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The Lack of Ceteris Paribus in Indian Fieldwork

Ceteris Paribus does not apply to fieldwork in India, that is, nothing is constant when you are out on a field mission.Economics 101 teaches us many theorems under the assumption, “all things constant” or Ceteris Paribus (as it is called in Latin). What happens though, as we venture out to test first hand, our assumptions of what policies or social programs might work? What happens when we talk to people, survey them, try and irk out their actual beliefs, try and figure out why they act the way they do?

As someone who has led over 150 field evaluations, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand surveys in each exercise, over a lakh plus locations/villages in India, in this article I try to discuss how each study is still an eye-opener. Every time we go on a field mission, we are surprised at the evolving nature of human behavior and how our assumptions are thwarted, owing to reasons so diverse, so perfunctory on occasions, that we aren’t surprised anymore.

The concept of over surveyed populations.
For a moment let us think about locations, tier 3, tier 4 or rural parts- the outskirts of Nashik perhaps, Osmanabad which is a few hundred kilometers from Pune, a site not too far from Gaya, Ajmer-at a five hour driving distance from Delhi perhaps. What is common to all these locations? Well, the fact that they aren’t the most talked about areas, and yet getting to these sites is not all that difficult.

This is perhaps why there has been a deluge of social interventions in these locations. When one conducts survey exercises or research in some of these parts, one is met with respondents, whose minds are pre-programmed to answer a certain way. Ask them- the legal age of marriage for a girl and almost everyone will say 18. Even though Rajasthan and its child brides in certain districts are known to all. Question people on the concept of child labor, and you would be surprised at how parents, and children, are aware of how it is illegal and will offer their two cents on why education is critical. Yet, as you pay a visit unannounced you will see many children, skipping school, or working in mines, brick kilns, as laborers day after day.

As organizations try and figure out where to roll out interventions, often owing to ease of accessibility of certain “peri-urban” areas or owing to airports 3-5 hours away, or good highways connecting certain districts, we will see a concentration of work in certain parts. This isn’t good or bad. And yet many not so accessible regions miss out.

Next consider the concept of stakeholders or communities that are important for the position they hold in the day to day functioning of our life, for the power they exert as a vote bank, or for the influence they have on trade bodies. This could mean farmers or truckers who deliver food to our cities from farms. They are an influential group, and what they think about agricultural policies matters significantly. Similarly, the city could not function if truckers were to go on strike. A community of low skilled workers, similarly, care about the number of days they get to work under MNREGA. Any small shift or tweak to policies concerning them, without their consent or having them on board can mean toppled governments, agitations, and therefore big financial losses (among other negative externalities) to the economy. What is interesting to note is that on many occasions these policy changes could be beneficial to these sub-groups, groups at large or in the medium to long term.

This may create chasms in the short run for stakeholders such as land owners, or providers of logistical services for example, who might in turn fund some of these agitations or be instrumental in creating clouts of misinformation. It is therefore imperative that as a policy maker, one evaluates how a policy which is largely meant to create social value especially for the lower echelons affects some of the mid and upper sections of people i.e. figure how your social plan or policy may rock status quo and how the ‘well-to-do losers ‘will react and influence the ‘low-skilled potential gainers’.

My last example stems from the concept of over surveyed populations. Yes, there is such a thing! Much like fashion in dressing, vied-for movie stars, fashionable food items, each year or season may have its favourite. For example, if in a particular term, the central government is focusing on sanitation, then a lot of money, from philanthropists, CSRs, Indian and international donors will move to that sub sector. For five years under swachh bharat, we saw agencies, grassroots, not for profits do all things concerning installing toilets, encouraging the use of toilets, ODF villages. Good in one way, and yes, super important in a lot of ways, we saw respondent fatigue. We saw schools dressed up with freshly painted (wet) school toilet walls on our arrival. It’s as if schools, households knew who was coming, what they were coming to ask, and they had heard it all, seen it all. Consequence- our evaluations will result in solutions that may not be sustainable or suggest models that may not work when the funding begins to taper down or when the sub sector isn’t as attention-worthy or fashionable anymore.

It can be interesting to do our diligence and yet go in with a fresh head, each time one heads to the field, in the interest of better understanding what our ‘beneficiary’ or the ‘recipient of social program’, or ‘consumer of our social intervention’ truly desires. As economists or data practitioners, our duty to do right by our classroom learning therefore implies that we leave some of our assumptions behind, assume that ceteris paribus does not exist outside or a classroom.

Prerna MukharyaFounder, Outline India getRandomImage(‘The-Lack-of-Ceteris-Paribus-In-Indian-Fieldwork’)
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