Policy Roundup: Voting, wealth redistribution, state of health

  • Blog Post Date 17 May, 2024
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Nalini Gulati

Editorial Advisor, I4I


This post presents our monthly curation of recent developments in the Indian policy landscape – highlighting I4I content pertaining to issues ranging from electronic voting machines, vote-buying, and political dynasties, to the rise of metabolic diseases in the country. We also take a look at the discourse on wealth redistribution and inequality, and key Supreme Court rulings including on childcare leave for women, 2G spectrum allocation, and the right to be free from the harmful effects of climate change. 

Voters and candidates

As Indians voted in the second phase of the ongoing general elections on 26 April, the Supreme Court rejected petitions seeking 100% verification of votes cast using Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips. Recalling the weaknesses of the erstwhile ballot paper system, the Bench emphasised the importance of “nurturing a culture of trust and collaboration.” EVMs were introduced on a national scale by the Election Commission of India in the 1990s. In a 2016 study, Debnath, Kapoor and Ravi analyse the use of EVMs in state assembly elections held during 1976-2007. It is observed that EVMs led to a significant decline in electoral fraud in the form of booth capturing and stuffing of ballot boxes – manifesting as a reduction in voter turnout. As rigging became more difficult, incumbent advantage declined and elections became more competitive, which is ultimately good for development. 

In other election news, by 15 April, the Election Commission had confiscated a record Rs. 46.5 billion in illicit cash and goods – while its total haul in the previous general election cycle stood at Rs. 34.75 billion. Acknowledging the expected lack of hard evidence on the extent and form of vote-buying, Mitra, Mitra and Mukherji (2017) examine how consumption patterns of households vary before and after elections. Focusing on state elections between 2004 and 2011, they observe a spike in consumption of certain items such as saris, meat and local liquor just before elections – suggesting that vote-buying is a rampant practice in the country.  

In terms of political candidates, a trend noted in the media is the changing political landscape of West Bengal: traditionally known for its vibrant student politics, there is now a rise of influential political families. Of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, 13 have candidates from political dynasties – up from three seats in earlier elections. In his research, George (2017) contends that in theory, the effect of dynastic politics is ambiguous as it is the net result of founder and descendant effects: on the one hand, bequest motive might encourage politicians to make long-term investments, and on the other hand, heritable political capital may reduce the descendant’s incentives to work for votes. What do the data show? Read more here

Wealth redistribution

Remarks by an Indian politician on the need for people in the country to discuss matters such as wealth redistribution – with particular reference to inheritance tax of the US – has sparked controversy. Citing the astounding wealth inequality, several leading economists have voiced their support for taxing wealth in India. Jean Drèze writes that the case for inheritance tax is strong because “disparities of inherited wealth…are the antithesis of equality of opportunity…these disparities are magnified by vast disparities of inherited “social capital” [such as] privileged connections.” In a similar vein, Kaushik Basu contends that "Some are born abysmally poor, some rich beyond imagination. This has nothing to do with their hard work and has no moral justification".  According to Jayati Ghosh, “the real obstacle to such a policy comes from the lobbying power of the super-rich.” Against this backdrop, revisit the Ashok Kotwal Memorial Lecture by Pranab Bardhan (2023) wherein he refutes the common argument for abolishing these taxes in India in the 1980s, which is that revenue collection was low. In his view, the taxes did not work well then as they were riddled with loopholes. There has since been a lot of work in this area in the US, UK and Europe. 

State of health

Apollo Hospitals brought out its ‘Health of the Nation 2024’ Report, with several alarming findings. Terming India as the “cancer capital of the world”, it highlights the rising incidence of the disease in the country, and the relatively low average age of diagnosis among Indians. More broadly, there is concern around non-communicable diseases, also other illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes, emerging as a primary cause of death – with obesity being a risk factor. As India is undergoing rapid urbanisation, Aiyar, Pingali and Rahman (2021) analyse National Family Health Survey data from 2015-16 to demonstrate that an additional kilometre of urban influence on surrounding villages leads to an increase in obesity incidence among approximately 3,000 rural women. 

On the other hand, Luke et al. (2022) discuss the counterintuitive association between economic development and prevalence of metabolic diseases – even among the non-obese. Their proposed explanation for India’s “lean diabetics” is located in a model based on a set point for BMI (Body Mass Index) that is adapted to conditions of scarcity in pre-modern times, but which subsequently fails to adjust to economic progress. While some individuals remain at their low-BMI set point despite higher consumption, others who have escaped the nutrition trap – but are not necessarily overweight – constitute the high-risk group for metabolic diseases. 

Other key rulings by the Supreme Court

At the beginning of May, the top court declined to accept the Centre’s application for ‘clarification’ of its 2012 judgement with regard to the 2G spectrum allocation. The Registrar stated that the application was in fact seeking a review of the earlier order, and that there was no “reasonable cause” to entertain it, especially since so much time had passed. Briefly, the procedures for allocation of licenses and radio frequency spectrum to operate wireless mobile services in India, were found to have various irregularities. The allocations made in 2008 were subsequently declared illegal, and the government was directed to put new procedures in place. See analysis by Sukhtankar (2013) who had concluded that while the common man was affected indirectly by the corruption scandal on account of government revenue losses and possible reduction in social spending, there was no direct negative impact on the telecom market in terms of lower quality of services or higher prices. 

In a significant ruling, the Supreme Court declared that the provision of two-year childcare leave, in addition to the mandatory 180-day maternity leave, is a constitutional right for women employees. Writing in the Indian Express, Ashwini Deshpande argues that this right can only be upheld by investing in the care economy as a “social need”, and moving away from the thinking that childcare is primarily the mother’s responsibility. Focusing on the maternity leave mandate, Banerjee, Biswas and Mazumder (2024) contend that in the absence of complementary policies that reduce the financial burden of the leave on formal-sector firms, there may be unintended adverse consequences on employment and income among women in the high-fertility age group.

The Supreme Court has stated that people have a fundamental right to be free from the harmful effects of climate change, as the rights to life and equality – as guaranteed in the Constitution – cannot be fully realised without a clean and stable environment. In this light, read the recent three-part blog series published by I4I and the IGC, which summarises the evidence on the negative impact of environmental degradation on human health and economic progress, and draws ideas from research on how policy can mitigate the damage and protect the environment (Gulati 2024); puts forth that the strength of the ‘growth versus environment’ trade-off is weaker than ever before, and innovations in energy and conservation are helping India realise the opportunity of sustainable growth (Dobermann and Sharma 2024); and advocates for a holistic approach that harmonises India’s environmental policy, social safety nets, and macroeconomic management as well as the idea of a consolidated green fund for the country (Ghosh 2024). 

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