CPR Perspectives: Interview with Mekhala Krishnamurthy

This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with Mekhala Krishnamurthy, a Senior Fellow at CPR, where she built the State Capacity Initiative.

Krishnamurthy has spent the last 15 years engaging with questions of how the state interacts with markets and the broader economy, and what the actual lived experiences of those on the frontlines of these intersections can tell policymakers – particularly in the fields of health and agriculture. An alumna of Harvard, Cambridge and University College London, she is also Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University, and taught at Shiv Nadar University prior to that.

At CPR, Krishnamurthy set up the State Capacity Initiative, an interdisciplinary research and practice programme that has carried out pioneering research studies on the Indian administrative state, and worked directly with a number of governments on questions of institutional design and capacity.

In our conversation with Krishnamurthy, we spoke about what it means to be an anthropologist in the development world, how she has managed to bridge academic and policy practitioner positions and her reading of major shifts in India’s policy discourse over the last few decades. We also spoke about her research and writing on mandis and Indian agriculture, the idea behind the State Capacity Initiative and her advice for younger scholars entering the policy world.

You can listen to the entire conversation as a podcast here, or read the whole transcript now

And if you missed our previous interviews, read our conversations with Partha Mukhopadhyay, Navroz Dubash, Avani Kapur, K P Krishnan, Mukta Naik, D Shyam Babu, Neelanjan Sircar, Yamini Aiyar and Arkaja Singh.


(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

If we could start at the beginning to get a sense of how you made your way into the policy world; what brought you into this space?

When I started as an undergrad, I thought I would study economics and international relations. And in the course of my studies, I ended up doing a lot more work and reading around social theory, history, sociology, political science and anthropology. The undergraduate thesis that I wrote on Nari Adalats in rural Gujarat was called In the Shadow of the State. in the Shade of a Tree: The Politics of the Possible in Rural Gujarat. I was really interested in how these women negotiated between community and state. I was just so excited and startled to have found myself in that position. But it’s only when you get feedback that you understand what you’ve ended up doing, and I remember vividly the readers of that thesis saying that it was a young but mature ethnography. That made me realise that I may work in the mode of an anthropologist, and I decided to do my M. Phil in social anthropology. I went and did that at the University of Cambridge.

By the time I was 23, I had become quite good at critique. In Anthropology at that time, you got a really good understanding of how power works, political economy and the systemic ways in which resources are distributed in ways that produce inequities. I got really nervous because I had the opportunity then to continue on to a Ph.D and I was thinking – I have no questions. I was given very good advice by a teacher who said to me, the PhD should be avoided for as long as it’s avoidable. Also, I thought, how would I do this critique without ever having tried to hold responsibility of any kind in this space of development. I was quite clear that there would be a period of time where I would have to go and work, and at the time I didn’t know whether the PhD would be just permanently avoidable, or whether I would have to go back and do it. And so I came back in 2003 to Bombay where I grew up.

I was very lucky because very quickly after I returned, the ICICI Social Initiatives Group, which at that time was headed by Nachiket Mor, was working on health, education and microfinance, and had already started doing really interesting work. It was a group of people, all of us with Masters degrees, mostly from India. And then there were one or two of us who had not studied in India. I had done my undergrad in and M. Phil abroad. So it was very important to be here and be with colleagues and peers. I had this wonderful opportunity to work on early child health. This was a new type of organisation. The idea was, you take young people who don’t have a lot of baggage. And you put them in front of them some of the most challenging developmental problems – health, education, microfinance, access to finance, and see what we could do with it. And it was a chance for us to go and learn from many, many people in the field. So we spent a lot of time travelling and learning from a whole range of organisations. And I ended up doing that for four years. It wasn’t policy, but it was practice. I’ve been very, very lucky in my career not to have to make this choice between research and practice because there was always a lot of learning.

It was also an extraordinary time. This was the period where the Right to Information and NREGA were being thought of, the Forest Rights Act was coming up, then the Right to Food came. It was really a moment where state. civil society and the private sector and different kinds of actors were beginning to come together. And that was where it began. So I think for me it wasn’t so much policy in that world, but it was a mode of engagement.

One of the important things for me was that I was in Bombay. Most of our work was in states, whether it was in Maharashtra or Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu – it wasn’t actually in Delhi. I’m actually really glad my first serious engagement and work experience wasn’t Delhi based. It was a very interesting period and I think I began there and have since then had many opportunities to keep bridging these worlds. I went back and did my PhD which I started in 2007. I was doing field work for a large portion of that time and then returned again in 2013 to India.

The last decade has actually been about setting up two departments of anthropology and sociology at Shiv Nadar University and then at Ashoka. The last five years I have had this extraordinary opportunity to work very deeply at CPR. It’s been a lot of movement between different kinds of institutions from there. And I’ve just been lucky to be able to do that.

What was the experience working out of Bombay versus Delhi?

Delhi was another site in which thinking happened. And I think because we were not in Delhi, we spent a lot more time going to states and realised that the centre of action in development, especially in health and education in many ways as well, certainly in agriculture (which I worked on after that) they are state subjects, and you realise the diversity, but also that so much was happening in the field. And I think the other thing was, you discovered the importance of the role of the state rather than take it for granted, which you do in Delhi. We were in a bank, right, and so actually the assumption is that it’s the private sector that will come up with solutions. And the assumption also is when you’re supporting innovation and doing grant based funding for NGOs and for civil society organisations, that they are the innovators. If you’ve been in Delhi, you assume that it is state power and government that structures everything. Whereas I think we actually had to make the case to understand the importance of the role of the state. And so it was very interesting as a practice, especially in health and education.

It was a conscious understanding that if you are going to transform health and education, it’s not about scaling innovation. It is about innovating at scale. You realise that all of these other actors are there, but you have to understand the core public purpose. Making that case from outside the state rather than assuming the dominance of policy was very important. You are less dismissive or ideological about whether the private sector is important or not, because you’re sitting in the middle of it and you realise it is vibrant and important, but also its role is different. It’s the same with civil society. The second was this role and the importance of states. So I think the role of the state and the role of the states both look very different when you’re from the private sector, making the case for government, when you are not in Delhi.

