I have written for Your Story, Social Cops, The American India Foundation, and Project for Public Spaces as well as editing for The American India Foundation and The Aga Khan Foundation. A sample of my work is below.
How two American India Foundation Fellows started an eco-tourism company in India
May 28, 2015 | Originally published on Your Story
As the thermostats across the Indian plains rise, and eyes and hearts look northwards in search of cooler mountain air and quiet moments of solitude, the founders of Voygroffer a paramount reminder: trek and explore sensitively, and leave no trace.
Voygr, co-founded by Behzad Larry and Elijah Monroe in 2014, strives to re-orient the conversation on adventure-where ecological sustainability is the foundation- and fair livelihoods for guides and mountain communities, the glue that holds the trekking community together. Avid mountain lovers with experience working in the Indian development space, Behzad and Elijah came up with the idea for Voygr following a conversation with a guide while trekking in Sikkim in 2012. As Behzad, Voygr’s CEO, explains, he was asked a question he has answered many times before, “How much did you pay?” He quickly learned that 60 per cent of what he paid went to the middlemen, while the guide was left with 40 per cent of the total cost to arrange every aspect of the trek.”
Behzad explains, “I had previously worked on systems that cut out middlemen in waste management chains to make the system fairer. So hearing this exorbitant commission instantly triggered the thought that a fairer system could be built in adventure travel. I researched the industry for over a year, and then moved back to India in August 2013 after quitting my job running the Clinton Fellowship’s operations in the US.”
Eli joined the team, and, since 2014, Voygr has taken shape. It’s is comprised of two parts: Voygr.com, the for-profit entity that sells all sorts of adventures: treks, rafting, mountaineering expeditions, photography workshops, and motorcycle trips; and Voygr.org, the registered non-profit. Voygr is an official partner of Leave No Trace, and a member of the International Ecotourism Society. All trips sold through voygr.comcontribute to carbon offsets and conservation efforts.
Voygr.com is working to position itself as a one-stop shop for trusted sustainability and mountain tourism. Each Voygr trip ismade in partnership with local outfitters and run by a local guides that come vetted by the Voygr team for safety, environmental sustainability and quality . Once a few trusted outfitters are established in an area, Behzad and Eli work with their guides to set trek prices for the region that reflect the cost of their high quality certifications, cost of carrying supplies that are environmentally sustainable and living wages for all parties involved. All treks are held to the strict standards of Leave No Trace and International EcoTourism Society mentioned above.
Voygr.org focuses on developing ecotourism as a rural livelihood that is fair and environmentally sustainable by re-investing a large percentage of voygr.com profits to offset the environmental costs of tourism in sensitive ecosystems.Currently, this includes investing in water filters that eliminate the need to boil drinking water helping to decrease the amount of wood used during treks. Cooking gas is expensive and difficult to transport tovillages, and, therefore,mostlocals rely on wood from pristine forests. During peak season, tourist lodges and tea huts can use over 100 kilos of wood a day.It’sa problematic consumption level compared to the slow growth rate of high altitude forests.
Voygr’s treks are priced to reflect their environmental sensitivity, and the cost of providing fair wages to homestays, porters, and guides.
The Voygr team is comfortable with this. Their model urges consumers to think harder about their impact when travelling, especially in regards to pricing.Trekking companies that offer extremely low prices often force guides to cut corners in ways that negatively impact the poorest of the poor and the environment one sets out to enjoy in the first place, Behzad explains. Lower consumer prices come at a cost to someone along the trek supply chain, and Voygr wants all nature lovers to remember this.
At the crux of Voygr’s model is the paradox of travel in rural areas. Communities rely on the income generated by tourists, but tourists, simultaneously, stress environmentally sensitive zones and resources. Behzad says, “There can be no tourism that has zero footprint. Even when we make sure we’re being environmentally conscious and ethically fair, there are still various ways in which our presence alters environments and culture.” For those that staunchly espouse sustainability, the best thing to do is not travel at all, says Behzad, “But if you’re going to travel, then you must do so making every possible effort to minimize your footprint.”
Behzad and Eli learned a critical lesson that shaped the evolution of their work. Originally, Voygr strove to work with guides in more remote areas with the hope of re-distributing the money generated through tourism.However, they quickly discovered that connectivity in very rural areas was a challenging barrier to overcome, at this stage, in their business development. As a result, Voygr revised their model to work with existing guides dedicated to sustainability in better connected areas with the hope thatregional managers can eventually be hired to build relationships with more remote guides and communities(connecting them with the tourism industry).
