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What makes public policy exciting and potentially inventive is the contested nature of the public sphere. It is anchored in a diversity of perspectives which challenges the dominance of one subject.
India is a country full of paradoxes. The elite in the country are forward-looking; they emphasise the need for reskilling but they conduct all this with backward-looking institutions. An acute observer once said: “we want to be [a] knowledge economy without reflecting on the demands of [a] knowledge society. As a result, we lack the institutions to be systematically innovative and our policies seem short run and erratic. We are being outfought and out-thought in the realm of knowledge and policy, while confusing rhetorical victories for real time gains.”
In fact, our new regime talks of the demise of the Planning Commission as a feather in its cap. It conflates the existence of the Planning Commission with the ideology of the previous regime and treats it merely as a policy issue. Today, our medical and our environmental policies, for example, are in a shambles, and yet there are no relevant spaces to debate them. We are a tangled, regulatory society without being “socialist” in terms of justice, which we set out to be.
Confusion over distinctions
Let’s face it. Our knowledge society does not differentiate between information and knowledge. Knowledge is embodied, epistemic, and has tacit elements. By confusing information and knowledge, we lack critical thinking, the metalanguages and the heuristics that go into the definition of knowledge. Central to such confusion is Sam Pitroda’s Knowledge Commission report of 2006 which equated the knowledge revolution to the information revolution and confused technology with epistemology.
In fact, the elite in India do not realise that of the four revolutions of the 20th century, in Quantum physics, Genetics, in Linguistics and in Knowledge, the last two bypassed us. The profound Linguistic revolution had no impact in India despite the fact that an exceptional linguist like Ferdinand de Saussure was a professor of Sanskrit at Geneva in the same period. While the footprints of the Quantum revolution appeared in India well after World War II, the knowledge revolution led by Gregory Bateson, Thomas Kuhn and Claude Levi Strauss never excited us.
Contemporary India, in that sense, was never sensitive to the genealogies of knowledge. We boasted of the Planning Commission and the Knowledge Commission, of the D.S. Kothari Commission but saw education and knowledge in instrumental terms. To add to our problems, we misread the managerial revolution and the debates on governance and democracy. We revamped a few commerce departments and believed that we had reinvented management. But our Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) had little research sensitivity. We consumed knowledge but we rarely added creatively to the stockpile. India became a consumer of knowledge rather than a translator or an inventor of knowledge systems.
Knowledge and power
This background is necessary to understand the new relations between knowledge and power. Linking the two is the field called policy. It also creates two kinds of intellectuals, the policy intellectual and the public intellectual.
The distinction is critical. The policy intellectual serves as an extension of the state. He/she is more a product of think tanks, of groups which strictly cater to policy interests of the state or of corporations. A public intellectual is a figure who provides a wide-ranging critique of policy, and looks more creatively at the relation between knowledge and power. A knowledge society needs both sets of intellectuals. The late Sukhamoy Chakravarty, the economist, was a great policy intellectual. Ashis Nandy, Rajni Kothari and U.R. Ananthamurthy belong to the category of public intellectuals. The policy intellectual usually takes his expertise for granted. The public intellectual questions the nature of expertise, probing deeper into the ethics and genealogy of ideas. In the post-liberalisation period, India has had more policy than public intellectuals with think tanks like the Centre for Policy Research and the Observer Research Foundation dominating the scene.
The think tanks and their attempts to formulate policy raise the whole question of the relation between knowledge and the public sphere. Policy formulation has not really articulated the views of the public sphere. In fact, the first challenges to policy came from the social movements, and from civil society which identified policy and experts as mere extensions to the state. The movements that grew around the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Narmada dam; the narratives of displacement and dispossession raised deep questions about policy and expertise, and about the public consumption of policy. Governance is now seen no longer as a statist exercise and the question of governmentality involves civil society articulating new epistemologies, notions of citizenship, ideas about the democratisation of knowledge and the assessment of public policy impacts. Governance has become tied to democracy, with the public sphere becoming crucial and public policy a critical field.
