PUBLIC POLICY – ALUMNI SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP AT IIMA
PP ASIG aims to act as a bridge between the institute community (teachers, students, alumni), the practitioners and experts of Public Policy, to impact and influence the policy through exchange of views and knowledge.
THE BEGINNING When a group of WIMWIANs gather, we find ways to change the world, if only to change the world around us. This is both our training and our legacy, for IIMA has always been at the forefront of policy decision making in the country. Professors have contributed to the design process, shaping the contours of policy, and many alumni have been part of the policy making framework across decades, either as part of their core role, or via consultation and expert committees or as part of industry bodies.
To gather with our shared interest in policy was the next logical step, and the policy hub of Delhi was the natural location for the meeting in early October, 2019. The vibrant exchange of views, backed by evidence, examples, practice and purpose was focused on building a shared space where we could all contribute to public policy in constructive ways.
There was a range of experience in the group – some had retired from policy positions, others had just been recruited into the formal world of policy. The government’s new lateral entry had just been actioned, and we had representatives from there, as did we have representatives from civil society who had worked on public policy research and action for decades. A wealth of experience of success and failure as Officers on Special Duty with Union Ministers, as professionals with agencies, as consultants, and, as academics lent heft to the discussions. As we progressed the discussion, we realised that there was much to contribute to the policy discussion. The key question was then about strategy and process – where and how should we make a start, and which efforts would be sustainable in the future.
The group has progressed a lot since that first discussion. We have had both internal and public discussions. While the discussions within the group help us understand and navigate policy issues outside of our core domains, we also extend these discussions to the wider community. The discussions within the group are about sharing learning, as we seek and explore a deeper understanding of the problems and possible solutions. The discussions that are shared with the public focus on known faces, and their experience with navigating policy structures to do good. The discussions have been wide ranging, as are all policy discussions, but also pragmatic with a great deal of depth as they are led by domain experts.
BACKGROUND The Public Policy SIG has been one of the first of the alumni groups to align in this avatar, and has been able to lead and support subsequent SIGs in their endeavours by sharing both pace and outcomes. Its cautious start belies its enormous potential that was tempered in part by this being the year of the pandemic. Despite restricted circumstances, the SIG zoomed forth online and enabled discussions on myriad issues of import at the national level. There is much that we can do together as alumni, and as we go further down the path of enabling policy makers for social good, we realise how many of us have been doing excellent work over the decades in this area. This has been a journey of discovery of the impact of our institute at both the national and regional level – and the stories we find are truly inspiring.
As the Public Policy SIG reflects on its solid start, it must realise that this has to lead to something even more substantial, given the potential within the group. From simply sharing stories to debating difficult policy positions to creating pathways for the future – there are many things that can be done. This is an ongoing discussion, for policy necessarily follows the needs of the people, and must therefore grow in line with these needs. The PP SIG stands at a vantage point in this discussion, realising the potential to make it better.
ACTIVITIES In the last seven months, the world has changed immeasurably, opening up vast opportunities for public systems to react to the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic challenges. For the nascent ASIG and its members, this has meant having to sprint while still learning to walk. And the ASIG is delivering. The group zoom-meets every Saturday for an hour-long virtual brainstorming session wherein individual members share their work and ideas, and then discuss what activities the group can take up both in the short and long term. The SIG WhatsApp group buzzes with new ideas and reports of activities tried and the results.
The group identified a set of quick value-adds for dealing with the crisis, including identifying model response structures and practices across a number of sectors, districts and countries. Individual members started feeding these inputs to policymakers in their networks. Through the JSW School of Public Policy that the ASIG is working closely with, a set of academic student projects involving faculty and alumni are being developed. An effort was kicked off to find internship placement opportunities for IIMA students whose offers were rescinded due to Covid-19.
Simultaneously, a longer-term agenda is being put in motion. Individual members have started compiling ideas and norms for the longer-term “new normal” in their respective sectors and fields of work. Research projects are being initiated in which SIG members work with the JSW School faculty and students to come out with analytical insights that will inform policy.
