Sunday, September 8, 2013

Translating Tagore

I woke up early this morning to be reminded of one of Rabindranath Tagore's most beautiful songs, "মেঘ বলেছে যাব যাব". (Thank you Monobina Gupta.)  Here's a link to the song, sung by Indrani Sen. Here's another, sung by Debabrata Biswas.

What a song, what a poem.

But the links above will clarify what Problem No. 1 is with renditions of Tagore. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the songs are sung with the most dreadful instrumental accompaniment. But dreadful. What astonishing voices Indrani Sen and George Biswas have, and how these and other voices are ground into the dust by the sentimental cacophony of the sitar/sarod/violin that often accompanies them, not to mention that absolute bane of Rabindrasangeet, the harmonium

In passing, here is an example of how it might be done. It won't go down well with everyone, but there's definitely something there. I'll even take this Bollywood-style number. Just keep the lachrymosity down, please. 

And then there is Problem No. 2. I find the translations of Tagore generally impossible to take. Not least by the Great Man himself. They feel exactly like the musical accompaniments: ornate, excessive, sentimental, and without any real feel for the English language.

So there I was, completely locked into the utter poetry of this song at 7 a.m. I googled, looking for English versions. Don't try it. Well, ok, if you insist: scroll down on this link, and steel yourself. 

I'm teaching a new class this term, so I had no business floating around, wasting time, trying to translate it myself. I had spent some hours on this mad endeavor before I realized that as I was reading and re-reading the Tagore poem, a line from García Lorca was tapping gently on my subconscious:

Pero yo ya no soy yo, 
ni mi casa es ya mi casa.

(But I no more am I
Nor is my house my house.) 

Here's the entire masterpiece (avoid the transliteration).

And it unlocked Tagore's great poem into English for me. 

All right, in celebration of the previous post on Free Speech, I have decided to make an ass of myself in public. To exorcise the ghosts of this poem, I will share my translation with you:

The Clouds declare, “We're leaving.” 
The Night echoes, "Goodbye."
The Sea replies, “I touch the shore, 
And I no more am I.” 

But Sorrow says, “I will stay kept
In the imprint of His step." 
The I cries out, “Dissolve me now
There's nothing else that's left.” 

The World responds, “For you, my friend
I've made a wedding strand.” 
The Sky agrees, “For you, my friend
I've lit a thousand lamps.” 

And Love complains, “It's for your sake
That all the night I stayed awake."
But Death announces (quietly),  
"Your life’s canoe is rowed by Me.” 

And here, for completeness, is the original:

মেঘ বলেছে যাব যাব,
রাত বলেছে যাই ;
সাগর বলেছে কুল মিলেছে,
আমি তো আর নাই |

দুঃখ বলে রইনু চুপে,
তাহার পায়ে চিহ্নরূপে |
আমি বলে মিলাই আমি,
আর কিছু না চাই |

ভুবন বলে তোমার তরে আছে বরণ মালা |
গগন বলে তোমার তরে লক্ষ প্রদীপ জ্বালা |

প্রেম বলে যে যুগে যুগে
তোমার লাগি আছি জেগে |
মরণ বলে আমি তোমার জীবন তরী বাই |

Free Screech

It is refreshing (though slightly alarming) to see that my occasional  and much-beloved correspondent, the voluble Parakeet Ghost, is a free speech fundamentalist. 

I'm not. But this week my vocal and mental faculties are fully employed elsewhere. Therefore, I'm handing it over to the Ghost Who Talks, permitting him to eloquently squawk below (or perhaps more aptly for the occasion, to engage in free screech).

Confessions of a Fundamentalist

I am a free speech fundamentalist. Let me explain.

Free speech is often supported because it is seen to produce good results. It creates more informed citizens and voters. New and useful ideas emerge from the cacophony of voices. Problems attract the attention of decision makers more quickly. Amartya Sen famously argued that famines tend not to occur in democratic open societies because news of a crisis spreads fast.

The problem with a purely instrumental view of free speech is that it allows speech to be suppressed when it poses a real (or even imaginary) threat to social welfare. For example, provocative opinion on sensitive religious issues could potentially lead to friction between communities and cause riots. In such cases, freedom of expression must take a back seat to the public interest, it is argued.

