Public and academic debates on Indian policies — their implementation and outcomes — have for long excluded or dismissed the role of the bureaucracy.

On the sidelines of a panel discussion on the Right to Education (RTE) organised by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in Chennai, Akshay Mangla, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School (HBS), spoke with Business Line on a gamut of issues ranging from his research, the RTE Act, the present global debate in the management sphere to B-schools’ look-east policy. Mangla teaches the Business, Government and International Economy Unit at HBS, and received a Ph. D in Political Science from MIT. He also holds an M.Sc. in Management Research from the University of Oxford.

Bureaucracy importance Mangla’s research postulates that where bureaucratic actors were given the freedom to innovate while formulating and implementing policies, they fared better in comparison with others who were asked to strictly follow the letter of the law rather than its spirit. The study is based on field work carried out in Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, where he conducted around five hundred interviews with senior officials, lower-level officials and communities. “The idea was to compare places that have similar economics, geography, politics, caste composition...and Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh had a lot of similarities. But Uttar Pradesh had completely different variables. And this was to test out how robust the argument is,” he explains.

Structural difference While the structure of the bureaucracy may be the same in each State, the difference lies in the bureaucratic culture; how bureaucrats interact with people. “How they bring local knowledge into the implementation process,” said Mangla. For instance, in Himachal Pradesh, the Gujjars, a nomadic tribe, despite being desirous of sending their children to school were unable to owing to their occupation. Here, schooling that suits the local needs of community was made possible through mobile schools (that came to them instead). “In Himachal Pradesh the bureaucratic norms facilitated expansion and delivery of schooling.

The solutions put forth evolved to be far more deliberative, they promote discussion and participation especially among lower level officials,” he says.

Startling contrast

In contrast to this is the case of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. In Uttarakhand the bureaucracy decided to shutdown schools owing to low attendance, without realising the schools were too far for students to attend.

Likewise, in Uttar Pradesh, despite the right education-infrastructure in place, they were unable to successfully bring students into schools they never tried to understand why students didn’t or couldn’t come to school.

Here, the bureaucracies chose to follow rules for the sake of following them, thus leading to poor outcomes. On the subject of the RTE Act Mangla believes that it is not about quantity but the quality of education offered in Indian schools needs questioning.

He feels the education system in India is obsessed with qualifications and degrees because of socio-cultural reasons such as better marriage prospects, social standing, and so on. “RTE has taken qualification for quality,” he says.

He draws on the results of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in which, India ranked 71 out of 73 countries assessed for math and science, to qualify this view. “No Indian states are doing very well.

The students who sat for PISA were from States that are considered to do well — Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Even the best performing Indian states are doing worse at a global level,” he says. Is nationalising the answer? No, talk of nationalising is irrational.

Private sector He feels that the private sector has played an important role in education. According to him, one must acknowledge that there are good and bad schools in both the private and the government sector. “Private sector is not independent of the public sector, and we need to get out of such binaries,” he says. “We need a private-public-civic partnership.”

Also read: Global dialogue in the management space