Evaluating Central Bank Independence: The Case of the Reserve Bank of India

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Recently, the independence of the United States Federal Reserve came under scrutiny with the much publicised letter sent from Patrick McHenry to Janet Yellen, criticising the participation of the Federal Reserve (and therefore, indirectly by Yellen) in ‘international forums on financial regulation’. Two questions for thought-one, do we need regulation in the first place and two, if yes, how independent should the regulator be?

Do we need financial regulation?

The first module in my International Banking Law course dealt with the decades-old debate on a lassiez-faire financial system, ardently propounded by economist Kevin Dowd and effective bank regulation within a financial lassiez-faire system by economist duo Benston-Kauffman.

Does our financial system need regulation? Or does Kevin Dowd’s proposition hold, that if free trade is a good thing, why shouldn’t financial markets be?

The US Fed Reserve and the RBI function in different ways, as can be seen with the way they have dealt with the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the NPA issue respectively. The sub-prime crisis was, in short, a result of lack of effective regulation in a laissez-faire system, thereby giving a strong example to back Benston-Kauffman’s hypothesis. Closer home, the RBI recognised the problem of non-performing assets at a time when it can be substantially addressed, albeit criticism that the RBI could have stepped in at a much earlier stage. But substantial reform and subsequent regulation have been formulated, not just to address and ease the problem of non-performing assets, but also take relevant measures to develop India’s stagnant corporate bond market, and in the larger sense the debt capital market. At this stage, I’m compelled to confirm with the Benston-Kauffman proposition. Since its existence, the RBI has more or less made effective regulation for the Indian banking and financial system and the Benston-Kauffman model seems to work for the Indian economy (and not just because I’m a finance lawyer and finance regulation is part of my bread and butter). At the outset, we do need effective regulation, to develop our financial markets and attain efficiency. In doing so, the central bank of a country can function as an invaluable resource in advising the nation as well as provide financial, technical and legal expertise. On an international level, central banks may come together to formulate better practices for banking supervision (such as the Basel Guidelines) based on individual nation experiences.

Independence of Central Banks

Alright, so we need some regulation. But how is this regulation to be carried out? The argument is that central banks must be isolated from the government because political influences may affect the regulator in regulating effectively. For instance, in India, if the central government were to exercise more control or direct what the RBI should or should not do, say, direct them the RBI to mandate banks to lend more to farmers and thereby carry more risk, it would undermine effective regulation. Further, the major role played by central banks is formulation of monetary policy and control of inflation, and the central bank may not be able to do this effectively in the presence of political influence. This is a common argument put forward by those who favour an independent central bank. This may be supported by the argument that the central bank as a regulator is an economic institution, not a political one, with economic aims and objectives.

Yet, on the other hand, the relationship between economics and politics is not a straightforward one. Every government will have economic objectives, and will require to work with the central bank and other financial regulators to achieve these aims. Thus, while the central bank and the government are independent of each other, it is imperative that they work in harmony to achieve social, economic and socio-economic objectives of the economy.

Depression amongst Indian youth: Why we need to start talking more about it

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Last week the country witnessed the horrific death of 24 year old Arjun Bharadwaj, an engineer who live streamed how to commit suicide before jumping from the 19th floor of Taj Lands End, in Mumbai.

India’s youth is unhappy than ever before. There is an underlying societal pressure to do well. Most first-generation Indians also carry the burden of providing financially for their parents, because with the lack of an adequate social welfare system, despite each of us paying such high taxes, there is a need to keep aside enough money for their well-being.

Comedian Sahil Shah’s excellent piece on depression and battling it, gives us much hope. I’d like to believe Indian parents have become more open to talking about problems, allowing their children to take on other career options apart from medicine or engineering.

And yet, this is just the beginning. First, there is the need to establish institutions to help the youth deal with depression. Not everyone can afford a shrink-struggling first generation college educated youth face much more pressure than a city-bred third (or fourth) generation college educated youth. Perhaps the state needs to start looking at stream-lining the institutions that are aimed at promotion of mental health in the country.

Second, much work needs to be done with respect to the social taboo attached to depression. Depression is not a disease. It is one spectrum on the scale of mental well-being.

Perhaps, we as Indian millennials  are to blame as well. Born or raised in post-liberalised India, we are used to speedy gratification. Our parents and grandparents struggled way more than us, albeit in a less competitive environment. We are addicted to social media, as a drug addict gets addicted to dopamine. We’ve become increasingly singular individuals, despite living in a tangled web of virtual relationships. We’ve forgotten how to have real human relationships- where we don’t post pictures of our everyday outings on Instagram or Facebook.

But social media has many positives. What we need to remember is that sometimes we need to log out and focus on the relationships that matter the most to us.

M(b)aybe not?

