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Archive for Dean Spears

Make sure our markets glitter

Written by on November 20th, 2014

I’ve been worrying — to anyone who will put up with listening — that the attention generated by the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan will be diverted from lifesaving efforts to end rural open defecation, towards cleaning up litter in the markets of the urban rich.  You can tell that I didn’t make up this picture I took in Defence Colony this morning because my stock example has been Khan Market:


Op-ed in Indian Express: Can India be far behind?

Written by on November 19th, 2014

My op-ed on emissions and coal in India was published today in the Indian express.  I’ll post it below, but first this haunting photograph that accompanied Gardiner Harris’ article yesterday in the NYT on coal in Jharkhand and its implications or India and climate change — read it first!

Coal mining in Jharkhand.  As the top commenter wrote, it looks like Mordor from the Lord of the Rings.

Coal mining in Jharkhand. As the top commenter wrote, it looks like Mordor from the Lord of the Rings.


My article:

Can India be far behind?

This week, China announced a historic goal: its carbon emissions will peak around 2030, and subsequently decline. This announcement is widely regarded as a landmark moment in humanity’s efforts to avert catastrophic climate change.  Scientific evidence leaves no room to doubt that the well-being of all nations will soon depend critically on the emissions that we are all pumping into the air today.

For now, the worst offenders are the richer countries of North America and Europe. But, the large developing economies are catching up fast.  Only China and the U.S. exceed India in annual carbon dioxide emissions; Europe does too, if it is counted as a country.

Yet, annual emissions are now declining in the U.S. and Europe, as well as in Canada, Australia, and South Africa. India’s rate of increasing emissions is greater than the combined rate of increase for the total of both Russia and all of Africa.  China’s announcement leaves India as the largest remaining carbon polluter without either declining emissions or a target set for declining emission levels.  Even if China’s commitment is a weak one – or would be met automatically under business as usual – it remains politically significant that a commitment was made.

So, an important question is whether India will be willing to match what China has done.   Can India join the ranks of the leading economies by committing to a timeline for reversing emissions?

Some readers may be surprised that I am writing about climate policy in India, having been born in the United States. Indeed, carbon emissions per person are well over 10 times in the U.S. what they are in India.  I would have very little to say in approval of the so-called “efforts” of the U.S. to reduce the chances of climate disaster.

But, every country must do its part, because climate change threatens us all. If an irresponsible, distracted driver is about to run you over as you walk across the street, you will die if you stand still, explaining calmly that the driver is at fault.  What matters most is to step out of the way of disaster.  You can sort out who to blame after you have done all you can to survive.

The threat to people in India from climate change is far more urgent than that of an out of control car. Analysis of infant mortality in India shows that on the hottest days, more children die.  Climate change can only be expected to increase these threats.

Some of the worse case scenarios would be almost immeasurably bad. Economist Martin Weitzman has concluded that we may face a 1% to 5% chance of global warming more than 10°C.  Climate scientists Steven Sherwood and Matthew Huber note that, because of the biology of our bodies, exposure to sufficiently high temperatures kills humans within hours.  Their models predict that such a temperature increase would make half of the world’s currently inhabitable land literally unlivable for humans – including essentially all of India.  One percent may sound like a small probability, but it becomes very important when attached to such a catastrophe.

Fortunately, many of the most useful steps would come at little cost to society. This is because about two-thirds of India’s carbon emissions from energy consumption are due to the consumption of coal.  Coal is not merely harmful to future generations due to carbon emissions: it also releases pollutants in the air that make people ill today.  The resulting sickness, loss of productivity, medical expenses, and deaths – to say nothing of long-lasting, but difficult to measure, effects on the health of growing babies – make coal terribly harmful to the people in India alive today.

A paper by economists Ian Parry and coauthors analyzes several carbon emitting countries, including India. They find that coal is so very bad for our health that limiting carbon emissions would be a money-saver and life-saver even if we did not care about climate change at all.  Politicians who claim that reducing emissions comes at a cost to development or India’s interests do not know the evidence: reducing coal emissions would both reduce emissions and make Indians healthier and more productive.

In other words, even if the present generation of people in India were completely indifferent to the well-being of their future descendants and were completely indifferent to the welfare of people in other countries, it would still make selfish sense to tackle carbon emissions from coal. And with China getting on board, there is no longer any good excuse for India not to.