This view has become the orthodoxy in India. Its genesis probably lies in the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The “stop the riots first” mindset is deeply problematic and the seed sown by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 is bearing some of its toxic fruit now. I haven’t yet read Joseph Anton. Debraj thinks Rushdie’s batting for free expression is ruined by his narcissism and self regard (he is not alone in thinking so). Maybe, but I think the principle here is worth defending if not the victim.

Despite a generally favourable speech climate, Europeans sometimes place social goals over freedom of expression, as reflected in the head scarf laws of France or the criminalization of Holocaust denial. In America, some landmark First Amendment cases defended speech that was disreputable or unpopular, like Larry Flynt’s pornographic parody or the anti-semitic rally in Skokie, Illinois (while we are at it, though, let us spare a thought for Bradley, er, Chelsea Manning).

Of course there are some limits on free speech everywhere. Libel laws and penalties for false advertising are oft cited examples. But the exceptions should be narrow, based on concrete criteria and the bar ought to be set very high. So says the Supreme Court of the United States.

I must confess I find the American approach more appealing. Freedom of expression should be upheld regardless of immediate consequence. Social discord should not be an admissible argument for suppressing speech. Freedom of speech should be seen as an end rather than a means. I will give you three arguments to support this position.

My first argument is based on misuse. After the Bush administration’s sordid human rights violations came to light, some apologists grew rather fond of an ethical hypothetical: the ticking time bomb scenario. Wouldn’t you be willing to torture a terrorist to find out the location of a time bomb that is about to blow up the world? The answer is “yes, of course” but one should add: what does that have to do with anything? The question isn’t what is right in extreme (and extremely unlikely) scenarios but what kind of power the state can be trusted with. The speech issue is quite similar.

As a matter of public policy, if we are debating restrictions on free speech, we are talking about a systemic choice, not a particular application. We must judge it by the likely consequences that will arise when such powers are placed in the hands of political actors. What has happened in India in the last few decades is a clear illustration of how speech control invariably ends up as a tool serving the powerful. After all, they are the ones in control!

India’s most divisive politicians, folks who exploit people’s prejudice to reap a harvest of money and votes, still go about their own merry way. Repressive legislation like Section 66A of the IT Act has not helped one bit in restraining the true purveyors of hate. It is unleashed instead on those who are not in organized politics. It muzzles innocuous comments, artistic expression, dissent and criticism.

Earlier this year, Bombay (oops, Mumbai) was brought to a standstill by the death of Bal Thackeray, whose political career can be seen as a museum of local chauvinisms. The fickle shifting of his target groups (Tamils, Muslims, Biharis) is only matched by the brazen vehemence with which they were demonized. The same police who wouldn’t dare move against open exhortation to political violence arrested two college students who wondered aloud about the forced shutdowns that accompany powerful politicians’ deaths. One of them didn’t even say anything, just uprated a Facebook post!

In an even more surreal twist, West Bengal police arrested a college professor for emailing a political cartoon to a group of acquaintances. While the cartoon clearly mocked the political shenanigans of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, she described it – pushing common sense beyond its last breath – as a murder threat! Meanwhile, the culture of political violence in the state spirals out of control and Banerjee’s own party MLAs are heard issuing barely veiled threats at opponents in election rallies. Law enforcement pretends to be stone deaf.

In the last two decades, India’s illiberal speech laws have made us witness a series of unfortunate events. Artists, rationalists and feminists have been hounded into exile, critics of army atrocities in troubled states have been charged with sedition, the ruling party has gone after Google and Facebook, and con artists have bottled up any attempt at exposé. In the same time frame, we have seen the destruction of the Babri Masjid, politicians suspected of organizing riots attaining high office, anti-superstition activists being shot, and caste or communal calculus coming to dominate electoral politics. This medicine has only side effects, no healing properties.

My second argument is based on reverse causation. As we seal lips, cowering at the prospect of intolerance and violence, we sow the seeds of the very things we are afraid of. As we tie up and dumb down our discourse, we shed our capacity for nuance, complexity, analysis or irony. We encourage the prickly sensibilities that we are trying to assuage.

