Anirudh Krishna, Edgar T. Thompson Professor of Public Policy and Political Science in conversation with V Shoba
V Shoba | 17 Apr, 2020
Anirudh Krishna, Edgar T. Thompson Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Sanford School, Duke University, has studied poverty in India as a grassroots researcher for the past 20 years, and before that, as an IAS officer for 15 years. The Broken Ladder, his 2017 book on the causes and effects of low social mobility in villages and urban slums, is a deep dive into the long shadow of economic development in contemporary India. In an interview with V Shoba, he talks about how the pandemic could further impact social mobility and push millions of low-wage workers, including migrants, who live at the edge of subsistence, into the abyss of poverty. And why improving the quality of school education is a critically important longer-term measure. Excerpts:
What are the biggest barriers to social mobility in India?
Every year, I spend a great deal of time in remote villages and in slum areas. As one might imagine, this has been a mixed experience. I have felt depressed. But I have also had uplifting moments. It was heartwarming to find that there are many, many smart and hardworking kids in poorer communities. I found such kids in every slum and every village. These kids were keen to learn, and they wished to get ahead in life.
Unfortunately, very few among these young people, even the smartest ones, have been able to find their way out of their current situations and into any kind of higher-paying position. Social mobility–the improvement of a child’s situation over a parent’s situation–is low in India compared to other countries, according to recent publications of the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. Particularly at the lower end of the income distribution, people rarely advance to a higher income-group compared to their parents.
I observe the effects of low social mobility in the villages and slums that I visit, and I try and uncover the reasons behind these unfortunate, but only too frequent, occurrences. The highest position that anyone had achieved, in more than 100 villages of three states where I asked this question, was that of village schoolteacher or police constable. These are, of course, essential and important positions, but they are hardly the pinnacle of achievement for an ambitious young person. The same story of low social mobility is repeated in the poorer parts of our cities. Families have lived in slums for four and sometimes five generations; sons follow fathers and neighbors into low-paid professions.
There are, of course, some individuals who count as notable exceptions. These are the “outliers”–individuals who have beaten the odds, and rising up from humble backgrounds, are occupying positions of status and influence. What is it about these individuals that is different from others of the same background, the vast majority, who have not been able to climb higher? We interviewed many outliers, and we compared their experiences with those of others who have not been able to rise higher.
Of course, the individuals who moved up and became outliers are exceptionally capable. That goes without saying. But relatively few capable individuals from backgrounds of disadvantage have become chartered accountants or IAS officers or software engineers. Many were unable even to achieve their childhood dreams of becoming police constables.
Multiple factors contribute to creating an unhappy situation for capable young people in urban slums and remote rural India. Principal among these factors are low-quality education, lack of role models, absence of guidance and career information, shortage of self-confidence, and group-based discrimination. These are the factors that combine to produce broken ladders.
Poor-quality education for the majority is dragging down the collective achievement of an entire generation. States differ in this respect but overall, learning levels are low in schools across India. The share of Standard V kids who can read Standard II texts are, respectively, 69% in Haryana and 77% in Kerala. In most other states of the country these percentages are lower. Many smart minds get blunted in poor-quality learning situations.
A lack of role models and a shortage of career-relevant information are other important barriers to social mobility. Kids growing up in better neighbourhoods have ready access to superior role models. Their aunts and uncles, their neighbours, the parents of their friends, and the friends of their parents, serve as a rich pool of role models and career information. Hardly any kids in slums and remoter villages have these kinds of role models. They suffer from a severe shortage of information. When everyone around you works as a welder or vendor or security guard or factory worker, it becomes difficult to learn about the steps you need to take in order to become a medical doctor or airline pilot or graphic designer.
The lack of self-assurance is an outcome. Very few know of better careers. The few who may have heard of better-paid positions know little about what it takes to prepare oneself for one of these careers. Very few trust their own ability to do better. These problems are made worse for groups of historically disadvantaged individuals, especially women and scheduled castes and tribes, who have suffered, and often still suffer, discrimination.
What keeps me going in the research business is that every time I arrive at such a depressing finding, there is also a discovery of an uplifting element. I began stumbling upon assorted organisations that I now regard collectively as social mobility promoting organisations (SMPOs). Even before I came to these conclusions via research, SMPOs had independently arrived at the same realisations, namely (1) that social mobility is very low for most village and slum residents and (2) that actions need to be taken which prioritise education, role models, information and guidance, self-confidence, and discrimination.
Each SMPO has developed a module of action which it constantly refines and it works on one or more of these underlying factors. My research helped identify about 30 such organisations. Many among them met at a national conference at IIM Indore, and that helped uncover additional SMPOs. These are mostly young organisations, set up no more than ten years earlier. Their existence and the notable successes they have achieved give cause for good cheer. The sad part is that the existing SMPOs collectively serve at most one-lakh individuals, while there are tens of millions who need the same kinds of assistance.
