Category: Macro and Micro Economics

Public policy work is a test match, not an IPL.

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The pursuit of happiness by each person is best achieved when the State creates conditions of stability and vanishes into the background.

It was a cold winter evening in Gurgaon. I was lying on my bed wrapped in a blanket, leisurely watching some YouTube videos. The video was interrupted by some Twitter notifications related to Prime Minister’s address to the nation. I started watching Prime Minister’s All India televised address where he declared 1000 and 500 notes as demonetised. . My first reaction was to check how much cash I had at home. Seeing only 1500 rupees cash at home, I had a sense of relief. Like other people on WhatsApp groups and Twitter, I also believed for a few days that this was a master-stroke by the then government. This step is going to eliminate the black money available in the country. However, later on, like most other people, I had seen the suffering common people had to go through standing in the queue for long hours just to exchange their old currencies. My domestic help came next day crying that she has no bank account here and she doesn’t know how she can replace her old notes. I also remember following the everyday newspaper headlines on this issue and how the government everyday shifted the goal-posts of this policy decision saying that it is going to increase digitisation in the country

Was demonetisation a good policy decision? Why did the BJP government take such a drastic decision without having a broad base consultation? Why there was no consultation from the public before taking this decision? Did it make any impact on curbing black money in the country? What were the consequences of this decision? How it has impacted the common people in the country?

I bought this book-In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy last year after many episodes on The Seen and Unseen podcast recommending it a must-read for all those who are interested in policymaking. Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah, former bureaucrats are the authors of this book. This book not only makes us understand why demonetisation was a disastrous public policy decision but also makes you understand the nuts and bolts of policymaking, execution, and implementation. Insights and the wisdom mentioned in the book make it a rule book for all public policy practitioners. It gives you all nuggets on policymaking. The book is quite comprehensive consisting of 40 chapters. The book answers many important debated questions: what objectives should the State pursue? What is the purpose of the government? I felt like noting down each and every line of this book.

India i.e. Bharat: A Union of States

“A State as a human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” – Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures, 1919

Why State is needed? What is the main responsibility of the State? What are things State is supposed to do or not do? How State’s different actions have farreaching consequences not only for the present generations but also for the future generations. The authors list the various conditions when State’s actions are legitimate and justified. The state should not do anything except address market failure. Market failure happens when the free market fails to deliver efficient economic outcomes. Market failures happen in four kinds:

  1. Externalities occur when some of the costs or benefits of a transaction fall on someone other than the producer or the consumer. Pollution is an example of negative externalities. IT companies in Bangalore led to more parents providing computer education to their kids so that they can get jobs, is an example of positive externalities.
  2. Asymmetric Information refers to a situation where one party has more or better information. For instance-when a customer is buying medicines at a shop, she has no way of knowing if the medicines are adulterated.
  3. Market Power is established when a few firms achieve a dominant position in a market.
  4. Public goods are goods that are available to anyone. They have two characteristics: non-excludable and non-rivalrous. Roads and clean air are public goods.

India a low capacity State

Indian State works through panic, package, and neglect“- Harsh Vardhan (Financial Economist)

Many authors Indian and Western have shown that the Indian State lacks capacity. It can organise a humungous Kumbh Mela where crores of devotees come to take a dip in the holy Ganga. It can successfully conduct elections for such a huge electorate spread across and length and breadth of this country. However, the Indian state has continuously failed to deliver basic health, education, and sanitation services even after decades of independence. Why do Indian Institutions lack capacity? Because building a high capacity State takes time and consistent effort by policymakers, politicians, and bureaucrats.

Building a high capacity State takes time

“Where we do not have high intellectualism, we get raw power play”

Building the republic takes time. It will take many decades of hard work by the policy community for India to rise to the ranks of the advanced nations of the world. Policy reform is slow, hard work, and not amenable to quick wins on social media. There will be no sharp impact, no human interest angle. There will be small changes spread all across the economy, which can add up to substantial impacts.

Independent judiciary is an essential foundation of the market economy because it helps in the contract enforcement between the government and private firms. Poor contract enforcement leads to market failure. Different types of private solutions(contracts, torts, class action lawsuits, and private enforcement) can flourish when and only when the courts are swift and competent.