We’ll unpack a few of these things a bit further down but both at ICICI and then later on was it unusual for you to be an anthropologist in this world? You’ve spoken about how it’s a bit different to be someone from that discipline in practice or policy worlds…

By the time that I was entering the field, there was not only a very strong academic critique of development, but Anthropologists were also very much part of the development story and the development apparatus. You were seeing the World Bank and many other institutions hiring anthropologists and sociologists. And of course, post independence India had the story of village studies and anthropologists seeing themselves as part of nation building.

Anthropologists always have this tension when it comes to power. It’s a discipline that also emerged from colonial rule, so anthropology has a foundational nervousness about aligning with power and actually being in this pursuit of power. I think I carried some of that nervousness. That understanding that you have a different role to play and you want to engage, but you have to be conscious all the time of the way in which you’re engaging. That was one tension.

The other is of course, that anthropology is seen very often as a descriptive discipline. People think it’s storytelling without quite being analytical. That has not been my experience of the discipline or its contribution. I’ve been very lucky, I think, both in my early work, at the ICICI bank, but subsequently and certainly at CPR, where we are not seen as people who fill in and tell stories and give nice descriptions, but are also theorists and also analysts, and provide the frameworks of understanding and thought. And that’s really, really important.

One of the biggest exports of anthropology has been this word ethnography. But it is so deeply misunderstood. People just assume if you do interviews, you’ve done ethnography. And so people keep talking about how I did an ethnography. One of the things anthropologists will always tell you is the ethnography is about paying attention to not just the discursive – not just what is spoken – but to the non discursive, what is practised, what is done. In fact, that is even more important than what people say. It is not to show hypocrisy, because all of us say and do different things. But it is actually to understand life. The other [belief] is that [anthropologists] provide novelty and colour. But you know, something that we learn and I think all ethnographers who have done long term ethnography know, is that it’s actually when boredom begins that ethnography begins. Because it is about the everyday. It’s not just novelty. And in that sense actually there’s a deep relationship with policy, because policy is also what it does, not just what it says and most of us assume policy is what it says.

The other thing which has been really important and I think sometimes gets lost again on why anthropology and anthropologists are so helpful in policy is that it’s not just description. My colleague Shoumitro Chatterjee and I worked together on agricultural markets. Shoumitro is an economist. Whenever we would work together, people would turn to him whenever they talked about analysis. And whenever they would look at a description, they would turn to me. We started learning to say, Shoumitro is going to provide some descriptive statistics and I am going to provide some analytical description. And I think this was quite important for us to be able to make the point about what the disciplines do.

In anthropology, because you study comparatively and you study many different places and you’re constantly defamiliarising and refamiliarising things – it’s very popular in anthropology to say we make the strange familiar and the familiar strange – but we are also constantly looking at human social arrangements and the possibilities that may be there. So you’re not just describing what is, but in the process of describing what is, in one place at a particular point in time and how it changes, you’re also describing what is possible. And I think for policy, one of the biggest things – and I think this is where CPR is so unique as a place – is that it is always about realities and understanding context and also having an imagination. So that imagination of possibility is built into the discipline of anthropology. It is a discipline of the possible, all the different ways in which we might arrange things. So for me that has also been a really wonderful way in which the two come together. And I think I have had a real privilege to be able to bring that sensibility and commitment to the discipline and not have to think in terms of ‘am I an applied person or am I an theoretical person’ and ‘there’s research and there’s practice’. There’s a way for us to bring this together. It’s actually critical to think that we bring both imagination and understanding in the field of policy.

After the ICICI work you went out to do your PhD and my understanding is that you’ve managed to continue your anthropology in the academic space, even as you worked on the policy side…

Around 2007 is when I started my PhD at the University College London in anthropology, and that was a shift from working on health. I had been sitting within ICICI bank and there was all this push on rural finance. There was also a huge discussion around the second Green Revolution coming from the private sector. All these corporates were going rural at that time and there were old debates also about the APMCs and the Mandis. So I actually decided to study agricultural markets. And that was linked to health and nutrition, which I had been working on, because it’s tied to food security and it’s tied to nutrition. But it was a shift also into understanding the everyday rural economy and its linkages.

And so I did my PhD, which was from 2007 to 11, but there was an overlap. I did my field work in Madhya Pradesh in a small agricultural market town called Harda and spent 18 months there. When I was writing up my dissertation and the first year of my postdoc, I was at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, at the University of Pennsylvania, where Devesh Kapur was the director at the time. I was the first postdoc at the Center, and it was really a wonderful opportunity to bridge, to think through and to pull things together. But I always knew I was going to come back to India, which I did in 2013.

It’s easy to say 2013 and 2003 because if you say 2004 and 2014, which were very important, it ends up sounding like I’m making a statement about how the world changed. But the world did change in a very, very interesting way during that time. I didn’t come back with a job. I thought I would wait and see. And because I had a lot of deep connections from work, both at ICICI and during my field work, there were a number of interesting things going on which I could contribute to. I did some smaller projects and waited. I was quite certain that I would not get into academia, and I was going to just wait to see what emerged in this world of research and practice that I was familiar with.

But in 2013, Dipankar Gupta got in touch because he had been charged with building the new School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Shiv Nadar University. And I really had not thought of Delhi. I remember in fact saying I don’t think I want to come to Delhi. But academia has a way of bringing you in a certain way into the sphere of influence of Delhi. So I did take up that job in 2013-4 and I moved to Delhi in January 2014. And so the first five years, I was part of building up the founding faculty of the new Department of Sociology at SNU, which is a really wonderful department. You know, my first. PhD students have trained and emerged from there. It’s a really exciting department that’s grown from strength to strength. And then in 2018 I joined, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka, and it’s also been a complete pleasure to build that department as well with colleagues and to see how the discipline finds its way and how we think about what it means to teach and practice sociology in 21st century India.