China is already ahead of India on many dimensions of human development: infant mortality, female literacy, child stunting, and open defecation are only some of the most important for well-being.

This week, when China committed to reversing its increase in carbon emissions, it moved ahead of India on yet another critical dimension of human well-being. Neither we in India nor the rest of the world can afford for India to neglect to close this gap.

[All of my quantitative claims about international emissions in the opening paragraphs are based on this EIA database.]

Coal isn’t worth the costs

Written by on November 18th, 2014

I’m writing mainly to post a link to Gardiner Harris’s NYT story today: Coal rush in India could tip balance on climate change.  Getting energy from coal has truly awful health consequences — I sometimes think that if I weren’t working on open defecation, that would be where I should turn my attention.

The only thing I would add to Gardiner’s article is a reply to the quoted politicians who repeat the old misunderstanding that India needs coal to develop.  In fact, mounting evidence proves that coal is a bad economic deal even only for the present generation, ignoring climate change: the disease, medical expenses, and loss of life are simply too large to be worth it.  Two thirds of India’s emissions due to energy consumption are from coal, and that is something nobody needs: not future generations, not today’s workers and taxpayers, and certainly not tomorrow’s babies, who will attempt to grow healthy while breathing its smoke.

Stopping stunting, Swachh Bharat, and trash cans

Written by on November 9th, 2014

I’m writing from the opening minutes of a large Unicef conference called Stop Stunting at the Taj Palace hotel in Delhi.  On my way into the hotel, I had with me an empty soda can to throw away.  The lobby of the hotel is indeed palatial, but neither there, nor downstairs in the conference area, nor in the large meeting room of the conference could I find a trash can.

After searching this huge, glittering expanse, I eventually tried the men’s room.  But even there, the otherwise servile bathroom attendant yelled at me just before I dropped my piece of trash in: that trash can is isn’t for the cloth towels at the sinks.  So what am I supposed to do with it? He took it from me wordlessly.

Of course, trash cans will not stop or otherwise impact stunting — although one would not know it from the extent to which litter and sweeping have absorbed all the media and political attention of India’s new Swachh Bharat Mission.  But this surpassingly fancy hotel intends to have everything proper, and we learn something about cultural ideas of cleanliness and purity from what this goal, immaculately achieved, does and does not include.

It remains to be seen whether the focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission can be returned to rural open defecation, and the complex, deep challenges sanitation behavior change presents here.  I hope the this question will be at the heart of our thoroughly swachh conference to Stop Stunting.


For more reflection on the Swachh Bharat Mission, see Anand Teltumbde’s recent article in EPW.

moral mathematics and fall leaves

Written by on October 24th, 2014
little women, little babies

little women, little babies

Diane and I are in New England for some presentations and meetings  While we were close to the Hebron town hall, we took the chance to turn in our absentee ballots for the fall elections.  Naturally, this prompted me to link back to the three times that what Parfit calls “moral mathematics” has appeared on our blog in some form.

One thing I think Parfit’s discussion gets exactly right is the occasional importance of tiny probabilities, when attached to a very large cost or benefit.  So, voting may be an obligation if the welfare consequences of one winner are very different from another (or if the vote total has a large signaling effect), even if the probabilities involved are small.  By the same logic, it may be a very good idea to work hard to have a small chance of changing the rate of decline of open defecation in India (hint: do a latrine use survey).

On an unrelated note, today the New York Times has a well-deserved blog post on the excellent ASER survey of child learning, the same dataset that Sneha Lamba and I use in our paper on cognitive consequences of early life exposure to poor sanitation.


don’t overlook the annual sanitation survey

Written by on August 26th, 2014

annualsanitationsurveyThe above is a snip out of the new draft action plan for the Swachh Bharat Mission.  I am very concerned that the emphasis of the new plan will be on latrine construction — especially in practice, whatever comprehensive list the guidelines may include.  However, one great piece of news is the serious commitment to an actual survey of latrine use.  There is no serious path to ending open defecation that does not involve keeping track of how much of it is going on.

