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.

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Arkaja Singh

This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with Arkaja Singh, a Fellow at CPR, who has worked across a whole range of topics broadly converging around the idea of ‘administrative coherence.

Having studied at the National Law School and SOAS, Singh spent a decade in development sector consulting and research before joining CPR. She has conducted research across a wide span of topics – from sanitation and manual scavenging to informal settlements and land titling to the framework of the Indian administrative state. The throughline across these different areas is a focus on understanding why government operates in the way it does, and what it would take to alter and reform it, not just in operations but in its international rationale.

In our conversation with Singh, we spoke about her years as a ‘governance consultant’ and how that differs from her time at CPR, what she means by ‘administrative coherence’ and her research into the municipal state. We also spoke about Singh’s research on how we cannot understand about access to water without first tackling the state’s approach to land, whether there is sufficient thinking about rationalities and histories within government and what advice she has for young scholars entering the policy space.

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 and Yamini Aiyar.


(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you tell us a little bit about what brought you into the policy space?
I came into the world of adults in the year 2000, when I joined a law firm which had a practice in infrastructure and public policy. Its seeds were in India’s structural adjustment and liberalisation process – the world of PPPs and concession agreements, privatisation, electricity sector and reforms.
The world I saw was divided between (those supporting) privatisation and liberal reform on one side and the anti-privatisation activism on the other side. At the time, it seemed as if you had to pick a side. I didn’t really want to, because neither of these were fully complete or satisfactory ideas, and it was as if there was going to be a face-off. But actually that face-off never happened. And I think one of the interesting things about the last few decades is how it all got absorbed and subsumed into what was happening in the Indian state. That’s where I started.
I did some corporate and commercial work, but I also worked in the law firm’s infrastructure and public policy practice. I was a newly minted lawyer so I was doing work that was quite low down in the food chain. But some of the work that we were involved with was around the unbundling and restructuring of the electricity sector – infrastructure sector concession contracts, the new Electricity Act – all this thinking going on about the structuring of public private partnerships, legal contractual aspects of public private partnerships, and how risk sharing was to be divided and allocated in that contractual form. This was some of the work that I was around.

What happened next? How did you make the jump more firmly into policy?
I went to do a Masters at SOAS in London. Just when I was finishing, I was looking around for what I wanted to do next. I had the option of going back to the law firm. But I was looking around – and then I encountered a very interesting bunch of people in London who ran a consulting firm that worked in International Development. They had a big and very exciting project in India, and they were looking for somebody to fill a big gap that had emerged in how they were going to do this project. I had been reading some of the work that this consulting firm was doing, and found their way of thinking about this stuff interesting. So I met them and they said, we have this project to study the political economy of public administration reform in South Asia, and we’re interested in understanding tactics and strategies, and the project is structured in this way. Do you think you can get into it? And I was like, this is exactly the type of job I thought I would do and I couldn’t even imagine a job that would be more perfect than this. I jumped at it and stayed on with them for almost a decade.

What was the work actually like? What did it entail?
Our client for that particular project was a bilateral development agency. The nature of this kind of development consulting work was that a lot of it was funded by either bilateral or multilateral international agencies. Very little of it was directly funded by governments in the developing world context and in the South Asian context in particular. This project was meant to be a comparative study between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. I was supposed to do India. And in that we picked two Indian states to look at various aspects of the governance reform process, what would be broadly categorised as administrative reform. We would look at what these states did in the field of administrative reform, the historical context, political background, why it happened, and whatever tactics and strategy we could try and disentangle from the story of that reform.
I had to go to these states and many lovely weeks were spent there, meeting bureaucrats, civil servants and local academics. I got to work with a senior colleague who’s a South African political scientist, and I think that was very formative for me. It really helped me work through my ideas and taught me how to articulate what I was learning.

Following this project, and as you spent this decade at the consultancy, were you gravitating toward particular fields?
A lot of our specialisation was in cities and in inclusive urban development. To start with, that choice was accidental. But I think the continuing challenge and excitement of understanding cities is something that kept me engaged. And just to sidestep, to say how these projects come about: your proposals are evaluated on the basis of the expertise of your team and its previous projects. So if you develop a specialisation in certain areas, you’re likely to do more and more of that work. However, because I became a governance consultant, my area was perhaps a bit broader than what it would have been if I had been an urban planner. Because of that I got to work on a wider set of projects. I also worked on the business development side and wrote proposals. Some of our work was studies of the type I described, but some were project concept studies related to the structure and design of future interventions and then some of it was relating to actually implementing large programs or then evaluating the results or the outcomes of large programs.

To demystify for the audience a bit, what is a governance consultant?
It could mean many different things. In a public administration reform study, it could mean understanding the reform, literature, writing, the actual content of the reform, the institutional story of that reform – all of that could be part of my work.
To share an anecdote – some years later I was working on a project in Madhya Pradesh and I had been made responsible for coordinating the city level implementation of an urban poverty program in the city of Gwalior. We were supposed to set up an office inside the Municipal Corporation in Gwalior. I had a team which consisted of several experts who were all older than me, who were all men and who had worked in many more places than me and I was supposed to coordinate them and organise the whole project. I was the face of this project and had to hold all the pieces together. I told my senior colleague, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do over here because this is an urban project, but I’m not an urban planner. There was an accounting and finance aspect of it, but that was not my expertise. They were all engineers. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t have any specialisation in anything related to this project. And this senior colleague said, you are a governance consultant. You have to take a step back and as you go along, you’ll see that what you have to do is very valuable. Just apply yourself and you’ll figure it out. And often the brief was something like this: Apply yourself and figure it out.

We’ll dip back into how some of this worked, but to go back to the career path – what took you into CPR following this?
I started to move out of the consulting world in about 2015 and it was in early 2016 that I came to CPR. I knew the people at CPR, and they knew quite a lot about me. There was a lot of very exciting work on cities going on in CPR at the time. My colleague Shubhagato Dasgupta had recently set up a large program on non-sewered sanitation. I said, ‘but I’m not a sanitation expert’ and he said, ‘I think we need your skills here as well.’ It was that conversation that led to my coming to CPR.

Did you find that the actual activity changed majorly between those two positions or was it just a matter of degree?
Even though in the content of my ideas there might be strong continuities between those two things, I think the frame changed a lot between consulting and being in CPR. The scope and also the freedom to define your own agenda was much broader in CPR than it would be within the framework of a consulting project. Also in consulting I had reached the limit before I had to become a business person. In CPR, I could remain interested in the world of ideas and whatever mountain we were chipping away at. It was a very different way of looking at that mountain. There was much more of an idea of publicness in the nature of what we were doing.
Consultants and academics do actually have much more in common than they think. There is a continuity of public spiritedness that I encountered on both sides and across most of the places that I have worked in. But if you’re writing a report within the frame of implementing a government program, you’re much more constrained. In a think tank, the space is much wider. You can define it very differently. You can ask more fundamental questions. You can engage with more fundamental questions. But there is a publicness to both and I think, having had a look at both sides has been something that I’ve valued.

You’ve worked across a whole range of subjects and with different teams, including at CPR. You’ve worked with the Urban group, the State Capacity group, with the Land Rights Initiative, on Water and Federalism. I’d like to delve into some of these topics, but would you say there’s a broader theme or a thrust to your areas of interest?
For some years now, I’ve been thinking about this idea of administrative coherence as the running thread through various parts of my work and things that I have engaged with. It’s made-up of the everyday interactions between law and administrative practice inside the state. In its building blocks, it includes things like rules, standards, norms and the frame of reasoning of how administrative power is structured, and how it is reasoned and exercised. The ways in which it is controlled, its checks and balances, methods of accountability and how it engages with the claims of society, and of course the capacity question. This approach of looking at state practice has been a running theme through many of the things that I have done.

If we could take that broad idea and begin to understand what it means, what does it mean to be looking at administrative coherence on the ground? You’ve looked at it, for example, in the context of the municipal state…
First I should say what I mean by the municipal state. The centre of the municipal state are the local bodies – the municipal corporations and municipalities. The elected local body is at the third tier of governance. But the municipal state is actually not just that, because it’s quite fragmented and there are quite a lot of different agencies that are responsible or that engage with the parts of activity that to a lay person would be considered urban, including water, sanitation, land, planning and buildings, transport. So it’s a cluster of different agencies of which the municipality may be only one. There is a formal 74th amendment of the Indian Constitution which lays down a constitutional mandate saying all cities have to have elected local bodies and they should be progressively given more and more of a role. But the actual content of how big and what the profile of the municipal institution is, is quite regional and it has particular regional trajectories and historical context.
A long time ago, I wrote a paper on the colonial history of local bodies because the earliest local bodies in India were set up from the 1860s onwards. The earliest forms of modern elected government were the local bodies. Some of the very prominent local bodies such as the Calcutta City Corporation and Chennai City Corporation and Bombay and even some of the smaller places in western and southern India have their origin in that time.
Then there is the more recent reform trajectory that has been driven by the Centre in India’s federal context. This basket of things that get called municipal reform and their interactions with the regional contexts and the politics that it encounters – and this includes a bunch of things like digitization and property tax reform and computerisation, some of the very obvious things and some of the things that might be a little surprising. But we have a two-decade history of this cluster of things that go with the municipal state. What is administrative coherence in this particular context? It is the everyday state of the municipalities, which is in some ways shaped by law.
There are different vantage points to look at it. There is the PIL form of law around the municipal state not doing what it’s supposed to have been doing, and being challenged in the court of law. This is a particular kind of adversarial frame which defines in legal terms what the municipality is supposed to do.
In administrative terms, it’s sometimes measured and accounted for by projects and fund utilisation. This is located very much in the context of urban development being an unfinished agenda. There’s a larger context of the development of Indian cities being a longue durée continuing agenda and the municipal state is not a static form in that. It’s very much like it’s still being built. It’s incomplete in many ways. In the perspective of administrative coherence that I’m talking about, there is the possibility of making a qualitative understanding of what these institutions are and in what ways they are complete or incomplete, when viewed from the dimension of what they do – on human rights, rule of law and their environmental outcomes. Understanding the administrative state from its internal structures and logic and rationalities is perhaps the best way to understand what I mean by administrative coherence.

Let’s talk about the right to water. Your work has shown that we can’t understand access to water, and the right to water, particularly for those living in informal urban spaces, without first thinking about land.
In this particular paper, I was looking at the human right to water in the context of Indian municipalities. It was trying to understand the lack of universal access to drinking water in informal urban settlements. I looked at the rules and the rationalities with which the municipal state operated and its inherent contradictions and limitations. While there is enough to go around, the broader problem is that the goal of universal access is undermined by inherent and under-examined contradictions in how municipalities are supposed to plan, deliver and implement drinking water services.
I looked at the case law and, surprisingly considering the context, there was this really small scattering of cases that relate to the human right to water in urban contexts. This is because it’s an unwieldy problem. And the court is unlikely to be able to do something very useful. So it’s probably strategic and tactical that people are not really going to the courts over this issue. The issue itself relates to the nature of the settlements that people live in, which are unplanned and informal. They might have problems in terms of having incomplete tenurial claims to the land, but also the settlements don’t completely fit or conform to planning regulation. They don’t have all the approvals. The reason why people are in these settlements is often because it is the only type of housing that they can afford to live in. So there are larger numbers of people in these places and they do have some kinds of access to water. That access has also improved over time. It’s improved vastly in the past few decades. But when you look more closely at how that access is structured, it is not of the same grade. There’s a second-grade access that people in informal settlements have to water. And that second grade access can impose very harsh difficulties on the people who live there.
So I examined what the obstacles were and how they were negotiated on an everyday basis. I looked at this one particular case which relates to Bombay, where people in those settlements were getting regular piped municipal water and then there was a policy change which cut off those water connections, or made them illegal. They had fully legal access which became illegal. I had read about this case being celebrated as a recognition of the human right to water by the Indian courts. But when I read what the court gave them, the actual outcome for people was still dependent on a policy that the government was yet to formulate. The court also said that these people actually don’t have a right to be here and the Municipal Corporation should be working to remove them from these illegal dwellings and that they didn’t have an equal claim to the city services as did citizens who lived in formal and planned colonies. It seemed quite dissatisfactory even though it was celebrated as a kind of human rights victory. The policy of cutting off water was linked to the slum rehabilitation strategy of Mumbai, which was a very land driven housing program which I’ve written about. To justify the slum rehabilitation policy, they needed to make this water cut-off policy.
And then I took a step away from this and looked at the municipal practice around drinking water access in urban slums in Madhya Pradesh. There’s a little bit more fluidity to what municipalities can do on the ground when people make proper concerted claims for getting or improving their drinking water access. There is a stack of paperwork because the informal settlements don’t have full planning status and because people’s title claims are incomplete. Strictly on paper, municipalities don’t necessarily need these two things – formal planning status and title claims – to provide water. But if they sanction a project to go and serve these settlements, it serves as a ratification of the planning violations and the land title issues.
Their rules require them to ensure that the person (receiving piped water) should be an owner of the property. So now they need to find something equivalent to a title. That equivalent is a whole cluster of documents that the person needs to assemble. Along with that, they need to organise political mobilisation and collective pressure on the institution. And then they might ultimately get a better quality of a community tap or a better quality of community-level or neighbourhood-level access. The straightforward house connection that you and I might consider that the municipality should be giving, doesn’t come so easily. In spite of the fact that there is a policy scheme which actually gives people lower connection fees. In spite of that, it’s still not completely accessible
And so between these two options, ultimately one or the other, neither of these are really leading all the way to success, to full first class status. What is the obstacle to this? It was my understanding that that was linked to how the state and administration views land and the issues of legality around land.

The paper looks at, in the state’s mind, the moral hazard of ‘rewarding’ those who are living in informal or undocumented spaces.
In the early 2000s, when there was all this debate around water privatisation, the story was that water services were supposed to recover their own costs and therefore tariffs would have to be increased. And that experience did happen in structural adjustment in other countries, where water companies were given large concessions to deliver water services. People would have to pay the cost of service and people who couldn’t pay their bills would be disconnected. This continues to be the global experience in other places, but this didn’t quite happen in our context. We sidestepped this because none of our water services actually recover the cost and tariffs are generally quite low. Even where a large number of private service providers might actually be involved in various parts – water treatment plants, laying pipes, maintaining pipes, etc – that private sector vision of drinking water didn’t actually happen for us. And so the issue around providing drinking water to poor people in informal settlements was not around what the most obvious thing which you would think it would be – their inability to pay. It was in no way linked to that. It would be much more rational from an economic perspective to have people get individual house connections and pay some sort of tariff, if economic rationality was in question. But in fact it was the opposite, because of the issue around land.

It forces us to grapple with the Indian administrative state and its consequences. You examined this in your paper about hunger during the pandemic. What did you set out to look at and what did you find?
Towards the end of the 2020 lockdown was when I started to look at the material that led to the writing of this paper. At that time, there was of course the medical emergency of COVID, but also because of the lockdowns, there was the economic emergency. Lots of people were in places where they were getting no money and they couldn’t afford to buy food. It was not that food was not there in the shops but people just didn’t have the money to buy food. A few weeks of no work meant that there would have been a huge hunger crisis.
Of course, the Indian state had to step in. Lots of civil society also stepped in. But the Indian state had to step in to address the immediate humanitarian crisis. A lot of the actual response was at the state level. And I looked at the variations in how that response was structured. The responses were made without having much time to think about and time to set up anything new. So most of it went through the structure of PDS – the public distribution system of food grain. But PDS, by its very nature, was not designed to deal with emergencies. It was not designed to reach out to people who suddenly became poor, who may not have been on PDS registers or may not have been in places where they were on PDS registers. It was just not designed for an emergency. So lots of innovation, experimentation and a lot of adaptation had to happen. The mandate was very different from what the state deals with on an everyday basis or even what it deals with when there is an occasional and remote humanitarian crisis, because this was a very large scale crisis. And what it really tested was the ability to deliver relief rapidly. Over time, it also became important that you could do it with dignity and provide relief which was decent and respectable to the people to whom you were reaching out. This became relevant. Maybe not in the first three days of the crisis, but as it wore on.
Could the state act in ways that were localised and contextual and discretionary? State officials that were quite low down in the hierarchy had to make discretionary judgments about a group of people in a crisis. PDS was not designed for this kind of discretionary allocation because in normal times, the hard wiring of the state is to check pilferage and misallocation of state welfare. So this state resource had to be distributed in a way that somehow followed the existing structure without disrupting it too much. But a crisis of this nature hadn’t been seen before. So in this paper, I spent some time thinking about the history of emergency relief and the history of food distribution. I looked at everything, right from colonial accounts of food distribution and food distribution in the time of crises to this enduring concern with pilferage and with constructing tests of neediness. In the pandemic, different states responded to this problem in very different ways. Their positions were also very different because the challenges – how many people were vulnerable, what the profile of those vulnerable people were, how they had to be dealt with – were very different across states. But there was an interesting contrast between what happened in Delhi and what happened in Kerala. .
While the Delhi response was very large scale, it had to necessarily be very cookie cutter and non discretionary. The food kitchens were large scale but very non-discretionary and very basic in order to ensure that only a very needy person will make the effort to come to these food centres and eat this food everyday. And anything that was a little more responsive or agile had to be delivered through civil society partnerships. Even though the government obviously had the money to have done this emergency relief, they couldn’t. It had to bank on civil society partnerships, NGOs, corporates and other people contributing as charity relief.
There was a contrast with what happened in Kerala. It has to do with the history of how state and society are organised in Kerala, which meant that, in spite of the fact that they spent much less money, they were able to do more localised and discretionary and contextual relief. They managed to do much better quality relief.
That contrast brought us to the question of what are the different ways in which that administrative power can be framed and structured? This was something that I could reflect on in the course of writing that paper.