Anthropologists are now picking up grants, but we usually take our notebooks and we go into the field, so we don’t need huge grants. We don’t have to run big surveys. We do our own field work. But from 2017 and 18 onward I’ve had a real amazing opportunity and challenge to run major grant based projects. It began with work that we did on a project out of CASI, where Shoumitro Chatterjee, Devesh Kapur, Marshall M Bouton and I pulled together this project on agricultural markets. We worked in Bihar, Orissa and Punjab, which was an opportunity to do new work in three very different settings after Madhya Pradesh and in an interdisciplinary mode. And that was funded by the Gates Foundation. And then after that, conversations with Yamini Aiyar emerged and CPR was also beginning to make this big investment and thinking about state capacity and this extraordinary grant that she had imagined and put together. So those conversations happened parallelly. So, from 2019 till the present I was able to join CPR as well, and have an arrangement at Ashoka which allowed me to pursue this work alongside teaching every year and continuing university work.

It’s been really, really exciting, including the institution building elements of all of this. I think amongst the most exciting has also been the chance to work with and train large numbers of field workers who have done both surveys but also ethnographic work. A big part of that early experience working at ICICI Bank was meeting some of the most extraordinary civil society leaders and organisations. And so I’ve been working with movements also through this period. So the Public Health Resource Network, which is really an extraordinary network of public health research and practice, the Samaj Pragati Sahayog, which is one of India’s largest water and livelihood security organisations based in Madhya Pradesh, the Bharat Rural Livelihood Foundation… I’ve had a real opportunity to contributing, learning from and working with movements and with activists, throughout. Those are all the learning grounds that I’ve been able to be a part of.

You’ve said that you thought this time was the beginning of something in the policy world, but it ended up being the end of something else…

You expect your career is happening at a very exciting time when everything is going to rise at the same time and you have this opportunity to be part of something big in whatever very small way. That was the sense with which I had assumed things were happening, but I think what we’ve seen already and this was starting to happen even prior to 2013-14, so this was already in 2009-10-11, one was struggling to get clarity on the role of the state. Often with government it’s a public versus private argument, where you assume the private sector will do certain things versus the government will do certain things. But I think what started happening in 2009 was not about whether it will be the private sector or the government, but it was also an understanding of what would be the mode of government. Many of our foundational assumptions about how you would build up the state and public institutions to do that…

From the rights based approach, we came in with an understanding that you need to reform the system. What you start having is the rise of private sector modes of operating in the public sector. At the heart of it was a slipping away of the understanding that you would have to invest more in public institutions and public organisations. And this sense that somehow it would be private sector ideas, but also public-private and private entities which would take over. And then what we’ve seen happen is a shift from a discourse of empowerment and participation and social audits and Right to Information, where the assumption was that the role of civil society and the public would be to actually collectively and individually engage much more deeply with what they’re entitled to. You see this shift which many colleagues have talked about – Neelanjan Sircar and Yamini Aiyar and Partha Mukhopadhyay – to cash transfers. Technology solutioneering as the answer, with much less in the way of deliberation, which was earlier something that was being built up, whether it was through Gram Sabhas and the idea of decentralisation.

Suddenly, you realise you can actually reach people without decentralisation. You don’t have to decentralise decision making and participation. So it has been a period of thinking about access in a certain way and that last mile became a technological place, instead of actually being a space of contestation of voice and discussion and also of different kinds of public institutions and public value that would be created. So it’s been very different from what one expected. Things that you thought were understood or that we were on our way to building have been all opened up for contestation. There has been a huge disenchantment actually in the idea of the state. And I think distrust much more at the levels of policymakers and policy thinking. I think it was amazing and startling to see how quickly that shifted.

You worked a lot on markets and agriculture, and then we had the big farm laws moment and farmer protests in India. What did you learn from that period and the discussions we had?

Agriculture is one area in which from 2003-13 to 2023, you don’t see as much change in terms of the policy misunderstanding. When it comes to something like agricultural markets, that’s different. Agriculture is such a vast space and so of course, when you talk about production and MSP and procurement, and many of these other elements, there’s a lot of interesting dynamics to unpack there. But I think in terms of the core policy, and when I say policy I mean within both government, in terms of people who run these institutions and think about law and policy, as well as in popular discourse in policy around what is the problem with agriculture, there is a profound and a very long lasting misunderstanding. The Right to Food as an entitlement and the push for getting the PDS right and distribution right goes through huge and important reforms in the period from the mid-2000s to 2013 when the law comes. The Right to Food movement is another case where civil society plays such an important role. Interestingly, when it comes to public procurement – where Punjab and Haryana have a long history of procurement – it’s not so much civil society driven as much as state governments who finally in the mid to late 2000s (Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) in a very big way pick up on this idea of decentralised procurement. On the distribution side, you have civil society and you have a lot of movement towards the Right to Food. On the procurement side, it was actually state chief ministers and state governments who realise that you can actually decentralise procurement, for wheat and paddy, and it actually is a very important part of what happens in agrarian political economy and in development interventions, particularly in these three states, both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh from 2008 onward and then also it’s happening in Odisha.

But you know, that’s on procurement, but this story of wheat and paddy procurement and distribution I think has completely dominated how we understand agriculture and agricultural markets. And that’s the big mistake, right? Because we just assume that agriculture in India is dominated by the state. And agricultural markets in India are dominated by the state. So mandis, for example, are these monopolistic public institutions and people still think mandis and MSP’s go together right? And then they think MSP in procurement is happening in wheat and paddy, and it’s announced for 23 crops, so it happens everywhere. And the state is all over agriculture.

And in this sense, both health and agriculture are very similar. For a very long time now, 85% of health expenditure has been coming from out-of-pocket expenditure. [Similarly] 85% of investment in agriculture actually comes from farmers themselves. Agriculture in India is a vastly private enterprise. It depends on a vast number of small farmers. Then on intermediaries, traders, a whole range of different kinds of private firms of different sizes, of which corporates are one, but by no means the largest entity. In certain commodities, the state has historically played a very, very interesting and important role and an interventionist role. And then you have a generally very large number of poor consumers. This is an enormously complex, private space where the state plays a vital role in intervention in terms of regulation and different kinds of prices and other kinds of intervention. But it’s by no means well understood.