The climate of soft censorship that we have bred in India has led to the explosive growth of an outrage industry. No Bollywood blockbuster can be released today without some obscure and offended group throwing a hissy fit over something or the other. Every year the Jaipur literary festival descends into a farce over some throwaway comment, a book reading or maybe even a limerick or palindrome.

The latest episode involved Ashish Nandy, who made the trenchantly egalitarian observation that the privileged classes often define corruption to leave out nepotism and quid pro quo – unfair means in which they have a comparative advantage. As the networks endlessly recycled an out-of-context line, which appeared insulting to dalits and adivasis (but only out of context), Nandy grovelled before a local political boss but still ran afoul of the Prevention of Atrocities Act! From a people who occasionally risked coming to blows, we have become a nation capable of uttering only platitude and pablum in public.

My third argument is very simple. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is. Free speech is a beautiful thing, the same way the forest is more beautiful than the garden. Throughout history people have recited poetry and yelled obscenities, blown kisses and given the finger, sung sweet serenades and shouted stupid slogans, expounded scientific truths and muttered dark prophecies at street corners. This Tower of Babel is our heritage. This infuriating, discordant din needs no justification other than itself. I should really have skipped the elaborate logic of the preceding paragraphs and stuck to my fundamentalist position.

But then, why speak ten words if they let you speak a thousand? You may not always be so lucky.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Monkeying With The Rupee

There's a story --- here's one of several YouTube videos on this delightful subject --- about how to catch a monkey. You use a jar or an empty coconut shell and fill it with peanuts. Monkey approaches, reaches into jar and clenches its greedy little paw around the peanuts. But it can't pull its full hand out, and what's more, it won't let the peanuts go. End of monkey.

How governments in developing countries have wished for similar success when it comes to foreign investment! How India, or Indonesia, or Brazil, or the many countries before them, have hoped that the hard currency could come monkeying in, and then stay, forever enraptured by the goodies that emerging markets have to offer! Alas, it's never worked that way --- or perhaps it temporarily has with foreign direct investment --- but certainly never with foreign portfolio investment. What flows in can flow out, and with high probability it will. You can, of course, impede its flow by imposing exit controls but the reputational loss will set you back a generation or more. Foreign capital flow is a two-edged sword, and as India is currently discovering, both edges are very sharp indeed.

The basic economics of this is pretty simple. Imagine a huge stock of hard-currency-denominated investible funds, forever sloshing around in search of the best returns. For a developing country, the urge to tap into these funds is immense. Ideally, that developing country would like those funds to appear as hard, irreversible investment (in true monkey fashion) that would soak up its surplus labor, producing goods that would (again ideally) be exported, so earning still more hard currency and incidentally facilitating the repatriation of profits. But that isn't the way the peanuts are shelled. The hole in the jar needs to be made a lot bigger. Foreign direct investment is often attracted by the enormous internal markets of an India or a Brazil, and the repatriation of that money is not for free, as it were. And much --- most? --- of the investment will refuse to appear in hard form: why not buy emerging market stocks, or for the not so choosy, emerging market funds, or for the still less choosy, emerging government bonds? Well, why not indeed? And so it was that India started on the Great Upward Path: money pouring into its coffers from abroad, accompanying tariff and quota liberalization then permitting easy purchase of foreign goods without a huge depreciation in the rupee, the outward drain being more than easily matched by the inward flow.

QE, by keeping interest rates very low in the United States and the rest of the "developed world," certainly helped here, as hot money scrambled to take advantage of relatively attractive portfolios in emerging markets.

But all of this stuff, apart from the hard investment, is reversible. And guess what: it's reversed, or it's starting to. The monkey's hand is coming out of the jar, peanuts included.

There is little point in asking what fundamentally has changed to cause this reversal. Not much, probably. Yes, QE is probably beginning to taper off, and the US stock market is currently at or near an all-time high. Time for the hot money to come home from its shenanigans in India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey and elsewhere. 