The ASIG is working to increase the depth and scope of its activities by creating a network of experts within and outside the alumni community who can contribute insights, knowledge and networks. The members are planning events to bring together leading experts under the aegis of the ASIG. The ASIG has taken the first step in this direction by organizing a webinar series during July-September 2020, bringing in experts from different areas to share their perspective on policy making and impact of Covid-19 on various sectors.
SUMMARY OF WEBINAR SERIES The objective of the webinar series was to provide a platform for discussion, knowledge sharing between the public policy community of the institute and practitioners and experts of the field. The theme of the series was carefully chosen to influence the ongoing policy discourse. The webinar series was focussed on the topics like People centric policy making, Collaboration in policy making, Atmanirbhar Bharat and impact of Covid-19 on key sectors like Agriculture, Infrastructure, Education and Employment.
The format of the webinar was designed to facilitate greater exchange of views and opinion. The webinar was in a form of conversation between the expert speaker and professor/alumni of the institute. The panelists then took the questions from the audience to further clarify their views. At the end of each webinar, PP ASIG published a note to capture the gist of the discussion and also added PP ASIG perspective on the topic of discussion.
The summary of the various discussions have been provided in the following paragraphs:
Prof. Rama Bijapurkar (in conversation with Prof. Akshaya Vijayalakshmi) spoke on “Public Policy: By the People, For the People” on July 25, 2020. She challenged the audience to re-define public policy in a way that embeds a “people-first” view in its creation and design, measures success based on “people’s outcomes” and not just aggregate supply side outcomes, and constantly re-shape its underpinning mental models of people it serves by keeping up with contemporary societal changes and values. She posited that the “Dharma” of public policy should be to ensure the safety security and well-being of all people – especially those who most need to be served, and in a way that is directed by the Constitution of India. She threw up innovative ideas on how to collect and focus on people-centric data and on segmenting policies based on “people”. She concluded by challenging the JSW Public Policy School to leverage the problem-solving DNA of IIMA and aim high to research, debate, and solve complex and important problems of critical local importance.
PP-ASIG perspectives: India is not a homogenous country – it has famously been said that every fact, and its opposite, are true for India. We are the fifth largest economy with the second highest population – and that creates fabulous macro numbers with not-so-rosy de-averaged micros. The key takeaway from this session was that what appears to be the lived reality for the minuscule section of the professionally-employed population of the country could not be more far-removed from how the other nine-tenths of India lives. Taking inputs from and understanding implications of a policy on a wider group is vital. An important follow-up of this event would be to engage more closely with policymakers (bureaucrats and politicians) to see how the process of input taking and feedback works – and what needs to be done to make that process stronger. Democracy in India works wonderfully to give its citizens a chance to give direct feedback to their representatives at various levels of government to their needs and wants. Do we have the right forums for processing and analysing such feedback? Do we have the right analytical or political tools to make the trade-offs inherent in any policy design? Why does the implementation of the policy not work as smoothly as planned or imagined: is it the case of poor design or lack of state capacity? The paucity of data, and more important, the paucity of funds to collect and analyse data was highlighted as a key challenge. Data collection, analysis into insights, and dissemination of policy recommendations are important roles for the development of society through effective policymaking. Academic institutes like IIMA, the JSW Public Policy School, and the alumni special interest groups can play a key role in making this a reality.
Sanjeev Sanyal (in conversation with Prof. Sebastian Morris) spoke on Atmanirbhar Bharat (“self-reliant India”) on August 22, 2020. He set the context by explaining the Indian government’s response to Covid-19: a “barbell strategy” to hedge for the worst-case scenario and then take gradual recovery steps. This resulted in a supply-side approach with a focus on saving lives and safety nets for the most vulnerable. Understanding that the post Covid-19 world will have its own geopolitics, supply chains, and consumer behaviors, India must be (1) willing to change in a non-ideological way, (2) self-reliant, and (3) willing to innovate. Such self-reliance is neither a return to the 1950s model of import substitution nor a return of Sarkar-nirbhar Bharat (government-dependent India) but is a strategy to protect national interests. This philosophy encompasses the willingness to undertake measures (both orthodox and unorthodox) to protect and further national interest. The government will not pick winners: it will intervene only where there is an overwhelming need for it to step in – and not in all sectors. The government expects almost all sectors to stand on their own feet.