One of the things that the moment around the farm laws showed us is how poorly we understand the largest employer in India. How much we think about private meaning ‘corporate’. And how much the imagination of agriculture is about state dominance. And actually, neither the state nor the private sector – the corporate private sector – dominates on the ground, which is a very complex, regionally diverse commodity specific and diverse space of intermediation, production, exchange, processing, distribution and consumption. And all of this overlaps in these very complex regional political economies. And here what was striking was how much we refused to understand or engage with this over many, many years.

I think the second thing was just basic misunderstandings of what is the role of a mandi, which is a regulated primary agricultural market, a particular site where there is minimum amount of state regulation and physical space provided so that you can actually have, in theory, well regulated spot exchange, where a large number of farmers can come. This is a simple thing. We know that in any given local area there will be a large number of sellers and relatively few buyers. And therefore there is a tendency towards monopsony in these kinds of contexts.

So the initial idea of public regulation was simply that you give farmers a benchmark, you give traders a well appointed place for trade and exchange, you create some public infrastructure that allows you to actually move the commodities and have proper arrangements, you look at auctions for price, you look at weights and measures, you look at settlement of payment – given that these are famously interlocked markets where you know traders are also financiers and therefore settlement is an issue… Given all of this complexity, there was a particular reason for the last 100 years that we’ve thought about why you needed well regulated primary agricultural markets. And we simply haven’t invested in them. So the understanding that farmers are trapped inside trading mandis is remarkable when you look at states like Odisha and Bihar, where farmers don’t even get to mandis. Where the vast majority of trade and exchange simply happens from the farmer point of view at the village level. And so we never built enough mandis. It was very interesting because at the same time the doubling farmers income report actually reports that we don’t have enough mandis. That we never built that infrastructure. That we needed more periodic markets and better benchmarks and many more such good sites for trade. The e-Nam which is this e-national agricultural market, and the idea that you can actually do electronic export exchanges, requires the mandi system. To put e-Nam to work requires a system of well regulated market sites. These, of course, should not be monopolistic sites. And there were lots of problems in law which model acts had been trying to change, which allowed trade to also happen and exchange to happen in multiple sites, where mandis could compete in that sense with other sites, and you had good benchmarks. So you know what was sad was that there was very little interest in actually understanding this complexity.

The misunderstandings were across the board. About the role of indifferent instruments, what does an MSP do as a minimum support price? What is the role of mandis. So in such a complex area, Shoumitro, myself and all of us have been saying that in financial markets you would never deregulate to this extent and assume things would be better. You would have forms of registration, you would have forms of price information collection. And so it told us a lot of how, having become quite sophisticated in thinking about financial markets, that when it came to the primary sector and one of the most important lifelines for vast numbers of producers and consumers, we had a lack of empirical conceptual understanding of what we are operating with. The misunderstanding of what institutions were – and it’s not to say the institutions were working great, because we never invested in them. Whether it’s mandi boards or actual mandis, the number of examples we have of things that function really well are limited, right? But we never understood their purpose. And we’re not designing law and policy to address that. So it was a lot of just clearing up very basic things that was quite you know starting.

What did that period teach you as a policy professional – an expert?

The two that I have worked most deeply on, health and agriculture, have this almost unlimited capacity for commodification of certain kinds. But they are also places where the moral economy always operates. And I think it’s really, really important for us, when we are dealing with areas of complexity, to be able to synthesise and talk about the political economy and the moral economy together. And it’s very difficult to do. Even when it comes to states, when it comes to monopsony, when it comes to understanding how power works, is when people started actually following what one was saying. Because one was not becoming just ideological. You are actually showing how power operates and then anybody can understand – what is the role of a mandi? Why did you try it? OK, maybe you didn’t do it right, but what was the foundational assumption there? And what are the contexts?

I think the second thing was how difficult it is to make diversity genuinely count and visible in a country like India. It’s not enough to keep saying diversity, diversity, diversity, because we see it and take it for granted. And I think the third was complexity. Because again I think a lot of us have field experience and we say it’s complex and complex and people just tune out and they think well, you can show me the complexity, but what am I to do with it? And I think it was very important for us to be able to say yes and amid all this diversity and complexity, it’s actually first principles that will help. And so you take the diversity and complexity, but show both the conceptual understanding and I think that becomes really, really important.

I think the other thing that was really surprising was how little the discussion on federalism took off. Everybody was sitting there saying this is a state subject. But the states themselves didn’t see it as much as you would expect them to see it. It was one of those cases and we’re seeing quite a few of them, where we actually understand why you need state level policy in certain areas. What does it mean to have an integrated market? Why does integration also bring more volatility? And you know it was very helpful to work with an economist here. Shoumitro and I were able to think about questions of integration, and what are the pros and cons of integration, we were able to think about questions like efficiency and show some of the comparative data, there were just huge assumptions about intermediaries and middle men and their role. So I think these were all quite important things for us to bring clarity to.

The last thing I’d say is I was surprised, but also it was amazing to see that there was so much interest. That once you did that work, people didn’t tune out. There was much more engagement and interest in it than I thought. From all sides. Mandis I often thought of as this dry and dull and boring subject, but I don’t think people think that. Once you got into it, I think it struck you in places like CPR really giving that platform for so much engagement, from students, from civil society, from the bureaucracy and policymakers, from academia, to engage with something like this. And that was very, very exciting because once you realised you could do it, there’s actually a lot more interest in it than one had realised.

Taking us then to the State Capacity Initiative, could you tell us what brought you to build this within CPR? What was the genesis of the idea? What does the State Capacity Initiative do?