But even that isn't a necessary catalyst, because much of the short or medium-return to portfolio investments is prey to severe herding. Consider Scenario 1: money comes into an economy, stock prices climb, the currency stays strong, rates of return are high.  Consider Scenario 2: money flees, the stock market tanks, the currency nosedives, returns fall. Now listen to the one sentence that explains (almost) everything: both Scenarios 1 and 2 can coexist in the same economy with the same fundamentals. Expectations can drive enormous regime changes.

But then, what drives the transition from one regime to another? Often, though not always, the answer is that there is no answer. Or at the very least, there isn't an answer which in any way can predict this abrupt transition in any deterministic fashion. Markets almost always react long before the fundamentals necessitate those reactions. For instance, a developing-country government might have a large amount of debt denominated in hard currency. Perhaps the citizenry gets too used to the inflow of hard currency and ratchets up its lifestyle, so that the country runs a current account deficit. Or perhaps there is a war or an internal conflict, or a debate regarding economic policy. Perhaps a few Dr. Doom types issue a gloomy forecast. All of this is true (to varying degrees) of India. The country may be perfectly solvent nonetheless, but the specter of possible future insolvency can precipitate a crisis today as the slush money is sucked out.  Rome may not have been built in a day, but financial markets are: and what goes up can come down very fast indeed, without any necessary fundamental justification. That's what herding is all about. So I have news for you: in the short to medium run, there are many exchange rates between the rupee and the dollar that are self-fulfilling equilibria. If someone tells you that the true exchange rate is 40 rupees to the dollar, or 80 to the dollar,  I wouldn't believe it. Or I would believe it all, just as I believe the rate of close to 70 that it is today.

What does this sort of skittish world tell us about policy? Well, what it tells us is this: we --- domestic consumers, producers and yes, government too --- need to go easy on the upswings. We all get used to good times. The trick is not to act on them fully. We can't go crazy with imports (gold, oil, machinery, consumer goods), when the spot prices that determine those imports can change overnight, leaving us, perhaps suddenly and without warning, with a large negative flow. And the more reversible the investment is, the more we need to watch it. We need a buffer on this --- an action rule or a red line --- that is predicated explicitly on the ratio of direct to portfolio investment that's coming into the country. This is very delicate business, because if we do watch it, then the chances are that much higher that investors won't flee, leading to complaints about why we're watching it in the first place. Very delicate indeed, because, as I said,  the markets reverse long before the fundamentals fully justify that reversal.

It is interesting that the very same business interests which have completely disregarded the dangers I've discussed are now floundering around for a scapegoat. Let's see now: it must be the damn Government which is to blame. And we're off to the usual races: cut back government spending, and yes, social spending for those lazy masses must be the first to go. Never mind that the foreign-denominated debt of the Indian government is actually relatively small. Never mind that the government is under constant and unrelenting pressure to reduce taxes of all descriptions. Never mind the military expenditures that show that we are a Great and Powerful Nation. No: what we first need to do is make sure that the Food Security Bill is to blame! See here, or here for examples.

The Food Security Bill?

Briefly, the FSB offers a monthly entitlement of grain for approximately 2/3 of the Indian population (higher for rural, lower for urban). It provides for maternity benefits to pregnant and lactating mothers. It provides for additional benefits to children under the age of 14. The cost of is certainly not trivial, by some accounts to the north of 1 trillion rupees. Having trouble figuring that out, my American friends? Of course you would, but I'm afraid I can't tell you the answer in dollars as it's all moving around rather rapidly (which is why I'm writing this article in the first place).  Here, I'll help: Indian GDP in 2012-13 was around 100 trillion rupees, so it's about 1% of GDP. It's Not Small. Here's another take: as a fraction of the Indian budget (projected expenditure around 16.6 trillion rupees in FY2014), it's about 6%. So this is not just Not Small, it is Undoubtedly Large. (I can make it look even larger if you'd like me to cast about for a smaller number to divide by, but enough of the dirty polemics.)

The point, however, is this:  It's not a fresh 6%. The Indian government already has a public distribution system (PDS). It has already been procuring massive amounts of foodgrain not just because of the PDS, because of minimum price supports. In fact, last year we've procured a few tons more than is needed for the food security bill to run. We've been doing this stuff all along. The point merits repetition, folks: it is not a new 6%. 

