Governance

Nudge for better policy results, but cautiously

Nudge, as a tool, is often criticised because it rests on the fundamental premise of ‘libertarian paternalism’

 
By Swasti Pachauri
Last Updated: Wednesday 28 August 2019
Nudge, as a tool, is often criticised because it rests on the fundamental premise of ‘libertarian paternalism’. Photo: Getty Images

During the Lok Sabha elections, when Congress President Rahul Gandhi promised an annual income of Rs 72,000 to the poorest, it was hailed as a game-changer. Prepared in consultation with economists, the scheme was based on welfare economics. Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, which won the elections for second term, on the other hand, was inculcating the principles of nudge into public policy since 2016, when there were reports that NITI Aayog was in the process of establishing a Nudge Unit, which the Economic Survey of 2018-19 also bats for in the chapter, Policy for Homo Sapiens, Not Homo Economicus: Leveraging the Behavioural Economics of ‘Nudge’

The theory advocates the idea of presenting a choice architecture to people to nudge them towards a desired outcome. Its impact is visible in both the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) campaign, which required moving away from years of cultural conditioning and social norms towards socially desirable behaviour. While in SBM, a push for toilet infrastructure acted as the nudge, the successful application of nudge is seen in BBBP right from the implementation stages. 

In 2015, when the government launched BBBP, it was first implemented in Haryana, which had an abysmal sex ratio; was characterised by a patriarchal fiefdom; and where the National Crime Record Bureau registered one gang rape every two days. The social message was complemented with an economic buffer through the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana (a savings scheme) and cemented with community-led campaigns like Selfie with Daughter and Digital India with Laado that advocated “replacing nameplates with daughters’ names”. 

Around that time, the government introduced women-centric schemes, such as Ujjwala and PM Mudra Yojana (easy loan for women entrepreneurs); introduced laws like criminalisation of triple talaq; and, roped in women brand ambassadors, particularly from Haryana — bronze medallist at the Rio Olympics Sakshi Malik is the new face of BBBP in Haryana; Miss World 2017 Manushi Chhillar campaigns for anaemia-free Haryana; and, wrestling’s famous Phogat sisters have been appointed by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation to promote SBM. Movies such as Dangal (2016) Toilet Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Padman (2018) constructed an enabling environment for behaviourial and mindset shifts. 

The changing narrative has had an overall impact. Haryana witnessed a steady improvement in sex ratio. For the first time, India elected a record 78 women to Lok Sabha. Women’s participation in the 2019 general election was also at par with men. It’s time the government used “nudge” to ensure that women enjoy equal rights over property, their contribution in farm work is recognised and their holistic empowerment is guaranteed. 

But a word of caution. Nudge is often criticised because it rests on the fundamental premise of “libertarian paternalism” (a subtle push toward a particular outcome induced by presenting a choice architecture). Under SBM, several cases have come to the fore which deployed coercive action to meet targets. So, policymakers should transparently use “nudge” that is free of manipulative and orchestrated tactics and devoid of didacticism, which is antithetical to democratic principles. 

The author is a social sector consultant who has worked with KPMG, PwC and served as a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow

This was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated 16-31 August, 2019

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