Research, Development and Policy

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 17 Jan 2015

It is more than three decades ago that this writer came face to face with issues related to development of a ‘backward region’ in the most populous state of the country for which a unique administrative mechanism had been put in place but had apparently failed to deliver the desired intended results. The ‘region’ was the eight hill districts of this state, the state Uttar Pradesh and the mechanism, a dedicated Uttarakhand Development Department. Even though his first two postings have been to as many as two districts of the same problematic hill-region the brevity of tenures and his own personal lack of any developmental exposure was not of much help. Unlike today the region also has not had much ‘developmental exposure’, like projects implemented by some non-governmental organizations or externally-aided projects like say Ajeevika, Swajal or Watershed-development. CHIRAG and CHEA were in their infancy INHERE was yet to be born in Kumoan region while founders of HARC and PSI the two oldest, in Garhwal, were in the process of being founded, as was HESCO. As this writer travelled extensively from west of Kali to the east of Tons rivers there was not much that he could lay his hands on. His previous tenures at co-operatives, dairy development, sugar-cane and even rural development was of not much avail as he realized that the backward region which he now confronted did not answer the basic necessary conditions that had made him make some difference to each of the previous development challenges that he has had occasion to manage. Extensive travelling away from the plains and mostly in hills gradually modified his insights. Early lessons were : first, the region requires direct experience i.e. extensive touring; second, the mountains deserve ‘action research’ and not ‘fundamental research’, third, adding a prefix ‘mountain’ tends to transform any discipline into a new discipline of knowledge, and finally, all the above suggests, an urgent need for a ‘development forum’ for sharing of what has ‘worked in hills’.    

Problematiques : Mostly cliches

The so-called problems quoted for ‘backwardness of hilly regions’ were mostly drawn from the development experienced gained in the ‘plains’, there were no institutional mechanisms dedicated to gaining continued experience in the ‘mountain regions’, most of the problems quoted e.g. small and fragmented land-holdings, rainfed-agriculture, ‘nothing-grows under pines’ etc  were nothing but mere clichés, repeated ad nauseam. The mountain regions received assistance from the Centre under a Hill Area Development Programme ( HADP ), a hundred percentage grant meant for Hill Regions of predominantly plains state, like Uttar Pradesh. However, the pattern of this most liberal mode of central assistance did not make much impact, as schemes which were implemented remained as was often described as ‘poor carbon copy of plains schemes’. Government of India had just woken up to this challenge and responded by establishment of an Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, partly in response to establishment of a regional institution for ‘mountain development’, sugar-coating it by naming it after an eminent son-of-the-soil, Govind Ballabh Pant, at Kosi-Katarmal, Almora. Needless to mention much was expected, by way of an answer to the endemic and persistent problem of backwardness of hilly regions, from this dedicated centre by way of ‘research and development’. It was during one of his extensive tours in the hilly region that he occasioned to meet its eminent Director, Prof AN Purohit, who was battling with the teething-troubles, that any new institution faces in a hilly region, especially dedicated to ‘hill-development.’ As a builder of institutions, his contributions, have simply been par-excellence. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Role of Research in Educational Institutions

This dismal situation brought this writer in close contact with the only possible source of new or fresh insights, namely the academic faculty of the only two established institutions of higher education, the Universities of Kumaon and Garhwal, at Naini Tal and Srinagar, respectively and various institutions of excellence located at Dehradun. Several rounds of discussion with the faculty-members of these two Universities and eminent scientists engaged in research at these institutions convinced him that while on one hand all these higher education institutions seemed to have isolated themselves from the society resulting in breakdown of a vital social contract i.e. there was no conscious effort on their part to engage with wider society and contribute to the local and ‘regional development’. In other words, they had become oblivious to their social obligation to provide an ‘intellectual leadership’ to the society. Much later, this writer was happy to find the same sentiments echoed officially by the Twelfth Plan document ( 2012-17 ) which underscored the need to encourage the Universities and Colleges to engage in this endeavour far more intensively than before ( Twelfth Plan, Chapter 10 ).

