Meanwhile, In India…

Yesterday’s post was about taxation (or the lack of it) in the United States of America. Today’s post is about the composition of tax revenues in India (along with some questions to which I would love some answers).

So the Hindu came up with a very interesting analysis on the composition of India’s taxation revenues over the past couple of years:

In FY21, despite a stringent lockdown and a raging COVID-19 first wave, the gross tax revenue collected by the Centre increased over FY20. However, the increase was made possible by a sharp rise in contributions from union excise duties. This compensated for the sharp drop in the share of corporate tax collection. The shift in tax burden from the corporates to the masses has come at a time when the pandemic has led to many job losses and reduced income levels thereby pushing more people into poverty.

This is the first chart in their article:


I tend to take chart design a little seriously, so before we proceed, a laundry list of ways in which I wish this chart was better:

  • Source! What is the source of your data? As we will see later on in this blogpost, that really matters
  • Dump the y-axes (or at least one of them) and label the series instead. I’d prefer to do this for both series
  • This is especially important because you’ve got “base” numbers on the LHS y-axis and percentage change on the right, and visually, it is very non-intuitive. Especially because the RHS y-axis has zero at a different level when compared to the LHS.
  • A horizontal line next to 0% on the RHS would help provide clarity.
  • Any charting ninjas out there, please let me know where I’m wrong, and what you would do instead 🙂

Now, about the source of the data:

The article mentions that about “about 20.24 lakh crore was collected in FY21”. Since I don’t know which source was used, I’ve gone with the receipts statement from the Budget at a Glance section of the Union Budget website.

Gross tax revenue for 2020-21 (Revised Estimates) is Rs. 1900280. That’s… close enough, I suppose, to 20.24 lakh crores? Not really, if you ask me, but we’ll make do. By the way, to be clear, none of this is intended as a “hah, gotcha!” exercise. If there is a better data source that I should be using, please do let me know.

The excerpt above notes that gross tax revenue went up in FY 21 compared to FY 20. That’s not what this table shows, and I would love to learn more about which data source was used by The Hindu’s data team. That being said, their larger point is valid, and worth thinking about: in a year in which India’s GDP contracted, by around 7% or so, tax collections have been remarkably resilient. Going by the dataset I am using, they haven’t actually increased, but it is a close run thing, and that is remarkable.

[Professor Sabyasachi Kar was kind enough to point out a rather elementary error on my part: what matters is nominal GDP growth rate, not the real GDP growth rate. And nominal GDP contracted by around 3%, not 7% – that does explain a lot about the change in gross tax revenue we are seeing in this blogpost. Thank you, Professor 🙂 ]

Which means, of course, that we should be taking a look at which specific line items are responsible for this increase. And even a cursory glance at the table tells us that the impressive performance is almost single-handedly due to excise taxes. They’ve gone up from a base of Rs. 240615 crores in 2019-2020 to Rs. 361000 crores in 2020-21. That’s some growth!

If you are a student of the Indian economy, you might want to read this article, an excerpt from which is below:

The interesting thing is that the excise duty earned from the petroleum sector has jumped from Rs 99,068 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 2.23 lakh crore in 2019-20. The government has become addicted to easy revenue from taxing petrol and diesel. This year its earnings will be even higher than in 2019-20.

As a student, never take numbers you read in an article as given. Not, to be clear, because you don’t trust the author, but because you should always go to the source of the data. Here’s one potential answer:


I personally want to learn more about 5.02, 5.03, 5.05, 5.07.10 and the “total” row. That’d be a great masterclass, if you ask me

The bottomline: it is a great time to be a student of the Indian economy. All of what your textbooks tell you, both in terms of theory and in terms of data, is being stress-tested in ways that really test your knowledge of the Indian economy – so long as you look hard enough, and don’t stop asking the right questions.

So please: look, and ask. 🙂

On The State of Higher Education in India (#1 of n)

Quite unexpectedly, I have ended up writing what will be an ongoing series about discovering more about the Indian Constitution. It began because I wanted to answer for myself questions about how the Indian Constitution came to be, and reading more about it has become a rather engaging rabbit hole.

Increasingly, it looks as if Mondays (which is when I write about India here) will now alternate between essays on the Indian Constitution and the topic of today’s essay: the state of (higher) education in India.

The series about the Constitution is serendipity; the series about education is an overwhelming passion.

I’ve been teaching at post-graduate institutions for the past decade now, and higher education in India is problematic on many, many counts. I’ll get into all of them in painstaking detail in the weeks to come, today is just about five articles you might want to read to give yourself an overview of where we are.

In the last 30 years, higher education in India has witnessed rapid and impressive growth. The increase in the number of institutions is, however, disproportionate to the quality of education that is being dispersed.