PP-ASIG perspectives: Atmanirbhar Bharat is articulated in the language of national interest. Defining “national interest” has traditionally been contentious and subject to frequent changes: who defines it, how, in what context, how it evolves, what purpose it serves. Not all segments of the government work at the same pace or are equally equipped for fast change: a point that came up in the discussion was the administrative structure that is designed as territorial while the need during the lockdown was functional. A clearer, sharper, more agreed and implementable definition of ‘national interest’ will clarify and strengthen the philosophy of self-reliant India. The articulated barbell strategy of the government offers some degree of confidence. Detailing what aspects of feedback were considered, what paths were charted out, how the evolving situation led certain decisions over others will make for a fascinating economic history and offer building blocks for any strategy that might be required in future when an event with deep uncertainty strikes. The JSW Public Policy School can consider developing one or more nuanced case studies for both business schools and public policy schools that could focus on fleshing out many rich perspectives that an hour-long discussion cannot. India has benefitted from some cross-pollination of talent between the private and public sector – of which Sanjeev is a very good example. The government is increasingly more open to the idea of “lateral entry”. Much deeper engagement with the private sector and harnessing its talent for policy formulation and implementation can help bring new and important perspectives and energy as India charts its economic and geopolitical strategy under Atmanirbhar Bharat.
Prof. K. VijayRaghavan (in conversation with Prof. Rakesh Basant) spoke on “How policy, business and academia can collaborate better” on August 14, 2020. He summarized the evolution of human society and industrial growth through an intermingling of policy, politics, economics, science, technology, and industry. The emergence and evolution of life, civilization and technology have led to and survived a multitude of upheavals, including major wars, famines, and pandemics. This had established certain “boundary conditions” – including functioning markets and global supply chains. “Historians of the future” hold the view that humans could load the evolutionary dice in their favor because we can engineer nature and wield the paintbrush that controls the future of the planet. However, our ability to greatly reduce entropy and create order in small parts of the world comes at the expense of disorder in other parts of the world: vast inequalities in wealth and quality of life. Major industrialists and consultants have primarily looked at the story of world progress from a solely economic lens (“achieve maximum return at minimum cost”) and are oblivious to other critical factors: environment, climate, biodiversity. Covid-19 has altered the “boundary conditions”: markets are disrupted and supply chains are broken. Today, there is an active discussion on whether it is now time to repurpose our economics to factor in the costs to our world and nature but this begs the question: Who will bear the costs? Tools that could help to institute a “new world order” or “new normal” include artificial intelligence, big data, and localized design-centric manufacturing. These will open up enormous R&D opportunities and latent export value that can be unlocked by India.
PP-ASIG perspectives: IIMA PP ASIG represents a unique amalgamation of academia, business, and public policy. Forums like these can work closely with each of these sections of society to bring together their expertise and concerns to the table. We aspire to be a “safe house” for data-based, long-range, policy formulation ideation and iteration forum. “Politics-resistant policy” may be utopian – we can at least strive to make it “data and insight driven policy”. India has seen significant focus on data: intense debates on data privacy regulations, especially following the dramatic increase in consumption of mobile data as prices collapsed, increasing availability of data science professionals and well-funded start-ups, etc. It is imperative for us to grab this new opportunity to create new jobs and also create alternative improved futures. The emphasis on Atmanirbhar and local manufacturing could be helped by the increasing shift to design-led localized manufacturing. If the manufacturing capacity moves physically closer to the consumption market which would typically be the richer/developed economies, India will need to find a way to remain deeply integrated in the economic global value chains serving the final consumer. India needs to leverage its IT sector and talent pool to be a key contributor to the new business models of “add value from anywhere”. The R&D investments in India is low at 0.6% of GDP. While the impetus to increase this spend does lie with the industry (as is the case with advanced economies), this needs to be nudged along by the government (via fiscal incentives) and academia (by focusing on local and practical challenges).
