#15 Protection Through Denial

Emigration Clearance, China Insurance, and Banishing Bureaucracy

This newsletter is really a weekly public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

PolicyWTF: Emigration Clearance Required

This section looks at egregious public policies. Policies that make you go: WTF, Did that really happen?

If you want one more illustration of how the Indian ‘administrative state’ translates good intentions into terrible policyWTFs, look no further than our highly patronising legal emigration arrangement. It is a system that denigrates the less well-off in the name of protecting them. Here’s how.

The Emigration Clearance System as of today

The Emigration Act (1983) states that persons of working age who have not completed schooling up to the tenth standard are issued an ECR (Emigration Clearance Required) passport. The remaining population is eligible for an ECNR (Emigration Clearance Not Required) passport. When men having ECR passports plan to emigrate for work, they need to obtain an “Emigration Clearance” from the office of the Protector of Emigrants (PoE) before travelling to certain countries (currently, 18 in total). What’s even more egregious is that a woman of age less than thirty with an ECR passport is completely banned from getting emigration clearance for all kind of employment in any ECR country.

This system was adopted to prevent the exploitation of uneducated and, hence, vulnerable Indians. The logic was that this additional gate would prevent emigrants from taking up work that could be discriminatory or exploitative. Faced with the additional threat of human trafficking, it was further deduced that the best way to protect women of the ECR category was to prevent them from emigrating altogether. After all, what could be a better way to save people from the bad, bad world outside than to lock them up in their houses?

The Unintended Consequences

Quite naturally, an illegal economy has resulted from this regulation. An entire system of unauthorised agents exists who supply fake documents to obtain emigration clearance. If this method doesn’t work, recruiting agents connive with immigration officials to allow for emigration even without the requisite clearance. Even if that doesn’t work, ECNR passports are stolen and the photograph on it is replaced with a new one, or it is sold to a person who bears a strong resemblance to its original owner.

Apart from increasing transaction costs, it is unclear how effective this system has been. An excellent paper by Kodoth and Varghese, titled Protecting Women or Endangering the Emigration Process, concludes:

Despite the promise of protection to the ECR category, the emigration clearance system offers nothing substantial to it; it merely entails a document verification exercise, which in the absence of mechanisms to test the validity of documents, relies on the “common sense and experience” of the Protector of Emigrants.

Further, the data tabled in the Lok Sabha by the Ministry of External Affairs in 2016 shows that a total of 55,119 complaints of ill-treatment and “exploitation” of Indian workers were received by Indian missions across nine countries over the previous three years.

Quite clearly, the existing system is illiberal and patronising. If that isn’t convincing enough, it is also ineffective in meeting the objective it was set up to accomplish.

What should be done then?

The government should abolish the Emigration Clearance System in toto. If a government first fails in providing access to education, and then fails in shaping economic conditions that can help the person earn a living in their home country, the least it can do is to not create roadblocks that prevent the person from choosing the ‘exit’ option.

With the Emigration Clearance regime folded, the government can take up other reforms that specifically target the problems of human trafficking and labour exploitation. For instance, Kodoth and Varghese note:

In Saudi Arabia, sections of the Philippines embassy remain open on Thursday and Friday for assistance to domestic workers who may escape on the weekend (HRW 2008: 115). The Philippines embassy mediates in disputes, refers cases to the courts and bears the expenses of litigation and where possible, attempts in association with recruiting agencies to find new employers (Esim and Smith 2004; HRW 2008: 117) […] the Philippines government has been intervening actively to upgrade skills of workers and to move them out of domestic work into higher-skilled categories of work.

The Indian government too has taken some positive steps that approach the problem in a granular fashion. A response on the floor of the Lok Sabha by the MEA highlights that the Government of India has signed MoUs through which the host country is required to take measures for protection and welfare of the workers in the organised sector. Other measures include setting up of a fund in all the Indian Missions/consulates abroad to meet contingency expenditure for overseas Indian citizens who are in distress, and a 24×7 online helpline for lodging grievances of emigrants. These are all good measures. The government could go one step further and set up a voluntary register for emigrants that Indian missions can monitor. Where possible, videos sensitising the emigrants of risks and redressal measures can be sent on their mobile phones.

