ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Nudge to Fudge

Without concrete measures for augmenting opportunities, “behavioural change” is a demagogy.


Is the Economic Survey 2018–19 deliberately trying to apply a “humane” face to the public policies of a government which has been re-elected to office by a whopping majority despite its dismal record in socio-economic governance? The very idea that the commoners are not some “rational” entities called “economic men,” but “human beings” of flesh, blood and folly, and that they need encouragement/interventions or “nudges” (not enforcements/mandates) for making choices for positive ­socio-economic changes in the country, is nothing new. In fact, for over a decade now various governments around the world are trying to integrate such insights from behavioural studies into policymaking. The underlying objective is to increase citizens’ participation in various state-led programmes/schemes and policies by nudging positive behavioural changes among them. While the current government’s claims of nudging such positive changes through its flagship campaigns like the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and/or the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (BBBP), might find some veracity in the statistics of the ubiquitous spatial coverage of these programmes, the beneficiary-level evidences of impact are highly contentious.

For instance, an assessment of SBM by the 2018–19 National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) states that of the 93% rural households having access to toilets, 96.5% use these, thereby resulting in 90.7% villages in the country being open defecation free (ODF). On the contrary, the 2017–18 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India clearly questions the tenability of the ODF parameters in assessing the success of the SBM in terms of household-level access and usage of the toilets constructed with financial assistance. As per the SBM guidelines, ODF is defined in terms of termination of faecal-oral transmission which in turn means the absence of visible faeces and the use of safe technology options for the disposal of faeces by households and public/community institutions. Nowhere in the guidelines is any explicit mention of the use of toilets for attaining an ODF status.

Similar confounding evidences abound in the case of the BBBP. For example, a recent media reportage revealed that in Hanumangarh—a district in Rajasthan felicitated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for “enabling girl child education” under the BBBP—the fundamental metrics for an enabling environment, such as teachers’ training, access to clean toilets in school, or the ease of transportation to school, etc, have barely progressed. On the other hand, while the district education department has ostensibly highlighted the rising enrolment of girl students from 56,038 in 2016–17 to 95,469 in 2018–19, no information is available on the number of dropped-out girls during the same period. Ironically, Rajasthan in general has evidenced increasing number of dropouts since 2014. This was due to the decision of the then BJP government in the state that merged almost one-fifth of the existing government schools into other schools. In the events where the mergers are with schools that are at a distance, most of the students who drop out are girls because their parents are unwilling to send them far due to various sociocultural reasons.

With such evidences at hand, one is left wondering about the authenticity of the claim of “behavioural change” made in the Economic Survey or by the government from time to time. Changes, if any, are largely restricted to a superficial change of perception brought through inauguration events/cake-cutting ceremonies (with cakes bearing the programme logos)/certificate distribution events/competitions/bike rallies, rather than any measures for initiating real changes at the ground level. If that is the case, then what is the difference between a nudge that stimulates public behaviour towards socio-economic change and that which manipulates public behaviour for political expediency? For example, a girl student receiving a bicycle under the BBBP scheme will be disenfranchised from its benefits due to various sociocultural embargos that are conventionally imposed on the movement of females. Whereas the bicycle might benefit the male members in her family and in turn influence their political (party) choices.

In a country like India where an individual’s behavioural pattern is deeply entrenched in sociocultural norms, financial assistances/handouts/money transfers (as in the case of the Kanyashree Prakalpa scheme in West Bengal) are least likely to bring about any fundamental changes in behaviour. On the contrary, such incentives might further corrupt public conduct with beneficiaries demonstrating a prima facie change in perception for receiving the aids, while their intrinsic behaviour remains intact.

In settings that are characterised by limited resources, scope and capability, it is difficult to discriminate a “human being” from a so-called “economic man.” This is because in such circumstances the folly of optimising self-interest at the cost of collective welfare is potentially astute for self-sustenance. Without any systematic assessment of such ground realities and/or any blueprint of initiatives for expanding the economic opportunities, entitlements and capabilities, coming from the ruling government, the claims of paradigmatic change in the policy framework with shift of focus from the “homo economicus” (or economic man) to “homo sapiens” (or human beings) emerges as mere demagoguery. How long will the government be able to hide its inactions behind this menial politics of jargons and name changes?

Updated On : 15th Jul, 2019


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