The Paris Finance Summit – Money’s worth or pocket change?

TOPSHOT – French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during the closing session of the New Global Financial Pact Summit, in Paris on June 23, 2023. (Photo by Lewis Joly / POOL / AFP)

As global temperatures inch beyond 1.2C above pre-industrial levels and countries witness increasing instances of record-breaking heatwaves, storms, droughts, floods, and forest fires, 2023 is shaping up to be a critical year for climate action. Climate is on the agenda at the G20 Summit, the SDG Summit, the World Bank Annual Meetings, and COP 28 (including the first Global Stocktake of progress since the Paris Agreement), among others.

Fundamentally, climate action needs to be facilitated by large amounts of finance and investments. Some estimates indicate that the world needs up to USD 130 trillion in total to decarbonise by the middle of the century, with additional finance required to build resilience, adapt to unavoidable impacts, and deal with loss and damage. Currently, the amounts of finance flowing towards climate action, particularly in developing countries, fall far short of these needs[1]. Further, as many – led by Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley – are pointing out, developing countries are also facing a cost of living crisis and a debt crisis, in addition to the climate crisis, and the global financial system is not currently equipped to adequately address these interconnected problems.

Responding to growing calls for change, one crucial event this year was the June 22-23 Summit for a New Global Financial Pact, hosted in Paris by France and Barbados, together with a broader steering committee. It was presented as an opportunity to build a new contract between the global north and south, and was ushered in by a joint statement by 13 world leaders (including those of the US, Germany, France, EU, and Japan) committing to use the Summit to accelerate progress towards the SDGs.

What did the Summit cover, and did it achieve any of its objectives?
Discussions largely fell under three broad and interrelated themes. The first was on reforming multilateral financial institutions (MFIs), such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which provide financial assistance towards climate, development, and macroeconomic stability. These MFIs – set up 80 years ago when most developing countries didn’t exist and guided by the priorities of the largest shareholders – aren’t seen as being fit-for-purpose, often offering high interest loans that are conditional on opening domestic markets to foreign competition and on increasing fiscal austerity. Progress however fell short of the ambition of creating a new ‘Paris Consensus’ to reform MFIs. Against the developing countries’ calls for a complete overhaul of these institutions or the creation of new institutions, developed countries offered only moderate changes. Calls to increase the capitalization of MFIs were resisted, and MFIs are only expected to modestly increase lending capacity through tweaks to their balance sheets. The World Bank launched a Private Sector Investment Lab to help remove barriers to private climate finance, although private finance mobilization is not a new – or uniformly desirable – ambition, and in place of more concrete outcomes, the Summit was at best able to issue a statement supporting a call to action to evolve MFIs.

A second set of discussions was around easing indebtedness. The high levels of developing country indebtedness (with an average debt-to-GDP ratio of 207%) and repayment burdens – aggravated by the higher interest rates they face – reduce the resources available towards climate and development action, and become an additional burden in the event of other crises. Discussions on indebtedness saw comparatively more progress. Among initial proposals such as offering ‘debt-for-climate-action’ swaps (which provide debt relief in exchange for progress on climate objectives), a notable development was the widespread agreement on the need to introduce climate-resilient debt clauses – which would suspend debt repayments in the event of disasters – by the end of 2025. Additionally, the IMF reached a target of making USD 100 billion in special drawing rights (a reserve currency) available to climate-vulnerable countries to ease their immediate liquidity requirements.

Discussions on fostering greater flows of climate finance witnessed the widest variety of proposals and the least tangible outcomes. Much of the focus was on the usual promise of carbon markets, and a Call to Action for Paris-aligned Carbon Markets – expanding carbon pricing coverage to advance progress towards the objectives of the Paris Agreement – was launched. Other proposals included lending in local currencies to reduce exchange rate risks, establishing catastrophe bonds to provide emergency liquidity during crises, mandating big corporate polluters to set aside a percentage of profits for climate finance, and introducing a financial transaction tax to fund climate action. A potentially promising idea, to introduce a carbon tax on shipping, will be debated at an International Maritime Organisation meeting this week.

Overall, the Summit – while recognizing key limitations of the current financial system – was thin on tangible outcomes, and points towards incremental progress rather than a systemic transformation, illustrating the lack of consensus that persists around the way forward. Although it was attended by the heads of state of over 30 countries, the leaders of the biggest economies – China, India, and the US – were also notably absent from the stage, with Finance Minister Sitharaman representing India at the discussions.

Nevertheless, the Summit has infused a sense of momentum and urgency into these critical discussions, proposing a roadmap of actions to take conversations forward, and the symbolism of a global conference on financial reform attended by several heads of state should not be underestimated. President Macron is to be commended for sparking this conversation and creating a platform for such north-south engagement. As attention turns to advancing the roadmap through future global events, this Summit can be seen, at the very least, as a necessary political stock-take of how much remains to be done.

[1] Financial flows from developed to developing countries were reported at USD 83 billion in 2020 – itself a disputed figure. In 2022 in contrast, global fossil fuels subsidies were USD 1 trillion, and the combined profits of the top five oil companies were about USD 200 billion.

Planners’ Circle: Master Plan(ning) for Urban Water Bodies

TREADS@CPR, in collaboration with NMCG and NIUA, conceived Planners’ Circle as a forum to draw on the experiential wisdom of expert planners about the structure and rationalities of the statutory Master Plan instrument to address water-centric urban planning.

The Planners’ Circle convened its first panel with a distinguished set of planners on June 2, 2023. Dr. Bimal Patel of CEPT University gave the keynote address, while Mr. Asok Kumar IAS, DG-NMCG, chaired the convening and Dr. Srinivas Chokkakula, MoJS Research Chair and Lead, TREADS@CPR, moderated the discussion.

The key insights (attached here) gathered and distilled from the panel discussion aims to generate useful debate and inform research on the scope and relevance of Master Plans in the governance of urban water bodies and river systems.

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Avani Kapur (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Today, we bring to you part two of the interview between Rohan Venkat and Avani Kapur, as part of CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary.

In the first part of this conversation, released earlier this month, Rohan Venkat spoke to Kapur about starting at CPR just as the Accountability Initiative was taking shape, the stunning examples of inefficiency she discovered while looking for bottlenecks in public spending in the field and getting positive feedback from the state — including how one government official described AI’s work as being that of ‘physician’ tracking the flow of blood through the body, searching for blockages.

In this second part of the conversation, Kapur speaks about why the initiative has moved from talking about accountability to ‘Responsive Governance’, how AI does much more grassroots capacity building work beyond its flagship PAISA public expenditure tracking, and what advice she has for young scholars entering this field.

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 (Part 1 & 2) and with Navroz Dubash (Part 1 & 2).

Over the years, you’ve moved away from the term accountability and now see your mission as being that of advocating ‘Responsive Governance.’ Could you tell us more about that shift?

Throughout our journey, we were constantly using the learnings to further develop our theory of change. The critical point for me personally came in 2017 when I took over. In 2018, we would have completed 10 years of our existence and an important question that we were asking ourselves was, where do we go from here? We’ve had a successful 10 years, but do we want to do more of the same? How do we scale our impact? When we started doing our own diagnosis, we realised our strengths was our research on understanding the nuts and bolts of implementation. But there was this missing gap between researchers and implementers. In our team also there was always this little bit of a friction saying, ‘Should we just stop at saying these are the bottlenecks, or should we push ourselves to think of solutions?’ And most of the research organisations around us were focused more on the academic and policy circles. And then there were the CSOs [Civil Society Organisations], which often didn’t have the tools to use that evidence or the research, nor did they know how to actually navigate the government structures or even constructively work with the government. We felt like there was this gap and we were kind of one foot here and one foot there.

Around the same time there was a growing body of work that said, for citizens to effectively demand services, it’s not enough to just give information on rights and entitlements. It’s important for them to learn how to navigate government systems. I remember works by Jonathan Fox and others called ‘doing accountability differently’ and there were several others, who said that for social accountability interventions to actually succeed, you need practitioners to have the tools to navigate the local context better. But you also need the state to not be thought of as this monolithic creature.

That’s when we rearticulated our vision towards responsive governance. We used the social accountability definition and applied it to our work, which rests on 3 pillars:

  • An empowered citizenry that is able to articulate their voice
  • Informed decision makers that are able to develop policies aligned with that citizen voice
  • The right service providers who have the right incentives to be able to do their jobs well

Using that we realised that it’s really important for us to work across all three stakeholders. So we provide both government and citizens with access to information on schemes, government functioning, bottlenecks and implementation. For citizens, we also figured out that it’s important to provide them with tools to allow them to navigate the local state. We work with service providers to build their capacity and recognise those spaces for increased citizen engagement. And then of course, we also work with governments in identifying the root causes for implementation failures. We advocate with them for opening up more spaces for citizen engagement.

It was a journey that was happening globally as well, but I think we saw it in our own work: The need and importance of working across different levels and not just thinking of ourselves only as a research group or implementation group, but bridging that gap between research and practice required us to redefine ourselves as working on responsive governance.

So with that shift, could you give us a sense of everything that the initiative is doing today, PAISA and beyond?

One is of course research. PAISA is a methodology and a tool. There are times when we focus more on the administration side, such as capacity, there are times when we focus more on the expenditure side, but our core goal is to continue looking at process tracking studies. Another big flagship project for us is the budget briefs. Again, it started literally from when Yamini asked me that question about understanding how much money is going to different things in the education sector. Eventually I was able to create a 2-3 page brief. We felt that the difficulty in trying to collate that information, which was not available in one place, but required going through multiple government websites. It required detection work where RTI responses versus what was on the website versus parliamentary answers all had very, very different data even for the same year. Having gone through all that trouble, we felt like it was useful to share that with the world, and particularly with Members of Parliament.

We felt if we could share what we had learned at least for the large schemes with Members of Parliament and other decision makers, maybe it would help them get access to knowledge that may not have been easy for them to otherwise access. So we started the budget briefs. This year was our anniversary year, where we completed 15 years of budget briefs. Every single year, come rain, come hail, we’ve produced our budget briefs. This year, in fact, we did an anniversary issue where we were able to look at welfare trends over the last 15 years in the budget analysis.

The second thing that I think we’ve expanded on in the last few years is our capacity building courses. A lot of this comes from the fact that we spend a lot of time understanding how public finance and administration works and we felt it makes sense to then share that information with others. So we have one course called ‘Understanding state capability’ which is in an experiential learning program tailored for development professionals and students to unpack India’s very, very complicated governance structures. The idea is that it will build a community of impactful leaders.