Do you think there are enough people within government doing this – looking at the administrative coherence, and the rationalities and histories of their approach as they reform the Indian state?
I think the elite state or the parts of the state that deal with elite interests are obviously very different from the parts of the state that deal with non-elite spaces. I’ll talk about one space where this tension is there.
This is the issue around unsafe sanitation labour and manual scavenging. Manual scavenging requires people to directly handle untreated or semi-treated human faeces. It’s not just a technical matter. It was a caste-based occupation, so it has a particular social and caste-related history in India. But, at some point, almost everywhere in the world, they would have had manual handling of faeces. But as sanitation technologies and the ways in which toilets were built and managed to change over time, most places were able to move away from this kind of handling. In India, for a combination of reasons, even as sanitation technology evolved, manual scavenging has also evolved and we’ve still got people dealing with human faeces in ways that are horrible and hugely compromising human dignity. But it’s also become more and more unsafe because of the nature of technology. For the past few decades, we have had this increasingly visible problem of people dying or being permanently impaired in terms of health because of manual scavenging work. Around the time of the freedom movement in pre-independence India and in the early years of post-Independence India there was already a lot of concern and thinking about the place of the manual scavenger, the oppression of manual scavengers, and how the conditions of their work could be made better. In the 90s, the possibilities of technology made it possible to prohibit manual scavenging and still manage to do so, because technology could do what people were doing.
Because of this history, it has been framed as a problem of human dignity, caste and oppression. Now this is very important and in fact other places in the world could valuably take from this, in the understanding of sanitation labour. Where in India we do not do so well is that it’s also very under-recognised as a problem of state practice. Institutionally it’s located in the Ministry of Social Justice. The legal framework is also handled from a social justice perspective. But, manual scavenging becomes necessary because of the quality of the infrastructure – our underground sewage lines, and what we have to deal with toilet waste from human settlements. This is often so poorly made and costs and corners are cut, or it’s underspecified for the population or there are various kinds of technical and engineering problems with this infrastructure.That shortage is accounted for by inexpensive sanitation labour, which is of course, much less expensive than fixing the engineering problems. So it’s a problem of state practice and a problem of the nature of employment.
Over time, the people who work as sanitation labour – their employment terms have also got more and more informalised. So it’s even more difficult now to do things by following standard operating procedures, following safety standards – all that would make for the work to be safer and less undignified, less humiliating. All of those things are even more difficult to do because of the informalisation of sanitation labour. And there’s a historical nature to sanitation labour always being slightly informal. But the right sizing of the state means that work has moved into darkness and you don’t even know how those people are employed. Through contract and subcontract it has become very fragmented and so disaggregated, directly as a result of state policy.
The legal framework around the prevention and control of manual scavenging also has many kinds of legal requirements, of what the state is supposed to do, how it’s supposed to document blocked sewers. There’s a lot of paperwork that they’re supposed to do as part of standard operating procedure to make sanitation labour less dangerous, less unsafe. But there’s not enough attention to this side of the story – of the state fully taking responsibility for this work and then seeing that it’s done in a systemized and organised way. So this is one example where perhaps there’s not enough thinking about the internal part of state practice.

You mentioned your study on the regulatory institutions that have been set up, since 1991, as potentially also playing into this…
We had a program on regulatory governance at CPR that I was a part of. We had a seminar series that I had organised where we talked to the chairpersons of many regulatory authorities about their mandate and function to try to understand the structure of what is called regulation. There’s a lot that’s being said and has been said continuously about the performance of regulatory agencies, their outcomes – lots of problems and lots of things that could perhaps be handled better. But what we were looking at was the structure of administrative power in regulatory agencies and how it was different from the structure of administrative power across various parts of the Indian state. Here was a place with a framework of reasoning and taking a decision, making a regulation, being responsible for the implementation of that regulation and seeing if there’s a problem, how you fix that regulation, and hear all the affected parties of that regulation. Here was a framework that provided for a better quality of administrative rationality. This is necessarily structured as economic rationality. But a much higher quality of rationality was possible within the structure of these regulatory agencies. The regulatory agencies, by the terms of employment also sidestep some of the very routine down-low problems of the Indian state – which is that people get transferred, people have multiple charges, they don’t have enough time to think about something and they are not around for the outcome of what they’ve thought about and done, because by then they’ve got transferred. And they also don’t get time to develop enough expertise in any particular area.
I’m talking about the routine departmental decision-making where most of the power of the Indian state is actually exercised and most of the thinking of the Indian state actually is happening in departments and ministries. But within the department and the ministries, they have very little capacity to think through or implement medium-term policy transitions. Anything that is multi-year or anything that needs a variety of responses.
If you were talking about environmental regulation, to be able to say that small informal units might need to comply with XYZ standard, and if you’re in a larger unit, you need to do this, and if you are in a remote area, the standard could be a little lower – [to understand and plan for a] variety of standards that could be possible for the different contexts in which people are, this is a capacity that exists within regulatory agencies and not outside. It’s very difficult to create its equivalents outside of regulatory agencies. This is not to say all of the Indian state should be recast as regulatory agencies, but to say that something of this quality of regulatory agencies could actually be valuable in other parts of the state. Could we consciously think about what is it in other parts of the Indian state that’s lacking and how could some of these qualities be replicated?

Are there misconceptions about the Indian state or the things that you work on that you find yourself having to correct all the time?
The first would be capacity building and I think a lot of the inadequacies of the Indian state gets the response that there isn’t enough political will and there isn’t enough capacity. Of course, both of these problems are there. But the problem with this characterization is that the first one has a kind of determinism that you can’t do much about. The second one is that your capacity building then translates into either hiring or training or more often training rather than hiring because it’s less expensive to train people than to hire people. But not enough thought is given to the internal and structural accountability. Being able to have people in places and positions where they can remain focused on a particular region or geography or sector or subject and build expertise and competency in that area, and then be there for long enough to be responsible for that. In the context of the regulation paper, I called the concentration of power – where you can take the decision, you can correct your decision, you can make variations of your decision. Not enough thought goes into the structure of administrative power, because of this easy and convenient focus on capacity building.
It is not to say that civil servants and people in government employment won’t benefit from on-the-job training and mid-career training and opportunities to improve their skills. All of that is important, but training is not a substitute for problems in the structure of administrative power.

If you were to speak with younger folks entering the policy world, what advice would you give them?
There are two things that I’d like to say to people coming into the policy world. One is the value or the importance of actually trying to understand what is going on. So working with the state or working in places closely adjacent to the state gives you perspective. A lot of this is in the zone of what is unwritten. There’s a lot more to be done over there. Having experience of being inside or adjacent to the state can be really quite useful.
Secondly, I think it’s important to be engaged. If you’re studying the Indian state, it’s important to come from a position where you care about what it does. To be invested in what the state does in terms of human outcomes, social outcomes, but also justice, freedom and dignity. You shouldn’t study the Indian state only because it’s an interesting subject of study. You should also be invested in and critique or challenge whatever it is. It should not be a bloodless thing, because I think it’s sometimes depressing to read and to engage with analysis that’s a little cold and bloodless. It’s really nice to read the writing of people where there’s some heart and soul in it.

Are there three works that you could recommend to the audience that have influenced you or you’ve found important over the years?
Some of this might be historical because it framed my thinking very early on, and some of it may be more recent.
The first one I’d like to name is the work of Solomon Benjamin, when he wrote [with Bhuvaneswari Raman] a piece called Illegible Claims, Legal Titles, and the Worlding of Bangalore. It was very popular. He taught us at law school as well. It was something that shaped not just my thinking, but the thinking of a lot of people around me as well. His work in understanding legibility, illegibility, land tenure and title, presented a layered understanding.
Another useful piece which I encountered later, when I was working on informal land tenure, was the work of Geoffrey Payne, who wrote about urban land tenure policies and what he called the ladder of tenure, and the importance of building not titling programmes but forms of state recognition of informal settlements. This was a very important policy piece for my thinking and has helped shape it.
The third piece that I found refreshing and that I recommend to people interested in cities, is the work of Harini Nagendra, who writes about Bangalore. I found an incredibly important perspective in her book titled, Nature in the City. A lot of urban environmentalism is framed around elite spaces, pristineness. It can be framed in very anti-poor ways and her approach to it was really important and different.
A fourth thing that helped me think about what shouldn’t be. Some years ago I spent some time reading all the legal documentation around the Delhi Yamuna case. This is a cluster of cases and a cluster of court orders which started in 1994 and continues to this day, though I stopped reading it in 2016. It started in the Supreme Court and went to the National Green Tribunal. I started to read it for a functional reason, but then it became a real insight into the question of the Yamuna’s pollution and the problem of adversarial, legalistic framings of the pollution problems. The case engages with engineering, standards, environmental regulation, but framed in a way that helped me define what was not my approach. Just for that reason, it was a really important couple of months that I spent reading through this material.

Policy in Action- State Capacity

The Centre for Policy Research turns fifty this year. 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 our work with State Governments. Within the framework of India’s federal structure, State governments are at the cutting edge of policy design and implementation. This has become particularly pronounced in the last decade as States have taken the driving seat in the country’s governance.

CPR’s partnerships have ranged from monitoring and evaluation of select policies, partnerships to actively supporting States in designing implementation frameworks and policies, to capacity building and direct grassroots engagement.

Here’s a snapshot of our key work with State governments’ over the years:

Urban Governance

  • CPR partnered with the Government of Odisha to carry out a pilot study in the Dhenkanal district on urban-rural convergence. This approach has now been expanded to 20 districts in the state. The urban-rural convergence model, a product of research conducted by the Scaling City Institutions for India Initiative (SCI-FI), has received significant traction in national policy, owing to the uniqueness and replicability of this approach. It also supported the preparation of the Odisha Rural Sanitation Policy 2020, one of India’s first state-level rural policies.
  • We assisted the Government of Punjab to draft the Chief Ministers’ Slum Development Program also known as the Basera Mission along with various rules for the implementation of proprietary rights to the urban poor in the state. The SCI-FI initiative, the vanguard of this project, also assisted with training and compiled FAQs on the operationalisation of this mission by city officers.

Public Finance Management

  • CPR’s Accountability Initiative partnered with the Government of Meghalaya to support the Planning and Finance Department in a range of policy research activities including contributing to expenditure and budget transparency, and the development of the state’s first ever gender and youth budget.

Social Policy

  • The Accountability Initiative undertook a study on the challenges of achieving SDG targets in Meghalaya, and provided insights on critical social-sector SDG outcomes, including health and nutrition, education, rural and urban development, and other sector-specific policy suggestions for the state government to stay on track for meeting its SDG targets.
  • As part of our partnership with the Government of Meghalaya, CPR also facilitated technical resource support on Comprehensive Primary Health Care (CPHC). Emerging from a participatory process and deep consultations with functionaries at all levels of the health system, new guidelines, Understanding Comprehensive Primary Health Care: The Meghalaya Way was launched by the Department of Health in December 2022. Meghalaya is the first state to release its own state specific CPHC guidelines, which set the framework and way forward for transformative, comprehensive health care delivery and coverage for every citizen of the state.
  • In collaboration with the Rajasthan Governments’ Chief Minister of Rajasthan’s Economic Transformation Advisory Council (CMRETAC), the Accountability Initiative mapped data generation, use, and processes across Education, Health and Family Welfare and Panchayati Raj departments. Subsequently, a study on data use by the government was conducted which recommended methods to manage data flows thereby using it for effective decision-making.
  • In partnership with the Government of Andhra Pradesh, CPRs State Capacity Initiative studied approximately 5000 urban youth, using the Gram Sachivalayam Ward Sachivalayam (GSWS) data structure. This study sought to provide a demographic and economic characterization of the urban youth of the state and was the basis of a report which used these data to understand the relationship of the economic condition of urban youth to the pattern of welfare schemes and other support provided by the government. Another survey of approximately 15,000 beneficiaries of Ammavodi, YSR Cheyutha, and Nadu Nedu (a program to build infrastructure in government schools) assessed the efficiency of delivery, and the impact of these benefits on perceptions of citizens about the state. This study blended government data on delivery with the GSWS database and developed a method to carry out evaluations using the GSWS data structures.
  • CPR’s research in Andhra Pradesh has documented inconsistencies in data structure and described plausible routes through which leakage may be occurring (following appropriate masking and data privacy protocols) in the welfare delivery system created through the GSWS structure. Our analysis was conducted in three key areas: the fidelity of the existing database, and data gaps therein; the resolution of data on children attending school and demographic data used in the Ammavodi scheme that delivers a cash benefit to mothers of school-going children; and the calculation of beneficiaries (as a check on government calculations) for YSR Cheyutha which provides cash benefits to women between the ages of 45 and 59 from certain communities (OBC, SC, ST, Minority).

State Capability Enhancement and Design Support

  • CPR has worked closely with Administrative Training Institutes (ATIs), the primary training ground for state civil servants, across several states to reimagine and deliver novel training programmes. The first partnership was with the Meghalaya Administrative Training Institute (MATI) in 2021, followed by the Himachal Pradesh Institute of Public Administration (HIPA) and most recently with the Administrative Training Institute, Nagaland. These efforts are led by the States Capacity Initiative.
  • In a knowledge partnership with the Government of Meghalaya’s State Capacity Enhancement Project, the Meghalaya State Capability Forum was established. This Forum convened cutting edge global and national knowledge, and insights on deep conversations with the State’s political and bureaucratic leadership. As part of this partnership, Mekhala Krishnamurthy and K Rahul Sharma of the States Capacity Initiative co-authored a paper on Meghalaya’s approach to building a dynamic organisational learning culture at all levels of government titled ‘Valuing Evaluation: Building Capacities for Evaluative Thinking and Learning in Indian States’ for NITI Aayog’s publication on M&E @ 70: Strengthening India’s Evidence Systems for Accelerated Reforms and Inclusive Growth.
  • The Government of Tamil Nadu constituted the Human Resources Reforms Committee (HRRC) in 2022 to study the status and propose reform measures to enhance the performance as well as the social inclusiveness of the public sector workforce. Through this period of nine months the States Capacity Initiative provided research and analytical support as the Research Secretariat to the HRRC. Its work involved conducting extensive fieldwork and interviews with government officials occupying diverse positions in Tamil Nadu, desk research to collate the latest knowledge and practices on human resource development, data analysis of existing human resources data to identify critical trends in recruitment, retirements, and social inclusiveness, and the drafting of the report itself.
  • In partnership with the Government of Andhra Pradesh, CPR is working to build a Data Analytics Unit (DAU) with the goal to empower departments to use their data more effectively. The States Capacity Initiative, which is at the forefront of this partnership, has also been involved in developing statistical models across departments to help the government to process a large volume of data. The findings of these models are then communicated to high-level officers to provide action-based insights to relevant bureaucrats within the department.

To know more about CPR’s work with State governments, you can visit our website at https://cprindia.org/research-area/

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

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Yamini Aiyar

We have a particularly special edition of CPR Perspectives – our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary. This month officially marks 50 years since the Centre was founded, back in 1973, as an institution that would work to produce field-defining research and vital policy insights relevant for both the country’s decision-makers as well as an informed public.

To mark the occasion, this edition of CPR Perspectives features a conversation with Yamini Aiyar, President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research.

As with previous episodes in the series, we touch upon Aiyar’s path to CPR – including how she entered the Indian policy ecosystem with stints at Udyogini, a grassroots NGO, the Ford Foundation and the World Bank. But the bulk of the conversation takes a broader look at the history of CPR, the vital role it has played in key Indian policy debates – from industrial policy and economic liberalisation to foreign policy and climate change – and the challenges it is currently confronting.

Aiyar joined CPR in 2008, when she founded the Accountability Initiative, a research project that oversaw one of India’s largest expenditure tracking surveys for elementary education and brought a deeper, evidence-based understanding of public service delivery to the policy conversation in India. In 2017, Aiyar took charge as President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research, overseeing the deepening and expansion of the institution’s research efforts and a broadening of its engagement with governments, grassroots organisations and the global policy community. She also continued her own research on public welfare, federalism and state capacity, while serving on a number of government and international policy committees.

In the conversation with Aiyar, we spoke about her sense of the policy ecosystem in India before joining CPR, what it was like to build the Accountability Initiative and how the history of CPR’s policy interventions created a platform for her own tenure at the Centre.

We also spoke about what it takes to oversee an organisation with so many moving parts, how Aiyar sees CPR as an Indian voice at the global high table of policy debates and how she thinks about the current challenges faced by the Centre, as well as the misconceptions about its work.

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 and Neelanjan Sircar.

(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

On this special edition of CPR Perspectives, we thought we’d get a broader sense of what it’s like to run an institution like this. But even so, I wanted to start with a brief glimpse of your pre-CPR days, at least to get a sense of how you saw think tanks and the policy research world before you joined CPR.

Well, to be honest, I didn’t really think very hard about think tanks per se. They weren’t in the front and centre of my thinking, partly because my own trajectory and interests were very much in the development practice space and I had always envisaged myself as playing an active hands-on role in the process of development in India. I began my career working with an NGO that was mobilising women to form self-help groups and training them and exploring ways of linking them to the market. Following my Masters degree in development studies, I got very interested in trying to find a space within the international development world and ended up first at the Ford Foundation briefly and then at the World Bank. So I never really thought about the think tank world, and as an idea and as a place, they also were not really at the center of the development debates in India at the time, the early 2000s.

But of course one was very much engaged with the questions of research and for somebody who never anticipated a career in research, it is ironic that literally my first job involved me doing research. I joined an NGO called Udyogini that was based in Delhi but working with partner organisations across North India. And the first task I was given was to do a documentation of women’s lives and experiences as they formed these self-help groups. I was given the task only because I like to write, and I was reasonably good at writing. NGOs are always scrambling for talent and you might be hired for X, but you’re asked to do many things at the same time, and so this was a task that was given to me. I started travelling around rural India and I realised that not only did I enjoy the process of being engaged with people and learning about them, but I also realised that it made me better understand the role that research plays in the development process.

What we call development is a process of deep social engagement. There are different ways and means in which the State and interlocutors of the process of development engage with people. We need to be able to better understand and empirically verify what is happening on the ground as objectively as possible, and step away from the action routinely to analytically understand the effects of what is unfolding, because the process of development itself is an unprecedented act.

It was important to understand how all of this was unfolding on the ground and most importantly, to get perspectives of people who are participants in this into the discourse and dialogue about what we need to do to collectively improve the economic well-being and the welfare of the citizenry. These were all questions that I was interested in and why I entered the development sphere in the first place.

I very early on realised that all that we had studied in the classroom provided useful frameworks. And that in the process of the doing of development, research played a significant role. The doers and the researchers – those who study what is happening and produce evidence – play a complementary and very important role in the making and shaping of policy.