In some senses for me it goes back to the Nari Adalats and the community health workers, when I was working on public health and my M Phil was on Bombay police and policemen who wrote poetry. Then I’d worked with these mandi inspectors and mandi boards and all of the regulatory staff that make up a mandi. And so across all the areas that I had worked on, I had been constantly working with this question of state and market, but also the front line. At CASI, we’d done a really interesting series and workshop on frontline functions of the Indian state. So I think a number of us have always been working and thinking through the idea of the frontline state and I think both Yamini Aiyar and Avani Kapur also talked about that shift from accountability and the citizen facing side, to actually starting to think ahead about responsive government but also that it’s not just the demand side, whether it was the Block Development Officer and understanding their role or panchayat officials and understanding theirs both as representatives and employees of government and this whole range of frontline workers.
CPR had already done a huge amount of work on it. In a sense, every part of CPR has always worked on questions of public institutions and state capacity. I think a number of colleagues have already talked about Devesh Kapur and Pratap Mehta’s book on public institutions. There had been a history of really important work across sectors and at CPR. I think this was an opportunity crafted out of Yamini’s imagination for what would be a long term investment and commitment to thinking about state capacity and in that sense, it was very complementary and in many ways very deeply engaged with the work on accountability that had already happened.
The idea was to create a long term institutional research and practice program committed to working on the Indian state. Why a state capacity initiative at CPR is distinctive and I think this is really important is that the word state capacity itself is seen as a very technical administrative term. It’s also seen as a neutral term. The capacity to get whatever the state wants done. Or says it wants to get done right. This is the policy conundrum, and in many ways that has a real problem, right? If you think about the state as a site of class interests, if you think about the state as the monopoly of absolute violence, you could turn state capacity, which is often thought of in terms of your ability to extract resources, to tax, to actually enforce as on the one hand, quite tied to state violence and on the other hand, neutral like a technical space. And I think one of the things that makes CPR so distinctive as a place is that it never lets you forget or disengage from the normative questions. So this was an initiative to think about the possibilities and challenges of building state capacity in a democratic and federal India. It was not about just how well does the state do various things on different parameters, but about the normative questions about how the role of the state itself is in contestation and changing. This shift from provider to regulator in certain areas, but also that the acts of regulation are deeply charged with both moral and political economy. How does one think about the technical and the administrative? There’s a huge tussle in India between directorates and secretariats. Often the bureaucratic as a space of control, order, and dominance, versus in the bureaucracy, a space of deliberation, discretion, thinking, engagement, service. Public service rather than rulership. So all of these things were up for discussion and I think that’s what made this initiative so exciting.

The purpose of the initiative was threefold. In many countries, I think there are very large and many specialised organisations looking at public administration. But interestingly, again in India, the field of public administration had also been weirdly separated off from policy. There’s a lot of work that you would expect to have on the bureaucracy, on frontline workers, on regulatory agencies, really good social science work which is interdisciplinary – we said we actually don’t have that field. So one part was field building, which was to produce that sort of research body.

The second because of CPR – and again so core to CPR – was public deliberation. Accountability was always seen as a public issue. State capacity is seen as an internal technical issue. It was for experts. It was for people internally, it was for administrators and policymakers. But actually the nature of public institutions, how they’re to be built, how they’re to be designed, the way in which they implement, those are not technical matters. They’re deeply public and they should be publicly deliberated. And so the second was as a space of deliberation and socialisation.

The third was to actually then take all of this and work in catalytic ways, doing resource support and design support with state governments and with a range of public institutions and public organisations. So the purpose of the initiative was these three things. It has always been very ambitious. The idea was to have the initial funding and the plan was to have 15 years as an initial horizon and to keep building out from there and the initiative was launched. I started working on it in 2019 and we sort of built the team from then on. So it’s about five years that it’s actually been there. It’s very young. But it was built with that long horizon. So I think that’s why these are the three areas in which we have really tried to invest deeply. Of course, as soon as we launched formally, which was in March 2020, we then hit COVID, which raises all kinds of very interesting questions about state capacity as well. But that was the real thrust and impulse of the initiative.

You were confronted with COVID right off the bat but also had this 15 year vision in mind. Give us a sense of the things you worked on?

I’m hoping that over the next few weeks and months we can put out more of our work and share it very widely. The Initiative is shaped by these two things. One was the long vision and the second was that it was always to be multi-sectoral and interdisciplinary. And we got very, very lucky. Because not only at CPR did we have so much interdisciplinary knowledge and skill but we were able to build it in some senses also as a multi-generational initiative. We had not just scholars who were diversely trained whether it’s engineering, history, law, political science, economics, anthropology, but also former civil servants. We’ve been very, very lucky to work very closely with Deepak Sanan, KP Krishnan, Rashmi Sharma. And then we’ve had just an amazing group of researchers and research associates who’ve been part of it. Many of them are now going to be doing PhDs. So I think their work will also add to the field, building with extraordinary insights over the next few years.

Broadly, there are three areas that we’ve really really worked on. The core area has been this question of public organisations and the people of the state. Looking at government employees across the range from the higher civil services to field administration to frontline workers to regulators, and also to look at elected representatives. And so both the elected and the appointed. But to pay deep attention to their careers, to their lives, their organisational rules, their everyday experiences, to what it actually means to be a government employee and a government worker. And so some of the really interesting work that has come out is this very important body of work on frontline workers. Rashmi Sharma has written two very important papers looking at how neglected the frontline worker is in policy. And Gokulnath Govindan, who was an RA with us, wrote a very interesting paper on COVID and the frontline worker and how the frontline worker emerges during this time as a category that the government has to now take seriously and what happens as a consequence with essential workers and frontline workers. And he is taking this forward in his doctoral work. With Deepak Sanan, Karnamadakala Rahul Sharma, Aditya Unnikrishnan, and I did a survey of IAS officers. Again you would think we have so much work on IAS officers that we would be doing surveys. And some countries do very regular surveys of their civil services. But we don’t in India. This is actually one of the first and largest surveys that was done and I think what was very interesting here, we did two rounds. One report is out and it looks at COVID in the first wave and in the second wave. But we were very clear here that we didn’t want to actually just get tangled up in questions of resources or just policy but to understand the norms and values of public work. These surveys have been really interesting because we’ve been able to use them a lot in training material, which brings us to the next thing we did. I think other colleagues have already talked about the ‘Know Your Regulator’ series , which is deep engagement with regulatory agencies.

