Researching the politics of development



Spotlight on Subhasish Dey

23 May 2016
Subhasish completed his PhD at The University of Manchester in January 2016. He is an ESID research associate on the  world’s biggest employment guarantee programme of India, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. He was also recently awarded ‘Best Postgraduate that Teaches’ in the Manchester Teaching Awards presented by The University of Manchester Students’ Union. We caught up with him to find out more..
What’s your education and background?
I did an MSc in Economics in 2001 at the University of Calcutta, and then worked for seven years for the government of West Bengal, India, on two programmes, one on rural development and one on universal education. I then went to the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), in The Hague, where I did an MA in Development Studies in 2008-09.   I worked as a consultant for DFID on an impact evaluation programme based in West Bengal, after which, in 2011, I was admitted to the Economics Department at The University of Manchester to do a PhD, which I completed in January 2016.
My domain of work is Development Economics and Political Economy, based on primary data. I did primary survey-based empirical development economics research.  I started my household survey in 2009, and ended it in 2012. It had three successive rounds of household panel surveys, along with 569 village panel surveys that I conducted myself.  I produced three papers for my PhD thesis.
For the first of these, I looked at the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in India, the world’s largest public works programme in terms of household coverage. Using microeconometrics methodologies, I looked at the impact of the programme at the household level. I asked whether those participating in the programme for a considerable period of time perceived any changes in their poverty outcome – whether their income, consumption or savings increased, and whether their credit access improved. 
I found that the direct effect of participation was a definite improvement in consumption level, but also that, once people had been working on the programme for a long time, since it is a guaranteed government programme, their creditworthiness also improved. Normally in the developing world if you are poor and have no collateral, nobody is willing to give you credit.  But participation in the programme itself works as a proxy for collateral. That was the main finding of my first paper.
Giving people back their dignity was the objective of the programme. It is backed by the Employment Guarantee Act, whereby if the government cannot provide work, it has to provide dole, so that employment on MGNREGS is not only a last resort, it is also a right. This gives people dignity, even though the work is mostly unskilled. Participants are not begging the government for a job, but rather exercising their right.  This is a discourse departure in the social safety net literature.  It has become the right of poor people to get a job, and the government is not stepping in as the employer of last resort, but is fulfilling their basic right.
The other two papers that I produced based on my primary survey data were on the political economy side, which fits more with the ESID broader agenda.
The gram panchayat (village council) is the main implementing agency of MGNREGS. It is a political institution run by a president and his or her cabinet. The president, who belongs to a political party, is elected for a five-year period and has a huge incentive to manipulate the MGNREGS programme to increase his or her chances of re-election. We investigated whether programme implementation has any bias in terms of the political preference of the village council president. We asked whether the ruling party of the village council assign more funds in their own constituencies than in the opponent’s constituencies.
We found clear evidence of political nepotism, in terms of preferential allocation of MGNREGS funds in their own constituencies. We were interested in whether this had a feedback effect on the following election. We found that the political parties who practised nepotism in a marked way were remunerated by an increase in vote share and higher probability of re-election. So MGNREGS is not only a safety net poverty alleviation programme, but also creates a huge political incentive for politicians to implement it in order to be re-elected. The fact that it brings dividends for politicians’ own political agendas makes it more sustainable, as politicians are inclined to implement it.
The third paper was also based on a household survey.  I was interested in whether there is any difference, in terms of the number of days of work obtained on the programme, between a poor household that supports the ruling party and one that does not. The programme is universal, but the underlying notion is that only poor people should participate, as the unskilled nature of the work, mostly physical labour, means it normally only attracts poor people.
I found that political allegiance with the ruling party does bring dividends. But just being a supporter is not sufficient, this has to be clear through visible participation in election rallies, campaigns, etc. We found that those who were politically active for the ruling party received significantly more work from the programme each year. Work is allocated not only on the basis of poverty status – politics also plays a crucial role.
What do you see as the key challenges for development in India?
There is an array of corruption, starting from the bottom, petty-level corruption to super high-level corruption.  If two Indians strike up a conversation, their two opening topics are cricket and corruption.  It is a big challenge, because in most cases, especially at local government level, the political person running these institutions will not be selected for election for the next year, though the party will be the same.  Since an individual is usually in post for only one period, and will not be nominated for the next election, they intend to gather as many funds as possible during that period by embezzlement or corruption. They have no credibility constraint, because they are not bothered about being elected in the next election. This is one reason that corruption is so rife.
Also, in most cases, politicians make no attempt to address poverty from a structural point of view; they want to sustain poverty, as it enables them to receive more government funds. They can embezzle some of these funds, and they can use the rest to maintain a patron-client relation in rural settings. If there are no poor people, there is no rule of the politician. When there is a survey to find out the BPL (below poverty line) population, they try to motivate people to respond so that they remain on the records as BPL households. Their mobilisation or facilitation never reaches a level where people could start to realise that they could do something to help themselves to move out of poverty. Instead, they are intrinsically depending on government dole, etc., because they are motivated to do so by the politicians.
So the main challenges are corruption and the fact that the poor are never told to do something themselves to get out of poverty.  Instead, they are motivated by politicians to remain poor, so that they receive more funds from the government.
How is your life in UK?
Although I am based in the Economics Department at The University of Manchester, I find closer colleagues in ESID and the Global Development Institute (GDI), who are doing work that is close to real life.  I like rigorous models and rigorous mathematical exercises, but I always have the question: what are they serving at the end of the day? Who is going to read this “Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium Model” to explain the crises? People in ESID and GDI are explaining what causes chronic poverty and that hits me more quickly. It has been fantastic being at Manchester academically.
I spent two years in The Hague and four-and-a-half years in Manchester.  In Manchester I can find more south Asian faces, I never miss the food, etc., which I missed in Holland.  If I wish for an Indian curry, I can go to the Curry Mile and buy all the ingredients I need to cook whatever I want. I can speak English everywhere, but in Holland I really struggled.  My wife joined me in 2013, she is doing a PhD in Sheffield, so it’s a good family time, a good friendly time here in Manchester. When she has finished her PhD our long-term plan is to go back to India.
What do you do like to do in your spare time?
Cooking.  All my friends and family know I love cooking – I cook when I’m very excited, getting good results, and when I’m very frustrated and nothing is working out – then cooking gives me fresh energy. I’m from Bengal, and I can cook all the different varieties of Bengali curries, fish or lentil. But I can also cook curries from other areas of India, which all taste completely different.
Read more about ESID research on MGNREGS.