It was through that lens that I began to understand the role of research institutions, and I encountered CPR actually very early on in my career. CPR was an institution that was well into its late 30s, so to speak, as an organisation and had been deeply influential in terms of bringing some of the country’s most well known policy practitioners and researchers into dialogue and discourse in the public sphere, in academia, and directly in policy.

My predecessor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta had just taken over as President of CPR about the time when I joined the World Bank, and several World Bank colleagues were engaged in a dialogue with CPR to explore ways of bringing conversations about how to think differently about the traditional development challenges – questions of health, education, sanitation, water supply, public service delivery, accountability – into a dialogue with policymakers. CPR actually became a platform for scholars at the World Bank, policymakers and civil society organisations to engage in this dialogue. In fact, I gave one of my first presentations on social protection programs (NREGA) and decentralisation at CPR in those very early days. So I came across CPR in that context and began to recognize that not only does research play a really important role, but creating platforms for engagement between researchers, policymakers, civil society actors and other stakeholders in the process of development and policy is a very crucial role that think tanks play.

One of the really important and unique features of the research ecosystem in India relative to what we see in many other parts of the Western world is that higher education and universities in India really emerged very much as a teaching space and core social science research space. Research centres that were in the business of active knowledge production and engagement with policy questions didn’t find a home in the social science university. They found their home in centres like CPR, which was founded in 1973, but you know, along with other think tanks like ICRIER, NCAER, NIPFP. All of these were set up as research institutions whose primary focus, primary goal and objective was knowledge production with the objective of engaging actively in the space of policy. That’s really what distinguishes the early birds of the research ecosystem in India.

How do you feel about the term ‘think tank’ itself? Does it adequately encompass where the institution sits within the overall policy ecosystem?

Well, you know, you create a category and we all fit within it. But I think the term think tank has come to be a recognised term for the kind of work that an organisation like CPR does. And hence we all fit within that broad framework. It’s broad enough to have a very large variety of organisations and that’s what makes it a very lively, engaged and exciting space.

At the heart of what CPR is as an institution is the ‘R’ of CPR. It’s the research. That’s what our founder Pai Panandiker really emphasised, which is why the institution’s culture too, in many ways, replicates a university’s ‘publish or perish’ culture. But it isn’t research in the ivory tower and that’s what I think bridges us closer into the think tank framework. The goal and objective of the research that CPR is engaged in is to produce field-defining knowledge, but knowledge that sits in very close conversation with the active art of policymaking.

Pai Panandiker’s early work when he set up CPR and a lot of his writings at the time highlighted a key point, one that continues to have relevance in the contemporary moment, that the bureaucracy tends to conflate the short-term and the long-term, because it is a generalist bureaucracy, because it is incentivized in a particular way and because that is the nature of the job. It is looking for everyday answers to the challenges it confronts and doesn’t have the luxury of sitting back and developing knowledge, engaging with knowledge, absorbing knowledge and then using that knowledge to ask itself whether the policy question itself is the right question to ask vis a vis the problem it is seeking to solve.

CPR was set up precisely to fill that gap. This is a gap that the academy can’t fill in its purest form. We don’t have these kinds of research centres within the Academy and the Indian ecosystem. And therefore the university isn’t the right home for this kind of work. There is a need for an intermediate space and a set of interlocutors that engage in the process of knowledge production, in conversation with policy to pursue active policy-making goals and agendas. That’s the role that CPR fulfilled.

Tell us about how you entered the organisation, and what convinced you it would be a useful home for the kinds of work you wanted to do?

What really convinced me was a conversation I had with Pratap. He said, here’s a space that is genuinely keen to invest in you, where you are free to do what you are best at, and it’s non-hierarchical. It’s a space where we want to enable people to be free to pursue their ideas, with no shackles. We are very keen to invest in people in the long run and it’s a place which is extremely collegial with a lot of people, each of whom is deeply passionate about what they do and extremely curious, but really very busy doing what they’re doing. So they will engage with you and you will learn from them, but they will also leave you to pursue your goal with excellence.

And I just felt like there are very few institutional spaces that allow for this. And I was a non-traditional person for a research institution or a think tank, in that I was at the World Bank and preceding that I was at the Ford Foundation as a young professional, which gave me a very interesting overview of the emergence of new and innovative work that civil society organisations were doing in the space of governance and accountability. That was an area I was keen to learn, understand and potentially specialise and CPR was one of the organisations that the Ford Foundation funded and we had engaged a lot with some of the scholars at CPR.

My interests were very much in working at the grassroots in the researcher-practitioner mould. I was somebody who wanted to be part of the process of development rather than a student of development processes. In the time between when I finished my stint at the World Bank and began the conversation with CPR, India was going through some really interesting transformations. This was coming off of the first decade of economic reforms. The imperatives on the Indian state to really double down and think about its own governance abilities and limitations, particularly in the context of investing in welfare, became simply unavoidable. Until then, questions of the Indian welfare state were very often brushed aside simply, saying we don’t have enough money. In the immediate aftermath of liberalisation, there was a lot of push towards shrinking the state and less investments being made in the welfare state, but that was becoming increasingly politically untenable. Grassroots social movements were emerging in a very big way. The right-to-information movement and the right to food movement being two really critical ones to a degree – putting pressures on the state to respond to the welfare needs of citizens, but doing so in a way that was cognizant of and seeking to find ways to respond to the very real challenges of deep governance and state failure at the grassroots.

For someone like me who was interested in governance and how to improve the capacity and capability of the state at the grassroots, this was a really exciting moment. In my time at the World Bank, again just by chance, I was working with a group of economists who had spearheaded the writing of the World Development Report 2004, which brough the issue of strengthening governance, particularly the citizen voice and accountability, to the center stage of the global development dialogue. And India was beginning to experiment with all of this. So it was a really exciting moment. I spent a little bit of time studying and engaging with the social audit process for NREGA as it was unfolding on the ground. The state of Andhra Pradesh was experimenting with this in a big way.

I was really interested in exploring more of this. I wanted to explore these kinds of participatory tools at the grassroots, but because the researcher in me had already had that spark ignited from the first day on the job, and then continued to find its way through my time at the Ford Foundation and at the Word Bank, I wanted to be able to not just be a participant in this process, but also to have the luxury of stepping away, studying it, understanding it, making sense of the evidence and then experimenting all over again.

I was not the traditional researcher or for that matter the traditional policy wonk. I wanted to walk the dusty roads of rural India, talk to people and work with NGOs. And yet CPR seemed to have a space for me and once I came in, I found that this was really, truly a quirky little place because there were traditional academics who were really keen on researching and writing for peer-reviewed journals and speaking to their academic community of practice, but also dialoguing with policy. There were policy practitioners who had spent the bulk of their careers roaming the corridors of Shastri Bhavan and Yojana Bhavan and the Ministry of Finance. And then there was me.

All of them had great respect and space to hear what I had to say about what I was learning from my grassroots work. It was this combination of people that made this space really exciting. And I was given the space to actually just go and experiment. I was not expected to produce only peer-reviewed journals or policy briefs. I was expected to explore, to experiment, to collaborate and partner with other organisations and in the process try and build this research initiative.

You don’t get spaces like that in India. That’s what convinced me. It was that one conversation that made me think this would be a fun place to work, even though I had no idea what I was going to do except for some vague sense of wanting to be at the grassroots. But I also want to be able to do research and have a set of colleagues who were interesting, exciting and willing to engage in conversations with me.

I came to CPR very young and very early on in my career, but it was a space that allowed me to grow.

Before we get to your job of today – running the institution – I want to get a sense of what it was like to build out the Accountability Initiative. We spoke earlier with Avani Kapur about AI as it is today, but could you give us a sense of what it was like to build it?

It was a really fun, exciting period because there was an excitement about the possibilities of this legislative and citizen-led effort at reshaping the grassroots state. The broad spectrum of stakeholders, from social movements to governments and change makers, all coming together to try and move the needle on these very critical issues of how the state functions and delivers on the ground. It was a really heady phase in that sense. Everybody was excited about the possibility: from civil society organisations to reformists within government to academia, that were looking at this experiment and keen to study and understand it better, and of course the donor community too, that was looking to India as a leader in this moment, and keen to engage land learn by supporting experiments and research.

The challenge was, how do you go from an idea into a practical, pragmatic research program? This is where CPR’s research ecosystem gave us the clues. The first thing that we did was to just get a sense of the landscape, both of the research that was already out there on social accountability and on questions of grassroots governance. Along with that, we organised a series of dialogues and discussions with stakeholders, many of whom one knew just from having already been in this space for a few years. And CPR was an institution with a great reputation, so people were willing to come together on the CPR platform to have conversations and dialogues.

So we brought practitioners together to talk about what are the different kinds of experiments that are going on, and also what are the kinds of research questions that practitioners themselves have for them to be able to better understand what they’re doing. That was the first phase.

One of the interesting things that was also happening in parallel at CPR was the creation of PRS, the Parliament Research Services, which was incubated at CPR. It had narrowed down on this very critical question of the kind of legislative support that parliamentarians receive in the Indian context, and experimenting with both providing active support to parliamentarians as they participate in their legislative duty with the objective of strengthening parliament’s deliberative role. It was also crafting a space to serve as an interlocutor between the technical expertise parliamentarians need and the reading public who are also stakeholders in this process of legislation and policymaking, through the creation of these legislative briefs that were then put into the public domain.

While I was trying to make sense of what to do, I was also looking at this very exciting and extremely successful project that was being incubated right next door to me at CPR. Watching PRS taught me that if I want to play this role of bridging between expertise, research and the policy-making process, regular productisation of your ideas is a useful proposition. I understood that you need to have tools.

In the course of landscaping what was happening in India in the accountability space, in the governance space and in the course of conversations with practitioners and scholars, one of the things that we realised is that there is an urgent need to actually demystify how the government allocates and spends its resources. Because that is really the starting point of participation. There had already been an emergence of organisations that were engaging in demystifying budgets as a tool. In fact, it became a whole arena of research and practice – participatory budgeting and transparency of budgets. In the global development arena, too, there’s been a lot of experimentation.

But most of these organisations were really engaging at the macro policy level: How do governments prioritise resources and allocate resources across different functions of government. So how much is being allocated to education, health and welfare programs versus, say, defense infrastructure, etc. And initiating public dialogue on government prioritisation using the budget as a tool.

In talking to practitioners, and this is something I saw myself, there did seem to be a significant gap between what was allocated and what was happening on the ground. We felt that just this path of allocation-to-expenditure was not well understood, partly because government budgets are very complicated and difficult to make sense of. That’s where the idea of the budget briefs emerged.

At the same time, our urge to be at the grassroots was very strong. I had also begun conversations with Pratham, whom I had worked with in a previous avatar. Pratham had started housing the Annual Status of Education Reports – the really powerful report that shed light on learning outcomes in India. In the course of those conversations, Rukmini Banerjee at Pratham and I began to talk about the role of parent teacher associations and decentralisation in strengthening learning outcomes in schools. The right to education was also being debated at the time and embedded in this was this idea of community participation, parental participation in planning and budgeting for the school.

I was interested in community participation, Rukimini was interested in how to get parents more engaged in the school. We came together to do a series of experiments on trying to make school development plans, which were mandated by policy. We were spending a lot of time in villages working with parent teacher associations to develop these plans, and one of the big challenges that we hit upon very quickly was that you can make a plan, but parents have no idea how much of the 10-15 thousand crores that is being allocated in Government of India, that all the budget groups were debating sitting in Delhi, is actually available to the school to make a school development plan.

We learned by trial and error. It took a long time to peel the onion of the budget first to figure out, of that 10 -150,000 crores, how much do schools actually get. But once we figured that out and went back to these parent teacher associations to say, ‘OK, by the way, it’s only ₹15,000’ it was obvious how little decentralisation actually was taking place.

Even on that money things aren’t easy. One school made a plan which was really very sensible. The school had a broken roof. There is a period of time in the school year, which coincides with the raining season, when parents, teachers, children are all aligned for children to turn up in schools: There are no weddings, the agricultural cycle means that everybody is in the village and children can go to school. But because it’s the rainy season and the roof is broken, the classrooms get flooded. And this was the excuse for teachers not to show up to teach. So the parents said, we want to fix the leaky roof and given that it’s a very small amount of money that is coming in the maintenance grant into the school, we will give our labour for free. But we need the budget to come to the school to procure the materials, etcetera, to fix this leaky roof. This was a conversation that happened at what coincided with the start of the financial year, which was early April, and the expectation was that well before the rainy season – late June, early July – the roof would be done.

But April moved to May. No sign of any money in the bank account. May moved to June. No sign of any money in the bank account. June moved to July. The rainy season has come. The classrooms are flooded. No schooling is actually taking place. By this point the parent teacher association members, the few who were turning up for our meetings when our teams would go to these villages, said ‘we’re not wasting our time with you. At least you can find out for us what’s happening, why the money isn’t coming?’

It became a bit embarrassing, so we felt we really owe it to these people who spent so much time with us to trace back and understand why funds have not reached this school. So we went to the block, we went to the district. Finally we had to get to Bhopal, to the State Department of Education to discover why money hadn’t flowed down through the system. In the process, we realised that there’s actually very little information within the government and amongst the citizenry at large about how monies flow within the whole government system.

Look at what was going on with this whole accountability question: There was a big debate going on at the national policy level over how governments are prioritising resources and whether questions of human capital and people’s wealth for citizens, welfare and well-being are being prioritised in a government’s budget, which is an important conversation to have. There has also been, consequent to grassroots mobilisation, a huge shift in what citizens are asking of government and expecting of government in that citizens are being invited by the government now to participate in governmental processes – auditing, planning, etcetera – to ensure that government monies are spent in ways that reflect needs and priorities on the ground. But the government is simply not organised to do this because it doesn’t even know how to allocate money so that discretion is given at the right level of government. It also doesn’t even have any idea of how money flows within its system. So where is the citizen and how is the citizen supposed to participate?

That then confirmed to us the starting point for accountability initiative is not to study the impact of accountability efforts at the grassroots, but to actually bridge a very critical knowledge gap on how the state functions to enable stakeholders – the wider citizenry, the interlocutors, civil society, the researchers, as well as government for that matter – to better understand how the state is organised. For it to be genuinely participatory, if it were, if it wishes to be so.

Because I was watching PRS, I also knew that the right way to do this is to productise. And the experience of working very closely with Pratham and seeing the role that ASER was playing in shaping the public discourse around learning outcomes made us also realise that one should be audacious about this. That’s when two interesting products emerged that are, I think, the centrepiece of what we were doing at the Accountability Initiative at the time. One was the Budget Briefs – just peeling the onion of the budget as it is allocated in the Government of India to look at how allocations translate into expenditure using government data. But we knew that that was not enough. We created these budget briefs at the start of every budget cycle. We would put out these 5-10 page documents that showed how monies were allocated at the start of the budget and how this was broken out across different expenditure items to get to your final output, and also how much of this money actually was released from Government of India to the state government, from state government to the expenditure entity and actually spent. And this is not an easy exercise to do because government is really complicated.

My colleague Avani, who now heads the Accountability Initiative, took the risk to join me in this crazy exercise and she really just took the lead and has created these budget briefs as the signature documents on social policy financing that CPR’s Accountability Initiative puts out year on year. Then learning from the ASER experience – and we were really lucky that ASER was excited about this idea too – we said, let’s include some fund flow questions in the annual user survey. So that’s how the PAISA (Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions Studies in Accountability) report was generated, which was a flagship piece of what we did in those early years. We introduced very basic questions and the thing that ASER really taught us is that if you want to bridge the gap between research and policy, between practice and policy, you have to think of research as something that is accessible, relevant, and responsive to the stakeholders at the grassroots. So ask questions in a manner that is relevant and responsive to the parents.

What does the parent need? ASER pushed us to ask, if they were to make a school development plan they would want to know how much money comes to the school? What does it come for? When does it come? How much did I spend last year? How do I plan to meet my needs for this year? These were the questions we included these questions in the ASER _PAISA survey.

And we therefore had data from 15,000 schools across the country which gave us better insight into how once ₹100 is allocated at the Government of India level, how does that ₹100 actually translate into a well functioning school at the grassroots level? We also realised that there are many complexities beyond this very basic question. So we started doing district-level detailed expenditure tracking surveys, which we call the district PAISA surveys and to do this we then brought in a whole team of colleagues at the grassroots. We called them PAISA associates.

The two more things that CPR and the partnership with Pratham and ASER really taught us is that for research to bridge the gap with policy, it needs to be in conversation with the public. So we made sure that we were constantly drawing on what we learned and and placing it in the public sphere in different ways – at the national level in the mainstream discourse, through op-ed writing and seminars and workshops – but also with the State and at the grassroots level by engaging in conversations with everybody from the panchayat to the district officers. And for that we built this cohort of PAISA associates, and a training module alongside it, to enable this whole process to take on a life of its own.

So, we went from a team of three mad people with a crazy idea. Pratham played a role. I have to mention Anit Mukherjee of NIPFP, the public finance specialist who was willing to jump into this crazy idea with us in those early days and taught us how to read government budgets because you don’t get to learn that anywhere. And CPR gave the space for this completely unorthodox research idea to emerge along the way. We went from three people to 10 very quickly in about 2-3 years. And that meant that this very small team was working all night long, travelling across the country but with full pep. A sister organisation of Pratham, the ASER Centre, was our key partner, and their energy and their infrastructure kept us going in those early days to build out the Accountability Initiative. It was super fun and a real learning and an opportunity really to do action research in an exciting way.

I would be happy to dig much more into the details of what things were like at the Accountability Initiative, but since we had a chance to cover some of that with Avani on an earlier episode, we’ll switch to the bigger picture that followed. Could you tell us a little bit about what happened after? What it meant to take the reins of CPR as an overall institution and how that came about?

Thanks Rohan. I mean so many things just come about by chance rather than plan and in some ways the opportunity to lead CPR really just came to me as a chance. I had never planned to be a career policy think tanker or policy researcher or whatever term one might want to use. But when one thinks back it was almost inevitable for me, and for the kinds of issues that I was interested in. In the context of Accountability Initiative, so much of what we were trying to do was to create spaces for a more embedded, deeper participatory process of policy at the cutting edge of where policy gets implemented at the grassroots.