The need of the hour is to have an institutionalised application of mind. It is a way of ensuring that the right questions are asked, and alternatives evaluated before a decision is made. This helps avoid impressionistic and casual approaches to policy formulation and reduces the extent to which sectarian considerations dominate. In India, we have some irrational decisions because one section/caste group/pressure group is lobbying for it. Sound policy decisions require a lot of background research work, consistent probing, and also a feedback loop.

The Rhine river was not cleaned in a day. Rhine Action Plan was drafted in the year 1987 and it took many years of implementation and actions which led to the cleaning of the river. The hardest problems in state capacity are the criminal justice system, the judiciary, the tax system, and financial regulation. The best way to make progress is to take small steps and listen to the statistical evidence.

Policymaking is a process of trial and error

When getting hold of a larger object, don’t discard the smaller object. Don’t use a sword when a needle will suffice”.

Public Policy is a process of hypothesis testing, of forming a theory about the world and experimenting with interventions that are thought to help. This testing should go through a policy pipeline where the first data is gathered. Research is conducted which led to policy proposals, creating consensus among the public and policymakers. Finally, the government takes the decisions and implement the policies.

Created on Canva

Why do public policies get failed? There are various reasons behind it:

  1. The information constraint: We don’t have enough data because government itself does not collect the data with transparency and fairness. There are various other issues with data collection in the country. Policymakers just do not know what is going on. For instance- recent data about people died because of COVID has so many discrepancies.
  2. The knowledge constraint: We don’t understand the real problem because of a serious lack of social science research in India.
  3. The resource constraint: The government spends more than we think and know. The marginal cost of public funds (MCPF) is much larger than Re 1 in India.
  4. The administrative constraint : Public administration is harder than management in the private sector.
  5. The voter rationality constraint: Voters have no incentive to know about public policy.

Public Choice Theory: A Guide to Public Policy Making

……No matter how famous or well-reputed a person is, when she is hired as an official in the government agency, we are aware of the gap between her personal interest and the public interest. Public Choice Theory encourages us to engage in “politics without romance”. The objective is not to hire saints but to achieve a state which yields good outcomes when each actor is self-interested. Public Choice Theory predicts that public organizations will favor multiple objectives as this gives reduced accountability. Clarity of purpose is efficient for the principal and not the agent. A publicly stated and clear objective, on each policy initiative, improves the policy process. Public choice theory encourages us to think that all officials and all politicians are cut from the same cloth. We have to construct systems of checks and balances that will work through rational incentives of all parties and without assumptions that any one person is a saint. The puzzle of policy design is that of finding checks and balances.….

However, this theory also has its limitations. In reality, every individual in public life has a mixture of personal and altruistic elements. The State is not a benevolent actor, it is formed of self-centered persons. To create checks and balances, citizens, policymakers, and politicians can use these five pillars: data, media, intellectuals, legislature, and judiciary.

Strong Institutions are need of the hour

The policymakers should prioritise institution-building over just GDP growth. In the book named “Why Nations Fail”, the authors have given a ‘theory of institutions’ where they argue that institutions decided the destiny of the country. Institutions can be of two types: Political and Economic Institutions. The authors also add that poverty and prosperity of nations is the interplay of economic and political institutions. A complex modern economy only works when it is a self-organising system. It has to have the creative efforts of a larger number of individuals, all working in their own self-interest. There is no one measure of institutional quality but the authors have listed a few measures that can be used as a benchmark to understand the quality of Indian institutions:

  • Extent of perceived safety of women and functioning of the criminal justice system
  • Flight of millionaires
  • Flight of India-centric firms
  • Flight of India-centric trading
  • Flight of India-centric contract enforcement
  • Freedom of speech to comedians

Appreciation of ‘self-organising system’

The authors reiterate that State machinery should appreciate and facilitate the self-organising system. For instance- local problems should be solved by local people who are on the ground since they understand the problem better. The authors talk about Coasean Approach(Transaction Costs Perspective) to deal with market failures. The key concept of this perspective is that when property rights are clear, both sides are brought to the table to negotiate. However, this approach also requires the State to play a role in clearly defining property rights and judicial infrastructure that can help in enforcing contracts.

