Crossing the River, Feeling the Stones: Beyond the Binary in Public Policy

SELCO Foundation
5 min readFeb 23, 2023


Prof. MA Sriram in a conversation with Usha Thorat, SM Vijayanand, Anjal Prakash, and Ram Kumar on looking at public policy through a lens beyond the binary.

Policies can create a lasting positive change and are often seen as the end goal in order to achieve scale. In this session, Professor MS Sriram anchored a positive reflection on key policies, and their design and implementation by speakers Usha Thorat, S M Vijayanand (IAS), Anjal Prakash, and Ram Kumar S (IAS). The session was opened by Vijayanand who has worked on policy for a large part of his career.

“I can tell you that most policies are not evidence-based, and that good policy comes from a good heart. Good policy needs to be properly executed, political to begin with, and translated by a team; it’s a leap of faith and sometimes it lands properly. There is a lot of continuity in policy, so much so that you can’t blame anybody for failures. You can trace India’s policies from the 1950s and it is incremental and evolutionary.”

Vijayanad, drawing from his experience as former Chief Secretary for the Government of Kerala, captured the need for looking beyond the binary —

“Successes need to be studied for motivating replication and failures for improvement.”

He set the context for his failure by dwelling on the Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas (PURA), a policy that was conceptualised by Dr Abdul Kalam that sought to link villages in an elliptical manner — circular connectivity — so that a population of 2500 suddenly becomes 25,000 and from 25,000 to 50,000, replicating urban characteristics in a rural area. “It was a simple, solid concept — connect villages so there was physical connectivity, electronic connectivity, which post-COVID is probably the most important connectivity, then knowledge connectivity for education, and financial connectivity for banking. All this organically would contribute to what he called economic connectivity leading to local economic development. But we didn’t succeed in creating a threshold population for services. We had to move away from silos to a kind of integrated whole, not just converging but organically integrating, sequencing and catalysing this evolution of multi-linked projects is a big problem in government, across schemes. So we cannot blame anybody.”

Prof. Sriram prepared the dais for Usha Thorat to speak about economic connectivity by recalling the words of a bureaucrat who once said that one of the dangers of a government pilot programme succeeding is then the programme will fail. You don’t replicate the circumstances of a pilot programme where you give the best talent, and the best attention, and when it replicates you can’t customise it.

Usha Thorat expanded his thoughts as she shared, “When you start thinking of policy you think of policy objectives first, so when you have objectives you have efficiency, equity, and Integrity. We can have many more things but there are always trade-offs, a trade-off between inflation and growth, a trade-off between stability and growth, a trade-off between efficiency and equity, and a trade-off between growth and equity. These trade-offs are what one is constantly looking at while formulating policy and at different points in time, different objectives gain precedence. That is how policy evolves, it cannot be constant it is dynamic and evolving.”

When the microfinance industry collapsed in a heap, the Reserve Bank policy was framed to allow the sector to grow so that it could be nimble-footed and flexible. It was assumed that the banks would exercise good risk management practices, but that was a mistake of presumption. The RBI encouraged banks to lend to the priority sector and weaker sections for financial inclusion. “Until this crisis blew up we always thought the global financial crisis is a systemic crisis we never imagined that a microfinance crisis could become a systemic crisis. The Reserve Bank’s loan portfolio was affected and they could not recover the loans from the microfinance institutions. The crisis also led to the Maligam committee that made processes extremely prescriptive, the very thing we had sought to avoid. Interest rate caps, end-use control, purposes for lending, all the words that we had tried to avoid came right back into the regulatory sphere. Ultimately, we learn that microfinance alone is not a poverty alleviation tool, it has to work along with real sector initiatives and with the infrastructure of every kind.”

Bypassing into health policy, Ram Kumar IAS, Government of Meghalaya, spoke about his experience of improving the numbers at the Primary Health Center in the Southwest Garo Hills, Meghalaya. He observed that the purpose of the Primary Health Center was forgotten. “We had about 30 subcenters which were not conducting deliveries due to electricity problems, water problems, and other issues. But the team was focused on checking the immunisation target, the delivery target, and how many pregnant women have been followed up. When the problem was brought to the table, and the infrastructure issues were sorted, we were able to address the purpose.” Before wrapping up his speech, Ram Kumar said, “In Kerala, they have invested in governance and it has become part of the culture. So, if you make any small change the impact will be tremendous, exponential in each layer. Infrastructure is insufficient, it has to be a part of governance as well as the culture only then will it percolate, systemise and stabilise, only then will the impact be exponential and sustainable.”

When Anjal Prakash, a professor at ISB took the stage, he spoke about his experience of working on the high-level Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changin Climate. While the report itself had to be altered to suit the demands of the oil-rich countries that contested the recommendation to decarbonise, Professor Anjal shared his learnings from the experience. “The first thing is that good science may not be good politics and if it is not good politics it may not turn out to be good policies. The second part is that as much as this is a scientific pursuit, it is also guided by a political system, as we saw in COP27. Scientists must not overlook politics of the day, we have to work along with the politics.”

True to the theme of the panel, public policies are the toughest nuts to crack because you can’t customise it too much because ultimately you’re accountable to the exchequer and you’re accountable to the public at large. Public policy is also more failure than success because it is subject to much more scrutiny and much more accountability on multiple fronts. Therefore, it might be a good idea to celebrate the success in public policy failure rather than go to the confession box.



SELCO Foundation

SELCO Foundation seeks to inspire and implement solutions that alleviate poverty by improving access to sustainable energy to underserved communities.