Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | The need for nudge inputs in policy making

The return of the capital's annual pollution problem highlights its importance again

It’s that time of the year again. Stubble-burning has started in Punjab and Haryana, and Diwali looms on the horizon. Pollution in the national capital has escalated to hazardous levels yet again, with parts of the capital experiencing an air quality index (AQI) of nearly 700 last weekend. The Delhi government is, no doubt, preparing the contingency plans it rolls out every year as air quality worsens at the onset of winters. It would do well to think outside its usual parameters.

Issues such as stubble-burning require large-scale policy solutions. But others that depend on millions of individual solutions across New Delhi—and India’s polluted urban landscape in general, for that matter—need a different approach. Take tailpipe emissions. Switching to clean energy vehicles is well and good, but that will not happen anytime soon. Until then, a push to public transport usage and shared mobility is important. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a consortium of the world’s largest cities, has been looking at various ways to address this, among other things. One of its approaches has been designing ‘nudges’ in parking, ticketing and other aspects of urban mobility to steer people towards making the optimal choice.

This paper has backed Niti Aayog’s plan to set up a ‘nudge unit’.There are a number of areas beyond pollution control efforts in which such a policy tool could be useful. The basic concept is this: A government or organization structures a policy in a way that makes the right choices appear to be the most optimal choices among the entire basket of choices available to individuals.

In short, a nudge makes good choices easy, attractive, social and timely (EAST, a mnemonic formulated by the British government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)). Richard Thaler’s Nobel prize in economics last year may have popularized the concept, but it had entered the rarefied realm of policy making well before that; BIT is a case in point.

For instance, BIT devised a policy to nudge smokers to quit smoking by providing incentives to do so. Quitters were asked to sign a contract that offered positive and negative rewards, depending on whether they passed regular smoking tests. A definite increase in the number of quitters as a result of this approach was observed.

BIT applied behavioural insights towards diabetes control as well. A ‘Didget device’ was jointly developed by Bayer Healthcare and Nintendo DS. This device awarded points to diabetic children if they proved to be consistent with their pin-prick blood-sugar tests. Over in Qatar, in 2014, healthcare provider Hamad Medical Corp. had offered diabetes screening during Ramadan. Since the majority of the population was fasting, the hurdle of fasting before a diabetes screen test was no longer in play. Making the process easier in this manner resulted in a marked increase in the take-up rates for diabetes screening.

Elsewhere, the World Bank employed the use of rewards for improving record-keeping in health clinics in Nigeria. The health workers responded positively and were less inclined to steal money. The United Nations is the latest to turn to nudging for helping achieve sustainable development goals by 2030. The examples are many and growing across countries and policy spheres—from the US and Australia to Japan employing nudges for low carbon initiatives.

In the Indian context, take the Narendra Modi government’s emphasis on human development schemes. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) contribute to 61% of deaths in India, with the poorest half-billion of the population still choosing to seek treatment from informal doctors or simply put up with ill health. Ayushman Bharat aims to tackle this by establishing 150,000 health and wellness centres. The fiscal and logistical aspects of that aside, health infrastructure is of little use if people don’t utilize it. This is particularly true in the context of the sort of regular primary care needed to tackle NCDs at an early stage. Nudge interventions at the local government and medical level could help here.

Then there is Swachh Bharat. Much has been written and said about the need to change attitudes and behaviour alongside constructing toilets if open defecation is to be eliminated. Nudges could help tackle India’s perennial road safety problem too—or for ensuring people finish prescribed drug courses to avoid the buildup of antibiotic resistance, encouraging pension savings for the elderly, and widening the tax base.

This is why the subsequent silence about Niti Aayog’s nudge unit plans is disappointing. Behavioural economics cannot provide one-stop solutions. But research provides substantial evidence that enlightened choice architecture can be a valuable input in tackling India’s myriad policy problems. The government should start taking it seriously.

Can nudges help tackle India’s urban pollution problem? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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