Mr. Vinayak Chatterjee (in conversation with Prof. Ajay Pandey) spoke on “Financing India’s Infrastructure” on July 4, 2020. Ever since liberalization in the early 1990s, one of the factors identified as an impediment to economic growth has been infrastructure deficit. In December 2019, the Government announced the NIP (National Infrastructure Plan), indicating that India will invest approx. INR 20 lakh crore per annum in infrastructure. Since Covid-19, the situation has changed dramatically given the central and state governments‘ limited fiscal windows, low private investors’ interest, dead Public Private Partnerships for infrastructure investments, lack of foreign capital preference for buying existing assets, and large-scale unemployment and uncertainty that impose huge humanitarian responsibility on the government. All these factors have changed the context from “building infrastructure for economic betterment” to “building infrastructure to create Public Works Programs” that, according to Keynesian theory, are the only approach to stimulate demand, create short-term jobs, and accelerate economic growth in the absence of private and foreign investments. India has two kinds of Public Works programs: (a) at the village level (“Garib Kalyan Rojgar Yojana“) and (b) at the national and state level (highways, irrigation, economic zones, new cities, water supply, etc). For financing this work, two ideas are gaining attention in policy circles: (i) set up new DFIs (Developmental Financial Institutes) dedicated to Infrastructure activities and (ii) establish a dedicated National Renewal Fund (NRF) of INR 30 Lakh crore having a life span of 50 years for building national infrastructure assets and that could be capitalized either by printing new money or by accessing “friendly foreign capital” by “monetizing our international goodwill”.
PP-ASIG perspectives: The idea of creating a new fund for infrastructure to break out of the fiscal deficit constraint is interesting. India does need a large public works program from both a humanitarian perspective and the requirement to build high-quality infrastructure to enhance Ease of Doing Business. The world is awash in capital and hence the idea of sourcing capital from across the world is promising. Rs 30 lakh crore is a meaningful sum in the context of India’s GDP today (~15% of its current GDP). Whether a 1% cess will be enough to pay down the capital borrowed needs detailed calculations. India also needs to be careful on its foreign exchange exposure on this account – though RBI does have enough reserves to “hedge” these exposures. It remains a question to be addressed more fully on whether the credit rating agencies will add the liabilities of this fund to sovereign debt and if so, what implications does it have on the debt-to-GDP ratio and credit rating. Merging large entities to create even larger ones is the flavour of the season with Indian public sector banks also going through it. There may be advantages of scale, though we should be cognizant of many challenges associated with such mergers.
Dr YK Alagh (in conversation with Prof. Sebastian Morris) spoke on “Transforming Agriculture” on August 8, 2020. Agriculture has been the backbone of the Indian economy during the Covid-19 pandemic. The sector has given strength and a semblance of normalcy to a range of India’s poorest stakeholders, from small-scale farmers to migrants. However, the lockdown disrupted transportation networks and ruptured the logistics systems: the need is to build effective systems that minimize adverse impacts on agriculture. Policy makers should resist knee-jerk reactions and leverage the pandemic to overhaul the system and introduce long-term policy reforms during the lockdown and unlocking phases. It is time to encourage and stimulate farm investment and make positive use of reverse migration in rural areas that would carry back new ideas and techniques. Suggestions to policymakers include: reduce long-term reliance on the cooperative model in favour of farmer-led organizations; free Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs) from intermediaries; develop alternative price discovery platforms to minimum support price (MSP); expand modern digital platforms and e-enablement technologies like the E-NAM portal and private digital platforms; simplify and reorient the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) towards the needy and landless labourers while also developing new alternatives to PDS (such as DBT) to transfer benefits in a timely and targeted manner; allow the private sector to develop and provide storage systems on market terms; improve the targeting of agricultural subsidies; rethink agricultural credit supply (e.g. priority sector lending by banks that are predominantly about rolling over of old loans); use new technologies like drones to create and update land records that are digitally geotagged to create property rights for farmers; strengthen Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) and link with corporates; and invest in information services that provide price signals to economic agents and policymakers.
