Policy in Action- Public Engagement Platforms

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

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

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

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

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

CPR Dialogues

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

PULSE for Development

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

CPR-CSH Workshops

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

How India Votes

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

CPR-CWC Dialogue Forum (TREAD Talks)

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

India and the World

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

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

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

A Statement- 17th January 2024

On 10th January 2024, CPR received a notice from the Ministry of Home Affairs cancelling its FCRA status. The basis of this decision is incomprehensible and disproportionate, and some of the reasons given challenge the very basis of the functioning of a research institution. This includes the publication on our website of policy reports emanating from our research being equated with current affairs programming.

During the tenure of our suspension, we sought and obtained interim redress from the honourable Delhi High Court and will continue to seek recourse in all avenues possible.

This cancellation comes after a decision to suspend the FCRA status in February 2023. These actions followed an Income Tax “survey” that took place in September 2022. The actions have had a debilitating impact on the institution’s ability to function by choking all sources of funding. This has undermined the institution’s ability to pursue its well established objective of producing high quality, globally recognised research on policy matters, which it has been recognised for over its 50 years’ existence. During this time the institution has been home to some of the country’s most distinguished academics, diplomats and policymakers.

CPR is a 50-year-old institution that has a proud legacy of deep contributions to India’s policy making ecosystem, and over the past five decades has been home to many distinguished faculty, researchers and members of the board.

CPR firmly reiterates that it is in complete compliance with the law, and has been cooperating fully and exhaustively at every step of the process. We remain steadfast in our belief that this matter will be resolved in line with constitutional values and guarantees.

From the President, CPR

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Neelanjan Sircar

This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with Neelanjan Sircar, a Senior Fellow at CPR, who has brought a combination of data analysis and qualitative research to a wide range of subjects including India’s political economy, urbanisation and climate change.

Following degrees in Applied Mathematics and Economics, Sircar received a PhD in political science from Columbia University and then carried out research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for the Advanced Study of India before making his way to CPR.

At CPR, Sircar was instrumental in setting up the Politics Initiative, which provides high-quality research of India’s political economy from a non-partisan lens, helping us build nuanced models of why voters make their choices and how political parties operate within the broader system.

He is also co-editor of Colossus; The Anatomy of Delhi, a volume that seeks to unpack the complexity of India’s national capital region, building on a survey of the city that could serve as a model for other sampling efforts across the country. Sircar has also led CPR’s project to evaluate the welfare delivery systems of the Andhra Pradesh government.

In this conversation with Sircar, we spoke about making the move from applied mathematics to the policy world, what convinced him to come work in India and why the approach that undergirds CPR’s Politics Initiative is important. We also spoke about building frameworks and tools that other researchers can replicate, why scholars can benefit from working with governments and why it is important to look beyond India when considering complex research questions.

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 and D Shyam Babu.


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

Let’s start at the very beginning and get a sense of how you made your way into the policy world.

I very much stumbled into policy. I had a degree in Applied Mathematics and Economics. I was working in startups in the San Francisco Bay Area and I was not too happy with the business environment and there was a lot of fluctuation in the economy back then. So I went back for postgraduate studies. At that time I only had a Math background. So I actually learned Statistics only after I joined postgraduate study and started a PhD in Political Science in New York at Columbia University. Initially, I was actually interested in income inequality, mainly in Western Europe and it’s only a couple of years into my PhD that I switched to thinking about India more seriously. And then one thing led to another. I became interested in a certain set of policy questions and political questions, did a post-doctoral fellowship at the University Of Pennsylvania at the Center for Advanced Study of India (CASI), and then from there I found my way to CPR.

How did you go from looking at Maths and Economics to politics?

There was certainly always an intellectual interest. I, like many others, was interested in economic problems. And yet so many people look at the questions purely in a technical manner and so much of what is unsaid is that it is actually a political, policy decision. And so starting to think a little bit about the intersection between policy decisions, economic decisions and political realities is something that really started to make me think about whether I should go on and study Mathematics or Economics. It’s very natural for somebody like me who had an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Berkeley to go on and do a PhD in Economics. But when push came to shove I didn’t think that Economics would serve my interest. I thought Political Science would serve me better.

Did you face pushback in making that switch? Was it a straightforward choice for you or was it something that you laboured over?

I laboured over it quite a bit. At the time of applying for my Ph.D., I was considering programmes in Statistics, Sociology and Political Science. I was interested in a number of social science disciplines and I was interested in what was happening in Applied Statistics at the time and what would sort of merge the two. One of the challenges that economists have traditionally faced and continue to face, but it’s been mitigated somewhat, is that many of the modern developments in Applied Statistics have yet to find their way into economics. Particularly at the time that I entered my PhD, there were exciting new tools that were being used in the analysis of social behaviour and political behaviour that hadn’t quite found their way into economics yet. So that made it particularly attractive to join a PhD in Political Science.

And similarly, what made you make that switch from looking at Europe to thinking about India?

The first couple of years in the PhD, I was doing very very abstract work. I was interested in questions of how capitalism is changing, how economic structures are changing and I wanted something that was a lot more relatable to the average person. At Columbia, I met Milan Vaishnav who is well known now and was a couple of years ahead of me. Actually he was studying Latin American politics at the time. So neither of us were engaged in South Asia. We were both sent to work at CSDS in Delhi in 2007.

At that point, I saw a different world. I saw a number of important empirical and theoretical questions that needed to be investigated and like Milan, I also very quickly switched my focus to India. Today we have many Political Economy scholars focused on India, but at that time it hadn’t quite come to the point that it has today. So there were a lot of questions to ask. It was an exciting time and an exciting place to investigate very very different questions.

This wasn’t a ninety-degree turn away from the Applied Mathematics that you studied earlier. You built on those approaches as you moved towards Political Science and towards India.

Anybody who very closely looks at my work over the last fifteen years will see a sort of evolution. At the time of my PhD, my earliest paper was a very abstract paper on Network Theory. The second used new ideas in statistical estimation. And my final paper was actually what ended up becoming the most influential for me, which was thinking about how family networks in West Bengal changed people’s political preferences in the 2011 election when Mamata Banerjee first came to power.

I was shifting from this very abstract framework to a much more grounded framework. The idea that animated my entire thesis at the time was how ideas of personal networks and social networks affect the ideas of politics and economics. That’s still something that flows through a lot of my work, thinking about networks and thinking about space, but I would like to think in a far more applied and grounded way than fifteen years ago.

Once the PhD was done, tell us about how you then eventually made your way to India and CPR.

I had very little interest in staying in academia. I had always imagined that I would go into the corporate world. But I knew that once you start in the corporate world, you’re very unlikely to come back to academia. I had spoken to Devesh Kapur who at that point was the head of CASI at the University of Pennsylvania. He said that if you’re interested in working on India, we should see if we can do some things together. I spent two years at CASI and it was absolutely fundamental in my shift towards studying policy and my understanding of India. In the middle of my time at CASI, I started two projects which I think would evolve into the things that I’m still working on today.

One was that, during my time at CASI, the 2014 election happened and Modi was elected to power. I did a number of analyses that were statistics-based and numbers-based around the 2014 election and those became somewhat influential in the universe of studying elections. That created a wing of research in which we tried to understand how the voter behaves in India.

The second project that I started at CASI was a study of urban space in general, but the National Capital Region (NCR) in Delhi in particular. That research work would eventually become my first book co-edited with Sanjoy Chakravorty, which is called Colossus: The Anatomy of Delhi. It’s essentially a social study of Delhi. In many ways, my couple of years in CASI set my agenda for the next several years.

While I was there, I became much more interested in all things India and I met with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who at that point was the head of CPR. I’ll always remember what he told me. I was considering what to do next and he said ‘You can go into the working world, you can stay in the US. You probably won’t make as much money if you go to India. But the one thing I can guarantee is that if you go and you take it seriously, your marginal value in the Indian context is greater than it would be if you just joined the corporate world.’ And it’s something that stuck with me. I mean those are the kinds of things you want to hear. So then I said let me try it and in August 2015, I ended up at CPR.

Just to expand on that a little bit for listeners to get a sense of what he was saying, what did he mean?

The imagination of what would happen when I came is that we would be able to apply some of the Applied Statistics questions that I had already started working on and some of the understanding that I had of politics and policy in the Indian context. Some of the theoretical traditions I was drawing on were quite different than what existed in India at the time. The other thing that I became known for within CPR is that I was studying political behaviour and voting behaviour but not from the standpoint of having a predetermined ideological position or predisposition to one party, but more trying to understand the structural elements of politics. That’s what would eventually become the Politics Initiative.

Indeed, and the point being that often your impact when working in a corporate space is much more specific whereas in India it could be more wide-ranging. Still, is there a part of you that still wants to go see what it’s like in the corporate world?

I mean every time you look at your bank balance every one of us wonders whether we should look at the corporate world. But other than that I am very satisfied with the choice that I made. It was an unorthodox choice. It was not in the standard playbook that somebody who had been studying in the West would come back to India and take up a position in policy and political science. Of course, it had been done before. I’m certainly not the first, but the scale of people coming back to India was very very low and there was a very small number of us. We all knew each other. Numbers would increase as many of these new colleges and institutions came into being.

What I have been able to be a part of, in my last eight years in India and the different sorts of movement and different pieces of intellectual growth I’ve been a part of, certainly would not have happened if I stayed in a corporate setting but it also wouldn’t have happened had I stayed in the US or gone to Europe in an academic setting. The pace of intellectual growth and the intellectual shifts over the last decade in India is extraordinary. And unless you take part in it firsthand you don’t see what is possible here.

As you made your way to CPR, let’s look at these two strains emerging out of your projects at CASI separately. Tell us about the work on politics.

I came to India in August 2015. The Bihar state election was just around the corner. I had a few months to sort of figure out what I wanted to do and so just a month later, in late September I went to Bihar with my colleague who was at CPR at the time, Ashish Ranjan. And we were working alongside Bhanu Joshi who was also at that time at CPR. The three of us formed a group and despite my reputation as an applied stats researcher, my own view is that you really can’t study politics in India and you really cannot study the voter unless the vast majority of your work is qualitative in nature. You can look at the data that you’ll get from some survey or from election results. But you can’t make sense of it unless you really spend a lot of time on the ground.

And so I spent about six weeks in Bihar and went to every district. I spent a fair amount of time and developed a set of techniques. People look at our qualitative work sometimes and the reports that have come out of the work that we’ve done and it looks like we’re just kind of wandering around but nothing could be further from the truth. What we’re actually doing is that we’re trying to put together data sources in the background — of previous election results and demographics. We are trying to essentially figure out what places we want to visit to understand how certain communities vote or how certain competitive seats might vote. When we aggregate it together, we develop a picture of what’s happening in the state.

The process of how it became a major initiative is also a bit of an accident. What happened at that time is that a lot of newspapers were going through an aggressive stretch of cuts to what they call stringers. Basically, people who are district-level and specialised journalists, and very knowledgeable, were suddenly gone. So overnight a lot of the newspapers lost a lot of their local knowledge. I had actually written for The Hindu for various other things and at that time I got a call from the person who was coordinating the elections coverage, who would eventually become the main editor of the newspaper saying ‘would you consider as a part of your own work just writing a couple of pieces for us because we don’t have anyone to write on Bihar?’

So we did that and having academic-oriented people writing in the newspaper turned out to be quite popular. Having people making reference to theory and numbers turned out to be quite popular. And by sheer dumb luck that was an election where all of the electoral polls predicted a sweep for the BJP. And we were quite steadfast in saying that is not what we’re seeing on the ground. In fact, we’re seeing the opposite and it turned out that we were right and the polls were wrong. And so overnight, due to a series of historical accidents this kind of work got a lot of notice, as well as the academic method behind it. So, after one or two more elections of working like this, it became what is today known as the Politics Initiative. Of course today, it’s led by Rahul Verma who’s ended up taking it even further and doing amazing work.

You mentioned earlier that approaching political science from this non-partisan view was a key point. Could you tell me about why it was different from what came before?

