Atanu Dey On India's Development

A Modest Proposal — Part 4

Given half a chance, people cheat. Basic human nature. There is little gain in believing otherwise. Taking undue advantage of something to get ahead is part of the basic human DNA. (I admit to being an unabashed hardcore dyed in the wool cynic. Among my all-time heroes is Diogenes. More about him here.) So one has to plan ahead and design mechanisms that account for that fact. Ravikiran asked in connection with my proposal to make India 100 percent literate: What stops the NDS from colluding with the testing centre and making off with the money?.

Folk wisdom is a marvelous thing. In our case, let’s apply the “you cut, I choose” bit of folk wisdom to address Ravikiran’s concern.

If we had to ensure fairness in the division of a piece of cake in a two-person division, the person cutting the cake should not be the person who gets to decide who gets which piece. “You cut, I choose” ensures that the cake-cutter will take care to not cut unevenly. This mechanism guarantees that both parties will be happy with the outcome. (It is a trivial exercise to design a multi-party cake cutting algorithm, which is left as an exercise for the interested reader.)

The application of this fundamental principle in our case is a no-brainer. Let’s identify the two parties: (1) the government which is funding the primary education, and (2) the private sector “New Deal School” which is providing the training. Assume that both parties agree on what constitutes a fair test of successful training. Have a neutral body administer the test. As I already proposed, let the Education Regulatory Authority of India conduct the test and certify whether the training is successful or not.

The specific details of how to reduce collusion and cheating can be worked out without taxing the brain too much. Scores of examples exist around the world of impartial tests. I have, like millions of others, appeared for many such tests. Take for instance, GRE and TOEFL. The testing agency, ETS, has an incentive to make the system incorruptible.

Essentially, we just have to ensure that the school delivering training cannot be the one certifying whether it has been successful in the training.

{Continued in Part 5.}

{Recently discovered Tim Worstall’s “It’s all obvious or trivial except …” and was delighted to do so since he was a fellow resident of the sci.econ usenet group a couple of years ago. The title itself delights me. It is one of my basic beliefs that most matters yeild to common sense after only a bit of pondering. It is all obvious or trivial but you have to invest in a bit of sound reasoning. My goal is to reduce the essential problems of development to answers that are obvious and even trivial.}

  • http://www.timworstall.com Tim Worstall

    On the sub-title to my blog. It’s a condensation ( or a mangling if you prefer) of a story about Robert Solow. Once asked “Is there anything in economics which is not trivial or obvious” he replied ” Only one. Ricardo on Trade”.

  • Vipul

    Atanu,
    How would you decide admission to “NDS”?
    I mean how you will find if some literates will register to school just for money?

    BTWN, Great blog!
    -V

  • http://www.ravikiran.com Ravikiran

    Why does the ERAI have an incentive to be incorruptible?

  • Yum Yum

    Great intentions and I applaud you for giving thought to this matter.

    I will take a contrarian view.

    First of all isn’t the object of this proposal is to impart literacy? Education would come to a higher-level. It is a minor matter. Basic literacy is just as important.

    Secondly, it is very much possible that a good portion of the newly-literate adults revert to illiteracy. It has happened before.

    Thirdly, considering how various entrance tests have been “leaked” in this country, I am not sure a mass-testing programme aimed at 300 million people(and loads of money to be made) will be leak-proof. I haven’t even started on impersonation, fraud etc.

    Considering the track-record of regulatory agencies around the world, whose side do you think an ERAI will take?(btw “you cut I choose” and its relevance to this issue is beautifully expressed by you. I am not sure of the practicalities.)

    Couldn’t this become another scheme for corporations to milk public funds? They could start lobbying for small “amendments” that tilt the field their way for making some more money.

    Wouldn’t it be simpler to declare cash prizes for everyone who passes the “test” that you propose. The education(or rather studying for the test) can be left to the people to be done whichever way they want.

    Aren’t you concentrating too much on the “private tester/provider” side while ignoring the consequences on the tested people?Would the newly-literate restrict their aspiration to the cash incentive only? Would they expect a higher social reward now that they are newly-literate? If so will the government be able to meet the new expectations?(I know this one is a very churlish argument but there are instances of college graduates expecting only ‘jobs’ of a certain kind.)

  • Yum Yum

    Who would do the outreach and inform people in rural areas? Accessibilty might make some people more “profitable” for testing than others.

    I don’t mean to argue or shoot down this proposal. But I see some basic flaws.

    I suspect that this plan is based on the assumption that the government is corrupt while the private sector and regulators will be scrupulous.

    When a society is corrupted, you will see aspects of it in all walks of life. How would the government official get his bribe if every private individual/company refuses to pay one to advance selfish interests? Corruption is everywhere.

    I have noticed in almost every Indian blogs a complete disdain for the state. As if it operates single-mindedly to the detriment of its subjects. There are many honest officers and most of them are competent. The system is such that work happens in a sluggish pace because of the checks and balances. Without them the situation might be worse. But just as bad an impression can be made out about corporations. Nobody is an angel. People try to do the best they can.

    Politicians try to meet the competing demands of various interests in our society with scarce resources. They don’t do a perfect job but then where are politicians perfect? India does a finer job than most banana republics and ‘fake’ democracies while giving a voice to almost every section of our society. We can do better but we definitely are not at the bottom.

    This rant doesn’t completely belong here. It is a response to the general sense I get from various ‘Indian’ blogs(many of them written by people settled abroad.)

    Your blog is beautifully written. No rants and name-calling. I applaud your concern and vision.

  • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

    Yum Yum, I appreciate your comments. I will address the issues you raise soon.

    To everyone: please, if you are not willing to enter a valid email on the blog, do send me your comments by email as well so that I can respond via email as well. Thanks.

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