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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.