There is a strange problem we have in the study of electoral politics in India. The most fertile time we actually have is the period before the Emergency. A huge number of people were writing about the ‘Congress System,’ about the various ways in which voters make decisions, and about how caste and elections intersect. But partially because of the kind of activism that happened around the Emergency, and partially because some of the scholars became less interested in elections post-Emergency, we have much less of that work now. It gets revived somewhat on television, oddly enough. Prannoy Roy and Yogendra Yadav do extraordinary work to bring electoral analysis back into the consciousness. I had done work with Yogendra Yadav during my PhD, and had met many of these people before I joined CPR.

That was formative for me in thinking about where things had to go. Still, the demands of television media would require a certain kind of masala in analysing elections. The kind of structural elements – when do voters care about their caste? When are voters being strategic? At what point do voters care about an economic benefit? At what point do they care about religion? – these are dry structural questions that have fundamental impacts on electoral outcomes. Once we got the green light to start investigating these sorts of things and we saw that there was a genuine readership for this, we began to realise that there was really an opportunity for what I call this unbiased nonpartisan method of analysing elections.

Taking up the TV point. You’re often taking your work to TV and into newspapers, whereas many academics prefer the confines of the academy. Is that a deliberate effort you’ve made, or do you like that sort of writing?

If I’m being brutally honest, I do not like doing television and even newspapers can be challenging just because of the timelines. I enjoy writing for newspapers, but it’s not the way that academics typically work. But early on, I understood that these different forms of media are themselves another form of academic communication today. There are academics who reach out to me and want to know about voting behaviour, want to think about political behaviour in India on the basis of having seen me on NDTV or having read me in the Hindustan Times. Now you know I can point them to an academic paper but it is true that if you make relatively academic arguments perhaps in a 10-second version rather than an article version, it does have a reach even among scholars.

Had I just been writing academic papers, a very narrow set of people would have been my constituents, my readership and I wouldn’t have to engage more broadly with other scholarly people. That changes once you start engaging with the media and given that I was in a nascent space, the set of people I was speaking to purely in academic terms is actually very small and some of this cross-fertilization with journalists [was beneficial]. Many journalists are doing very very good technical work in newspapers and doing this kind of analysis across India. Many of the young scholars who, in their PhDs, are doing this kind of work and doing it perhaps better than I ever could have but a lot of it comes from just the pure exposure that media gives. And I have to give credit to many of these media outfits for their willingness to give space to people like us so that we are read by our broader audience.

So you set up the Politics Initiative, which Rahul is now running. You continue to do work on the subject, from writing papers like the Politics of Vishwas to looking at other questions about how voters decide. Where does your work on Indian elections and politics stand today? What are the questions occupying your thinking?

I think the big prize for me always was and continues to be what I mentioned, which is that we don’t have the kind of broad sweep analysis that we require on Indian politics post-Emergency. It’s quite strange right? Much of what even academics cite in the post-Emergency are one-off articles. The Politics of Vishwas might be one. Or Second Democratic Upsurge by Yogendra Yadav might be another. But these are just articles. There are no book length treatments. There’s no go-to text for a postgraduate seminar on the kind of political development that you have in the 1980s and onwards. What we do have is very good investigations of the rise of Hindu nationalism, Mandal politics, or what happened to the Congress Party. But those are all separate lines of inquiry and what I always try to sort of encourage people to think more about is that whatever your line of inquiry was, many of these parties that came up in the 1990s look very similar. They have a charismatic leader at the top, they are often family-controlled. It might be a caste-based party. It might be a Congress breakaway. But they all look very similar and we had a huge proliferation of these parties in the 1990s.

So, we know that there are certain structural elements that are looking quite common from the 1990s onward in Indian politics. Some parts of it we’re starting to get bothered by. We also have seen a rise of criminality, we’ve seen a rise of cash in politics. What is driving all of these things? Is there a common story? Is there a common way in which we can characterise what was happening in the Indian political system in the 1990s and perhaps the changes have taken place today? These are the questions that continue to animate my work and I think that where my thinking has gone is to take some of these earlier investigations of the Indian voter along with the more abstract notions of religion and politics, the Modi Voter, etc., and try to actually now build a larger theory of what are the kinds of parties that are formed in the Indian system: How much inter-party democracy do they have? How do they appeal to the voter? And how might we characterise the overall equilibrium in the Indian party system? This is what animates me today.

Policy in Action- Land Rights

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 Land Rights. The bulk of CPR’s work in this area is attributed to the Land Rights Initiative which was launched in 2014. Even today, almost 60 percent of all Indians are directly dependent upon land for their livelihoods. Land is not just an economic resource; it is also central to individual dignity and community identity, history, and culture. Land reforms were crucial not only to India’s economic development but also to its political independence and social redistribution story. The Indian Constitution adopted in 1950, safeguarded land rights of Scheduled Tribes, and through the inclusion of the fundamental right to property in Article 19(1) (f), guaranteed equal property rights to all Indians, including women and Dalits or Scheduled Castes for the first time.

However, as the development agenda played out over the following decades, there was a gradual demise of the right to property through a series of constitutional amendments between 1951 and 1978. Particularly vulnerable were the Scheduled Tribes, which constitute only 8.6% of India’s population but constitute nearly 40% of those displaced between 1950 and 1999, many of them twice in one lifetime due to dams, mines, wildlife parks, and sanctuaries. This widespread development-induced displacement has led to persistent and ubiquitous legal and extra-legal conflict over land, plaguing the lives of people across millions of hectares of land and threatening investments worth billions of dollars.

Here’s a snapshot of CPR’s work on Land Rights over the years:

  • In 2017, CPR’s Land Rights Initiative (LRI) published a research report on Land Acquisition in India: A Review of Supreme Court Cases from 1950 to 2016 (CPR: 2017). This Report constituted a first-time-ever comprehensive attempt to analyse all judicial decisions by the Supreme Court on land acquisition. This Report has been used extensively by the Department of Land Resources in the Ministry of Rural Development and has been used in training and capacity-building programmes by the National Highways Authority of India and the National Institute for Defence Estates Management. The Report has also been used widely by individual litigants defending their lands against governmental acquisition. That this Report is now the authoritative text on land acquisition is evident from the fact that it was cited by opposing parties, both the government and farmers, before the Supreme Court Constitution bench in Indore Development Authority v. Manoharlal and others (2020).
  • In 2018, LRI published a research report on The Legal Regime and Political Economy of Land Rights of Scheduled Tribes in Scheduled Areas of India (CPR:2018). This Report for the first time mapped the Scheduled Areas and plotted the forest cover and mines in India to show a significant overlap with the Scheduled Areas. Recommendations from this Report, and the National Seminar on Understanding Landlessness and Displacement of, and Atrocities against Scheduled Tribes co-organised by LRI and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) in 2018, and the 2020 NCST report on Tribal Land Alienation in India, for which Dr. Namita Wahi served as an expert advisor, were incorporated into NCST’s Annual report (2019-2020) under Article 338A of the Constitution. NCST’s Annual Report was sent to the President of India in early 2021.
  • Consolidating our Land Rights work over a five-year period, the policy brief on Understanding Land Conflict in India: Suggestions for Reform (2019) highlighted conflicting “people” versus “state” narratives over land which in turn had led to over a thousand colonial and post-colonial laws and administrative practices.
  • The absence of a publicly available comprehensive database of land laws greatly hampered citizen access to the laws that govern one of the most important aspects of our lives. The desire to fill this gap is what birthed LRI’s most ambitious project called One Thousand Land Laws: Mapping Indian Land Laws. Conceptualised and executed over a period of five years, this project involves an attempt to create a comprehensive, exploratory archive of all land laws in India, a veritable “google maps for land laws”. Last year, we launched the web and mobile versions of this website, accessible at landlawsofindia.org
  • For their work in creating citizen awareness and deepening democracy, in 2020, LRI was one of fifteen organisations shortlisted for the inaugural Shamnad Basheer Citizenship Prize, which recognises organisations transforming the field of law and justice.
  • LRI’s research papers have informed courses and curricula across law schools and social science programmes, and LRI’s internship programme has nurtured an entire generation of students in research on this complex subject. As the pioneering institution in the land policy space, LRI has also nurtured the land policy ecosystem by supporting the work of land policy initiatives at other research institutions.

To know details about CPR’s work on Land Rights, you can visit our website at https://cprindia.org/researcharea/land-rights/ or the work of the Land Rights Initiative https://cprindia.org/research/land-rights-initiative//. To know more about the Mapping Indian Land Laws project, visit landlawsofindia.org

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

Policy in Action- Health

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 Health. CPR has been working in the area of Health since the 1980s, with the noteworthy work of Meera Chatterjee on Health Policy and its implementation, and PD Malgavkar on Biotechnology. Through the years, CPR has partnered with organisations, governments and key players in the field, on various aspects of healthcare, access to health, health policy and most recently the Covid-19 pandemic.

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

  • CPR’s Jishnu Das conducted research on the quality of care in public and private hospitals and clinics. This eventually led the Government of India to formulate a health insurance scheme that allowed patients to visit both public and private providers. Subsequently, CPR worked with the GOI from 2007 to 2009 to build out RSBY (Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana) rules and implementation, including the full architecture and design of databases. We worked with states as they started implementing the program and published an edited book detailing the experience with the early days of the program. This program was later expanded to become PM-JAY.
  • Starting in 2012, we developed the use of standardised patients (people recruited from the local community and extensively trained to portray the same condition to multiple healthcare providers) to assess the quality of clinical care. The methods were first used in India and then gradually expanded to multiple conditions and countries with help from our team in the development of methods, tools and training. They have currently been used in Peru, Tanzania, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, India (multiple sites), China and Indonesia for more than 10 different conditions.
  • Jishnu Das was also part of a team that worked with the Liver Foundation, West Bengal, to evaluate a training program for informal providers. The published paper showed large effects of the training on the correct diagnosis and management of patients leading to the scale-up of the program to more than 80,000 informal providers in the state.
  • In 2003, we developed new tools for measuring the medical knowledge of healthcare providers. These methods were initially used in India and Tanzania and have now been expanded through the World Bank’s Service Delivery Initiative to more than 20 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa covering more than 20,000 healthcare providers.
  • In 2020, CPR published a study titled Two Indias: The structure of primary health care markets in rural Indian villages with implications for policy which was based on ground research conducted by a team led by Jishnu Das in 2009 across 19 Indian states. The paper assessed the role played by informal medical workers in rural India and the impact of changes in socio-economic status in regions in terms of the quality of health care accessible to citizens. Our results highlight the complex structure of health care markets, the large share of private informal providers, and the substantial variation in the quality and cost of care across and within markets in rural India. Measuring and accounting for this complexity is essential for health care policy in India.

CPR’s Work during the COVID-19 Pandemic

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, our faculty was engaged in some key research to decode every aspect of this public health crisis. Here are some highlights of our work on COVID-19:

  • In 2020, Jishnu Das, Partha Mukhopadhyay and Neelanjan Sircar were part of a study that assessed the heterogeneity in the transmission of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus. The data for this research was collected from contact tracing during the lockdown in Punjab. The study found that a sequential strategy in contact tracing would yield better results in resource-constrained settings like India. Our results highlight how contact tracing, an important public health measure, can also provide important insights into epidemic spread and control.
  • Jishnu Das and Partha Mukhopadhyay were part of the India Task Force of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission in 2021. The Commission was created to help speed up global, equitable, and lasting solutions to the pandemic. The Task Force published on various pressing issues like containment strategies, managing India’s second wave etc.
  • In 2021, Yamini Aiyar was part of a team that authored a report for the Lancet Citizens’ Commission on Reimagining India’s Health System, which was launched to achieve Universal Health Coverage in 2020. Against the backdrop of the resurgence in COVID-19 cases in 2021, this report proposed eight recommendations for the central and state governments. Some of these points were voiced by authoritative voices in the country to chart out the immediate course of action, at the time.
  • Partha Mukhopadhyay authored a chapter titled Making COVID-19 Vaccines Universally Accessible in a book edited by Kanni Wignaraja and Swarnim Wagle, published by the UNDP. This chapter outlined the key challenges in making COVID-19 vaccines universally accessible, highlighting decisions that governments needed to make along the way to tackle the crisis.

To know more about CPR’s work on Health, you can visit our website at https://cprindia.org/researcharea/health-nutrition/

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

CPR Perspectives: Interview with D Shyam Babu

This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with D Shyam Babu, a Senior Fellow at CPR, who has over the years worked on subjects as varied as nuclear non-proliferation and national security as well as socio-economic mobility among Dalits and the societal impacts of liberalisation.