Since we have colleagues in five states, we realised that we needed to initially build their capacity as well. They all had a lot of experience undertaking surveys but they didn’t necessarily have the theoretical background of government structures, of budgets, of fiscal federalism or even of social accountability. So we ended up training them first and now they run this program called Hum aur Hamaari Sarkaar. The idea here is that we try and teach civil society organisation leaders and practitioners on the ground. Our hope is that by doing this course of trying to unpack this black box of what is sarkar and what is implementation, they can design appropriate interventions. We’ve had different organisations from Pratham, Piramal, some very, very small grassroots organisations also taking our courses. These courses are delivered in Hindi and we try and hold them in Tier 2 cities. We’ve been very conscious that it’s not just the translation of the English program or a translation of research, but it’s actually trying to see what is most useful for different people who are going to be taking the course.

Then we have a course called Hum Sarkaari Adhikari, which is for local government actors and institutions. So Panchayat secretaries, sarpanches, ward members. We also developed a tool which was earlier a part of our training program called Mapping Governance. In a federal structure like India where you have decentralisation, elected representatives, bureaucrats, quasi-government bodies, all working together, understanding how services are delivered is a challenge in itself. There are informal and formal lines of reporting and accountability. We try to map out this governance. It’s an interactive visual tool that gives a holistic understanding of social sector programs.

While we were always one for convening and having discussions and dialogues, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I had co-conceptualised, with a friend and colleague from Pratham, the need for a platform for development partners to come together. This was during COVID-19 where there were so many organisations that were doing amazing work, but a lot of the existing platforms focused very much on service delivery on the ground. But what were the research organizations doing? What were the implementing organisations doing or the funding organizations doing? So we started this platform called PULSE for development and again it has a long name. It stands for Platform to Understand, Learn, Share and Exchange (PULSE) for development. It was a resource sharing platform initially. In 2022 as the pandemic waned, we made a conscious decision to include within it longstanding development issues and shift the focus towards the attainment of the SDGs. In this present form, PULSE for development has become a community of practice where we have cross-pollination of knowledge. There are nearly 100 member organisations and almost 200 individual practitioners. This includes even young IAS and state officers as well as implementing organisations, research organisations, think tanks, funders, grassroots organisations. The idea is to have an interdisciplinary pan-India community of practice and we cover 16 themes and we often have regular coffee chats on critical issues that different organisations are working on.

It’s been really interesting. I remember one session where we had different government officers who work in difficult geographies, but at the same time very, very different states. So someone from Arunachal Pradesh, someone from Maharashtra, someone from Odisha. But when they started talking about some of the challenges that they were all facing, you could see this exchange of ideas of ‘Oh, that’s what you’ve done. That sounds really interesting. Would love to learn more about it.’ So we think of ourselves as kind of reducing the learning curve for organisations and government by being this repository, but also facilitating interaction and engagement between government on one hand and different types of organisations on another.

What misconceptions about your area of work — accountability, public finance, welfare spending and studying government — do you find yourself having to correct all the time, whether it’s from the lay public or even fellow scholars or people within government?

I think the biggest misconception on accountability is that it’s a fault finding mission. I remember sitting in a government meeting where they heard the name of the initiative and said, ‘Oh then I have to be careful about what I say’ and when they learned what we do they said ‘Oh you mean the good kind of accountability.’ And I didn’t actually know that there was a bad kind of accountability. It’s not a fault finding mission. It’s also not just external. It’s as much internal. It’s accountability to ourselves, to be able to do our jobs to the best of our ability. Also, it’s not just vertical, it’s not that I’m accountable just to my boss. I’m equally accountable to people below me, but it’s also equally horizontal. How do I interact with my peers and with other stakeholders?

I think the other misconception is that we’re not all embedded in this complex set of relationships. Accountability is complicated and so is governance. There is no black and white, there’s often a lot of grey. That’s one big misconception about our work that I wanted to repeat. It’s not a fault finding mission. It’s not someone externally trying to lay blame and point fingers at all.

On public finance, one of the biggest misconceptions was that it’s a very technical skill or it’s a very technical concept. But I think, since I hadn’t actually got formal training on public finance and literally learned on the job, I’ve learned that using a public finance lens can tell you a lot about people, about institutions, about federal relations, whether it’s Centre-state dynamics or state and local dynamics, it tells you a lot about who has decision-making power based on the concentration of financing on funding. It’s actually super interesting and it’s a lens that you can use in your work. It’s not just data crunching. It’s not just numbers. It’s not just technical skills. There are times when you do the mundane data crunching and more than that data entry, but it’s when you’re trying to look at the stories and what it’s telling you, that’s where it’s definitely super exciting and can get really interesting.

That leads into my next question, which is what advice would you have to young scholars entering this space? What tools or lenses or approaches that you found most useful would you recommend to someone who’s entering this area?

The world now is so competitive that the younger generation is already often looking for specialisation. I see young 20 year olds who are, at least in their CVs, specialists in different skills. My advice would be there’s always time to pick specialties, but initially you should just be building your knowledge and understanding your issue through different lenses. If I go back to the question of how I started, where my history background actually helped me understand economics better and led me to a public policy world, I do think that that liberal arts degree — even studying philosophy — all of these are things that you never know when you’ll use it.

The other thing that I would say is listening to different scholars speaking across topics really helps and I think this has been one of the great parts of CPR where we have people across different walks of life talking about different aspects of their work.

I do think and maybe that’s my bias a little bit is that in today’s day and age some data proficiency is useful. It helped me become more structured in my argument, because the second you’re working with data, it forces you to be more organised, be more structured, and also not take anything at face value because you could slice the data in different ways and you could get very different answers and results. For all of those aspects, I would say some understanding of data — and I don’t just mean quantitative data, it could even be qualitative data — is really useful.

Yeah, I think I’d be happy to direct anyone who’s working in this space to get a little bit of philosophy every once in a while. Are there specific pieces for AI or of your own work you’d like to direct people to as either things that encapsulate your work, or that you think would be valuable for someone who’s interested in this conversation?

Definitely, budget briefs and the 15 year trends.

The other piece would be one I did with Yamini Aiyar, called ‘The centralization vs decentralization tug of war and the emerging narrative of fiscal federalism for social policy in India’. In some ways it encompasses some of the inherent tensions in our fiscal federal framework. It gave me the opportunity to both use my quant skills, but it was fascinating because I got a chance to talk to finance officers and planning officers across different states.

We did one for CPR policy challenges, which forced me to look at everything that I have understood on centrally sponsored schemes and social policy and put it together in one place. That may be an easy snapshot summary of some of the lessons that we have learned through our PAISA work and through our other work at Accountability initiative.

What 3 works have influenced you personally?

This is a very difficult question because I think at different avatars and different times of my life, I’ve been influenced by different works. So I will cheat and not just stick to three.

In college I was deeply affected by Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power. That pushed me to work [and] wanting to work in the development sector a lot more. Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson and Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen — all of these propelled me into the public policy space. When I joined CPR on accountability, Jonathan Fox’s work — where he explains the sandwich strategy — we use that in our courses as well, so that’s been really influential for us.

As someone who is starting to understand intergovernmental fiscal transfers I would highly recommend Robin Broadway and Anwar Shah’s book, Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfers, Principles and Practice. It’s very long, but it’s got nice, clean sections, so you can pick and choose what you want to do. It’s like an encyclopaedia of everything you want to know on intergovernmental fiscal transfers. Rethinking Public Institutions in India by Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Milan Vaishnav was again super interesting. What I like about edited volumes is that you get to learn a lot from very, very different perspectives.

For someone who’s just starting out and doesn’t necessarily want to get too technical, I think there are a large number of books where you get a glimpse of the welfare state or glimpse of public policy without necessarily feeling like you’re studying it. Recent works like M Rajshekhar’s Despite the State: Why India Lets Its People Down and How They Cope was really fascinating and similarly I think Ajay Shah and Vijay Kelkar’s In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy. It’s also a course now on Coursera. I can go on, but I’ll stop now.

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Avani Kapur (Part 1)

This month on CPR Perspectives – our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary – we bring you a conversation with Avani Kapur, a senior fellow at CPR, where she also leads the Accountability Initiative.

The Accountability Initiative focuses on conducting cutting-edge research on India’s public service delivery systems and leveraging this information by ensuring it reaches government officials, academics and citizens with the aim of promoting administrative reforms at the frontlines of service delivery.

Kapur has been at CPR since 2008, beginning as a Research Associate at the Accountability Initiative and working her way up to leading the research group today. Along the way, she has led process- and fund-tracking surveys on vital social sector schemes as well as anchored an annual budget brief series analysing the performance of the Indian government’s major welfare programmes – including, this year, a major lookback at the past 15 years of welfare spending and outcomes to mark AI’s 15th anniversary.

In addition to leading AI, Kapur also set up the PULSE for Development platform in 2020, which brings together more than 90 organisations within the development community dedicated to citizen-centric policies and implementation. Kapur is a Tech4Good Fellow and part of the WICCI Council of Ethic, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Development Policy and Practice.

In the first part of our conversation, I spoke to Kapur about starting at CPR just as the Accountability Initiative was taking shape, the stunning examples of inefficiency she discovered while looking for bottlenecks in public spending in the field and getting positive feedback from the state – including how one government official described AI’s work as being that of ‘physician’ tracking the flow of blood through the body, searching for blockages.

In the second part of the conversation, which you will receive later this month, we spoke about why the initiative has moved from talking about accountability to ‘Responsive Governance’, how AI does much more grassroots capacity building work beyond its flagship PAISA public expenditure tracking, and what advice she has for young scholars entering this field.

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 (Part 1 & 2) and with Navroz Dubash (Part 1 & 2).

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

I’d like to get a sense of how you entered policy in the first place. Did you always know you were going to be going down this road? Could you tell us a little bit about your background well before CPR?

