Behavioural change, for good

Punjab is staring at a major groundwater crisis. Access to free electricity and subsidized pump sets have over the past few decades led to indiscriminate pumping out of groundwater for irrigation, a lot of which is unchecked and goes to waste. Given the politically sensitive nature of the issue, there’s been no intervention aimed at bringing about a sustained change in behavior so as to discourage this colossal wastage, but a recent attempt at inducing a behavioral change seems to be well thought-out.

Instead of making electricity available for free, the government will ensure that farmers will be paid the same subsidy in cash, based on cost of power for irrigating the crops as finalized by a panel of agricultural experts. The farmers would be issued electricity bills, and they will be allowed to retain the savings, i.e. subsidy minus the bill amount. This strongly incentives mindful consumption of electricity and hence, water since now whatever one save’s by using less of electricity to draw out groundwater will be a new source of earnings for the farmer. This is a relevant example of a behavioral intervention, or a ‘nudge’ as it has been popularly known these days.

India is a welfare state and it is a large, complex one at that. For the ongoing Financial Year, the subsidies on just food, fertilizer and fuel alone have been pegged at around Rs. 2.64 Lakh crores and this figure excludes the welfare expenditure done by the state governments. Over the past couple of years, the leaky, inefficient, decades-old system of subsidy transfers has been fixed to a large extent in India with the Jan dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile Numbers trinity. It is now important that we shift our focus to the issue of ensuring that these welfare measures have the maximum impact and bring about the desired change.

Consider the “Give It Up” campaign as a case in point. The Prime Minister launched the campaign in March 2015, in which he appealed to the better off citizens to forgo the gas subsidy they receive every month so that gas cylinders can be transferred to the less fortunate instead. To induce a behavioral change, the government ensured two conditions in this case – (a) emphasis on the ‘social norm’ of giving, suggesting it should turn into a movement; and (b) facilitating the process of foregoing the subsidy by removing all friction points in the process, i.e. making it extremely easy to do so.

In terms of social norms, a 2013 study conducted in the UK stated that an effective way of encouraging individuals to act in a desired way was to “focus on the social”.  People are influenced by the actions of those around them and are more likely to give to charity if they perceive giving as the social norm. Focusing on the social, therefore, can include sending out social signals by having prominent individuals as spokespersons of campaigns and drawing on peer effects by making acts of giving more visible to others within one’s social group.

Just three days after the campaign was launched, Gautam Adani, chairman of the Adani group nudged his group’s nearly 8,000 employees to participate by sending a signed letter to all of them, asking them to opt out of their LPG subsidies by attaching the form for opting out as well. Plus the this wasn’t restricted to just large corporate houses, as demonstrated when 200 of the 1,500 LPG cylinder distributors in Maharashtra state chose to opt out of the subsidy as well, with many more following suit. 

The second point is how easy the government made it for people to opt out, so that once they are motivated enough to do so, frictions in the process doesn’t make them change their minds and bring back the inertia towards not doing it. A consumer could log on to the websites of his/her distributor to register account details and select to decline the subsidy. Those with no Internet access could give up their subsidy by simply sending a text message. Consumers also have the option of downloading an app to give up their subsidy via their smartphones if they so wished to.

What governments have been doing in order to get the citizens to behave in a certain manner is to regulate by running a host of programs and schemes. Some of these may lack effectiveness and efficiency owing partly to their design and delivery mechanisms. To put it plainly, they do not incorporate elements that account for how human behavior works, and the conditions that drive a change.

Initial steps towards leveraging behavioral science can already be seen in India. The Indian Railways has, for example, been printing "IR recovers only 57% of cost of travel on an average" on the computerized printed tickets issued to passengers in addition to prominently displaying the same on its website as well since about June, 2016. This is in order to at least make people aware of the kind of cost the transporter has been bearing in subsidizing their travel. Taking a cue from the petroleum ministry, Indian Railways launched a ‘Give-It-Up’ campaign of its own, asking travelers for letting go of the train ticket subsidies.

Indian government’s official think-tank, the NITI Aayog is setting up a ‘nudge unit’ that will “work towards bringing about behavioral changes and recommending policy corrections to help make the government’s welfare programs more effective.”

The case for well-designed, impactful behavioral interventions towards driving sustained socio-economic changes has never been stronger in India.

Yash Agarwal