a repetitive job, far away from home, living in bad conditions and commuting four to five hours a day, I would also do my best to save enough so that I could go home. The fact that most employees on minimum wages get very little respect would only add to my urgency. But it does mean that as an economy, we are automating jobs faster than we otherwise would.

It is not clear what, if anything, we can do about this. Making housing better and cheaper in centers of employment should help. As should convenient, high speed and cheap transport solutions to and from places of work. An out of the box solution could be to somehow increase the dignity of labor. A manager working for a company that employed many minimum wage employees told me that they are able to reduce their turnover ‘just’ by treating their employees with dignity. Maybe there is way of societally increasing the dignity of minimum wage labor?

What do you think? Are you a business owner / decision maker who gets frustrated with the high turnover in her company? Have you tried policies that have worked?

Author –

Yogesh Upadhyaya

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)

______________________________________________________________________________

[1] For a comprehensive discussion on which laws impact job creation, read India’s BigGovernment: The Intrusive State & How It’s Hurting Us by Vivek Kaul

[2] Buffing is a finishing process for smoothening a surface. It is not very easy to automate for finished products of irregular sizes.

 

0

Air pollution and Climate Change are different issuesfeatured

November 24, 2017

 

what makes our air dirty?

 

We have been working on understanding and simplifying air pollution for the past few months. Whenever I work on a new topic, I converse about it with practically everyone I meet. Such conversations help me understand the gaps in my knowledge and in that of the audience. I discovered that one of the more widespread confusing aspects in people’s minds seems to be that air pollution and climate change is the same thing. The reality? Air pollution is linked to climate change but not always in the way we would think.

What is climate change? 

A more precise question would be what is anthropogenic climate change or how are humans changing the climate? This is a large and complex topic but a very short answer is that in the last two centuries, humans have burnt a lot of fossil fuel (Coal and Oil mainly). This burning of fuel has increased the concentration of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that does not allow the heat reflected by Earth to escape the atmosphere. This increases the temperature of the atmosphere and could have catastrophic consequences.

Greenhouse gases like Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time and hence climate change is a long-term problem with potentially catastrophic consequences for the entire planet.

There are many other greenhouse gases in addition to carbon dioxide.

What is Air Pollution?

When we burn stuff, we release a lot of gases and particles into the atmosphere in addition to carbon dioxide. Additionally, dust kicked up in the air and chemicals released in the air also make it dirty. These gases and particles pollute the air and are bad for our health.

Of course, some of the gases that pollute the air may also be greenhouse gases and may cause warming. Equally important – some of the particles released in the air may reflect heat entering the atmosphere and have a cooling affect instead.

Most air pollutants do not stay in the atmosphere for a long time but have consequences for human health.

TL; DR: Air Pollution and Climate Change are related but separate issues!

Author –

Yogesh Upadhyaya

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)

Suggested Reading – Air Quality

1

Increasing farmer’s incomes – Devil is in details.featured

May 20, 2017

(Image not of actual village. For representational purposes only.) 

“You can easily earn an income of Rs. 15,000 for an investment of Rs. 6,000/-.” This was a representative of an NGO working in the area of ‘livelihoods’ talking to the women of Palsunda, a small village in Thane district. The word ‘easily’ was at best an exaggeration. 

At AskHow, we have analyzed ‘How the income of small farmers in Indian can be increased.’ The farm yields are low and farmers get a very small portion of the final retail price for their crop. ‘Grow more and Get more’ thus, is a simple enough mantra to understand. The devil however, is in details, and made an appearance at Palsunda. 

Palsunda is a tribal village of around a hundred families in the Mokhada Taluka of Thane district. The area is hilly and that has two implications. First, it is very difficult to store most of the heavy rainfall that pours in the area every monsoon season. Second, it takes a lot of time to reach any of the two nearby major cities of Mumbai and Nashik. 

All farmers in the village, except one, grow only one crop. This monsoon crop usually allows the farmers to grow enough rice and nachini (finger millet) for their own consumption and leaves a little bit for sale. 

In the meeting between the women of the village and a few NGOs, the women described their previous attempts at increasing their income. They had tried to raise poultry but all their hens / roosters died in the summers and they could not even figure out what disease had hit them. Their experience of growing green chilies was not much better. They just couldn’t get a good price for their produce and had to throw most of it away. 

