Take-aways from the Karthik-Arvind show

Last night, I managed to read through the transcript of the conversation between Dr. Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Advisor, Government of India and Prof. Karthik Muralidharan of UC San Diego. It was published on August 5, 2015. It was time well spent. There are many take-aways including the names of young researchers like Siddharth Geroge (Ph. D student and about to become a faculty member at Michigan State University), Prabhat Barnwal, Santosh Matthew (IAS Officer), etc.

To me, there were simple take-aways:

(Dr. AS): that there is a lot of value in just presenting simple facts clearly. I certainly think that we underestimate how little the facts are understood, and there is a lot of scope for presenting these through simple analyses; you don’t have to do complicated randomised controlled trials.

(Prof. KM):  Let me make a plug for one more approach, which is better data.

(Prof. KM): One of the most interesting insights from our AP smartcards work came …….. from being embedded in the government and observing the process play out.

Observation, data, simple analysis and presentation – these things matter and matter far more than we think. We need to try these first before we go for ‘smart’ solutions. All sincere and competent people are trying to come up with smart solutions to scale the political economy barrier for bringing about desired and desirable social and economic change.

For example, there was quite a bit of discussion on the political economy of change and reforms. While all smart solutions have to be tried – choosing winnable battles, picking areas for reforms where rents are collected by the Opposition, reforms by stealth including privatisation by stealth, acting where there is least resistance and sharing the gains of reforms – one issue that did not get discussed is the requirement of a basic level of trust, integrity and identification with common cause and the importance of leadership that articulates effectively the public cause.

Incentives for undertaking reforms at the systemic level are not enough. Individual incentives are needed. How to offer that to Ministers, bureaucrats and others involved in the process of change? Some form of the Singapore model of formulation of objectives, evaluation and incentives for over-achievement might be needed to incentivise personal ownership of the process of change.


3 thoughts on “Take-aways from the Karthik-Arvind show

  1. Dear Ananth,

    I fully endorse Prof. Muralidharan’s comment that working with the government in an “embedded” fashion gives many useful insights, especially regarding spots where there is scope for corruption, so that those could be eliminated — IF the government wants to that is. Of course, with systems such as MNREGA that were DESIGNED to be corrupted right from day one, nothing will help.

    At this point in time people forget that. long before Narendra Modi, it was Chandrababu Naidu who was thought to be the “CEO CM.” When I was with TCS and he was still in power, he awarded a project to TCS with the acronym SKIMS which if I recall correctly stood for “Secretariat Knowledge Information Management System.” One abiding memory from those days was that we in TCS managed to persuade Mr. Naidu that a bad process, computerized, is still a bad process. So some amount of re-engineering of processes took place while we were in the process of computerizing.

    Today people forget that Mr. Naidu initiated many e-governance offerings, such as creating the e-seva kendras to deal with the state government on many matters, and then extending the scope to transact matters NOT under the jurisdiction of the state (e.g. paying all utility bills and telephone bills, and even railway reservations). Back in the early 2000s, when the rest of Indians were either standing in queues for hours together to perform simple tasks like paying their electricity bills or booking train tickets, we in AP could do all of these things under one roof, at one time, and in less than fifteen minutes!

    I will give a few more examples. My driver, who is my window to the outside world so to speak, informed me that even in rural areas, people could phone up a particular telephone number of APSRTC to find out when a particular bus would be at a particular spot. For rural folk who were accustomed to sitting for hours together under the hot sun waiting for buses, this was like a miracle! Mr. Naidu also set up a wide area network (WAN) so that at each “raitu bazaar” the prices of each commodity at all raitu bazaars statewide would be displayed for everyone to see. This enabled farmers to decide whether to sell their produce then and there, ot to travel to the next bazaar.

    It is of course another matter entirely that we stupid Andhras showed our gratitude by voting out Mr. Naidu’s government in the 2004 elections. But his initiatives continued so serve the people of the state until the bifurcation in 2014, the lasting legacy of Sonia Gandhi and one that has permanently sealed the fate of the Congress Party in AP.

    So to summarize, before we go ga-ga over “smart cities” and what not, we need to imitate what Mr. Naidu did, and do things that touch the daily lives of ordinary folks (including poor folks). Too many armchair experts sitting in air-conditioned studios have drawn erroneous conclusions from the2004 defeats of the TDP in AP and the NDA at the national level.

    My comment is a little off-topic but I hope you would bear with me.

    Warm regards.


    1. thank you very much, Dr. Sagar. It is not at all off-topic. Reforms must touch lives of common man. That is the point you are making and that bears countless repetition.


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