So I was studying history at the Lady Sriram College in New Delhi and I was really loving it. I had great teachers for history who didn’t just focus on the memorization of dates or names but instead about the narratives and stories. All my teachers promoted this sense of inquisitiveness and curiosity and asking questions, not just taking anything on at face value. However, when I got the opportunity to go to a liberal arts college in America, after I had completed two years at LSR, I decided to take that up just because I wanted exposure to different topics. I think I felt that I was a bit too naive and young to decide on a stream and one of the advantages of a liberal arts degree is that I could take up courses on art history, on biology, philosophy, astronomy, even dance or music. The exposure that I got at Smith College definitely paved the way for the journey that I’ve taken in the policy space.
It was during this time when I was at Smith that I took a course on economic policy, and I realised that I had an interest in this field and I wanted to do more in the development space. In fact, during the summer vacations I applied for a research grant and managed to do internships with a micro-finance organization on one break, as well as a research organization on another break. When I completed college, unfortunately in India, during that time there were no real public policy schools and most of the development policy courses in the US were focused much more on international relations or at best international development. But I knew that I wanted to work on India-related issues and so I decided to pursue development studies at the London School of Economics. The course work there, but more importantly, just being in the heart of London where you have numerous scholars coming to visit and give lectures, cemented my decision to work in the public policy space. When I returned to India, I got my first working opportunity at a small research organisation started by Dr Arjun Sengupta, who was then a member of Parliament as well, called the Center for Development and Human Rights. I got to understand some of the rights and welfare literature.
I spent about two years there and then I felt strongly that a thorough understanding of welfare required not just sitting in front of a desk in Delhi, but actually making my way to the realities of the field. I was starting to get a little frustrated about not being able to actually go to the field in that job. And I think luckily at that time I connected with [CPR President] Yamini [Aiyar] and decided to join her in the new initiative she was in the process of conceptualising, called the Accountability Initiative. And 15 years later, it feels almost surreal that I’m now leading that initiative.

That brings us to 2008. As you say that the Accountability initiative was just starting to be conceptualised at the time. So tell us a little bit about that. What was the idea?

When I first joined, India was at the cusp of building the foundations of the rights-based welfare state. You saw an expansion of legislation in key areas of social policy: the right to work, MGNREGA, being a prime example. And you also saw a lot of enhancement in government investment in social policy. What was interesting about this moment was that this expansion in some ways was driven through this unique alliance between civil society organisations on one hand, the judiciary on the other, and members of the political elite. What was also very different about this moment and in some ways, at the heart of this rights-based welfare project was this vision of transforming the dynamics of the citizen state engagement. The idea of empowering citizens to place claims on the state and demand accountability for implementation.
You saw a lot of the new legislation and many of the new anti-poverty schemes that were launched by the government in this phase [had] built into them procedural requirements that asked for greater transparency and created spaces for citizen engagement. For example the use of accountability mechanisms like social accountability, social audits were made mandatory under NREGA. Many of the schemes also talked about the need and importance of participatory bottom up planning.
Yet despite this proliferation of social accountability efforts, there was no analytical framework for understanding and evaluating their effectiveness. It is against that backdrop that AI began this work. The focus of the work was split into two aspects. One strategy was to build a research base and the focus here was to study the unfolding and actual implementation of these new accountability mechanisms, particularly the RTI and social audit. As Yamini would often say, it’s about unpacking the implications of this accountability moment and documenting this new accountability landscape. This was research that tried to understand the citizen-state interactions through these accountability mechanisms, and Yamini was mainly leading that work.
But the second strategy, which is what interested me, was to develop partnerships, to actively engage with the nuts and bolts of implementing social accountability. We started off thinking about education and to do this, we partnered with Pratham and ASER Centre. We initiated an intervention which aimed at strengthening parental participation in elementary schools in a district in Madhya Pradesh through participatory planning. Our work in MP, and in particular that direct engagement with community participation monitoring, meant that every month for a year, I would end up spending time in the field, talking to people, trying to understand what the roles and responsibilities of these parent communities are and trying to develop collectively this ideal plan.
Through that exercise we soon realised that the nuances of government functioning at the local level, whether it’s resource allocation structures, decision making structures, fund flows, end up being a critical bottleneck for effectiveness of these social accountability instruments. In one of the villages that I was working in, the delays in fund flows to schools severely constrained the school’s ability to plan. They never got the money that they had planned for. And as a result, these delays ended up creating a sharp disincentive for citizen engagement and planning. But what was also interesting is that it also undermined the capability of the local administration to respond to the pressures of citizens laying accountability claims. Most of the officials at the local level that we were speaking to, even if they were willing to help, they simply lacked the information or the decision making authority to address the problem and facilitate actions.
This allowed me to get a first hand experience of how implementation works. And in some ways, it was this experience that led us to launch one of our flagship interventions called PAISA.

Yes, and we’ll get to PAISA that in a moment. We’ll also talk about the term accountability. I think the idea that people have in their minds is that money is bottlenecked not by procedural matters but by bureaucratic corruption. What were you finding?

First of all, when the government is making plans or budgets, they’re often making it with incomplete information. Even within government structures, they don’t always have information on what is actually utilised. For the Union government, the second they release money, for them it’s expenditure. But what actually happens with that money is something that particularly then was not captured. There have been some innovations now, but I’m speaking about 2009-2010 where there was very little information about how much of that ₹100 was actually spent and on what?
There was one bottleneck. When you’re trying to create these need-based plans that are done through a bottom-up process, you’re functioning without actually knowing how much money you are going to get in that year and how much you will be able to spend. The problem definitely starts at the planning stage. Once you’ve made the plan, there’s an entire approval process and it’s often the case that what you asked for is not approved. If I’ve asked for ₹100 and ₹60 gets approved, I need to figure out how am I going to divide that 60. If I’ve done my planning right, I would have been able to know exactly where that 40 rupees was meant to go. But if that 40 doesn’t come, how do I rationalise and how do I decide to allocate that money.
We’ve also seen that there are administrative bottlenecks. In one state where we were studying, the sarkari file had to move through 32 desks at the state level alone all seeking approval and trying to capture the corruption question. You’ve got a system of inefficiency in an attempt to capture leakage, but it’s actually leading to a lot more problems in terms of service delivery on the ground.
Some of the decision-making is highly centralised. We have visited schools in Bihar which didn’t have a school building, but there was some order that was passed that every school had to have fire extinguishers. Imagine – a teacher had to lug this fire extinguisher every day back and forth from the school just because someone had passed this order saying that every single school irrespective of need had to get a fire extinguisher. Then you have a situation where money doesn’t come or comes really late. We’ve seen schools where there were annual grants that were meant to come, but either some lag in paperwork or somewhere the bank account numbers didn’t match, so the money just never came in that fiscal year. Or when it came, I’ve seen a number of schools that got money, on the 30th of March or 31st of March, literally one or two days before the financial year is meant to end.
What does the school do? If it doesn’t spend the money, then you’ll be rapped on the knuckles. So the school ends up making decisions of trying to spend, not necessarily on what they need, but on what is faster. I remember going and visiting a large number of schools and what was amazing was that pretty clean looking buildings were regularly getting whitewashed. And when we spoke to people, we realised that that’s one of the easiest ways to spend that money. You whitewash the building so it looks nice and at the same time you are able to show your utilisation. But it still may not be actually what you need because maybe that school didn’t have a boundary wall or didn’t have a toilet facility, but all of those take time.
The other big thing we’ve seen in terms of bottlenecks is that the person who is being held accountable for an action doesn’t always have the authority to undertake that action. We call this the spider web of governance, where you have different people who are on paper meant to be accountable for different activities. But when you start looking at whether they have the authority, the autonomy to make decisions that would enable that accountability, you find that’s not the case. There are a lot of informal networks that are sometimes stronger than what’s written on paper, which impact how services get delivered.

Maybe an outsider’s question here. Why weren’t we – government, or other organisations – tracking this spending already? I don’t know if it’s a naive question, but was it an outcome of the rights based framework that showed up in the late 200s, or is it a matter of capacity?

I won’t say everything is there even now. The fact that we still have governments asking us to help find these bottlenecks and understand what is happening on the ground means there is still a lacuna of information. Part of the reason is that any data below the national level isnt standardised. We haven’t fully valued what all data can be used for, how it can be helped in service delivery, how it can help in planning.
It is, to a large degree, functional capacity. Even now we’ve been studying, for instance data entry operators that collect a lot of data and are responsible for filling information and management information systems which have a lot of ground up granular data. But they don’t have the infrastructure in place. They don’t really fully have computer training in place. So there is a strong capacity gap at the local level, both in terms of data collection, but also data interpretation and data use.
At the national level it’s a question of what we are measuring and what we want to measure. What I’m always surprised about is that the financial side of the story and the physical output and outcome side of the story is rarely analysed together. You’ll have people looking at just the fund flow part and you will have people looking at how many schools were built, how many toilets were constructed. But very few people are actually looking at the process through which money translates into service delivery.
There weren’t too many examples of actual process tracking studies. It was something that was relatively new and it’s been evolving. There’s also a sense that too much information can be dangerous even within the government. So an entire debate in terms of who’s collecting it and for what comes into question as well. Some states are sometimes hesitant to share too much information with the Union government. When we are talking about what’s happening with that ₹100, who’s asking that question? And in some ways, where does that accountability lie?
There were probably some people who would know a little bit about what happened to that ₹100, but that information was never collated nor ever really made publicly available. So you never actually realised that you had the power in terms of using that information about what happens with that money that you have released onwards.

AI has grown tremendously over the years since 2008. And your own role within has evolved quite a bit over that time. Could you give us a sense of how it grew?