One of the best solutions mentioned in the book is an approach by political scientist Elinor Ostrom. She was the first woman to get a Nobel prize in economics. She discovered that many practical arrangements established by traditional communities over very long periods of time achieve good results. An example of this is declaring a moratorium on eating fish during the month of Shravan. Though this step seems religious, it leads to saving fish counts in the river.

Social engineering is inappropriate

Social systems are very complex and outcomes are generally greatly different from those that the planners may have desired. The values and imagination of the people should drive the changes in the world, rather than the values and objectives of a few central planners. Society can and should evolve gradually through the thoughts and actions of the people. The best framework of public policy is one in which the State impinges upon the lives of individuals as little as possible.

Policymakers need to be aware of the knowledge constraint, biases, implementation constraints, and most importantly every individual, official, and politician responds to incentives. We all remember how the sterilisation scheme launched during emergency miserably failed despite having a good intention of population control. Rather than State giving surprises, implementing stringent policy measures, policymakers should nudge the people through signaling or incentives towards the social change. As the authors of the book added, “we should pursue revolutionary change for government structures but evolutionary change for the people”. The best thing I gained from this book is that I should never see even policymakers as someone who knows everything. They are also working in unknown territories. Better policymaking requires a lot of effort and commitment from all stakeholders including civil society organisations, NGOs, politicians, and the common people.

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How to eradicate poverty from the world?

Nothing is more dreadfully painful than poverty, and gripping poverty robs a man of the lofty nobility of his descent”- Thiruvallur

On July 10th, 2020, a six-year-old girl fell into a stormwater drain in the Marathahalli area while playing with her friends. She is the daughter of Nityananda and Boni Koli. They are migrants from Assam, living in the nearby slum area. Her father works as a security guard and mother as a domestic worker. There has been no update on this incident as of now. Who is responsible for this tragic incident? This incident shows the ‘hazards of being poor’ as also mentioned in the book. The poor people’s lives inextricably linked to huge amounts of risks not only related to income/food but also related to health, political violence, crime, and different kinds of shocks like the recently declared lock down amid the covid-19 pandemic.

This book has always been part of my reading list but when both the authors of this book won the Nobel prize last year, I decided that I have to finish this book soon. The curiosity and the zeal to find solutions how to eradicate poverty and why they do whatever they do in their lives and why policies world over fail to bring about a substantial difference in their lives, has always intrigued me.

“Poverty leads to an intolerable waste of talent. Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being.”

Amartya Sen

I have always been moved by people’s lives. If I see people living in difficult circumstances, I always ask myself why life is so unfair for a few people and a bed of roses for some. And many times I felt like crying inside because I am helpless as if I can’t do anything about it. Why someone has to lose its dignity because of a lack of resources. This is inhuman. Poverty is itself so inhuman. It makes you miserable from inside and you don’t have the strength to face the world.

These are some of the pertinent questions asked by the authors in this book. Why is there still poverty in the world or India? Why well thought out policies of the government of India have been failing to eradicate poverty for a long time? Why does no one ask the poor about their choices, their priorities, and why they are making the choices what are they making? It is absolutely necessary to understand the reasons behind their choices/decisions in life to frame better policies for eradicating poverty?

It’s not that the world has not tried to eradicate poverty. However, there are different ideologies/views present in the world to solve the problem of poverty. Jeffrey Sachs in his book, “The End of Poverty” says that ‘foreign aid’ is the key. Even aid establishment institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organization believe in spending money on aid. William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo & others are not in favor of providing aid as they both argue that aid does more harm than good. They believe that we should respect people’s freedom if they don’t want anything, there is no point in forcing it upon them. Darren Acemoglu & James A Robinson’s theory of institutions given in his famous book-“Why Nations Fail”, believes in a fundamental change of the institutions to bring about any positive change in the country. However, there is hardly any focus on understanding the choices of the people and why they do what they do.

