Rebooting economic research in India and limiting the role of committees

This blog piece is on state of economic research in India. It is an irony that with so much attention on Indian economy, we hardly produce any quality economic research in the country. Most research papers on Indian economy are written sitting elsewhere. Pick any such paper and one would be surprised to find any reference of work done in Indian universities and institutions. This is quite amazing and sad really.

Why should this be given the importance of Indian economy even in global setting? We have created education institutions like IITs/IIMs which get global recognition but largely for their graduation programs. They are way behind on research and there is hardly any agenda to drive it further other than bare talk.

I think one of the central problems in India’s research is importance given to committees in area of economic research and policy. After the new govt threw several GOMs and E-GOMs out of the window, will something similar happen to the several committees which span the economic space of the country?

I don’t know how many countries follow the committee route to policy, but here the obsession is too much. In other economies, policy issues are usually debated with several working papers coming from the top academic institutions in their countries. In India, we usually have a committee whose suggestions are debated mainly via newspaper articles and rarely via working/research papers. EPW is perhaps the only visible journal which atleast tries to raise some debates on the recent committees from some academicians. But it is way too limited and does not do justice to the several dimensions from which these issues can and needs to be discussed. Instead of the committee based approach, we should get our thinktanks and universities to debate on economic policy issues.

This committee obsession has led to several problems.

First, most committees usually comprise select set of people who keep moving from one committee to another. Earlier there was some requirement of India experience but now even this is not needed. Perhaps having Indian experience is a disadvantage. One can just get these prominent positions based on experience abroad.

Second, there are certain people which either chair or become member of committees irrespective of their subject expertise. One is actually expected to learn the subject as part of chairing the committee! Just the name and pedigree (read US degrees) of the individual is considered fit to chair whatever subject matter of the committee. In other countries, experts are sought and names alone don’t matter. In India, it is common to see a transport economist chairing work on macro/monetary economics, macroeconomist working on some industrial issues, financial economist on development etc.  In future, the same financial economist could be asked to chair something on industry and transport person on development and the game of musical chairs continues.

Third, is the inability of polity to retire the top policymakers for good. The game of musical chairs amidst select few is not limited to committees alone but applies to general policymaking as well. They continue to remain active policymakers even after retirement that too from a top position. In other countries, usually the top policymaker goes back to normal civil life but not in India. One should at best keep them as advisors and others should be given a chance. The end result of all this is policy work is exposed to just a select few and we don’t have the next set of policymakers. This is like a sport team where seniors keep playing till they retire (atleast they do here) and suddenly the team is left in vacuum. One benchmark for a strong team is the quality of its bench strength and the bench should be given enough chances to fill positions laters. In Indian economic policy, bench strength may be there but it is on the bench for a perennial state. This in turn weakens our policymaking institutions as it becomes too individual specific and not system specific where incoming and outgoing people do not affect the institutions.

Fourth, nothing could be better than somehow incentivizing these retired policymakers into training PhD students in Indian universities. We see quite a few instead preferring to join foreign shores or be on the global speaker circuit. It is amazing how so many talk about demographic dividend but choose to do nothing to generate the dividend.

Fifth, this also affects the incentive structure of other academicians etc.  It is ironical that one can actually read the entire committee reports without finding any mention of research done in Indian universities. This is really sad state of affairs as academicians/researchers who chair/member such committees are unable to point even to their own works for reference. So, academicians here know that unless they can make their way into such committees there is no future in India. If one does not take this path, he/she can just keep teaching students and that is where it ends. The research is unlikely to be rewarded. So quite a few actually dump research and take the networking to committee route. The main agenda seems to be somehow getting to head a certain committee. This way the name will always be mentioned whenever the topic comes up and is a huge incentive.

I want to now move on to the second neglected area of economic research. This is almost total neglect of economics PhD students in India. The kind of attention Indian economy is generating, econ PhD students in India should have their hands full. There are so many things to be studied and understood given our unique political and institutional framework. But there is nothing of this kind. It is far better for students to go abroad and research on India than for a PhD student studying in India! Infact, one is surprised to see how the various government doors open for former whereas the latter struggles to develop a basic dataset that too on Indian economy!

The government should make all effort to open its several ministries/bodies to students pursuing higher studies and research in India. Yes, there have been some recent efforts but they are limited to just internship for graduate/post-graduate students. There could be much better engagement with Indian PhD student body. For instance, Ministry of Finance could start a program whereby senior Ministry officials (many have PhDs) along with University/Institute advisers guide the students into their thesis work on macroeconomics/finance. Likewise for other areas like health, water etc. This way topics could be selected which could be of direct relevance to Indian economy rather than the random topics which are of no practical use to anybody.

This will also give students better understanding of how things actually work in India rather than just read theoretical stuff from the west which is irrelevant here. It will set in a virtuous cycle as the same students who will become Professors in future will teach their students relevant stuff as well. There is no point just teaching macroeconomics based on textbooks written in the west. They do not help students understand and connect with the issues in India.

And then there is always this issue of incentives for doing PhD in India. To say it is abysmal would be doing injustice to the word. The stipends are really low and are hardly revised for many years. Now, no one is talking about a hefty salary but just a survivorship grant. In many places, scant regard is paid to the cost of living index and stipends are fixed irrespective of the location. So a student in Mumbai could be getting the same grant as a student in Guwahati which is absurd to say the least.

Just want to end this crib piece now by pointing to a broader perspective. Though this piece is mainly talking about economic research, but am sure it applies to other areas too. Bharat Ratna CN Rao has pointed this in many of his interviews.  I mean in any country, education is one of the central pillars and the sheer neglect seen here is really disappointing. If we are to get anywhere closer to the so called demographic dividend, we need to inspire education sector like never before. And this does not mean fancy campuses and gadgets as perceived today, but getting to the basics of having quality teachers across the sector.

The new PM has talked about instituting new IITs/IIMs in every state of the country (though don’t agree with this move). Who will really teach in these new places? Ghosts? Has any reality check done for even existing institutions?

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2 Responses to “Rebooting economic research in India and limiting the role of committees”

  1. Pratik Datta (author) Says:

    Good to see at least someone else also thinks along these lines! It is important to combine policymaking with the formal education system in India. Being a lawyer, I thought this is a drawback in the discipline of law. But now I realise this is actually a wider crisis affecting the general quality of higher education in India. For a LLB from a national law school, doing a LLM/PhD in India is taken as a negative. So tons of people take insane amounts of loans to do LLMs from foreign universities. But unlike for economists, most Indian lawyers cannot easily get absorbed in a foreign legal system. So they come back and pay off the loan in INR. Consequently, there is a higher propensity to join corporate law firms to pay off the loan instead of coming back to academics. We need to build more respected higher studies programs in law in India if we want bright people to seriously pursue academia and policymaking in India. I am guessing the same broadly applies to the discipline of economics.

  2. Amol Agrawal Says:

    Hi Prateek,

    Let me give your compliment back…nice to know of someone who thinks on these lines as well…i was expecting a lot of negative comments on this…

    I mean it is really sad to see such discrimination in law as well…Our National Law schools also seem ti suffer from a similar problem where only graduate programs are of any use…in Indian univs/instis the higher the level of program, worse are your chances…

    State of Economics is even worse…there is almost complete takeover of economic policy by foreign PhDs…and none really help in improving things..they just want big policy positions and international fame…

    But who cares mate…things likely to remain this way..

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