In some ways it was almost inevitable that the logical next step of being a student and a practitioner of the idea of participatory development, that I would find myself in an institutional space, nurturing and building an institution that was seeking to do precisely that. Not necessarily at the micro grassroots level, but on the broader national policy making stage. In a way, CPR as an institution represented a lot of the imagination that I had kind of imbibed of the urgency for a broader participation of different stakeholders, different voices, different experts in the process of policy making. The democratisation of policy making, as it were. It was only logical, therefore, for me to grab the opportunity when it was presented to me, to nurture an institutional space that would do precisely this.
I grabbed the opportunity and it was a mind-opening experience. Being in CPR for just short of a decade before I had the opportunity to become President meant that I had exposure to a wide range of colleagues who were working on a wide range of issues, from climate change to urbanisation to land rights to international relations. We had heated debates on the nuclear deal back in the day. We had heated debates on welfare and social policy. We had heated debates on India’s growth trajectory and the questions of climate with some of the brightest minds and experts in the field. And now I had the opportunity to actually lead the institution and guide its intellectual as well as practical contribution to the making and shaping of the policy discourse at the national level.

For me it was unexpected, but exactly, in retrospect, an obvious next step from doing exactly this at the grassroots level. Very much like the role of civil society organisations and interlocutors in facilitating and enabling people’s participation at the grassroots level, it’s a logical continuum of exactly the same role at the macro level, of course with different tools and different forms of engagement, but engagement nonetheless. So there I was in an institution that I had come to love whose institutional culture had allowed me to nurture a space that I could call my own and given me a huge amount in terms of learning, in terms of opportunity, in terms of a space to experiment and build. And so if there was a place to take my work to the next step CPR was it, and the opportunity was presented to me and I grabbed it with pride.

This is in 2017 and I want to get a sense of two things here. One, as you’re looking at the institution I want to get a sense of what the challenges presented to you are at this moment, but maybe you know answering that means telling the audience what it means to lead an organisation like CPR for those who are not as familiar? What are you actually looking at, thinking about and and doing?

Maybe there are two different ways of thinking about this. Institutions inevitably raise very practical, quotidian challenges that have to be confronted. And that essentially requires constant reinvention, in response to the shifting landscape in which the institution locates itself. And I think CPR, like any institution that survives many decades and stays relevant and in prominence, continues to seek talent and in the pursuit of excellence reinvents itself periodically. Any institution that says static just simply doesn’t survive and loses relevance very quickly.
Transitions come at a moment when institutions are ripe and ready for reinvention and rebuilding.

I was very lucky, in the sense, that I took over an institution that was extremely robust and was really in its heyday, at its peak moment, in terms of the talent it had accumulated, the intellectual imagination that it had brought together and also its institutional reputation. The excitement that CPR had generated within the policy-making ecosystem, whether it was government or the academy or civil society, there was an excitement and energy about the institution and around the possibilities of the institution. In more ways than one, I took over an institution that was in its most exciting phase.

Before I talk about the challenges that I confronted, it might be worth just giving the listeners a little bit of a glimpse of what it took to get there, because I think that it is worth reflecting, especially as we celebrate 50 years of the institution’s life, on the challenges of institution building but also what are the elements of an institution that keep an institution alive and kicking?

Let me take you back a little bit to the period of the 1970s when CPR was first established by our founder Pai Panandiker. He’s a person with a huge amount of energy and in what basically has become core to CPR’s culture, the kind of person who is constantly intellectually curious, firmly non-partisan, doesn’t fall into any category of position or ideology and is always rebuilding and reimagining his ideas. Precisely because he had all of these characteristics as a person, he set up CPR as a space that sought to bridge the academy and policy in a way that would really try and push the envelope on policy making. It was not just about falling in line with what the policy-making establishment of the time wanted to hear, but was very much about challenging how the policy-making establishment was understanding the environment, articulating the critical questions and then engaging with it.

In the 1970s, emerging from the period of the nationalisation of the Indian economy there were important questions to be asked about the nature of the Indian economy and what path it was taking. Crucially to think about what are the different ways in which to address the question of growth. One of the early works that CPR produced, led by Pai Panandiker, was titled Towards an Industrial Policy: 2000 AD. Just to give you a sense of how forward-looking the institution was in its early days. It saw a particular moment in policy. It recognised that there were big questions to ask that one needs to think about in the longue durée. And it wasn’t going to try and answer this question in the immediate, it was going to think through long-term solutions and was going to be audaciously ambitious about it. In the late 1970s to be talking about what industrial policy would look like in 2000 AD was ambitious, and pushed the idea that governments need to think long term and really challenged conventional orthodox understandings about the Indian economy, about industrial policy of the time. Many, many decades later, in the late 2000s, CPR did exactly this all over again, this time on foreign policy, bringing together stakeholders of different views around the table to develop a long-term national security strategy, the foreign policy strategic document called Non-Alignment 2.0 and then some of the authors along with myself more recently produced the second version of this titled India’s Path to Power” a collective enterprise across several individuals and institutions.

This idea of looking at issues as they exist today, but pushing the envelope to think long term was very much at the heart of what CPR did. And I think that’s what made the institution extremely relevant and built up its ability to be responsive to the policy questions of the time. This early work that CPR began on industrial policy then comes to a head in the 1980s when the institution builds a very strong body of research on economics. Two of the country’s most well-known economists of the time, Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia and later, Dr Charan Wadhwa joined CPR and played a very important role in challenging established understandings of the relationship between state and capital and pushing for the urgency of reimagining industrial policy in ways that rid India of the shackles of licensing that had was now increasingly being recognized as one of the reasons why growth was stagnant.

Dr Isher Ahluwalia, within a year of joining CPR, publishes this celebrated book Industrial Growth in India; Stagnation since the mid-Sixties and emerges as an extremely important voice on industrial policy, liberalization and growth. In addition, there are a few others at CPR who are working on issues of liberalisation, advocating against protectionism and for more open economic policy. In fact, at this point in late 1980s, there’s a revision of Towards an Industrial Policy: 2000 AD to keep it more updated to issues of the current moment. And Dr Charan Wadhwa joins as well to start a two-year long study on loosening protectionism on specific capital goods.

All of this is building up a body of knowledge that is responding to the very specific challenges that the Indian economy was facing in 1980s and contributing to the broader policy discourse, but also engaging in the public sphere with these questions of how should India open up that ultimately culminates into the famous 1991 moment of the opening up of the Indian Economy.

At this time, there’s another important element of Indian policy-making at the national level that was gaining ground, which was around South Asia regional cooperation. SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) was just about being established and in fact, CPR was a few years ahead of the formation of SAARC when it brought in two very important scholar practitioners Bhabani Sen Gupta and Pran Chopra to give birth to CPR’s work on foreign policy.
And they were particularly focused on questions of South Asia integration. This was very much a critical issue of the moment and CPR became the home of a significant amount of research and engagement on these issues, both as a convening hub that brought in different stakeholders within India but also building networks and relationships with researchers, with policy practitioners across the region.

The reason I went into this history was just to give the reader and the listener a sense of how the institution was developing its intellectual agenda. There was a policy context and within that policy context, there were emerging questions that needed long-term strategic thinking, but also active convening, dialoguing and debate. The two issues that the institution builds its expertise in is on the economy, where it’s at the centre of and I would argue even a little bit ahead of the debates on how India should think about its industrial policy, how it should think about questions of liberalisation, of opening up, and then on the other, it is looking at the foreign policy landscape and building up a very robust body of work and engagement around these critical questions of South Asian regional integration that were really at the heart of our foreign policy thinking in this phase in the 1980s.

CPR develops its expertise and presents itself to the world both by building legitimacy for its work through deep, field-defining research – both Dr Charan Wadhwa’s work and Dr Isher Ahluwalia’s work are widely cited as among the most important contributions to the discourse on liberalisation in India in the 80s and 90s. And the work that Pai Panandiker and his colleagues did on industrial policy feeds directly back into the policy discourse of the time as well. And similarly, as we see with South Asia.

If you go back to the history of the 1990s and the early 2000s, you see similar strains. An institution that is bringing talent in and responding to the big policy questions of the day and doing so both by looking at the long term through deep field-defining research and pushing the envelope on how policymakers think. But at the same time, also creating platforms for dialoguing and convening with a wide group of stakeholders to build public consensus around these issues in the 1990s.

Among the many things that the centre does, it also brings in extremely important voices in national security and foreign policy, through researchers who built out a very long career at CPR: Dr Brahma Chellaney, Dr Bharat Karnad as well as Dr Nimmi Kurian. Both Dr Chellaney and Dr Karnad retired a few years ago, and Nimmi, of course, is still a faculty member at CPR. Their work expands the horizons of CPR’s work on foreign policy, looking at newer issues that were at the frontier of foreign policy debates in India. Dr Chellaney did a lot of work on technology sanctions, on missile technology related to India’s relations with China and Central Asia. Bharat Karnad was a key figure in India’s national security establishment and was one of the principal authors of India’s nuclear doctrine. Both played a very important role in presenting alternative, contrarian positions to the mainstream. Nimmi did a lot of work on India’s relations with China, and has also since been doing a lot of work on borders and borderlands, both in South Asia, and India-China. These were emerging issues for foreign policy at the time and CPR was really at the front and centre of all of this.

Cut to the present. When I joined CPR, you see the emergence of a new intellectual portfolio of issues that were looking to the future in the aftermath of the first decade and a half of economic growth, thanks to Pratap Bahnu Mehta’s vision of a younger, academically rigorous CPR. With massive social economic transitions taking place in India, all of which required both a deeper understanding as well as some forward thinking about the next set of challenges that national policymaking was going to face. Way back before climate change and India’s energy transitions became matters of high diplomacy and front page news, CPR was ahead of the game and brought in two of the most talented young scholars, Lavanya Rajamani and Navroz Dubash, who hunkered down at CPR to build out what has now come to be called the Initiative on Climate, Energy and the Environment.

In addition, India was emerging from that first phase of growth and the largest movement of people out of farms and into non-farm activity opened up new vistas of questions about India’s urban transitions. How do we actually build cities that would genuinely fuel growth in India? We began setting up a program on urbanisation, the roots of which again can be traced back to the late 90s and early 2000s. DR KC Sivaramakrishnan, who became chairperson of CPR in the mid 2000s, joined CPR after retiring as Urban Development secretary. He was the architect of the 74th amendment that sought to decentralise powers to local governments in urban centres and municipalities. Dr Sivaramakrishnan began building out our work on urbanisation that my colleague Dr. Partha Mukhopadhyay, who joined CPR in about 2005 built up into our longer-term program on urbanisation.

Our work on international relations, of course, continued. And we also created space for academics who were looking at questions of foreign policy in different ways. Srinath Raghavan had joined in the mid-2000s to produce field defining books on the modern history of India’s foreign policy including: The Making of Modern South Asia and The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy. Responding to the new set of policy challenges in that late 2000 phase, a new set of actors come in.

This is a very important time from the perspective of institution building, in that there was a proliferation of research institutions in India. The term think tank now enters the lexicon quite firmly. New think tanks are emerging in the landscape. And there’s also an emergence of a new kind of global philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had just emerged on the scene. They had started working in very niche areas of public health, particularly on HIV/AIDS in the mid-2000s and then were beginning to expand. The Hewlett foundation, the MacArthur Foundation were beginning to do a wide range of things in India. This emergence of global philanthropy in some ways created new institutional challenges.

On the one hand, there were a lot more resources that were available to do research, but the nature of those resources were very much projectized. Ultimately institutions need money to function and to build their institutional backbone. CPR, had of course, a very long partnership with the Indian Council of Social Science Research starting from the late 1970s, that had built out a few key academic positions at CPR and that’s how CPR its academic rigour. International philanthropic organisations, particularly for the Ford Foundation were another source of funds in the early years. But the way in which funding contributed to institutions was very different in that phase compared to the 2000s, when there was much more in terms of resources.

The old form of funding was very much about supporting the backbones of institutions. So the funding came in the form of research chairs, in the form of endowments. The new kind of funding, while it enabled a very large build out of the institution, was largely in the form of projects. And that raised important questions and concerns: Even as an institution is expanding, how do you build and strengthen its institutional backbone?

When I took over CPR, as the intellectual portfolio had expanded, a lot of resources had entered the institution to enable and facilitate this expansion. But the next obvious question was how do you build resources in a way that strengthens the institutional backbone, so that we are not just dependent on projectised funding, which while it allows you to innovate and experiment, has limitations in terms of its ability to ensure long-term sustained funding? And the one thing that we had learned from this period too is, in order to ask and answer hard and different complex
policy questions, as CPR was doing, it required you to build research agendas that could travel through the longue durée and and be agile and responsive to the nature of the particular policy moments and evolve as the policy questions evolved alongside.

So, I had been given a bubbling, energetic, thriving institution. My first challenge was to think through how to institutionally strengthen it. And of course, the second challenge was how do you develop its intellectual agenda into the next set of questions that we needed to confront.
And in some ways that agenda emerged organically. The key areas of work from climate to urbanisation, Land rights to international relations was continuing.

But in each of these, the one thing that became more and more visible to all of us was that even if you are looking at a policy question from the particular sectoral expertise that you brought to that question, whether it was climate, whether it was urban, whether it was social policy, ultimately, each one of these raised very crucial questions about the nature of the Indian state. Now this is something that CPR has engaged with all the way back from the 1970s. Pai Panandiker himself lamented the fact that India just didn’t have any good public administration research. Public administration scholarship really ought to be at the heart of a young nation that was energetically working towards the project of nation-building. It just didn’t exist in a substantive way. Over time ‘public administration’ turned into a new term that has entered the lexicon: state capacity.
In the 2000s, this question of state capacity came into CPR’s work from the point of view of public institutions and some really seminal work on India’s public institutions, led by Pratap Mehta along with his colleague Devesh Kapur and later Milan Vaishnav joined in as well. They produced two really important edited volumes on India’s public institutions, its strengths, its limitations and how do we answer the critical question of building out 21st-century public institutions that are autonomous, robust, strong, rigorous. There was my own work at Accountability Initiative, which dealt with the critical questions of governance at the cutting edge and how to strengthen state-society relations to improve governance and accountability.

We were all looking at these questions in different perspectives, but we hadn’t actually built this out into a cross sectoral work on state capacity. And increasingly, it seemed that that was really the next generation of questions that we need to get a handle on. One of the biggest things in terms of building an intellectual agenda that sought to draw on the learnings of the work that we had done over the decade previous was to build an umbrella project on state capacity, so we launched the State Capacity Initiative, and along with that, new initiatives on politics, new ways of thinking about international relations… [There were also] new forward-looking questions on policy: How do we build and respond to the emergence of technology in the public policy world? How do you think about regulatory institutions? These were some of the new areas of work that we started building in, while all along thinking about this big question of how do you strengthen the institutional backbone in a resource constrained environment.

Resource constrained because there was very little appetite within the global donor community, within the Indian donor community, to think about financing institutions from an institution-building perspective, by which I mean supporting the institutions in its ability to build a strong and robust institutional backbone, a strong administration, a robust corpus, endowed chairs that would allow you to attract talent and hold on to talent for the long term. And yet also have resources that were available to reinvent the kind of research that you wanted to do in response to policy.

One last thing is also, the urgency of reimagining how to keep the policy dialogue going in the public sphere. One of CPR’s great strengths which go back to the ‘publish or perish’ culture that our founder Pai Panandiker imbibed in the institution, is that CPR scholars were always prolific.
It’s a very heterogeneous institution. Through its evolution, it didn’t just bring in traditional academics. It was a space for retired bureaucrats – people with a long history of public policy practice – but also a number of journalists, too. BG Verghese, was a CPR faculty member till he passed away short of a decade ago. This presence of journalists encouraged CPR to engage with the public sphere beyond its academic work, writing quite regularly in national newspapers, in Op-Eds. Pratap of course, his columns are essential reading if you want to understand contemporary India and global affairs. At CPR, all of us enjoy the art of communicating research through the means of the opinion pieces and many of us indulge in this.

It has a huge positive in that it ensures that our research is constantly in conversation with the public and it also holds us accountable because when you present your ideas to a wide audience, some like it, some don’t, and you have to answer questions. So it’s very much a part of the institution’s culture.

But by 2017 the world was moving on beyond the Op-Ed. Social media had exploded. We had really resisted setting up a Twitter account or Facebook account – how can you communicate complex policy in 150 characters! But change was thrust upon us. By 2013-14 it was impossible to be an institution of any kind without active social media presence and communications became a real critical arm of how you translated research and kept engaged in the public sphere.

It was new, it was hyperactive, with lots of different ways emerging and you know we are in some ways old researchers. So we really had to also reinvent ourselves and find new ways of expanding our engagements beyond the opinion page and beyond the seminar room. The early experiments we did were with the CPR Dialogues, creating a platform for a wider public policy conversation that took critical pieces of our research, core questions of public policy, different stakeholders and then opened it out not to a carefully curated policy kind of audience, but to a larger audience.

In a way, our imagination was can you create the equivalent of Jaipur Literature Festival for public policy questions? I was really surprised to see how much hunger there is, particularly among students all over the city and actually all over the country to dialogue and engage on these very critical questions. The first time we did it, it was the first stage. It was small. But by 2020, just before COVID, we did the second big CPR Dialogues. And we had at least 200 odd students that came to the Habitat Centre through the course of these two days to listen, learn, ask amazing questions that pushed us to think harder.

It gave us a sense that there really is a space and an audience for this kind of deep engagement. So finding and experimenting with new ways of communication and taking our work beyond the Op-ed pages and seminar room was another big focus of my years as president at CPR. That’s where Hemali and Rohan you come in!

How do you wrap your head around all the different things going on at CPR? Is there a system – or just broadly managed chaos?

It’s chaos. I wouldn’t go so far as to say organised chaos but it’s chaos that all comes together and I think that’s the process of research. The exciting thing about CPR is that it’s a really intellectually charged atmosphere and all our peers are constantly engaged in questions, bringing through the seminar room experts, thinkers, writers across so many different fields. The range of exposure one gets and the kind of bird’s eye view that you get just being in the building and talking to colleagues on a wide range of issues that are really at the heart of our social, economic, and political lives in India just stimulates you and I think the prolific-ness of CPR, of all my colleagues, comes out of just that stimulation.