Shyam Babu was first associated with CPR in 1989, after which he spent time as a journalist and then as a fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, before returning to the Centre in 2011. After working on questions of national security in his initial years in policy, Shyam Babu shifted focus to look at social change, helping conduct a number of key socio-economic surveys that examined the impacts of liberalisation on the Dalit community.

He is the co-author of Defying the Odds, a critically acclaimed book that profiled the rise of Dalit entrepreneurs, as well as co-editor of a number of other books, including The Dalit Question: Reforms and Social Justice and The India Mosaic: Searching for an Identity… More recently, Shyam Babu has been working with CPR to conduct research workshops for scholars from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities.

In our conversation with Shyam Babu, we spoke about what it was like to work across two very different policy disciplines, why he thinks an understanding of society is vital for IR scholars and the ideas that led to his research and book on Dalit entrepreneurs. We also spoke about the need to challenge conventional wisdom on social justice in India, why he has looked more closely at the question of ‘social cognition’ in recent years and what role think tanks like CPR have to play in making the research world more inclusive.

If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here.

And if you missed our previous interviews, read our conversations with Partha Mukhopadhyay, Navroz Dubash, Avani Kapur, K P Krishnan and Mukta Naik.


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

I’d like to get a sense of your journey. Tell me a little bit about your early years as a student and a scholar. What brought you into the policy space?

I entered the Centre for Policy Research in 1989. At the time, I was a student in JNU pursuing my M.Phil-PhD program. My professor happened to be a friend of Professor Bhabani Sen Gupta, who was a professor at JNU, who then moved to CPR. When he came to give a talk at JNU, he asked my professor for someone to help him with his book as a research assistant. I happened to be next to both of them. My professor turned to me and said, ‘why don’t you go?’ That’s how I came to CPR in 1989. Actually, the salary I received as a research assistant did not come from CPR. It came from the publisher who published that book, about Rajiv Gandhi, by Professor Sen Gupta. But I was coming to CPR regularly to meet him. My initial formal association with Professor Bhabani Sen Gupta, and CPR was very brief, but very soon we became very good friends. I was almost like a family member at his residence. As he continued here – I think he retired from CPR somewhere in the mid 90s – because of that association, I was coming to CPR every once in a while.

Tell me a bit about your broader thinking at the time, did you know for sure that you wanted to go into this academic policy world?

I don’t know how far you can relate to the world of 1980s, before the Internet. I was in JNU, which was politically a very conscious place. At that time all the information, knowledge, wisdom we received was from newspapers and news magazines. All India Radio was there and Doordarshan was there, but since they were government entities, we never took them seriously. So my fascination with CPR was that, being a student of International Relations, I was reading the same people who are working in CPR in the regular newspapers – the Times of India, the Hindu, news magazines, and EPW. These are the places CPR faculty were using to reach a wider audience, like me. It was really exciting that the scholar I was reading happened to come to CPR, and I could meet him and he asked me to come and join him as an assistant. It was quite something. The kind of importance newspapers had, it’s very difficult to understand in the current circumstances.

I was working on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The very fact that I was working on that particular topic meant that I would be looking into how the government is articulating our own position on nuclear weapons or international peace or regional dynamics like our relations with China, and our relations with Pakistan. So, without ever sitting and deciding that ‘OK, I want to do policy work’, I understood that policy mattered not just for policymakers, like ministers or officials, but for common people like me. So it’s more the gradual realisation of the importance of policy, not so much coming to that conclusion.

What made you choose International Relations?

I was a student of political science in BA and MA and international studies fascinated me. I also had this habit of writing newspaper articles from a very early age. I started writing Op-eds, originally in Telugu, in newspapers. I was covering both domestic issues and foreign relations to the extent I could understand and reflect. Remember that newspaper articles are written by two kinds of people. One, experts like, say, a former foreign secretary or a diplomat to a particular country who would comment on a particular event or a policy that he knows very well. The other is informed opinion: You know enough to form an opinion. You may not be an expert. So at least I could understand the difference so that when I was writing on IR then I naturally applied for JNU’s MPhil PhD program and I got into development studies. Because my professor was interested in nuclear nonproliferation, he said, why don’t you do your M.Phil on that. Unfortunately I couldn’t finish my PhD, but it was also related to regional arms control in South Asia.

What followed? You spent some time as a journalist before making your way back into the policy space at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute. Could you tell us about that arc?

When I came to JNU in 1986, I had enough English vocabulary – I could read a book and understand – but both written and spoken English was very, very limited. I took about 3-and-a-half to four years to brush up my English to such an extent that I could start writing newspaper articles. By the early 90s, I started writing in English and I published my dissertation as a book. And from Professor Bhabani Sen Gupta in 1992, I came in touch with Professor Stephen Cohen, who was at the University of Illinois. He read my book and invited me to spend a year with him at Illinois. In all this process, instead of spending my time wisely on my PhD dissertation, I spent that time and energy in revising my M.Phil dissertation to publish. So in a way, I lost steam. I spent one year in Illinois and came back. I became a journalist for about 10 years. And then I joined the Rajiv Gandhi Institute Of Contemporary Studies. There also I spent about a decade, and then moved on to CPR. All through, I was writing my commentaries in newspapers and publications like EPW. That’s broadly my trajectory.

If I’m not incorrect, at one point you considered entering the services as well?

For my generation, not appearing for the UPSC exam means you’re some kind of a weird personality. I was always clear I would be in a space where I would be spending my time reading and writing. Reading I did quite well, but probably writing not as much as I would have loved. So I appeared for the UPSC exam and I got into the Indian Revenue Service. But I decided not to join. That is the year Professor Cohen invited me to spend time with him at Illinois as a visiting scholar. So I got into the service but never reported for duty.

As you enter the Rajiv Gandhi Institute, my understanding is your focus as an academic started to shift. You had been writing about national security, nuclear non-proliferation, and so on, but that changed.

For a decade, I was working on national security and international relations. That’s up to the early 2000s. I did a lot of activism also, during my JNU days. I was very much there when the Mandal Commission was announced and [in] all the agitation [that followed]. Because of that Dalit activism, with a couple of friends we got an opportunity from Madhya Pradesh when Mr. Digvijay Singh was the chief minister there. He asked us, ‘why don’t you tell us what kind of policies are needed to uplift Dalits and tribal people.’ He had this very nice policy of reaching out to each segment of the population and finding the right people and carrying out an extensive dialogue, leading to a good conference or a committee – meaning several people come together and give a policy framework for the government to implement. When it comes to the interests of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes or what we call Dalits and Tribals, we were asked to do the same thing. So in 1992, we did a huge conference in Bhopal. It was known as the Bhopal Conference of Dalit intellectuals, activists and academics. From throughout the country, more than 600 or 700 people came. I also published on that process, and Professor Sudha Pai actually wrote a whole book on the experience. We did give several suggestions and actually Mr. Digvijay Singh, to his credit, implemented many of them. Unfortunately, the very next year he lost power. After that, the process was never taken up by subsequent governments there.

With that, I started a move away from IR and started working on social justice topics. The same year I joined the Rajiv Gandhi Institute. There also most of my work was related to this topic. In a way for almost a couple of decades, I spent most of my time on matters related to social justice. We did two very significant projects. From the beginning, I was lucky and really blessed to have wonderful teachers and mentors. And also, excellent friends Mr. Chanra Bhan Prasad and Dr. Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta and so many others really, who helped me and guided me.

We did two projects. By the mid-2000s we realised that the [1991] economic reforms by the time had covered a whole generation and we saw several positive changes even in the lives of Dalits. So we wanted to measure what kind of positive impact or negative impact these economic reforms had had on the community. We had a very big project to look at two whole blocks in Uttar Pradesh, which we published as an EPW paper, reporting that economic reforms had in a way transformed social relations in the countryside, at least in the two blocks we studied. We also indicated that it’s a general trend through most of the Hindi belt. And subsequent to that, we also came up with a rough hypothesis that in the past 50 years, through affirmative action and through other means, there could have formed a Dalit bourgeoisie, who had some money. As a result of economic reforms, the public sector was shrinking. Earlier, those few Dalits who had education would get government jobs. In the 2000s, that was not the case. There were more and more educated people and fewer and fewer government jobs, and the number of jobs was actually shrinking at that time. So we thought it was possible that, because a couple of generations of affirmative action beneficiaries are in the system and their children might have been well educated and endowed with some resources – not necessarily a lot of money – and there are not many government jobs, obviously they wouldn’t sit at home. They would do something. It could be possible that many of them might be becoming entrepreneurs.

With that rough hypothesis, we wanted to go into the field and find them. Because the government had no data on this. The way we did it is, anecdotally, we find one or two Dalits who were in some kind of business doing well. They become rich in places like Pune or Faridabad or Jalandhar, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow. In all these places we found someone. We would go to one and try to get his trajectory, and asked him whether he knew anybody else similar to him, who had succeeded. That’s how we could track literally a few hundred of them. And in 2014, we selected about 19 or 20 of these entrepreneurs and we published a very popular book called Defying the Odds. It was received quite well.

Both of those projects are super interesting and we’ll come back to dig in a little bit more into how you went about it and what you found. But before that, one question comes to mind. The academic world can be quite siloed. In a sense, these two focuses of yours, the social justice side and the national security side, are quite far apart. I know in more recent years you’ve published a chapter in a book combining the two a little bit. But I wanted to know, at the time, did you find it hard to go back and forth between thinking about IR and thinking about questions on social justice? Did you make an active choice or was it just in terms of the opportunities that came up?

Frankly, to begin with, it was the opportunities that came my way. I just took them. But much later I realised that I did not take a U-turn. In a way, I made my intellectual enterprise much broader and much more curious. Because, if you are doing social justice in India, you can take gender, you can take class, or you can take caste. They’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes all three could be in one category. But even in areas of, say, national security, caste matters a lot. That’s the point I was arguing in my latest paper, which you just mentioned. So to that extent, my intellectual concerns did not change much. From the very beginning, I was bothered by this phenomenon called caste and its deleterious effects not just on its victims like the lower caste and Dalits.

As long as you and I think that a particular problem is not our problem, we have no reason to attend to that. Like, say, corruption. In many other countries, for example, they talk in terms of taxpayers’ money. If a project is not done well, if a footpath is not built well, people say you wasted taxpayers’ money. But in India, we don’t have that concept. When we see badly done public work, you know it is a waste of public money, but you don’t really connect. That is the problem with caste. Most people tend to think that it is somebody else’s problem. But my point is, it’s not just somebody else’s problem. The whole system is affected by it. In my latest paper, I was arguing the same point. Even in terms of national security, why is it that India, with its rich history and civilizational pedigree, doesn’t have a coherent national security policy or an aspiration. What does it want outside its borders? What are its strategic aims in terms of what do you want to be after a couple of decades. In 2040 or 2050 where do you want to go? The latest example of a great power actually doing it is China. From 1978 onwards, they have been asking questions and setting deadlines, and a road map. They haven’t drifted to their current position, just like that. It was a very conscious policy. Their four modernizations, for example. They decided by the early 80s, these are the areas we are weak, so China must focus on these areas in a time bound manner to accomplish certain goals. We haven’t done that. Why? Probably people say it’s because of corruption, incompetence, or the ruling party is not interested or politicians are not interested. I do accept all of them there. I would say they’re only symptoms. Their real cause is caste. Caste would divide you. It would make you think small. That affects your national security. For example, when Ambedkar cited Metcalf to say that every time an invader came, Indian villagers didn’t really bother because they didn’t see themselves as a nation. I see all these different strands as one, affected by caste.

For the reader, we are referring to a paper called A Journey Without a Destination; The Cultural-Economy of a Great Power which appears in a book called How Realist is India’s National Security Policy, which was published earlier this year. In the academic world you point out that scholars in the IR space don’t think of these social or cultural issues, so was it a challenge to make an argument on these issues that in the Academy are kept in the sociology or the anthropology departments?

