India Together: Who, exactly, is the public?

India Together: Who, exactly, is the public?

GS paper 4

10 March 2021

The importance given to public policy has increased in India in recent years.  Officials in government are routinely either shaping or implementing different policies, they say. There are many companies that hire experienced persons to head their “public policy” teams, as do large international NGOs and consulting firms. A few Indian academic institutions, like the Kautilya School and the Indian School of Public Policy are offering degrees in the field; others are offering the occasional course or two.  

Wikipedia defines ‘public policy’ to mean a course of action created typically by government to respond to public problems. It includes both ideas and plans, as well as things that get done because of those plans. Public policy may be formulated by the government, but companies and institutions benefit from public policy by supplying goods and services to implementing agencies. Sometimes these entities also have to implement the policies of the government. In both cases, these institutions spend a lot of time and effort trying to “influence” public policy.

Schools of public policy teach students how to formulate policy; how to measure the effects of policy; how to choose between competing policies; and how to ensure efficient use of public resources to best meet the government’s aims. Many of the courses are similar to those in business schools – economics, accounts, IT, communications, organisations, etc.  There are, however, a few differences between a profit-maximising MBA and an impact-maximising Masters in Public Policy.

Most MPPs focus on improving the understanding of the ‘policy’ side of the term. But it is even more important to understand the ‘public’ side of it. That’s because public policy works for and with the public. And as a result, there is always a risk of a policy failing because it is not designed for and understood by the public. This truism is more relevant in a complex and evolving society like ours, where there is no easy definition of who exactly constitutes the public.

There is no one public

For many practitioners of public policy, the word ‘public’ is defined too broadly. Often one finds people who are bucketed – as women or farmers or slum dwellers or children – and “appropriate” policies crafted for them. Sometimes, one dives deeper to consider adolescents as one group; minorities as a second; Dalits as a third. And at other times, the public is considered one homogenous group with loose definitions – e.g. in references to the ‘middle-class’.

However, our society comprises many more categories of people. If we look around us, there are maids and drivers, who surely belong to one category of public, but who so far have had little policy support. There are guards and other persons whose work we see daily, but who don’t work directly for us – they work instead for contractors. Then there are plumbers and carpenters and others who are self-employed. Uber drivers, Swiggy delivery men, and Urban Company masseurs have all for the first time been recognised in the 2021 Union Budget, and in one of the four Labour Codes.

The lockdown opened the eyes of many of us to migrants and the precariat – persons in our cities whose employment is only a bad turn away from being at risk. These could include restaurant workers; those who work in small manufacturing units; construction workers, and others. Even now, there is not enough policy for them, but this category of persons probably never features in the curriculum of public policy schools. Truck drivers are another large category of the ‘public’ who have only been considered once – when policies to control the spread of AIDS were being rolled out 25 years ago.

Even these are only the public seen from an urban, economic lens. If we shift our gaze to rural areas, one typically sees only richer farmers, now the focus of all the commentary around the three farm laws. Farm labourers have sometimes been included in the discourse. But other categories – those who farm fish, rear chickens and goats, and (still somehow) slaughter meat are mostly ignored.

And all of this is only the men.  There are more than 60 million women who are microfinance borrowers, who all have a credit history, but there has never been a policy for them. Some data talks about non-farm activities providing as much economic value as agriculture in rural areas. But who are the people who practice this badly-termed ‘non’-farm agriculture?  If we knew this, perhaps there would be some specific policies for such persons.

More clear segmentation of who constitutes the public for economic policy would be helpful. When we think of development, we also need to look at demographics, where our understanding is better. We have missions, commissions, laws, policies, schemes, etc. for women, for children, for older persons, for the disabled. We’re starting to think about transgender persons as well. There is also some unique-to-India nomenclature – e.g. the “girl child”. I’ve always wondered: what happened to boy children? And why not simply say ‘girls’?. We also seem to miss male adolescents when we think of adolescents. But these are quibbles.

This understanding of the nuances of society is however less well known to economic decision makers and regulators, who treat all Indians as belonging to one society, without thinking of a Scheduled Caste migrant or an OBC entrepreneur. A similar ignorance exists in government circles about the different types of economic contributors, some of whom I listed earlier. A finer understanding of how society influences livelihoods and business and the other way around would be helpful for all of us.  

An extreme example of the complexity of the public can be seen in Assam, which is probably the only Indian state that is simultaneously multi-religions, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual. Perhaps it has fewer caste divisions compared to other states, but it would be so tough to frame appropriate policies there.

Demography, jurisdiction, time

In all democracies, the first instinct of the government in power is to think about the public comprising only those who voted for it or are likely to vote for it in the future. This skews their policies and programs to work mostly for this definition of the public. In almost all elections, the winning party comes to power with less than 50 per cent of the total votes, because of India’s first-past-the-post elections. This implies that the majority of those who voted – and a large number of citizens who don’t vote – are not clear supporters of the ruling party. That party’s public policy, however, must include them too, and this will only result from a conscious effort by the government.

India is also a federal country, with many states and union territories. State governments have an increasing tendency to think of their public as only those who are long-standing residents (or domiciled, to use a particularly Indian description) in their state, ignoring fellow citizens from other states. Their policies are skewed towards this group, yet all Indians have Constitutional guarantees to equal rights and opportunities. Moreover, a resident of one state will always be a non-resident of every other state. Limiting one’s thinking of the public to only those domiciled in a state will not do justice to all other Indians. 

A third dimension is time. Public policy that better understands the public of today is hard enough. But good public policy also tries to imagine what the public of tomorrow will be, especially because policies last for years. The way policies will affect a future public must be kept in mind while making choices today, without which conflicts and confusion inevitably arise. The Brexit vote a few years ago in the UK, is a classic example of this kind of error – a majority of older voters chose a national direction rejected by an even larger majority of young voters!

Appreciation of the complexity and breadth of who constitutes the public is only the first step. Listening to many others consciously and constructively, as my former boss Arun Maira so passionately argues, must be the next one. Only this conversation will help us grasp of fullness of various linkages – between one part of the public and another, one layer of government and another as well as between departments in each layer, between thinkers and doers, between producers and consumers, and many other complementary relationships that must all work well.

Harsh Shrivastava’s professional career includes long stints in government, businesses, industry bodies, media, and civil society. He writes about the potential of Policies, Profits, Politics, and People to come together in a complex and evolving nation.

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