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Re: whither IPI...Re: Talk is cheap

Please help make the Manifesto better, or accept it, and propagate it!
Dear IPI

I have been a silent spectator of the genesis of IPI and the India policy 
debate. The reason is not just that I too, like many others, have a lot on 
my plate, but I was wondering what concrete action something like the IPI 
would lead to. But before I continue further, let me introduce myself.

I am an environmental economist who started off as a lecturer, wanted to do 
research, did an MPhil and PhD, then did a stint as a fellow in a government 
research institute. Tiring of the petty impediments in the way of meaningful 
research (no paper or toner or electricity when you want to print something 
urgently, reams of paperwork to complete after a field trip, administrative 
responsibilities eating up 40% of your time...), I decided to move to the 
private sector as a consultant, working in watershed development, poverty 
alleviation, community forestry, irrigation and drinking water and 
sanitation, mostly for donor agencies. This has proved much more satisfying
since what you research/write/present is taken seriously by those
responsible for implementing development projects. I see my role as a
development support professional - whose work in economic analysis of
project impacts, or in designing more participatory and effective monitoring 
and evaluation systems, or better capacity building procedures, helps change 
the way things happen in the development sector; not directly, but by 
assisting front-line NGOs and other implementing agencies in doing their job 
better. This is however true largely for the donor community. The government 
sector today (fortunately) is receptive to the need for change, but stymied
by the incentive-less system which depends on individual motivation to do a 
good job, and does not have any institutionalised mechanism to make/help 
government servants do a better job. I have encountered scores of 
well-intentioned, savvy, dedicated civil servants, doing an excellent job 
given the constraints, yet making little difference on the ground (with a 
few exceptions, I must confess).

Being an economist, and an environmental and natural resource economist at 
that, I guess I have a hereditory claim on pessimism! It is true that ground 
realities have made me cynical, and for my sanity I have had to rally around 
a philosophy that says: the environment (or development...) will always be a 
question of too little too late; so whatever good happens is a bonus! I have 
happily found quite a few bonuses.

The way forward, as I see it, is to focus on the people, to facilitate their 
awakening into a focused group demanding their right to basic amenities that 
any democratic country should provide: education, health, livelihood, 
opportunity, clean drinking water, basic sanitation facilities, etc. The 
government needs to be mobilised into action, not from the top, but from 
people demanding services from below. And, if the government is unable to 
provide these services, the people - especially the poor - must have the 
information, confidence and the ability, to go to the private sector and 
satisfy their needs. If all else fails, they must be able to fend for 

I have seen innumerable examples in the various sectors I work in, of people 
coming together to fend for themselves; poor women who form a savings group 
and start saving Re. 1 a day, build up their savings over a couple of years, 
take loans, redeem their husband's land from the moneylenders, ask the 
husbands to register the land in their names as well, and begin a successful 
onion-growing cooperative; women who, having experienced the exhilaration of 
financial stability, move the local tehsildar into giving them the contract 
for building a road to their village, ask for details of the material, and 
supervise the entire work to completion. Or women's groups who decided to 
sit on a dharna in front of a district administration officials' office till
he relented and said he would not demand the bribe....I could go on. The 
point is, while many of us talk about setting things right, there are people 
who are taking it upon themselves to do something about it.

But, these examples are but a drop in the ocean. There is a huge amount of 
work to be done. Yet, it is far better to roll up ones sleeves and start, 
rather than contemplate the vastness of the task, and the possible 
constraints of ever doing something about it...or the theoretical reasons 
why one should do something and how.

As I see it, an organisation like the IPI has (at least) 2 major strengths:
(1) the ability to enlist the support of a large number of people who can 
effectively put in a word in the right ears to facilitate certain desirable 
initiatives, whether it is to tell a senior civil servant to take notice of 
some particular problem, or to publicise existing good work, or lobby 
politicians to reverse an undesirable policy.

(2) the ability to facilitate sponsorships to support promising initiatives 
which can be scaled up to spread the good effects further.

With these in mind, I have a few suggestions for the IPI.

1. The IPI could sponsor researchers/consultants to (1) map out the
dimensions of a particular problem (since inadequate information is usually 
a major constraint in the way of clear thinking) (2) suggest what could be 
done (given what is already going on and what needs to be done) and (3) get 
concrete projects off the ground. By projects I mean initiatives to group 
people together around an issue - be it non-working telephones, stinking 
toilets, or encroachment of public areas by political thugs. Building groups 
is not an easy task, and requires patience and application. But if a capable 
agency is backed by public opinion and a campaign mobilising policial 
support, it could work wonders. It has to start small, but once success is 
demonstrated/tasted, it is much easier to scale up.

2. IPI could support existing initiatives, complete with a detailed feedback 
on progress, problems encountered and help needed. For the last, again the 
IPI could assist by writing to/lobbying political or bureaucratic 
powers-that-be, for policy or administrative support for the initiative. A 
list of such ventures could be drawn up in a couple of months time by 
researchers/workers/consultants working in these sectors. Or, I am sure the 
members of IPI could cast around their own backyards and come up with 
promising initiatives they have seen, heard of or know about.

Lets start small. Lets list what we would like to work on, and zero in on a 
few core sectors or problems. Work out an effective strategy and follow it 
through successfully. That will bring a degree of satisfaction and 
confidence to scale up and expand.

The point through all this I guess is, talk is certainly cheap. To get IPI 
moving effectively would mean (a) virtual contributors begin making real 
contributions and effort into real problems and (b) free email users put 
their money where their mouths are!

I felt quite bad to read the disappointment of Sanjeev Sabhlok who conceived 
of the whole enterprise. I however feel that he is justified in feeling that 
way, and being a guilty party myself, I set aside the report I was writing 
to put down some thoughts in the hope that it might help the IPI in future.

But I must end on the same note as Sanjeev: if the IPI is not going
anywhere, then I would rather not be a part of it.

Yours sincerely


Dr. A. J. James

Environmental & Natural Resource Economist

B 9 First Floor, South Extension Part 2
New Delhi 110 049

Telefax   : (011) 651 2901
Telephone : (011) 652 0223

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