Absolutely, because international relations is not a standalone subject like economics or anthropology or sociology. It stands on the shoulders of other social sciences. For somebody to say that I’m an IR scholar, but I don’t really care about sociology or social aspects of the country or economic aspects or geographyit is not correct. You can’t be an IR specialist, if you have no grounding in Indian society. I’m not just talking about India. Be it Italy, Canada or the US, if you are not thorough with the social forces or economy. When you think of a nation and its standing or its foreign policy or security policy, what we must look at first is the so-called lay of the land. What are its capabilities? What are its vulnerabilities? For example, put in a very simplistic way, I would argue that say, I want to become a Wimbledon champion. I want to be playing for India in the Davis Cup. You might want to know my age. My physical condition. How much do I train? Did I really qualify for any domestic tennis matches? All that matters. Similarly, how a nation can position itself depends not so much on the declarative policies of its leaders but on its economy. Can the Indian economy underwrite our aspirations? Have we spent in terms of our National Defense to ward off any external aggression? Do we have sufficient domestic industrial capacity to provide equipment for a war effort? Do we have social cohesion, like the way Ukrainians have been demonstrating? When we’re at war, whether we as Indians come together and work for that war effort – these are the questions our IR scholars should be asking themselves. And to answer them, if they just talk about IR, how many times our Foreign Minister visited another country, what joint communique they issued, that’s fine, but these are the kind of dynamics we need to look into.

Given your arc of involvement with this from the late 80s onwards, do you see among either Indian scholars or scholars working on India, do you see a bigger recognition of this?

Outside [India] there is no problem. You know they cover the kind of concerns I just expressed in civil-military relations, for example. Most countries don’t have a caste system, so it’s not just about that. You have social aspects. There are economic aspects. Your industrial base. Is your population just monolingual? Is it multilingual? What are the social cleavages you have? All these things matter to your national security. Outside, these aspects are not ignored. It’s the bane of India, that our scholars, especially IR scholars, have ignored these factors. The few scholars who focus on caste and other aspects happen to be foreigners. My guru, Steven Cohen mentioned how caste and communal feelings were creeping into the British Indian Army by the late 19th century. Our scholars must have taken off from there to see how these things are happening now. What is the impact of caste or communal issues in the army, or police forces? Or what about our economy? How much can our economy actually support militarization? Militarization doesn’t have to be negative all the time because the kind of threats we face, we must be having a much bigger army, having a much bigger military industrial complex to produce weaponry for our own use and also for export. Those things are not happening because we are not focusing on that. We are not articulating demands. These are our needs. We are not saying that.

One of the threads in the work that you subsequently did on the question of caste was often a way to debunk certain ways of thinking of India’s caste problem even for those who are ostensibly anti-caste. So for example, in 2006 you had a paper that noted that although violence against Dalits seemed to be going up, the evidence almost suggested that it is because of social mobility within Dalit spaces that is increasing the number of atrocities. The paper that came out in 2010 shows that there have been quite big changes to the lives of Dalits after liberalisation, which is not necessarily captured in the way we talk about inequality increasing after liberalisation. So if I could get a sense of your approach to these issues as you started to write and think more about questions of social justice.

Caste is a reality. Any social marker is going to stay. We are not going to erase race. We are not going to erase gender or class or caste. What is the problem with all these markers? They tend to be too oppressive. While recognising that caste as a reality, what are you going to do about reducing it or rubbing off its rough edges? I put my entire work in that mode. It’s not so much about anti-caste. One of the biggest factors that has reduced caste inequalities is pure and simple good governance, rule of law. We haven’t been perfect, but certainly in the past several decades our governance has been robust enough to help the poor and marginalised. They could go to proper institutions of redressal like police or courts. And they can fight in the courts for their rights. These factors we don’t really give credit to. They all worked. Actually I should not say good governance, just pure and simple governance. Because we have a very good constitution, we have the IPC, we have the CRPC basically stipulating how we should manage our criminal justice system. With all the failures, it still succeeded in creating an environment that is conducive for the Dalits and Tribals to claim their rights. Over and above that, you can have some remedial measures like, say, affirmative action or special treatment or giving more scholarships. Those are the kind of things we should do to reduce these disparities and inequalities.

As you mentioned, in my paper of 2006, what we found is that it is not the poorest of the poor from the community but those who are sufficiently well off and upwardly mobile who were being targeted. It’s naturally a society’s response that when an oppressed group starts claiming its rights, you see backlash. You have seen the same phenomenon in the United States, where after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, lynching started in a major way.

I want to know what your own experience was of working on these projects and actually seeing out in the field things that you may have thought about more in terms of a hypothesis.

Interestingly, two really positive social changes I could report thanks to my friends, both Chandrabhan Prasad and Devesh Kapur, had nothing to do with state intervention in terms of helping Dalits and tribals. Economic reforms, let us say, introduced in 1991 did not have any component of social justice. That happened to be one of the core criticisms of economic reforms. They completely ignored social dynamics of inequality, poverty and all that. That being a legitimate criticism, what I want to tell you is through our work, we found that even though economic reforms were never intended or designed to produce positive social change, they end up producing this positive social change,coupled with somewhat rule-based liberal governments. Because of economic reforms and starting from almost a very low base, a little bit of economic activity in urban centres meant that the Dalits and other oppressed groups could find employment opportunities in cities. Interestingly, in areas where caste discrimination was not such a big deal, not many Dalits moved. The areas which we studied in Uttar Pradesh, where the feudal system was and is strong – oppression was very intense – Dalits started moving out into cities, creating labour shortages in the village. There were so many from each village, able-bodied men were leaving for work in cities. It created labour shortages, and within one generation brought about so much social change. I’ll try to put it as briefly as I can. Most able bodied men from a village moved to cities. They were in cities, as construction workers, maybe rickshaw pullers, whatever they were doing. But at least they created labour shortages in villages. How would landlords handle this? Nobody else was coming to work. There was no migrant labour.

So initially they thought technology would fix it. When we think of a landlord, you have this Bollywood image of a man having hundreds of acres, and he has his own car or a tractor. But if you go to the field you find the so-called landlords happen to be small and marginal farmers owning a few acres of land. And they don’t have labour to work in their lands. So many of them took bank loans to buy tractors. They thought that they could buy tractors and replace the human labour. It didn’t work because tractors were expensive and they bought them taking bank loans. And in a year, they could hardly use their own tractor for maybe a week or 10 days in their fields. What do you do with the rest of the year? How are you going to pay the EMIs every month? Then they started employing tractor drivers to go and work in other fields. Many found that it was not really economical for them to pay the salary for the driver, then the fuel expenses, then the bank EMI. So they started driving the tractors themselves. Still, they could not fix the problem. What was the final solution they took? They started giving their lands in sharecropping to the Dalits. Not only that, as Dalits started cultivating their land as sharecroppers, they would employ the same landlords to come and till their land using their tractors. So within a generation, what happened is, the same landless agricultural labour, some of them could become sharecroppers and engage their former landlords to till their lands using their tractors. That is the kind of social change that happened. It’s not some kind of a centrally sponsored scheme. This is not some kind of affirmative action, but nevertheless this is the result of economic reforms.

The second is the entrepreneurs. When we went into the field, our basic assumption was that these are the kids of officers. Since there are no government jobs, they might be coming into entrepreneurship. Almost all the entrepreneurs we profiled in Defying the Odds , did not have proper education. Most of them were first-generation entrepreneurs. Almost all of them did not seek government help. They found some collateral, went to the bank, put the collateral, took the loan, went and did their business and they succeeded. It is possible that there are so many other fields we did not study. But here also you don’t really find any government intervention. The point I’m conveying is that it is not always necessary that you need to have some kind of specialised programs or schemes to uplift the marginalised. Pure and simple good governance is enough. You know, famously, Mr Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister said that administrative reforms are the best anti-poverty program you can think of. Making administration work, making police do their job will have a far bigger impact on social change than any other targeted programs..

Some of the research also points, at least to me, as being important reminders to other people who are working in this space, that it’s not as simple as reducing things to numbers. More recently in a chapter called Reimagining Merit in India; Cognition and Affirmative Action, you draw attention to some of these aspects, which are not always captured in the way we think and talk about upliftment. One thing that jumped out to me in the earlier paper in 2010 was that Dalit households were moving away from the high-calorie content that tended to be eaten in poorer households to things that might not be as nutritional for them – but allowed them to ‘buy’ status. And again, in the Reimagining Merit piece, you say alongside affirmative action, we need to think about social cognition. Can you tell us more about this?

The credit must go to Chandrabhan Prasad. The way he postulated it is, for Manu (or many?) – that is the traditional Indian society – caste matters. There’s no way you can change your status. Despite all your hard work and all your success, your caste determines your place in society. But for the market, you can buy your status. With market I don’t mean urban areas. Even villages are markets now. The impact of the market is such that in a village, it doesn’t really matter what your caste is. Whether you have an iPhone or some cheaper Android phone, is a status marker. Some of our work is also informed by this concern. The dichotomy is between traditional society, as stipulated by say, Manusmriti, as opposed to the market whose laws which are stipulated in a much more rational way. This is in a way central to most of the work we have done over the past two decades.

As to social cognition, I’ll give you some anecdotal evidence. I’m sure if not now, maybe after a decade or so you will certainly find enough numbers to validate this. Those Dalits who moved to the Western countries, like the United States… let us say my contemporaries, who happened to marry here, then moved there so their kids were born there or when they were toddlers, they moved to the United States, so they grew up just as Indians,they attended the same regular schools as anybody else. They went on to colleges and universities and got their degrees. Some even ended up in very elite colleges and universities. They’re absolutely fine. You don’t really find much difference in terms of their academic accomplishments, compared to other Indians in America or other Americans. Our stress in that paper about social cognition is that your merit is not just a product of your hard work and your genes or your DNA. Those could be factors. My belief is your merit is a function of your social cognition. How are you conditioned to think ? How you understand your position in society determines your efficiency levels or your cognition.

Yeah, there’s a study that sort of brings this out very clearly, where Dalit students when they were told to spell out their full names…

Oh, yes, Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey. This is a very good study. They went to a north Indian village, I think in Uttar Pradesh. They went to a school. They gave a simple test to all students in the class. And they measured their performance. And Dalit students, it so happened, performed a bit better than the rest of the students. Now the second part of the experiment was, they asked each student to get up, mention their name and their father’s name and sit. After this exercise was over, they were again given a similar test. In the second test, the performance of Dalits literally plummeted. The explanation was that by reciting their name and their father’s name, they were reminded of their identity, which affected their performance. I 100% believe that. Why is this important in the context of merit? Because even the programs that were designed to help Dalits like, say, affirmative action, the way you implement them matters. For example, for my generation, when you get into a college, on the board, all the students that were selected will be there in one column, the next column they mentioned the SC students and in another the ST students. Or suddenly in the middle of a class, the school clerk would come with the textbooks and say that these are the free copies for the scheduled class students and scheduled tribe students.’ So you stand up and if you are scheduled caste, you get your copy. You could be happy. Others could be jealous . But the fact remains that. In a way all these gestures of the government with very, very good intentions did a different kind of damage. The way you can help in these marginalised communities is by either creating a completely neutral learning environment or do what is sufficient to help them to process their own thinking about this.That was our concern in the meritocracy paper.

I see it as part of that broader trend to nuance our understanding. Another example is a shorter piece you wrote in the Hindu a little while ago, arguing that far from seeing it a certain way that the Indian state should actually be quite proud that its policies have created a creamy layer amongst the most disadvantaged.

There’s one narrow context here, which is, when it comes to the appointment of civil servants, the judiciary talks about creamy layers, especially in the context of OBCs, that those whose parents income is above a particular threshold, they are dismissed as creamy layers and they are not given that job. My point was and is that if you are using public employment as a poverty alleviation measure, fine,there’s nothing wrong with that. Then you have to also remove the creamy layer from the general category. Why is it that the richest people can actually apply and get these jobs? Why are we using only this for the reserved categories? There’s a different concern as such, which is that we have caste differences which don’t go away. In any particular milieu, you know your caste and you also know everybody else’s caste. That certainly creates a particular dynamic. Now, our system, which was designed in a very laudable way to help the victims of caste to get into these spaces. But at the same time, you are removing their best and the brightest. Those, who could access quality education, whose parents have sufficient resources, who could bring up their kids in a good environment. By selecting candidates from these sections, who happen to be from the poorest of the poor households, you are putting these students, these candidates in league with the creamy layer from the rest of the society. Which is wrong.