One of the NGO representatives suggested growing the flower Mogra. He said that the flower plant was very hardy and could survive dry conditions. It did not require too much care and also that it commanded a good price in the Dadar market. The nearby village of Amli had done very well with this crop.

Further discussions revealed the challenges.

Water: The plant can survive in dry conditions but still requires some water and that could be a challenge in the dry season. The hilly terrain and the soil characteristics of the area means that all the rainfall runs off. The denudation of forests around have further reduced the capacity of the soil to retain moisture. This is the reason that no farmer in the village except one, grows a second crop. 

The NGO representative stated that they could help build small water ponds that would have a plastic lined bottom. The ponds would hold enough water for the plants in the drier months. I later learnt that the village has been selected for government assistance in building such ponds this year.

Market access: If the villagers had to reach the Dadar market in time, they would need to leave by the first bus at 6.30. Which meant that the flower pluckers would need to get up early in the morning and pluck the flowers between 3.30 and 5.30 in the morning. It should be remembered that this is not merely an inconvenience – fields are the habitats of snakes and many other dangerous animals.

Market price: The market price of Mogra varies through the year and in the past has been high enough to make the crop remunerative. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that the price would continue to be high fifteen months or so down the line when the flowers are ready for plucking.

Collectivization: To make it worth the while for the person taking the produce to market every day, enough flowers should be ready for plucking. This means that many farmers would need to take the decision to invest in this initiative.

Knowledge transfer: The villagers have never grown Mogra. Imagine that they have invested a significant part of their life savings in growing this crop and mid-way through the season they face a pest infestation. They would need help from people with experience in growing Mogra and such people may live more than fifty kilometers away. Moreover, they may have their own priorities. The village does not have Internet access and anyway the net may not be a great resource for such specific problems.

As I sat in for the nearly three-hour meeting, some initial thoughts / conclusions that came to my mind were

  • The steps required to improve income in one village, cannot be transplanted without change to another. This is true even of the villages that are close by. Differences in geography, transport link, etc. matter.
  • Another reason that makes such a copy paste approach unviable is people. People being asked to invest money, effort and most importantly hope need to be convinced and this is a slow process. The process becomes slower because of the cynicism of the people who have tried and failed in many such previous initiatives.
  • The NGO representatives I saw that day were impressive. They knew the details of solutions they were suggesting and were good at communication. In other words, they could talk the talk. But can they walk the walk? It would be presumptuous of me to conclude either way after a day’s visit!                                

The village women agreed to talk amongst themselves and come back to the NGOs. Everyone expects them to proceed cautiously. I will be following this space and keep posting.

Author –

Yogesh Upadhyaya

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)

 

0

The goal of the education system should be to teach childrenfeatured

April 21, 2017

Education_Vs_ToiletImagine a cricket team. It could be the national team or your favorite IPL franchise. The fast bowlers in this team are very strong, the spinners very cunning and the batsmen have great technique and skill. All of them are fantastic athletes too. There is only one problem – the team does not win matches. Would you say that the team is doing well? You would if you come from the wonderful world of policy.

ASER came out with its 2016 report more than a month ago and my simplified summary of this extremely detailed report is, “We are doing much better on almost all inputs such as working toilets, mandated pupil teacher ratio and kitchens to prepare mid day meal. However, there is no improvement in the learning levels of kids. In fact, the learning levels have worsened.”

As the accompanying chart shows, we have working toilets for girls in two out of three schools in rural India. The pupil teacher ratio is also improving. I have selected four out of the many Right To Education (RTE) indicators that ASER measures but India has made progress in nearly all other measures too. For example, percentage of schools with boundary walls has gone up from fifty-one to sixty!

 

There is only one problem. The kids. Their learning levels are falling. Note that this is so even when ASER sets a very low bar. For example, it measures percentage of class V and class VII students that can read Class II text.

If the aim of the education system was to provide mid day meals and toilets, we could have been very happy. But surely, as laudable as working toilets and nutritious food are, that is not what the education system is supposed to be doing? It is supposed to be teaching kids, right?

Not really. Everyone in the system – teachers, principles, education officers have many responsibilities. None of these responsibilities include making sure that kids learn. For example, a teacher is supposed to complete the syllabus but is not officially mandated to make sure that kids learn. If she cares enough to make the effort to make the kids learn, she is literally going beyond the call of duty.

