DisFact #11: BJP ads; "Doing Business" rankings; Andaman tribes

Happy Sunday, readers!

I am Samarth Bansal. Welcome to DisFact, my weekly newsletter. If you’ve been forwarded this email, sign up here. For previous issues, check here.

In the ninth issue of DisFact, I mentioned how the lack of pollution monitoring stations in cities outside Delhi hinders our ability to measure the air pollution concentration. Now, we have new data: University of Chicago economists used 20 years of satellite derived annual PM2.5 concentration estimates to present district-level estimates of PM 2.5 concentration.

From the Hindustan Times:

Satellite-measured PM 2.5 concentration trends for around 670 districts in India from 1998 to 2016 show air pollution levels have increased in most districts, with the worst pollution levels being recorded in 570 districts between 2014 and 2016, which was the most polluted year for India since 1998.

According to the report, Indians would have lived 4.3 years longer if the 2016 air quality met the WHO’s annual safe air quality guidelines.

BJP, the most advertised television brand

What: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has become the most advertised brand on television, according to latest data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). BJP ads were shown over 22,000 times in the week ended November 16. The Congress party did not even feature in the top 10.

Why now: Elections. Five states (MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram) are going to polls.

The polls are being viewed as “king-maker elections”, hence the stakes are extremely high, said a media agency expert who follows political advertising. “That the results of these elections will have an impact on the general elections is the premise on which political parties might be working,” the person said. The general election is likely to be held in April-May next year. (Economic Times)

Was public money used for these ads? No. The money was spent by the BJP party.

What about government ads: That’s separate and not included in above figures.

Taxpayer money is often used to publicise the government’s achievements. As per official data, the central government spent close to Rs 10,000 crore on all kinds of publicity in the 16 year period from 2002-03 to 2017-18. (Factly)

This amount increases during election years: On average, the publicity expenditure in an election year was 40% more than the preceding year. (Factly)

A politician as a product: In an Indian Express column, Akash Joshi explains how Mr Modi is marketed as a brand. “The campaigns of the BJP and Union government have a simple, easily discernible end: To showcase the prime minister as the final arbiter and first cause of achche din.” (Read here)

There is a shift in how policies are now publicised, Joshi observes.

Take the ads proclaiming the success of the PM’s Ujjwala Yojana. In essence, they bear the same child-like enunciation, the resort to cliche and a sort of throwback to a time before the high-definition sheen of the digital era. The key difference from earlier government ads lies in the message: Prime Minister Modi saved my life, freed me from drudgery through a gas connection, the “rural woman” declares. The PM is presented as a personal saviour, not merely a political leader in distant Delhi.

Logos and symbols are far easier to manipulate and create anew than people, Joshi wrote. So why is the BJP making one man (Mr Modi) take all the credit and even perhaps the responsibility for all government action?

One of the appeals of the Sangh and the BJP was and continues to be the purported absence of dynasty in their top leadership. Rather than the Nehru-Gandhi parivar of the Congress, which has certainly imprinted its name across schemes and roads and airports, an ideological parivar was on offer — one whose politics was, in their own understanding, unsullied by cults of personality. The compulsions of electoral politics seem to have changed all that.

How India gamed the already flawed “ease of doing business” rankings

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants India to get into the top 50 list of World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” rankings. The index, which draws extensive media coverage, ranks 190 countries according to the competitiveness of their business environment.

The DB index aims to measure, across countries, the ease of starting a business, obtaining the relevant permits, accessing essential infrastructure, and so forth. It comprises 10 indicators, each of which is based on various sub-indicators, and all of which are aggregated, according to a fixed rule, into a final score that determines a country’s ranking among 190 economies. (Mint)

Where does India stand: India’s rank jumped from 142 in 2014 to 77 in 2018. This, the Modi government says, reflects the work done in the last four years.

But there are serious issues with this index: researchers have shown that massive movements in Doing Business (DB) rankings are mostly due to changes in methodology, not reality.

A core element of the recent "credibility revolution" in empirical economics is a push for researchers to pre-commit to a methodology, before they look at their data, so that the results can’t influence their methodological choices. That’s the opposite of how Doing Business works. (CGDev)

Few points:

1. The World Bank has repeatedly changed its methodology

From the Center for Global Development (CGDev):

In January, the World Bank's Chief Economist, Paul Romer, told the Wall Street Journal the Bank had manipulated its own competitiveness rankings to undermine Chile's socialist government, and hinted Chile might not be alone—then he retracted the claim.