It kind of started for me when Yamini asked me to do some research, saying: “Can you tell me how much money actually reaches schools and what is the total education budget? What proportion is going to school bank accounts?” As a young RA, I was of course eager to please my new boss and tried very, very hard to find answers to that question. And I realised that not only was there no work around that, it was impossible to answer. I got training on trying to read budgets. We had a colleague Anit Mukherjee who used to work in the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy who was also partnering with us in the PAISA project and he taught me how to look at budgets and public finance a lot more carefully. I would spend hours in the NIPFP library. Now at least a lot of the state budgets are online. At that time there were 7-8 volumes or maybe even more – thick documents that you have to go through line by line and try to copy onto your laptop. It was very clear that that information just didn’t exist and that’s when we realised that we could fill that gap and try and collect the data.
PAISA started work from when money leaves the government treasury. And to answer this question, we realise that we need to understand government functioning – the links between plans, allocations, expenditures, institutions. How do funds actually flow through the system? What are the links between the needs at the school level and increased expenditures? It was a really exciting time, because, at least in India, public expenditure tracking surveys weren’t very common. Even then, we were very clear that we have to go beyond just expenditure tracking to process tracking.
Expenditure tracking will tell you how much of that ₹100 reaches the ground. Process tracking will also tell you a little bit about the how and the why. The other new aspect we started working on was that we were actually looking at and collecting and analysing district-level data. At that time, the district was never really studied as an implementation unit.
Data, of course, was really, really hard to get. I remember once visiting a government office and collecting some data from them from their computer and then my colleague went a week later and recollected that data, and the two data sets were completely different. This was definitely not a question of corruption. It was just a question of capacity. There were always adjustments that needed to be made and very genuine ones. If money doesn’t come, you can’t stop paying someone’s salary. Money is fungible. So you take it out of a different budget head and then you have to adjust it later. What was really unique for me is we realised that the government itself is not just a monolithic creature. There are people who are very, very real. Who have their own incentives, motivations, and many of them are trying their level best to get things done, but they are also struggling with lack of information, lack of capacity and their own struggles.
Also, for information to be a catalyst for change, people need to be involved in the process of collecting that information. So we did not rely on survey firms. In fact, there were very few survey firms at that time as well, but we would go to NGOs, students and citizens from the same district or the same block and actually get them to collect this information. We were able to get citizens in that sense to participate in governance processes.
One of the best things that we did was partner with ASER Centre in our initial days where we learned a lot. It also allowed us to mobilise a lot of people in the data collection process. In fact, when we were partnering with ASER and coming up with the PAISA national reports, which were part of the ASER report, PAISA became India’s first large-scale citizen-led expenditure tracking survey or process tracking survey. The other thing that we learned through this process was that we hadn’t seen efforts to transfer knowledge on how to do this – how do you create the tools and instruments to generate regular reliable information on service delivery? So we spent a lot of time in our early days making posters, creating ‘how to’ toolkits so that anyone could use this methodology and try their hand at collecting this information bottom up.

For context, for the reader, PAISA is today the flagship research program under AI. It stands for Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions: Studies in Accountability.

Thank you for remembering the full form. Even now when our state colleagues go to government offices we have to spend some time telling people that we’re not ‘Paisa’ people. Paisa doesn’t mean that we’re going to give you money or take money from you. Since 2010, when PAISA started, we now have full time colleagues in five states of India. And while we started in the education sector, we’ve managed to use that methodology now in different sectors like health, nutrition, sanitation as well as in local governments, at the gram panchayat level.
There were roughly 3 steps: The first was building evidence and research so that was a lot of the desk-based work where we would study the three P’s – the public finance aspect, the processes and the people. Next was going a little deeper into the administrative data that was available, but also coming up with these tactical scalable tools where we could actually collect information on gaps that we saw. This was also accompanied by the capacity building initiative to empower citizens, by getting them to be part of this tracking exercise and use that data collected themselves as well. And then finally, we shared that information not just with the highest levels of bureaucracy, but through the government hierarchy. I think again that was something that was a little unique. Earlier, there was this feeling that a lot of the policy research rests in Delhi or at the state level. But we used to go and speak to district magistrates to cluster resource coordinators to block level officials to school management committees, sharing with them findings.
I remember in December 2015 we had conducted this large-scale PAISA survey where we had combined different schemes – ICDS, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Swachh Bharat Mission. This is after 2014 when the Finance Commission had talked about more untied resources. So we wanted to understand what’s happening with schemes in particular. But when we went to the ground where it found very pretty much similar things that we had seen before, which was the structure challenges of the public finance system, who’s not receiving their money or not receiving it on time. Instead of presenting a report to the government, we ran something that we called PAISA dialogues.
The idea of a dialogue was that instead of circulating reports, we would try to share research findings through a dialogue with certain block-level implementing officials. The overall objective was to leverage research findings to catalyse the discussion on how to improve implementation. So between May and December 2016 we held a total of 40 such PAISA dialogues across ten districts in which we were working. And it was amazing. The kind of response that we got, it forced us also to ask ourselves: Where does our role end? Does it end in just identifying the problem? Or does it also mean that we need to force ourselves to really think about what possible solutions could be? That was a big journey for PAISA. We have since then moved towards articulating the Accountability Initiative’s vision from just accountability to responsive governance.

One of your key insights is that it is not just a matter of us outside the government not fully understanding these processes, but many people within government not having the information either. How have governments at different levels responded to PAISA and your work?

I think we’ve been lucky that there’s been limited scepticism. A senior official from the Elementary Education Department in Purnia in Bihar summarised what we do better than we could:
“The flow of funds through various levels of the government is very similar to the flow of blood from the heart to various parts of the body. If there’s a blockage somewhere, it affects the entire body. So in that regard, PAISA studies do the work of a physician.”

That is what we had hoped would happen. To diagnose where that blockage is and share that with the government because at the end of the day, all of us are trying to ensure that service delivery improves. The intent was never to point fingers, but literally emphasising that this is our problem, not just yours, and so that we can have a meaningful discussion on solutions as well.
I remember relatively early on in 2013, we got a request from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, now the Ministry of Education. They came and asked us to undertake a PAISA study for the midday meal scheme. And I remember being really confused. I had gained confidence by then to actually ask government officers questions. So I remember asking him, ‘Sir, you already have this information or even if you don’t, it’s so easy for you sitting in the ministry to collect this information. You don’t need us. You could literally pick up the phone and try and get all the other officers to collect it for you.’ And I remember so clearly that he turned around and said to me, ‘as an administrator and a researcher, we have very, very different lenses and we’re able to gather different sets of information.’ And I remember him also saying that ‘I don’t just want to hear information that people think I want to hear, but I want to be proved right or proved wrong in my own assumptions.’
That has been really heartening. Even when governments often have access to this information, they have seen value in the kind of work that we’ve been doing. I remember again a district administration coming to us when there was a lot of pressure to meet the Swachh Bharat Mission target of October 2019. There were a lot of construction activities happening on the ground. While the SBM approach talked about it being a lot more demand-led focus on behaviour change, at that time, it was the last year of the mission, a lot of the focus was just supply and infrastructure. This official asked us to use our techniques to ground truth through actual observations whether toilets are there, whether they are being used, but also to understand from the service providers what they thought about this campaign. I really liked the fact that he was curious to know actually what the CEOs (Chief Executive Officer), the gram panchayat sarpanch to the block development officer, what they actually thought about the campaign. To what extent did they believe in it and how it had impacted their work.
It’s much easier for people to open up when it’s not your boss asking you the question, but someone who is independent, going in as a researcher, having conversations with people about what they do and how they feel and their motivations, their incentive, their means, their opportunities. It’s amazing how receptive the government has been for us to kind of come in and help them either think through their own research questions, but also validate, verify and question.

This is part 1 of 2 for our CPR Perspectives conversation with Avani Kapur. We’ll be back in 2 weeks with part 2.

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Partha Mukhopadhyay (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Today, we bring you part two of the interview between Rohan Venkat and Partha Mukhopadhyay, as part of CPR Perspectives, a series meant to commemorate fifty years of the Centre for Policy Research.

In the first part of the interview, Partha – a Senior Fellow at CPR who leads the Initiative on Cities, Economy and Society – talked about choosing to work on policy in India, how being at CPR has allowed him to work across a wide range of subjects and why it is important to think about government policies as a combination of safety nets and spring boards. You can read the first part of the interview here.

In the second part, Partha describes how India could be an exemplar when it comes to urban policy, why governments ought to stay away from ‘magic bullet solutions’ and why younger scholars should always balance quantitative analysis with a more thoughtful approach to processes and outcomes.

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

Tell us a little more about subaltern urbanisation.

The most striking story I always tell about policy change in India is of Vajpayee’s Prime Minister’s Task Force on Infrastructure, which essentially started off from his vision of building the north-south, east-west corridors, from Saurashtra to Silchar, Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In order to finance that and the Golden Quadrilateral, they started to levy this cess on fuel. There was a lot of pushback, especially from farmers who said ‘why should we pay for this extra money on diesel’? ‘We don’t use those fancy highways that you’re talking about. So what is in it for us?’

To me, it was an astounding act of political imagination from the then Prime Minister, Mr Vajpayee who basically said, ‘half, the money that comes in from the diesel cess will go to build rural roads’. That was the beginning of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the Prime Minister’s rural roads programme. And now there are 700,000 kilometres of rural roads across this country and I think it has been the most transformative infrastructure intervention done by any government, definitely in the last 30 years, post 1991, in trying to ensure that this country grows together.

What that enabled, let’s say, for Gopalpur, a small census town near a place like Balurghat in North Bengal, with a small dahi making industry, is that it suddenly expanded its market. Now you could reach Malda, you could reach Balurghat, within an hour just because you had this extra connectivity. This changed the incomes of people. This builds up demands for transport, builds up demand for education, and varieties of other changes come in. [This] is what we call in-situ urbanisation, the transformation of work, where you are, without moving.

But it also enables somebody who is thinking, ‘should I take my chances and go off to Malda or Siliguri or even Kolkata or Delhi?’, it enables a person to take that leap because they now have enough of a surplus at home that if that bet doesn’t work out, they’re not going to be left completely high and dry.

Now we have come to a situation where only about 2/3rd of our people in rural areas are actually on the farm or maybe less. Half our rural income is from non-farm activities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t move, because what we know from migration is that the guys who move are often at the upper end of the scale because mobility requires resources. What this does is push people over the threshold whereby they think it’s okay to try. So in-situ urbanisation and the old-fashioned urbanisation through migration, both are forces that could very well work in tandem, they’re not inimical to each other.

And it’s this kind of multifaceted process of transformation that is important for people to understand, because we often tend to think much more linearly in silos. At the level of the household, there are people trying out different strategies because it’s a complex world. We have a place like Tiruchengode, which is a small-town in Tamil Nadu which basically made its name making drilling rigs. They reengineered trucks, refitted them, strengthened them, turned them into drilling rig machines and they ended up not only building a drilling rig business across the region and across South India but, given the robustness of their technology and their cost, they became able to export to places in Africa and others looking for much more rugged, lower cost solutions. And this is out of innovation that happened in a relatively small town.