PP-ASIG perspectives: Government policies have been supportive, especially with the recently announced ordinances and the Rs 1 trillion Agriculture Infrastructure Fund. These measures have opened up the agricultural market dramatically by freeing the farmer to sell wherever, and to whomever he wants, allowing contract farming, and (practically) no stock limits. The Covid-19 crisis triggered a dramatic policy response which will significantly shape the sector over the next few decades. The funds offered by the government will help boost the creation of agricultural marketing infrastructure. India needs to prioritize cross-functional and cross-ministerial issues such as water consumption, efficient use of land and labour, and creating proper land records. Agriculture is also deeply tied in with the employment dynamics in India – as agriculture gets more efficient (via scale and technology), it can lead to a reduced need for manual labour. Skilling and training people to enter the manufacturing or services ecosystem will be crucial. This will also shape the migration patterns and urbanization of India. Opening up the farmland market for non-farmers to purchase land should be considered as the property rights of farmers and documented digitally. To realize the objective of doubling farmers’ incomes, we need to leverage the collective agriculture ecosystem, rethink agri-biotechnology, ensure access and use of precision technologies (IoT, sensors, weather forecasting, satellite, drones, artificial intelligence, etc.) and utilize water and land efficiently.
Ashish Dhawan (in conversation with Meeta Sengupta) spoke on “Transformation in Education Policy Post Covid-19” on August 29, 2020. India has done a good job in “massifying” education since independence. With the Right to Education (RTE), India has worked to universalize elementary education. However, the real problem lies in quality not quantity: over half our students are lagging in learning outcomes. This “learning outcomes” crisis has been the driver for the New Education Policy 2020 (NEP) that is likely to be a long-term policy that will be in place for at least a couple of decades. What are its salient features? Firstly, digital pedagogy has great transformative potential, but over two-thirds of Indian children have little or no access to digital or e-learning channels and are therefore substantially disadvantaged – including during Covid-19. Digital pedagogy should not just replicate offline learning or be a cost-cutting exercise; instead, it should be customizable and interactive, delivered in vernacular languages, meeting minimum technical standards, and demonstrating evidence of positive learning outcomes. Secondly, re-define the role of NGOs to focus on collecting evidence and becoming a technical partner of the state in implementing initiatives at scale. Thirdly, while India’s current expenditure allocation for education is adequate, the quality of investments needs to improve. Fourthly, India’s private school system – the world’s third largest school system – is serving students well and has played a seminal role in the massification of education in India and should therefore be supported as a priority for the Government during and after the Covid-19 crisis. Learning outcomes of schools should be made public to reduce information asymmetry between parents and schools. Fifthly, to improve teachers’ skills and quality, learning and development programmes could focus on: (a) foundational skills of reading, writing, speaking; and (b) imparting socio-emotional learning.
PP-ASIG perspectives: India’s education sector is at a tipping point. Covid-19 has disrupted “business-as-usual” schooling and education at all levels. In this milieu, families and students with access to digital technologies – even as basic as a smartphone with internet connectivity – will inevitably benefit from increasingly available digital content and delivery modes at rapidly affordable pricing. However, digital education cannot be a full-time replacement for in-person instruction – there are several critical soft skills and socio-emotional competencies that a child needs to learn that require a brick-and-mortar setting. There are also unproven risks related to extensive screen time and e-addiction. Further, a country as poor as India will invariably have a large body of children – still the majority – who have no access to digital education or private schooling – and for the sake of equity, this vast number of children simply cannot be ignored. Government investments should therefore focus on: (1) making primary and secondary education accessible to all, (2) strengthening access to early childhood, tertiary, and higher education, (3) improving learning outcomes in both public and private schools, and (4) promoting near-universal access to digital technologies and e-learning as a complement to in-class instruction. Critical issues that need to be addressed include teacher training and quality, fluency in multiple languages and basic math, extra support for gifted and special needs children and girls, holistic development of soft skills and socio-emotional competencies, and the role of civil society and community. The NEP is a good step in many of these regards and its implementation will need to be tracked carefully.