One of the great lessons of institution building is that there is no better kind of accountability than accountability that comes from being in an environment where everyone is in the collective pursuit of excellence. Your colleagues become the biggest check and balance to ensure that you produce and that you are accountable for producing as good a scholarship as you possibly can. It’s helped me think very hard about questions of how we frame accountability even when we talk about public policy and governance. The economist Lant Pritchett, who is one of my mentors and a good friend, has this very nice framing of accountability for accounting versus accountability as an account. He argues that a lot of how we think about accountability and public policy in our debates on governance, particularly in India, is to conflate accountability with accounting. So tick marking. ‘Have you produced three papers? have you organised two seminars?’ Accountability as an accounting practice, so to speak.

You realise that accounting is hardly accountability. Sure, it gives you a good ledger but it doesn’t create an institutional atmosphere of excellence. Where you’re held accountable in terms of outcomes of excellence. That’s where the second element of accountability – which is the account, the kind of embedded context in which you build narratives about yourself that justify the nature of work that you do vis-à-vis your peers and gives legitimacy to your work – this account is the way in which real accountability for outcomes emerges.

How do you ensure that teachers show up in government schools? Can you do it through an accounting practice by sticking in a biometric attendance machine? Well, maybe, but that’s not going to get your teachers teaching as well as they can. But create an environment where your peers engage with you in a dialogue about pedagogy and debate about how to teach particular things, and automatically your “account” of what it means to be a teacher starts becoming the front and centre of how you define your purpose and how therefore what you hold others hold you accountable for. That’s what I think CPR is. So in some ways, how I think about many questions of governance also intersects with how I think about my institution-building role.

In our work on state capacity, my colleague Mekhla, who heads our State Capacity Initiative, talks a lot about how to think about the norms and cultures of public institutions, and how to imbibe a sense of public purpose into public institutions. In many ways, the act of administering and leading an institution like CPR pushed me to think about questions of norms and public purpose. Maybe that’s why intellectual productivity is high, because even administrative pursuits that are quite quotidian, mundane, and frankly can be quite boring are also in many ways a part and parcel of the broader intellectual agenda that brings us all together under the umbrella of CPR.

But I’ll also say one more thing. It’s been a very turbulent time. I took over CPR in late 2017. It was a thriving institution. My predecessor, Pratap, had really built this phenomenally, intellectually vibrant, and purposeful institution. So I had big shoes to fill. It takes time to understand, even if you’re part of the institution, to view it from a different perspective. Perhaps it’s almost harder when you come in from being a faculty member to then think about leading it. Of course, it has its advantages. But you also have to reimagine and relearn everything that you know about the institution and that takes time. I had just about found my feet when Covid hit, which meant that the whole institution and how it functions had to be completely rejigged and we had to move from the seminar room to the Zoom room. And we’d barely emerged out of COVID when the regulatory environment started getting more complex. With the amendments to the FCRA laws in 2020, even the domestic fundraising environment was becoming much more challenging. And then, in mid-2022, as we were emerging out of the COVID phase and settling down into a new phase for institution building, the institution came under a new set of challenges with the authorities.

So in all these turbulent times, it’s still the vibrancy of the intellectual environment of the space that really keeps it productive, despite everything.

We’ll come to the current turbulence in a moment. But I wanted to ask about two ‘audiences’ for CPR’s work that we haven’t had the chance to discuss much. One is the broader policy space outside India. We’ve spoken mostly about India, but CPR is a voice that is relevant not just to the policy ecosystem here, but internationally also. And the second is in India, with the government and practitioners – how are they consuming and working with the output from CPR?

CPR as an institution has had a fairly long and deep relationship with a very wide range of institutions, both domestically within India but also with the global ecosystem. CPR is, at heart, an Indian institution that is deeply embedded in the public policy ecosystem here in India. Therefore, it plays a very important role in presenting the Indian perspective. Sometimes you can extrapolate from the Indian perspective to a more broader developing country perspective or we Global South, as we call it now. But bringing that perspective into the international arena and on the international stage, and this is particularly relevant for India in the last decade and more when India’s role in shaping the global discourse on global public good – whether it’s climate, public health, multilateral institutions, global finance – has become extremely significant. We play a very important role, through our long relationships, with global institutions in presenting an Indian perspective and enabling that perspective to find a seat on the high table of the global discourse.

Often global institutions tend to assume that their politics, their perspective is the way in which the world talks. I remember a really good line that summarises this in Navroz’s interview with you when he said sometimes we look at our American colleagues and we say ‘But you know, it’s not just America, that has politics. All countries have politics and you have to be sensitive to and understand the nature of that politics’. So presenting that perspective is important and it’s played a very important role in shaping, particularly, for example, the climate discourse, but also several other arenas: How we think about questions of education, of public health, of social accountability, how we think about the challenges of property rights. Embedding these ideas in the global discourse has been a very important role that CPR plays.

Also, being the home of where researchers from around the world come to engage in India, to understand India, to build research projects that are comparative, and deep. CPR as an institution is the home of several very important comparative global research projects. We were one of the institutional partners for the India-China Scholars Exchange program anchored with the New School in New York. It resulted in a very exciting exchange of scholars between India and China on a wide range of issues. Urbanisation, for example. These kinds of exchanges that both build a collective understanding and contribute to the global discourse on a wide range of issues is the role that CPR plays.

Another set of institutions from France whose names I am not going to dare pronounce because my pronunciation is all wrong. So I’m merely going to give the acronyms: IRD, CERD, Sciences Po, and we have scholars who have been embedded in CPR, who work on these issues. With CSH, we’ve had one of the longest running dialogues on Urbanisation, where we bring scholars and practitioners working on issues of Urbanisation from across the world to engage in a dialogue. We also have a long standing relationship with the University of Bergen on property rights. The convening power of the institution, with its relationships and networks with global scholars allows for an exchange of ideas that is genuinely unique, and it ensures that a deeply embedded Indian understanding is routinely presented in these platforms, which helps shape the global discourse. That’s how we view our engagements with international institutions.

You’d also asked about policy practitioners in India. There are three things I’ll say here. One is, that we often complain about the Indian state being too generalist and not open to expertise outside of the political moment. Some political regimes are more open to expertise, some less so. But you know more generally, the Indian Civil Services – it’s a constant refrain – it doesn’t like expertise. It’s too generalist. It’s too closed. But actually our relationships with the Indian bureaucracy over many decades suggests otherwise. The Indian state has its own very unique ways of bringing in expertise as it needs and is such that you know the answer to the generalist-specialist challenge of civil services doesn’t always need to find itself in standard debates on lateral entry. The Indian state does this by setting up expert committees – and CPR has often played a role in being members of or chairs of expert committees. It seeks researchers to provide research studies that contribute to committee reports and studies. Whether it’s the Finance Commission or the Competition Commission, Central Water Commission CPR scholars have played a very important role in this work. Often experts are called in. We were home to the Ministry of Water Resources (and later Jal Shakti) research chair. Our work with Accountability Initiative or even PRS of demystifying a lot of legislation, laws, policy budgets and presenting it back – sometimes, even the government needs it – is another way in which the government engages with expertise across the board.

But increasingly a new area has opened up which I think has been a long time coming. It’s becoming much more visible to us at CPR in the last five or ten years, which is a deepening engagement with state governments. I myself, through my work, have long advocated for deeper federalism and for states really claiming the role that they ought to play in both policy making and policy implementation and increasingly you’ll find state governments looking to research institutions, to think tanks to civil society, to a range of stakeholders to help them respond to their policy challenges.

The challenges at the state level are of a whole other kind. There are of course the big picture policy design, policy thinking questions that state governments are grappling with. But they’re also grappling with implementation. National policymaking is about ideas. It’s about setting standards. It’s about rule-making. But really, the rubber hits the road at the state government level, where they are tasked not just with building out a policy framework, but also implementation and the process of implementation has very complex design questions and institutional questions built into it. This is a new arena where state governments are looking to institutions like CPR. And we now have a fairly deep presence, which is again I think one of the additions to CPR’s repertoire of policy engagements in the last four or five years.

We’re working with the government of Tamil Nadu on thinking through their human resource needs over the next decade, as the Research Secretariat to the Human Resources Committee that the Tamil Nadu government set up. We’ve been working very closely with the government of Andhra Pradesh on providing both monitoring and evaluation on some of their key flagship welfare programs, but also now helping them build up a data analysis unit since the Indian state is now digitised completely, but it needs to build its capacity to draw on this digitization in ways that strengthen its capabilities, to be responsive to governance questions. We’ve been working with the government of Meghalaya on building its health policy as well as with its finance department on how to strengthen its budget making capabilities. We’ve been working with the government of Odisha on Urban Development and Sanitation. Similarly with Punjab. And this work cuts across many things. It’s thinking through policy design. It’s thinking through institutional design, institutional capacity. It’s thinking through the steps of implementation, it’s about evaluation. It’s also about training – building the capacity of the state cadres. In particular, we’ve done some really exciting training with the state cadres and with the administrative training institutions for state cadres in Himachal, in Nagaland, and in Meghalaya, all with the aim of strengthening the capabilities of the state at the cutting edge at the state government level. This is a new and very important and very vibrant stakeholder in the policy making process that is making its presence felt in the last few years.

I would love to be able to delve into each of those new projects, but given that we’ve already taken a bit of time, I’d like to come to the current moment. You’ve mentioned that it’s been a turbulent time. We’re not going to go over the specifics of the legal cases, CPR has responded to those in various other forums. But I wanted to get a sense of what it is like for you to lead this institution in this current environment, in this atmosphere?

In some senses, Rohan, I think it reaffirms the importance of institutional spaces like CPR.

Politics comes and goes, regulatory challenges remain. India and actually the globe is going through such a moment of turbulence and transition, and I think social media has added to new ways in which societies are coming to terms with how it engages and how it communicates what the public sphere should be, what are the norms of that public sphere. All of which creates a very, very polarised space. This is not unique to India. Countries around the world are dealing with this, and in that process the space for evidence-based, sober engagement with this critical moment that the globe is going through is even more urgent.

Adam Tooze has sort of popularised this idea of the Polycrisis. This polycrisis, perhaps, that the globe and India is going through requires spaces like CPR to be able to stay sober and continue with the process of trying to understand the nature of transitions that are underway. I don’t think anybody can claim to know with any certainty what’s actually going on. Therefore, it’s really important to be able to constantly observe, document and place one’s ideas into the public domain for engagement.

Through this whole process, the questions that have been raised about the institution, the nature of its work, the nature of its funding, all of that collectively makes me feel even more determined that institutional spaces like CPR must be fought for and kept secure because we need these. Otherwise, how are we going to understand the overarching context? It also is important to remember that even the process of evidence collection, the process of intellectual pursuit, can get heavily polarised when you are in this complex moment.

It’s really important always to ensure that the work that we do finds its anchors back into the grassroots. I personally find that – even as we’re dealing with all the difficulties of responding to questioning that the government is raising, CPR is now in the court – but just going back to the field, talking to people, getting their perspectives in villages, in urban centres, understanding – through everybody from the Block Development Officer to the state secretary – what’s actually going on, serves as a refreshing reminder of why the work that we do is so important.

One response that I and I think all of our colleagues at CPR have to this present moment is a determination to find a way to continue this work because as we find ourselves caught in this moment, the relevance and significance of sober, empirically grounded, intellectually grounded engagement with the very critical questions of our times, to try and understand the roots of the polycrisis, the nature of the polycrysis is just so, so critical.

One of the questions we’ve usually ended the interviews in this series has been to ask about misconceptions. I usually am referring to misconceptions about specific research work. But here, are there more general misconceptions about CPR and policy research that you find yourself having to correct?

What has really caught me by surprise is the kind of narrative building around CPR as being an institution that is driven by agendas that are not Indian. That it is actually the antithesis of national interest, of economic interest. The roots of all of that have to do with how we think about financing and whether foreign funding necessarily ought to be conflated with work that is working for foreign interest rather than national interest.

The reason it surprises me is, look at what we do. Are you trying to tell me that the work that we do on building a robust understanding in India on how we can navigate our energy needs as a growing economy whilst not locking ourselves into a fossil fuel-heavy energy transitions is anti national or goes against national interest? Is work that is trying to see how we can strengthen schools, improve learning outcomes, strengthen local governments, strengthen public health systems, going against national interest? Is work that is about trying to build public awareness on environmental laws and trying to understand the consequences of flouting environmental laws in terms of pollution, in terms of lives and livelihoods of the most marginalised of populations as we build out our infrastructure, something that is against the national interest? Is engaging in a dialogue with both the country’s elites and grassroots stakeholders on questions of laws and policy that our parliamentarians have passed going against national interest? Is engaging in the world of ideas going against national interest.

Ideas don’t have to be things that we all agree with. In fact, The Argumentative Indian is about the Indian who is constantly and consistently disagreeing with one another. That’s where the world of ideas gets emergised. And that world of ideas is not restricted to national borders. It is about an exchange and through that process of exchange, national interest and global interest is formed and that’s the work that we do as an institution. Yes, an Indian institution by definition works for Indian interests and its sources of funding are transparent and visible to anybody who cares to look, and very much within the framework of the law.

Should institutions in India be supported more by Indian philanthropy? Yes, of course and absolutely, there’s no question about it. But does philanthropic support from the global philanthropic community mean that an institution that is receiving that philanthropy is speaking to interests that are against the nation? I just find that impossible to believe. I just find that wrong. I find that that’s a really deep misconception and one that needs to be broken. In the world of ideas, there are no boundaries. In the world of ideas, the best check and balance is the fact that it presents those ideas in the public domain, and it is in the public domain that ideas get challenged, that policy debates take place, where views and evidence gets engaged with and responded to. This is how collective national interest is formed and preserved. For me, at this point in time, this is the biggest misconception that we ought to break. We ought to be celebrating and supporting institutions that are embedded in India, in the Indian policy making ecosystem, that are committed to working on issues that are of significance and relevance to Indian citizens and presenting an Indian perspective across the globe. We ought to be celebrating ideas and engaging with them and holding proponents of ideas accountable for their views with arguments, not shutting them down, when inconvenient.

Finally, are there three works that have been influential for you and that you would like to recommend?

There are so many. Maybe since since we’ve talked a lot about the Indian state and the role of policy research institutions like CPR in building the Indian state, I’ll speak to three books that have recently come out that I think really give us insight into the early phases of state building, but also open nice and important questions, for research that we ought to concern ourselves with as we think about the project of state building going forward.

I absolutely loved Nikhil Menon’s Planning Democracy: How a Professor, an Institute, and an Idea Shaped India. There are many reasons why a lot of listeners who are interested in public policy and public institutions should read this. But for me, one of the most important things that I learned from this book is just what it takes to build public institutions. As he traces the history of building India’s statistical institutions and PC Mahalanobis’ own evolution, as he builds some of India’s most well-known statistical institutions and then his contributions at the Planning Commission, you really get a very live sense of how institutions get built, what are the challenges, how different actors come together, their own personal quirks, their strengths, their limitations, their influences. And really, the recognition that the process of institution building is also about being embedded in a world of ideas and debates of the time, which goes back to the point I was making about ideas not having national boundaries. These are all responding to frameworks in which the world is thinking, ideas that are being debated, and you’re building institutions in that context. Strong institutions respond to that. You get a sense of that from Nikhil Menon’s fabulous history.

The other two books that I would recommend are books by CPR scholars. Two edited volumes on public institutions. The first, Public Institutions in India, edited by Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur and the second, Rethinking Public Institutions in India, edited by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav.

Each chapter in these books picks up a key public institution and examines it from its history and then through that historical look arrives at the contemporary moment, assesses its strengths and limitations and then thinks about what it will take to strengthen these institutions in the longue durée. I think these are really important things, and the authors are a combination of academics and practitioners. So you also get a very vivid understanding of how practitioners think about institutions, how scholars think about institutions and the interface between the two. But also, as we look at the contemporary moment in India, when many of our core public institutions which are supposed to play a central role in serving as checks and balances to the more coercive aspects of the state are not performing their roles effectively, for understanding why we have come to this pass, these two books are extremely important contributions.

I will end with my favourite topic, which is the grassroots Indian state, and the Indian bureaucracy as it’s responding to the challenges of welfare. Akshay Mangala’s new book Making Bureaucracy Work: Norms, Education and Public Service Delivery in Rural India. The framework he’s building is about the role that institutional cultures and norms play in shaping how bureaucracies behave and respond to the tasks that they are given. Akshay creates these two very important types of bureaucratic norms – legalistic and deliberative – and these have really helped me understand better how and why the Indian state, particularly the grassroots bureaucracy, behaves the way it does. This kind of deep ethnographic work that understands the Indian state, in my view, is really a very big missing link in academic work on the Indian state and our thinking about questions of state capacity. I read it not just for what it gives me in terms of learning but also as a reminder that this kind of research we need to be doing as we look to the big 21st-century challenges that India has to confront and the process of state-building. We are assuming today that all of this will be resolved with digital technology, but that isn’t true. We need to be focusing on the hard task of building a robust state. And to do that, we need to understand the Indian state a lot better.

Those are excellent recommendations. Because we’ve been talking a bit more broadly about CPR, we haven’t had the chance to really delve into some of your own work. So I’ll tack on a hat tip to Amit Verma’s interview with you on The Seen and the Unseen, which focuses much more on your own thinking about the Indian state over the years.

Land Rights Initiative turns 9!

Land Rights Initiative (“LRI”) turns 9 today! We mark this important milestone at a time when the Centre for Policy Research, and the world at large are facing unprecedented existential questions. Climate devastation is upon us. Climate experts and the UN warn us that by 2050, due to the melting of the polar ice caps and rise in surface temperatures, we will have both extreme heat and flooding, which will cause over a billion people to become refugees in search of food, water, and shelter, and increase conflict over land. At the same time, digital technology opens up new horizons for human imagination and positive policy interventions in these challenging times.