This is not unusual. If I look at China, you have exactly the same kind of thing. A major city like Yiwu, which is the beginning of the railway to Europe, is essentially a marketplace. The city aggregates a whole host of products across small businesses in that entire region, which then uses it as a huge mall. A lot of that excitement and energy and ability to build and innovate and deliver and manufacture is at a relatively small scale. The Foxconn factories in Shenzhen are the imagination of what one has of Chinese manufacturing, but the real transformation that has taken place in China is not just driven by those Foxconns, it is driven by these much smaller places spread out across a much wider range of smaller towns. These are the kinds of pathways to transformation and if you’re just focusing on the big guys, you’re missing out a lot of the action and that is something that one has been trying to convey.

Since your focus both on census towns and subaltern urbanisation, have you seen the conversation shift?

Census towns have become fashionable now. People would still say, ‘why don’t we just give them urban status?’ Actually, it doesn’t matter in many cases. This is another big issue: A lot of our schemes across India are separated into this urban and rural category, and that separation, to my mind, is often not very productive.

For example, one of the clever things that some states did when they were doing the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana for urban is they figured ‘this allows me to not just work in the urban local body, (which is the municipal limits) but I consider the area defined by the development authority, it allows me to sort of work in those places.’ So some states took that up and then suddenly you see all these Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban), in places that were not urban. This is because they fell within this development authority, which allowed them to bypass the restrictions, so some bureaucrats got clever and found ways around it.

In many cases, these bifurcations lead to inefficient use of resources. One of the sites that we worked in, there was a definite tension between the bazaar and the basti. The bazaar wanted to be urban, but the basti wanted to remain rural, because of the nature of work in these two kinds of places. In a place like India, where today’s rural will be tomorrow’s urban, you need to be able to have that flexibility and intertwining that allows local government to deliver whatever services it needs to. So urban transport may not be the most important thing for a village, but it may be incredibly important for an urban area. So you have district guys giving out licences for three wheelers that then act entirely as local transport services connecting villages and local towns and cities. But you’re making do, because you’re limited by the way the world is structured into separate boxes.

The other space where I think more action is happening is the informal and formal workforce. The figure that goes around is that 90 percent of India is informal. Once you start breaking that up, you realise that maybe it’s not as much – and much less, in fact. What is it that the formal sector worker expects to have? If you say these are benefits like health insurance, pensions and so forth then, even government pensions today are contributory and you’re opening that up to a wide range of people — that’s one of the things that the government has been doing. The second is to open up health insurance to a wider range of people. You realise that the distinction between what you called formal work and informal work starts to blur. Especially as in your own work, you will see the distinction between ‘formal 9 to 5 templated jobs’ and gig work. There are things that we need to sort of think about much more carefully rather than try to box them into these little boxes. The same is true for skilling, which is now, increasingly being recognised as something that is a lifelong process.

We have the opportunity to be at the vanguard of many of these changes because our workforce is one that’s transitioning into this new world of work and we don’t have to take it through the same pathways that the old world has gone through. We can leapfrog them, but whether or not we have the imagination to do that is something that we’ll have to see.

All these themes are related to transformations and the particular circumstances in which a country like India finds itself, and the excitement of actually being able to be at the forefront of policy. Though we often talk of ourselves being the vishwaguru, sometimes I don’t think we focus as much on what we can actually, seriously do that will be an exemplar to how the world sees itself both in terms of work and living.

Over the time that you’ve been able to observe urban policy, has the capacity of government, whether national, regional, local and the policy space to understand become linearly more complex? Do you see a vast difference from where it was 15 years ago, 20 years ago?

First, because there are a lot more resources and action in the states, there is more thinking and experimentation in states. This is similar to what China went through in its own reforms phase, and that I think is encouraging. But I get very worried when I hear the word one, so ‘one district, one product, one nation, one election.’ Because it’s great if that one is the right thing. But if it’s not, you have a heck of a lot to undo. And in an environment that’s constantly changing, you would expect that right thing to evolve and change and if you have 10 different things happening out there, you’re much more able to figure out which directions you might want to go to. That I think is what stood China in good stead between 1990 and 2005.

This is not just this government. This tendency of seeking uniform solutions is a characteristic of union governments, in general. The other thing that is constant and which is also worrying, is eventually, and especially in India, because our bureaucrats are fixed term, you tend to look for a magic bullet. There really is a magic bullet syndrome. Even when there is one, there are many other things that need to be done to make sure that the stuff works. That particular characteristic of searching for the magic bullet solution is something that is also consistent across governments over time and that’s I think where we in policy come across as dampeners and you might end up with some consultants who say ‘yes, we have it and here’s what we need to do’ and then eventually, the world settles down. We find our best interlocutors are bureaucrats who have been through that cycle and realised that this is a complex problem. That’s when I think institutions like ours add most value because you recognise what is it that they actually bring to the table.

In one of the pieces on subaltern urbanisation, you made the point that we need to go beyond urbanisation theories that were developed in the global north. You also mentioned that India can be an exemplar. What did you have in mind?

Agglomeration is the big theoretical insight that came through on urbanisation. Big cities, with what economists called ‘thick markets’. But one of the things we don’t know is, at what scale does it start to kick in? After all, million plus cities are not really that common across the world. It’s common in India. We have 50 plus. But if we are looking in Europe – Bordeaux is a big city by French standards – but it has less than a quarter of a million people in its municipal limits and a bit more than a million people in its metro area, right? At what level of agglomeration does the game start to slow down? That’s not a question that we’ve been able to answer very well.

There are some numbers out there. There are some who have said, Chinese cities are too small, they should have 50 million people. We’re not there yet – Tokyo-Osaka may be close. But one of the things that we’ve said is, let’s look at what is already happening, and at what scale. So if a place like Tiruchengode, what we call a Micropolis, can actually perform a lot of the functions that you’re looking for on a wholly different scale then perhaps you need to think about the way the urban transformation is happening.

I think our engagements on the way India worked out our hybrid annuity road model which is used both for our roads and highways and also our sewage treatment plants is actually an innovation that’s not that much elsewhere. We haven’t gone around making a case for it, both within the country and across the world. It is again one of those things which was introduced within the government, I think in 2005. At that time, there were other ideas on the table that people found more acceptable and exciting. It wasn’t until the highway sector and the toll roads projects collapsed, that this new government came back and said ‘what can we do to revive the sector?’ That’s how it came into being 8-9 years after it first went into the government system.

It isn’t as if ideas are not spreading because people are sitting in their haunches. There’s obviously inertia, but even when you recognise the need for change, there often many competing models for change and in different circumstances, different things get chosen. Which is precisely the point I was making earlier, that if you insisted on uniform models across places you would not realise whether or not one is the best way forward. One should recognise the value of diversity.

For example, I personally think that faecal sludge treatment plants are better than drainage-and-sewage-treatment, because to me it looks as if the current water and drainage systems take up too much water and too much energy to push the sewage across. Both energy and water are in short supply in a climate vulnerable world. Instead of cities doing sewage systems, we should be focusing much more like Metro Manila on doing a lot of septic tanks and faecal sludge treatment by design and not by compulsion. In a lot of places it still happens because they don’t have the money yet to move into a drainage system, but I’m saying don’t do it.

Some places, especially smaller towns, are taking it up very rapidly and that’s because people have invested in septic tanks and therefore the government is now responding by putting together some ways of servicing them and making sure they’re treated. How somebody treats shit sounds like a particularly boring question for policy, but it can actually be one of those big, sexy climate resilience questions that we all need to think about.

It’s a question of how this one is able to think through these processes, think about what is driving the incentives on the part of the government. Contractors will have the incentive of building large, huge pipes for the large construction contracts with lots of attendant benefits. Thinking about how people will respond, thinking about how the proposition is actually put forward, articulating the climate benefits properly – that’s the kind of dialogue that you want places to be immersed in and what engaging with people at CPR does is tell you that this is the kind of question you should be asking. We can help to answer some of them, there may be better people to answer others, but having this kind of structured thought process would hopefully lead to more sustainable and durable decisions going forward that you won’t have to unwind 5-10 years down the line.

What advice would you give to younger scholars who are trying to enter the policy space in India? Should they be focusing on their PhDs? Should they take the time to write?

Come work with CPR. We always love having smart young people around us. I think young people don’t realise how much time they actually have. Partly it’s the result of our parents, but they don’t realise that especially in places like CPR, a couple of years of investing in yourself will pay rich dividend and really doesn’t matter when you consider the fact that you’re going to have a 40-year career going forward. One of the things I will tell the younger generation is that it’s okay to take your time and explore a couple of areas that you’re interested in. You might find yourself getting excited eventually by selling soap, and that’s perfectly wonderful because somebody has to.

You might end up getting fascinated with how government works, how change happens, how people respond and are impacted by those kinds of changes. There is nothing better than spending time with institutions who are actually doing that before you settle on to whatever you want to do your PhD in. Our leadership at CPR, some of them do have PhDs, some of them don’t have PhDs, so it isn’t the sine qua non of being able to participate in these places.

For a curious mind like mine, I think it is a very useful disciplining experience to go through a PhD programme and that I think is valuable. But it may not necessarily be for everyone. But to try and figure out whether this kind of work is something that you would enjoy – and enjoy for a significant period of time in your life, not necessarily forever – is something that you can only decide if you spend time in it. I’ve had young people who have come while they were doing their undergraduate degree. I was very sceptical whether that would be a good decision. In a couple of instances, I was very, very pleasantly surprised and some of those people have ended up being great researchers. But definitely after you’ve done your masters in the discipline that you’ve liked, it’s a good place for you to come and check out whether or not you want to do policy work before you go out and acquire further academic qualifications.

I would strongly urge people to work before they commit to getting academic training in a policy area.

To narrow it may be a bit further than to your field – urbanisation, work, migration and so on – are there either areas of research or tools of research that you wish that you would point younger folks towards?

People tend to fall in quantitative and qualitative boxes and I think those are constraining boxes. It’s important for people to understand what data means and how that is analysed. Similarly it’s important for people who are working purely with data and numbers to actually be able to think through the processes that are producing those kinds of outcomes, to the qualitative structures. One area where I think there is a significant lack at this point in time is we still don’t have enough people who think spatially in the urban space. That’s important because in urban, location matters. We have enormous amounts of location data. Linking that to other forms of data and information and then trying to analyse what difference is the location of a particular kind of activity making is a question that, especially in India, could help with more researchers coming in. Because the people who get training in these kinds of places would be in hard geography or geospatial or geoinformatics labs where they’re just looking at it. They have the tools, but they don’t have the questions and other people have the questions, but they don’t have the tools.

