Here’s how to translate new policy ideas into action in India

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Updated: September 30, 2016 7:02:07 AM

State and local governments have historically had neither the autonomy nor the funds to implement well the full range of tasks that should be theirs to carry out.

Indian rupee vs US dollar(Reuters)

India’s policymakers have a general problem with putting new ideas into action, even after there is broad consensus that change in a specific area is needed. Some of this problem lies with India’s size and heterogeneity, captured in economist Pranab Bardhan’s phrase “multiple vetoes”. More broadly, there are interest groups that oppose change, and make it difficult to implement new ideas. Another obstacle that I have highlighted often in these columns, and one which is more easily overlooked compared to the visible clashes of interests, is the minutiae of how institutions in India function, especially those of governance.

In my last column (, I highlighted the web portal, Ideas for India, which brings new ideas to public attention, including hard-headed analysis of the data that can tell us whether converting an idea into action will be beneficial or not, and for whom. I illustrated the progression of ideas by tracing, over three-and-a-half years, a thread of articles relating to the need to reduce open defecation in India. This has now been shown, through careful data analysis, to be a first-order obstacle to India’s development, leading to widespread stunting of children and other health vulnerabilities.

After tracing the history of this topic on the Ideas for India web site (where one can explore other important issues like education outcomes, the workings and impacts of MGNREGA, the challenges of manufacturing in India, and so on), it occurred to me to see what was available on the government’s websites. With the disclaimer that my search effort may have been deficient, all I found on the NITI Aayog site was a brief blog post in March 2016, by Ashok Kumar Jain and Alok Kumar, both senior advisers of the organisation. This piece noted substantial progress in West Bengal and Rajasthan, to merit description as “a silent sanitation revolution.” It noted progress “to some extent” in Madhya Pradesh, but that UP, Bihar and Odisha continued to lag in implementation. What struck me about this piece was that it lacked any significant data, and it did not reference a single analysis by researchers (which I highlighted in my last column).

I next went to the Swachh Bharat website, and, while it was clearly slickly constructed, and designed to motivate ordinary people to engage with the issue of sanitation at a grassroots level, I did not find any hard information, nor even a search function. One thing researchers have pointed out is that toilets are only a part of the sanitation value-chain. Toilets without water or without some connection to a functioning sewage disposal system may be worse than useless in reducing the health problems created by open defecation. I did not find any discussion of these issues (or even a mention of toilets)—instead the focus was on symbolic actions such as taking pledges or picking up litter.

Of course, this is where ideas come in—new ideas have to be absorbed and owned by enough people to make a difference. To their credit, the NITI Aayog blog authors recognise this point, also emphasised by researchers, that attitudes have to change before toilet use becomes acceptable in many Indian contexts where it is now viewed with suspicion or disdain. Interestingly, Gandhi recognised this as a major opportunity to change Indian attitudes towards ritual pollution, making toilet cleaning an essential part of living in his ashram. But we know he made little headway on this with the majority of India’s population. Many decades later, it is no small thing to normalise discussion of defecation and disposal of human waste, even if sensible implementation is lacking.

The authors of the NITI Aayog blog also highlight the need for state governments to lead the way in taking action, and even more, the importance of local efforts to translate a big idea into specific, context-appropriate actions for implementation. This issue of implementation brings to the forefront the structural challenges of translating policy ideas into action in India. State and local governments have historically had neither the autonomy nor the funds to implement well the full range of tasks that should be theirs to carry out. In some cases, the problem is also one of interest groups, which divert funds to benefit themselves. However, sanitation, like primary education, is an area where majorities of constituents can benefit from changing the status quo for service delivery. Higher level governments need to provide funds, expertise and monitoring, rather than slogans and photo opportunities.

One has to conclude on a positive note, however. Despite India’s cultural baggage of dealing with open defecation, accelerated attention can achieve a tipping point. When Indians migrate to Western countries, they lose a significant amount of the concerns over ritual pollution, because the norms around them are so different. This happens quickly in most cases. Once enough people in India change their attitude towards toilets and sanitation (even if it is a village at a time), the norm will shift and others will follow. At least that process has begun, after decades of neglect and policymaking silence.

The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz

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