Over the past nine years, LRI has built up a body of knowledge that has shifted policy narratives on land conflict, even if some of those shifts may have faced backlash from conservative forces within and outside government. LRI’s pioneering research reports on “Land Acquisition in India: A Review of Supreme Court Cases from 1950 to 2016” (2017), “The Legal Regime and Political Economy of Land Rights of Scheduled Tribes in Scheduled Areas of India” (2018) and policy brief on “Understanding Land Conflict in India” (2019) have illuminated the historical reasons for legal and extra-legal conflict over land. This conflict has arisen largely due to development projects, including large dams, mines, infrastructure, and urbanisation. During this time, LRI has also successfully used digital technology to transform an arcane, inaccessible subject involving conflicting “people versus state” narratives over land, encapsulated in a thousand colonial and post-colonial land related laws, into a readily accessible, exploratory archive of all land laws in India, a veritable “google maps for land laws”. This ongoing project titled “Mapping Indian Land Laws” is now available both in its web and mobile versions on landlawsofindia.org (2022).

The frequency and severity of extreme climatic events will exacerbate land conflict, which mandates us to inquire as to how we can use LRI’s existing knowledge base built over the past nine years in helping mitigate not just land conflict but climate related devastation? India’s strategy for mitigating climate devastation, as described in the government’s nationally determined contribution (“NDC”) pursuant to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1994, is focused primarily on investing in renewable or clean energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and planned afforestation. As per government estimates, 24% of India’s geographic area is under forest cover populated largely by Adivasi or forest dwelling communities. 11% of India’s population consists of Adivasis (8.6%) and other forest-dwelling communities (2.4%).
LRI’s research reports have shown that development induced displacement has affected Scheduled Tribes (“STs”) or Adivasis disproportionately. It is estimated that STs or Adivasis are only 8.6% of India’s population but constitute 40% of those displaced during the period from 1950 to 1999 due to dams, mines, wildlife parks and sanctuaries. Similarly, my journal article on “The Evolution of the Right to Water in India” (2021) has shown that while the articulation of a human right to water has been necessary to counter discrimination against Dalits in accessing sources of water, it has been used to justify the construction of dams and irrigation channels that have further displaced Adivasis.

Our life experience shows that whatever we seek to transform, transforms us. Over the past years of leading LRI’s work in helping the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes to empower ST or Adivasi communities, I have been educated and inspired by the Adivasi or indigenous imagination on “jal, jungle, zameen”, or “water, forest, and land”. Despite increasing recognition of the role of Adivasi or indigenous communities in protecting forests better than state-run forest departments in India and all over the world, both in the government’s “National Climate Mission”, and in its NDC, ST or Adivasi communities are conspicuous by their absence. This omission is an inexplicable tragedy for the global fight against climate devastation especially since the Adivasi or indigenous imagination encapsulated within the Forest Rights Act, 2006, provides a hopeful blueprint for mitigating climate effects through the protection and regeneration of forests.

In its recognition of individual and community rights over forestland including water bodies, the FRA encapsulates two important aspects of indigenous imagination. The first is that humans are not separate from the environment, and therefore no afforestation policy is workable without the active engagement of the communities that have been living in forests as their way of life for centuries. The second is that “jal, jungle, zameen” (“water, forest, and land”) are part of one indivisible ecosystem which is not just crucial to the Adivasi or indigenous way of life but for climate sustainability on planet earth.

As LRI enters its 10th year, even as we continue our ongoing work to shift the focus of development policy on land from its current “utilitarian” bent to a more “dignitarian” one, we hope also to transcend the limitations or silos of the “rights” framework towards a more holistic reimagination of policy frameworks pertaining to land, water, and forests. We believe that technological interventions like our ongoing “Data Analytics on Legal Texts” project, which involves an attempt to develop algorithms to speed up legal and social science research, provide us the roadmap for speeding up data driven research pertaining to law and land, which will help us in more effective reimagination of these integrated policy frameworks.

As always, we remain incredibly grateful to the Centre for Policy Research, our researchers, donors, mentors, collaborators, government, civil society groups, and communities that have made this journey possible and our work sustainable.

Dr. Namita Wahi,
Lead, Land Rights Initiative,
Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

Policy in Action- Education

The Centre for Policy Research turns fifty this year. Fifty years in the service of Indian policymaking, of keeping a robust conversation between the government, policymakers and the Indian populace alive – this is indeed a moment of pride and reflection for us. 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 our work on Education in India. Since its inception, CPR has emphasized on a deep association with educators, often consulting and bringing-in top faculty from across the country and world. It has also been home to several stalwarts of the education field such as Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and many more.

A major part of CPR’s work and research on Education coincided with the passage of the Right to Education (2002). Our work largely spans the areas of higher education and School Education. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s education work at CPR was focused on Higher Education and culminated in a book he co-authored with Devesh Kapur in 2017. Mehta was also a member of the Knowledge Commission in 2005.

In our research on School Education, our work has been on governance and reforms with a focus on improving learning outcomes. The Accountability Initiative’s work with the PAISA (Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions: Studies in Accountability) studies and Kiran Bhatty’s social audits have been significant and policy-informing. In terms of reforms, the Accountability initiative, Avani Kapur, Yamini Aiyar, and others have been at the forefront of field-defining case studies and research looking at school education reforms from various states across India.

Here’s a snapshot of our key work and impact in the area of Education over the years:

  • The PAISA studies of the Accountability Initiative conducted in-depth research on various education-related government schemes and public welfare expenditure in India. Some key studies, especially on elementary education, include, the PAISA District Surveys: Mid Day Meal Scheme (2012), Do Schools Get Their Money? among others. Avani Kapur co-authored a working paper on How Much Does India Spend Per Student on Elementary Education?, which sought to fill the gap on estimated expenditure on elementary education by providing a methodology and estimates on government and private expenditure for the year 2011-12. The Budget Briefs of the Accountability Initiative have analysed various government schemes like Samagra Shiksha, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan, to name a few.
  • In 2016, Kiran Bhatty was part of a team that conducted a pilot study on out-of-school children in India. The study was undertaken to unpack and understand this phenomenon through an intensive micro-study of enrolment and attendance of all children in a single Gram Panchayat (GP or Panchayat). The study highlighted the need to examine the issue of the out of school child in greater detail, especially its links with irregular attendance and school functioning as it illuminates not just the gap in universal provision of elementary education, but also one of the reasons for poor learning outcomes.
  • In collaboration with the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), the Accountability Initiative conducted a study on teachers’ time allocations and perceptions. Two hundred teachers from 39 government and municipal schools in Delhi, were surveyed between December 2017 and April 2018 to unpack their work and role related perceptions and to map the time spent by them on various school activities.
  • Researchers from CPR – Kiran Bhatty, Mridusmita Bordoloi, Avani Kapur, Mohammad Hamza , and Anupriya Singh contributed a background paper to the Global Education Monitoring Report that was published by UNESCO. The report looked at non-state provisioning of education in India – at the level of schools and of supplementary services – particularly from the lens of regulations that exist and the extent to which they are being applied.
  • In 2020, a research team from the Accountability Initiative completed a study on State Education Finances: A Deep-Dive into School Education Finances in Eight States. The Report looked at eight state budgets since FY 2014-15 to understand the changing trends of school education financing in the country and offered a comprehensive background for decision makers for education financing in the future.
  • Yamini Aiyar, Vincy Davis and Ambrish Dongre authored a working paper in 2015 that analysed the attempt by the Government of Bihar (GoB) to adopt an alternative pedagogy tool in government schools to improve the quality of learning as part of a larger reform effort called the ‘Mission Gunvatta,’ initiated in the 2013-14 academic year.
  • In 2016, Yamini Aiyar and Sharanya Bhattacharya co-authored a journal article in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) which probed into an administrator’s perspective in resolving the implementation problem at the last mile. This was based on detailed primary fieldwork in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh along with some quantitative surveys conducted in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh.
  • Yamini Aiyar, Vincy Davis, Gokulnath Govindan, and Taanya Kapoor authored a working paper titled Rewriting the Grammar of the Education System: Delhi’s Education Reform (A Tale of Creative Resistance and Creative Disruption) in 2021. This paper sought to unpack multifaceted challenges of introducing change and transition in low-capacity settings, documenting the process of implementing an education reform in Delhi, India.
  • Kiran Bhatty conducted a study titled Open Government in Education: Learning from Social Audits in India (in 2021) that reviewed two of the ten sites where social auditing were implemented to learn from different stakeholders about its various achievements and challenges. The study argued that for such citizen-led monitoring to take place, tools and processes of engagement as well as platforms for citizen-government interaction are required. Bhatty’s analysis underscored the importance of citizens having direct access to information and to platforms that allow them to dialogue with the State, which in turn must pursue strategies that facilitate access to information and citizen engagement.

To know more about CPR’s work on Education, you can visit our website at https://cprindia.org/researcharea/education/

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

Building the Hinge: Reinforcing National and Global Climate Governance Mechanisms

This event was part of a series of collaborative fora hosted by Southern research institutes – for this workshop, the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and the MAPS programme at the Energy Research Centre, Cape Town – to stimulate conversation about global and national governance of development and climate change, in the context of local planning and in the lead up to negotiation of the 2015 UNFCCC agreement.

Click here to view the workshop report

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Navroz Dubash

To mark CPR’s 50th anniversary, we are delighted to present a brand new interview series called CPR Perspectives. Every month we plan to bring you a flagship conversation, with Rohan Venkat interviewing a faculty member on their research, policy practice and engagement with the most critical questions of our age.

Over the past five decades, the Centre for Policy Research has played a unique role in India’s policy landscape, tackling concerns as varied and vital as climate change and federalism, urbanisation and national security and bringing a genuinely multi-disciplinary approach to the field. Today, with India facing a complex geopolitical landscape and even greater development and climate challenges, the Centre’s faculty continue to produce field-defining research while also working directly with policymakers and stakeholders in government and beyond.

In our first interview, Rohan speaks to Navroz Dubash, a professor at CPR where he also runs the Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment. Dubash is one of the world’s most renowned experts on climate change, having worked on the subject since the 1990s – well before it became a household term.

Dubash’s wide-ranging career has featured landmark research papers, agenda-setting edited volumes, two authored books and key roles on a number of official and advisory committees in India and at the global level. He was a Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ panel which publishes landmark reports on the state of climate change research. Dubash’s work led to CPR being the overall anchor institution and technical knowledge partner for the Indian government’s Long Term-Low Emissions and Development Strategy. He has received the TN Khoshoo Memorial Award for his work on Indian and global climate change governance, the Emerging Regions Award by Environmental Research Letters, and the SR Sen Award for Best Book in Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, for his book Tubewell Capitalism.

In our conversation, Dubash talks about about working on climate change back in 1990 – well before it was in vogue, whether it is frustrating to still be going over questions of climate change vs development that have been around since then, why the Climate Initiative at CPR turned into the Initiative on Climate, Energy and the Environment, and why it’s important to make academic work accessible for wider audiences. Navroz also talks about what it was like to help the Indian government draft its strategy for low-emissions development, why it’s important to not just follow the Western narrative on climate change and what advice Dubash has for younger scholars entering this important field. If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here. And if you would like to subscribe to newsletters from CPR – including future interviews in this series – sign up here.

(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity).

Thank you for being with us here. I wanted to start at the very beginning. If I’m not incorrect, you started off studying engineering many years ago before deciding that was not exactly for you. So could you tell us a little bit about how you came to the policy world? Did you stumble onto it?

I did tread the South Asian path of being an engineer and as an undergraduate, I was fortunate to be in a place where you weren’t locked into your choices, in a US university. And I found myself enjoying my political science, history, economics much more than I was enjoying my engineering. And so at one point, there was a fork in the road. I decided that I really didn’t want to be an engineer for the rest of my life and therefore why waste the opportunity to study things I really did enjoy?

I had a conversation with a senior, somebody who is now a friend of CPR who was also drifting away from engineering and encouraged me to take the step. And so I had the chance to go and walk through the Narmada Valley at the time when that was the big flash point around development and environment. [It] was a very formative experience for me. I met people like Medha Patkar and others and I just found it tremendously exciting, so I decided to roll the dice. I had a very tough conversation with my father, as you can imagine, who in later years, to his credit, would read annual reports of companies and they start talking about ESG – environmental and social investing – and say, well, maybe you were a little bit ahead of your time. But at that time it was a tough family conversation!

Was there anyone in the family that was in this field? Or was it a complete left turn?

Absolutely, not just a left-turn in terms of the subject matter. I think there was maybe one cousin who had a PhD, but otherwise we’re not from a family of academics.  So it was unusual. And, having studied at a relatively elite university, choosing to spend my summer coming back and walking through the Narmada valley was something that also was a little bit of a head-scratching experience.

What’s really interesting is that after that I, as part of my education, had to do what are called policy conferences and policy task forces. And one of them was around climate change. I wasn’t particularly interested in climate change, but these two strands [development & climate change] – both came out of my undergraduate experience – and really have defined much of my future work.

And that was at the very, very early days of the climate conversation in 1989. We did a little undergraduate experiment where we did a mock negotiation. And because it was so early it got published. And because it had the grand sounding name of the Princeton Protocol, people assumed there was a bunch of faculty who had written it. In fact, it was a bunch of undergrads. So it got cited and then my first job actually was also in that area.

When I was looking for a job, I got a couple of rejections and got a bit dispirited. And then I went to one of the organisations that had worked with the activists around the Narmada Valley, [who] said we don’t really have any work but our colleagues who work in the climate area do.

That was 1990. In two years time, the Rio Earth Summit was about to be held – what has now become the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Before those negotiations occurred, there was a proto-network of civil society organisations which were mostly dominated by American and a couple of European and Australian organisations. They said: ‘We don’t really understand how this plays in the rest of the world. If we show up and ask to be part of these conversations and it’s a bunch of developed countries’ typically white men, why would the rest of the world want us there? We need to have a broader spectrum.’

So they hired me at the ripe age of 21 to set up a global network [the Climate Action Network] on climate change from Asia, Africa and Latin America and bring in people from all these parts of the world. It was just an absolutely incredible first job. I had no idea what I was doing. I started faxing people around the world. Among the people we brought in, back in the day, were Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, for whom climate change was some kind of external issue and they weren’t really paying attention at the time. They felt there was a distraction from, understandably, the real bread-and-butter livelihood environmental issues.

But I kept sending them FedEx packages of documents so that they would have material and over time, to their credit, they very much drew the links between the issues they cared about and climate change became part of the network and then they wrote this landmark paper, ‘Global warming in an unequal world‘, that that still gets cited widely today.

When I was hired for the job, I was to be located at the Environmental Defence Fund in the US. When I met the director of EDF, Fred Krupp, he asked me about my interests. As I talked, he said, ‘You know? Frankly, you don’t seem that interested in climate change. You seem more interested in development.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s true. But that’s going to be true of most of the people who I’m trying to persuade to work on this issue, so it’s probably a good thing that I understand where they’re coming from.’ And he laughed and said, ‘OK, that’s a really smart Alec answer, but I’ll take it.’ But it is interesting reflecting back that this strand of ‘how do you bring development into conversation with climate’ is something that has more or less dominated my career in the years since.

It’s hard for those of us who grew up hearing about climate change to even imagine what it was like when you had to persuade people that it mattered. Did you have to convince yourself also?

Absolutely. In our first meeting [at the Climate Action Network], the developed country folks said, ‘As a civil society movement, let’s propose that developed countries reduce their emissions by X percent’. I think it was 50% by the year 2000 in 10 years time, which is ridiculous looking back on where we are now. ‘And developing countries will do the same thing a few years later.’

Immediately some of the WTO activists in the room said ‘hang on a second, that basically would commit us in perpetuity to a lower level of emissions’. And the developed country folks scratched their heads and said, ‘huh, maybe that’s true’, because that was the Montreal Protocol model. In a weird kind of way, we’ve been having the same conversation ever since. How do you allocate who gets to emit how much? From that point to me, the interesting question was really: If you care about development, by which I mean not just GDP, but a decent quality of life for people, what is the relationship of doing so to carbon? And how does it tie to both local choices and global choices? So when you ask if I had to persuade myself when I went on to do grad school, I had a hangover of a question, I had to ask myself about carbon markets, because I really was very suspicious and I remained very suspicious of carbon markets because in a lot of cases and this gets a bit technical, it is not about a market of an actual credit, it’s about what’s called an offset, which is, are you reducing emissions from a hypothetical baseline and that’s again a conversation that hasn’t gone away for 20 years.

The Guardian just had a series of articles on exactly this point. So after I dealt with my hangover and wrote my masters thesis on this, I said, I actually want to step back and I had a some kind of romantic idea of an elite Indian probably coming from my Narmada experience. Not knowing much about rural India, which is where the real India lies and so on and so forth, all those kinds of romantic urban elite visions. And I said I need to find a way of getting out there and so after a bunch of reading, I zoomed in on the use of water markets in Gujarat which were a very interesting empirical phenomenon. These Gujarati farmers were selling water back and forth within villages with these, 2,3,4 kilometer long pipelines, very complex markets. Some economists were saying that this is a great thing, and some sociologists and political scientists were saying this is pure exploitation. And I wanted to figure out which of the two was right.

After my Master’s and PhD, I wrote a book called ‘Tubewell Capitalism’ and I didn’t think about climate for several years. Then a job came along that was interesting in a completely different way from anything I’d done before: which was to study how the shift in capital flows for development from largely public sector flows to this boom of private sector flows, which culminated in the Asian financial crisis, and what that then meant for the environment.

It goes all the way back to the World Bank and the Narmada Valley project, because what environmentalists used to do was say ‘we’ll squeeze the bank and the bank in turn will make sure that projects have decent displacement conditions and so on.’  You can’t do that if most of the money is private. So, what do you do?

What I learned from that experience, and this was at the World Resources Institute, is that the climate conversation was a little sand pit off in the corner where environmentalists were sent off to play. The big decisions were happening in other places around regulation, around private banks. And the flows of those monies really shaped development prospects. That led me to do deep dives on policy restructuring in the forest sector and the electricity sector in a cross-country way and I got really interested in the electricity sector. I approached these as mainstream development questions. What shapes how countries decide to restructure their electricity sectors? And this was the moment of privatisation, liberalisation and so on and so forth of the electricity sector in India and other places. I got very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I wrote a paper called Power Politics.

I was terribly thrilled because it was the headline paper in EPW. As an aside, note how incredible an institution like EPW really was. That same issue had papers by Amartya Sen and Jeff Sachs. But as a fresh graduate, this paper was deemed more topical and was made the headline paper.