But who's listening? Here's Forbes magazine on the subject: "[T]the ruling Congress Party barreled ahead with its Food Security Bill in Parliament despite the pervading gloom. The law provides for distributing cheap rice, wheat and other food essentials to the country’s poor but comes at a steep cost of over $20 billion."

The utter confusion over extra costs versus total costs has been compounded by wrong calculations such as this particularly egregious example, to be credited to Surjit Bhalla. Claim: the Bill will increase expenditures by a whopping 336%. A whopper indeed, but of a different kind. It isn't the first time that silly views have been faithfully backed up by elementary arithmetical errors. Luckily, this one was corrected in no uncertain terms by Ashok Kotwal, Milind Murugkar and Bharat Ramaswamy. They estimate the net additional cost of the Food Security Bill  to be an increase of approximately 18%: from R0.72 trillion to R0.85 trillion. A bit short of 336%, eh? It's an increase of well under 1% of the national budget. 

But so what? It didn't stop dear Moody's from issuing a threat or two. And in the multiple-equilibrium world of herds, it is entirely possible that misinformation can cause an entirely self-fulfilling run on the rupee. Traders taking the Bhalla piece seriously might well flee to safe havens elsewhere. Traders who didn't will still fear that other gullible souls might, and seek to front-run them; they too will fly. If this theory of higher-order beliefs were not so well-known to economists I might have called it the Bhalla-fly effect. (I am told this is a terrible pun that no one will get.) So hey, maybe our corporate bigwigs and their media cronies are right after all: the crashing rupee is to be blamed on the Food Security Bill! If it didn't exist, then Bhalla and assorted colleagues would not have been vilifying it, and we may well have remained in the happy equilibrium of Scenario 1 (above). 

The focus on the cost of the FSB masks its simple declaration of basic humanity. Not that the basic humanity itself would go unchallenged. Here is a sample:

"Why should we continue to feed our people at subsidized costs forever? Why should the country bear this cost ad infinitum?"

Oh well. There's no accounting for taste. But let's talk about the costs. Just to keep things in perspective.

The defense budget of the Government of India is double the projected expenditures of the Food Security Bill. For 2013-2014, a "modest increase" of 5.3% (following on somewhat less modest increases of  17.6% and 11.5% in the two preceding years) brings us to a sum of over 2 trillion rupees. 

There's more: the foreign exchange component of expenditure on defense is orders of magnitude higher than the corresponding component for food. While there has been talk of indigenization of weapons, India is a huge player in the international market for military equipment and spends around 70% of its current military budget on imports of arms and equipment. Compare this to the FSB, which will spend half the military budget, and all of it on domestic production and distribution. Of course, there are foreign-exchange implications (for instance, exports of cash crops would surely be higher if we let the poor starve). But I assure you that these implications do not come close to the 70% import-intensity of defense.

Ah, but Defense is a Holy Word.

What about oil, a good measure of the burgeoning needs of India's middle and upper classes? Let's see now: just the total cost of subsidizing fuel use last financial year was 1.6 trillion rupees, substantially higher than the estimated expenditure under FSB. (With the Syrian crisis the subsidy could shoot up even further.) As for oil imports, they are in the region of 7 to 8 trillion rupees per year, orders of magnitude higher than projected expenditure under FSB. 

All in cold, hard currency. Ah, but Oil is another Holy Word.

I will leave the plea for lower defense expenditure or a zero fuel subsidy to a separate occasion (though see E. Somanathan's comment below). That is not the point of these comparisons. The point is to put things in perspective.

What we have is a bill that purports to bring food security to the majority of India's population, and possibly the overwhelming majority of India's poor, plus the additional benefits to mothers and children, for about 6% of the Indian government budget. Not for 12%, as in defense, or 9%, as in the fuel subsidy. And certainly not for the same impact, rupee for rupee, on India's international deficit.

You know what? I'll take it. 
News update Monday September 02, 2013: The Rajya Sabha just passed the Food Security Bill. The article above is therefore thankfully dated, but still worth reading for the next time around. Because there will be a next time.

