Professional studies and surveys for gathering social data is an essential service towards sustaining democracy, and making fair, enlightened governance and genuine development possible. Autonomous and transparent research is the best safeguard against inadvertent or deliberate bad governance. Scientific, non-partisan research is truly the third eye of governance, writes N. Bhaskara Rao, a pioneer of social research in India, in a new book which he argues that if the impressive recent mantras about development and progress are also backed by applied social research, India can reach new heights in democracy, development and governance.
“Research methodologies based on field surveys in any specific context require consideration of certain important factors in order to ensure reliability of their results, Rao, the Founder Chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) and of Marketing and Development Research Associates (MDRA), writes in “The Third Eye of Governance” (Speaking Tiger), adding these include, apart from intelligent, scientific sampling, the credentials of the researchers and their familiarity with the respondents.
Pointing to the lacunae that exists in the system, he says “there is an urgency in the country to reverse the trend of the past decade so that independent research, assessment, and evaluation of public policies is not on an extinction course” in the book, which is sub-titled: “The Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research”.
Lamenting that most public news media today “are either sponsored or supported or at function at the behest of an interested stakeholder”, Rao says data and statistics in the context of governance “must acquire their sanctity back”.
“All this is possible only when we have a national policy on ‘research culture’. The policy should specially indicate a space for social science research, more specifically in our national pursuits and the trajectory of democracy, development, and governance,” the author maintains.
The researchers, he asserts, should not have any links with those in power, “so that they are not, or are not perceived to be, biased either willingly or due to any coercion”.
Other factors also need to be factored into the process, for instance, “the competitive scenario in the political campaigns which may result in ‘band-wagoning’. There is also the possibility in some cultures of respondents being reluctant, for reasons ranging from fear to suspicion, to share with strangers their opinions on sensitive issues, especially political issues”.
“They may not give clear answers to questions, or may even give answers contrary to what they feel or believe. And yet, such responses are routinely taken more seriously than they should be,” Rao contends.
Admitting that the much needed corrections, revamping, and renewing cannot be done by the government alone, the author says “governments must be concerned and take initiatives more seriously, with a holistic outlook”.
Holding that the government’s ‘Control and command’ view is the very antitheses of a healthy research culture, Rao says civil society and active citizens too have stakes to ensure that research in the country plays an objective and proactive role.
“In fact, they should be more involved in the social audit of research, particularly social research in the country in specific contexts. The role of mass media and social media is unique and is a double-sword. It can save research from its fall from sanctity and credibility.
“The professional bodies, associations, and councils must ensure that they do not come under moral questioning. They should take proactive initiatives such that there is no government intervention in research practices. They must have certain restrains regarding professional standards, ethical concerns, and in bringing transparency to any conflicts of interest,” Rao maintains.
Thus, he writes, a three-pronged effort is needed to restore and revive research to its pride in India’s growth path.
First, the role and relevance of research needs to be reiterated and made evident to decision-makers at the highest level. They should become sensitive to criteria for research and to what or how independent research is different from sponsored or supportive research.
Second, some transparent regulatory mechanism is essential in the research architecture of the country, not through government control and centralisation but by combining voluntary and self-discipline obligations such as professional validation, social audit by independents, etc., and in a balanced manner.
Third, promotional campaigns for inculcating research culture or understanding data sensitivity are crucial. Awareness of basic desirability to identify the virtues of research, data, statistics, and analysis is important. This has to be the responsibility of multiple stake holders, not just of the government.
In a democracy, Rao writes, the role and relevance of research is as significant as any of the pillars of the state, particularly the Fourth Estate. “When research culture is ingrained in a society, the ‘We, the people’ credo of the Republic of India is consolidated in reality,” the author states.
“Transparent and independent research can be a reminder of the vibrancy of the institutions of the state, and government agencies and institutions can reliably and credibly implement policies,” he adds.
Thus, the present government, should, “in its own interest, restore the healthy tradition of Independent India’s early decades and facilitate, support, and sustain good and impartial research. The leaders at the top should express their belief in research and not only acknowledge-which they rarely do-but also share the knowledge gained from impartial research findings. They should welcome independent research inputs for important national schemes and policies, while pointing out any deficiency in research as and when it comes to their knowledge”, Rao writes.
The government should also not depend on any one source for research, particularly when evaluating major schemes like MNREGS, Mudra, or Swachh Bharat. “The government can identify specialist agencies for research within the government or outside to assign a particular responsibility based on their expertise and experience. The government should also not put all its bets on any one source or research methodology” as “over-reliance on one method of getting feedback backfires. We need to develop alternative ways of measuring the same thing,” Rao writes.
He also depreciates the phenomena of fake news sweeping across the country today “with rumours swaying and sweeping people’s sentiments”.
“Is word of mouth relied on more now, despite the proliferation of mass media? Has the agenda setting moved from mass media to social media and to rumours? This situation is because there is greater concern with image, ratings, news management, and consensus building than with motivation, persuasion, and involvement.
“Instant ‘surveys’ are sweeping all across the country rather than KAP (Knowledge, Attitudes, Practices) studies on experiences or beliefs or behaviours. Instant surveys have gained more traction as they fit into the round-the-clock news model. Only an in-depth social research unfolds the psyche and yields lasting options,” Rao maintains.
The book leaves you with a sobering thought: “Why is the learning of lessons from what the Tata Foundation did in 2018 to promote credible and reliable research in public policies limited only to the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, or to Wipro or Infosys? Such funding and parameters for research on public policy formulation should also be emulated by other foundations in the country.”
Is anyone listening?
(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)