Three cheers for everyone who has pushed for this survey and who will help make it happen going forward!

go read Varad Pande: “Swachh Bharat Mission: The Long Walk from Rhetoric to Implementation”

Written by on August 25th, 2014


Today’s must-read is Varad Pande’s blog on IBN live:


Much has been said about the recent priority placed on sanitation, with the Prime Minister taking up the issue most recently from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day. He must be commended on this rhetoric – open defecation is a potent silent killer especially in rural India, where more than 60 percent households still practice open defecation. 4 lakh children in India die of diarrhea every year, lakhs others grow up stunted, and several lakh others are malnourished. Recent evidence shows all this can be linked directly to the practice of open defecation, especially in rural India. So the renewed political emphasis on sanitation is more than welcome.

But as many with experience of the ‘system’ know, there is a rather large chasm between intent and the reality of implementation in India. The apparatus of India’s ‘flailing state‘ has a way of scuttling the best-laid plans and the most nobly intended speeches.

So it was useful to see the first details of the new government’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), emerging in a draft Action Plan, released with the agenda papers for a National Meeting on State Ministers on Water & Sanitation to be held this week. This gives the first insight into how the government plans to achieve the ambitious goal of a ‘Swachh Bharat’ by 2019, and how its plans may be different from the existing ‘Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan’.

Four things were particularly noteworthy.

First, the draft document recognizes the importance of changing people’s attitudes, mindsets and behaviors as a central challenge in winning the battle on sanitation. There is remarkable consensus among those who work on rural sanitation that fighting open defecation is not primarily about constructing subsidized toilets, but about getting people to use them. Countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh have shown that it is possible to fight open defecation by singularly focusing on behavior change, and without any subsidized toilet construction at all. So this emphasis on behaviour change and thus the importance of Information, Education and Communication (IEC) is welcome (though it exists equally strongly in the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan guidelines as well). The challenge is that while the Plan lists almost every known IEC technique – mass media, community mobilization, folk media, entertainment education etc. – the nuts and bolts of the Plan still focus on constructing toilets. The budget for IEC is kept at only 15 per cent, and the Action Plan sets a target of constructing 8.84 crore toilets in rural India over 5 years, and even notes that this translates into constructing 48,000 toilets a day (up from 14000 a day that get built right now!). We know from past experience, that rural India has crores of toilets were made only on paper (Indeed, the 2011 census showed there were 3.75 crore ‘missing toilets‘, i.e., toilets constructed according to government ministry figures, but missing on the ground.) And as the old adage goes, “What gets measured is what gets done” – if government targets continue to focus on number of toilets built, we will have just that – crores more toilets built (which also suits the local contractor-bureacrat-politician nexus), but never used. A coherent plan that puts behaviour change first, with adequate budgets and appropriate campaigns that put panchayats and communities at their heart, is the need of the hour. Assistance from institutions like the World Bank that have successfully helped other countries with such campaigns can be leveraged here.

Interestingly, the draft also calls for a ‘National Reach Out Campaign’ (on the model of the Pulse Polio Campaign), with the first effort starting September 25, culminating on October 2 on Gandhiji’s birthday. This is again welcome – in fact what we need really is more than a standard government campaign – we need a national movement – a rashtriya junoon – as the former Water & Sanitation Minister Jairam Ramesh called it. Chief Ministers and District Collectors must drive this as an overriding priority. The draft also calls for a sanitation related field-force – Block-level Sanitation Coordinators and Swachhata Doots (incidentally, also there in the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan), but its not clear how they will be incentivized and why they will be any more effective than government school teachers and public health workers, often known for their absenteeism.

Second, the draft calls for the setting up of a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV)’ – a Company that will act as a specialized Project Management Agency for water & sanitation projects, help prepare District Project Reports, and process PPP and CSR projects. This is a potentially innovative idea, as such a vehicle can be professionally run with skilled personnel, have greater flexibility in budget and implementation decisions than government departments, etc., but exactly what the SPV will do and how, especially given that the central challenge is not about toilet construction, remains largely defined.

Third, the draft calls for the Centre to sign MoUs with States, where States commit to doing their part to achieve ‘Swachh Bharat’ by 2019 and in return, the Centre promises (presumably) a smoother funds flow and more flexibility to States for implementation, etc. This is also potentially a powerful idea that can empower States and hold them accountable for outcomes, i.e., toilet use or open defecation free Panchayats, and not toilet construction targets. The flow of funds from Centre to the States can also be based on achievement of such outcomes, making it a form of ‘results-based financing‘, which is in vogue in development projects globally these days. But here again, the details are far from clear in the draft. A related idea that is mentioned is to allow States to provide incentives to communities/GPs, rather than individuals, which is also welcome, especially as evidence from other countries (and indeed from ‘successful’ states like Himachal Pradesh and successful districts like Churu and Bikaner in Rajasthan) shows that it is collective community commitment that is needed to achieve and sustain open defecation free status.