I'm grateful for comments from Dilip Abreu, economist and game theorist extraordinaire, with whom I've shared many discussions on the topic of Food Security. We believe that there's lots in the Food Security Bill to argue about. But its fundamental impact on the Indian rupee is not one of them.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Role Models and Sexual Violence

An earlier version of this article was first posted by me on Ideas For India, and I have updated the material here with permission.

It doesn't stop, and at the rate we're going, it never will.
The latest (but not the latest by the time you blink) is the horrific rape of a journalist in Mumbai. Here is a brilliant, passionate article on it, which ends thus:
"To the police, the legal system, the political establishment, the men who think women are fair game for rape and the people who foster rapists: what will you do to make sure we’re not violated again and again and again?"
That is, indeed, the heart of the matter. I don't care if the American rape statistics look worse (who knows how to adjust the numbers for reporting anyway?), or if drunk Frenchmen molest Indian women, or if there are lots of decent Indian men. None of this crap matters. 

Here is what does matter: one out of n Indian men is a potential molester, a potential rapist. Is 1/n small? Assuredly. I can't imagine it is more than 1/100. I can easily believe that the same ratio is true of, say, Norway. But this heartening tidbit, that 99/100 Indian men are decent folk, offers no respite at all. The reason is simple. If you are a woman and walk through the Delhi streets at any time of the day or night, you will encounter literally thousands of people. In particular, you will have run into tens, maybe hundreds of potential rapists. By the time you are done with your walk, you will have been stared at, pushed, leered at, groped, catcalled. And if you deviate just a bit from your walk and go anywhere that is isolated or semi-isolated, you are in real danger. I kid you not. 

Why is that? The reason is simple, and this is what makes India different. It is the absolutely toxic nature of Indian "culture": the unquestioned belief that women are just there to be taken. That they are asking for it. That they are either "modest," or failing that, "immodest" and so fair game. Lots of "decent" Indian men, who would never molest a woman, share the very same beliefs. This "culture" is weaker in Calcutta or Madras, and there are more aggressive checks and balances against it. (In Calcutta you can get killed for trying to molest a woman; I have seen it happen myself. But if the locals hand you over to the police, you're probably ok.) But the beliefs are still there: all through the social and economic spectrum, all through the country. Now add to it poverty: the fact that many young men have little to lose even if someone were to take action against them, and the horrific nature of sexual violence in India isn't that hard to comprehend.

All of this is well known. There are hundreds of articles on the subject. But we need to press on. We need to ask the same question, and ask it over a million times: "what will you do to make sure we’re not violated again and again and again?"