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Last night, my college roommate and I went out for dinner at a nice place in Bandra. We noticed a couple (probably in their mid-thirties) glued to their phones while their young daughter quietly read Matilda till the waiter came to ask for their order. This got us talking about motherhood, and whether we would still want to have a child in this day and age. And just his morning, my mum (irony of it all) sent me this rather honest article.

Population control has always been a problem in India. There are just too many people, and that has invariably put a humongous strain on our natural resources. Mumbai alone has 20.7 million people. That’s the population of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Singapore (countries with some the best living standards) put together.

Yet, in India, child-free has always been seen as child-less, and has much social taboo attached to it. It is only now that more Indian women have begun to embrace a child-free lifestyle.

I’ve long been an advocate for child-free couples, yet have maintained that women should children only if they really want to, and believe they can raise a child in this day and age. Our cities are too crowded, schools are not exactly the best (many schools in Bangalore have become notorious for child sexual abuse), children are addicted to technology and have no idea of human interaction.

To say the least, it was much food for thought.

Re-start

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This blog has been on snooze for far too long ( one year and 3 months to the date). I’ve been having some thoughts lately, which I’ve been itching to write, but my now full-time job at a law firm hasn’t given me the liberty to do so. Then, a few days ago I realised how much I missed writing(even little snippets) and have decided to get back into the game, one post a weekend.

This blog will continue with the same focus-writing about everyday India problems, and how we can go about solving them. I recently started another blog, The Coming of Age, where I write about my life in general-what I cook, read and watch.

Comments, anytime!

2015 : That’s a wrap!

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I started this blog in January 2015 because I wanted to foster my lost love for writing. It started with a conversation about engineers being “underemployed” with a friend at a local cafe, which I thought about all the way back home.

In the last five years, my writing has changed. But I’d like to think it’s more mature- not the emotional, deep-thought writing I used to engage back in High School. This writing is a mix of academic writing (law school) and essay writing (High School). I hope my writing gets better this year! (Even with the hectic law-firm job)

A great contributor to my writing has been people who have intellectually influenced me this past year, either through a course on Coursera, edx or articles. Here is my list of intellectual crushes(in no particular order) for the year:-

  1. Professor Robert Shiller: Robert Shiller is a Professor at Yale University, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 2013. His course on Financial Markets on Coursera is an excellent introduction to the world of finance. His last week lectures, “Finding your purpose in a world of financial capitalism” put my internal conflict of my left of centre political beliefs with my law firm ambitions.
  2. Alan Rusbridger- Alan Rusbridger was the Editor of the Guardian Newspaper and retired earlier this year. His farewell letter was a wonderful read, and all the reasons I love the newspaper.
  3. Professor Jeffrey Sachs- Once again, a Coursera instructor makes the list, this time from Columbia University. Jeffrey Sachs’ short course on sustainable development served as strong foundations for my posts on sustainable urbanisation in India.
  4. Raghuram Rajan- The governor of the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank, couldn’t have been any cooler to me this year. The famous “I am Raghuram Rajan and I do what I do” kind of restored my faith in our problem-laden yet stronger banking system.
  5. Dogs, in general- I know this sounds funny, and mostly diabolic, but it’s true. Dogs make me feel calm and foster rational thinking. I began my year volunteering a dog shelter, and it made a very less stressful year.

A City yet destroyed

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The horrific gang-rape that happened at the famed Cubbon Park late on Wednesday night makes me wonder yet again where exactly Bangalore is heading. In the last four and a half years that I’ve moved out my hometown, I’ve grown increasingly disappointed with the state of affairs in the city. One of the purposes of running this blog was to document these problems and find solutions to them, with some focus on Bangalore. I know the aim of this blog was on problem-solving, but part of problem solving is identifying the problems and this post will do just that.

Public Transport: I think the efficiency and ease of public transport (or the lack of it) forces one to buy their own private vehicle, which in turn create additional problems such as over-crowding on roads and pollution. The metro construction is so delayed that it gives Calcutta a superiority complex (no offence meant,  but things in West Bengal do take a substantially long time to complete). Buses are regular, but because so many people rely on buses to get around, it takes forever to reach from one end of the city to another. And then there are autos, and travelling by autos just exasperates me. One of my earliest posts was on the auto rickshaw problem in Bangalore. If the State Government focused on speeding up the Metro, problems associated with public transport would be eased to a great extent. I have written a two-part extensive post on financial and infrastructural issues related with the Bangalore Metro which you can find here and here. Public Transport is key to setting the framework for better infrastructure in the city, and must be the primary focus of the State Government. If there exists efficient public transport both within and between Bangalore Urban and Rural districts, better commercial and residential real estate infrastructure may be developed and this would ease the pressure in the city centre.

