A new voice

  • Blog Post Date 18 July, 2012
  • Perspectives
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Ashok Kotwal

University of British Columbia

It is with some trepidation, but with huge excitement, that I present to you Ideas for India – a new voice in the cacophony of conversations on Indian growth and development. Hopefully, this will be a voice that will clarify rather than obscure, a distinct voice that will grow on you, a voice that you would want to hear first thing every morning.

Ideas for India's mission is to be an outlet for evidence-based arguments on a wide set of issues relevant to Indian growth and development. A healthy democracy needs wide participation by informed and interested citizens and is strengthened by debates in the public arena. In India, we are more privileged than most in this respect. We hold our opinions strongly and we air them in public without fear. We celebrate this diversity of opinions and so we should.

Our disagreements don't merely arise from value differences; many are rooted in questions of fact. Is the planting of Bt Cotton leading to financial ruin and suicides amongst farmers in Vidarbha, or has it reduced poverty? Is MNREGA a waste of money, or a lifeline to the seasonally unemployed rural poor? What is the evidence?

We take our cue from opinion makers with great communication skills. But often their arguments are based on merely anecdotal evidence of the following sort: “I met Mahadev a farmer from Vidarbha - brought to financial ruin by Bt Cotton…”. But what if the narrator had run into somebody else who had prospered by planting Bt Cotton?

Academic researchers often make painstaking effort to gather evidence but they are seldom all that influential. In part because they are too busy talking to each other in a language of their own. While empirical research is hardly perfect and may not always tell us what is right it does often shed light on what is wrong. It would be good to have some understanding of what the research community has to say. Of late, many academic researchers have taken to working on policy questions at the grassroots level. Questions such as how much are children actually learning in our rural primary schools? Or, how does corruption take place in MNREGA projects?

Of course, academics go beyond just capturing reality or establishing facts. They also propose policy solutions that are based on a cohesive and logical framework. It is more useful to get some understanding of this framework than to simply take their advice as a prescription. Therefore, we need to build a bridge to the Island of Academia, one that will bring academic ideas to the society at large, and highlight interesting policy-relevant questions for researchers to study. This is what we are hoping to do through Ideas for India.

We are not unique in this endeavour. There are some attempts in Europe. There is La Voce (the voice) in Italy, Nada es Gratis (nothing is free) in Spain and perhaps the best-known attempt to translate academic economic research to non-economists is VOXEU (voice in Latin) — however, mostly only economists read it. While VOXEU makes it easy for labour economists to read and understand what macro economists have to say about the financial crisis, the bridge does not go far enough.

We want to build a bigger bridge. We would like to connect all readers of English language who are interested in Indian growth and development to academic research on the subject. We are hoping that the NGO community that plays such an important role in India will engage with, and add value to, our portal. We want to be a source of information for politicians and bureaucrats who make policy decisions. We want to be a go-to-source for all intellectually curious readers.

The five articles published in our launch issue illustrate the type of articles we will solicit. Sandip Sukhatankar reports the findings from his study of corruption in MNREGA projects in Orissa and Andhra; Michael Greenstone and Rema Hanna examine how well the environmental regulation in India is working; Martin Ravallion compares the processes of poverty reduction in India and China; Kaivan Munshi offers an analysis of the economic role played by the institution of caste in India, and lastly Maitreesh Ghatak and Parikshit Ghosh present a succinct analysis of the problem of land acquisition and offer a neat and workable solution to it. Each of these articles explores an issue of significance to Indian development and has an idea or a piece of information that is not self-evident.

The ideas in Ideas for India may be small. We prefer a flashlight that illuminates the ground we walk on to a searchlight aimed at the clouds. Small ideas can, however, have large welfare impact. Moreover, what will matter is the snowball effect of idea generation that will emerge from the discussions. We hope these ideas will contribute to the creation of even more evidence-based policy.

I invite you to join your heads with us, to think aloud, to debate and to challenge. It will be exciting, and along the way we may even gain an inch or two in our never-ending battle with seemingly insurmountable problems.

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