Hand to mouth

The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and the Potential of India’s One Billion
Anirudh Krishna
Penguin Random House

The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and the Potential of India’s One Billion Anirudh Krishna Penguin Random House ₹599  

On policy interventions that can help India’s poor

A boy struggles to complete high school — and he is the first person in his village to do so. But even a year later, when he still cannot find other employment, he ends up digging for sand on a dry riverbed. A woman dairy farmer breaks her hip while milking a cow and is forced to sell her silver anklets to pay for substandard medical care. A poor farmer can get a response from the irrigation department only when a local leader accompanies him to the office to threaten officials.

These are some of the heartbreaking, infuriating stories of India’s one billion that we encounter in Anirudh Krishna’s new book. After 15 years in the Indian Administrative Service, Krishna is now a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University in the U.S.

The Broken Ladder brings together his experience of being inside the government system, working outside as an academic and most of all, conducting research in some of the poorest Indian villages to understand the nature and extent of poverty and deprivation, and to discuss how well-designed policy interventions can help the poorest of India’s population.

Krishna’s canvas is vast, and many of the problems he discusses seem intractable: but there is a deep optimism at the heart of this book. The message is not that nothing can be done, but that we can and must do better to ensure better futures for our young people.

The book brings together conversations not only with senior policymakers but also with street-level bureaucracy, non-governmental organisations working in the field and, most important, the individuals whose lives are impacted by these policies or the lack of them.

One aspect of villages that achieve better, Krishna points out, is that they are able to act collectively for mutual benefit. One may ask: in that case, how can the school curriculum be designed to better teach young people the valuable skills of cooperation and collaboration?

Another finding is that poverty is getting created even as it is being reduced: while some households are able to emerge from poverty, others are slipping into persistent poverty. How can policy interventions aimed at poverty alleviation take this into consideration?

The central question in this book is about the ladder that leads out of poverty: why is it broken in so many places? How can it be fixed? As Krishna points out, these problems don’t require a single monolithic solution: indeed, for solutions to really work and be sustainable, they should be as localised and context-specific as possible.

This is a humane, thoughtful study about the challenges facing India in the 21st century.

His conclusions about what needs to be done are well recognised — transparent and accountable governance; proactive disclosure of information by the state; meaningful decentralisation; greater investment in rural India, and in health and education (I would especially emphasise investments in early childhood and nutrition, which yield significant returns in the long run) — but what is interesting about this book is Krishna’s analysis of the hurdles that come in the way of implementing these self-evident measures.

But one of the biggest obstacles in the way of designing good policy interventions is bias. Perhaps nowhere is this bias more visible than in the way in which we have neglected investing in our nation’s children over the decades. Krishna quotes the political scientist Myron Weiner’s unforgettable remark about the distinction between middle class children and the children of the poor: “A distinction is made between children as ‘hands’ and children as ‘minds’; that is, between the child who must be taught to ‘work’ and the child who must be taught to ‘learn’.”

Another obstacle is the skewed nature of service delivery. Krishna observes that like other colonies, India’s state was also constructed from top down. “The chain of governance… was stretched out over a long distance and thin on the ground.” Not only did government offices remain physically distant, but procedures also remained opaque and compartmentalized. Administrators working in diverse conditions across India are familiar with the frustrating inflexibility of ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy interventions. And over the years, with the state increasingly taking on more by way of responsibilities, the concerns of the poorest – which depend the most on grassroots level implementation — are often the least adequately addressed.

Though technology can provide transformative solutions to at least some of the most pressing problems, there is a risk of using it to further centralise. A district magistrate tells Krishna that in his experience, technology is mostly used for compliance reporting. On the other hand, the rich local and contextualised knowledge available with frontline workers, which could be gathered with imaginative use of technology, is lost; and “people with the deepest and latest knowledge of conditions on the ground — teachers, extension workers etc… — a vast army, are being reduced incrementally to automatons.”

The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and the Potential of India’s One Billion; Anirudh Krishna, Penguin Random House, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 5:06:12 AM |

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