I saw news reports recently that the government is amending RTE rules to make improvements in outcomes a part of what states are supposed to achieve. Great. How much time will it take for norms to be made, debated and accepted? Who knows. In the meanwhile, Crores of kids can curse their luck that they were born in a future superpower called India.

Please note: This post is not against toilets and mid-day meals. In fact, AskHow India and this author believe that sanitation is probably the biggest intervention we can make to significantly improve the life of citizens of India. Mandating these measures may have helped children in many ways but have definitely not helped them learn more.

Author –

Yogesh Upadhyaya

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)

0

Help your drivers and maids…….featured

March 08, 2017

The recent demonetization exercise and the consequent scarcity of cash made all of us explore non-cash payments for many transactions where cash payment was the default option. These include payments to vegetable vendors, milk vendors and our drivers and maids.

For many, while payments to the subjiwaala may have long reverted to the old cash habit, those to the doodhwaala may still be resisting a reversion to cash. But, our convenience must never cause payments to the driver and maid to revert to cash – for their sake. Here is why…

It is well documented that marginal class in India – those whose regular incomes and living expenses are very closely matched – are the most vulnerable to financial shocks viz. unanticipated and/or lumpy expenses on sickness of self or family, children’s education etc. These financial shocks cause them to approach the informal lenders like chit funds, money-lenders, pawn shops etc. as the formal financial system shuts its doors to them without ‘income proof’.
The usurious interest rates charged by informal lenders oftentimes ensnare these marginal earners in a debt-trap. As a result, what started out a temporary cash flow problem turns into a crushing debt problem that leads to permanent misery.

A ‘record of income’ for these marginal earners can be an effective defense against such debt driven misery. Receiving their salaries by cheque can help the marginal earners generate the ‘income proof’ that can help them borrow from formal sector lenders like banks, in times of need. Moreover, and equally importantly, a ‘cheque salary’ does not impose any tax burden on most of them as the present budget requires no tax to be paid on a monthly income of Rs.25,000 or less.

This needs to be effectively communicated to our drivers and maids so that they ask for a cheque salary.

We would do well to do our bit in this communication effort and help them sidestep potential misery.

Author –

Ajay Dwivedi

(Ajay Dwivedi is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)

0

3 ways you can contribute to a better discussion!featured

January 05, 2017

 

Are you tired of the ‘endless stating and re-stating of own opinions’ aka social media debates?

I have a solution. A 3-point list that would improve any discussion that you participate in.

What qualifies me to give these suggestions?

I am a founder of AskHow India, a group dedicated to improving the quality of public debate in India. In the last three years, I have observed more bad discussions on social and conventional media than is good for my health. That has given me some insights into bad discussions.

More importantly, for more than three decades I have contributed to making discussions worse! I realized how much I was responsible for the problem only when I started observing others!

So here are three tips from an embarrassed poacher turned jungle warden.Bravest_Person_Of_The_Day

1. Say “I don’t know” at least once a day :

Some of the most enriching discussions I have been a part of have been so because someone said the magic words. We all know that there is no way we can know everything there is to know about every topic in the world but in a discussion we pretend otherwise. The first person to say “I don’t know”,  allows others to admit their own ignorance and the discussion soon turns from a
verbal slug-fest to a harmonious attempt to increase your own understanding.

If you are like me and you feel that uttering these words is more difficult than saying, “I concede defeat” or even tougher, “I love you” you may set a goal of saying them at least once a day.

Pro tip: Once you have had enough practice saying “I don’t know” you could really challenge yourself and start on, “I was wrong.”

 

2. Use the back of an envelope (and Google):

Every summer, parts of India go through droughts and we see social media posts exhorting us to save water. Last year, suggestions ranged from playing dry holi to cancelling IPL matches in drought hit states.

I did some quick and rough calculations on the relative importance of each measure being suggested, and was astonished to realize that urban Indians can make very little impact by curtailing their direct use of water but can make significant impact if they understood the concept of ‘embedded water’ in every product they use. Such back of the envelope calculations are very useful in many discussions.

Pro tip: There is a temptation to be very precise in your calculations and assumptions. Avoid it. Many times, rough calculations may show a factor to be of much lower significance than you originally thought and even a 100% error in your answer may not change your conclusions too much. If people ask you to change your assumptions, just do it. Don’t argue. 

 

3. Beware of Confirmation Bias:

Wikipedia defines Confirmation bias as “…the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.” In other words, facts rarely change our minds.