Mostly we judge poor people about the choices they make in their lives. Why don’t they save enough for them for the difficult period? Why do they produce many kids if they can’t afford a better life for them? Why don’t they take benefits of the government schemes? Why poor people don’t want health insurance? Do the poor really have a choice to control their fertility decisions? Why children of the poor don’t learn anything despite going to schools? Why don’t they get enough nutrients?

The authors had made it clear that there is really no difference between the decision-making of the poor and other people because they are also normal human beings. They also have the same problems of temptations, lack of self-control, weak beliefs, procrastination, and the problem of ‘time inconsistency’. Through various surveys, interviews and other evidence, the authors have shown that somehow the whole system is designed or exists in a way that makes it really impossible for the poor to come out of the vicious circle of poverty. For instance, they don’t have access to formal banking institutions and if they have, they have to pay higher interest rates, they don’t have any fallback option in the condition of shocks like demonetization or the recent lockdown, poor children are not wanted in schools unless they show some exceptional capabilities and also forced to drop out, they don’t have faith in the public health system because of the combination of beliefs as well as psychological sunk cost effect. And because of all these things, the poor may become skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives, and also since they suffer from low depression, they lack the capacity to make sound decisions. And the vicious circle continues.

However, it’s not all doomsday scenario as the authors have also provided ways that can be used to bring about substantial change in the lives of the people. The fundamental argument of the authors is that ‘it is not always necessary to fundamentally change the institutions to bring about any positive difference rather change can also happen at the margin.’ According to the authors, though they didn’t find any magic bullet, they certainly found out few ways to improve the lives of the poor:

  1. Poor lack of credible information. So there is a need for innovative, credible, and simple information campaigns to make people aware of various schemes and their benefits and also their rights.
  2. Use the default options and nudges to enforce positive behaviors as they don’t have enough time & resources to think about themselves to make decisions.
  3. There are reasons like moral hazards, adverse selection, and lack of self-control that prevent markets to exist for the poor.
  4. Policies are failed in poor countries because of three Is-Ideology, Inertia and Ignorance and there is a need to realize the fact that change can also happen at the margin.
  5. There is a need to change the expectations of people. There was evidence that when villagers in remote areas of Karnataka got to know that girls can get jobs if they are skilled in computers, they started sending their girls to school.

Not only this, micro-credit, better education for their children, good jobs, insurance against health & weather disasters, social safety-net and minimum income support can help the poor to get out of the trap. And these small initiatives will bring a little bit of hope and comfort in their lives which will give them strength and courage to think about their future. However, as even authors of this book agree that there is a lot more to know and understand regarding the lives of people. The authors talked about all the basic problems that keep the poor in the vicious circle and what can be done and how we should not reduce all the problems to the same set of general principles. The time has come to listen the poor and the understand the logic of their choices.

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Book Review of Capital

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”.

Plutarch
Migrants returning to their home walking hundreds of km due to lock down declared by the government due to corona virus crisis.

The present migrant crisis in India is a stark reminder of the economic inequities existing in our society. When rich and middle-class people are spending their time in the comfort of their homes doing various activities, poor and marginalized migrants are walking for a hundred thousand kilometres to reach their homes. Some also died on the way because of hunger and exhaustion. In this context, I thought to write a short review of the book, “The Capital” by Thomas Piketty. How income inequalities are going to hurt us in the longer-term unless some concrete steps are not taken by the State and its people.

I never read the whole book but managed to give a paper presentation on it in my final year of public policy course. Whatever critics say, this book has brought the issue of income inequality at the forefront. Income inequality is not only an issue based on some statistics but also it’s a moral issue that will always pinch the conscience of the people. This book became popular since it got published. Piketty also hailed as “the Modern Marx” by “The Economist” magazine. He is a French economist who also taught at MIT for two years. His major work is a compilation of historical data about economic inequality. He is critical of economics discipline.

“To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.”

Thomas Piketty-The Capital in 21st Century

The core concern of the book is to put the issue of inequality in its broader historical context. The author’s main argument is that in an economy where the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of growth, inherited wealth will always grow faster than earned wealth. He also adds that the concentration of wealth at one level is incompatible to democracy and social justice.

