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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Public policy research in India

In a country like the US or the UK, there is a lively `marketplace of ideas' in public policy, where alternative visions about the State are debated. On 30 August 2006, Guy de Jonquières wrote a piece in FT titled Asia needs a more active market in ideas where he says:

One of the most surprising discoveries on moving to Asia is how little intellectual curiosity there is in the region about the dynamics of its dizzying rise and where it is leading. In spite of Asia’s growing global weight, much of the most illuminating research into its affairs, whether economics, business, social policy or international relations, still originates elsewhere, mainly in the west.

Asia has no shortage of brainpower, or of self-styled think-tanks. But most produce pedestrian work that often fails to grapple with – still less answer – the hard questions. Many simply churn out official propaganda, and few look far beyond their own backyard. In the words of Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a Swiss business school professor who knows Asia well, there is a lot of tank, but not much think.

Many western think-tanks, of course, are also little more than mouthpieces for their financial backers. But the best ones dig for facts, sift them rigorously, question established policies and seek to chart new directions. Occasionally, like those that shaped the thinking of Britain’s Baroness Thatcher, they can seed a revolution.

Asia has no such marketplace for ideas. Stunning though China’s growth is, it is impressive as a daring feat of execution, not because it is based on startlingly original development thinking. When “Asian values” were hawked around the region a decade or so ago as some kind of distinctive philosophy, they turned out to be just a self-serving attempt to justify autocracies.

Novel ideas, by contrast, are stimulated by intellectual contention and reasoned dissent. It is no accident that they tend to flow freely in countries such as the US and Britain that not only tolerate but encourage those activities as socially beneficial. In Asia, only India, home to some notably independent-minded research institutes, has a comparable tradition.

In continuation of this discussion, Suman Bery has a column in Business Standard today about policy research in India.

In my experience, once we get to a narrow and specialised subject, there are very few experts in the country. This hurts because there is reduced discussion and competition. The flow of good quality papers is very thin, and there are very few good conferences. As any journal editor and any conference organiser knows, it is hard to find interesting papers, and once you have them, it's hard to find good discussants or referees.

A few people in Western universities are writing empirical papers with Indian data which are appearing in Western journals, but there are two recurring problems: I have often seen a lack of common sense on data, and the choice of questions and research strategy is driven by the needs of publication rather than a sense of the important questions and issues in India.

I find it remarkable that the Indian State expends thousands of crore on research into fields like nuclear energy, where the payoff for India has been remarkably slim, while not putting resources behind public policy research on the main tasks of the State - issues such as judiciary, law & order, international relations, defence, elections, and economic policy. On one hand, this has improved independence and criticism of entrenced policies and powerful government agencies. On the other hand, there is a secular lack of resources which is generating an inadequate number of manyears of time on the questions of the age.

If "government" and "think tank / university" are two pieces in the map of ideas, a key institution which India has been utilising is "the expert committee". A. K. Bhattacharya has an article on this institution in today's BS. There are some intruiging differences between India and other countries in the "committee" institution. As an example, today in the New York Times, there is news about a committee which seems to have been setup, suo moto, by a bunch of people and not appointed by the government. Friends who live outside the country have suggested such things to me in the past - that on a certain problem, a top quality bunch of 5 people can set themselves up to write a report and they do get accepted in the policy making mechanisms of the US or UK, despite no role of the government in appointing the committee.

Update (2006-12-19): Ajay Shukla has an excellent article on the weaknesses of think tanks, in Business Standard.


  1. "I find it remarkable that the Indian State expends thousands of crore into fields like nuclear energy, where the payoff for India has been remarkably slim, while not putting resources behind public policy research on the main tasks of the State - issues such as judiciary, law & order, international relations, defence, elections, and economic policy. "

    It's easy - babus have all the right answers. So why bother with policy research and analysis. Also there is a large body in India that gives 99% weightage to what US does (and the rest to Europeans and others) - it must be right way for everybody. The usual debate point that stops the debate is, "If US can do that, why not us?" Most don't see anything wrong in outsourcing policy research (not an issue, per se, with basic research)to west - even if the data and results are largerly irrelevant to local situation.

  2. It is interesting that you raise this point. I too feel exactly the same way. I am no authority on this subject but I do believe it is not just the supply of ideas which is less, the demand is weak too in the form which you ask for. And I guess it has to do with the system of our education (result oriented rather than writing our ideas) and kind of issues with which we deal with. The system of disseminating ideas evolved in a particular way (through journals) in West which doesn't necessarily have to be the same way in India. Ideas need audience and the way to attract them can and should be geared towards the media accessible to the mass. Forming an "expert" committee may not be a bad thing for the government to do to fill the space void of reports provided by the academics in the public space. A small example: I am not sure how many people read Swaminomics by Mr Iyer in Times of India, but it does quell some of the inquisitivity among the people I know.

  3. hey.. i just graduated from law school and am interested in pursuing policy analysis as a Masters program however, i want a work exp. in the area..could u give me a suggestion as to where i could work before putting in applications at various schools. Thank you!

  4. While people may have different views still good things should always be appreciated. Yours is a nice blog. Liked it!!!

  5. I would like to agree to some extent with Mr.Shashank Mohan. The education system in India is result oriented and not ideas oriented.In many cases, the ideas do come up but they are not at all encouraged.

    But still there is a lot of hope since the youth of today is much more aware of the problems of the country and are taking the initiative to bring about a change in the system .They are curious about the policies which are being implemented and do raise their voice when it exceeds a certain threshold.

    A very good article indeed..

  6. hi
    can u suggest a specific topic to work on in this public policy field?

  7. Research in India has not achieved the importance, the infrastructure and the encouragement it needs. Anything beyond the defined rigid constructs or walls of your short term narrow vision is considered unnecessary and wastage of time. Curiosity and critical thinking are generally shunned. In such an environment growth of intellect seems much of a vain prospect to many.


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