Unfortunately, this bias like most other biases is much easier to spot in others than in yourself. One way of discovering it in yourself is to record what would make you change your mind about an issue. If after a while, you go back and read these jottings, you would be surprised how stronger evidence than you initially thought has come up and you have still not changed your mind.

Pro tip: Don’t make your jottings public. Reservoirs of confirmation bias can be embarrassingly large.

These are my top three tips. What are yours? Post techniques that you have used to make discussions more productive in the comments section below.

On behalf of AskHow India, I wish everyone a 2017 filled with productive discussions!

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is a founder of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views)

0

How important are IT / BPM jobs in India?featured

December 16, 2016

 

BPO Jobs IndiaThe IT / BPM sector in India is faced with the risk of increased automation and of backlash against outsourcing in developed countries. The industry is also one of the large employers in the country. I did some back of the envelope calculations to get an estimate of how much of the total job requirement in the country is provided by IT / BPM. Here are the calculations.

A) Number of new additions in IT BPM in 2015 = 230,000

Source: NASSCOM

 B) Number of students enrolled in undergraduate programs across the country = 25,500,325

Source: All India Survey of Higher Education, 2013-14 (page 12)

 C) Number of graduates looking for employment = B / 4 = 6,375,081

Assuming ¼th of students will be looking for jobs. This adjusts for dropouts, a mix of 3 and 4 year undergraduate courses and for students who opt for higher studies.

D) Percentage of graduate youth that can expect to get jobs in IT / BPM = A / C

= 3.6%

IT / BPM jobs are relatively high paying ones and demand for goods and services from IT / BPM professionals can generate many indirect jobs for both graduates and non graduates. For example, an IT professional may buy / rent an apartment, frequently go to restaurants and take vacations in all parts of India. The number above does not include this indirect job creation.

mail-146644 AskHow India Back of Envelope calculations try to quantify the impact of current events. They are meant to give an approximate estimate and start a conversation. We show our sources and calculations. Use them to arrive at a different answer and leave that answer in the comments section if you disagree with us! We would love that!

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is a founder of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views)

2

Ammo for social media warriors !featured

December 02, 2016

You are a warrior. Social media is your battleground. You know that you are marching behind the greatest leader the world has ever seen and together you will take this country to a glorious future. Or you believe that you are the only thing standing against India’s rush towards fascism and total destruction. In other words you are a Bhakt or a Tkahb, zealots at either end of spectrum.

The November 8 demonetization move is the perfect opportunity for you – a chance to prove to the other side how wrong they are.

ammo_for_social_media

I am here for you. I will give you facts and more importantly a way of arguing these facts that leave no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind about the correctness of your position. Let us dive right into it.

Issue: How much money has come into the system? 

Around 8.5 trillion Rupees or 56% of the cancelled Rupees have been deposited with the bank till November 28, 2016.

Bhakt argument: First of all, the pace of deposits will slow down. So it is likely that a large proportion of the cancelled notes will not get deposited. That will impact the government’s Fiscal Deficit. Additionally, the IT department will be able to identify part of the deposits as undeclared income from previous years and that will attract taxation at nearly 50%. Even if businesses show deposits as current year’s income, the profits out of these will get taxed at the current tax rates. There will be a tax jump that can be used in nation building.

Tkahb argument: If 56% of cancelled notes were deposited in 20 days imagine what will happen in 30 more days! The total deposits will cross 100% of outstanding because fake currency will also get deposited in banks!

Note: This fact has a shelf life. The deposit figures around December 31 will tend to give an answer one-way or the other. Better use this quickly.

 Issue: The squeeze in liquidity will lead to a slow down

The cancellation of high denomination notes led to a severe reduction in demand in the economy. This will negatively impact the GDP of the country. The cash crunch has also led to difficulties for farmers at the time of crop sowing.

Bhakt argument: The Bhakt argument in the purest form is to deny that consumption has fallen even in the last two weeks. However, if you are constrained by an analytical brain, argue that this demand destruction has been temporary. You could also point to news report that say that people used the cancelled notes to clear very old dues with banks and electricity companies. In many cases, the old notes have been used by businesses as advance payments to their suppliers and their employees.

 Tkahb argument: Reports suggest that FMCG sales were down by at least 50% in the first two weeks. Most economists suggest that there would be at least a short-term slowdown. However, you would be letting your side down if you did not predict doom and gloom in the long term. Argue that the cash squeeze will cause many small enterprises and even families to go bankrupt causing more than a short-term demand destruction. Argue that the bankruptcies will cause unemployment, which will further reduce demand causing more bankruptcies. India is on the precipice of a recession!