How do you think this pandemic will change the pre-existing situation–for better or worse?
Let me switch hats for a moment and think like an IAS officer. I was taught by my seniors that a crisis is also an opportunity for ushering in necessary innovations. Of course, one has to do everything required for keeping people healthy and for minimising the economic costs, especially upon poorer households. But it shouldn’t end there. We also need to be pro-active and see what we can do in order to build back better.
Two set of actions are urgently required in my view for fixing broken ladders. Raising the quality of education is a number one priority. It is clear that this problem has to be fixed. It also clear that it will not be fixed in an instant or even in a year or two. A beginning must made in a sensible way. The process needs to commence. Progress can be sequential.
I recommend a phased process of innovation and learning. Invite the best ideas that people have to offer for improving the quality of education. Let a panel of experts–researchers, educationists, and policy experts–select the most promising ideas. Provide pots of money for implementing each of the selected proposals, and examine the alternatives head-to-head in carefully monitored experiments, each carried out initially in only a few villages and urban localities. Ideas that work well in these smaller jurisdictions, delivering good results in the initial years, should, in the next stage, be offered for adaptation to the next larger jurisdiction. Progressively, after successive stages of testing, evaluation, and adaptation, alternative solutions will emerge that can, with greater assurance, be offered for use across the nation. Testing and evaluation at every stage will help streamline these programmes of action. The risk of failure will be reduced with every iteration. The Chinese Government adopted a process of this kind for improving its rural health care system.
Secondly, other actions are required in order to resolve the complex problem of low social mobility more reliably in the near future. In parallel, it would be helpful to use the capacity for experimentation and evaluation that is developed for promoting a phased programme of SMPO expansion and improvement. Following the same process of staged experimentation and evaluation, we should build a system of facilities that help millions of underused talents overcome the other barriers to social mobility. Alternative ideas include libraries and career centers in rural areas, programmes of mentorship in slums, and test preparation software, etc.
Unless we seize these opportunities and start building these public systems incrementally, we will still be tomorrow where we are today–a nation with a thin elite of high performers together with millions of low-paying workers, including many migrants, who live at the edge of subsistence, some of whom would have been pushed further into poverty because of the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Is the reverse migration back to the villages the beginning of the end of aspiration? Would villagers migrate to the cities again anytime soon, especially when fears of overcrowding and disease continue to linger?
The village subsidises the city. The vast majority of migrant workers come to a city and live on the cheap in order to save and remit money. The rest of the family stays behind in the village. It is because the village home exists and picks up the costs of family maintenance that domestic servants and tradespeople and cab drivers in cities are able to work for relatively low wages. If the full cost of supporting these workers’ families in urban areas were to be borne by the salary of urban workers, then cleaning services and cab rides and haircuts would become much more expensive.
Village families are willing to provide this subsidy because they need more cash, and there is little opportunity of making sustained cash incomes in most village settings. So families send out their adult sons (and less often, their adult daughters) to work for a cash wage in a city.
The wages these people earn, on top of what the family makes from its usual farming and other activities represents, quite often, the difference between living in poverty and being non-poor. These basics of household economics are the motivators that drive the migration from villages to cities. So long as villagers’ needs for cash incomes are not met in other ways, they will be forced to come to cities. I do not see these trends changing any time soon. Expect to see a huge reversal of the reverse migration that we witnessed recently when the restrictions related to the pandemic start being relaxed.
I hope that the jobs or business opportunities that these migrant workers utilised for making an income in the pre-Covid period will still be there for them when they return to cities. If the crisis and the lockdown persist for a long period, many small employers may no longer be in existence.
Fears of infection from human contact and the reluctance to hire “outsiders” may lead us into a more automated world. Is the demand for labour in India starting to decline?
It may take some time for restoring normalcy in the economy, but I expect little decline in the overall demand for labour. Though India will not remain immune from the global trend of automated manufacturing processes and robotisation, I doubt these trends will adversely affect more than a small share of labour in India. In order to understand why, consider the following statistics. The number of construction workers in India more than doubled, from a little over five million in 1993 to more than 13 million by 2005. The numbers of shop assistants rose from five million to ten million individuals over the same twelve-year period. In comparison, the numbers of system analysts and computer programmers increased by a tiny fraction: from 30,000 positions in 1993 to 160,000 positions in 2005. For every new position of computer programmer, 80 new positions of construction worker were added in India.
The technological advances of the future, such as machine learning, can disrupt the jobs of computer programmers. However, the technological advances that displaced the jobs of construction workers and shop assistants occurred decades ago, and very little labour displacement occurred in India. There will be some displacement of jobs, especially within firms engaged in high-end manufacturing. Overall, I do not see a reduction in the demand for labour in India.