In the long run, Voygr hopes to position itself as a global player for sustainable treks and tours, reflecting the broader movement on eco-tourism as a form of conservation, preservation and livelihood generation. Voygr offers an important reminder: “We can’t stop the global travel industry. So let’s make it better.”
To book a trek with Voygr, and learn more about their work, please visit their website at Voygr.com.
To learn more about eco-tourism, sustainability and the impact of travel on the environment, please check out the following resources:
Can Technology Make Government Subsidies More Effective?
January 15, 2016 | Originally published on Social Cops
A boy goes to the ration store to buy dal and rice. A small farmer sprays fertilizers on his crop. A mother fills her water jug at the community tap. A family purchases kerosene to light their house. For India’s poor, government subsidies are crucial to maintaining a certain minimum quality of life. However, historically, the reaches of government subsidies extend far beyond the poorest population. Train tickets, gas cylinders, electricity, and petrol are all subject to below-market pricing due to government intervention.
A subsidy, defined in its simplest form, is the amount of money used to keep market prices artificially low. According to the Indian Economic Survey,3.78 trillion rupees (or 4.2% of India’s GDP) was projected to be spent on government subsidies in 2014-2015. The Modi administration has stated their intention to decrease the percentage of GDP spent on subsidies to 1.6% of total GDP by 2017-2018.
How do they plan to do this without leaving the poorest Indian citizens without a lifeline? The intention is to cut out the loopholes and middlemen that currently divert resources, like the black market for LPG cylinders, by integrating technology and welfare together. Relying heavily on technology, the existing postal service, and the politically popular concept of direct cash transfers, the goal is to increase the efficiency of government subsidies by removing the leaks that allow subsidized products to trickle away.
Government Subsidies: Then and Now
To understand the current state of subsidies in India, let’s take a quick dive into the past. The history of India’s subsidized commodity distribution is rooted in universal coverage for all citizens. Beginning before independence, the British rationed grains during World War II. After independence, as part of the planned economic development beginning in 1951, the Central Government’s Public Distribution System (PDS) began to distribute six daily commodities (rice, wheat, sugar, edible oil, a form of coal, and kerosene oil) to Indians countrywide, regardless of income. At the time, subsidies of household commodities were viewed as necessary to counter the high cost of food after World War II and provide a modicum of food security.
Today, the ration card is still a common fixture in the life of urban and rural Indians. There are three levels of ration cards — the AAY, BPL, and the APL cards. Antyodaya cards (expanded to the Antyodaya Anna Yojna or AAY), covers families with monthly incomes of less than Rs. 250 per month, as well as senior citizens, widows, the terminally ill, and physically handicapped with little or no regular income. Qualification for BPL (Below the Poverty Line) ration cards is determined by not falling into one of the 15 determining categories, ranging from owning a two wheeler with a 100CC capacity or above (note that BPL families are allowed to own up to one auto-rickshaw) to serving as a government employee. The holder of a BPL can access the benefits of the 2013 food security bill: 5 kg of subsidized rice, wheat, and coarse grains a month, among other things. Finally, an APL card (Above the Poverty Line) allows holders to receive their rice and wheat shares only after the BPL/AAY families have received theirs at a subsidized rate.
These Persistent Leaky Pipes
However, even with the three-tier ration card system, leakages and distortions across the subsidy system still result in wasted government resources. As highlighted in the 2014-2015 India Budget Report, the wastages in the current subsidy system are often regressive to the point of benefiting rich households more than poor households. Take water subsidies for example. It is estimated that up to 85% of government water subsidies go to private taps, yet 60% of poor households collect water from public taps. Or electricity subsidies — 67.2 % of Indian households are connected to the electric grid, most likely representing some of the wealthiest households in the country. Out of the population with connectivity to the electric grid, the top income quintile consumes 121 kWh per month on average (37% of the subsidy) while the bottom quintile consumes only 45 kWh on average (10% of the electricity subsidy).
Furthermore, in the majority of commodity markets discussed in the 2014-2015 financial report, leakages are rampant. Holes are everywhere, with commodities typically disappearing into the pockets of middlemen and later ending up on the black market. The percentage of commodities that disappear can range from 54% (wheat) to 15% (rice) of all government-subsidized products.