Note: It is useful to give links to articles that support your argument. Luckily you do not have to search too much. For example, a Bhakt can use this piece from Indian Express to support his argument and a Tkahb can use this one from the same paper (same page) to support his.

Issue: This measure will cause behavior change in many individuals and businesses

It is now well understood that the problem of Black Money is not of stashes of illicit wealth stowed away but of people not reporting parts of their income or gains and hence avoiding taxes. There is uncertainty on how much of black income people keep in cash. By definition this is not reported anywhere. So will this measure change behavior in future? Will people start declaring more of their income?

Bhakt argument: Government officers who accept bribes and professionals like doctors and lawyers who take their fees in cash and do not declare it are the worst hurt. They usually have very few avenues to launder their cash and hence they are now paying a very high price for converting their black money into white. It is likely that in future these people will declare a higher portion of their income because the cost of not doing so just went up.

Furthermore, Mr. Modi has just shown that he has the political will and capital to take tough steps and the ability to sell those steps to people. This fact alone will change a lot of behavior. People will think, today it was currency notes, tomorrow it could be land and / or gold. You could point out other measures against Black Money already taken or in the works.

Tkahb argument: Focus on the fact that very small portion of Black Wealth is parked in cash and most of it would be in land / apartments and gold. Also, stress on the fact that as soon as cash starts building up in the economy corrupt officers will start taking bribes and businesses would start evading taxes. You could also keep pointing out that this measure does not do anything about the Black Money parked outside the country.

Issue: Quality of implementation

RBI and Ministry of Finance have made and changed rules on a daily basis since November 8.

Bhakt argument: India is a large and complex country and secrecy was needed to implement this measure. The high number of rule changes just means that the government is responsive to emerging situations. It is commendable that the government is carrying out its operations in an entrepreneurial manner.

Tkahb argument: The changes in rules have been necessitated because of a total absence of planning. Did nobody even realize that the new notes were of a different size and that all the ATM machines in the country would need to be re-calibrated?

December has begun and a lot of data will pour in. Speed is of essence. Do not spent time trying to see how the data fits the big picture or even if there is a big picture. Pick up that data and fire.

Copy-paste the relevant parts of my article in your posts. In fact, you can link my entire article. Your social media posts are now being clicked only by other Bhakts or Tkhabs. They will use their own confirmation bias to read only the relevant portions.

PS: Do you have other factoids that can be argued both ways? Post them in the comments section below.

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is a founder of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views)

4

Nobody knows s%#t for sure !featured

November 19, 2016

Demonetization: All predictions about the future are at best educated guesses.

Are you totally confused by the flood of articles, FB posts and Whatsapp forwards on demonetization? You are not the only one. The issue is really complex and even the experts making predictions are guessing when they say what will happen in the future. Underlying their guesses are explicit and sometimes not so explicit assumptions. Big assumptions.

Let me explain with an example. It is slightly complex example but bear with me.

1. Rajesh is a salaried employee and his employer deposits his monthly income in the bank. So of course, this income is white. He withdraws some of the money from an ATM and buys a few packs of Gutkha from the local panwala.
2. The panwala passes on most of the money through a wholesaler to the manufacturer. The net income of the panwala is small and he is not liable to pay tax.
3. Unknown to the panwala, the manufacturer is not accounting for this money in his books to evade paying the considerable amount of taxes on Gutkha. Thus, the white money of Rajesh has now become Black.
4. The manufacturer has to share part of this black income with his distributors and retailers. He also keeps a small amount in cash for day to day business expenses.Tangled Money !
5. With the remaining part of this black income the manufacturer bribes a government tax official, buys land (partly paid for by cheque) and also buys Tobacco from a farmer.
6. The cash in hands of the tax officer and the land seller is black and in hands of farmer white.
7. The tax officer buys a fancy watch and keeps the remaining amount in cash. The land seller buys jewelry for his daughter’s wedding with some part of the money and keeps the remaining money in cash. The farmer uses some part of the money he got to pay a Doctor his fees.
8. The Swiss watch showroom and the jeweler declare the cash sale making the money white again. The Doctor does not declare a portion of the income making it black.

The main point of this example is that cash moves through the economy in a very complex ways and that the black and white economies are strongly intertwined. When you squeeze the black economy you are squeezing the white economy too.