Then, the quota category officer employees would not be performing their duties as well as the rest. So every generation, given the numbers, you keep on taking poor and marginalised candidates for reserved categories. And when it comes to the non-reserved categories, you are happy to take the creamy layer. I thought that was quite objectionable. It’s still a very narrow concern. But my broader point is, I’m old enough to remember that people get a kind of vicarious pleasure to say that we are not doing well. The whole world is collapsing, the heavens are falling. Nothing happened. I’ve been literally hearing, you know, three decades of independence, still we have so much poverty. Four decades of independence, we still have this much poverty. Now it’s seven decades, 75 years, we are still saying nothing happened. It’s absolute nonsense. The Indian state, with all its limitations and all its infirmities, incompetence and corruption has delivered tremendously. Even while articulating the concerns of the Dalits and Tribals, I would still say, yes, there are still problems, but let us not say that nothing happened. You know, because of economic reforms, millions of Dalits and tribals were lifted out of poverty. If you are in the space talking about issues of social justice and affirmative action, politics of quotas, legal litigation, there’s a tendency to be very negative. India is all about caste and nothing else is happening. I don’t belong to that view.

You mentioned things having changed over the years for the Indian state. Maybe if we look a little more closely at at the academic world or the think tank world, there is the contention for many that that spaces like CPR and other think tanks tend to to be elitist, to not also be open either to to individuals from from the lower castes, from Scheduled Tribes, or to not take seriously some of those issues. What do you think about this general sense about the think tank world and spaces like CPR?

Well, in general there is some merit in that point. Look, let’s not forget, in my case, I wanted to join CPRbecause it’s an elite organisation. For an individual like me from a mofussil town coming to Delhi and trying to find my space, even to publish an Op-ed, you send just your article to some newspaper without an affiliation, or you send it as a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, it makes all the difference. People tend to come to CPR because it’s in an elite place. I would say it is not automatically a kind of a disqualification or some kind of a pejorative identity. But what is a legitimate criticism is, these elite spaces only worry about elite concerns.At least in case of CPR, that is not true. We were very, very well focused on matters of administrative reforms and economic policies. During the past decade also, we have been working on social justice issues. But these spaces are not sufficiently open to the subalterns. Not just lower castes. Say, people from rural areas. Prima facie even I accepted that yes, places like CPR should be doing more to make the place somewhat more representative of the country. But there are so many structural issues that are not happening. But I would say in the past 50 years. CPR has done – I won’t say enough – but has done a lot not to be a kind of elitist organisation, only worried about elite concerns and hiring only elite.

So for example, the work we have done here over the past several years, conducting research methodology workshops. It’s not just one or two. From former president Pratap [Bhanu Mehta] and [current president] Yamini [Aiyar] on, most of our faculty were actively involved. This is a ICSSR-funded project. Typically, scheduled caste and scheduled tribe scholars tend to go to rural schools, non-English medium schools. Somehow they crawl their way up and go and do PhD somewhere. And thanks to the quota system they get into universities as faculty. But their competence levels as researchers are not up to the mark. So is there any way we can have brief interventions to help them. We did five such workshops. Some of our assumptions were true. To a large extent, we tried to bridge that. Have we succeeded completely? No. We have done really honourable work. Most of those candidates, about 150 candidates whom we trained here, gave us the feedback that they were happy with that and many actually told me that because of our workshops, they could finish their PhD so well. And who knows, in future, some of them may end up being the faculty at CPR. But again, back to your question, yes, it’s not easy for places like CPR to simply ignore this criticism that they are too elitist and they are not sufficiently open to get the mofussil India into these places.

As you are meeting these younger scholars in these workshops, if they were to ask you for advice about coming into the policy space not, what would you tell them?

Well, I wouldn’t advise whether they should get into policy or not, but what I would advise is: ocus on your skill set. Brush up your language, especially the English language. Probably much of our work in the future, we might do in our own languages. But still I would insist that English matters. It will continue to matter. Because most of the knowledge of the world is recorded in that one particular language, much more than any other language. And on the other side, almost all our Indian languages do not have even the rudimentary undergraduate level knowledge in their languages. You cannot do even a BA in political science with only books from, say, Hindi or Gujarati or Telugu language. So focus always on English. Read widely as and when an opportunity comes. Just grab it. Be open, flexible.

Are there misconceptions about either of your areas of research – on the national security side or on the social justice side – that you find yourself frequently correcting?

Social sciences are subjective areas. They are not objective, like, say, physics or chemistry. Social science is all about people and their sentiments and their views. Despite that, we still insist on some method. Some acceptable way of validating a point. In sciences, you come up with a hypothesis and test it. Either you validate it or invalidate it, go to the next one. In social sciences, the biggest problem I have noticed – probably I’m also not really immune to that – is that first you come with your thesis and try to raise a hypothesis that would really prove your thesis which is your own prejudice. Why is it that almost 99.9% of the people who support, say, affirmative action happened to be the beneficiaries? Why is it that almost the same kind of percentage of people who oppose happened to be the non-reserved categories? Similarly, you go to a foreign policy seminar. People come and give their own country’s viewpoint and insist that that is the right point. I would really ask young scholars to be very, very tough when it comes to designing their own questions first. Are you already concluding, based on your own preferences and your own prejudices, and then doing the research and in a way, validating those prejudices which don’t really have any rational basis? I think this happens all the time. As I said, even probably I’m not immune to that, but at least we should keep that in mind.

Are there any of your own pieces over the years that are particularly dear to you?

The social cognition piece I really enjoyed because, in addition to caste and social justice, I could just dip my toes into cognitive dimensions of social existence. How much our cognition plays a role in what we do and how we think, how we react, which is a huge field, and very technical. I don’t have any academic grounding in that. But thanks to my friends and collaborators, Devesh and Chandrabhan, we did that paper. I really enjoyed doing that paper because anybody reading it, especially young scholars, can really take it forward. A lot needs to be done in terms of the cognition part of it, which is a kind of neglected dimension.

If you had to pick out three works or scholars that have influenced you over the years, what would you point to?

Well, the first one is, of course, Doctor Ambedkar. Not just influence. He gives you the framework, he gives you the language to unpack any issue. I would specifically recommend his Annihilation of Caste and his final speech in the Constituent Assembly and his book on Pakistan. I wouldn’t say influences, but I’m still fascinated by two authors, HL Mencken and GK Chesterton. Their style I so admire, and at the same time, there’s no way anybody can emulate them. But they still stimulate me. Reading them is a pleasure and I would highly recommend anyone who is interested in improving their language or their communication skills, I would say Chesterton and Mencken. Just treasures.

Policy in Action- Public Finance

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 Public Finance. CPR has been working in the area of governance and public finance since the last fifteen years, through its Accountability Initiative, which was established in 2008. The Accountability Initiative has been working on strengthening transparency and accountability in governance by conducting research on state capabilities and factors affecting efficient public services delivery in India with a focus on public finance, public administration and governance, and state capacity. The initiative is operational in six states — Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, and Rajasthan with multi-sectoral research studies on budgets, governance processes, and public administration across social sectors like education, health and nutrition, sanitation, and even local governments.

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

  • In 2010, we developed a methodology to get citizens to identify how welfare programmes are delivered on the ground. Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions Studies in Accountability (PAISA) became the largest citizen-led expenditure tracking methodology in the country that sheds light on the extent to which funds reach the last mile. PAISA studies have been regularly conducted for government, including tracking Mid-Day Meal scheme for the Ministry of Education (formerly MHRD) in 2012, tracking education, health and nutrition schemes in Chhattisgarh supported by the Government of Chhattisgarh and UNICEF in 2015, tracking sanitation for the district administration in Udaipur in 2017, and PAISA for Panchayats in Karnataka (2016).
  • The Budget Briefs have established themselves as the go-to source for information about the funding status and outcome progress of India’s major welfare schemes. The Accountability Initiative has 15 volumes of briefs and these are shared annually with all members of parliament, standing committee members, ministries and other government stakeholders.
  • CPR was invited by both the 14th and 15th Finance Commission to conduct studies on local bodies. The 14th Finance Commission tasked us to examine the structure of devolution of powers, responsibilities and finances by states to rural local bodies (RLBs) across all decentralisation models including the 5th Scheduled Areas and Sixth Schedule. Our report (also available on the Commission’s website) contributed to the recommendations of the Finance Commission to recommend increasing the amounts allocated to local governments from the divisible pool of taxes. Similarly, we worked closely with the 15th Finance Commission on two study reports looking at the impact of the 14th Finance Commission recommendations on devolution to panchayats and fund flows (revenues and expenditures) at the gram panchayat level.
  • CPR supported the Technical Support Unit (TSU) set up under the National Health Mission (NHM) in Uttar Pradesh, in diagnosing reasons for low utilisation of health expenditure and bottlenecks. The recommendations led to fine tuning of systems and processes and the analysis became an important tool for preparation of next year’s Project Implementation Plan (PIP).
  • Since January 2020, the Accountability Initiative has been working closely with the Planning and Finance Department of the Government of Meghalaya supporting them in streamlining their budget process, making real-time dashboards on allocations and expenditures and the production of the states first Gender and Youth Budget in 2022.
  • Along with the Institute of Economic Growth, we developed and reported preliminary findings on the application of a new method for “tracking and acting” to improve planning and allocations for the Anemia Mukt Bharat (AMB), covering 12 states. The study found that these methods helped in informing national and state governments regarding yearly trends.
  • In 2008, Dr. Partha Mukhopadhyay (Senior Fellow) along with Devesh Kapur and Arvind Subramanian, who later went on to become our Chief Economic Adviser, advanced the idea of direct cash transfers to people. Today, as digital payments technologies and identity programs have evolved, this is gaining widespread traction.

To know more about CPR’s work on Public Finance, you can visit our website at https://cprindia.org/researcharea/governance-accountability-public-finance/ or see the work of the Accountability Initiative at https://cprindia.org/research/accountability-initiative/

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

Policy in Action- Sanitation

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 Sanitation in India. In 2013, CPR’s Scaling City Institutions for India Initiative (SCI-FI) started its research and policy action on alternative governance and technical approaches to improving public health outcomes. At the time, even though two generations of public programs had supported sanitation in India, it was still globally known as amongst the weakest countries regarding sanitation outcomes. The work done by the SCI-FI initiative since then has significantly changed this scenario and has driven policy and social acceptance of alternative sanitation models including city and state-wide urban Faecal Sludge Management and Urban-Rural Convergence.

Here’s a snapshot of CPR’s work on sanitation over the years:

  • Until 2013, Indian policies and public investments only supported underground sewerage as the singular approach to environmental sanitation and wastewater management in urban India. As a result, approximately only 200 large Indian cities out of the more than 4000 Indian towns had partial coverage of sewerage. CPR’s research in the area of Sanitation through its SCI-FI initiative focused on bringing this anomaly to the fore and engaged in significant discussions with the government to show that Safely Managed Sanitation target of the SDGs was possible with implementing citywide Faecal Sludge Management systems in small towns.
  • In 2015, the SCI-FI and Practical Action with the support from the Gates Foundation (BMGF) and Arghyam initiated Project Nirmal. This was in partnership with Odisha’s Housing and Urban Development Department (H&UDD), District Administration, and Municipal governments in two medium towns of Dhenkanal and Angul. Building on the success of these pilot projects, the Odisha government scaled up the efforts to all 115 cities and towns in the state (as per State MIS) and revised the Odisha Urban Sanitation Strategy 2017 and developed the Odisha Urban Sanitation Policy 2017 even before the national policy. Furthermore, as momentum around alternative sanitation grew, the SCI-FI initiative as a part of the NFSSM alliance, supported the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to develop a National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Policy, 2017.
  • In 2017, CPR started deep diving into research on rural areas and environmental sanitation. Based on these findings, the SCI-FI initiative introduced the concept and definition of “Large Dense Villages (LDVs)”. This was referenced by the former Secretary (SBM-G), Ministry of Jal Shakti, at an International Conference in Chennai ‘FSM4’ in 2017 acknowledging the growing importance of alternative strategies for liquid waste management including FSM in LDVs.
  • CPR and UNICEF, with support from the District Government of Dhenkanal, ULBs and Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) piloted a novel “urban-rural convergence” in Dhenkanal district and supported the preparation of the Odisha Rural Sanitation Policy 2020, one of India’s first state-level rural policies. Based on the pilot demonstrations, the Government of Odisha scaled up the model across the state. The urban-rural convergence model has received significant traction in the national policy owing to the uniqueness and replicability of this approach. The Government of India released a notification on 14th September 2021 urging all state governments to adopt an integrated approach by urban and rural authorities for convergent action on FSM and Plastic Waste Management (PWM).
  • Also, based on the successful approach where SBM Gramin funds were utilised for upgrading urban infrastructure to serve rural households in Odisha, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti advised state government departments responsible for the Swachh Bharat Mission – Gramin to allow funds from the rural program to be applied to urban local bodies to serve rural panchayats. This is a path-breaking notification with possible long-term governance impacts, as India’s urbanisation proceeds.
  • In 2021, Dhenkanal Municipality was felicitated with the ISC-FICCI Sanitation Award for the ‘Best Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Model’. In 2022, CPR won the ISC-FICCI Sanitation Awards 2022 for ‘Best Non-Profit Engagement Model in Sanitation: Urban for spearheading the pilot implementation of the urban-rural convergence model in Dhenkanal’.