That is from the “Challenges” section of the Wikipedia article on higher education in India. The section highlights financing, enrollment, accreditation and politics as major challenges. To which I will add (and elaborate upon in the weeks to come) signaling, pedagogy, evaluation, overemphasis on classroom teaching, the return on investment – (time and money both), relevance, linkages to the real world, out-of-date syllabi, and finally under-emphasis on critical thinking and writing.

“Educational attainment in present-day India is also not directly correlated to employment prospects—a fact that raises doubts about the quality and relevance of Indian education. Although estimates vary, there is little doubt that unemployment is high among university graduates—Indian authorities noted in 2017 that 60 percent of engineering graduates remain unemployed, while a 2013 study of 60,000 university graduates in different disciplines found that 47 percent of them were unemployable in any skilled occupation. India’s overall youth unemployment rate, meanwhile, has remained stuck above 10 percent for the past decade.”

That is from an excellent summary of higher education in India. It is a very, very long read, but I have not been able to find a better in-one-place summary of education in India.

A series of charts detailing some statistics about higher education in India, by the Hindu. For reasons I’ll get into in the weeks to come, the statistics are somewhat misleading.

Overall, it seems from this survey, which shows impressive strides on enrollment, college density and pupil-teacher ratio, that we have finally managed to fix the supply problem. Now, we need to focus on the quality.

Swarajyamag reports on the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) in India, 2016-17. As the report mentions, we have come a long way in terms of fixing the supply problem in higher education – we now need to focus on the much more important (and alas, much more difficult) problem of quality.

“Strange as it might look, the quality of statistics available for our higher education institutes has been much poorer than our statistics on school education. Sensing this gap, the central government instituted AISHE in 2011-12. We now have official (self-reported and unverified) statistics on the number and nature of higher education institutions, student enrolment, and pass-out figures along with the numbers for teaching and non-teaching staff. Sadly, this official survey does not tell us much about the quality of teaching, learning or research. There is no equivalent of Pratham’s ASER survey or the NCERT’s All India School Education Survey.”

That is from The Print ,and it takes a rather dimmer view than does Swarajyamag. With reference to the last two links especially, read both of them without bias for or against, beware of mood affiliation!

Education needs to become much, much, much more relevant than it currently is in India, and half of the Mondays to come in 2020 will be about teaching myself more about this topic. I can’t wait!

India: Understanding our Constitution a little bit better

In less than a week, we celebrate our Republic Day.

But what exactly is a republic? How is it different from a democracy – which begs the question, what is a democracy?

One of the definitions of democracy, given by Google, is this: “control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.”.

Or, as children in India have been saying for years at around 5.30 in the evening, “majority wins” (Extra points for reading this in that wonderfully evocative sing-song cadence.) But hey, there’s so much more to it than that!

So what is a republic? Once again, Google to the rescue: “a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.”

So when we celebrate Republic Day, we’re really celebrating the fact that we’re not ruled by a monarch anymore, but rather by ourselves. Except that we elect some people to do the job for us.

So when we appoint somebody, what powers do we give them? What powers do we not give them? Do we give them the power to change the powers that we give them – if you see what I mean?

That is where the constitution comes in. Again, our old pal Google: “a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed.”

The Constitution, sets the maryadas of the government in power. This you can and should do, this, uh, not so much. That, not at all. The Constitution does so much more than that, but that is certainly one of its main purposes.

Which begs the question: who came up with the idea of constitutions? Who, in India’s specific case, was appointed to write India’s Constitution? On what basis? What were their ideas and motivating principles? And that is the direction in which today’s post will go.

Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be anywhere near an expert on this topic. This is on the basis of stuff I have been reading in order to teach myself. If you have links to share that will broaden my understanding of this topic, please do share.

Many thanks to Murali Neelakantan for providing a ton of helpful suggestions!