Waste Disposal : In recent years, Bangalore’s waste disposal problem has become more pronounced. Last year, as Bangalore’s population hit 10 million (or 1 Crore), the amount of solid waste generated and the lack of waste management options made one wonder if Bangalore could ever become garbage free. In this enlightening article in The Hindu last year, the focus might as well be on effective management of waste, and consideration of recycling options. Bangalore, being the IT capital of the country, also produces substantial e-waste, which could be recycled and put to use again. Needless to say, it is important to take steps to ensure that the Garden City does not become a Garbage City.  A possible solution may taken from neighbour city Chennai, where waste disposal is handled based on a PPP model where the government engages with private contractors for speedy and efficient waste disposal.

 Migration and rising intolerance : A lot of people have told me that intolerance has arisen only because native Bangaloreans are “soft people” and allowed migrants to rule them over. And now that we’ve supposedly had enough, we’re retaliating. The 2012 North East migrant exodus based on attack rumours was a sad moment for a city that claims to be uber- cosmopolitan. The more recent riots caused by the Tipu Sultan remarks made by noted actor Jnanpith Awardee, Girish Karnad is another instance of intolerance.

Indian cities are unique and homogenous at the same time- they represent a melting pot of the post liberalisation urban Indian identity, while at the same time, are pulled by the invisible threads of a time reminiscent of the “Hindu growth rate”. Yet, there exists a line of commonality between them in sustainable development terms- more environment friendly and efficient transport systems, waste disposal and energy usage coupled with social factors such as tolerance. They can definitely learn from each other in finding common ground solutions for ever growing problems related to population, environment, migration and policy.

Witness Protection in India: Policy and Challenges

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An opinion in the Business Standard on witness protection in India a few months ago got me thinking. I recalled the rather unappealing film, Did you hear about the Morgans?, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant which revolved around a couple under the United States Witness Protection Program.  The Program, which is operated by the US Marshals Service, seeks to protect witnesses during and after trial, often assigning them with a new identity in another location in the country.

Like the opinion illustrates, in India we do not have such sophisticated witness protection systems. Witnesses who require high level protection are often provided with negligible police protection.  This was finely illustrated in the 2013 Hindi film, Jolly LLB when a frail, trembling police officer is assigned to Jolly (Arshad Warsi’s character in the film) for his protection. Despite his enthused attitude to protect Jolly, regardless of his ability to do so, this funny depiction highlights a point- a lack of a comprehensive witness protection system is a rot in our justice system in itself. This was evidenced in the killing of Tulsiram Prajapati, a key witness in the Sohrabuddin killings.

There is definitely a need for a comprehensive law on witness protection in India. But that solves only a part of the problem. One of my favourite quotes from Nani Palkhivala is “Too many laws, and too little justice” and a witness protection law without adequate financial and infrastructural backing from the State would epitomise just that. Our police force are perhaps the most over-worked and under-paid in the world. This is not to undermine the need to formulate a law for witness protection- we will definitely need a law on witness protection before we proceed to build any infrastructure for witness protection (for which we will also need money) as we do not want more instances like the killing of witnesses in the Asaram Bapu rape trial.

Yet, I still argue, that having a witness protection law is just solving one part of the problem. It must and should be followed by active steps to create infrastructure to protect witnesses. Could we look at the American model of providing them with new identities, and having them reside in another part of the country as someone else? Do we have enough financial resources to establish and work with such a model? The Delhi government seems to think so. In what I believe is a welcome move, the Delhi Government introduced the Delhi Witness Protection Program 2015 in July. The Program seeks to provide a new identity to the witnesses and seeks to ensure their safe relocation as well as steps to ensure that the accused or their accomplices do not approach them. With this, they also have enhanced measures for protection of their real identity. The program seeks to establish a Witness Protection Fund and seeks to receive funds from budgetary allocations, fines and penalties from courts and donations from individuals and institutions. While the witness protection fund is a novel idea, accepting contributions from individuals and institutions may create some additional challenges. Law and order in society falls within the exclusive domain of the State, and its one of the reasons the State collects a large sum from taxpayers every year.

Thus, the Witness Protection Program of 2015 by the Delhi Government is a welcome move, and I hope it paves the way for a comprehensive witness protection law in India, to go hand in hand with the protection of whistleblowers under the new Whistleblowers law. Yet, witness protection will truly be achieved not just with comprehensive laws, but with strong infrastructure and finances in place. A strong infrastructure for witness protection may created by not only strengthening existing police force (complete reform in pay and structure, I do not delve too deeply into this in this post as it demands more nuanced arguments), as well as the creation of a specialised police force for witness protection. One would also need to look at innovative financial structures to keep financial resources flowing into the infrastructure, albeit within the power of the State.