We’ve ended up working on what it means to think about the role of government as an employer. We’ve done three very interesting diverse engagements with state governments. With the government of Tamil Nadu, most recently, we were the research secretariat for their Human Resources Reforms Committee. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to think about the next, 25-30-50 years of the government of Tamil Nadu as an employer and understand the challenges of government employment across questions of recruitment and training. That was really an amazing experience and we learned a great deal.
We’ve worked with the government of Andhra Pradesh to think about their front line. AP is a state which has made a huge investment in their frontline, with this new scheme on Gram Sachivalayams and Ward Sachivalayams. It’s not a scheme, it’s a system and it’s a huge investment in the frontline and in decentralisation of public services and their delivery. So we’ve been studying that, trying to understand how well it’s working, what has worked, but also what would be the right way to think about the role of these workers. I mean, a big problem is we’ve never really worked out either right sizing or thinking about the role and purpose of government workers. So this has been another really amazing opportunity and a chance to really learn from the field, but also to that kind of thinking going forward.

With the government of Meghalaya, we have worked very closely with the Meghalaya Administrative Training Institute, MATI, and we did trainings. So taking from this idea of norms and values, we focused on state civil services again. There is so much attention on the IAS, much less on state civil servants who are absolutely vital and are the ones who stay on the ground in the states over long careers. So we had an opportunity to really envision what that training could be going forward. So, Deepak Sanan, Rahul Sharma and I were able to work on this with Meghalaya, with Himachal Pradesh and with Nagaland. And it’s also been a really extraordinary experience. We did two new programmes, one on the political economy – essential questions of political economy and policy knowledge for field administrators –and a focus on knowledge and skills and values for public administration. So those have been really exciting and innovative new courses that we have done. And then with the government of Meghalaya, we also had an amazing opportunity to work with them on the first state-specific guidelines for comprehensive primary healthcare. So CPHC has been another really, really interesting process of what participatory policy and guidelines would be taking the people who are going to implement it at the heart of the Initiative.

And then you know, I know you’ve talked already to my colleague Arkaja Singh, who had done work with Amrita Pillai and others with KP Krishnan on regulation, and our colleague Priyadarshani Singh had done similarly very deep work on the history of ideas and in questions of education. So it’s been really exciting to build out all of this very diverse and different work, working across generations, disciplines and research and practice.

That sounds like a really rich body of work. I mean the survey alone has loads of insights that I’d be happy to direct our readers and listeners to. Unfortunately we’re running out of time, so on to the final few questions. What are the misconceptions about the your work – agriculture, state capacity and beyond – that you find yourself correcting all the time?

We talked a little bit about this in the case of agricultural markets. And so I’ll focus a little bit on the state here because I think in terms of clearing the misunderstandings on markets. What has been really challenging is this extraordinarily persistent understanding that people have, that we have a bloated bureaucracy. I think this has been importantly corrected in the work by Devesh Kapur. It’s also been importantly corrected in a new book on state capacity by two civil servants, Gulzar Natarajan and TV Somanathan. And that was again very important to show that actually by most standards, India is thin bureaucratically. I mean, even the United States, which claims to really not like government and wants to have very small government, has 16% of people employed in government, whereas India it’s a little above 4%. And when you start thinking about the frontline and you’re thinking about a number of different areas, we realise how thin we are and how much we haven’t invested in public institutions. And so this is just such a prevailing notion that we have too much government and I think even the idea of minimum government, maximum governance, pushes that idea. And I think somewhere we have to understand we never really invested in building that coverage, we don’t actually have a good sense of what are the numbers we will need – but we don’t really have enough.

And I think the other continuous problem is actually paying attention to the role and purpose rather than to the activities of what the government does. This is one of the hardest things when you’re trying to build the case for government and for public systems, because people keep paying attention to what it is that you ended up doing. And this is true even with workers. If you actually speak to people and you ask them what it is you do, they’ll tell you what it is they actually do – the activities rather than the purpose. The focus is always on what you do rather than what you’re supposed to be doing or why you are supposed to be doing that. And this realignment of public purpose and organisational purpose, the ways in which organisations shape individual action, right? This other continuous focus on the individual and their tendency to be corrupt is a big, big problem. There again constantly trying to return to why things turned out the way they did, but then to return to core purpose and to first principles and how we think through these questions is an ongoing challenge.

What advice do you have for young folks entering the policy world?

I would say three things. I think I was extremely lucky that many of the things that people thought would get me taken seriously, whether it was having studied at Harvard or Cambridge or done a PhD at UCL, the people I really wanted to work with on the ground were not those who actually were impressed with any of that. And I had to work extremely hard to convince them that I wasn’t a fly by night operator. That I was really serious about what I was doing and I wasn’t coming to tell people what I thought needed to be done or teach them. And it was very, very important that I was challenged like that. So I think going in with an incredible amount of humility and having people take you seriously comes from that kind ongoing engagement.

The second thing I learned and again it was my teachers in the field and I’m thinking here about, Dr Sundaraman in Chhattisgarh when he was the director of the State Health Resource Center quoting Gramsci or teaching me Foucault, or sitting in Harda, where Arvind Sardana from neighbouring Devas, would send, wrapped up in paper, on a bus, Braudel, for me to read The Wheels of Commerce. Or if I went to neighbouring Bagli and Devas district where Samaja Pragati Sahayoga, which had an enormous library where they had collected some of the most amazing theoretical and empirical work and had written India’s Dry Lands This understanding that the field is where you collect data and somewhere else is where you analyse it is something I was taught very quickly not to do. Because my best lessons in social theory have actually come from the field. Assuming we go to the field for data collection and not for theorising, thinking, building up our analytical frameworks for deep deliberation is a real problem. And I think a lot of people enter this field thinking that they’re going to go understand what people do and then do policy in practice, and programs elsewhere, and I think these were such important lessons for me.