Contribution of higher educational institutions towards ‘local and regional development’ thus is a national objective and it is only natural to evaluate their performance vis a vis what has been their contribution in the sphere of ‘intellectual leadership’. This intellectual leadership, in so far as these higher education institutions located in a mountain-state are concerned, is to be measured in terms of what is the ‘nature’ and ‘extent’ of ‘researches’ that have been undertaken so far and being encouraged by them. Above all, what is the architecture, if any, that has come into being as a result of the University Grants Commission ( UGC ) Regulation of 2009 and whether this mechanism is proving helpful in providing an unambiguous  direction to these educational institutions in discharging their hitherto forgotten obligation towards ‘local and regional development’ ? The term ‘local and regional development’ brings in the state, as a stake-holder, and ‘mountain specific’ research, as the context of today is Uttarakhand, and no more Uttar Pradesh. If the research theme still remains ‘non-mountain’ specific the very rationale of state-funding to research and for research stands defeated. This automatically brings in issues like extent, mode and role of research and development –funding agencies like say UCOST, UREDA, various development departments of this state, as well as those in the Government of India. The State i.e. the Government of Uttarakhand has a definite role to play-namely providing certain broad guidelines for providing research related assistance and recommending institutions for being considered by the research-funding departments of the Government of India, where such a recommendation is essential ( which must become the norm now, itself a major policy proposal ).  Providing direction to research, both the flow of funds as well as the research priorities, must receive greater attention of the Government of Uttarakhand, in a NITI Ayog era, when providing policy-direction, which includes all aspects related to ‘research’ , becomes a major function of all state Governments.

‘Policy Planning’  in NITI Ayog  Era

Informed articles appearing after the NITI Ayog has finally come into being have indicated that perhaps time has arrived for substantive re-structuring of Centrally Sponsored Schemes as in the roundtable conference of Chief Ministers they have been informed that a basket of schemes will be available from which the states could pick and choose according to their needs and further that each scheme would be further tailored to meet their specific local needs. The states are certainly looking forward to this fundamental structural change, which if effected successfully could definitely result in a more optimal utilisation of resources.

It has also been rightly stated that what now remains to be seen is how the new Ayog brings the states on board and how it defines its own role – the latter being, to restore credibility of the process of consultation. One of the worst-scene scenario visualizes the NITI Ayog becoming yet another “Delhi-centric, think tank, engaged in intellectual debate far removed from the stark realities of this vast and diverse nation.”( KM Chandrasekhar: Winning Over the States, The Indian Express, Jan 16 ).

In response to the changes triggered by the Centre, the tasks that seem cut out for the states in general, and the mountain-states in particular, does now bring a renewed focus on, ( i ) strengthening the process of policy-planning at the level of each state, ( ii ) the need for collaboration among the states which have had no previous and specific development experience of their own, like most of the mountain states of India, and ( iii ) a formal forum for mutual consultation. Policy – planning process and collation and mutual consultation of specific developmental experiences among states automatically suggests an urgent attention to put in place an effective and thought-though research-promotion and development architecture, including a robust budgetary support, both by the states and the Government India departments.

Uttarakhand Research Scholars’ Group

A fundamentally altered policy and administrative architecture for ‘fund sequestering for development’ via the newly constituted NITI Ayog, necessitating  increased attention to policy-planning at the states’ level and strengthening of individual department’s capacity to pick and choose from a basket of scheme options, and in the case of the eleven mountain states even to conceive of schemes specific to their needs, individually and collectively, draws our attention to an academic  resource available with our higher education institutions, namely the registered PHD Research Scholars. A three-fold ‘research development and promotion’ approach, including a robust budgetary support for the same, seems essential to achieve the following three objectives, ( i ) Collation and enlisting of all past-research these leading to successful award of PhD Degrees, theme –wise ( some Universities need to update this inventory and put it in public domain; it is also now an integral part of UGC Research Regulation, 2009 ), ( ii ) Linking registered Research Candidates with the related development department ( linking research with development, and state ), and ( iii ) Continuous inventorization of research-themes by the development departments of the state governments, and linking Fellowships with the selection of identified research theme by the Research Scholars.

A logical way-forward for supporting such a three-pronged approach for support research in higher education institutions would be to earmark a mandatory and healthy percentage of departmental budget in every department where there exists a need for research into various themes, related to that sector. Fundamentalists, who also exist in the field of research and would run down such a straight-jacketing of ‘research’, who believe that the research –questions are best left to the choice of the scholar and his/her research-guide, must also be made to realize that the educational institutions also owe some obligation to the region which hosts them. More so, regions like the mountain regions which have been “bled-white”( the white –spots ), as per the Assessment Report 4 of IPCCC, when it comes to scientific researches related to the ‘mountain regions’ of India. The situation in the social sciences research, is no better. Uttarakhand must show the way by constitution of a Research Scholars Group in every University and implement the suggested three-pronged approach, leading to a policy-planning revival in the state via a robust research regime.

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