Something on Public Policy

Somewhere around the beginning of 2014, a good friend and I decided to apply for a short-term course in public policy at a well known Indian policy think tank.
Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for such applications: The applicant is to provide a personal understanding of the institute's philosophy and then in not more than 500 words or so, his reasons for joining the same. The folks at Takshashila intended to respect that tradition. The questions, delectably put-

Why public policy matters?

Why do you want to do the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course? Please take some time to reflect on your purpose in doing this course and how you think you will be able to use the learning in future.

Now one useful thing you can do with such an exercise, in addition to providing their screening team with a good laugh as they read the summary of your epiphanies, is ask yourself: “In an odd chance that the application does get accepted, will I be able to make that kidney sale in time to pay for the fee?” Of course not. The useful thing is that writing, as an activity helps. The process of structuring your half baked ideas in a constrained narrative helps you flesh your thoughts better. You tend to come closer to terms with the idealistic quest for knowledge and a practical way forward given that the sale hasn’t happened yet! time and money is of essence. The course was a three month long engagement, mostly carried out via online lectures and assignments except for two offline weekend workshops, held in Bangalore. Since the logistics seem to work out well within a usual job’s constraints, we went ahead with it. Looking back, it was a good experience in moderation. And in more ways than one, the course helped reinforce the idea that any large scale decision making (or a public policy for that matter) is better understood with the help of the narratives around it. The context along with the timeline gives you more clarity. Rather than commenting and criticizing the outcomes of a few failed interventions in silos, it helps that you understand the context of the larger scheme of things and brace yourself for the inevitable doom and engage in an informed discussion. Or as my father would say, “editorial pada karo beta, ye kya headlines pad ke kaam chala rahe ho!” (The sentence would not be translated into english for it looses its x-factor). But even as you try to go through a few of them, the usual tone and tenor of most of these articles makes you wanna scrape your eyes and turn the white portion inside out. Or as Marcus Aurelius would say, the sculptor’s curse! marcus aurelius


Which brings us to the second part of this post. A curated list of places you can go to in case you wish to get a flavour of the public policy related/ Indian history centric discourses. One of the major criteria was that the book, weblink or report should have kept me interested enough to pass it on. In no particular order then –

  • India’s tryst with Destiny – The first part of the book is mostly about debunking the myths perpetuated by the leftist economists (with a considerable socialist bias) and it may not make up for a fun read because the myths (soon to be countered) are boldened out at the beginning and so not much left to the imagination anyway. But keep up with the book and the second part will build the historical context to our economic policies and probable way ahead from the angle of pro-development policies. The analysis will do good to dispel the pessimism surrounding these themes.
  • Oxford companion to Politics in India – Its a thick book but it is divided into essays, which is good. Have not gone through all of them yet and there is no definite sequence to follow anyway, which is good too. Most of the essays are factual and maintain a neutral pitch, which is what they should to be able to provide you with a ready reference.
  • The Idea of India – I came across this book a little late in life. There are many books which deal with themes such as this and I had picked up bits and pieces from a few of them (but never stayed with one till the end). This is one of the most recommended by public, in terms of readability and author’s take.
  • Pratap Bhanu Mehta – Most of what he writes appears rock solid in terms of choice of the topic and his take. I have mostly followed him over his Indian Express articles.
  • Caravan Magazine – A bit of a digression but the intent in putting this magazine on the rolls here is that most of their articles are a long-ish narratives which bring out the best in the read. You might not get much on economics related news but politics and culture, are aptly covered.
  • World Development Report 2015 – The tagline of the report being “Mind, Society and Behavior“, this report or even excerpts of it will delight you in the approach taken here to evaluate the policies and reforms worldwide. Kaushik Basu says,

    This Report distills new and growing scientific evidence on this broader understanding of human behavior so that it can be used to promote development. Standard economic policies are effective only after the right cognitive propensities and social norms are in place. 

    Now he is the Chief Economist of World Bank for this part, which sort of dilutes the claim but still, do read selective bits about interventions wrt India. You will be amazed.

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