What ails our policy mandarins?
Policy planning in India, as elsewhere, is carried out typically by highly qualified professional economists who crunch numbers as though these numbers represent actual human beings and their felt experiences.
Some years ago, Sayeeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda published a book called Beautiful Country. There, they wrote about their travels across India, during which they went deep into remote villages and spoke to beneficiaries of various government welfare schemes. The chapters made for painful reading. There were stories after stories of a fundamental mismatch between what citizens on the ground needed - in terms of public services or welfare policies - on the one hand, and what the government of the day offered, on the other.
Hameed was a senior member of the Planning Commission, and Veda was assisting her. Together, they they travelled across the country as part of a project to study the reach and efficacy of various public welfare measures sponsored or recommended by the Planning Commission. Montek Singh Alhuwalia, the then Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission wrote a foreword to the book. One of Alhuwalia’s sentences remains firmly etched in memory. The chapters by Hameed and Veda, he wrote, offered a different perspective on the process of policy planning and execution from the aggregation approach of macro economics which generally guided the policy establishments in India.
Hameed and Veda did not do anything out of this world. Their methods were disarmingly simple, in fact. They went to practically every district in the country, and asked villagers there about how they were, or were not, making gains from various welfare measures. They then noted down those responses and later processed some of them into the book. Their detailed report must still be lying somewhere in the archives of NITI Ayog, which has since replaced the Planning Commission as the premier government institution researching and recommending public policy.
Two recent reports rekindled memories of that book. A newspaper reported that many poor citizens in parts of Jharkhand have been dying of starvation, largely because of some recent changes in the Public Distribution System. The PDS is essentially a public welfare scheme through which the government seeks to make free or subsidised food available to the economically worst-off in the country. Typically, any individual or household with a valid ration card was entitled to collect a particular quantity of food grains from authorised ration dealers. A recent directive by senior officials in Jharkhand now requires these beneficiaries to connect their ration cards with their Aadhaar cards before a certain deadline. Most of these beneficiaries were illiterate or unemployed. When they failed, their ration cards were immediately deemed invalid, and they were denied access to a number of welfare benefits that practically kept them alive.
Not that the ration dealers themselves fared any better. The beneficiaries and dealers concerned all belong to the Mahuadnar block in the Latehar district. Internet reception there is horrible. If the beneficiaries do not know how to connect their ration cards with their Aadhar, the dealers cannot register every transaction, as they now must, through a special electronic interface. While the intent to entirely digitise the public distribution system in India is lofty indeed, in practice it refuses to engage with existing ground realities, and is fast turning into a cause for disaster. The report concluded with a quote from a senior official in the district administration. The digitisation drive cannot be compromised, he said. It is aimed at developing a fool proof public distribution system.
In another incident, some 15,000 free DD set top boxes were distributed to citizens living in remote villages in a few border districts of Jammu and Kashmir. The recipients were quite poor, but most of them lived in concrete homes and already had colour TVs and set top boxes. The government suspected that they watched too many Pakistani TV channels and are therefore vulnerable to anti-India propaganda.
In reality, the villagers said they had been asking for free land and better employment prospects for themselves and their children. Soon after coming to power, the Union government had promised free land to these households to the quantity of 5 Marla. Marla is a unit of land measurement in Punjab worked out during the British colonial rule. It has since remained in use in both India and Pakistan. A Marla is roughly equivalent to 225 square feet or 25 square yards, although it varies according to the location and particular method of calculation used. A Pakistani Marla, for instance, is slightly larger than the Indian Marla. But the intricacies of land measurement need not detain us here. The point is the government had made a promise of free land distribution and it has since struggled to keep the promise. Still later, it came up the idea of free distribution of DD set top boxes to households which already had them since long ago. The recipients were in a quandary. Since it is free, they went ahead and collected them. We’ll decide what to do with it later, one of them said.
Whether it is the digitisation of the PDS system or turning border villages in Jammu and Kashmir into avid India loyalists, the objective is arguably indefensible. But the method and strategies suffer from a basic flaw. They refuse to consider ground realities, or learn from past failures. They display an irrational deference to the omniscience and omnipotence of aggregation oriented macro level statistical rationality.
Incidentally, this is also what Alhuwalia wrote in his preface to the book by Hameed and Veda. Their method is promising, he wrote, but it cannot yield large scale or generalisable insights.
That is the classic bureaucratic logic speaking. Only aggregation based statistical logic can yield generalisable insights, it thunders, and nothing else can ever be good enough. And yet, stories like the ones Hameed collected or the ones I briefly mention above are easy enough to put together. Why can’t thousands of such stories generate some generalisable policy insights? It will take only a handful of sincere researchers to devote some serious attention to newspaper reports from all over the country, on a constant and consistent basis. In any case, why must there be a one size fits all policy for the entire country anyway? Why must all administrative units be the same or similar in all other respects too? Why must an administrative unit, such as a village or a district, be understood to merit uniform policies , as though one of them can stand in for all others?
There are no easy answers to these questions. At heart of this debate is the assumption that numbers alone yield generalisable insights and they in turn encourage scalable policies. And stories or thick descriptions don’t.
But why must all good and effective policies be scalable? Or why must scalability alone be the measure of a good or effective policy? What is so impossibly difficult to design policies on a smaller scale, so that they actually benefit their targeted recipients, by taking into account their particular strengths and limitations?
For policies to be effective, all stakeholders must be made a party to their planing. Yet, policy planning in India, as elsewhere, is carried out typically by highly qualified professional economists who crunch numbers as though these numbers don't represent actual human beings and their felt experiences.
It is time to ask how a system of policy planning can be put in place in which the actual beneficiaries are assigned a seat at the high table at the formative of policy planning.
Marketing surveys are a common enough practice in the corporate sector. Every company worth its name commissions a market survey before a new product is launched or a modification is in line. Why can’t the government do something similar before every welfare measure is launched?