The existing regressive mechanism of protection by prevention insults the free adult citizens of a liberal democratic republic. Such systems do not behove a civilisation that claims to follow the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — the world as one family.

A Framework a Week: Public Sector Reform

Tools for thinking about public policy

One of the most powerful insights on reforming government organisations comes from Osborne & Plastrik’s classic work Banishing Bureaucracy. The linked pdf has several key ideas but I will just focus on one in this edition - the need to separate rowing and steering functions within an organisation.

Let’s begin with a classification: there are four types of government organisations, depending on their primary function as shown below:

Policy and regulatory organisations are known as steering functions because they determine the direction of the sector in which they operate. For example, SEBI decides the rules that guide financial markets.

Service and compliance organisations are known as rowing functions because they are concerned with execution in order to reach a destination that steering organisations have decided on. For example, Air India is a service delivery organisation which helps the government meet the goals that the Civil Aviation ministry has set.

Now, most government organisations in India cannot be neatly classified in these four categories. They sometimes perform all four functions at once (think RBI). So, a key idea for government organisation reform is just to uncouple steering functions from rowing ones.

This allows the government to centralise and coordinate its steering functions, so that they can more effectively concentrate on policy and direction while decentralising rowing, so managers have the power to improve service delivery and compliance.

Further, most privatisation generally refers to a service delivery function. Steering functions are carried out by governments in many sectors. So is compliance in some cases, an example being the police. But the government can often let go of the service delivery roles.

Viewing reform through this framework helps us to move over stodgy debates that see privatisation and nationalisation as two diametrically opposite extremes.

Matsyanyaaya: India Needs an Aggressive China Insurance Policy

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

What should India’s conduct with China look like? This question is on the minds of a lot of people in India’s foreign policy circles. I currently have a two-part answer to this question:

Part 1: Assuming that yogakshema for all Indians is defined as the national interest, India’s asks from China would be: peace on the borders and investments in the Indian economy. From a Chinese perspective, these asks are extremely beneficial too. Peace on the Indian border allows them to concentrate their efforts towards challenging the US in the South China Sea. And India is perhaps the only market with the scale and the stability to promise returns on Chinese capital currently flowing to weaker economies.

Part 2: Part 1 is insufficient because China’s recent movements – in Maldives, Nepal, and Doklam – are indicative of its tendency to eschew a mutually beneficial path and pick an openly hostile front instead. To prevent this switch, India needs to invest in I call an Aggressive China Insurance Policy. The motive of this policy is simple: should Xi Jinping’s China get aggressive with India, India should have readily available capacity to inflict significant pain to China in return. The insurance “premium” for this policy includes a variety of measures:

  1. Establish contacts with the key members of the World Uyghur Congress and other such organisations.

  2. Shift the focus of “Act East/Look East” to one country — Vietnam.

  3. Offer Trump deals that can deepen the US-India engagement.

  4. Sponsor studies that puncture the “Chinese Leaders Do No Wrong” narrative.

This two-part policy can help India modulate its relationship with China.


Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Paper] Sumitra Badrinathan and Simon Chauchard ran an experiment which demonstrates that WhatsApp information cascades are fickle. Frequent, timely, even unsophisticated interventions expressing doubt can be effective in killing misinformation.

  2. [Article] Dr Rao’s takedown of the budget is illuminating as usual.

  3. [Podcast] Amol Agarwal on The Pragati Podcast narrates the fascinating history of banking in India. Lots of #TILs and reading recommendations.

  4. [Podcast] Amit Varma and I discussed the ongoing protests using the radically networked societies framework on The Seen & The Unseen.

That’s all for the week. If you like this newsletter, please do read and share.

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