Because eventually in any case, ChatGPT is going to do all your writing anyway. So what you need to do is to make sure that the empirical basis for what you are actually writing is supported.

For someone who has listened to or read this interview and is curious about your work, are there three things that you would point to – journal articles or op-eds or – that they can go check out next?

And then there are the various committee reports!

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Partha Mukhopadhyay (Part 1)

This month on CPR Perspectives – our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary – we bring you a conversation with Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at CPR, where he also leads the Initiative on Cities, Economy and Society.

Mukhopadhyay is one of the foremost experts on urbanisation, although his expertise extends well beyond the subject. He has been at CPR since 2006, after having been on the founding team at the Infrastructure Development Finance Company, and following stints at the Export Import Bank of India and the World Bank in Washington.

Over his wide-ranging career, Mukhopadhyay has introduced important concepts like ‘Subaltern Urbanisation’, referring to vibrant smaller settlements that provide a very different picture of urbanisation than the one we get from India’s mega-cities; brought careful scrutiny to India’s Special Economic Zones; studied the all-important question of informal work; and played key roles on a number of important government panels.

He was chair of the Working Group on Migration, Government of India and member of the High Level Railway Restructuring Committee, Ministry of Railways and of the Technical Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. Previously, he has been associated with the Committee on Allocation of Natural Resources and with the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Infrastructure.

In the first part of our conversation, Rohan Venkat spoke to Mukhopadhyay about choosing to work on policy in India, how being at CPR has allowed him to work across a wide range of subjects and why it is important to think about government policies as a combination of safety nets and spring boards.

In the second part, which you will receive later this month, we spoke about how India could be an exemplar when it comes to urban policy, why governments ought to stay away from ‘magic bullet solutions’ and why younger scholars should always balance quantitative analysis with a more thoughtful approach to processes and outcomes.

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

And if you missed our first interview, with Navroz Dubash, go read Part 1 and Part 2.

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

You’ve had a long, distinguished career in public policy. You began teaching at Delhi University way back in 1986 and you’ve worked in the policy field in many different roles ever since. I’d like to take you back a little bit to how you got started. Did you always know you wanted to come into this space or was it something that you just fell into?

I think policy is something you fall into, especially my generation. At Delhi School of Economics, people like Sukhamoy Chakravarty were iconic but I think my first brush with “policy” kind of work was after I had finished all the requirements for my PhD at NYU a little early and did not have a clear idea about my thesis. I was hanging around my department doing nothing. So they asked me to go out and find a job, which I did and it was at the World Bank in Washington, in their trade policy division.

It gave me a sense of what that kind of world is – also at a time when the Berlin wall had just come down. It was full of incredible people – very committed, very smart – but somehow as an organisation it seemed much less than the sum of its parts. That led me to realise that organisations are important in how they bring people together.

I went back to NYU after a year and a bit with my thesis idea, and found my advisor, Andres Velasco, who later went on to be the Finance Minister of Chile (come to think of it, maybe that too was a sub-conscious policy push!). During my time, NYU economics was a very intellectually diverse place, not just due to legends like Leontief. It was the hub for Austrian economics, it had Marxist economists, some of the top neo-classical economists, game-theorists, econometricians – faculty from business and political science joined our talks and the NBER was on the top floor. The student body, and thus many of my friends, was also incredibly diverse, literally global. And New York City elected its first black mayor. I think my time at NYU and New York made me very comfortable with diversity of all kinds.

I knew I was definitely going to come back to India almost immediately after my PhD. My partner, Kavita, was even more sure and consequently we landed up in Bangalore, where my task was to set up a learning centre at the EXIM bank of India which was itself not too old of an organisation at that point. The [question we were tackling] was ‘how do you get small and medium enterprises to engage with the global market?’ So I dived into real-world problems quite quickly – both in terms of insights into how governments think and fairly deep immersion into how industry thinks.

Next, I was offered a position to start up, along with Atul Prakash, the Delhi office of IDFC, which was then a fledgling organisation tasked with bringing private infrastructure into India. That was 1998 and I have been here in Delhi ever since. I think the term at IDFC was very exciting because India was creating new things at the time. We were at ground zero and actively engaged with actual policy decisions, such as being the secretariat to the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Infrastructure which kick-started our investment in highways, ports and airports, on one hand and re-negotiating Dabhol on the other. So you did get inside access and there were a lot of relationships built up in those years, within and outside government. I learnt a lot about financing and risk and got to work closely with people like Deepak Parekh, Nasser Munjee and Urjit Patel.

My fundamental takeaway from that was how honest, in terms of being true to purpose, the Indian bureaucracy was. They might make mistakes, they might take the wrong decisions, but these were mostly men and women trying their level best to actually solve the task that they were given. There is that fundamental streak which I think has held our nation in good stead, that for the most part these are just hard working people trying to do an honest day’s work. And it’s that which for me has bred a certain kind of optimism. When I approach policy now, I do not automatically jump to cynical explanations for why things aren’t happening, because that hasn’t been my experience.

That has also helped me well, since I joined CPR almost 17 years ago, it’s pretty easy to get discouraged but that helps one keep going. So yes, very much falling into it, but I was lucky to be able to swim with the current and end up in where I am now.

Maybe before we get specifically to what brought you to CPR and your 17 years there since, before that you had time in both the US and in India and I’m curious how that shaped you. I wonder how that played for you in your decision of where to be within the policy space?

For me, I think it was easy. I don’t think I ever contemplated staying back [in the US]. I met my partner there and she was as committed – perhaps more so – to getting back. I wasn’t ever thinking of anything else. But even retrospectively, [if I had stayed there] there would have been somebody else in my place doing the stuff that I did and they would have also made their contributions and the world would have most probably not looked very much different.

So I don’t think my being where I am at any given point in time has changed anything anywhere but one has got the feeling that one has been able to contribute a fair bit to critical decisions that have been made in this country. I don’t think that would have been the case were I back in the United States. I might have had a different career, but I doubt I would’ve had that kind of satisfaction. The time that we have been here are times when India has made step changes. It has made critical decisions. The US, just simply by where they are in their stage of development, is not a country that’s going to make step changes.

Therefore the chance to be part of those changes [lies] much more here in India. If you’re excited about being part of those kinds of things, then this is a nice place to be. But different objectives drive different people. So, there are people who are excited about discovering certain mathematical relationships that make breakthroughs in a particular area and for those kinds of things one might be better off in the US. So there are differences. It is more or less dependent on what is driving you.

I think people would dispute your characterisation of yourself and your work. But it also strikes me that those early years did coincide with India’s economy opening up and a lot of change here and as you say, this continues to be a place where significant things are happening. You mentioned – whether it was EXIM bank or IDFC – that there were interesting opportunities for the India story. So, what brought you then to CPR in 2006?

IDFC listed in 2005 and for me at that point the kind of role it was going to play was not as exciting anymore. I’d been there for almost seven years by then. [I] thought about going back to academia. I had earlier spent over a year at IIM Ahmedabad, on leave from IDFC. In fact, my first foray back was with XLRI in Jamshedpur where I was teaching immediately after I left IDFC. And then I even spent a whole year in Sri Lanka with a consulting firm, working with the government of Sri Lanka on their highways programme.

But when [former CPR President and Chief Executive] Pratap [Bhanu Mehta] asked [me to join], what was exciting was the ability to deploy the skills that one had picked up – the engagement with policy – with the freedom of academia, that you were answerable only to yourself. At that time I had done a lot of stuff with infrastructure, privatisation, and I was looking for a new space and one of the issues that came up was [India’s] urban transformation. I had a sense that we weren’t thinking hard enough about it. Given the scale of the issue, there was, I thought, space for some new thinking in that area. With Mr KC Sivaramakrishnan, former Secretary Urban Development, who was then the chair of CPR, it seemed to be an interesting place to come and try it out and that’s what it turned out to be.

It’s a space that has kept me intellectually excited, engaged and enables you to have that same feeling of contribution and more importantly – and I think that’s characteristic of CPR – where you have the space and time to try and thoroughly understand the problem. You’re not firing from the hip. When you are taking positions, it’s a position that comes out of work over a considerable period of time. And it may not be directly related, but because you have put in that effort, you’re able to respond to different questions across a wide range. At that point in time, and in fact even 3 today, I don’t see any other institute like CPR, and that’s a pity, because you want more institutes like CPR to be out there.

Most important at CPR are your colleagues. It is what makes CPR what it is. Because you are in an atmosphere where everybody is interested in trying to do something. They’re all smart people with whom you can have very productive conversations and in all these years, across so many colleagues, maybe very few instances where I might think of people who are not genuinely collegial. The level of rancour is so amazingly low, at least in my own personal experience. You might think with so many smart people floating around that all would be at each other’s throats, but no. These are all people who are very self-assured. Very few of them have stuff that they are trying to prove or show off to anybody and therefore there are a lot of people generally at peace with themselves. And thus, people with whom one can really have very productive discussions.

For those who may not be as familiar, I want to pick on one thing you mentioned at the start about choosing CPR as being a choice between the sort of work you were doing at IDFC or at the EXIM Bank versus going into academia proper. You said CPR offered you to do something that was a bit different from either of those options, what is the difference? What do you get to do here that’s not the same as being at a university?

At the university you also have to teach, which is important, I think it’s productive. [But] also, it does take up a lot of your time, so there’s only so much other research that you can do and usually that’s why university professors end up being very focused. The other thing with academia is they’re also within departments so you would stay within particular disciplines. What CPR allows you is like full-time research, which is exciting. You sometimes miss the ability of bouncing your ideas off young minds, which is what university professors get to do and I think are the better for it. But at the same time, you do have a lot more time to define what you want to do.

It’s a place where you can actually pick the kind of work that you want to do and secondly, you’re not constrained by discipline. So you have sociologists, anthropologists, climate scientists, doctors, engineers, strategy and IR people, economists, political scientists – across the range. It’s exhilarating to have that kind of multidimensional conversation – to be able to see what exactly might be a problem and how one could get around it. Universities have been trying to create these kinds of multidisciplinary spaces for a long time, but they haven’t succeeded very much.

Maybe just to make that a bit more concrete, you work across a diverse range of subjects. I think you’d be known for your work on urban policy or on SEZs, but over the last couple of years you’ve also had time to do work on COVID. If you could give me an example of how being here has allowed you to go down different paths?