To know details about CPR’s work on Sanitation, you can visit our website at https://cprindia.org/researcharea/sanitation/ or the work of the Scaling City Institutions for India Initiative at https://cprindia.org/research/scaling-cities-institutions-for-india/

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

Policy in Action- Urbanisation

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 Urbanisation. When K C Sivaramakrishnan, former Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development, and subsequent chair of our Governing Board, joined CPR, he brought with him a perspective that continues to inform our work today. This was based, first, on his unshakeable faith in the legitimacy and effectiveness of local representative democracy, embodied in his role in crafting the 74th amendment to our constitution, documented in Power to the People? The Politics and Progress of Decentralisation (2000) and second, on viewing the urban, not just as cities, but as an unfolding process of national transformation as he argued in The Future of Urbanisation: Spread and Shape in Selected States (2001).

CPR continues this tradition of focusing on governance and this process of transformation, the manner in which it is influenced by policy and the implications it has for policy, in various forms – its work on special economic zones, on ground-up urbanisation in smaller urban centres, on megacity governance and differential access to services within cities, and the myriad forms of migration engendered by & engendering this transformation.

Much of the work at CPR on this transformation has been done, with deliberate intent, as part of national and multinational networks, the work on SEZs, Subaltern Urbanisation, Cities of Delhi, the Tacit Urban Knowledge Network, BRICS, SHRAMIC, et al., building on relationships across institutions like CSH, TISS, IIHS, HUL, IGIDR in India, and institutions like CESSMA in France, Brown University, the India China Institute and CASI in the US, LIRNEasia in Sri Lanka, Universities of Johannesburg and Witwatersrand in South Africa and Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in China. The work has been generously supported by a variety of funders, the Government of India, ICSSR, Google.org, Tata Trusts, HDFC, Ford Foundation, IDRC, and others.

Here’s a snapshot of CPR’s work on Urbanisation over the years:

  • In 2005, CPR contributed to restructuring Delhi’s bus system, most clearly visible in the orange buses that ply in Delhi today. It innovated a new contractual structure, a gross cost contract, which has recently being expanded nationally for public electric bus contracts, under the FAME scheme of the Government of India.
  • In the latter half of 2000s, CPR engaged with two big questions of that time – the Special Economic Zones and the governance of our megacity regions, an issue that continues to engage us today. The work was published in two major books, Power Policy and Protest (edited by Rob Jenkins, Loraine Kennedy and Partha Mukhopadhyay) and Governance of Megacities: Fractured Thinking, Fragmented Setup by K C Sivaramakrishnan.
  • A core contribution of CPR’s work on urbanisation through the years has been the focus on the spatial and economic transformation processes unfolding in India, particularly the important role of smaller cities and Subaltern Urbanisation, a framework which is being increasingly used in analysing urban India today. Contemporary schemes of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs no longer focus on metro cities alone, but cover statutory towns of all sizes. CPR’s research on census towns has contributed to a growing policy focus on developing rural clusters, via the Ministry of Rural Development’s SP Mukherjee Rurban Mission.
  • CPR engaged with civil society organisations on migration, working with them to broaden the policy engagement and discourse as part of the SHRAMIC initiative, across multiple locations. Closer to home, was the Cities of Delhi project that brought out the people’s view of the city into the broader policy research discourse, later supplemented by work on how citizens engage across the various borders that emerge in cities.
  • In December 2015, in responding to a request for comments on a draft urban rental housing policy by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (then: Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation), a team of CPR researchers, including fellow Mukta Naik underscored the need to include the informal rentals segment in the policy. This submission sensitised the Ministry to rental housing needs of unorganised workers, including migrants, an exercise that supported the quick deployment of the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC) scheme during COVID, as a component of the PMAY in 2020, in response to the COVID migrant crisis.
  • In 2017, Dr. Partha Mukhopadhyay chaired an inter-ministerial working group across different ministries on migration; its secretariat comprised many CPR colleagues with technical knowledge on migration. The report’s thrust on migrant inclusion, especially in social welfare and protection, was particularly useful to policy actors when India was confronted with the COVID migrant crisis in March 2020.
  • At the time of writing, CPR continues to engage with the Smart Cities project, along with the NIUA and housing and contribute to major international reports such as the UNESCAP’s report on the Future of Asia Pacific Cities.

To know details about CPR’s work on Urbanisation, you can visit our website at https://cprindia.org/researcharea/urbanisation/ or the work of the Initiative on Cities, Economy and Society at https://cprindia.org/research/initiative-on-cities-economy-and-society/

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

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Mukta Naik

This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with Mukta Naik, a Fellow at CPR, whose work focuses on informal housing, internal migration and what these subjects can tell us about India’s urban transformation.

Naik is an architect and urban planner, who works with the Initiative on Cities, Economy & Society at CPR. Prior to joining CPR, she worked with a social enterprise – Micro Home Solutions – on community-based interventions aimed at improving housing in informal settlements. Naik is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture, and has a Master’s Degree in urban and regional planning from Texas A&M University.

In this conversation, we spoke about Naik’s pathway into the policy space, the importance of ‘boundary-crossing’ when tackling subjects like migration and urbanisation and her work on the Small City Dreaming project, looking at the aspirations and lives of young Indians beyond the big cities. We also spoke about how Covid changed the conversation on migrants in India, whether the learnings from that time are taking root, what it means to look at cities and urbanisation from a Global South perspective and why she advises young scholars not to over-define their career pathways.

If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here.

And if you missed our previous interviews, read our conversations with Partha Mukhopadhyay, Navroz Dubash, Avani Kapur and K P Krishnan.


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

You’ve had a more unusual journey into the policy world than others in the field, a winding one involving architecture and media and other things. Could you give us a sense of this journey?

When I finished my Master’s and came back to India in the early 2000s, that was really a boom time for real estate and construction and all things in the field of architecture and planning. It just made sense to explore some of that. That exploration took its own wild path. At the back of my mind, I think this desire to do research remained and it was channelled into more journalistic writing. But it did remain and eventually when I realised that I really missed being out in the field, I joined an NGO that worked on housing and informal settlements in Delhi and Ahmedabad and found myself actually getting my hands dirty in the field of planning and housing. That just organically led to CPR because it was a Delhi-based organisation and the findings that we had from our various interventions needed a policy outlet, and so we were constantly talking to people like Partha Mukhopadhyay, who we interviewed earlier on CPR Perspectives and Shubhagato [Dasgupta] to guide us to the right policy spaces where we could feed our findings into. When I realised that research is what I wanted to do long term, I used that network to connect into CPR. It was long and winding, but it was a thread that I was following through non-research pathways and then ended up being in a policy research space.

To step back a little bit: College was the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. And then you had a graduate degree from Texas A&M and at this point what did you have in mind?

Interestingly, my Masters’ dissertation actually studied Asian Indians in Houston and their housing choices. So housing was a very clear area of interest and so was migration. Unfortunately, I had a personal situation because of which I couldn’t continue straight into a PhD program, or even explore job opportunities in the US. I had to come back to India where the networks that I had from SPA led more into the architecture and construction and materials world.

But yes: Housing and migration and the idea of how cities actually form and what are the kind of problems that entrants into cities face was the broad thrust for what I wanted to do. So in 2011, when I finally found my way back into ‘mainstream’ urban work, I chose to work for a housing NGO which worked in informal settlements in Delhi and looked at issues of experience, design, architecture, infrastructure – that bucket of things.

When did you decide research was for you?

Even while I was doing this job with micro Home Solutions, I had applied for an independent research grant. We were working in resettlement colonies and did a survey of homeowners there, within which there was a subcategory of rent. The idea [was to look at] renters in informal settlements: Who they are, why they are there and how long do they stay? So I wrote a research proposal which got some independent funding. But the guides that they assigned were mainstream architects who hadn’t fully engaged with the informality. I felt like I needed more robust guidance. So I would start showing up at CPR and catching whoever I could. Picking Partha’s brains and saying ‘I’m doing this, I find it really interesting. I need help.’ It was because we had this relationship with them when they were helping us find policy pathways for our intervention. That’s how it started. And then I basically realised that this space feels really comfortable and I requested Partha to consider me if something came up by way of an opportunity and eventually, the Tata Trust-funded project on Migration did come up and then in 2015 I was able to switch gears completely into research.

You came in with many years of work experience, yet started off as a Research Associate. You’ve said there was some element of self doubt, and of having to convince yourself. I’d like to hear a little bit more about that process for you personally.

I had been working with this organisation that did really interesting experimental intervention work and yet found it so hard to speak to the policy world. I was quite convinced that my research skills are good and needed honing, but I was really confused about how that actually leads into policy. When I came into CPR, I had a cohort of people who had very clear ideas about their career trajectories. They were people with master’s degrees, knew that they were in CPR for a few years of experience, and then going on to PhDs. I wasn’t sure that was my pathway at that time. But I had a lot of field experience so I could instinctively understand and grasp things. I had project management experience so I could get projects running on the ground. I had no hesitation in public speaking, reaching out to partners –, the nuts and bolts of getting projects up and running came easily to me. But the intellectual rigor, the theoretical background of research was not something that I had worked at in the intervening years between my Master’s and joining CPR, which was basically 13 long years.

So I did feel a little under equipped to do that part of it. But I have to say that CPR was a space that provided adequate mentorship, where everybody was jostling around trying to get the best work done. It was a very multidisciplinary team. So you did see people with similar problems. [For example], lawyers who were in CPR, not quite sure whether they wanted to go back to practice or look at policy. So there were others, even though they were much younger than me, in a similar boat. We all found some common threads and managed to work around that. We also had a lot of freedom because the kind of projects that we were doing were two-year, three-year time frame projects which gave a lot of time to make small mistakes and then bounce back and find better ways to do something. You would just learn by doing. You would collect data, come back and then present it, and somebody would tell you that this is missing and then you go and redo it with the requisite rigor. You had the freedom to learn things, not in an educational atmosphere, but in a more learn-by-doing sort of way.

As you enter CPR, you end up doing lots of different things, which we’ll try to put into different buckets for this conversation, and dip into each. So initially what were you looking at?

I started with a Tata Trust-funded project called Shramic, which was about internal migration in India. It was a partnership with the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research in Mumbai and NIUA. We also had a lot of NGO partners. At that time, there was a lot of research on labour – labour mobility and problems of labour – but migrants were not really researched as a category by themselves. But there were a lot of civil society organisations who had been helping migrants, especially at source, and beginning to see the problems at the urban destinations. Our interest was really to collate the knowledge that NGOs and civil society had and sort of see how to develop a more rigorous research program around that. It was an easy entry for me because I understood the NGO world already and I was able to build those collaborations and we actually were able to publish papers in a special issue of Urban India, which were entirely authored by NGOs.

This boundary crossing between the world of civil society and practice and the world of academia was what that project focused on. We generated a lot of knowledge, collated a lot of existing knowledge and so on and so forth. I was parallelly doing a project on informal rentals. The first paper that I published in 2015, which I wrote while I was at CPR. The data was collected in the pre-CPR days but CPR is what actually gave me the confidence to put it out as an academic output. That sort of simmered because the field sites were based in Gurgaon and I live in Gurgaon and I’m sort of embedded in the city’s life and civil society networks and activist networks. It just felt like a life project – everybody has that pet field which they keep going back to from time to time and mine is the urban villages of Gurgaon.

