Policy framework i.e policy research, formulation and implementation is a very crucial element in studying the Welfare Analytics of any economy. In this modern, fast-paced era ‘Welfare Economics’ is something that economies all across the globe are trying to achieve. The concept becomes all the more important in a country like India which is characterized by multifarious economic hiccups and wide income disparities. Even though the Indian government over the years has exhibited positive participation towards policy formulation, one of the core challenges that the democracy still faces is the research and implementation of these policies. This has given rise to corruption, inefficiency and an environment where implementation failures dominate.
Under the ‘Research Festival’ organized by The Economics Society on 9th November, 2019, Ms. Yamini Iyer (President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research) addressed these very hurdles which come in the way of India’s welfare economy targets. Under the theme of ‘Welfare Economics’ she shared some of her experiences of building research methods from scratch whilst also engaging with government officials on the field. The discussion revolved around trying to analyze and study India’s welfare state and coming up with solutions so as to bridge the gap between research and policy.
Ms. Yamini started by identifying India as ‘a burial ground of pilots’ where ‘the head does not know how to control the hands and feet’ and consequently good ideas fail. A country where broad ideas are piloted and studied on a small scale, evidence brought to light but implementation never really begins. The first and foremost hurdle that India confronts in developmental economics is undertaking evidence based research that will enable her to figure out how to take a pilot to a scale. Focusing primarily on the rigors of research methodology and the importance of evidence based research, Ms. Yamini stated how our research methods lacked innovation. The call of the hour, according to her, is to ‘build innovative and meaningful research that could actually contribute to policy’.
Ms. Yamini went on to talk about the scenario of the Education Sector in India and the major problems which prevail therein concerning the students. No substantial research method till date had been successful in gathering concrete evidence that could help to identify and take steps towards resolving these issues. However, Ms. Yamini appreciated the efforts of ‘Pratham’ in this direction, an education NGO in India which undertook a pan India evidence based research method to study the reason behind higher grade students lacking basic foundational skills, basic arithmetic and comprehension.
She praised the initiative under three parameters: the method, the simplicity and the scale. Elucidating on this Ms. Yamini explained about how Pratham’s process essentially involved the citizens and such conversation became a starting point for creating positive dynamics of change. The process truly hit on the nub of the challenge that people were being exposed to and confronted everyday. Talking about simplicity, Ms. Yamini established that ‘simplicity enabled Pratham to get to a very core fundamental datapoint that could capture one’s imagination’. Also touching upon the scale, she mentioned how the scale created ‘asar’ and fundamentally shifted the narrative of the challenge of education in policy circles.
Ms. Yamini then articulated the second hurdle that India faces with regards to its policy framework – budgetary allocations. She described this through one of her experiences of ground research in a group of villages in Madhya Pradesh studying participation and decentralization in school committees. Sharing her observations, she said about the imminent problem of budgets made by the government but money never actually flowed down the ladder to the lowest levels. Nor was any flexibility in spending discretion granted. The basic principle is – if one really decides to undertake developmental expenditure, one needs to know his/her budget for doing the same.
Understanding government budgets, according to Ms. Yamini, is a very critical aspect which is missed amidst the work of developmental economics. To quote – “What is equally necessary is to track budgets and understand how budgets flow all the way from the treasury down to the last mile where expenditure is supposed to take place”. Ms. Yamini thus established the need for procuring disaggregated information on the responsibility of different levels of administration towards various functions and their corresponding expenditure allocations to match the expectation of functional assignments.
The most challenging hurdle faced by our country, as elucidated by Ms. Yamini, is the problem of action. What is it that actually prevents ground action and implementation of policies? Once again she explained the issue at hand through her 1.5 year experience of ground research in the robust Gram Panchayats of Karnataka studying regulation and decentralisation. Whilst her interaction with the local officials, BDO’s and Panchayat Secretaries, she claimed to come across the ‘complaining state’ of the Indian economy. What she essentially found out was that each and every official from the grass root level throughout the hierarchy just complained about their unhappy state. The frontline Indian state administrators having ‘sarkari naukris’, who came in the government for power and are even exercising that power ironically go on to narrate a tale of actually being powerless in this large bureaucratic structure.
Ms. Yamini also introduced the audience to the ‘Post Office State’ of India as one of the major reasons for these dormant actions. A system without any power authority or understanding where officials precisely just move either information or papers from one level of the system to another. Sharing an anecdote from her research in Madhya Pradesh she explained how people design their lives and their roles are determined on the basis of what is asked of them and not what they are supposed to do. Because frankly speaking, they don’t even know what they are supposed to do. The hierarchical structure in which they are embedded offers them a very minor role to play in implementation. Nor is any feedback ever given to them. Thus, they are merely ‘passive agents responding to orders rather than active agents delivering public services’.
Additionally, some remedial measures suggested by Ms. Yamini to ameliorate the prevalent atmosphere involved creating spaces for greater participation, more accountability and transparency. Ms. Yamini stressed on the importance of semi-structured questionnaires, time use surveys and qualitative research methods in the road towards a welfare state. She highlighted the fact that methods ought to be mixed and that complex developmental challenges can only be best understood by drawing on multiple forms of methods. Ms. Yamini Iyer signed off by expressing her firm belief that cross-disciplinary research and exchange of ideas is what makes for high quality research and policy research that is genuinely participatory. Henceforth, bridging the gap between evidence and policy and paving the way for a welfare state through political consensus for change.
Seeking wisdom from her words, The Economics Society seeks to expand the boundaries of the ‘Research Festival’ in the years to come. It aims to inculcate a spirit of dialogue and provide a platform to foster true progressions for debate.
By Sarvesh Agrawal
1st year Undergraduate Student
Shri Ram College of Commerce