For example, these are some of things I have been involved in over the last fifteen years.

Soon after I joined, I was involved in restructuring Delhi’s bus system – visible in the orange buses that ply in Delhi today. It innovated a new contractual structure – a gross cost contract – that is now being used nationally – almost fifteen years later – in the various contracts for electric public bus transport under the FAME scheme of the Government of India. The work of SEZs began shortly after – along with Loraine Kennedy and Rob Jenkins, which built on work at IDFC.

When I joined CPR, I was also part of a very innovative fellowship of the India China Institute of the New School – which helped me look closely at China, which I had begun doing while working on SEZs in IDFC. Soon after, via CPR, I fortunately, also got the opportunity to work with IDDRI in France and the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) on urban environmental issues and then later participate in tripartite dialogues with Chinese and American think tanks – all of which, I think, has helped me understand China better.

There was also another bit of early work that has gained prominence recently. In 2008, Devesh Kapur, Arvind Subramanian, who later went on to become our Chief Economic Adviser, and I 4 advanced the idea of direct cash transfers to people. As digital payments technologies and identity programs have evolved, this is catching on – perhaps more than it should. It is an interesting look at how ideas move through the system.

And, building on my past, I also played a role in formalising the definition of infrastructure in India. I was then able to work with the CCSAP – Committee for Consultations on the Situation in Andhra Pradesh, involved in recommending whether or not Andhra Pradesh should remain a state or should be divided into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. One of our tasks was to try and understand how to think about the city of Hyderabad in the context of the state bifurcation. So that was an urban problem in a much wider context.

Then there was the work that one did with the Committee for Allocation of Natural Resources, chaired by Shri Ashok Chawla, with the Cabinet Secretariat, which then looked across natural resources of India, whether it was things like telecom spectrum, coal, to urban land, to forest, to minerals – across that range.

Later one was involved in the restructuring of the Indian Railways. The railways have been in the news recently for being one of the drivers of capital expenditure in India etc. One of the things that we had actually recommended which got accepted was discontinuing the practice of a separate railway budget – which had been in place for over 90 years at that point in time. It is again something different than for those who might have just been working in the urban space.

Then there was of course the urban work. Following on from SEZs, was subaltern urbanisation, a framework, we, i.e., Marie-Helene, Eric Denis and I put forward, arguing for looking at urban transformations beyond the big cities. Simultaneously, one was involved with KC Sivaramakrishnan, who was working on megacity governance and on central schemes like JNNURM. Also, we, Patrick Heller and I along with a really bright group of young scholars, dived deep into Delhi – at its various cities, not historically, but contemporaneously – how disparate the lives of people were, depending on where you lived.

I was also fortunate to be the chair of an inter-ministerial working group across different ministries on migration in 2016. A lot of those findings, fortunately, were helpful when we were confronted with the COVID migration story. This, again, followed on from a project, funded by the Tata Trusts, with Chandrasekhar and Mukta Naik, which worked with various civil society organisations who worked on migration.

And just before, and a bit during CoVID, we were able to bring together a consortium of major institutions working on urbanisation in India, IIHS, TISS, Hyderabad Urban Labs, in a multi-year project to look at how urban knowledge is conceptualised in India. And as you mentioned, the work on COVID, I found myself analysing health and infection data for states, and for the first time publishing in a medical journal with colleagues within CPR and outside CPR. It is that kind of breadth I wouldn’t find [elsewhere].

I did mention the fact that I miss students, but one of my big satisfactions at CPR, is if I look at the younger people one has worked with, a number of them went on to do their PhDs at some of the best institutes in the world. So if we were in some sense a college with a placement record, we would do pretty well. People who I have worked with at CPR, in our group [have gone on to] Kings College in London, to Harvard, MIT, Yale, Brown, Berkeley, NYU, Sciences Po. It is also exciting to see people come in, spend their time here and then move on to other institutions, even in India like those who have finished their thesis from places like IIT-Delhi and JNU and so on.

It gives us affirmation that the people who spend their time here do actually end up adding to themselves in a manner that they can compete with the best in the world. That’s useful confirmation. It’s also the kind of people we build at CPR because it’s important to us that the spirit of inquiry that drives the institution is passed on to younger people who flow through here.

So at both those levels in terms of the breadth as well as in this affirmation of the kind of places that people end up in, I don’t think one would have had exactly that kind of experience in an academic institution.

If I could then turn the focus from the institution to your work. How do you see your role today at CPR? What is it that animates your days?

My current hobby horse is to try and argue for fare-free public transport. I believe that it is fiscally possible and ecologically responsible to have fare-free buses across all Indian cities, and it is possible to finance this with a relatively small impost on personal cars. Aside from that, more of my time right now is acting as a sounding board to help others figure out whether or not they’re asking the right questions – and making sure that the kinds of work one was able to do at CPR, others will be able to do once one leaves the place.

I was fortunate that I stepped into CPR a time when someone like Mr KC Sivaramakrishnan was there, with the kind of administrative experience, natural curiosity and intellectual bandwidth that he had. And it becomes incumbent, while I don’t think I’m anywhere in that space, to try and ensure that when one moves on, people at CPR are able to ask questions and they’re able to continue with the spirit of curiosity.

I think increasingly also in certain respects, one is working directly with government to take on some critical pieces where one can possibly add value because of one’s experience in interacting with government per se and understanding how governments works – which someone who may be a much better researcher than I am, may not have had that opportunity to engage with. So [I] can then act as a catalyst to make those policy engagements richer and productive, one hopes.

One of the things that you say is unique in this institution that you’re not necessarily able to see elsewhere in India is the ability to stick to a question over a period of time, to really attack it from multiple angles and spend time understanding it. What is that question for you? My assumption is that the answer to this is something to do with cities, but how would you define that question for you?

Different things. One on which perhaps I should spend more time is the notion of informal work and informality more generally – one of my favourite projects at CPR, with Anvita Arora and others, was on the auto-rickshaw routes of Kolkata – an excellent example of formalised informal transport. The second is of course, both within the academic discourse nationally and internationally when it comes to India and even within the discourse in policy circles in India, I think, as I said earlier, made the case that one should be looking at not just the large mega cities.

They are very important – Mumbai and Delhi and Bangalore and even Chennai and Kolkata. But there is a growing number of people who live in mid-size cities and some living in even smaller cities where a lot of transformation is happening and where there is a lot of vibrancy that powers the Indian economic growth engine. India fortunately is not just a double-engine story. It is a story of multiple small engines that work across different spaces. These engines have always existed and that is what makes India resilient. Just like migrants have always existed, and have always powered our cities and it’s only during COVID that they came into prominence. I think we have helped a little bit in making sure that these spaces, the mid-sized cities and the smallest cities, have the day in the sun and are considered more seriously within the policy discourse.

That’s one of the things that I would say began fragmentarily when I think we started off with this project I mentioned earlier, that we called somewhat tongue-in-cheek ‘Subaltern Urbanisation, about 10 or so years ago. Lots of people are now taking that framework forward.

On things like SEZs – I wish I were wrong – but most of my work in that space has largely been to throw cold water. Those are the kinds of things that don’t give you much happiness because you absolutely do want things to happen that will make India move on. I remember a former chief 6 economic adviser saying that the job of the Finance Ministry is not really to get anything right, they just have to make sure the wrong ideas don’t take root and the right ideas will take root as long as you have space for them anyway, so it depends on how you think about what your role in the system is.

One of the things that I like to ask scholars and experts is what misconceptions about your field in particular that you see the media, but also fellow scholars, students, the lay public getting wrong? I see in some of your work, particularly on the idea that Indian cities are big engines of growth, that India is migrating to its cities, that what we need are smarter cities, a through-line of trying to debunk some of these…

Not much of that has happened. Most of our migration is to the next district over in a rural area. That’s one of the things. It’s not as if hordes of people are leaving our villages and dropping into our cities, which is how some people sort of tend to characterise it. Somehow for all the work that’s been done on this, people still seem to think of migration as something bad. It is this old ‘do-bigha zameen’ kind of characterisation, that somehow migrants are leaving their space not out of choice but because they are being forced to leave, pushed out rather than being pulled into other spaces. Migration as an act of desperation, not an act of seizing opportunity.

And I don’t want to belittle a significant – though to my mind a minority – chunk where that is true. People are being pushed out, it is an act of desperation, and, especially with climate change, it is possible there would be more of that story. But for the large part migration is essentially about seizing opportunities though we may not be able to relate to those opportunities.

It’s hard to relate to a Mumbai taxi driver who goes home to a shared bed – a 12-hour shift where somebody else uses the bed [when he’s working]. But that person is doing that because he’s minimising the expenses in the city, maximising the surplus and sending money back to the village, where his child is then getting educated, intriguingly enough, in a pretty good quality school, that may have sprung up not too far from where he lives in his village. And that child may then have a completely different life and different set of choices and chances, which he is able to see. His being in Mumbai allows him to see the kinds of opportunities that people with certain types of human capital have. And yes, this person will not get the same opportunities as somebody who’s going to Bombay Scottish because life is not just about human capital, it’s also about social capital.

But it can be a step change. For him to go through what looks like a dismal life, to do what he sees as enabling his children to seize opportunities that he could never have dreamt of, that kind of transformation is not what people see. They see the squalor, they see the person in that structure and often times, one could do much better. There’s no reason why that person should not be living better, why housing costs should be the way they are, but that’s true even if it’s in New York… Could we do much better? Yes, is everything in Mumbai housing, right? No. But it isn’t all about the stress.

It is this [question], how do we create conditions that people feel empowered enough to seize opportunity. How can we make those conditions happen? That’s fundamentally what drives the way I think about development and change in India.

Many of my colleagues were excited about NREGS, but to me, it was never about [whether] it reduced migration or even being skeptical about whether they build real assets. A safety net is important. But I prefer to think about springboards. It’s important for government to focus on both, because only with safety nets, you’re not going to get very far. But it’s very difficult for people to jump off springboards unless they’re aware that there is a net underneath in case they fall.

It’s this balance between safety nets and springboards in government policy, that’s fundamentally what you’re looking for.

This is part 1 of 2 for our CPR Perspectives conversation with Partha Mukhopadhyay. We’ll be back in 2 weeks with part 2.