Well, answers have been forthcoming, along two broad lines. 
One is that women should do more to stay out of harm’s way. These have run the gamut from caution in attire to appropriate times for women to be outdoors, and other even more outlandish suggestions, such as taking the hand of a potential rapist and calling him a brother. (Though the dude making the suggestion seems to be immune to brotherly invocations himself.) Stupid? Yes. Summarily dismissible? Yes. There is no civilized society in which women must obey any restrictions, other than the norms of conduct that apply equally to men and women. No exceptions.
The second, dominant reaction is a call for more severe punishments, ranging from the esoteric such as chemical castration all the way to the death penalty. These are unacceptable, not necessarily because they are outrageous (to some, they may well be) but for other reasons. For instance, castration presumes that the dominant impetus for rape is sexual. It is not. It is the desire to exert power over a woman in the only way a rapist knows, through unbridled violence. It is even possible (though not necessary) to argue that castration might heighten those urges, not diminish them. The death penalty is inappropriate (quite apart from fundamental ethical reservations that many might have) because it would lead to the widespread murder of rape victims, the extra punishment from rape to murder now having dropped to zero and the marginal gain being obviously positive.
Quite apart from these specific objections, it is entirely unclear that we would like to live in a society where transgressions are not committed just because there are severe penalties for doing so. That is not the way to build a just civil society.
What has been noticeably missing from the outcry is the fact that rape is committed—often but not exclusively—by young males who, reprehensible though their outlook may be, have their own role models in society. Who are these role models? I highlight two sets: cricketers and film stars. (There may be others.) Every young man looks up to these demigods of India. It is time to press the demigods into service via a concerted series of television and radio commercials, preferably played over and over again during the live broadcast of cricket matches. The government must buy the ad time, or TV channels must donate it. The demigods must be encouraged to donate their time, but failing that, the government should pay for their services.
What must these ads say? They must speak in no uncertain terms. I call upon the many cool advertising specialists in our country to design them.
Certainly, they would categorically reject sexual violence, but they must go one step further to shame the person who indulges in such violence: a man who touches a woman without her consent is a kutta, a dog who is only worthy of the demigod’s contempt (and that of civilized society, but never mind civilized society, as her contempt matters not an iota to a rapist). And they must take yet a second step, to say that a woman may go anywhere, at any time, in whatever clothing suits her pleasure and with whomever she wishes, or with no one.
This is social engineering, the quickest way of affecting the distorted beliefs and sexual tastes of an unfortunately significant section of India’s male society. But it is social engineering that not a single human being can find fault with. Accordingly, it should be tried and it is only to be hoped that it will have an enormous effect. I propose, also, that we measure such an effect, for possible use not just with sexual violence but in a variety of other social contexts, though in several of these contexts the universal merit of such social engineering will be correctly debated and called into question. (Consider, for instance, a similar campaign to denounce someone that steals. While accepting that there are laws against theft, I would oppose a campaign that vilifies stealing in a poor, unequal society.) But there is no debate with rape.
Let me return to my proposal that we measure such an effect. There is, first, the conveyer of the message: a demigod (cricketer or film star), or a local leader, or an NGO, or a politician. There is, next, the media: television, radio, billboards, or even non-standard media such as text messages. There are times of day and night, and there are events (such as cricket matches). I propose that we deliberately randomize a variety of such approaches over different regions of India: one would presumably target urban metropolitan areas to start with. Economists and scientists have developed rigorous methods to evaluate the outcomes of such randomization. Such randomized experiments have been debated in economics on several counts, but perhaps most often for their inability to convey “external validity,” or knowledge of outcomes beyond the immediate field of the experiment. No such issue of external validity need concern us here: the field of India is large enough. On the other hand, randomization on such a scale would call upon all of the expertise (and then some more) of the researchers who have pioneered such experiments in the social sciences. Deep questions of internal validity would arise. Such questions must not deter them.

Two examples: one an advantage, the other a difficulty. First, the percentages in the country who are aware of (or follow) discussions such as the one we are having now is low. That is lamentable in general, but in this context it is useful. It means that we can try different strategies: the same words spoken by different people, different words spoken by the same people, in different parts of India. The idea is to start a process and at the same time, to see what works. It is not as perfect as a controlled experiment because we know that statistically similar conditions across the districts of India are just not to be had. But if the campaign is well-designed, we have the econometric wherewithal to extract information from it.
A difficulty: a media blitz of the sort I am proposing will not just affect the “true” incidence of rape, it may alter the reporting of rape in ways that we need to think about. For instance, encouraged and emboldened by the media attention, more courageous women may come forward to report acts of violence committed against them. This would be a wonderful outcome, but because we cannot factor out “true incidence” from “reporting rates”, the effect of the campaign on rape might look smaller than it truly is. It is also possible that the opposite occurs: the relatively high-report rapes (such as those perpetrated by a stranger) may be discouraged by the campaign, leaving the low-report rapes (those committed by family members or husbands) to continue, and giving the impression that the campaign is more effective than it really is. We need to think about such issues, and in particular (to judge the relative efficiency of different measures: e.g., demigod vs. minister), how such effects might vary over the different districts that experience these campaigns.
By the way, reports of rape are not the only measure we can construct. For instance, attitudinal surveys before and after the intervention, could also have much to tell us.
Measurement is important. I’ve simply asserted that my proposed policy will have a huge effect. It may have none. But how are we to know that? After all, no policy has zero cost. So there is no escape from scientific analysis of the impact of a policy, and while we are about it, we may as well consider the relative efficiencies of demigods and (say) local leaders, and not just policy versus no policy at all. We need to try something like this. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.