Field of the future
Public policy is not its impoverished, mechanistic cousin, Public Administration. Jawaharlal Nehru started the Indian Institute of Public Administration on the basis of the Paul Appleby report. Public policy became that empty space between management and public administration. It had a different texture and different requirements. Management schools in India have never succeeded in establishing a successful school of public policy as all efforts have become annexes of departments of economics.
Public administration is more a monument to the bureaucratic ego in India than to administrative reflexivity. As experiments, public policy has never succeeded, and yet today is a fast growing field with new departments at various institutions and universities. So far, it is a case of necessity not generating adequate inventiveness in our institutions. Yet, public policy is one of the fields of the future, linking as it does, new notions of empowerment in democracy with new ideas of knowledge in policy.
What makes public policy exciting, protean and potentially inventive is the contested nature of the public sphere. It is anchored in a diversity of perspectives which challenges the dominance of one subject. For example, economics, which was almost a canonical discipline, now realises that it confronts a new commons of social sciences which sees its sense of measure as inadequate to understand freedom or suffering. The new developments in feminism, cultural studies, future studies and science studies have added an increasing plurality to the fields of knowledge. Today, the relation between the ‘expert’ and the ‘citizen’ has changed and new forms of knowledge have to be considered. One sees this particularly in the development of ecological policy.
Nature which was once taken for granted or seen as passive in the realm of knowledge is now becoming a part of the social contract. The problems of climate change, and the energy crisis have revealed that science and economics are inadequate to answer questions related to ecology. Revolutions in ecology show that panarchy, complexity and risk had created a non-Promethean science where policy is merely prudent and precautionary. The subject of ethics has made a big return into the making of these disciplines. A subject-wise understanding in terms of the old hierarchies of knowledge is inadequate for policy. We are looking for new modes of knowledge which are intercultural, interdisciplinary and holistic. The emphasis is now on emergence rather than certainty.
New demands of democracy
These revolutions in knowledge have been catalysed by the new demands of democracy. Democracy is no more a passive exercise of citizenship reduced only to the exercise of periodic elections. Today, democracy is more proactive. The citizen knows more and demands more. She is ready to challenge the dominance of the expert. She senses that her active role is required to sustain a society. The public sphere today is more dynamic and contested.
One senses the excitement and the choices before India in the issues confronting us. In the 1950s, India treated nuclear energy as sacrosanct. Today, the fishermen of Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, and the tribals and villagers in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat are challenging the location of nuclear plants and even the feasibility of nuclear energy.
One sees similar debate on the future of biotechnology, for example on the need for Genetically Modified (GM) crops. For the first time, one saw an Environment Minister invite all stakeholders to a debate when in 2010, Mr. Jairam Ramesh of the Congress called for public consultations on the release of Bt brinjal. It was wonderful to watch the public sphere debating public policy on biotechnology.
The recent debates around growth, development and the fate of forests and the future of mining have also raised issues that public policy must answer. The new generation has to ask itself whether nature has rights: for example does a mountain have legal standing? When a tribal says that when a mountain dies, a myth dies, how does one translate his language into the dialects of policy? Recently, there was a report on the death of a waterfall. How does one analyse the death of a ‘myth’ through costs and benefits? Is a waterfall only about cusecs of water?
Similarly, the city raises its own seedbed of questions around the informal economy, the future of waste, issues of violence — all of which confront the policymaker. Ethics, science, suffering and philosophy cannot be ignored in any debate today. A student has to reach into the best of the academe to answer the new challenges to citizenship. One has to dream of futures in realistic terms going beyond the simplicity of smart cities to ask what urban space and urban imagination are.
Today, at a time when the university is in crisis, and the relevance of academics is in question, subjects such as public policy can revitalise the university, intensify the debates around intellectual life and show that the life of the public mind has new challenges. A subject like public policy is an invitation to construct a feasible future. It will be interesting to see how many Indians accept its challenge and construct the dream of a different India.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)