Thursday, July 23, 2020

Randomised Control Trials and the Alleviation of Poverty in India

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Poverty in India — A Representative Image | Source: Atul Kumar via unsplash

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics for their “experimental approach in alleviating global poverty”. Their experimental approach encompassed a variety of novel methods to understand and analyse interventions and Randomised Control Trials (RCTs). Their research has been used by policy makers to make informed policy decisions to best help the marginalised.

What are RCTs?

To understand the effect of a policy, intervention, or medicine, decision makers try to measure the efficacy of the treatment. Do deworming pills given to children improve test scores? Does providing chlorinated water improve the health and economic outcomes of villages? These are some causal (read causal, i.e. caused by, not casual) questions researchers are interested in. The best way to analyse causal effects is to randomise the selection of people in the treatment and the control group (for example: children who are given deworming pills versus children who are not given the pills). This random selection of the two groups removes many statistical biases that might affect the results.

RCTs in India:

Many of the RCTs performed by Banerjee and Duflo were in India. They involved short- and long-term impact assessments of various interventions, policies, models, and treatments. We look at a few RCTs implemented in India:

Teacher absenteeism rates:

Troubled by the low attendance rates (or high absence rates) of public-school teachers in India, Duflo assessed the impact of financial incentives on the absence rates of teachers in Rajasthan. The study monitored teacher attendance by cameras, which was tied to a financial incentive if the attendance was high. From a baseline absence rate of 44%, teacher absenteeism in the treatment group fell by 21%, relative to the control group. High teacher attendance caused child test scores to improve too.

COVID-19 and health-seeking behaviour:

In the context of COVID-19, Banerjee tested the effect of sending messages via SMS that promoted health preserving behaviour. The results were very positive. By sending a short, 2.5-minute clip to 25 million randomly selected individuals in West Bengal, the intervention i) found a two-fold increase in symptom reporting to village health workers, ii) increased hand washing rates by 7%, and iii) increased mask-wearing by 2%. While mask-wearing rates increased only marginally, the spillover effects (wearing a mask stops the virus from infecting more people) were moderately high and positive.

Asset Transfers and the Notion of Poverty:

An RCT by Banerjee in West Bengal involving a productive asset transfer accompanied with training found large and persistent effects on monthly consumption and other variables. The treatment group reported 25% higher consumption levels relative to the control group, who did not receive the asset transfer and training. Implications of such RCTs are huge. The notion that the poor are lazy and unwilling to perform strenuous labour is falsified by this RCT. Often, what the poor lack are opportunities that are hard to come by, given their financial status. A small nudge, like the asset transfer, can cause large and positive effects on their well-being.  

Salt fortification to reduce anaemia:

RCTs also help rule out less cost-effective interventions. Duflo and Banerjee evaluated an RCT which distributed fortified salt in 400 villages of Bihar, to reduce the prevalence of anaemia. However, this intervention found no statistically significant impact on health outcomes like anaemia, hemoglobin, etc.  Thus, while RCTs help introduce novel methods of impacting the lives of the poor, they also help in ruling out in-effective measures. A policy maker might try other alternatives to reduce the prevalence of anaemia.

Are RCTs the gold standard?

Maybe. Extrapolating results from a regional RCT to national policies could present problems. Contextuality matters. A study that indicates positive gains for one region might present different, and rather adverse effects for another region. Nation wide effects might not be as prominent as regional results of a single RCT. The good part is that Banerjee and Duflo have a solution. Just perform more RCTs!

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October 18, 2020 6:46 PM

Bhagat Singh: The Man, The Life, And The Beliefs

Bhagat Singh is one of the ‘big names’ immortalised in the history of India’s freedom struggle and eternally cherished even after almost ninety years of his martyrdom. What makes him stand out is his popularity among the masses being almost on par with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his beliefs and actions being diametrically opposite to theirs.

Of the freedom fighters who remain mainstream in today’s India— a crowd predominantly made up of politicians with center or right of centre leanings, Bhagat Singh occupies a relatively lonely spot as a young, staunchly left-wing revolutionary who outrightly rejected Gandhi’s philosophy, and preferred direct action over politics.

Newspaper headline after Central Legislative Assembly non-lethal bombing

Bhagat Singh is most commonly and widely remembered in association with an incident where he, along with his friend and comrade B.K. Dutt dropped non-lethal smoke bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly from its balcony in 1929. They also scattered leaflets by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), which he was a major part of and was aided by in orchestrating the bombings. He is said to have been inspired by French anarchist Auguste Vaillant, who had bombed the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1893.

The bombing gathered widespread negative reaction due to the use of violence, especially from those who supported the Gandhian method. While Bhagat Singh and the HSRA wanted to protest exploitative legislatures such as the Public Safety Act and the Trades Disputes Bill, it is also widely accepted that they additionally intended to use the drama and public attention of the ensuing trial to garner attention to socialist and communist causes. Bhagat Singh and Dutt did not escape under the cover of panic and smoke despite the former carrying a pistol, and waited for the police to find and arrest them. During the trial Bhagat Singh frequently chanted a variety of slogans, such as ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ which is even today often raised in protests across India.  

March 25th Newspaper carrying the news about execution of Bhagat Singh | Source: Tribune India

However, this was not the trial that ended in Bhagat Singh receiving his execution sentence. Before the Assembly bombings, Bhagat Singh had been involved in the shooting of police officer John Saunders, in connection to the death of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. At that time he and his associates had escaped, but after Bhagat Singh was awarded a life sentence for the Assembly bombing, a series of investigations led to his rearrest as part of the Saunders murder case. It was this trial— generally regarded as unjust— that led to his much protested execution sentence.

Bhagat Singh was hanged to death on the eve of March 23rd, 1931 and he was just twenty-three years old.

Despite the criticism he received for his actions, his execution sentence was widely opposed and many attempts were made to challenge it. In fact, his execution came on the eve of the Congress party’s annual convention, as protests against it worsened. He was memorialised nationwide as a martyr, and is often addressed with the honorific Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh.

Apart from being a socialist, Bhagat Singh was attracted to communist and anarchist causes as well. In ‘To Young Political Workers,’ his last testament before his death, he called for a “socialist order” and a reconstruction of society on a “new, i.e, Marxist basis.” He considered the government “a weapon in the hand of the ruling class”, which is reflected in his belief that Gandhian philosophy only meant the “replacement of one set of exploiters for another.” Additionally, he wrote a series of articles on anarchism, wanting to fight against mainstream miscontrusions of the word and explain his interest in anarchist ideology.

Bipin Chandra, who wrote the introduction to Why I am an Atheist by Bhagat Singh | Source: Wikimedia

While writing the introduction to Bhagat Singh’s remarkable essay Why I am an Atheist in 1979, Late Bipan Chandra described the Marxist leaning of Bhagat Singh and his associates in the following way;

Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues. Unfortunately, this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalists have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilise for their own politics and ideologies the name and fame of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandra Shekhar Azad.”

Bhagat Singh is often admired and celebrated for his dedication to the cause of liberation. However his socialist, communist and anarchist beliefs were suppressed by the successive governments in Independent India. This in a way is the suppression of a revolutionary who has the potential to inspire, unite and motivate the growing population of a spectrum of activists all over India, in direct response to the fast-spreading divisiveness and intolerance in the country, often patronised by the groups and organizations professing the right-wing fascist ideology.

Bhagat Singh’s dreams of a new social order live on, not just in his writings, but also reflected in the hearts of every activist, protester, and dissenting citizen. The fight for freedom, revolution, Inquilab, may have changed in meaning, but it is far from over.

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