I think finally, it’s really important for people to find subjects and areas of interest. The generalist-specialist dilemma is a great one in public administration. And I think it’s a false binary. You actually need to understand certain things in order to be able to pick up general principles. So empirical specification is kind of a general requirement. I think that it’s very important to understand certain areas very deeply, even if you want to, and especially if you want to, connect them to other areas and in complex fields. A lot of people come and say they want to have a career in policy, but they’re not interested in a particular subject. They don’t have skin in that game. They don’t care about that particular area with enough passion. And I think the ones who do have passion are the people who do policy really well because they actually care about the issue.

And then finally, I think it’s really important for me to say this because it’s easy for us to challenge numbers and statistics, and of course, we must be very critical about the use of statistics and this qualitative-quantitative thing that I’d already discussed earlier. But I think it’s extremely important for those of us who are qualitatively trained and use ethnographic methods, to have an understanding and an engagement with numbers. And an understanding and engagement with economists and statisticians. The finest of them actually think in very similar, deep, reasoned, very careful ways. Often people come to me and they feel happy that I will not teach too much in numbers and then they feel a little nervous when I actually do a lot of this stuff, looking at surveys or looking at other types of data, and I think that’s really important that we’re not too quick to feel very virtuous about being ethnographers and qualitative and not pay attention to other disciplines, whether it’s scientific work or statistical and economic analysis.

I’d like to get three influences that you’ve had over your time. Are there three things that you recommend to those who have been listening or reading this conversation?

Since you have asked me a little bit to traverse, you know this period of time, I have three sets.
When I was doing my first work at ICICI Bank, in the work on public health, we came across the work of Judith Tendler and her work on Brazil. Work on frontline health workers and motivation and discretion and autonomy. And it was so exciting to understand how public systems can work, the sort of transformation that happens in Brazil, but it also was so empowering because it paid attention – it was technically detailed, it had specific references – but it paid attention to workers and to their motivation and to questions of trust and to questions of autonomy and also some of the mistakes that the government made which actually had these really good unintended effects in terms of decentralising and giving people more room to operate, and particularly at a time where the discourse is so focused on corruption and bad discretion, the focus on good discretion and on autonomy is so important. In one of the discussions earlier with you, Avani Kapur had said she didn’t realise that there was something like good accountability and bad accountability. And the same thing with discretion. When we talk about the importance of discretion and judgement, people say we never thought discretion could be a good thing, which is kind of amazing. So Tendler was really important for thinking about autonomy and thinking about motivation and thinking about public workers. And I think a lot of new work that colleagues like Rahul Sharma and others are doing in the State Capacity Initiative really take that forward. But it was a very early piece that I read early in my career.

Along with that there was another piece by Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock, Solutions When the Solution is the Problem. And that was also really important in giving us a framework of thinking about public services that are discretionary but not transaction intensive. Tragically, a lot of policy making is discretionary and not transaction intensive. Those that are transaction intensive but non-discretionary like immunisation for example that health workers do are quite algorithmic in a sense. And then those things which are discretionary and transaction intensive – like clinical care, classroom teaching – we learn how difficult it is to scale these services. That was another that was read very early on when I was working on public health and it was a really interesting and important piece.

In later times, when I was looking at public health I was given a remarkable book on the political economy of health care, on the history and future of the NHS by a GP named Julian Tudor Hart, who worked amongst the mining community in Wales. It’s on the possibilities of the NHS and what it was able to create in that period. It’s really brilliant for anybody thinking about what health is and on the relationships that are involved between patients and doctors, who actually ‘produces’ health. And on the technical and the administrative aspects. It’s a really fantastic book and very important for how we think about the market and state in the area of public services.

Then finally, I would say in agriculture and in the economy, the work of Barbara Harris White – it’s an extraordinary body of work over 50 years of understanding the diversity and complexity of agricultural markets, both the empirical and the conceptual range. And I would say in this area there have been a number of amazing women, both field economists and field working anthropologists, like Jane Guyer, who recently passed away. The ability to deal with the local and the empirical, but with so much creativity and wonderful theoretical and analytical scope. And actually, one of the interesting things is, as a woman who works on agricultural markets and mandis you get asked a lot, ‘how is it to work as a woman in these things?’ But some of the best work on markets, on real actually existing markets is by women. Whether we’re looking at Wall Street or the Chicago Board of Trade by Caitlin Zaloom, Gracia Clark, who worked on the Kumasi Market, Caroline Humphrey on post socialist trade, there’s a long line of women who have really understood traders and markets. So it’s been really inspiring to think about these questions and to read this literature. And I’ve actually felt very at home as a woman working on trade. Because there’s been such an interesting history and a long line of people to draw on to do that.
One final thought, if I can add just on to the things to read in recent times. Again from anthropology – James Ferguson and Tania Li. Ferguson wrote a very interesting book called Give a Man a Fish on new welfare, which I teach alongside a book called Bread for All, by Chris Renwick, on the origins of the British welfare state. It’s very interesting to see Bread for All with Give a Man a Fish. But their recent work is on what is a proper job, and what do you do about the social contract. The idea that many people may not work in the same way that we all imagined work would be for everyone, and where unemployment was seen as the great risk, but now we might be in a moment where a lot of people will not work in the same way and the economy is not producing jobs in the same way – there’s some really interesting and provocative thinking for us ahead on that question.

Policy in Action- Public Engagement Platforms

The Centre for Policy Research turned fifty in November 2023. As we celebrate this special milestone, we present some snippets of our impact on the Indian policy sphere over the years in various areas of research.

This edition of Policy in Action is dedicated to showcasing the various public engagement platforms that we have built over the years, by ourselves as an institution, as well as in partnership with other organizations.

Policy research and public engagement go hand in hand, and there is a growing need for cross-disciplinary, global platforms where policy issues, cooperation and expertise can be in dialogue to provide more effective solutions to policy challenges.

