Interview

Do it right... and public policy is a joy

Ambuj Sagar always knew he wanted to be a mechanical engineer. What he could not have known about was the “meandering” academic journey he would undertake over the course of the quest and beyond, from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi), to the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, USA) for a masters in aerospace engineering and onwards to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a doctorate in materials science.

Currently the Vipula and Mahesh Chaturvedi professor of policy studies at IIT Delhi, Mr Sagar is involved with different arms of the Indian government in policymaking and with global organisations as well, notably the International Panel on Climate Change. He speaks here to Christabelle Noronha.

To a layperson, professor of policy studies does not reveal much. What is this area of study and scholarship about in relation to people and how their lives are affected?

I was only 22 years when I left India and still ‘growing up’. Over time it became clear that what really interested me was the chance to make an impact, and that’s when I chanced upon public policy. The exciting thing about public policy is that you are able to engage with issues that are in the public interest, and good public policy can be incredibly impactful.

The motivation for me when I came back was to contribute in India, doing research, training people and getting involved with the government to help build capacity so that we can actually start engaging with public policy in more thoughtful ways. India has had a fairly rich tradition in some areas of public policy — economics and banking, for example — but not, at least not to my mind, as much in science and technology.

Is that because India did not have a more formal structure in science and technology policy?

India did give a lot of importance to science and technology from the earliest days but the reality is that back then there was not that much systematic thinking, even globally, on how to leverage science and technology for national priorities. Governments have, since then, understood that science and technology can actually make a big contribution to national development. That’s how Japan rose from the ashes of the Second World War to become a technology powerhouse. South Korea, Taiwan and China have followed this path. While Europe had industrialised more than 200 years ago, here was a group of countries doing it in the modern age at superfast pace. This created a whole set of scholars thinking about science and technology in more sophisticated ways.

The interactions between technology and society have been cited as an area of particular interest for you. Why so, and how does your research work tie in with this interest?

I have been working for many years on how to use technology to address energy and climate-change challenges. Climate change is a huge problem and it is very much linked to the energy equation. If we are to address the climate problem, we will have to reorient the energy sector from fossil fuels to lower-carbon sources. The core of this process is technology.

I am particularly interested in how to organise public policy and institutions to facilitate and accelerate the development and deployment of appropriate technologies in the social development space. We cannot just hope that this happens; we have to marshal public policy to advance the process. The thing with public policy is that there are no silver bullets.

My interest really is in the big picture — how do you organise the ‘big’ system such that you get the best outcomes? Once we get the machinery working, we can get better health outcomes, better energy outcomes and all of that. Fundamentally, that is the kind of contribution public policy can make in reshaping the overall functioning of the environment.

The world can address the climate problem by reorienting the energy sector from fossil fuels to lower-carbon sources

The politics and processes attached to environmental policy have also come on your research radar. What are the complexities here?

We have to understand the politics. It’s impossible, for instance, to think about climate change without understanding the global politics of climate change. Why isn’t enough of international cooperation happening, why is it that rich countries are not taking as much action as they should be, and what are the implications for a country such as India?

The complexities in the climate change arena, specifically, are huge. Everybody has to contribute to the solution, but then that also opens up the field for a free ride: if nine out of ten people contribute, then I don’t have to do much and the problem may still get solved.

You have been involved with different arms and committees of the Indian government. What has the ‘outsider looking in’ experience been like?

It changes from process to process because every committee is organised in a different way. You have to strengthen the policymaking process such that it’s not just the committee by itself but an infrastructure of other activities around it. This creates the knowledge base committees can draw on. Public policy is about allocating scarce resources — obviously, because resources are never infinite — to obtain particular social outcomes. Do it right, get the maximum bang for the buck, and public policy is a joy.

What’s the part public policy is playing in India’s response to the Covid-19 situation

There are two broad areas of public policy research that are relevant. One is on the health side, where it is about understanding the different dimensions of bringing this pandemic under control and treating infected folks. This would be health policy. The second is the economic side, which pertains to how we manage the economic impact of this disease, especially in relation to its impact on health.

There are trade-offs, for sure. Lockdowns can have enormous economic impact even as they slow down and control the disease. Here public policy would be about trying to minimise the short- and long-term social and economic effects of the disease.

What has your India experience been like?

Very mixed. It gets frustrating sometimes because you are asked to come up with an answer in a very short time — and time matters. Making a recommendation in three months and making one in a year is very different. To me the holy grail is the proactive process. How do we anticipate the kind of questions that will become important and start thinking about them in advance? If we in academia can start doing that, then committees can become more effective.

As somebody who lives and works in Delhi, what’s your view on how to clean up the capital’s air?

Once we get the machinery working, we can get better health outcomes, better energy outcomes and all of that ... that is the kind of contribution public policy can make...

There is no simple answer to that. Delhi’s air pollution problem is not from just one place; it’s coming from various sources: from stubble burning in neighbouring states, from vehicles, from construction, from the poor burning biomass in wintertime. Each of these is a different kind of problem and that’s what makes the issue so complicated. You need to do a whole bunch of things and that means prioritisation. There is no single solution.

What is your research on energy innovation and climate policy revealing, especially in the Indian context?

While India has done a lot of good things on the technology front in energy and climate policy, we have not really been as systematic in terms of innovation. This really is about the generation of new technology and about becoming a player in the upstream part of the technology cycle. We could probably do this if we pay a bit more attention to the issue. A lot is going on, though, and we are trying to see how we can add value.

The IITs are seen as jewels of the Indian education system but they are rarely, if ever, counted these days among the global best. Are standards slipping?

I don’t think standards are slipping; in many ways, we are improving. It’s a tricky thing because the IITs actually have to manage a situation which is unique: they have to maintain and enhance excellence while expanding access to a wider section of Indian society. There aren’t many institutions across the world that have to tackle these twin challenges at the same time. We are improving in many ways but the gap between us and the world’s best is significant, and the world’s best are not standing still so the gap is even growing. We have to narrow the gap.

What about your interests outside of work?

Unfortunately, work takes up most of my time but I do a fair amount of running and cycling. I am a foodie — eating for me is also a social activity — and I do enjoy travelling. I have no single favourite destination. There is no shortage in this world of places where you can get peace and quiet, where you can enjoy the local culture. I am opportunistic with travel: wherever I end up going, there is always something new to experience.