Lakshit Jain is a Policy Action Fellow at Indus Action. Policy Action Fellowship started in 2019 as the flagship program of Indus Action intended to give fellows a cross-functional immersion of the work in the organization, and in the process equip them with the understanding of the opportunities and obstacles of working in the development space.
As I sat in the mahogany drawing room of my father’s acquaintance in Lucknow and explained to her what brought me to Lucknow, she saw with utter disbelief and concluded “so you are here to help the poor children get admission in Monu’s school? They don’t value it, beta. They corrupt our children…what if Monu becomes a Tilakdhari?”
While all my attempts to explain rudimentary theories of social justice were being dismissed, Kaanta, the maid, rolled in with air fried samosas and fresh mint chutney.
“I am blessed to have her.”
This is the dichotomy of most middle class Indian households who refuse to accept that their success is not just the fruit of their hard work but many other factors, including systematic exploitation of the ‘have-nots’ and the fact that they just lucked out!
I wanted to drag the conversation and drive home a few points but chose to prioritise the samosa for the night. And that’s what I believe is the primary motivation of anybody joining the development sector – what we chose to prioritise and what we value the most.
Our country is sitting on a huge landmine of human capital, which has been systematically denied the chance to succeed. We are increasingly alienating the poor from our discourse, systems and design. It is humbling to stare at the quantum of the problem but what is perhaps more important to understand is that not everything can be fixed and should be fixed. Kate Raworth in her book Doughnut Economics argues about reimagining our economic system by combining planetary boundaries and social boundaries. She asserts that a safe space needs to be created which promotes competition in the economy without damaging our planet but at the same time ensuring the basic minimum for everybody.
In Picture: Reimagining our society – A Model by Kate Raworth.
As I set out to plan my journey in the development space, I quickly noticed that most of my peers were engaged in ‘policy work’ which seeks to influence decisions at the highest echelons of the government. Unfortunately more often than not, these recommendations are either far removed from ground reality or driving the agenda of only 1-2 stakeholders. What struck me about Indus Action was that it was seeking to bring together all stakeholders, getting its hands dirty by working at all levels of governments and rooting its recommendations in actual lived experience of beneficiaries. Afterall, a policy is as good as its execution and should, by design, encourage robust implementation.
Post my six months at Indus Action, and the huge leap from my previous career – I am penning down a few observations and learning (by no account are they final as I continue to absorb and develop a deeper understanding of the ecosystem):
1. The problems big corporations are solving are perhaps .1x of what our society and democracy faces. However corporations have developed superior ways of problem solving, attracting better talent, building systems and exceeding on metrics they set for themselves. Clearly, this has been made possible by a stream of continuous and focused investment over the years and creating the right space for innovation. Is our public and social sector equipped to do this?
2. Let us not forget, just 30 years back most of these corporations were not even allowed to operate in India at the scale that they do now. What is striking is that many solutions and products being developed are applicable to the public sector. If an Amazon, which entered the Indian market only 8 years back, can service every PIN code in the country why is the Indian Post not positioned to deliver door step delivery of essential services like pensions across the country. Is it just for an 80 year old to travel 20 kms to collect her 2000 cash handout?
3. No business, leader or organisation can survive in isolation without developing a comprehensive understanding of how our democracy and system works. These worlds are colliding in an unprecedented manner and human resource today cares much more than just their wage level. Recently I discovered that the vulture mortality rate shot up in the 1990s because of increased usage of diclofenac among cows, a pain relief medicine. The scarcity of vultures has led to a change in age-old Parsi funeral traditions. While this is also disrupting our food-chains and ecosystem most consumer healthcare companies continue to market diclofenac aggressively, even today. This market is a staggering 8000 crores! Maybe these decisions would have been different if we stopped living in our silos. Or maybe not?
4. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t necessarily translate into good outcomes. Execution specifics at local and state government level is more complicated than what I had imagined it to be. I am now much better placed to understand and acknowledge the limitations and nuances which sometimes not lead to speedy and ideal outcomes. In our Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) related state intervention in Uttar Pradesh, there have been multiple instances where a solution is fairly obvious but hard to execute due to the labyrinth of system and structures failing to talk to each other. In most instances, in my experiences, lack of communication among authorities leads to implementation bottlenecks. However this isn’t deterring me to look at the broader picture and act on the pain points of beneficiaries. After all you can address one elephant at a time, don’t you?
5. Artificial intelligence, technology, data – can only do so much – nothing beats human ingenuity and connections (yet) . In our Covid campaign – we pulled out all stops to collect data, resources and mobilise organisations working at the ground level. I continuously live in this dilemma and enjoy thinking through this. However, the ultimate transaction is human to human, which might not be scalable but is almost always far more effective. Every decision ultimately seems to boil down to a tradeoff – scale or precision?
As I embark on the second part of my fellowship, in the hope of finding answers to some of these questions, I sincerely hope some of us will decline the samosa and introspect about our individual roles in the society. I dream of a society where all of us balance private gains and public contributions to make our world a better place.