“Huge need for well-educated public policy professionals”

EducationWorld March 2021 | Interview

Sridhar Pabbisetty

A computer science and business management alumnus of Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bengaluru and IIM-Bangalore, Sridhar Pabbisetty is founding director of the Kautilya School of Public Policy, Hyderabad (estb.2020). Its mission is to “empower leaders who solve 21st century problems through rigorous public policy education”.

Earlier, Prof. Pabbisetty was chief operating officer of the Centre for Public Policy, IIM-Bangalore and also served as the chief programs officer at the Bangalore Political Action Committee. Prior to that, he worked with several hi-tech companies including Zyme Solutions, Aditi Technologies and iCOPE Technologies. Excerpts from a 40-minute video interview (www.educationworld.in)

What are the aims and objectives of the Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP)?

Kautilya’s vision is to “rebalance the role of society, government and business towards an equitable and regenerative India and world”. Our mission is “empowering leaders who solve 21st century problems, through rigorous public policy education”. We offer passionate young minds a robust training ground that nurtures grassroots aspirations with rigorous academic programmes.

Most of India’s think tanks are sited in Delhi. How accurate would it be to say that a major factor behind the location of KSPP in Hyderabad is that inputs from southern states and peninsular intellectuals are also required to shape public policy?

At Kautilya, we strongly believe in cooperative federalism. While it’s true, and possibly appropriate, that Delhi-based think tanks heavily inform national policy decisions, we believe attention needs to be paid to perspectives from other parts of the country. Our location in Hyderabad gives us that opportunity to maintain a healthy distance from Delhi, while remaining in touch with the rest of India.

Another advantage of our location in Hyderabad is the opportunity it provides to leverage the uniqueness of this city as the gateway to the South. For the past four decades, the southern states have pioneered new-age industries — IT, ITES and biotechnology. The entrepreneurial buzz of Hyderabad not only offers freshness of perspective, but also opportunity to leverage policy innovations from the fastest growing hubs of India — Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai.

The popular belief is that India’s think tanks and the academy have had little success in shaping public policy. What’s your comment?

The impact of think tanks and academia in policy formulation is not easily visible. Yet the truth is that think tanks and academic institutions have been continuously influencing and shaping public policy formulation. Indeed think tanks have fleshed out major policy decisions such as OBC quotas in government and education institutions and creation of Telangana state.

During my stint at IIM-Bangalore at the Centre for Public Policy, we worked closely with state government ministries to launch impactful projects. For instance, the Karnataka government’s Right to Public Service Delivery programme was enriched with periodic and timely inputs from IIM-B. Currently, this nationally unique programme provides over 1,000 services with clear documentation, targets and process details from 95 government departments.

The public needs to be made aware of such interventions made by academia and think tanks. We also need to multiply the number of think tanks and public policy programmes to increase the supply of public policy innovators in the country. The challenges confronting the nation are enormous and there’s huge need for thousands of well-educated public policy professionals well-versed in statecraft to be solution providers.

The academy is still dominated by Left faculty and intellectuals inimical to business and free markets which have been enthusiastically embraced by communist China. As a result, the People’s Republic’s GDP is 5x of India’s. Which side of the ideological divide are you and your board members?

Firstly, we cherish India’s advantage of being a democratic nation unlike China. Nevertheless, there are many lessons for us to learn not just from China, but also South Korea, Taiwan and nations whose GDP has consistently grown at 8-9 percent annually. In India, we have just begun on this journey and we need sustained economic growth for long periods of time to become rich before we become old. Our demographic dividend will give us a great advantage if we focus on significantly improving our human capital with good quality education, skill development, employment and healthcare.

Moreover intellectuals and academia should beware of the danger of being stuck in any ideological groove. We need to continuously rebalance the role of society, government and business to sustain long-term development. We also need to move beyond measuring GDP to plan national development according to the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI). Inclusive development requires sharper definition and integration of the roles of business, government and citizens. We need to evolve win-win-win scenarios for all stakeholders through iterative socio-economic development practices.

