IndiaSpend ResearchWire - February 19


In today’s edition, we discuss the productivity losses from rising heat, how reservations help expand social networks, whether the uniform civil code will help Muslim women, why India’s COVID-19 numbers are plummeting, an interview with a brilliant development economist on the development challenges of our times, and a book recommendation on what to look for when you’re looking at data.

If you have missed any of our earlier editions, you can read them here.

You’re not lazy. It’s the heat

As winter draws to a close, I found us some opportune reading on what it means to live in a hot country. Read this on the impact of temperature on productivity and labour supply in Indian manufacturing. E. Somanathan, Rohini Somanathan, Anant Sudarshan and Meenu Tewari study micro-data from selected firms in India and find that not only do fewer workers show up at work during long spells of hot weather, but also, those that do are not as productive.

Worker productivity on hot days declines by 2-4%, per degree Celsius.

So, if heat saps labour productivity, surely it makes sense for firms to invest in air conditioners? After a point, yes. Cloth-weaving firms do not use climate control since value per worker is too low to justify the power bills, and diamond cutting plants use air-conditioning selectively in processes that are critical to quality.

What are the implications? First, research to develop low-cost climate adaptation technologies has massive social value. 

Second, this affects inequality and distribution: The researchers argue that in the long run, industry may respond by increasing automation and shifting away from labour-intensive sectors in hot parts of the world. 

But to where? Everywhere you look, workers are more productive on rainy days than on sunny ones—albeit for wonderfully first-world reasons. 

See also a short video here on research by Jonathan Colmer who finds that hot weather means fewer people work in agriculture, and more move to manufacturing—leading to a relative rise in manufacturing output. So, a flexible labour market, conducive policies, and an expanding manufacturing sector can mitigate the economic losses from very hot days. 

Finally, know that hot days have a far greater impact on mortality in rural India, when compared to urban India. And that extreme temperatures have been found to be associated with higher infant mortality, early marriage among girls, and explain why I am a lot more pleasant person in London than in Delhi.

I know a guy

I’ve discussed before how contrary to popular belief, research has found reservations to be an effective tool to redistribute both political and economic power, with no cost to other minorities or to society overall. Read also this by Alexander Lee who studied quota policies in government hiring and education for Other Backward Class (OBC) castes in India, and found that while these have “neither ignited a social revolution nor been an abject failure”, they have come with another, more nuanced secondary benefit: increasing the chances of a poor person’s social network including a doctor, teacher, or gazetted government officer from their caste. This is valuable given the role ‘personal contacts’ play in determining life chances, and access in India. 

The political economy of an absent or ineffective state translates into tremendous value from knowing the right people.

Your chances of getting a school admission for your child, accessing healthcare in an overburdened hospital, or just getting your documents stamped by a gazetted officer for routine business are much higher if you ‘know someone’. 

Also see this on Gaurav Khanna’s work, which finds that OBC reservations in government jobs and colleges in India increased the future potential benefits from education and incentivised OBC students to stay in school longer—up to a point. The full paper is available here.

‘Will the BJP save Muslim women?’

The latest blog by the ever provocative, but consistently brilliant Alice Evans is a very good read. She argues that a uniform civil code can improve gender equality for Muslim women, but not in a vacuum.

Economic autonomy and public safety are essential—and this holds true for both Hindu and Muslim women. 

Taking us through the history of previous attempts at bypassing conservative laws and the opposition they received, she points out the uniquely advantageous position the BJP government enjoys:

“It has no compunctions about aggravating Muslims.”

Read the piece for a good primer on the issue. It is written in a matter-of-fact manner, backed by evidence and links to several excellent studies on Muslim gender relations. I don’t think it is completely devoid of her own slant on the subject—but frankly, I’m not going to ask her to do what I’d be lousy at too.

A real head-scratcher

I don’t want to jinx anything but read a good piece here on what lies behind India’s mysteriously plummeting COVID-19 cases. Is it the masks, the information campaigns, the heat and humidity, existing immunity, favourable demographics, timing—what? The piece evaluates the evidence around these theories and concludes that—spoiler alert—scientists just don’t know. Read so you know at least as much as the best brains on the planet do about this continually evolving puzzle. There is also a three-minute audio on the linked page, if you’d prefer that. 

While on COVID-19, here’s also a new website that tracks the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine in India, state by state.

Dev Econ 101

This interview with Seema Jayachandran caught my eye and I really enjoyed it. Read for a roundup of some of the most important contemporary development challenges—gender equality, deforestation, economic growth and corruption, debt—and what the evidence says about them. 

I’ve also shared Seema’s columns earlier—she writes on popular economics for New York Times and you can find them all here.

A book recommendation

If you’ve ever shrugged dismissively at statistics because “it is so easy to lie with them” and moved on, Tim Harford’s book ‘How to Make the World Add Up is for you. 

“..statistical cynicism is not just a shame—it’s a tragedy.”

Tim argues—very persuasively—that while enough people use data creatively to tell a tale, there is simply no substitute for carefully collected and analysed numbers if you want to illustrate reality. He presents 10 common-sense principles to “evaluate the claims that surround us with confidence, curiosity and a healthy level of scepticism”. 

The book is a brilliant, insightful, and witty read by one of the best non-fiction writers of our times. Highly recommended.

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Amee Misra
Contributing Editor, IndiaSpend
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