The way our team works in CPR is while yes, people are assigned to projects, it’s more like everybody’s working on everything. So while I was looking after this project, I was also pitching into other projects. This flagship project called Cities of Delhi which Partha and Patrick Heller led was finishing around the time. When I joined, I could come in to collate the last bits, organise the dissemination events and help out in that sense. That my previous organisation had sort of helped out in finding field sites for CPR also helped because I had an insight into what that project was doing. The informal rentals work got an opportunity because we had a long-standing partnership with a French research institute called IRD and Veronique Dupont and Marie-Helene Zerah (from IRD) were already CPR visiting faculty. They co-wrote a grant with CPR and brought in money to study urban-rural boundaries and informal settlements and with that grant, I got the chance to deepen my work on informal renting.

I like the idea of boundary-crossing on the back end of your work, because it shows up so much in the research as well. So tell us more about this pet project in Gurgaon?

When I first started looking at this, I had a more architect-planner gaze and was thinking more about people building – they’re adding floors, not for their own family expansion but to generate rental income. The idea of rent as a source of livelihood – which is true of a large part of the global south – we didn’t really understand the mechanics of it. It was sort of consigned into this space of informality. But when I delved into it, I realised that there are a lot of social dimensions. It was very intrinsically linked with the process of urbanisation. In the case of Gurgaon, developers –but in the case of other cities, the government – comes in and acquires agricultural land for the purpose of urban development, but leaves the abadi [residential] areas of these villages in zones of exception, saying ‘we don’t know what to do with you, so we’re going to leave you alone.’

These are the areas which go on to become dense suppliers of informal rentals. This was a fallout of a methodological innovation that I had to make on field because this [rental] work is informal and not entirely legal in the sense that these are not spaces that can take those kinds of densities, these are not spaces that have high levels of services, so landlords are very hesitant to speak to researchers. So you would have to become friends with them and as a woman going into an urban village and talking to Jat, Yadav, Gujjar landlords meant that you needed to spend the time to introduce who you are, what you’re doing, win their trust. Often first spend time with their women folk and then slowly get to talk to them. What ensued was a whole lot of life history interactions, where they would start from the point at which whoever it was in their family – their father or their grandfather – sold their agricultural land. So their identity as agriculturalists, and how they’re trying to hold on to it in a rapidly urbanising world, and the links of that identity with, with caste – whether they were from dominating or backward castes – all of those things just organically came up in the research.

I didn’t set out to do it, but many of the questions it answered for me were questions that I was originally grappling with way back in 2002 when I was thinking about city formations and transitions and how do cities actually come to be. That really excited me and continues to. This is something that I’ll keep returning to from time to time. Rental housing was also something that was repeatedly a failure of policy in the sense that the Indian government and various states had tried experiments with rent and housing, which had almost never worked. So it was this problem area that the formal policy sector didn’t want to get into. So, in 2016, when the formal policy space started worrying about things like rent, this research was available for them to speak to or absorb.

What did the research itself tell you? What were you looking at, and what did you manage to find out?

The crux is that there is a class of people who are temporary occupants of a city. They are coming not with the original intent of living long-term, but they are foraying into the city and testing grounds. Rental housing is an important asset class to make that possible. Because many of them are poor, low-skilled and therefore not do not have high disposable incomes and can’t pay higher rents, they gravitate towards the cheapest housing available, even if there are conditions of congestion and poor service. The crux of this is that the informality that allows them to do this, even with oral agreements and substandard services, is a really important service and an important infrastructure for cities if they are to absorb labour that eventually will go on to become long-term residents.

That links it through with my subsequent interest in looking at migrant communities, because I found that people were living in rental housing and remained itinerant occupants of the city for many decades. This was really the disturbing part of it. The structural transformation one imagines, where you come and then, intergenerationally, there is some sort of a progress and an embedding into the urban fabric, wasn’t really happening for many, many people. And that’s something to worry about. Later the World Bank and others have picked up phrases like messy urbanisation and hesitant urbanisation, which precisely refers to the inability of Indian cities to absorb labour in a long term and an integrationist sense. The main theme of the rental housing work was worrying about this question of, if economic development is going to happen through urbanisation and the movement of people out of agriculture, into service and other kinds of jobs, and cities are not able to really enable that transformation, then how do we actually solve that problem? In my view, focusing on rental housing and informal settlements and upgradation of those parts of the city would be one really good way to enable those transitions.

That takes us to bucket 2 – migrants and smaller cities. The small cities terminology, according to my understanding, covers everything from census towns all the way to satellites of major cities. You’ve worked on understanding these spaces and the wants and desires of people within them. Let’s stand with the spaces. What is migrant intensity?

CPR already was part of this large project called Subaltern Urbanization, which has resulted in a book and in fairly well-acknowledged and well-cited articles. Here they were arguing that India’s urbanisation was the opposite of migration. They were arguing that India is not urbanising because people are moving en masse from poor rural parts of the country to relatively rich urban parts of the country. They were arguing that the poor rural parts of the country themselves are transforming. Not just because they’re getting denser, but also because of economic transformations. They were doing field studies in Eastern India at the time and I was sending people out there and then reading their field notes and attending all these ‘Suburban’ conferences and getting a fairly good idea of what’s happening at that very small town level.

But I had a long standing partnership with another organisation called Just Jobs Network and a friend of mine, Gregory Randolph, who had a more economic geography thinking on this. The economic transitions in these really small spaces are very informal in nature. But what happens to slightly larger cities where some agglomeration effects are there, meaning that there is an industry, there is some service cluster, some artisanal cluster, there’s already some existing urban agglomeration that may have been there historically or at least has been there for the last 50-70 years? What’s happening there vis a vis migration, because even now, we’re still talking about the largest metropolises – Bombay, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai? The statistics also show us that a lot of the migration is actually happening into other kinds of urban areas in India.

So we deliberately did not go to the smallest ones and and of course avoided the largest ones and tried to focus on the middle layer, somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people. These are already cities. They’ve been cities for some time. They may not feel like the cities that you and me live in, but they are cities nevertheless. And it’s not just India. Many developing parts of the world have this category of town which doesn’t get adequate policy attention. So what’s happening there? The idea of migrant intensity was not just to think of places as receiving migrants, but because they were so small, or also sending them away. Because they are clusters of education, they are clusters of small-time accumulation by the rural lands. We looked at migrant intensity as a measure of places that both send and receive migrants. I can’t say it was very sophisticated data work because we are not sophisticated data scientists, but it was a very simplistic exploration. And what it did was help us highlight which geographical spaces to look at, which districts and which states have these interesting things happening. And that paved the way to select case cities and then do deep work – both survey work as well as qualitative work.

The animating question there was really to understand – what kind of jobs are young people getting? How uneven or even is that landscape of employment, both in terms of getting access to employment as well as the experience of it? Gender was a big consideration here, I think a little bit before the question of women’s workforce participation became the most urgent question on the policy landscape. We weren’t looking at it from a FLFP [Female Labour Force Participation] perspective, we were looking at it just simply as young people, and caste and gender were the two angles that in the Indian context were important to consider. We wrote a project around that question and then went into two cities in India and two cities in Indonesia to deep dive and try and answer some of that.

What you found was that the spaces that were most migrant intensive – both sending and receiving migrants – were not the mega cities, but often rural or semi-urban spaces.

Absolutely. And when we did go turn up at these places and start talking to people, we realised that because India’s economic geography is so specific where the northern and eastern parts of India are poor, populous and labour-sending and the eastern and southern parts of India are labour receiving, the common understanding is that in smaller cities, the catchment area of migrants is also smaller. That you would only attract migrants from the region. But in India’s case, that’s not true. If there is a cluster of employment, then labour is going to come from UP and Bihar and West Bengal and Assam and all of the labour sending areas, because that’s how the recruitment networks work. There are caste-based networks. The third thing is that the improvement of highways in India has meant that it’s not just migration, but one has to see it through the lens of mobility, because people are commuting to work. We really found that in these smaller towns, the local and regional transportation networks were absolutely key, whether it was young men’s families insisting on bikes as dowry because that was a really important asset for these young men to get to travel that one hour or 1.5 hour to find sustained employment from their rural locations. Or in the case of Mangalore, really high quality privatised bus transport networks that local elites really supported because it got them this large catchment area of workers from the towns around. Because Mangalore is just 15 kilometres away from Kerala and these are places with high education levels, they were able to use this rural or small town labour for services – healthcare, hospitality, retail and those kinds of industries too.

Those two cases – Kishangarh in Rajasthan which is a marble cluster, and Mangalore, which is this coastal town with both industry and service sectors – provided us very fertile fields to explore many questions of what was happening.

This is connected to the Small City Dreaming project and a separate paper you worked on about the aspirations of women and the way they learn how to navigate small cities. You said it helped you integrate your idea of how cities work. So how do they work? What did you learn?

The first thing I learned was that planners need to be taught sociology a lot more than they are because this project took a completely sociological turn. Very clearly, gender, caste, and economic class are what allow those avenues to unfold for these individuals. Their household backgrounds are really important and because we were not just doing interviews in the city, but actually trying to move out to see how these rural areas and cities were connected, we were able to hear the voices of a lot of young women who could have done those jobs but weren’t allowed to, or could not even form aspirations because they were so conditioned to believing that they could only do XYZ kind of work or that they couldn’t work at all in the case of Kishangarh.

This self censorship and self-control that they had exerted on their own aspirations was really interesting to me, but also that even within those boundaries they were negotiating quite hard – for better marriages, for more education. There is a very strong aspirational pulse that we found, especially among young women. Among young men the pressure to earn, to give back to the family unit in terms of income was very, very high and that almost stymied ambitions, and became drudgery.

Mangalore was a much more aspirational space. We could see migrants coming in from as far as Maharashtra, even Assam, working in service sector jobs and then getting a lot of data and insights from the cosmopolitan nature of the city and forming new aspirations like going abroad for instance, because a lot of Mangaloreans, aspire to go to the Gulf. So those aspirations transmit and then you work back to see how you can build your skills and your networks to meet those aspirations, whether they actually take place or not. I suppose we need a lot more work to make sure that those pathways are more legible for young people, and I think some of that is already captured in the work on skilling. But we cannot just think of skilling as an aspatial intervention. Where are you providing that skilling? Is it in the village of origin? Is it in this sort of intermediate space where the person has already come and formed some aspirations? Our skilling programs would not allow somebody coming from Assam to Mangalore to access the government skilling programs because they would not be domicile residents of that city or that district. Then they would have to rely on private skilling, which is more expensive and then they would get into a debt trap.

There are a lot of misalignments in policy that the project revealed that we tried to capture in our policy writing, but there’s a lot more to unearth. We finished collecting data in 2019, just before the pandemic and then during the pandemic, of course, the entire migration conversation took a very different turn, and that led to data collection about different sets of things like social protection and social welfare of migrants. And now, sitting in 2023 and trying to look back at all the data that I’ve collected. I can see that there’s a larger story in which all of these pieces connect, which can then influence policy in some ways.

At the centre of it, I keep coming back to the city and its governance and how a lack of capacity of urban governance is actually a roadblock to many things. It’s not just poor water supply and traffic congestion and air pollution that you and I experience, and that the lay public would cite most commonly as examples of poor urban governance. But it’s also all of these really important things for connecting the aspirations of rural people, the kind of labour that cities can benefit from and giving them the pathway to make all of that happen. Housing, of course, is also a very important component. Where do they stay? They have to make choices between decent living and remitting money home. And that’s a really hard choice to make. Are the elite who take governance decisions in the city in a position to even think about this or are they cognizant about the kind of trade-offs that a struggling young person in a city is making at this point of time?

As you finished the field work, you started to think more about the governance of these spaces, and of the pathways through them for migrants. Covid in particular made it very clear that India looks at migrants in a certain way. In one paper you write about how governments use territory as an organising principle and that fails to acknowledge the mobility of goods and people that is fundamental to everyday life. Where did that work take you?

