By Aditi Maheshwari
This article aims to analyse how the application of Nudge Theory can turn the failure of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiative into a success by adding a few ‘new nudges’ recommended by me.
Audi’s advertisement, titled ‘Daughter’, which played in the 2017 Super Bowl’s commercial slot showcased a young girl competing against boys in a soapbox derby. Throughout the race until the girl won it, her father was in the following dilemma that society projected on him:
“Do I tell her that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets? Or maybe I’ll be able to tell her something different.”
Audi’s commercial aptly not only portrays the existing gender disparity, but also the never-ending hope that no gender should be valued more than the others. Each one of us has conformed to a patriarchal society, whether we realise that or not. From something as big as a woman giving up on her passion and career for the sake of managing a household to obey her in-laws’ to something as unnoticeable as a child perpetually disrespecting their mother while no other family member takes offence to such behaviour, especially the father.
To curb the inherent sexism embedded in our society, the Government of India released a scheme called Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Scheme. The inefficient implementation of this policy has led to its failure, thus, I intend to discuss potential ‘new nudges’ that could help achieve Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’s objective.
What is Nudge Theory?
Nudge theory stems from behavioural economics, which contradicts the assumption of neo-classical economists that consumers behave rationally. Instead, consumers behave irrationally due to factors like culture, cognitive ability, society, emotion, and much more.
As per Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the context in which individuals make decisions is organised by a choice architect. They know how to incentivize an individual, set an ideal default option that would benefit most people, structure complex choices, and give feedback. A decent rule of thumb for a choice architect is to assume that ‘everything matters’.
Any element of the choice architecture that modifies people’s behaviour predictably without restricting their options or materially altering their financial incentives is referred to as a nudge. To merely qualify as a nudge, the intervention should be effortless and inexpensive to circumvent. Therefore, a nudge cannot be a directive issued by a governing authority that applies to everyone under its purview. Namely, banning the consumption of junk food does not classify as nudging people to follow a healthy lifestyle because citizens do not have a choice in the matter.
Hypothetically if a person – Abhimanyu – wants to quit smoking, which option will be the best bet: (a) the government impose a ban on cigarettes, or (b) the use of nicotine patches? In my opinion, neither. Option (a) is imposing a mandate on Abhimanyu. As someone who is addicted to smoking, he can buy cigarettes from the black market or choose other dangerous ways to consume nicotine. Furthermore, research shows that nicotine patches have a dangerously low success rate. Thus, Abhimanyu needs to be nudged into quitting smoking.
Instead, he should volunteer to be part of a program run by the Green Bank of Cariaga in the Philippines, where a potential non-smoker opens an account with a minimum amount of $1. Over the course of half a year, Abhimanyu would have to deposit money he would instead expend on buying cigarettes. In weekly intervals, his urine samples would be tested to check if he had smoked recently. If the samples came back positive, the money in his account would be donated to a charity whereas if the samples returned negative, he would get his money back. Abhimanyu will be 53% more likely to quit smoking if he opens an account because he would work towards intrinsically changing an unhealthy habit.
Policy Makers as Choice Architects
Although Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Scheme has been majorly unsuccessful, it marks a substantial starting point to mitigate gender inequality within the society for three reasons: (a) the policy is aimed at all Indian citizens, so no demographics are being missed out from the scheme; (b) the heart of the policy – its ideation – is in the right place; and (c) the policy does not necessarily require an influx of supplementary funds due to the employment of Nudge Theory. It is important for the government to play the role of choice architects while deliberating upon policies because their primary aim is social welfare. Additionally, private players neither have the incentive to make drastic social changes nor have jurisdiction.
Why will Nudging work?
Humans are easily swayed by other people’s words and actions. The most impactful way to nudge someone is to resort to social influence. Social influence comes in two forms: information and peer pressure. When lots of individuals act or think in a certain way, it gives you knowledge on what could be best for you to act or think as well. In the erroneous notion that other people are paying attention to what you are doing – the spotlight effect, if you care about what they think of you, you may follow the crowd to win their approval. Humans are easily nudged because we like to conform to norms, be they societal or legal.
Due to social influence, we forfeit our own judgement and senses. Choice architects can exploit this fact to move people in a better direction. Many experiments show that groups abide by ‘collective conservatism’, which is the inclination of groups to remain fixated on existing patterns even when new needs emerge.
Beti Padhao Beti Bachao Policy’s Inefficiency
The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao yojana was launched by the Indian government in 2015 to address issues with gender inequality and women’s empowerment in the nation. The name of the policy directly translates to “Save the girl child, educate the girl child”. The policy aims to improve the effectiveness of services provided to girls in need of welfare and to educate the public about gender bias. A seed fund of Rs. 100 crore was invested into this scheme. The Ministry of Women & Child Development, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, and Ministry of Human Resources Development together oversee this national policy where each ministry is responsible for a distinct aspect of the scheme.