CPR’s platforms have ranged from a cross-disciplinary forum like CPR Dialogues, which brings CPR faculty from various initiatives and disciplines together with world leaders on one platform; to more specific subject centric conversations, such as Accountability Initiative’s PULSE for Development, Initiative of Cities, Economy and Society’s CPR-CSH workshops, Politics Initiative’s How India Votes series and several other initiatives.

Here’s a snapshot of our key work on creating platforms of public engagement over the years:

CPR Dialogues

  • ​​Hosted and organised by the Centre for Policy Research, CPR Dialogues is an annual public forum where leading policy practitioners, academics, and thought leaders address the most critical policy issues of our times. CPR Dialogues provides a platform for locating debates and challenges in India within a global perspective, allowing key stakeholders to engage with and learn from each other. The first and second editions of CPR Dialogues were held in 2019 and 2020. The third edition of CPR Dialogues was held in 2022 and featured over 60 speakers and 20 panels.

PULSE for Development

  • In 2020, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Avani Kapur co-founded the PULSE (Platform to Understand, Learn, Share and Exchange) for Development which brought together practitioners, researchers, and funders in the development sector to understand the situation and through this knowledge mitigate the impact of the crisis on human lives. It is currently incubated in the Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research. In 2022, a conscious decision was made to also include longstanding development challenges facing India and facilitate the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • The community currently comprises over 114 organisations and more than 230 individual members. These members include IAS officers, State Cadre officers, national and local civil society organisations, development practitioners, research organisations, and funders. A key feature of this platform is its Coffee Chat sessions, informal online discussions tailored to explore and advance solutions for complex welfare issues in India.
  • Since its formation in 2020, PULSE for Development has hosted 28 Coffee Chat sessions. These discussions cover a range of welfare-related subjects, spanning Gender and Livelihood, Migration and Migrants, Reducing Vulnerabilities including in difficult geographies, Disability Issues, Inclusive Development and Post-COVID 19 Challenges, Education, and Health and Healthcare, Nutrition, Family Planning, and Governance.

CPR-CSH Workshops

  • The CPR-CSH monthly urban workshop series, which organized its 166th event last month, was set in motion by a rather spontaneous event in February 2010. It was soon after Marie-Helene Zerah, who is now Visiting Senior Fellow at CPR, had taken charge of research on urban dynamics at the Centre for Human Sciences in New Delhi, and discussed a joint seminar series over a coffee meeting with CPR Senior Fellow Partha Mukhopadhyay. An occasion arose immediately to host eminent French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, and with the only available slot being on a Tuesday afternoon, the tradition of a workshop on ‘urban’ issues on the last Tuesday of every month was born.
  • Over the years, the CPR conference room, where the series is usually hosted, has emerged as an energetic space for discussions around urban politics, housing, governance, social dynamics, environmental issues, and more. Through this journey, the CPR-CSH collaboration has provided a bridge for French scholars to engage deeply with Indian urbanists, and has also provided a robust platform for visiting scholars from around the world and from various Indian institutions to share their ongoing work.
  • In September 2019, we celebrated CPR-CSH’s centenary with a panel discussion reflecting on the field of urban studies in India. The onset of Covid in March 2020 meant a pivot to digital events, and led to the participation of global scholars through online webinars. Today, nearly 14 years since it first started, the CPR-CSH workshop continues to be a watering hole for everyone curious about urban issues, and an enduring space for dialogue and exchange.

How India Votes

  • With an aim to create dialogue around voter and election behavior in India, the Politics Initiative at CPR started a conversation series in 2023 called “How India votes: 24 conversations in the run-up to the 2024 elections”. The conversations put a focus on the topics most concerning the Indian electorate and are moderated by Rahul Verma.
  • The series aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of how Indian citizens engage in the electoral arena. Each conversation explores one theme in detail, with leading experts in the field. Our hope is that this series will interest a wide range of audience as India heads for its 18th general elections in 2024. You can watch the previous conversations click here.

CPR-CWC Dialogue Forum (TREAD Talks)

  • CPR-CWC Dialogue Forum is a collaborative activity between CPR and the Central Water Commission (CWC), pursued under the MoU between the Ministry of Jal Shakti (MoJS) and the CPR to establish the MoJS Research Chair – Water Conflicts and Governance at CPR. It is a forum where CPR’s research interests and CWC’s practitioner perspectives converge to discuss, debate and critically engage with contemporary water policy governance challenges. It has particular interests in interstate river water disputes and transboundary river water governance.
  • The Forum is also a space to network and engage with wider groups of stakeholders for a vibrant policy discourse. It hosts distinguished scholars, practitioners and civic society actors to share their research and experiences. These interactions are organized as talks, targeted consultations (focused on specific issues), and dissemination workshops.
  • The talk series organized by the Forum are promoted as TREAD Talks, after the program that the MoJS Research Chair leads: TREADs (Transboundary Rivers, Ecologies and Development studies). TREAD Talks have so far addressed a variety of issues and themes.

India and the World

  • As part of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, a special celebration organized by the Government of India to commemorate the 75th year of India’s Independence, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) launched a flagship lecture series titled, ‘India and the World’. The series brought together distinguished speakers who have had a long and deep engagement with the country to understand their perspectives on India’s global relationships and how the world understands and engages with India – our history, our democracy, our economy and our society. This series sought to bring a global perspective into dialogue with India with the objective of celebrating the country, its role in global governance and articulating a pathway in the new, shifting geopolitical landscape.
  • Chaired by Honorary CPR fellow and former Indian Foreign Secretary Amb Shyam Saran, and featured a number of brilliant speakers from across the globe such as Peter Varghese, Nabil Fahmy, Ibrahim Gambari, Tshering Tobgay and many more. Ending in August 2022, as India completed its 75th year of independence, the series and its conversations remain a pivotal resource in understanding the global issues of our times.

To know more about CPR’s engagement with public platforms you can visit our website at https://cprindia.org/

Stay tuned for our next pop-up edition of Policy in Action, coming soon!