Your research suggests that people fall into poverty because of things happening to them that they have no control over—disease, accidents, the death of a wage-earner. Ayushman Bharat, Arogyasri and other health insurance schemes have improved the poor’s access to cashless hospitalisation. With the emphasis on public health infrastructure after Covid, do you expect a silver lining for the poor that could last a long time?
The pandemic will be an acid test for the innovations in health care that have been introduced to help poor people. Systems need to be in place for establishing eligibility for government programmes at the point of admission to clinics and hospitals.
This is also the time for fast-tracking innovations and evaluating outcomes. How well does the rural ambulance system work in different states, especially at the time of a health care emergency? How well have grassroots and community health workers learned the lessons of contact tracing and isolating infections? We must monitor these results and learn from them.
There are three key ingredients of a strong health care system: payment, provision, and regulation. Insurance helps by making payment easier. But it does not bring a hospital closer to a village (provisioning is required for this purpose), nor does it ensure that healthcare providers will maintain high professional and ethical standards (this requires regulation). Once all three ingredients are in place, fewer people need fear falling into poverty on account of a health episode.
Do you agree with governments’ health-first-economy-later approach?
If you can be dead from an illness or bankrupt because of it, then yes, clearly it makes sense to put health first and economy later. Responsible governments the world over have taken this approach. Each government is having to deal with a new and emergent situation. There are no known ways of dealing with it. Every country is gingerly feeling its way forward. India’s containment measures have so far yielded impressive medical results.
Containing the economic costs, especially for the poorest, will require additional shorter-term and longer-term measures. Promoting social mobility and the quality of school education are critically important longer-term measures. Shorter-term measures include making cash deposits in Jan Dhan accounts equal to some proportion of what the average migrant worker would have saved and remitted; enrolling everyone who is eligible for government health insurance; making lines of subsidised credit available for small businesses; topping up the old-age pensions that the government announced in the first round of stimulus; and extending by one year the age of recruitment for government positions.
The Author Replies to a Comment by windwheel
Thanks for commenting on the interview. Your argument is that villagers have large numbers of children, and they are cossetted by public subsidies (and don’t pay taxes), and so they “drag down the city.”
Let’s look at the data, starting with numbers of children. The relevant statistic here is the total fertility rate (TFR) – the average number of children expected to be born to a woman during her reproductive span (15-50 years). Fifty years ago, in 1971, TFR was 4.1 in urban areas and 5.4 in rural areas. It may have been right at that time to feel that rural people had large numbers of children (although urban people were not that far behind). Things have changed drastically since fifty years ago. In 2017, the TFRs for urban and rural India were, respectively, 1.7 and 2.4. (These are very reasonable reproduction rates, given that 2.1 is the replacement-level TFR). The argument about large numbers of children, which applied earlier to rural as well as urban India, is now seriously outdated and part of a caricature.
Let’s look at subsidies. Subsidized food and other welfare benefits are available to households who have BPL (below-poverty-line) cards. Urban as well as rural households are beneficiaries of PDS. Among scheduled castes, for instance, 22% of rural residents and 17% of urban residents have BPL ration cards. There are also some welfare programs – like wage employment through MNREGA – that are only available in rural areas. But the benefits of these programs are more than compensated by the overall poorer quality of public services and infrastructure spending in rural areas. The same facility – a PHC or a public high school – provides better and higher-quality services and is better resourced in cities. City residents have the best-run public schools and dispensaries. The worst-run facilities are in remote rural areas. Some kinds of subsidies and infrastructures are available only to city people – subsidized metro train services, halogen street lights, underground sewerage, etc. When you put all this together, you realize that the city is the spoiled child of the public exchequer.
Former President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam wrote and spoke frequently in favor of a Program for providing Urban-quality Facilities in Rural Areas, which became known by its acronym (PURA) – precisely because the number and the quality of public facilities in rural areas is inferior. Villagers aren’t tax-avoiders either. They pay the same share of consumption expenditure in GST, which comprises a larger part of government revenue than personal income taxes. Incomes are, in any event, generally low in rural areas. More than 90% of rural families fall below the zero-tax threshold.
Structural constraints and historical neglects are behind these outcomes. The average farm family cultivates a piece of land that is less than one hectare in size. Even in a good agricultural year, income from the farm is enough for no more than one-third of the family’s annual expenditure. Because schools were introduced relatively recently – two generations ago there were hardly any schools in rural areas – and because the quality of rural schools remains low, by and large, the average villager is poorly prepared for an alternative career outside the village and outside agriculture. It is because of these constraints that village people tend to be poorer and less educated, on average; not because of lack of capacity or for want of trying.
Don’t succumb to ages-old stereotypes. Go into some villages after the lockdown ends, and talk to some village folks. You will find they are as intelligent and hardworking and law-abiding and self-respecting as any others.