The program was started after the 2011 results of the national census showed a decline in two important gender indicators, the Child Sex Ratio and the Sex Ratio at Birth. The child-sex ratio is the proportion of girls to boys between 0 and 6 years old. From 945 in 1999 to 927 in 2001, this ratio showed a continuous drop. In 2011, there was a significant drop to 918 females for every 1,000 boys.
A thorough analysis of the decline revealed the Sex Ratio at Birth to be the main contributing factor. A decline in these ratios is a significant sign of gender inequality and the undermining of women’s rights; it reflects both prenatal discrimination through gender-biased, sex-selective abortion and postnatal discrimination through the disregard for the health, nutritional, and educational needs of girls. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao yojana was launched after research revealed that the basis of the issue was the strong socio-cultural and religious preference for boys.
The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana works towards the following objectives: improve the child-sex ratio; ensure gender equality and women empowerment; prevent gender-biased, sex-selective elimination; ensure survival and protection of the girl child; encourage education and participation of the girl child.
Nevertheless, poor execution of the policy has led to its failure. Firstly, increasing the number of girls enrolled in secondary schools and re-enrolling all girls who had dropped out of school both fell short of their goals. Moreover, female infanticide and foeticide are still common in India despite several efforts by successive administrations to balance the gender ratio. Every policy helps to improve the ratio, but when these are not put into practice and data is manipulated, we regress significantly.
While these problems exist, they can also be done away with the help of the Nudge Theory! Humans are error-prone. Individuals cannot afford to take their time to carefully consider every decision they have to make since they are too busy attempting to survive in a complex world. This often creates inertia. The status quo bias, often referred to as inertia, is the significant propensity for people to choose the default course of action, primarily because they are ‘loss averse’. Choice architects, policymakers, in this case, should use this to their advantage and come up with a default option that changes how society views girls.
‘New Nudges’ to Overcome Collective Conservatism
Nudge 1: In the present situation, a girl child can create a bank account through this initiative to achieve long-term financial security. The account for the girl child will continue to be entirely tax-free. The guardians of a girl child may easily accumulate money in this account to be utilised for the girl’s higher education or marriage.
While this policy is great, it is still a hassle for people in rural areas to open new bank accounts. This gives us a chance to use the status quo bias to our benefit. In the event that a girl child is born, the government will by default automatically ‘opt-in’ on the behalf of the parents to open a tax-free bank account for their newborn’s long-term future savings. Of course, the parents can opt-out of such a scheme, but they are less likely to due to inertia.
The government could arrange for hospitals to have tie-ups with banks but at the same time ensure that a parent can easily navigate through the options and choose a bank to open the account in. The government should further emphasise the number of people who have already made a bank account to influence new parents into opening one for their girl child as well. On top of that, the government could run ads and put posters in hospitals with celebrities and well-known personalities participating in this scheme. All of these changes will secure a higher percentage of girls’ futures.
Nudge 2: Parents have the option of showing education fee receipts of a girl child to gain tax concessions. To positively reinforce the family and act as a reminder of the importance of a girl child, the government could send documents to every family stating the amount of tax concession they received by investing in the girl’s education. This incentivizes them to continue her education, and not let her drop out of school.
In furtherance to this step, the same document from the government could also demarcate with emoticons if that family has received more tax concession than others in the locality. This will motivate those who have not adequately educated a girl in their family to send them to an educational institution because they care about what society thinks of them due to the spotlight effect.
Nudge 3: Statistics are a powerful weapon for persuasion since they deal with verifiable facts. Hence, teachers might tell parents about the average income advantages of having their children stay in school an extra year to prevent girls from dropping out.
The list of new nudges mentioned above is by no means exhaustive, and I think it is safe to say that it is unlikely for a list of potential nudges to ever be exhaustive. Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao or any other policy for that matter should aim to create default options that will benefit people’s lifestyles since most individuals are prone to inertia, keeping the spotlight effect in mind to influence people by informative means or peer pressure. People struggle to maintain positive habits, so frequent affirmations and reminders of past achievements might help people keep up their new behaviour. While proposing these potential solutions, I hope to nudge patriarchy into the grave of stereotypes, simply because it has lived far too long!
About the Author
Aditi Maheshwari is a second-year law student pursuing BBA LLB (Hons.) at Jindal Global Law School. Her interests include exploring practical applications of various concepts in the field of law.