Cash Transfers and JAM
What can be done to clog the holes? At the end of the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the Finance Department introduced the JAM Trinity, an expanded version of a direct transfer program rolled out in 2013. The JAM Trinity is a Hindi acronym for a three-tiered identification system aimed at increasing the poor’s access to benefits while closing up leaking subsidy pipes. It combines the Jan Dhan Yojana (the central scheme to promote financial inclusion, largely through the opening of bank accounts), Aadhaar cards (the 12-number ID cards based on biometric data), and mobile numbers in an attempt to increase the feasibility of direct transfers to India’s poor.
International political economy research tells us this can be huge. Beginning in 1995, the Mexican government began making cash transfers to families in return for an investment in human capital. The government gave poor families cash but with strings attached, like requiring investment in preventative health care and primary education. Families that sent their children to secondary school received higher transfers. Direct cash transfers spread across Latin and South America and were widely considered a successful welfare reform.
The grounding idea for cash transfers is two-fold: first, healthier, better-educated children are more valuable assets to a country’s economy; and second, when provided with a small sense of economic stability, families will invest in their children’s education and health. Therefore, governments — both out of a sense of equality and for economic value — should invest in families’ well-being as much as possible.
There’s a growing body of research on this, but Latin America (with its relative financial wealth and its history as the original test field for direct transfers) is an interesting case study for how cash transfers coupled with other positive economic growth factors can move large sections of a population out of extreme poverty. Currently, 21.3% of India’s populationlives in a state of extreme poverty.
The Risk of Fixing Leaks with Hasty Duck Tape
While the JAM Trinity is a potentially exciting proposal, some serious concerns remain around how to implement it. Solving these concerns will likely take time, as well as trial and error.
For example, identification for India’s poorest remains a massive logistical hurdle. In theory, the steps required to register a mobile number, receive anAadhaar card, or register as part of Jan Dhan Yojana should provide ample proof of identity. However, despite significant government efforts to raise awareness about the various components of the JAM Trinity, many still remain outside of the schemes’ reach. As of 2014, 15 million bank accountswere opened through the Jan Dhan Scheme and, as of mid-2015, 820 million Aadhar cards have been issued. These are seemingly impressive numbers. However, an RTI Application filed to the Unique Identification Authority of India earlier this year revealed that 99.7% of all Aadhar cards were issued to people with two or more forms of ID. This is hardly a step towards identifying the unidentified.
There is also concern about the lack of operable infrastructure and the resulting delays in receiving subsidies or cash transfers. In a series of experiments with cash transfers in places such as Rajasthan, Jharkhand, and Delhi, recipients ran into problems that ranged from unclear fingerprints to receipt systems that relied on internet access in places where no internet access exists. In parts of Rajasthan, a 2011 program gave cash transfers (deposited in recipients’ bank accounts) in lieu of kerosene subsidies. During this time, the consumption of kerosene dropped dramatically along with user satisfaction. Many poor families were simply unable to navigate the many loops required to open a bank account, where they would receive their transfer, let alone afford the initial fee to start an account in the first place. Therefore, in communities where kerosene was a crucial component of providing light to the poor, families were shut out because the barriers of access were just too high.
Closing India’s leaky government subsidy tap cannot happen through technology-based programs if the base technology infrastructure is not yet in place. While the JAM Trinity and cash transfers have a role to play, so does continued outreach to marginalized families through simple technology (like cell phones), NGO outreach, and education. Furthermore, in countries like Brazil, which is considered a success story in the world of welfare cash transfers, welfare cash transfers are complimented with continuous, comprehensive provision of government-provided services and facilities. This hints at the need for a careful balance between cash transfers and social services.
The JAM Trinity gets it right when attempting to link the prolific growth of cell phone usage across India in the past few years to poverty alleviation. But now more needs to be done to ensure the poorest segments of society have the knowledge and identity proofs necessary for accessing a technological world.
The philosophy behind direct transfers in lieu of subsidies is the ability for families to take care of their children when given the space and means to do so. Increasing access to government schemes, identification, and welfare programs must focus on this as well. Direct cash transfers may indeed be an opportunity to cut out leakages in the subsidy system and decrease India’s expenditure. However, the government must ensure that the proper infrastructure and knowledge is in place to allow these direct transfers to reach their recipients. 1.27 billion people depend on it.