In an interview with the Journal, Romer said:

"I want to make a personal apology to Chile, and to any other country where we conveyed the wrong impression," Mr. Romer said. The problems with the report, he said, were “my fault because we did not make things clear enough.”

Mr. Romer said the World Bank is beginning the process of correcting the past reports and republishing what the rankings would have been without the methodology changes. He said he couldn’t defend “the integrity” of the process that led to the methodology changes. (WSJ)

This CGDev blog post has more details highlighting the issues with the index.

2. India’s rise also driven by methodological changes

Indian ranking is calculated based on data collected from two cities: Delhi and Mumbai.

From Mint, on the report released in 2017:

The headline numbers of the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings show a spectacular rise in India’s rankings in 2018. However, this rise is driven more by methodological changes, and less by domestic initiatives, as research by Justin Sandfeur and Divyanshi Wadhwa of the US-based think tank, CGDev, show.

Their research suggests that if one holds the list of countries and the metrics to judge countries constant over time, the rise in India’s rankings is a blip, rather than a spike. Even if one adopts a broader set of parameters, the findings do not change much, they show.

3. Behind the scenes: How India gamed rankings

Kaushik Basu, former chief economist of the World Bank — who was involved with the DB report from 2012 to 2016 — and a professor of economics at Cornell University, wrote an op-ed rejecting the charges of data rigging (as in Chile’s case): “I can vouch for the multiple layers of checks and balances that are in place.”

But, he said, “there certainly are ways to influence the rankings without cooking up data.”

If a country is determined to move up the ranking, it can do so by focusing on the 10 indicators that determine the final score, though this is not a national economic strategy that I would recommend. (Mint)

This is exactly what a HuffPost India investigation pointed out this week. Based on a review of meeting minutes and interviews, the story shows how the Modi government, between 2014 and 2016, “sought to lobby the World Bank into changing its methodology to reflect a better rank for India”. That failed. In the next two years (2016 to 2018), “the government prioritised minor institutional and procedural tweaks to game the ranking system.” You can read the full story here.

Why it matters: Lant Pritchett, a Harvard University economist, said in an interview “that for developing-country policy makers, focusing on rising in the Doing Business ranks could draw scarce resources away from more-substantive reforms that would help the government better administer and enforce business regulations.” (WSJ)

“The pretense that Doing Business measures the real rules, and that if we just modestly improve these Doing Business indicators, they would somehow become the reality of what the rules are and how business is really done—I think that’s a very dangerous fiction,” he said. (WSJ)

Pritchett made this claim based on a 2015 study he co-authored with Mary Hallward-Driemeier, a World Bank economist, where they found that the Doing Business report doesn’t accurately reflect the experience of companies actually doing business in developing nations.

Leave them alone!

The story that caught the world’s attention: John Allen Chau, a 27-year-old American explorer, was killed by the Sentinelese tribe on a remote island in the Andamans. Chau, who wanted to convert the tribal people to Christianity, knew that visiting the North Sentinel island was extremely dangerous: entry is prohibited in the traditional areas occupied by the indigenous tribes to all persons except those with authorisation. His body has not yet been found, but officials say he was shot dead by bows and arrows by tribesmen. The Sentinelese are estimated to be around 50 in number.

Read more: Isolated Tribe Kills American With Bow and Arrow on Remote Indian Island (NYT)

Watch: This 15-minute documentary, based on an Indian government expedition to remote Andaman islands in 1974, shows “civilized man facing primitive man in its extreme state, living very simply.” The “expedition leaves to meet the Onge people on Little Andaman island, then to meet the Jarawa people on Interview island and finally to the Sentinel island where the Sentinel people have been filmed for the very first time.” (It’s a great video!)

The New York Times has a great profile of T N Pandit, the anthropologist who led the expedition filmed above.

It took Mr. Pandit and his colleagues more than two decades to persuade the tribes known as the Jarawa and Sentinelese to lay down their bows and arrows and mingle peacefully with the Indian settlers who surrounded them. The process was grindingly slow, involving trips into remote jungle areas to leave gifts for people who would not show themselves. In each case, though, there was an exhilarating breakthrough. (NYT)

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