Validated data and research can set the tone in public policy debates and help in shaping more effective legislation. However, due to several contextual factors – the stakes involved, the modes of communication used, and the level of receptiveness to data – research does not currently drive policy discussions as much as it could.

Debates are an integral part of a participatory democracy, and are vital for ensuring representation of diverse viewpoints through cogent and well-articulated arguments. In the Indian scenario, particularly, where scarce resources have to be directed at achieving maximum social returns, debates are a valuable tool for investigating alternatives and prioritizing choices.

The structure and quality of debates are strongly influenced by the context within which they occur. This context is defined by the stakes of the participants and audience in the debate (personal versus impersonal/academic); the platforms of communication used (single, multiple); and the audience outlook (defined by their inclination to support either fact-based or emotive arguments).

Traditionally, public policy debates in India have centered around high stake issues such as poverty, jobs and welfare schemes and this is expected to continue. However, there has been a marked change over the past decade in the other two contextual elements – available platforms of communication and audience outlook. Multi-modal media penetration through print, TV, web and social media has increased the number of platforms available for deliberation on such policy issues. Studies have established that greater media penetration and openness of channels leads to better debate and potentially, to better outcomes. For instance, a cross-country study across 60 developing countries showed that there is a demonstrated positive correlation between free media and voter turnout. This points to the ability of open debates to enhance democratic participation.

Education is another determinant of the quality of public debates. With education levels rising among the youth of the country, there has also been greater public interest in performance, growth and governance issues as opposed to identity driven politics and populist measures. While these trends are encouraging, the use of research in public debates remains limited. The core questions surrounding the issues often remain unasked owing to an excessive emphasis on political ideologies and confrontational viewpoints.

We only have to examine recent, fiercely debated policies such as the Food Security Act, Right to Education, and poverty line definition in order to test this hypothesis:

Food Security Act

Research utilization: Low. The extensive research available on the subject went largely unused in mainstream public debate.

Debate quality: The debate focused on symptomatic and sensational issues such as the Act’s contribution to the fiscal deficit and the cost of financing rather than tackling the fundamental question of whether the new Act would be effective in tackling malnutrition, the core issue. Moreover, existing research on the performance of the current Public Distribution System (PDS) remained largely unreported.

Conclusion: The ongoing debate on the Food Security Act is characterized by high personal stakes and limited integration of available research into public discourse, causing it to be centered around rhetoric. Issues such as technological participation in targeting beneficiaries and implementation challenges could have added to the quality of the discourse and dispelled ambiguity about the Act’s effectiveness on the ground.

Poverty Line Definition

Research utilization: Low. Multidimensional poverty measurement, a crucial alternative to income-based measurements, did not feature in popular discourse on the subject. With increasing politicization of the issue, vital research on poverty measurement was ignored.

Debate quality: While the debate within policy circles was based on academic and conceptual comparisons of multiple standards and their success rates in identifying and measuring poverty, larger media coverage of the issue was emotional and relied on anecdotal evidence to substanti-ate or undermine arguments.

Conclusion: The poverty line definition debate involved high personal stakes. This, coupled with a lack of contextual research, led to a debate that was characterized mostly by rhetoric. A more neutral view of measurement methods and individual features could potentially have helped design welfare interventions appropriate to the Indian context.

Right To Education

Research utilization: High

Some gaps in utilization: The Bill provides for the right to schooling and physical infrastructure but does not guarantee the quality of education. There is still work to be done in establishing well-defined learning outcomes. A 2007 NCERT study establishes, for example, that students’ performance is below what is appropriate for their grade levels. Such findings were articulated in the debate but not addressed through the Bill.

Debate quality: The diagnosis of the core issue of access to primary education is accurate. The discourse has been predominantly fact-based. For example, the recommendations put forth by the NAC Committee on RTE calls for periodic program evaluation and clearer definition of outcomes. Though symptomatic issues such as reservations and the role of unaided schools could not be completely avoided, the overall utiliza-tion of research resulted in a better informed discourse.

Conclusion: The debate on the Right to Education was characterized by limited personal stakes, progressive audience outlook, and multiple communication platforms, leading to greater usage of facts in the presentation of the debate.

The Indian policy debate environment has still not completely transi-tioned to a largely fact-based format, and perhaps never will in its entirety. However, greater public awareness and involvement, coupled with lower search costs for relevant research insights herald a brighter future for fact and research driven discussions. Irrespective of the final outcomes, such debates can help us focus on real issues and keep us from getting bogged down by emotional views and rhetorical loops.

Reference: Turnout in Developing Countries – The effect of mass media on national voter participation – Clemence Vergne (2009)

Praveen Ravi is a Lead Consultant at Athena Infonomics, a...
Uttara Narayan is a Research Associate at Athena Infonomics.