The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms.

Thomas Piketty-The Capital in 21st Century

He rejects the Simon Kuznets hypothesis which says that though societies become more unequal in the first stages of industrialization, inequality reduces as they achieve maturity. However, Piketty does not think like that. According to him, demography, low taxation and weak labor organizations will fundamentally lead to greater inequality.

The author feels that unless we do something, ‘free-market economy’ will become a ‘patrimonial system’ with an entrenched hereditary upper class and the rest of the population. He is highly critical of higher compensation paid to senior executives of MNCs that is responsible for extreme inequality in the wake of 2008 financial crisis. To save the world from this ‘doomsday scenario’, the author proposes various measures namely a global tax on inherited wealth, changes in income taxes, use of inflation to redistribute wealth downwards and also enforced transparency of banks.

His paper -,“Indian income inequality, 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj”? co-authored with Lucas Chancel argues that income inequality was highest in India in 2014 since the creation of Indian Income -tax in 1922. They concluded that the top 1 percent earners in 2014 earned 22% of India’s national income. Though there are various counter- arguments to it. Jagdish Bhagwati & Arvind Pangariya refuted this argument in their book, ‘Why growth matters’. Swaminath Aiyar also disapproved of his idea of stark inequality in India in one of his articles on the grounds of statistics and his failure to distinguish between different kinds of inequality.

Thomas Piketty’s hypothesis criticized by many economists. According to them, his approach to economics is anti-mathematical. As per the paper, “Income Inequality, Catastrophe Predictions, Thomas Piketty, How income and economic unit are defined can create significant differences in the data produced and in the interpretation of the data? For instance, Stephen Rose and Thomas Piketty reached different conclusions about the status of the middle class based on the definition of income and economic unit. Generally, there is no correlation between increasing income inequality and general welfare. His use of tax records to approximate income is convenient and allows easy comparison across different countries and at different times and he also not considered the social security payments as part of his data.

Though income inequality is a complicated issue, Piketty’s biggest contribution is to elevate the income inequality issue to the forefront of both public and scholarly attention. Whatever is the reason behind stark inequality existing in society, the issue of inequality will always be debated as a moral issue.


Trends in India’s HDI Rankings

Human Development Index was created by the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen in 1990. It is a composite index of three dimensions and four indicators -Health (Life-expectancy at birth), Education (Mean years of schooling and Expected years of schooling) and living standards (Gross National Income per capita). Countries are ranked into four tiers-Very High, High, Medium, Low and Data Unavailable. The Human Development Report 1995 of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) describes human development as a process of enlarging people’s choices. It “must enable all individuals to enlarge their human capabilities to the fullest and to put those capabilities to the best use in all fields- economic, social, cultural and political”.

India has been ranked 130[i] out of 189 countries in the HDR 2018. India’s HDI value for 2017 is 0.640 which put the country in the “medium human development category”. Between 1990 and 2017, India’s HDI value increased from 0.427 to 0.640 an increase of nearly 50% and an indicator of the country’s remarkable achievement in lifting millions out of poverty. Between 1990 and 2017, India’s life expectancy at birth also increased by nearly 11 years. GNI per capita increased by 266.6% between 1990 and 2017 and India’s school-age children can expect to stay in school for 4.7 years longer than in 1990. However, despite huge improvement, India still lags behind all other BRICS[ii] nations on the HDI. The UNDP report also showed that when inequality is factored in, India loses nearly 26.8% of its HDI values and falls to 0.468. It means that outcomes of human development vary substantially with respect to caste, class, and gender. For instance-HDI for men is higher than HDI for women. Historically disadvantaged groups such as Dalits and Adivasis in India, also have lower human development indexes.

The ranking of India is marginally higher than its South Asian neighbors but the country has fallen behind its neighbors on key health and quality of life indicators. India’s 2017 HDI 0.640 is also lower than average of 0.645 for countries in the medium human development category.