Also, note that this contrived example is a minuscule part of reality! There would be millions of Rajesh and hundreds of distributors. The manufacturer would have thousands of income and expense entries. And of course across the vast country there are many different types of businesses and even more number of individuals with great differences in incomes. Reality = 1 Billion x this example or maybe more.

When columnists (including this one) give their opinions on the impact of demonetization, it is a guess. Educated guess at best and personal bias at worst.

Let us look at some of the areas of prediction.

Will this measure reduce generation of Black Money in future?

In our example, it depends on how much money the manufacturer, the tax officer, the doctor and the land seller had in cash and the day of demonetization and how much they are able to convert to new notes using both official and unofficial channels. Their tax liability and penalty in case of official channels and the commission they end up paying if they use unofficial channels will be a factor in their future decisions.

How much will be the impact on future Black Money?

It depends on your assumptions.

Will this measure reduce GDP growth in the short term?

Definitely. The panwala will see a drop in sales because people do not have cash. He may make temporary arrangements to get gutkha on credit and sell it to his known customers on credit but he will still see drop in sales and would reduce his own purchases as much as he can. So would everyone in our example. There is no way of accurately knowing how much would this reduction would be.

How much would be the drop in demand and how long will it last?

Depends on your assumptions.

Will this measure impact GDP growth in the long term?

Yes, but this impact is even more difficult to assess. On one hand, the demand shortage and liquidity crunch could force small entrepreneurs to go out of business. On the other hand the government could use the extra tax collection to build social and physical infrastructure, which spurs the economy. There is also a likelihood of organized businesses growing to take place of the dying unorganized business. Additionally, future is not static and individuals, firms and governments will react to the given situation and make the situation worse or better.

How much will be the long-term impact on GDP?

You guessed it right; it depends on your assumptions.

In summary, demonetization is a very big move in a very very complex system viz. the Indian economy. Any prediction about the outcome, whether positive or negative, is at best an educated guess. I would think that even the government of India was guessing about the benefits and costs when it made the move.

Note 1: I have not spoken about the social costs of this move – people going hungry because they cannot get their daily employment for example. This is because I have no way of knowing about these except for anecdotes that I hear and read in media. This does not mean that the social costs are not real.
Note 2: There is nothing inherently wrong with the columnists guessing. It is just that we should not take any one’s view as absolute truth.

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is a founder of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views)

3

Good Step ! But the fight is by no means over..featured

November 09, 2016

 

Imagine you sold your flat in Delhi last month for Rs. 1 Crores. As is the market practice, you took 40 Lakh of this money in cash. Imagine also that in the one month since the sale, you spent only a couple of Lakh from the cash pile. After the government’s declaration yesterday that the current five hundred and thousand rupee notes will no longer be legal tender in India, you are screwed. The next time you sell property, you will not be inclined to take such a large portion of the money in cash. What is more your sorry tale will also persuade your friends and relatives to accept large portions of their property sales in cheque.

Now imagine that your neighbor sold their flat two years ago, again getting Rs. 40 Lakh in cash.  However, they immediately spent the cash in their daughter’s wedding and in buying another piece of property. They have probably stepped out right now to give Prasad at the local temple to thank the almighty for their luck! They and their friends would also be cautious about accepting cash next time they sell their property but not as much as you would be.

These two tales illustrate why the move by the government yesterday is good but is not a ‘ramban’ to kill the demon of Black Money.

More formally,

  1. Some Businesses and professions like doctors take part of their revenues / fees as cash and do not declare it, to avoid paying tax.
  2. However, the black money thus earned is not entirely ‘stashed away’. The business for example may use it to pay bribes or to make political contributions or might simply give it to another business that is selling its goods in cash. The doctor may buy gold or land or even spend the money. Black Money circulates and only a small portion of this money is kept in cash. We have no way of knowing how much that is.
  3. The step of stopping use of five hundred and thousand rupee notes makes this stash worthless. This will persuade businesses and professionals to declare more of their income in future. But there are also counter pressures of needing undeclared income to pay bribes, etc. and also to pay lower taxes. A pan masala manufacturer for example, can evade high amount of excise duty today by making cash / undeclared sales.

Black money reality

To summarize this is a good step but will not solve the entire problem. The problem of Black Money is too complex for it to be solved in its entirety by one step alone. And yes, it will be disruptive for our day-to-day lives, but that is a topic for another discussion.

