As we near the end of 2020, Editor-in-chief Ashok Kotwal reflects on the unprecedented and momentous year that was, and presents key highlights from I4I.
The world has rarely experienced such a momentous year. For India, it has been particularly traumatic. Even before the pandemic struck, the country was reeling under a growth slowdown that had stymied policymakers. The formal economy was not creating enough jobs to absorb the excess workers in the informal economy, creating an explosive situation across the land. The pandemic struck us when we seemed to have little policy space to manoeuvre. The government imposed a stringent, nationwide lockdown with a four-hour notice that triggered a long march of migrant workers, causing enormous harm to them as well as the families that they supported back home. Daily-wage workers with no social safety net could not survive in the cities without work and, with shutdown of transport, had no choice but to head to their faraway villages on foot. The draconian lockdown resulted in the loss of livelihoods for millions. Unlike in most of the developed world, there were few resources transferred to the poor who had become poorer. There was no consensus on what policy measures the government should take. Should the Finance Minister not worry about deficits and send cash transfers to the poor and to small businesses so that they could survive the lockdown? Inadequate financial support would mean incalculable suffering among the poor but also a collapse of demand in the economy and a major recession. But the government tried to play it safe. In the first quarter of this year, the GDP (gross domestic product) shrank by 24%.
‘Ideas for India’ (I4I) was created with a mission to enhance the quality of public debate on issues pertaining to economic growth and development. This year, more than ever before, the importance of our avowed mission was brought home to us. The problems were unprecedented: the growth slowdown in the wake of demonetisation, banking crisis and GST implementation; the invasion of a fast-spreading novel virus; the draconian lockdown and the economic collapse caused by it. There was a dire need to initiate a wide-ranging conversation on each of the policy issues pertaining to these problems. I4I provided a forum for a spectrum of ideas among experts – academic researchers, policy practitioners, as well as those with first-hand experience of the grassroots-level reality. Sometimes it took the form of a symposium so that the readers would be exposed to a variety of views on the policy recommendations and the rationale behind them. Over the eight years of its existence, I4I has become the go-to source for accessible summaries of policy-relevant, economic research on India: this has been true over the past few months as well, as evidence began to emerge on different aspects of the impact of the pandemic.
Let me indicate examples of analysis posted on I4I on each of the major issues outlined above: pre-Covid economy, dealing with the pandemic, impact of Covid on the economy, impact on vulnerable populations and small businesses, monetary and fiscal policy, Center-state finances, government responses to the crisis, financial sector, and social and environmental aspects.
At present, all eyes are on the massive farmers’ protests. The government rushed through three parliamentary acts with little consultation, presumably designed to benefit farmers by expanding their trading opportunities. It does seem puzzling that it has enraged farmers and driven them to launch these protests. Was it the manner in which it was implemented? Or, does the government have a hidden agenda that farmers have detected? We held a substantive symposium on the farm laws to explore these questions. In addition to joining the public debates on these crucial events that have affected the whole country, we have initiated a debate on a new idea – ‘DUET’ (Decentralised Urban Employment and Training) conceived by Jean Drèze. MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) has worked well for the rural population. Could something similar be tried for creating employment in urban areas? But is this a practical idea? How would it avoid corruption? Would the scheme compete with local governments by taking away some of their assigned functions? We held a symposium on DUET that examined the original proposal from all these angles.
Most of our posts are based on findings from rigorous empirical research. A few of our posts commenting on some methodological issues in research have drawn a great deal of interest from academics as well as the rest of our readership. For example, Drèze’s essay that was published last year initiated an important conversation on the deeper meaning of evidence-based policy, and this was taken forward this year through continued interest. Sneha P’s post on the ethical questions that arise in carrying out RCTs (randomised controlled trials) has attracted a lot of attention. There has been a great deal written on the topic of designing delivery systems for welfare schemes. Muralidharan, Niehaus and Sukhtankar have undertaken one of the most comprehensive studies on the pros and cons of using biometric technology to reduce leakages. Many development economists and policymakers were looking forward to learning the results of the study. However, Drèze, Khera and Somanchi – who had also researched the problem in the same state (Jharkhand) – raised some crucial issues about the interpretation of the results. The debate has been highly informative to those of us interested in the central question. Our readership is also interested in learning more about the value of the work for which this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded: Parikshit Ghosh has explained the significant contribution to auction theory by Laureates Milgrom and Wilson.
The economic and social hardships that plagued us this year, and our reactions to them, have affirmed the importance of I4I as a credible, ideologically neutral platform for policy analysis and commentary. The readership has been growing significantly – perhaps because of the cascading set of problems befalling the Indian economy – and we interpret this to mean that you are appreciative of our efforts. We value your support tremendously. We have also been expanding our Hindi section and it is encouraging to see its readership pick up gradually. I4I’s cumulative page views for 2020 so far are 1,002,762 (of which 47,043 are for Hindi content) – a 43% increase over the 2019 figures.
As you see, we have been busy this year, often processing 4 to 6 posts a week despite the unanticipated problems posed by the pandemic. The credit for handling such heavy workload goes to our amazing Editorial team. Our Managing Editor Nalini Gulati – an Oxford-trained economist with a keen interest in gender issues – possesses excellent academic judgment and an imaginative mind, constantly coming up with ideas for new features. With Nalini at the helm of affairs, my job becomes easier. Shivani Chowdhry, our Copy Editor over the last four years (recently promoted to Deputy Editor) did an amazing job until she moved on this year to pursue doctoral studies in public policy at the University of Texas at Dallas. We will sorely miss her and wish her the very best at graduate school. Not only did she produce such good quality of work but did it so cheerfully. We have been fortunate to have Michele Mary Bernadine join in Shivani’s place in October 2020. A recent M.Sc. graduate from the London School of Economics (Maitreesh Ghatak’s student) now living in Mumbai, Michele is a well-trained development economist and has fit in to role at I4I spectacularly well under Nalini’s guidance. Almost all the credit for the progress we have made on the Hindi section goes to Rishabh Mahendra. He has played a central role in nurturing this initiative and making it the success that it has proven to be. Now he is in the process of transitioning out to pursue doctoral studies in environmental economics at the University of Missouri. Pooja Kapahi is our very creative Communications Officer, who produces our infographics, videos, and podcasts, and organises our e-events. Vikas Dimble is another big asset. He scans new, published research to source content, as well as supports the process of reviewing unsolicited submissions. What Vikas has been doing for us is truly remarkable as he has continued to be engaged pro-bono since he formally left the International Growth Centre (IGC) in 2018. He is now beginning an exciting new role as Deputy Director of Ashoka University’s new Center for Economic Policy founded by Arvind Subramanian. Last but not the least, it is Freeda D’Souza, who manages the logistics of every single activity that makes this train move.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Pronab Sen, Director of IGC India, whose sage advice and scholarly contributions have added immense value to I4I. We are grateful to IGC - and IGC's partners and funders in India - for their continued support. We are also fortunate in having an illustrious group of Editorial Board Members to guide us.
Above all we thank the readership whose genuine interest and active engagement keep us humming, and the contributors for choosing I4I as an outlet for their evidence-into-policy writing.
Wishing you happy and safe holidays! We will be back on Monday, 4 January 2021 with new research-based articles, opinion-based perspectives, experience-based notes from the field, symposia, videos, podcasts, infographics, e-events – and more.
Ideas for India.