Then I felt that sitting in the US was just too stratospheric. I enjoyed my time doing research in India and so I persuaded my partner, and we both made a move to India for what we thought was two or three years and we kept extending it. And then we decided to just not move back. I taught at JNU for a while, I was at NIPFP for a while and then I landed at CPR in 2009. And institutionally, it was a much more comfortable fit for me than those other institutions. They had their merits, of course. But I like the freewheeling intellectual atmosphere. It suited my multidisciplinary kind of approach as there was a lot of freedom. There was a lot of lack of hierarchy. I didn’t have to call anybody ‘sir’ and nobody called me that either. I relished that culture.

It was only in 2007 that I re-engaged with climate. And that was the moment of the Bali Conference of Parties, [when the countries decided] let’s do a bunch of action plans and see. The interesting thing is those plans became a really important way to bring the development and climate conversation together. Until that moment, the objective was let’s treat this as a diplomatic problem and separate out climate and development. But 2007 was the bridge moment. That was an interesting space where one could ask the question: How do you do development while keeping in mind climate change, both on the mitigation and the adaptation side? And should we be doing that? That’s where I saw an opening and that’s where I came to CPR to try and build a platform through which to ask that question.

This is jumping ahead a little bit, but I’m curious whether the fact that some of these are still the same conversations that you’re having almost all the way back in the early 90s – like the question of where development sits alongside environment – Is it frustrating?

It’s by no means a closed loop. We’re not in the same position that we’ve always been in and the main reason is the shift in economics and technology, and the consequent shift in politics. But the underlying political dynamics have remained the same, which is why the same conversations come back again and again.

The [action] plans were meant to and this is another theme in my work, that oftentimes you create institutions that are set up as Trojan institutions. And that’s also true in some ways of regulatory bodies. ‘What’s the harm in hiring a regulator, etc.? What difference does it make?’ That was the thinking back in the late 1990s. But once you create those institutions, you have different ways of telling a story, and you bring different players to the table.

The plans were the institutional shift. The narrative shift that it brought about was the use of the term ‘co-benefit’, which frankly I’ve yammered on enough about for the last decade that people roll their eyes every time I bring it up at a meeting.

Co-Benefits basically says there may be some places where what you would do for development also brings, incidentally, climate gains, on the mitigation or the adaptation side. Instead of just treating these as serendipitous, let’s go out and look for them. And let’s identify where there are trade-offs and avoid them. So more public transport as a part of your urbanisation. Rethink your urbanisation patterns themselves. Thinking about the choice between road and rail, these are development choices. But they are also climate choices. And in many cases they can be made to work together. 

So let’s try and do that, particularly since India is locking in our infrastructure. There’s this number that gets thrown out all the time: 2/3 of India’s buildings are yet to be built. If that’s the case, whether you build your building envelope in a way that requires a lot of active cooling, or whether it can actually manage a lot of passive cooling through your design of the building itself, that will determine your future need for cooling over the next 30-40 years.

Now, fortunately, there were a few people in government who opened doors for a few of us. I was appointed to some Planning Commission committees and had a few policy openings to propound these ideas. And then we started building a wonderful team at CPR to take it forward. I had a great partnership with Lavanya Rajamani, who is a leading international lawyer and has become even more leading in the years since working on climate change.

One of the things we also did is when the Copenhagen conference kind of fell apart, we co-edited a special issue of the journal Climate Policy where we said, look, what does the future hold? And we substantially anticipated what the Paris Agreement would say. The idea of an international ratchet, but the driver being a lot of bottom-up national actions.

But I’m departing from your question, which is, have things changed? What has really changed is that [it] is always marginal politics: A little bit of co-benefits here and there at the margin where the opportunity presented itself. So, the National Solar Mission was an energy-security driven idea in India, but it was a climate idea when it was marketed overseas. And I think that’s fine because the point of mainstreaming climate change is you tell whichever story makes most sense for the context that you’re in. But it was that marginal, opportunistic kind of approach.

Fast forward to the [India’s 2023] Budget. Green growth was invoked a dozen times or more. We can have a debate about whether the allocations of funds mirrored that rhetorical emphasis. But it’s clear that both political and economic motivations are now closely tied to hitching your wagon to the energy transition, and that’s because that shift has happened where countries see political gain and potential economic gain from being leaders in green, low carbon technologies. That’s a huge shift now. That that transition will happen is now inevitable. But the fact that it might be costly and there will be winners and losers. What has changed, is the presumption of being a loser was very high. Now the possibility of being a winner has become higher. But the politics of making sure that you are in the winners column and not in the losers column remains, and so some of the questions remain the same.

So, as you entered CPR, what were you trying to build? And how did the Climate Initiative become the Initiative on Climate, Energy and the Environment?

I was interested in building a larger team. Lavanya was really much more of a pure academic, but indulged me now and then with being part of the various policy conversations. It was symbiotic. So I started hiring people. One of the things I really wanted to do was [not] just write academic papers. I wanted to actually change the public conversation.

So I did two things for that. I wrote a paper where I tried to examine the politics of different constituencies in India and I came up with this framing where I said you have a category that you might call the ‘growth first stonewallers’ who say climate change is an excuse to hold back the South and we should just be focused on maintaining as much freedom for our choice of development.

The second category you might call is the progressive realists who say ‘Climate change is serious. We are worried about it, but the rest of the world is not particularly worried about it. And therefore we have to be realistic about this and make sure that we protect India’s interests.’ And the third group might be called progressive internationalists. They said climate change is serious. We should be part of the voices  that in a somewhat idealistic way, build a global consensus for action and India should be part of that solution.

And that three-part categorization took hold. A lot of other academics picked that up in their writing about it. So it became a way to try and understand the politics and it gave a political prescription which is: let’s try and move the debate in the direction of the progressive internationalists. We need more of them. And we need to understand where the realists come from, and bring some of them on board. And we need to isolate the stonewallers.

Because we do have to take development seriously, but you also have to take climate seriously. It’s in India’s interest. We’re a deeply vulnerable state. But we have to walk that line in a way where we don’t take it seriously by short-changing ourselves. So it’s a delicate balancing act and therefore the co-benefits idea was so powerful. I edited a book called ‘The Handbook of Climate Change and India‘, [where] we got our diplomats, civil society activists, development activists, researchers to write, and there was a series of accessible chapters. And that was something I’m actually quite proud of because I’ve since heard of many young people who entered this space using this in their college and other classes.

So, we puttered along, but we found that people were pigeonholing us. We kept trying to say we’re about climate and development. But people only heard the first part. So I would find myself, somewhat schizophrenically, in India, arguing for more attention to climate change and overseas arguing for more attention to development. Either you were blaming the West for cynically promoting climate while not taking it seriously. Or you were blaming India for not taking the climate seriously enough and being shortsighted. The fact that you have to hold these contradictory realities at the same time and find a way to bring them both together has been the challenge.

We evolved a style of approach which was to make sure that we always put things in peer reviewed journals so our work was irreproachable. And then from there we would write policy papers, do policy engagements. And India is a unique policy context because actually writing academic papers and books is taken seriously. They may not be read, but it gets you a seat on a committee.

We also were building a reputation and credibility. We did find ourselves getting put in this box of climate folks. So we did an independent review and got somebody very thoughtful to review our 5-6 years of work by that point around 2015. And he wrote a wonderful report titled, Geeks Writing for Geeks or Informed Changemakers? He pushed us to think more about partnerships, more about how our work could be taken seriously. And also about how we positioned ourselves.

As a result of that, we decided that actually for a lot of our work, the entry point was not climate change. The entry point was development questions. The entry point was often air pollution. It was often electricity or environmental regulation. And so we renamed ourselves The Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment to try and signal the fact that we have these multiple entry points. And we were then very fortunate to bring on more, wonderful young people. One of the challenges has been to actually retain them. So Shibani Ghosh has been with us for over a decade, Radhika Khosla was with us for a while and then went on to be professor at Oxford. Lavanya decided to move on and go to Oxford. I was sticking around, and really keen that this unit continue and so we’ve been fortunate to get a fabulous next line.

I find that a lot of work that comes out of the team is tremendously accessible. Is it frustrating to dumb down? 

I don’t actually see it as dumbing down. One doesn’t have to use complex words and acronyms for complex ideas. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis on Narmada, my thesis supervisor, Robert Wade would call me into his room to review a chapter. And he would say you’re just throwing around words and ideas just to conceal the fact that you don’t know what you want to say. He said, ‘Now tell me, What is this chapter about?’ And I would sit there and think, and then I would try to write a sentence and he said ‘no, that’s not what it’s about.’ And then we’d sit for another three or four minutes, and I’d have a second try. And he’d say no, that’s not it, either. And we’d keep on going until I found a clear articulation. And then, he said that’s what this chapter is about. Write that in the first paragraph, write that in the last paragraph, and make sure every sentence in between connects to that idea. And it was enormously helpful. 

One of the things that we’ve tried to achieve in these 14 years of our initiative is that we’ve had a passage of young people come through, many of whom have gone on to do Masters and PhDs in very well reputed schools. An article of faith for me is that I need to make sure that everybody who passes through, certainly somebody with a masters degree, gets one or more published articles to their name where they are the lead author, over their time at CPR. I normally sit with that person through 10 or 15 revisions to try and give back what people like Robert tried to impart to me. The capacity building part of this is really a very explicit part of our objective.

So to demystify it for those who would like to know more, what does the Initiative do? How did you end up, for example, being the anchor institution for India’s official Long-Term Low Emissions Development Strategy?

A big part of the way in which we work is framing and narrative setting. How do you talk about a problem approach which was driven by the life cycle of this issue at the time? That’s a big part of what I personally like to do. The second piece is problem solving – more typical think tank stuff – when you’re sitting on a committee or you see a particular policy area that is ripe for discussion. So for example, right now there is ongoing conversation on whether we should have a climate law. What should that look like? It’s a very direct policy. How do you design a particular instrument like a carbon market? That’s normally 90% of what a think tank does. It’s probably closer to 40% of what we do. And then the third piece is engaging with networks and partners. To shape the policy landscape – and we’ve done that the most in the air pollution space, where we’ve very deliberately said, ‘can we please not think about this as a single big problem?’ It has 5 or 6 sectoral problems: It’s about transport emissions. It’s about stubble burning, and so on. And that led to my appointment to the Environment Pollution (Protection and Control) Authority.

The Long Term-Low Emissions Development Strategy process is an example where we are directly invited into a formal governmental process. The invitation likely came out of academic work we did, where we analysed different energy and emissions models used to project India’s emissions future. And we basically showed that a lot of the time the government relies on one or two of these models, but actually there’s a whole range of them that provide very different results. And the government is often not in a position to understand whether the models it uses are outliers.

This is a process that is mandated for every country under the Paris Agreement, which then became India’s official submission at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties.

We suggested the setting up of 7 working groups. We sat in on all the deliberations of those working groups. We helped them design a process. One of my pet peeves is that think tanks get into a competitive dynamic. You’re tempted to overstate the credibility of your own work. We really prefer a more deliberative style, so we suggested other peer organisations who would be part of each of those working groups based on their own skill sets and specialisations. Each of those work groups produced a report with the help of those think tanks, and then we were tasked with pulling the whole thing together into a 100-page report. And then, of course, it goes into a process where the Ministry takes ownership of it. Other ministries comment. The Ministry makes its own revisions and that’s as it should be. Government has to take the final call, but we basically pulled it all together in a way that we hoped makes sense and brought together the inputs of all these working groups.

When the time came to say what India should put on the table, we were asked to help them design the process through which that report would be created. And then to do a first draft of the report. To be very clear, it’s a report that’s owned by the government, but we were the hand holders. We designed a process where we said let’s make this a cross-government approach because climate change is not something that can only be done by the Ministry of Environment. That’s one of our big points. If you’re thinking about climate change as a developmental issue, it’s not just about environment and emissions, it’s about the choice of electricity system, choice of transport systems, patterns of urbanisation. You have to have all those ministries in the room, right? And on the adaptation side: coastal zone management, cropping and agriculture, water resources and so on.

We suggested the setting up of 7 working groups. We sat in on all the deliberations of those working groups. We helped them design a process. One of my pet peeves is that think tanks get into a competitive dynamic. You’re tempted to overstate the credibility of your own work. We really prefer a more deliberative style, so we suggested other peer organisations who would be part of each of those working groups based on their own skill sets and specialisations. Each of those work groups produced a report with the help of those think tanks, and then we were tasked with pulling the whole thing together into a 100-page report. And then, of course, it goes into a process where the Ministry takes ownership of it. Other ministries comment. The Ministry makes its own revisions and that’s as it should be. Government has to take the final call, but we basically pulled it all together in a way that we hoped makes sense and brought together the inputs of all these working groups.

This is a process that is mandated for every country under the Paris Agreement, which then became India’s official submission at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties.

One of the throughlines of your work seems to be moving from looking at policies to examining institutional frameworks and systemic factors…

How do you understand institutions from the perspective of economics, sociology and political science? In economics, it’s about information and asymmetries. In sociology, it’s about normative change. In politics, it’s about the exercise of power. Each of these brings a complementary lens. So my study of carbon markets and water markets was an institutional analysis. My study of electricity regulators was ‘how are they shaping the political field of decision making?’ Climate plans, the same kind of thing. It’s just that now we’re talking more explicitly about climate institutions per se. Or in my air pollution work, I’ve worked with my colleagues, and they’ve led the work on state pollution control boards.

So this is a continuous strand. It’s just that now climate change has become central enough that people are beginning to think explicitly about climate institutions and climate laws. And it’s an interesting question. You can’t build an institution around greenhouse gases per se. You must build an institution around all the things that lead to greenhouse gas emissions, which means you have got to think about the transport sector, the power sector, crop burning, waste, agriculture, deforestation and so on. You are forced to think beyond ministry by ministry silos.

But at the same time, under the government’s conduct of business rules, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is a home base for climate change. But environment ministries in most parts of the world, and India’s not really an exception, tend to be weaker, less well staffed, less politically powerful. It’s a tricky institutional question. How do you design something for an all-of-government and all-of-society approach?

One concrete thing that led me to think about this more is I have been part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a panel of experts appointed by governments around the world to take stock of the best academic knowledge in a particular area and inform governments. It’s an interesting process because it’s not just an academic review at the end. You spend a week with government representatives where you go line by line, sentence by sentence over the document and it gets approved, discussed, negotiated, modified in a way that governments find acceptable. Your job is to represent science.

I was tasked with writing the [IPCC report] section on institutions in 2012 and I found there just wasn’t much literature. So I started creating some of my own literature, talking to people, and then I had to do the same chapter again, this time as the coordinating lead author [for the report published in 2022]. So academically, that’s probably the area of literature that I’m most active in as a result of that IPCC process.

And it seems to be a nice throughline from your work where you looked at politics because the chapter covers that as well. One thing I wondered about, going back to your first conversations at the Climate Action Network and beyond: Does the climate environment world also fall prey a bit to the elite mimicry or the simplifying and flattening that comes from relying mostly on Western views? We saw this with the Yale-Columbia index last year…

It’s a good question, because actually – and we’ve seen this in the IPCC also – the West dominates the research networks. It dominates the funding. Many of us tend to get trained there. They dominate the funding networks and also dominate the editorial boards of journals. And it’s not like anybody’s being malevolent here, but where you sit is where you stand. If you’re a US academic and you care deeply about climate change, then you tend to look at things through the lens of what will move the US Congress.

For the rest of us, ‘what will allow the US Congress to be progressive’ is a very limiting question. There was a whole decade when the main question was ‘how do we get India and China to do something, anything, such that we can go back to the US Congress?’ I tell my Western friends, ‘you know, other countries have politics too, and they are often more complicated.’

So one of the things when I came back to India is I made it clear that my objective was not going to be to sign up to research projects where I was asked to do the India chapter of a study that was conceptualized elsewhere. If I was going to be part of a study, I had to be part of the conceptualisation of it, and ideally lead the conceptualisation of it. And that has been true of the workshops we’ve organised and the books we’ve edited. We have initiated it for this recent project on climate institutions. We looked at 8 countries with leading academics around the world. I wrote the framing paper, and I organised the workshops.

As I said, where you sit is where you stand. So different people bring their different frameworks and that’s fine. The interesting thing is, how do you reconcile those and take seriously all those different perspectives, as opposed to anointing one of them the dominant perspective? It’s been an uphill battle including in the IPCC, right, because there are these highly powered, well-funded research teams that dominate the literature, they dominate the editorial boards.

I sit on something called the Emissions Gap Report’s Steering Committee for six or seven years. And every year, [I would say] if you want to inform what developing countries do, you must think about emissions choices as an adjunct to development choices. And I often get the pushback that says ‘this isn’t the development report’. I was like, ‘sorry, you’re missing the point’. These aren’t separable things, right? This battle for the narrative high ground is an important battle and ironically there is often a presumption that Indian academics who engage in international fora are just spewing out what we learn over there.

Whereas in fact we are often contesting those narrative frames and we’re performing a useful job in at least budging them a little bit. There’s a very interesting battle going on right now. You brought up the Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index and in fact, along with Sharad Lele, I wrote an Op-Ed on it. And the big flaw in how they went about it is they looked at the flows of emissions, in other words, how much a country emits in any given year and the trend in that, versus the stock of emissions, or how much they’ve accumulated over time. So Western countries are on the downslope, yes. But starting from a much higher base.

And India is on the up slope, but starting from a much lower base. That is relevant to how we discuss progress. And so it is really important to push back on these frameworks and I think that’s something that gets underappreciated. In India there’s a separation between academia and policy debate and dialogue. Whereas, for example, in the US, public intellectuals operate out of universities and are very engaged in policy and public conversations. In India, it tends to come out more from the think tanks, but I think it’s very important to not just be in the policy space, but to be in an ‘interpreting the narrative’ space.

One of the strengths of CPR is in fact its narrative framing role. Many other think tanks tend to be much more instrumental. Change is defined as a measurable outcome in a particular policy, whereas I think of change more expansively as changing the way you talk about something or think about a problem. It’s harder to track your impact, but if you do have an impact because it’s higher upstream, it has much larger outcomes.