(Yogesh Upadhyaya is a founder of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views)

0

Darr ke aage jeet hai !featured

November 09, 2016

It is tough to not like an honest attempt and even tougher if the attempt is a courageous one. The move by the Indian Government to withdraw the presently used high denomination currency notes is such an attempt. These currency notes are one of the key enablers in the generation, storage and movement of domestic black money and its movement across our country’s borders. This money is often used to carry out illegal acts in the country such as bribing and terrorism.

This move will render most of the black money currently held as Indian currency unusable. This would include money that is just stashed away for use at a later date, money that has been converted to cash to be moved abroad through the hawala channel, or money that is sitting abroad but destined for use in the country for one of a myriad of illegal activities. It will also render the present infrastructure for printing counterfeit currency – both within the country and outside – worthless.

Though some, or even many, of these activities may well find new routes for their conduct, such ‘innovation’ will impose fresh costs on their practitioners in terms of money, quality of people and time. Till these new methods are found and perfected, the nation will get a breather. And, as and when these activities recommence, they will be rendered more costly than before as the risk of a repeat of this move will have to be priced into their cost of operations.

This “re-pricing” of black money transactions will render some, or even many, of them unviable and cause them to move into the formal (white) economy. This will cause the formal economy to be larger than what it may have been without this move. This will, in turn, improve tax collections and provide greater fiscal capacity to the government for spending on improving the country’s physical and social infrastructure.

Author –

Ajay Dwivedi

(Ajay Dwivedi is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)

0

IT and Courtsfeatured

October 18, 2016

Can we use our IT giants to help our courts?

Last week, the Supreme Court confirmed the sentence on Vikas Yadav and other accused in the Nitish Kataria murder case, nearly 15 years after Kataria’s death. Unfortunately, this was not an exceptional case in terms of time taken.

We know that the slow speed of justice system impacts crucial issues such as women’s safety, corruption (see graphic) and black money in addition to many others. And yet, when it comes to solutions, most of the discussions in the media focus on the low judge to population ratio.

IT & Courts

We covered this issue in AskHow a while back and made many suggestions such as limiting the number of adjournments and making procedural changes to bottleneck laws. However, if there is one thing that frustrates me, it is not using Information technology effectively.

It is not easy to gauge the current state of computerization in our courts but some recent findings can be found here and here. I do think however, that it is ludicrous that the Supreme Court had to make the followings observations in late 2012,

“If E-tickets of Railways can be booked in one part of the country and print generated in any other part of the country, generating information of statistics relating to Judiciary may not be difficult.”

“Data is not based on performance standards – thus, in the absence of time tables or data systems that will track individual cases against established time standards, there is in fact no scientific data on delays in courts today. “

And most damningly,

“Number of available Court Buildings, Court Halls and other infrastructural facilities have not been described clearly. In the absence of correct statistics regarding the number of Court Halls available, transfers and postings effected by the High Courts, have, at times, created piquant situations. Instances have come to fore that number of Judicial Officers posted at a place could not function for want of Court Halls; also, conversely at other places vis-à-vis number of Judicial Officers posted, the number of pending matters were negligible.”

Our IT giants Infosys, TCS, etc. are under growth pressure. Can the country give them the task of setting up a world class IT infrastructure for the justice system in the next three years?

Updated, October 24, 2016: Links added for current status of IT in courts.

0

Coffee with Anufeatured

December 18, 2014

For our fans on FB and Twitter, we ran a contest a while ago – ask Anu Hasan a question that might stump her and she would meet you for coffee and answer your question.

Well, interestingly, we got over 40 well-reasoned, thought out responses from across the country! Sadly we couldn’t fly people down to Chennai.

Looking forward to more such events.

0

Ask How India on Radiofeatured

December 18, 2014

ask-logo
Ajay Dwivedi, co-founder, Ask How India, spoke recently to 92.7 Big FM, on the issue of Women’s Safety. It’s an issue that continues to make the headlines and we must continue to Ask How women’s safety can be an important part of a government’s agenda.

0

Ask How Indiafeatured

November 07, 2014

Ask How India’s Yogesh Upadhyaya was on air a few weeks ago, on Big 92.7 FM talking about the responsibilities of an MLA. Do watch and share widely!

We would be bringing you more such instances of our involvement with getting more and more people to keep asking ‘How’.

Click here to watch the video