The best of India’s brains are instead busy solving the world’s problems, as our policies incentivise them to do so, says Neelkanth Mishra.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com.
That 70 years after Independence, with more or less continuous democratic rule, we are still far from providing basic services such as drinking water, health, education, housing, electricity and all-weather roads to large chunks of our population cannot just be blamed on faulty execution or political intransigence.
Economic prescriptions have been at fault too: After all, if the patient struggles to comply with a treatment regime and fails to get cured, the doctor must share the blame. A root-cause analysis may point to deeper issues with lack of data availability coming out tops. But one wonders if over-reliance on imported economic policies was not a factor too.
A simple example illustrates this point: For decades, there had been considerable discomfort about the size of the government being too large, not just among foreign commentators, but also Indian administrators. Excessive government borrowing undoubtedly crowded out private investment, keeping cost of capital high, and government monopolies in several economically important sectors indeed kept them stunted.
Perhaps, because of this discomfort, in critical areas such as law and order and education, the government has remained too small for too long.
For example, as Uttar Pradesh embarks on a near doubling of its police force, hiring 30,000 new recruits each year for five years, it is only now correcting what many see as a critical flaw that should have been addressed long back. Even after these additions, the ratio of police strength to population in UP will only just cross the national average, which itself is among the lowest in the world.
One cannot have a healthy economy without good law and order, and more police may not be a sufficient condition for good law and order, but are a necessary one.
In the early years after independence, as the education system in India was under-developed, it was perhaps important to import experts from Western universities, who then came with economic frameworks they had been trained in. Even if these may have worked where they were developed (and that can be debated too), it is questionable whether they were adapted to India.
Forgotten in the debate around free markets was the fact that basic infrastructure was missing: Freeing up markets or controlling them isn’t much use if the arteries for movement of goods and services are clogged. Thereafter, the high reliance on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund funding possibly made it necessary to follow their framework and evaluation metrics, even if those were not necessarily the best for India.
But both of these are not constraints anymore. Private capital flows abound, and not only do we have top-class institutes staffed with brilliant researchers, there are centres in Western universities dedicated to the study of India or the Indian economy.
Yet, we do not seem to be doing much better on economic analysis and policy prescriptions that are developed for India.
Two experiences I had in the past month reinforced this view.
Speaking at the India Policy Forum earlier in July, the Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian, lamented the lack of suitable economic research available for policymaking. He felt that not enough research was being conducted on problems that India needed to solve, and also that the expertise of the best of Indian economists in academia was not available to the government when needed at short notice.
Then, last week, at my alma mater, IIT-Kanpur, an informal chat with a professor of civil engineering threw some light on an important reason why this may be happening. He was narrating the difficulty of defining quality standards for affordable housing: There were established standards for materials (say cement or steel), and for components (say blocks), both of which were used for all types of constructions.
However, there were none for finished systems in affordable housing, as this was not a problem researched well in the west. Indian researchers were not incentivised, as international journals would not be as interested in the problem.
So long as our academics are evaluated on the number of publications in such journals, there is no motivation to research India-specific problems. Indian journals are perceived to be of inferior quality, and therefore there is less reward associated with publishing in them.
It is not surprising therefore that there is not enough research happening outside the government or government-sponsored institutes and think tanks on issues that can and should affect policy-making.
The best of India’s brains are instead busy solving the world’s problems (I deliberately exaggerate a bit to drive home the point), as our policies incentivise them to do so.
In the last few years Make in India has made headlines, and some have added Make for India to address where demand may come from.
A “Think for India” campaign would require less publicity than Make in India (it need only address institutes and journals), and may yet be highly impactful. “Think in India” may help as proximity to the problems may help find solutions, although this is not always necessary (ie, foreign-based academics can also help).
Neelkanth Mishra is the India equity strategist for Credit Suisse.