Elitist Policy Schools and a Lack of Representation

Recently, I took part in a two-day long beginner’s course on public policy at the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a not-for-profit founded by Parth Shah – who is also the founding member of the Indian School of Public Policy (ISPP) in Delhi.

While some public universities offer courses in public policy, the discipline is largely taught at private institutions, which offer a range of degrees in public policy – ISPP being one of them. The fee, however, determines who has access to these spaces. For instance, at ISPP, you need around Rs 10 lakh for a ten-month long postgraduate diploma programme. One doesn’t have to do a lot of research to conclude that only a certain type of student studies in such institutions. While they do provide need-based scholarships, there is no concept of reservation. As a result, the faculty is largely dominated by upper class, upper-caste men, who either studied or worked in the US.

The absence of diversity, along with the pedagogy of policy-making being seeped in a capitalist framework with no room for alternatives, is not just infuriating but also frightening as policies are then shaped in an exclusive context.

A bunch of students and faculty largely belonging to privileged sections of society brainstorming policy changes to ‘help’ those on the margins doesn’t sit right with me. It is not up to them to shape policy in a manner they see fit, where there are barely/no voices with lived experiences of oppression, especially oppression stemming from economic impoverishment heightened by capitalism and its tendency to take advantage of inequalities.

In the middle of CCS’s ePolicy session, one of the course instructors (MBA from Yale University and lover of everything American) was constantly chiming in with his personal inputs, one of them being he doesn’t agree with the government being able to take anyone’s land for any reason. Say I agree, but where is the same, almost militant concern for people’s land when the state collaborates with neoliberal, capitalist forces to snatch land from Adivasis in the name of development?

To the commodification of water by capitalist forces he responds “is that such a bad thing?”. While discussing the ryotwari and zamindari system, most people responded saying the ryotwari was better for peasants and more fair. To this he responded, “that was fair but which one was economically better?”, clearly indicating that economic benefit excludes justice and fairness, almost admitting that capitalism is an exploitative system. The ‘otherisation’ of all those who these policy makers aim to ‘help’ is apparent in the constant ‘us’ vs ‘them’ dichotomy. Obviously such spaces would not accommodate the poor, the marginalised and the impoverished, for it is this perception of policy makers and the resulting perpetuation of the free market that results in their exploitation.

Also read: Why Are There No OBC Professors in Central Universities?

The pedagogical practices in both places continually stress on the importance of the free market, building the perception that no alternative can ever exist and more importantly that no alternative should exist. Economic “efficiency” and the magical ability of the market and ‘invisible hand’ to correct all imbalances constantly takes precedence over social indicators that prove otherwise. I am reminded of the quote attributed to Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”, and how this becomes rooted in our consciousness is defined as ‘capitalist realism’ by Mark Fisher (author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?):

“Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

I write this because my participation in this course and subsequent research into other such institutions like ISPP left me with an extremely sinking feeling. Our policies are influenced, if not directly made by these wealthy individuals educated in America, flag bearers of capitalism with little or no regard for the need of the marginalised to now occupy the spaces they are occupying. Yes, several of their efforts intend to help those at the bottom rung, an example being CCS’s efforts to formalise the business of street vendors and empower them against police harassment.

However, not taking into account how capitalism and neoliberalism directly oppresses lower-caste groups, women, Adivasis, people with disabilities, trans-people and other marginalised groups, along with a complete absence of these groups from their educational programs and institutions is not just questionable but reflective of larger processes that solidify the inferior position of these groups – materially, politically, culturally and psychologically. If we do not advocate for policy making by those disempowered by the current systems it will always be dominated by the likes of these elite men and women, faculty and students alike.

This leads me to the fallacies of private education at a time when the National Education Policy has been passed and it is not surprising that members of these private, corporate-run institutions (Centre for Civil Society and even Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and Vice-Chancellor of Azim Premji University) have been part of its formulation, even if only in an advisory capacity, for such legislation benefits the idea of corporatising education.

While a discussion on the NEP would require a another article, one needs to realise that education across India will start resembling the CCS course I did or the PG Diploma course at ISPP with that exact demography – urban, English speaking upper-caste youth. It will be these students that go forth and hold important positions in framing policy while the ‘vocational, skill development’ courses, on which the NEP places emphasis, will consist of the exact opposite – students from marginalised sections who will become a source of cheap labour for the government as well as private companies.

At this hour, there is an urgent need for policy to be driven by the principles of social justice, equality and welfare for all, which we can take from the movements led by tribals and Dalits, women and other communities who have been impoverished by an increasingly alienating and exploitative system driven by self interest. Their voices have stressed on the importance of community driven welfare and collective action. It is high time our policy makers understand that the principles of capitalism and the free market will not safeguard our futures.

Featured image credit:b0red/Pixabay