Maybe the flip-side of that within India is the federal question. Are we looking at subnational frameworks? You worked on the State Action Plans a few years ago…

On the federal issue, I will confess, I have come to it a bit later than I wish I had. I did indeed look at state action plans in 2014. We were the first to do studies of them, but we didn’t do it deep enough and we didn’t follow up on it enough. That was a constructive thing for a few years, however, we were unable to sustain that. And I’ll just say, as an aside here, one of the strengths and weaknesses of CPR is we empower people to work on what they want to work on. But as a result, when they choose to move on, we’re not necessarily hiring to fill those shoes. We’re hiring other people to do what they want to work on. So there’s a trade-off between continuity and creativity and ownership there.

But on sub-national work, we now have a whole new area opening. A lot of the climate impact issues around water, around urbanisation and so on and so forth are state issues. Those actions must be led by the state. But the capacity at the states is even thinner than at the Centre. We make the case that we should be thinking seriously about how Indian federalism operates, given the likely challenges of climate change.

There’s also a cycle to this. We saw this with the electricity work. States led the move to have electricity regulators and to create laws for them, and the Centre was playing catch up and then passed a central law. We might see the same kind of dynamic happening. So ironically, if you want to shape what happens at the Centre, you might be well advised to think about what’s happening in the states. Because then the Centre will engage knowing that these narratives are being set and defined in multiple states. And for cohesion, it might help to have a tighter central narrative. So there’s an interesting interplay there.

We’re not focusing on the specifics in this conversation, things like ‘will we get to 1.5 degrees’, which I know you’re asked about and write about a lot. But what do you think about where the conversation will go next? We’ve been talking of late about loss and damage, about polycentric approaches, about a climate-ready state. Where would you like the conversation to go?

I’m a little bit of an iconoclast on this. The global narrative is about keeping 1.5 alive. That is making sure we are still on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Behind closed doors, many serious scientists will say that that door is pretty much closed. The IPCC basically says in the report I was part of, though I didn’t work on this bit, that we would have to peak emissions by 2025 globally and reduce emissions by 40% or 50% by 2030. That is highly unlikely.

We’re in this space where we designed something called the Paris Agreement which was a learning-by-doing agreement. Every country goes home, figures out what it can put on the table, tries to implement it, sees how costly it is. And it comes back and ramps up that pledge after five years. The challenge is to get to 1.5. But you don’t have time for that cycle to play out, so we’ve designed a global mechanism that is incompatible with the scale of the target. In a 2-degree world, that cycle would have worked out.

Coming to your question, what I see is the tension between that target and the institutional mechanism coming home to roost. There’s something called the global stocktake, which is meant to take stock of where we are. I’m hoping that in a productive way this tension emerges in the global conversation.

The other thing that I anticipate happening is that the conversation has moved so much to the national level. There’s a wonderful paper that I cite a lot called ‘Prisoners of the Wrong Dilemma’, which basically alludes to the fact that we think of climate change as a prisoner’s dilemma game: No country will act unless every other country acts, or most other countries. And what these people say in this paper is: Countries tend to act when their domestic politics align with them acting, irrespective of what other countries are doing.

We’ve seen that with the US and the Inflation Reduction Act. They found a narrow way to get that political system to agree to this. I think it’s going to be game-changing in the sense that the Europeans have now fallen into the line. India is starting to talk about a green industrial policy. The conversation is not focused on low-carbon growth sectors. What does that mean for the international process? It basically might drive a wedge where what countries do at home is increasingly divorced from this ambition cycle overseas.

The linkages between different parts of the system are being stretched in ways where the regime might get pulled out of shape entirely in the next two or three years. I’m not sure that that’s entirely a bad thing because the thing to bank on most is that domestic political economies, especially the top five to 10 economies, if [their] politics line up in favour of low-carbon futures, that’s probably the most important change we need to see on the mitigation side of things. It may mean more global conflict in the trade realm. But we are at a very interesting moment where that apparatus of Paris and the way in which we thought things would unfold with this neat greenhouse gas or carbon denominated targets being ramped up overtime may not, in fact, be the driving factor.

For your own work, if you had a blank cheque and a realistic timeline, what research would you put it into?

Some of this we’re obviously trying to do. I would like to see a lot more preparedness at the state level and at the central level for these very complex questions. How does India prepare for the future in terms of technology, in terms of adaptation, in terms of linking different issue areas?

The other we really must work hard on figuring out is: How can India create jobs through low carbon technologies of the future? There’s this rush now to the hydrogen economy. It may be a great bet. But it may be overplaying our chips. I don’t know, and I fear that often we make the decision before we’ve done the homework. I think it’s great that we’re beginning to place these bets. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather we were, but I would rather we place them after a bit more due diligence with conversation and understanding the trade-offs across placing these bets.

This isn’t only on technology. Technology-driven transitions require institutions. Politics and policy ought to be lined up. So we must think, for example, what is the electricity system of the future in India. We need to be thinking about development choices through the lens of climate. We should be looking at not just climate transitions, but low carbon development. And we need to be doing that in sector after sector, in electricity, in transport, in heavy industries and so on and so forth. So that’s really where I would put the focus. And I think that that is something that needs to be replicated and cross pollinated across countries.

What misconceptions do you find yourself having to combat the most, whether it’s from people in the media, whether it’s fellow scholars, or whether it’s the lay public?

I’ll start with air pollution. The extent to which India’s air pollution is exposing us to very severe long-term health damages is still underestimated. I’ve had a member of Parliament in a discussion say to me, ‘I don’t see people holding their throats walking down the street. Why do you think it’s so bad?’ It’s a long-term insidious effect on people’s health and their vulnerability, and we’re not fully appreciating that it doesn’t have to necessarily feel bad in the short run, though our levels are high enough that it frequently does so.

Sometimes on climate change, people think there’s still a scientific debate about whether it’s happening. I met somebody who’s a very erudite person who’s been in and out of government, and he said, ‘well, maybe there are other reasons to explain the warming trend.’ And I was like, ‘we have something called the Vostok ice core data that goes back, you know, 10s if not hundreds of thousands of years, which shows a correlation between CO2 and global average temperatures. The science is really, very sophisticated on this. We have modeling studies that reinforce things that science says. So I think we need to move beyond this a little bit.

But I recognise that in both these cases, these are harms that – because they’re systemic – are very hard to wrap your head around. It’s not like cutting a tree in the green belt in Delhi, in front of your eyes, it’s not as tangible as flooding a valley for a dam. I understand that. And I think the onus is on us to communicate it better and signal both the systemic nature of this and find ways of talking about it in ways that people can relate to.

Climate change is not just really about emissions. It’s about ‘what does it mean for the productivity of labour, what does it mean for crop damage, what does it mean for flooding of cities, what does it mean for the intensity of storms’. These are things that people can relate to and that’s really the way we must communicate.

For younger scholars entering the field or interested in this space, are there tools or approaches that you would like to see people pick up?

I’ve always been interested in bringing multiple lenses to bear, and as I signaled with those different kinds of institutional approaches, I think it’s important to be conversant and comfortable with numbers. You don’t have to be the person generating the numbers, but you must be able to look critically at the numbers. This is an outgrowth of my interdisciplinary PhD.

We had a course called ‘tricks of the trade’. One of the exercises was: Consider a spherical animal and? How do you make sensible assumptions about how many shoes you can make from the skin of that animal? And then from there it got increasingly complicated. How many acres of land would you need to provide 50% of India with solar power? And you could do this through sort of back of the envelope calculations. I think that’s incredibly powerful. It stayed with me.

On the other hand, I think it’s really important to also be literate about social science methods. Most of my work has been done through interview and documentary analysis and through interpretation. Now some of the things I’ve written people will say, well, this is just journalistic. But the trick really relies on how rigorous you are in drawing your inferences and making sure that you’re routing your findings in empirical work.

My pet peeve, however, is the over use of certain simplifying quantitative assumptions can lead to what Herman Daly called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Just because you put a number around something doesn’t mean it’s real, and we see this all the time. What is the cost of India reaching its net zero target by 2070? $10 trillion, $12 trillion dollars, $15 trillion. All those numbers are substantially made-up because we have no idea what the technology cost curve looks like in 2070. The way I like to tell people this is imagine that you’re sitting in 1970 thinking about the technologies available to us in 2020. That’s the same gap as 2020 to 2070, and if anything, the pace of technology has sped up. We would have got it completely wrong. That’s why it’s important to be literate on both sides of the quantitative and qualitative divide.

If you had to point to two or three of your pieces of work over the years, which ones would you highlight?

  • I’m very attached to the paper I mentioned early in this conversation – Power Politics – where I mapped out the trajectory of Indian power. I really enjoyed that one, and I think it filled a niche.
  • Fast forwarding all the way to 2022. I really enjoyed the creative process of working with people around the world in coming up with a framework for how you think about climate institutions. It really hadn’t been done before. It was a cross country effort by many of us working together. And it was published in Science, which sort of gives it a certain sort of imprimatur as well. And it’s something that has sparked quite a lot of conversation. It’s something that has led to a follow up work by others. A recent paper sort of cited this and said, you know, was building on it and so on, which is always gratifying to feel that you’ve sort of helped to spark an area of work.
  • And the third: A couple of papers tracking the evolution of the Indian climate policy debate, and how it’s evolved over time from an equity focused debate to a co-benefits debate to something that’s now focused more on industrial policy and the language of opportunity.

We’ll be back in 2 weeks with another interview, stay tuned!

Comments on India’s Long-term Low Emissions and Development Strategy (LT-LEDS)

India released its Long-term Low Emissions and Development Strategy (LT-LEDS) at the UN climate conference (COP27) at Sharm El-Sheikh on November 14, 2022. It can be accessed here. CPR was the overall anchor institution and technical knowledge partner for the LT-LEDS.
Here, Navroz K. Dubash (Professor), Dr. Aman Srivastava (Fellow) and Parth Bhatia (Associate Fellow) at the Centre for Policy Research comment on the relevance of the document and what the next steps should be.

“India’s LT-LEDS is an important statement of intent to pursue low-carbon strategies for development, and a sound beginning toward doing so.” – Prof. Navroz K. Dubash
The strategy is firmly, and appropriately, anchored in considerations of climate equity. It calls for developed countries to undertake early net-zero and to provide adequate finance and technology in support of India’s plans for low-carbon development.
“The important principle of climate equity can usefully be operationalised by India laying out its own vision of low-carbon development and identifying within it the needs for support from developed countries. This LT-LEDS is an important step towards doing so.” – Dr. Aman Srivastava

The document clearly emphasises that India faces significant energy needs for development, to manage its simultaneous demands for job creation, urbanisation, and infrastructure development, all of which are energy intensive.
“India faces the challenge of meeting its growing energy needs even while avoiding lock-in to a high carbon future. The document’s approach of sector-by-sector low-carbon development futures enables India to strike this balance” – Dr. Aman Srivastava
The heart of India’s LT-LEDS is six key sector-by-sector low-carbon development transitions driven by considerations of India’s own development needs, and backed by a discussion of necessary finance. For each sector, the LT-LEDS lays out 5-10 ‘elements’ of a transition – for example, low-carbon electricity systems require expanding renewable energy and the grid, demand-side management, and rational use of fossil fuels, among others.

“Having clear ‘buckets’ for action, as the strategy does, is very important to mobilise bureaucracies and send clear signals for action to the private sector.” – Prof. Navroz K. Dubash

“This is the first government document that articulates long-term strategies for transitions in sectors beyond energy and forests. It has fired the starting gun for a serious transformation of the transport, industrial, and urban sectors.” – Parth Bhatia

The LT-LEDS takes a balanced view to these transitions, recognising both the possibilities for technological and competitive benefits arising from low-carbon transitions, but also that there are trade-offs and costs.

“Recognising that there are both possible benefits and trade-offs is necessary. The next step should be clearly identifying the nature of these benefits and trade-offs for each sectoral transition.” – Dr. Aman Srivastava

It is significant that the LT-LEDS process was underpinned by a cross ministerial consultative process backed by academics, research organisations and several other stakeholders.

“The consultative nature of this process is a considerable strength, as no top-down strategy can capture the diverse views and interests that need to be accounted for in India’s low-carbon development strategy.” – Parth Bhatia

“India’s LT-LEDS should be viewed as a living document. Future iterations should emphasize robust and transparent modelling towards net-zero by 2070, clearer identification of sectoral co-benefits and trade-offs, and more detailed discussion with states.” – Prof. Navroz K. Dubash.

Briefing Note: Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India


Setting the context

The principal legislation governing the insurance sector in India is the Insurance Act, 1938. This law, amended several times since its passage, lays down the procedures and requirements that insurance companies must comply with while doing insurance (and reinsurance) business in the country. The Indian insurance sector operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Finance. The sector is regulated by the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA), a body incorporated under an Act of Parliament, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority Act, 1999. Armed with powers vested under the Acts of 1938 and 1999, IRDA sets forth the regulatory framework for the overall supervision and development of the insurance sector in India.

Typically, the insurance industry is classified into life and non-life categories, and comprises entities such as life insurance companies, general insurance companies, reinsurance companies, and insurance intermediaries such as brokers, third-party administrators, surveyors and loss assessors.



In India, the insurance industry, including its constituent entities, falls under the regulatory purview of IRDA. The Authority is primarily responsible for protecting the interests of policyholders; prescribing codes of conduct for regulated entities; and monitoring and enforcing standards of financial soundness and integrity among those it regulates. Towards fulfilling these responsibilities, the insurance sector regulator is vested with executive powers, including the power to issue, modify, withdraw or suspend registrations of industry entities; levy fees; call for information, inspect, investigate and audit the conduct of regulated entities. It also has an element of judicial powers so as to adjudicate disputes between insurers and intermediaries or insurance intermediaries. Further, IRDA is also mandated to promote and regulate the functioning of professional organizations related to the insurance and reinsurance business. Section 26 (1) of the IRDA Act of 1999 and Section 114A of the Insurance Act of 1938 provide the Authority with the powers to make subordinate legislations or regulations to carry out its statutory purposes, in consultation with the Insurance Advisory Committee (IAC).

Stipulated in the Act of 1999, IAC should consist of not more than twenty-five members (excluding ex-officio members) who represent the interests of commerce, industry, transport, agriculture, consumer fora, surveyors, agents, intermediaries, organizations engaged in safety and loss prevention, research bodies, and employees’ associations in the insurance sector. The draft of every regulation is placed first before the IAC and its comments/recommendations are sought. Consequently, the draft regulation is placed before the Authority for approval.  IRDA has made regulations on various aspects of the business of insurance including the protection of policyholders’ interests, the manner of investment of funds and its periodic reporting, the maintenance of solvency, and clearance of products prior to their introduction in the market.

As per Section 4 of the IRDAI Act, 1999, the Authority shall consist of 10 members – a Chairperson, five Whole-Time Members, and four Part-Time Members, as appointed by the Government of India. Under the Act, the Chairperson shall have the powers of general superintendence and direction in respect of all administrative matters of the Authority. All appointees are to be chosen from disciplines which, in the opinion of the Central Government, will serve useful for the Authority. IRDA has made regulations pertaining to the meetings of the Authority for transaction of business and procedure to be followed.

IRDA has also laid down regulations on the manner in which insurers are expected to handle grievances of policyholders. The first post of recourse for a policyholder is the insurer. Every insurer is required to have a Grievance Redressal Officer (GRO) to whom the complainant will direct the grievance. All insurers are also expected to be part of the Integrated Grievance Management System (IGMS) put in place by the Authority to facilitate online tracking of grievances. If the insurer rejects the grievance or does not respond to the complainant (within stipulated period) or only partially resolves the issue, the complainant can approach the Insurance Ombudsman.[ The Insurance Ombudsman scheme was created by the Government of India for individual policyholders to settle complaints out of courts. At present, there are 17 Insurance Ombudsman across the country. The complainant can approach an Ombudsman based on territorial jurisdiction – either the office location of the insurer/branch against whom the complaint is or based on the location of the complainant. ] The Ombudsman typically acts as a mediator to arrive at a mutual settlement. In cases where no settlement is possible, the Ombudsman has to pass an award within three months. If unsatisfied, the complainant may approach consumer or civil courts.


Sectoral issues and challenges

India’s insurance sector has been growing in recent years. Generally, the development of the sector is assessed using metrics such as insurance penetration, i.e. the percentage of insurance premium to Gross Domestic Product, and insurance density, i.e. the ratio of premium to population (or per capita premium). As per the IRDAI Annual Report 2020-2021, insurance penetration has increased from 3.49 per cent in 2016-2017 to 4.2 per cent in 2020-2021. Similarly, for the same time period, insurance density has increased from 59.7 USD to 78 USD. While both penetration and density of insurance remain low in comparison to global levels, they have grown with respect to their past levels.

Public sector insurers command a large share of the Indian insurance market despite several measures to liberalise the sector. For instance, the market share of the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) stands at 64.14 per cent of the total premium underwritten in the life insurance segment. This segment itself dominates the insurance sector with a share of close to 75 per cent, and non-life insurance accounting for the remaining 25 per cent. Non-life insurance penetration is astonishingly low in India – only around 1 percent of the population is covered in this segment. Large sections of the Indian population, in rural areas especially, remain generally uninsured – herein lies the insurance gap.

Another long-standing issue with the sector has been that insurers in India lack sufficient capital. The insurance sector was a crucial part of the Central Government’s strategic disinvestment agenda. The LIC is the sole public-sector life insurer in the country whereas there are four public-sector insurers in the non-life insurer segment. The latter, however, have weak financial positions. The planned merger of three non-life (general) insurers was shelved in the year 2020. The Central Government decided to carry-out capital infusion measures to improve their solvency and financial position, enhance internal capacity and risk management capabilities. The LIC IPO and its recent underperformance sends strong signals about market confidence in public sector insurers and their ability to manage money. Given this outcome, the right balance needs to be struck between public sector and private sector in the insurance space.

That insurance policies are prone to mis-selling is now well-documented. When consumers with little understanding of financial products interface with agents and distributors whose remunerative structures incentivise them to ‘push’ these products, the possibility of mis-selling is high. The insurance regulator has made several interventions to resolve such issues. According to the IRDAI Annual Report 2020-21, the number of complaints related to mis-selling has decreased from 41,754 in 2019 to 25,482 in 2021. The sales-agent model in the insurance business has been increasingly challenged with the rise of cross-selling and direct-to-consumer digital sales. An upcoming model in the insurance ecosystem in India is InsurTech. The right mix of technology, innovation, and appropriate levels of regulatory scrutiny offers the much-needed opportunity to shrink the insurance gap in India.