Interview: Parth J. Shah, President, Centre for Civil Society

Parth J. Shah is Founder President of the Centre for Civil Society. CCS advances social change through public policy. Their work in education, livelihood, and policy training promotes choice and accountability across the private and public sectors. To translate policy into practice, CCS engages with policy and opinion leaders through research, pilot projects and advocacy.

Parth taught economics at the University of Michigan before returning to India to start CCS. He has published academic articles in the areas of development economics, welfare economics, business-cycle theory, free or laissez-faire banking, and currency-board systems. He has edited Morality of Markets, Friedman on India, Profiles in Courage: Dissent on Indian Socialism, Do Corporations have Social Responsibility?, and co-edited Law, Liberty, and Livelihood, The Terracotta Reader, and Agenda for Change. He writes regularly in newspapers and magazines.

  • As one of the world’s leading think tanks, how would CCS assess the change in India’s approach to governance over the years?

Before the 1991 economic reforms, one answer to all problems was that the government should do it. Central planning was still in vogue, there was little federalism or decentralisation, one political party dominated the political landscape, business was seen as fundamentally exploitative. Much of the economic governance has changed in the last 25 years—central planning is gone and there is more federalism. However the basic beliefs have not been affected much at all. The first answer to any problem is still the same, i.e., government and businesses are still seen as ethically suspect. The acts of government are judged primarily by intentions and not by results or outcomes. Some of the institutions of governance have surely improved but the foundational beliefs have seen little change.

  • Is a uniform tax structure suitable for a country like India? If yes, do you think we will benefit from the GST regime in the near future?

As a principle, I prefer tax competition among jurisdictions, across countries, states and cities. If done right, GST could provide a degree of uniformity which would help build one country, one market. At the same time, leave some taxes at the State and local level where there could still be competition.

  • Which of the BRICS nations have the most well laid out growth models for India to learn from?

For India, no BRICS country offers a fully replicable model for development. However, there are sector specific lessons that we can learn. Brazil’s education reforms, I think, are very pertinent to India. Opening the education sector to private players, including for-profit companies has expanded educational opportunities substantially.

  • How far has the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), achieved its aim of economic inclusion among the rural poor?

We know that crores of new bank accounts have been opened. During demonetisation, we learned that many of these zero balance accounts suddenly had substantial deposits. So, more of the poor have bank accounts now. Is this economic or even financial inclusion? If we provide electrical connection to all houses, then would we claim that electrical inclusion has been achieved? Electrical Connection is the first step in inclusion but electricity has flow, and in a way that it is usable and affordable.

  • Do you think India’s economic disparity alone is responsible for the elitism that has seeped into our education system?

I am not sure I fully understand the question. What does elitism in education system mean? Does it mean that we have few elite schools and many ordinary schools in the system? Or that more students are going to elite schools and fewer to ordinary schools? Or that more students are attending private schools and fewer are in government schools? We must first ask, is any of this change necessarily undesirable?

  • Is Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act, ill equipped for encouraging inclusivity in our school structure?

I would have preferred if the government had made a simple offer to private schools, that if you take students from difficult backgrounds, it would reimburse their fees. Instead, the Act made it compulsory and forced private schools that have no interest in inclusion, to take in marginalised students. Genuine inclusion requires a lot more than just passing a law. It is hard work for schools and teachers. We would have been far better off if we relied on only those schools and teachers who are at least interested in working with these students.

Now that we have a law, the government needs to keep its side of the bargain. Only then can it put real pressure on the schools to work towards genuine inclusion. The government needs to reimburse schools on time; some States have not paid the schools since the last three years for these 25% students. This makes schools as well as parents of the other 75% students, who must bear the cost, antagonistic towards the 25% students. The government also needs to be transparent about how it calculates the reimbursement amount. Except for providing a generic formula, no State Government has explained in any detail through its own education budget lines, the process of calculating reimbursement. If the government keeps its side of the contract, the civil society and 25% parents would be able to put genuine pressure to change school behaviour where necessary.

I would have created awards for schools that demonstrate their efforts towards inclusion and actually achieve it. I would build an environment where schools are happy to take 25% students.

  • Why do India’s policy-making structures find it difficult to formulate the “right” policy and stick to it?

Despite the talk about federalism and decentralisation, policy making is concentrated in far fewer hands. We need to implement the 73rd and 74th Amendments. The current one-size-fits-all policy making by definition is wrong for a vast majority of the people. Shifting policy making to local levels is the first step to getting the right policy. Policy making at the local level would increase accountability as well as participation of the people.

The reliance on the State to solve all economic and social problems means that we make just too many policies, even in areas where they are not necessary and are often counter-productive. We need to reinvent or re-imagine the State and its proper role in the society.

  • How can we encourage a more informed and active participation of the citizenry, particularly the youth therein, in issues of governance?

First, decentralize policy making and governance itself. Second, create platforms where citizens can engage meaningfully. Third, build practicum in schools and colleges along with teaching theories of economics and political science. Active public participation is a habit of the heart; we need to develop a culture that teaches and encourages civic participation. Please excuse the plug, but CCS runs programs for college students and young professionals that teaches and encourages policy participation. Such programs need to become part of the school and college experience, to develop the habits of the heart.