In the Small City Dreaming project, it was very difficult to understand who you are going to feed your policy ideas to. Because city governments would listen to us and say we agree that these are the problems, but we don’t have the solutions and we don’t have any budgets or any real power to take these decisions. State governments were not sure about how exactly to work on this. Parallelly, the Ministry of Housing – the urban poverty alleviation division, which later the ministries merged and became Housing and Urban Affairs – started this working group on migration. The motivation for that was this idea that migrants come to cities and don’t find decent places to stay and live and work in substandard conditions. They constituted this interministerial working group which Partha chaired, so all of us who were working with Partha at that time got very deeply involved with the drafting and the thinking behind this report. That actually gave me the exposure to think about migration in policy terms.

Because these were completely divorced areas of policy. If you thought about migration, it went squarely into the domain of labour. And if you thought about cities, then that would instantly prompt keywords like housing, transport, infrastructure, water, sanitation, waste, solid waste, but never migration. And even never labour, really, except for labour rights organisations. These intersections weren’t really happening in the policy space. So this working group was almost an anomaly in the sense that the demand came from things like, why are there so many vacant houses in urban areas, 11 million vacant homes? And that was a parliamentary question. So there were all these disparate sort of trigger points that led to the formation of that group. That report, I think, for the first time was able to articulate the links between migration and labour. And all the different policy areas that need to act together to actually be able to facilitate labour migration in the country. We submitted the report in 2017. And then it was sort of lying there and germinating.

When COVID hit, we had all this knowledge and we had already spent a lot of time thinking about it in this abstract sense and then we had a very unfortunate use case to apply all that knowledge. When people were asking us questions about why is this not happening and why is that not happening? We literally could reel things off of that report, saying, this is why the data is not there or this data is there and that data is not there.’ In that report, the idea of the lack of portability in social protection or the idea of how domicile provisions actually inhibited migrants from accessing what were otherwise fairly universalised forms of social security was already articulated, conceptually. So during COVID, we had a framework to make sense of what people were telling us.

And how has that played out? You’ve written in a recent paper for CPR that “we may be seeing the beginnings of a transition away from a centralist model of migration governance.” Are we actually seeing that? Or has Covid and the migration problem been forgotten?

What happened during Covid – the pain that the migrants felt – the memory of that pain very much lives on in the source areas. Destination areas are able to forget because the governance of migrants in destination areas is pretty much outsourced to employers. Cities don’t necessarily take responsibility for labour migrants as such, unless they are using city services or are more integrated into the city. But we saw during Covid that that the vast majority of the people who really suffered were living on work sites, on factory floors and were not permanent residents of the city anyway. They were in some form of circulation all of the time. And the governance of those folks for cities is the employers’ headache. I mean frankly there is really no data and no way that the cities can currently even really do anything to help unless there is a big thrust and a big push to do that. At the source areas, migrants came back and they remained there for a long time. Because the return to the cities happened gradually and unevenly, depending on which industries were able to get back up and running first. Women and children were the last to come back. They were left in the villages when families went back home. So in the source states, this question of the problems of the migrants and the kind of miseries that they face was animated for a much longer period of time.

There is a statewide survey happening in Jharkhand. There’s another one happening in Odisha. There were always initiatives by states who were sending out migrants. Odisha, for instance, has always been proactive in this space. But these initiatives are not institutionalised. They’re one off. One civil society organisation learns how to do something really well. That gets embedded into one state department, but they’re only able to do it with certain destination states, not with others. They have bilateral agreements between state A and state B, but the same kind of bilateral agreement doesn’t really get replicated among other states. I wouldn’t say there’s a sense of urgency, but in source states, there is a simmering issue that poverty and distress is linked with the migration issue and so they will have to get a sense of how many migrants do we have? Where do we have them? What work do they do? Where do they go? So that we’re in a good position to negotiate with the destination areas when they face problems.

There’s a subtle shift from the language of ‘stop migration, don’t let people go,’ to ‘we can’t help people leaving because we don’t have the kind of opportunities here, they have better opportunities elsewhere, but we should know enough to be able to negotiate with employers and state governments elsewhere, if we need to.’ Because Covid gave them that experience. When they had to transport migrants home, they were talking. The principal secretary of one state was talking to the principal secretary of the other state and giving numbers on how many migrants, how many buses, how many trains. That sort of bilateral activity really increased. And it remains to be seen whether the Centre will also step in to facilitate and smoothen some of this. That’s still a work in progress because there isn’t that much pressure and you’re right that there’s a narrative that we’ve done what we needed to do to deal with it.

One of the things you’ve said is that you’re interested in feeding migration and small cities research not just into the Indian discourse, but also the international discourse on urban planning. I found the focus on India and Indonesia in the Small City Dreaming project very interesting. Could you tell me more about this?

Both Indonesia and some sort of exploratory work that we did under the aegis of the India China Institute at the New School in New York, which is comparative work in the Chinese context. I also had the opportunity to do something briefly with a Vietnamese anthropologist on the rental housing space. There are uncanny similarities in the sense of the processes of urbanisation among all of these countries. Of course, the specifics differ. Especially in terms of the kind of decentralisation of governance that has happened. India really for its size and its stage of economic development is an outlier and an exception in the sense that cities are so remarkably unempowered. But largely cities are less empowered in large parts of the Global South as compared to the Global North, where a lot of the migration theory and migration and development thinking is happening.

There are all these theoretical ideas [from the Global North] that cities can solve problems. You can only solve problems of integration at the local point where you actually have to negotiate the brass tacks of who will get water and who will be able to attend primary school and so on. And that has been taken up as the solution for a lot of things. What my research is trying to say is, wait a minute, that’s not the context everywhere else. Provincial governments may be really powerful and larger cities may have different powers than smaller cities, and it’s very uneven and resource constrained. You need different kinds of policy levers. Internal migration needs to be thought of in a different way and not in as securitized way as global migration. So the contributions are more in the sense of, is there, in the large body of work on global migration, something to learn for those of us who are interested in internal migratory movements, especially in large countries like India and China, or even parts of Africa where you know there are lots of within country movements? And conversely, in studying the integration and inclusion of migrants in urban contexts in the Global South, do we have something new to say in these relatively unempowered city contexts? What can we say to the larger body of knowledge on migration governance globally? Can we unsettle it a little bit?

I’ve already taken plenty of your time, but I wanted to go back to a couple of things you did before CPR, and how you evolved as a writer and researcher. I wanted to ask especially about Rambling in the City and your project to write every day for a year. Tell us about that.

It’s always good to have an opportunity to talk about your pet projects. Basically, I felt like my training in urban planning was not fully utilised in all the various different things that I was doing through the decade from about 2002 to 2010 or so. I decided that I needed to think more about cities and I set myself a target to write every day about cities and the blog that I ran was called Rambling in the City, which was literally anything about cities. A lot of that writing is really short snippets, very descriptive. It’s very emotive. But even though I made this transition into a policy research institution which has a very strong academic bent of mind, I think at the core, I still enjoy and I still think it’s really important to write in a way that a large number of people can understand what you’re saying about cities. I really feel that there is a tendency to jargonise and make everything too academic and too illegible to the majority. Especially problems of urbanisation are close to so many people because the urban experience is everybody’s experience, even for people who live in villages and visit cities.

The city is a spectacle. It’s something to be experienced and everybody has an opinion about, the nearest town or sheher. There is some part of this research that needs to feed back to people who are actually living and experiencing cities, especially because I really do believe that a lot of the future lies in some or the other form of bottom up claim making from residents.. So if we have to shape the quality of those claims and the content of those claims, then as policy researchers writing to a larger audience is really important to me. So Rambling in the City prepared me to do that and and through the CPR journey also there’s been a constant attempt to write Op-Eds and lighter pieces which synthesise the research. Retain the rigour but interpret the findings for a wider audience. And that’s also what I hope I’ll be able to do going forward.

If you could give advice to younger scholars or people who aren’t in a research space but are thinking about entering it in some way or the other. Are there tools or or or lenses that you would recommend?

Research is a part of so much work that is happening even in the practice space, a lot of the consulting work involves some form of research. When I speak to young people, I find that the career pathways are over-defined in their minds. They imagine that policy research is a specific and very rigid career pathway, which it clearly is not, if you see my example or the example of the people you’ve interviewed, even just from the small bunch of folks you’ve spoken to at CPR. So I would say that you need to pick up the tools to do research. And a lot of it can be self taught, by looking for opportunities to be parts of teams that are going out and finding things. And it doesn’t have to be called research. It can be just ‘okay, we are curious and we’re going to find out stuff’ or it could be that you’re actually trying to work on a solution, but instead of reading five reports and writing something about it, maybe you can step out and talk to five people as well. It’s hard. It requires a certain amount of confidence and interlocution and that means that you have to go and ask someone for help. Which is daunting for a lot of people. But I would advise you to ask for it and it might actually turn up like it did for me when I needed it.

That’s great advice. Are there misconceptions about your area of work yourself having to correct all the time, not just from the lay public but even fellow scholars?

Research is not very well understood in the sense of, what does it do. There’s this idea, and I think Partha spoke about it as well, that researchers do some abstract stuff. It’s a bit of an ivory tower and everything that I’ve done is anything but an ivory tower. The uncertainty that researchers, especially policy researchers have, is often that the avenues of feeding your findings into the world of policy are not direct at all. It’s not like somebody in a decision-making position has commissioned you to do XYZ research. You go out, you find the answers, you tell them and they take it or leave it, or they adapt some of your suggestions. It’s really not as straightforward as that. It’s a feedback loop that we have as researchers with all kinds of actors: other researchers, academicians, talking to students and changing the way they think about their own training is also a method of policy impact. Civil society is a huge space which I think we derive information from, but also give back to because they are interlocutors in the policy space, whether they are NGOs, whether they are RWAs, whether they are local, informal community leaders or frontline workers, whoever those actors whom you are speaking to.

Closing the feedback loop has been the most gratifying part of the job and I think coming back to the misconceptions a lot of people I speak to don’t really even see that as something that policy researchers would be doing. They just assume it’s a linear chain that starts with the generation of a question and ends with the answering of that question. But actually it goes back to the start where your answers have to be fed back to your interlocutors, and that generates a new set of questions. And I think Avani [Kapur, who we spoke to earlier on CPR Perspectives] really brought that out well when she was speaking to you. So I would say that that’s also true in my domain. We never find clear answers. It’s a continuously evolving space.

Is there any of your work that you would like to point readers to? And can you tell us what you’re working on now?

I really like reading back the work that I did during Covid, explaining the migrant crisis, whether it was, you know, the newspaper op-eds in Indian Express, which came out in 2020 and 2021, or whether it was blogs on the India China Institute website because these were not pieces you had four years of research and and time to to write. You really had to speak to the situation and a lot of new generative ideas come out sometimes when you’re put against the wall and asked hard questions and you have limited time to answer them. Those are really pieces that taught me that when you’re pushed against the wall, actually there are a lot of creative solutions out there. Like what happened during the migrant crisis and how people responded and how hyperlocal chains of response formed and what that means for state-society relations and for urban governments broadly. That’s an idea that was generated in that time and it’s in this particular piece that was published in Urbanisation but it’s an idea that I’m going to come back to over the years because it’s seeded a certain chain of thoughts which could be important for the policy imagination.

Our final question, what 3 works would you say have influenced you over the years?

While I’ve derived a lot of knowledge from serious academic writing, interestingly, the writing that’s really inspirational and that makes me feel that policy research or researchers can actually make an impact is the more accessible sort of work. So for instance, a recent publication that I really liked was Metronama: Scenes from the Delhi Metro by Rashmi Sadana. She’s an anthropologist and it’s about life in the Delhi Metro which probably weaves in years of really rigorous research, but is breezily told and very nuanced. I also like a lot of non-researchers’ work about cities, so for example Aman Seti’s A Free Man was one of the texts that actually propelled me back into the world of thinking about the urban. It made me feel like all the stuff that I was doing for various clients as a consultant was not as meaningful as actually engaging with hard questions of poverty and labour and and rights and so on and so forth. Similarly, I’ve really enjoyed Amitava Kumar’s writings, whether it’s on Patna or his book on Bombay–London–New York, which again is a non-academician, non-urbanist writing about cities. But I really feel that those insights are super rich in terms of how cities are experienced. And I feel like policymakers and policy thinkers have a lot to learn from those kind of texts, not just from hardcore research.