  1. “To understand the first conceptualisation, that of constitution-as-function, we should clarify what scholars view to be the traditional purposes of constitutions. A central idea here is the limitation of government power. Constitutions generate a set of inviolable principles and more specific provisions to which future law and government activity more generally must conform. This function, commonly termed constitutionalism, is vital to the functioning of democracy. Without a commitment to higher law, the state can operate for the short-term benefit of those in power or the current majority. Those who find themselves out of power may find that they are virtually unprotected, which in turn may make them more likely to resort to extra-constitutional means of securing power. By limiting the scope of government and precommitting politicians to respect certain limits, constitutions make government possible.”
    That’s the whole maryada angle we were talking about earlier. That is from the UCL website, and the website is worth a detailed look.
  2. So if the idea of the Constitution is to, in this case, set up the framework for the operation of the government, that makes it pretty darn important. Who did we give the job to, and how?
    “”India was still under British rule when the Constituent Assembly was established following negotiations between Indian leaders and members of the 1946 Cabinet Mission to India from the United Kingdom. Provincial assembly elections were held in mid 1946. Constituent Assembly members were elected indirectly by members of the newly elected provincial assemblies, and initially included representatives for those provinces that formed part of Pakistan (some of which are now in Bangladesh). The Constituent Assembly had 299 representatives, including fifteen women.”
    Note that we didn’t really give the job to anybody. There were provincial assembly elections, and the Constituent Assembly members were elected indirectly by members of these provincial assemblies. But that may be a good thing! As Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah note in their recent book, In The Service Of The Republic: “The Constitution of India my not have won a referendum either in 1950 or today.” (Emphasis added).
    I really wish we had the time to explore this question in more detail: who frames the rules by which we agree to live as a country, and on what basis. But I promise to get to it in later posts. For the moment, we move on.
  3. “(1) This Constituent Assembly declares its firm and solemn resolve to proclaim India as an Independent Sovereign Republic and to draw up for her future governance a Constitution;(2) WHEREIN the territories that now comprise British India, the territories that now form the Indian States, and such other parts of India as are outside British India and the States as well as such other territories as are willing to be constituted into the Independent Sovereign India, shall be a Union of them all; and

    (3) WHEREIN the said territories, whether with their present boundaries or with such others as may be determined by the Constituent Assembly and thereafter according to the Law of the Constitution, shall possess and retain the status of autonomous Units, together with residuary powers, and exercise all powers and functions of government and administration, save and except such powers and functions as are vested in or assigned to the Union, or as are inherent or implied in the Union or resulting therefrom; and

    (4) WHEREIN all power and authority of the Sovereign Independent India, its constituent parts and organs of government, are derived from the people; and

    (5) WHEREIN shall be guaranteed and secured to all the people of India justice, social, economic and political; equality of status, of opportunity, and before the law; freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith worship, vocation, association and action, subject to law and public morality; and

    (6) WHEREIN adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes; and

    (7) WHEREBY shall be maintained the integrity of the territory of the Republic and its sovereign rights on land, sea, and air according to Justice and the law of civilised nations, and

    (8) this ancient land attains its rightful and honoured place in the world and make its full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and the welfare of mankind.”
    This is the famous Objectives Resolution, put forth by Jawaharlal Nehru on the 13th of December, 1946, in one of the first few (the very first?) meetings of the Constituent Assembly. (5) and (6), to me, are the most crucial parts of the resolution. If the question is, what were the aims and aspirations of the members of the Constituent Assembly in terms of what they hoped the Constitution would achieve, this is the best answer I could find.

  4. “It was here that the enduring distinction between “justiciable” and “non-justiciable” rights (Directive Principles) was first mooted, much to the consternation of K.T. Shah. It was in the Sub-Committee that Minoo Masani, Hansa Mehta and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur argued strongly for a right to inter-religious marriages and to a uniform civil code (with Ambedkar’s support), but were voted down. It was in the Advisory Committee that the right to privacy (secrecy of correspondence and prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures) was dropped from the draft bill of rights, as was the right to vote. Here you find Ambedkar’s eloquent arguments for the link between constitutional rights and the economic structure, and K.T. Shah’s radical proposals to make remuneration for housework a fundamental right. In short, endlessly fascinating stuff.”
    All of that comes from Gautam Bhatia’s blog, written in collaboration with Vasudev Devadasan. The blog is worth subscribing to, and reading this post (part 1 of 3, no less) makes me want to burrow into this topic for a long time to come. Alas, accursed economics!
  5. And finally, from a column written in 2018 by Gautam Bhatia, this excerpt – but do read the whole thing!
    “In hearing and deciding these cases, the court has an opportunity to affirm the words of one of its greatest civil rights judges, Justice Vivian Bose, who recognised the deeply transformative character of the Constitution when he said: “Is not the sanctity of the individual recognised and emphasised again and again? Is not our Constitution in violent contrast to those of states where the state is everything and the individual but a slave or a serf to serve the will of those who for the time being wield almost absolute power?” How India Became Democratic helps us to understand that the answer to both those questions is an unambiguous “yes.””


It shames me to realize how little I know about India’s constitution, and the history of that constitution. We live by a set of rules whose origins, aims and framers are largely unknown to most of us. This post was my attempt to begin to change my own status quo, and I hope to dedicate at least one Monday a month to writing a post that helps me learn more about the Indian Constitution.

And on that aspirational note, a very happy Republic Day to you all!