“Constructive coalition or secret clique?” Decoding the India-hosted Track 1.5 dialogue on Myanmar

On 25 April 2023, India hosted a ‘Track 1.5’ discussion on the Myanmar crisis with government representatives from Myanmar’s neighbouring countries – India, China, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh – as well as Cambodia and Indonesia, the previous and current ASEAN chairs, respectively. It also included think-tank representatives from these countries.

Notably, representatives from only the military junta in Myanmar, which calls itself the ‘State Administration Council (SAC)’, were invited to the meeting hosted by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a think-tank funded by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). According to a report in Nikkei Asia, these were “midlevel” officials. The National Unity Government (NUG), the civilian government of Myanmar composed of elected lawmakers, was not invited.

The MEA hasn’t put out any official press release on the meeting, which was a follow-up of the first iteration hosted by the Thai government in Bangkok on 13 March. Much like the first one, the participant governments have deliberately kept the second edition under wraps. There was no public consultation or calls for participation in the run up to the meeting. A Reuters report rightly characterised the Track 1.5 as “secretive”.

Why was it convened?

The Track 1.5 may be seen as a joint Thai-Indian initiative to navigate the Myanmar situation. Alternatively, it may be see as an attempt by both to demonstrate their convening power in cobbling together an issue-specific regional coalition. At the outset, it is the outcome of growing frustration in Delhi and Bangkok with the virtual failure of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus-cum-Special Envoy process, which remains awkwardly stuck between censuring and engaging the SAC. However, there’s more to it.

The meeting’s composition shows that the co-hosts seek to create an exclusive regional platform for countries that share a border with Myanmar and have been affected by the crisis in some manner. India, Thailand and Bangladesh have all seen the instability in Myanmar spill over into their territory in the form of stray bombs, fighter jets, and refugee waves. The crisis has also allowed transnational criminal networks to expand the ambit of their activities. For instance, the UN has reported a sharp spike in opium poppy cultivation along the India-Myanmar and Thailand-Myanmar borders after the coup.

At the same time, the dialogue’s narrow composition is instructive. With the exception of Indonesia, every single participating country continues to undertake routine diplomacy with the SAC in one form or the other. The two frontline hosts – India and Thailand – have, in fact, ramped up their own bilateral engagements with the Burmese coup regime over the past one year. While the Indian foreign secretary, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, visited Myanmar and had an amicable meeting with the junta leadership in November, the Thai deputy foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, recently toured Nay Pyi Taw in what is being seen as a warm rendezvous with the Generals.

Similarly, China, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos too have refrained from calling out the SAC for its undemocratic conduct and brutality against civilians. Their officials continue to meet junta ministers using official diplomatic channels and participate in junta-hosted events in Myanmar. Beijing, especially, has significantly expanded its bilateral track with the junta with the aim of securing its strategic interests and resuming Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

Nikkei Asia, citing sources, reported that during the meeting, India “agreed with Myanmar to send a delegation to Naypyidaw to help push for a ‘full resumption of dialogue’ between the regional governments.” This is a pointed reflection of what the dialogue is meant to achieve: a broader legitimation of the coup regime. It remains to be seen if the rest of ASEAN plays ball, but it is clear that the whole dialogue, at a minimum, is designed to rationalise and formalise diplomatic engagement between the participating governments and the SAC. In fact, it reflects their desire to go around ASEAN’s arguably vague approach towards the junta and solidify their working relationships with the SAC to preserve their own political, strategic and economic interests. Indonesia, which received an invite only because it is the sitting ASEAN chair, remains an exception here.

What was discussed?

Given the secretive nature of the dialogue, the full spectrum of the discussions remains unclear. But, one report published by the Press Trust of India, citing “sources”, outlined some of the points raised. These include “reduction of violence, countering transnational crimes, national reconciliation, and delivery of humanitarian aid.” According to Reuters, the issue of “creating space for dialogue” was also discussed.

It is noteworthy that this meeting comes just weeks after the Myanmar junta’s air force bombed Pazi Gyi village in the southeast of Sagaing Region, which borders India. According to The Irrawaddy, 175 people were killed in the aerial bombing, making it the bloodiest single incident of mass murder by the junta since the 2021 coup. The junta claimed that the bombing targeted an NUG-led opening ceremony of the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the civilian government’s armed wing. It justified the huge civilian casualties by linking to those killed with the PDF and by arguing that the bombs hit a “weapon’s storage”. The Irrawaddy estimates that between just 20 March and 18 April, 210 people were killed and 60 injured in junta air strikes “targeting civilian populations” in Sagaing Region, Bago Regions, Chin State, Kayah State, Kachin State and Karen State.

It is likely that the Track 1.5 participants brought up these airstrikes, especially the Pazi Gyi massacre, given its scale and proximity to the Indian border. However, it is unclear how strongly, or whether at all, the government and think tank representatives condemned it or demanded any accountability from the junta. None of the discreet “sources” quoted by the Indian media so far have mentioned the airstrikes, either because it wasn’t discussed or was done so in passing. It is noteworthy that none of the participating governments, except Indonesia, has issued any official condemnation of the deadly bombing so far. The spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, during a recent press briefing, only called for a halt to violence “by all sides” when a journalist sought his reaction on the incident.

The participants also reportedly “felt Myanmar’s capacity to fight transnational crimes need to be supported.” The implicit subtext of this position is that the governments agreed to work with the SAC to check the spike in transnational crimes after the coup. This is despite evidence of SAC-linked elements – such as the Zomi Revolutionary Army-Eastern Command (ZRA-EC) and the Karen Border Guards Force (K-BGF) – themselves being involved in transnational criminal networks along the India-Myanmar and Thailand-Myanmar borders.

Will this dialogue work?

In itself, the idea of creating a joint coalition of ASEAN member states and Myanmar’s neighbours under a Track 1.5 discussion format is a good idea. For long, countries like India and Bangladesh have only passively watched the crisis unfold next door. So, this initiative marks a refreshing turn of imaginative and proactive diplomacy. But, in its current form, the dialogue process is rife with serious contradictions, structural faults and a damaging lack of transparency.

One source familiar with the meeting told Reuters that the initiative will “not supplant” and “only complement” ASEAN. However, by inviting only certain ASEAN members while leaving out others, the dialogue risks subverting the Southeast Asian bloc’s centrality and in turn, widening internal differences over the Myanmar crisis. This is especially because except Indonesia, all the other ASEAN invitees are amenable to engaging the junta despite the latter’s non-compliance with the Five-Point Consensus. This may not sit well with other influential members of the bloc, such as Singapore and Malaysia, who remain averse to working with the junta. In fact, it may also disrupt relations between Delhi and ASEAN, which might feel blindsided by this parallel process.

Further, if the idea is to really help ASEAN implement the Five-Point Consensus, then the Track 1.5 should have included all stakeholders from Myanmar, including the NUG, which is what the consensus stipulates. By including just the SAC, in fact, the dialogue negates, not complements, the ASEAN-led Consensus. There is little sense in putting together an informal gathering of government and non-government stakeholders to facilitate freewheeling discussions on a delicate regional crisis if a major party with direct stakes in that crisis is completely left out.

Reuters, citing yet another “source”, indicated that the participants hoped to officially rope the NUG in at some point. Yet, it remains unclear how they would do so given that the junta has designated the NUG as a “terrorist organisation” and continues to actively, sometimes violently, persecute the democratic opposition. In any case, the NUG has on several occasions indicated that it is willing to talk to its neighbours to end the crisis in Myanmar. So, one hopes that they are invited in the next iteration of the dialogue to be hosted by Laos.

Most of all, the core intent of the dialogue facilitators remains suspect. Currently, it appears that they are more keen on using the Track 1.5 format to build bridges with the junta than foreground the aspirations of the Myanmar people. They seek to justify their engagement with the junta through specific pivots of cooperation – most prominently, delivery of humanitarian aid and transnational crimes. But, both these issues require multi-pronged engagements, not one-sided diplomacy with the military regime. The junta, which has its own predatory interests to protect, cannot be trusted to either crack down on transnational criminal networks along Myanmar’s borders or ensure equitable humanitarian aid delivery. We don’t know if the participants talked about ways to diversify aid delivery networks in Myanmar to allow non-junta actors to participate without the fear of retribution.

Finally, the overall opacity around the process is detrimental to the initiative’s credibility. It diminishes the space for public engagement and accountability over a serious political and humanitarian crisis that is harming the lives of real people, fuelling geopolitical volatility, creating economic uncertainty, and destabilising an entire region. By shrouding itself in a cloak of secrecy and keeping out Myanmar’s democratically elected representatives, the coalition ends up looking like an exclusive, elite and self-interested clique of governments and individuals who have no real interest in listening to the voices of the people most affected by the situation in Myanmar. One hopes this changes in the next iteration.

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Navroz Dubash (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Today, we bring you part two of the interview between Rohan Venkat and Navroz Dubash, as part of CPR Perspectives, a series meant to commemorate fifty years of the Centre for Policy Research.

In the first part of the interview, Dubash – a professor at CPR who runs the Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment – talked about switching from engineering to the policy world, how climate change questions have been mainstreamed in India and how his team sets out to ensure the climate conversation is accessible to all. You can read the first part of the interview here.

In the second part, Dubash describes his team’s direct engagement with the Indian government in crafting its official strategy for long-term low emissions development, what role CPR plays in challenging the dominant Western narrative and where he thinks the climate change conversation is going next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statement by CPR’s Governing Board

6th March 2023

The Governing Board of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) expresses its full confidence in its President, Yamini Aiyar. It recognizes her immense contribution to leading CPR’s policy research. Ms. Aiyar has lived up to the Board’s expectations and has led with professionalism, integrity, and rare distinction.

The appointment of Ms. Aiyar by the Board followed a transparent, rigorously comprehensive and robust process to select the best professional talent based on merit and track record to head CPR which has enjoyed a well-earned reputation as an independent, non-partisan institution that holds itself to the highest standards of probity and academic excellence.

The Board has noted with concern some personal, unbecoming, and misleading media references to Yamini Aiyar, that by implication seek to undermine the stature of CPR as an independent, non-partisan, and widely respected organization.

In Memoriam: Remembering Ambassador Chandrashekhar Dasgupta

We are deeply saddened by the demise of Ambassador Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, member of the governing board at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

He had an extraordinary and illustrious career, during which he served as the ambassador to the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourg and China.

He was a highly respected and valued mentor at CPR. His passing is an immeasurable loss to us and to the wider community.