India has a GII (Gender Inequality Index), introduced in 2014, the value of 0.524, ranking it 127 out of 160 countries in the 2017 index. The GII can be interpreted as a loss of human development due to inequality between male and female achievements in three GII dimensions of reproductive health, empowerment, and economic activity. In India, only 11% seats of parliament are held by women. Only 39% of women have reached the secondary level of education as compared to 63.5 % of their male counterparts. Female participation in the labor market is also very low (27%) as compared to men (78.8%).

Trends in India’s HDI Rankings:

india-in-hdi-4-638

The UNDP HDR 2013 report[i] was themed as “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World” which concluded that sustained progress in human development has led to the rise of the south in unprecedented speed and scale. For the first time in 150 years, the combined output of the developing world’s three leading economies -Brazil, China and India- is equal to the combined GDP of the longstanding industrial powers of the north like Canada, France, Germany, Italy, UK & USA, thus demonstrating a gradual convergence across the world. It also projects that by 2050, Brazil, China and India will together account for 40% of global output.

The unprecedented achievement by India in human development was recognized and praised by UNDP reports. These are the initiatives who helped India to climb the ladder of human development:

  • Affirmative Action policy- Even though it has not remedied caste-based exclusions, it has had substantial positive effects. It pointed out that in 1965 for example, Dalits held fewer than 2% of senior civil service positions, but the share has grown to 11% by 2001.
  • Right to Education Act, 2009- It helped in universalizing the primary education in India and increasing the enrolment rate almost 90%-99%.
  • Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) as a prime example of combining social protection with appreciative employment strategies.
  • National Food Security Act
  • Skill India,
  • Digital India
  • Make in India
  • JAM trinity-Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile
  • Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao-To improve child sex ratio in 100 gender critical districts of across all states and UTs.
  • Stand-Up India Campaign 2016 to provide loans to women borrowers for setting up a greenfield enterprise.
  • Maternity Benefit Act[ii], 2017 has extended the period of paid maternity benefit from 12 weeks to 26 weeks.

India’s HDI has been increasing over the years but in recent years despite India being the fastest growing country in the world, the HDI has stagnated. There is also a caveat that there have been various changes in the methodology and continuously tweaking of indicators to measure human development. That is why many experts say that it is misleading to compare the rankings of any country over the years.  There is still a long way to go to reach an adequate level of human development in the country. UNDP report also suggested various measures to improve India’s HDI.

  • To stop the subsidies going to the richest 20% of India’s population. It consists of six commodities and services in cooking gas, railways, power, aviation fuel, gold, kerosene and EEE tax treatment under the PPF.
  • There is a need to create universal access to health care. Ayushman Bharat[iii] is a path-breaking initiative of the current government. However, there is a long way to go improve the status of our primary health centers which are the backbone the whole health infrastructure. National Health Policy[iv] 2017 is also a step in the right direction.
  • There is a need to improve the quality of education and make the coming generation skilled enough to take advantage of ‘demographic dividend’ [v]of the country.
  • The gender inequality, discrimination, and violence are still rampant in our country which needs to be tackled by challenging the root of the problem-patriarchal system by changing the mindset of the people through awareness generation, sensitization of children towards gender issues since childhood by including under the school curriculum.

In fact, as per the UNDP HDR 2013, countries that have improved their HDI standing did so on account of three principal drivers: ‘a proactive developmental stage’, ‘tapping of global markets’, and ‘determined social policy and innovation’. On the face of it, Government of India should embark on a journey of the collective effort of setting developmental priorities led by inclusive development, capability approach through redistribution, social security measures and massive investment in health and education.

[i] http://hdr.undp.org/en/2013-report

[ii] https://ritambharachaitanya.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/maternity-benefit-bill-a-historic-achievement-for-india/

[iii] https://www.pmjay.gov.in/

[iv] http://cdsco.nic.in/writereaddata/National-Health-Policy.pdf

[v] https://ritambharachaitanya.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/demographic-dividend-or-demographic-disaster/

[i] https://www.livemint.com/Politics/NcyY1Zr768TEl02yaRSh4M/India-ranks-131-on-global-Human-Development-Index-Norway-No.html

[ii] http://brics2016.gov.in/content/