Fourth, and perhaps most promisingly, the draft calls for an Annual Survey of Toilet Use to track how many households are actually using toilets. This is critical to change the mindset of the government machinery, and serve as a carrot and stick for the States. Sanitation is today is where primary education was ten years ago in the policy debate in India. The ASER Survey, conducted annually across rural India by the ASER Centre of Pratham since 2005, has created a major mindset shift away from tracking ‘enrollment’ in schools to ‘learning outcomes’, which is what we really care about. We need a similar mindset shift in sanitation today from ‘construction’ to ‘toilet use’, which such a survey can help catalyse. This idea needs to be now given shape, and it requires the best minds on survey design and impact evaluation in the development sector to work on it – organisations like J-PAL, ASER, and r.i.c.e., who have intensive experience on this, must be engaged to do this.

The Swachh Bharat Mission can well be more than a re-branding exercise and possibly turn the page on the scourge of open defecation if we set our minds to it and are willing to face the real issues, not just construct toilets. Let us hope we will.

Bending the curve from business as usual

Written by on July 18th, 2014

I’m just writing to flag a useful recent blog post by Eddy Perez of WSP: How and Why Countries are Changing to Reach Universal Access in Rural Sanitation by 2030.  Eddy’s main examples are from other countries, but I think there are at least two important messages for those of us working on rural sanitation in India.

The first is the importance of evaluating programs and policies at scale.  The challenges and constraints are importantly different for Uttar Pradesh and for a small, careful pilot.  We do learn important social science from tightly controlled studies, but that can’t be enough.  Luckily, I think this point is increasingly well understood: at the first day of yesterday’s IGC-ISI conference, for example, we saw several statewide or larger scale studies of programs and policies.

The second is the inadequacy of business as usual for ending open defecation.  Sure, if we all keep doing what we’re doing open defecation will go away… in at least 50 years.  Open defecation in India has been going down at one percentage point a year for a long, long time.  If that continues, we have 53 years to wait.  Ending open defecation won’t be easy, and is not a solved problem.

Welcome new readers from the New York Times!

Written by on July 14th, 2014

r.i.c.e. is a non-profit economic and demographic research organization working in India, and concentrating on child health and early-life human development. Many new readers are finding us from Gardiner Harris’s New York Times article, Poor Sanitation in India May Afflict Well-Fed Children with Malnutrition.


Indian children -- the three large circles in the bottom corner -- face the double threat of exceptionally high open defecation amidst high population density.

Indian children — the three large circles in the bottom corner — face the double threat of exceptionally high open defecation amidst high population density.


Indeed, widespread open defecation in India is a human development tragedy of enormous scale.  That’s why we research it, and why we are hopeful for policy action that focuses on promoting toilet and latrine use, not just more construction projects.  But sanitation is not the only thing we study: recent r.i.c.e. research has also focused on child nutrition and women’s status, child height and cognition, maternal healthcare, and the link between women’s status and clean cooking fuel use.

For more on r.i.c.e.’s sanitation research:

  • This paper details our finding highlighted in the article that open defecation is an important part of what makes Indian children so short.
  • This website presents findings from our recent SQUAT survey in rural north India, highlighting the behavioral and social challenges entailed in reducing open defecation.

presenting SQUAT survey findings at PHFI on Thursday

Written by on June 24th, 2014

squat logo

At 3pm on Thursday, June 26th — the day after tomorrow — I will be making the first presentation of the findings from our new paper.  The paper summarizes the survey results.  One key finding is that open defecation is very common even among people who live in households with latrines, so programs that hope to eliminate open defecation must move beyond latrine construction to promoting behaviour change.  I hope you will join us this Thursday to learn more!  Here is the announcement of the talk:

Revealed preference for open defecation:

Evidence from a new survey in rural north India

Thursday, June 26th — 3pm

PHFI, Plot no. 47, Sector 44, Gurgaon (webinar connections also available from PHFI)

hosted by Dr. Neha Raykar, PHFI


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