Mahesh Vyas (in conversation with Prof. Rakesh Basant) spoke on “Long-term Trends in Employment Post Covid-19” on September 19, 2020. Using data from the Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE), he described how the employment situation was bleak even before Covid-19: from 2011/12 to 2017/18, GDP growth was 6.9% per annum but employment shrank in absolute terms – this was an era of “jobless growth”. Then, in April 2020, India lost 120 million jobs: 91 million daily wage earners and 17 million as many businesses were shut. The number of farmers increased as the people turned to farming which was merely disguised unemployment. Gradually, 91 million jobs have come back. Women take a disproportionate hit when there are large shocks to the labour market, whether it was demonetization or lockdowns. CMIE data shows that there never was a Twin Balance Sheet (TBS) problem: companies are in a healthy position to borrow money as their gearing ratio is less than 1 and the interest cover is 2.4, both of which are very healthy, however since 2015-16 they have not been keen to invest. And prefer to take the profits home in the form of dividends. Covid-19 has crashed wage rates across sectors as more people seek jobs than available; “jobless growth” (low growth rates and declining jobs) has accelerated; and Indian entrepreneurs are investing in capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive industries, further reducing the opportunities for quality jobs. The ‘golden phase’ of job creation when new industries came up after liberalization is long past. India may not be a conducive destination for manufacturing – many foreign investors have been dejected and the macro-economic picture of creating a conducive environment for businessmen to operate and to maximize their profits is missing. The government should create a big stimulus that will boost demand and eventually lead to growth in the economy and in taxes. Many segments are seeing a V-shaped recovery (e.g. railway movement of goods, electricity, petroleum consumption, cement production) and a push is required to keep them on the growth trajectory. The dovetailing of the requirements of industry and jobs with our formal education process is still missing and the new National Education Policy (NEP) does not address the issue of improving the labour market situation. Women are rapidly being excluded from the workforce, principally because jobs are not available in close vicinity of home and travelling for work means dealing with poor infrastructure and security concerns. We need a narrative that emphasizes not just the girl child being educated but also women should participate in the workforce and build careers on a sustained basis.
PP-ASIG perspectives: Covid-19 changed two sectors: (1) healthcare and (2) employment. Especially with the sudden and stringent lockdown in India, the immediate impact on employment was dramatic. CMIE kept the information flow on unemployment in granular detail in the public domain, practically in real time. That put in sharp relief the policy choice that confronted the government when little was known about the virus and the ability of India’s health system to cope with it. A private enterprise was collating and disseminating vital public information – the public sector should be a ‘credible competitor’ for such critical public policy inputs. The idea that only around 400 million are part of the workforce in a country of 1.4 billion people is deeply unsettling. There are a billion people who are not looking for jobs! These include the very young (say 150 mn), those in schools (say 250 mn), and old (>65 years, say 200 mn). This leaves around 400 mn women in the working age who are not in paid employment. The ratio of dependents to workers is quite stark! India needs to create more opportunities for its citizens to seek gainful employment. This leads us to the idea that India needs a new ‘goldmine’ – similar to the phase of new IT and pharma jobs that came post liberalization. India needs to build large new industries: agriculture (with the recent reforms), renewable energy, deep integration with global value chains in the traditionally strong sectors (like autos, chemicals, gems and jewellery, pharma, textiles, etc.), new age technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, etc. A well-paying, long-term employment is the best form of stimulus and benefits transfer for the citizen! With some supply chains still broken, inflation has been beyond the 4%+/-2% range in India. Added to the high unemployment, India’s “misery index” is high currently. This phase will possibly be transitory as the effect of lockdowns dissipate. A conscious call on keeping the misery index low, especially at the bottom end of the pyramid, is important socially and rewarding politically.
NEXT STEPS The PP ASIG is working towards the goal of moving the discussions, deliberations, research, analysis, dissemination of the work of this ASIG to impact and influence policy. Over time, the ASIG could move from being “all sectors” to be meaningfully focused with maybe up to three to five chosen specializations that the SIG can become an authority on. One important milestone for this ASIG can be the development (via effective courses/course materials) and sustenance (definition and creation of roles) of public-policy professionals and/or entrepreneurs. Another milestone will be the release of a compendium of our learnings from the various webinars that we hosted earlier this year.
For the concept of ASIGs, these are early days yet. In due course, ASIG will begin to take some formal structure – it might take a few years for this to concretize. At PP ASIG, we think it might be helpful to start out with a loosely defined and agile organization structure that will evolve as requirements and opportunities emerge. PP ASIG has an actively engaged team of committed, empowered people to define the roll-out of the plans of the ASIG.
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