We should also bear in mind that the rush for growth at any cost has inflicted huge human and environmental costs to China. Focusing on regenerative and sustainable growth principles will enable India to chart a more responsible roadmap for itself and other developing countries.

Education policy research is one of your institutional priorities. What’s your comment on the aims and objectives of the recently (July) released National Education Policy, 2020?

Directionally, NEP has made some very significant departures from the burdens of the past. Firstly, it gives flexibility to learners, allowing them to acquire formal qualifications in alignment with their talents and interests. This flexibility of NEP 2020 will enable students who aren’t considered academically meritorious by existing evaluation standards, to demonstrate other innate strengths and intelligences. Multiple entry and multiple exit options offered by NEP 2020 will override the dogma of standardised evaluation, remove fear of failure and replace rote learning with understanding of concepts through practice and effort. That said, the process of how the policy is implemented, ensuring its spirit remains intact, will really determine how much of all this is eventually accomplished.

Secondly, the emphasis on multidisciplinary learning will prompt youth to acquire skills beyond current narrow specialisations and become well-rounded individuals who can focus on problem-solving and innovation in diverse fields.

Thirdly, the commitment to improve the teacher-pupil ratio to 1:30 will drive up effective learning in schools. It’s well-known that too many schools have only one teacher, with students of different standards all learning together, slowing everyone down.

Fourthly, the commitment to increase the spending on public education to 6 percent of GDP will fix many ailments of the existing public education system. Although the allocation needs to be higher, investment in physical infrastructure and human capital of administrators, teachers and support staff should improve the learning environment for children and youth.

Finally, while there are green shoots, these promises will flower if they are meticulously detailed. We look forward to working with state and Central government departments in ensuring the promise of this policy translates into real improvements on the ground.

Despite the fact that 47.5 percent of in-school children countrywide are in private education, NEP 2020 has little to say about private education providers, except to state that the public needs protection against them. What’s your comment?

This is an unfortunate and significant shortcoming of NEP 2020. It’s patently clear that the goal of improving education at all levels will never be achieved entirely by the public education system. Not involving private education providers in a constructive way will be a drag on the upsides of NEP 2020. A periodic, consultative and participatory approach towards private institutions of all types and sizes must be accorded the highest priority by both state and Central governments.

Moreover every effort has to be made to create a level playing field between private and public education institutions. Instruments such as school choice vouchers will allow badly performing public institutions to get valuable feedback and also provide alternatives to children and youth.

How well has India managed the Covid-19 pandemic? How long before the economy regains its 7-8 percent annual GDP growth momentum?

While our fatalities have been much lower than the US and European countries, the hardships that millions of migrant and informal sector workers are going through have been worse.

This indicates that our Covid-19 management in particular and public health infrastructure in general, need critical analysis. It’s too early to declare either a win or loss in this battle, but government needs to focus on creating a responsive public health management system. The grim reality that we certify a mere 70,000 allopathy doctors per year from less than 500 medical colleges needs to be remedied at the earliest. We should move towards liberalising medical education and learn from the success of scaling engineering education over the past three decades.

It will probably take another year or two for India to regain 8 percent-plus annual GDP growth. But this can happen sooner if the government focuses on significantly reducing regulatory cholesterol. Greater effort needs to be invested in realising the goal of minimum government and maximum governance.

Any other comment?

It’s high time the best and brightest young people enter public policy formulation and politics. Nation building has to be a continuous effort. In KSPP we will strive to make this a collaborative and mutually enriching endeavour in the national interest. We intend to work with local, state and Central governments and provide them with evidence-based public policy analysis and implementation advice to achieve stated goals. We will strongly advocate scrapping legacy laws and unshackling the economy from the tyranny of the past and ideating and formulating policies that are citizen-centric and liberating.

Also read: Harvard, Stanford, & IIM alumni establish Kautilya School of Public Policy, Hyderabad

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