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Suman Bery: The rise of Delhi

Does Delhi's mushrooming public discourse industry add value?

Suman Bery  |  New Delhi 

What lies behind Delhi’s mushrooming public discourse industry? Does it add value? Will it grow? Is it healthy?

This has been one of the most spectacular early springs in my nine years in Delhi: clear skies, bright sun, a gentle breeze with a slight nip during the day, a sharper bite in the evening and now glorious flowers. The cold weather in Delhi has always been associated with hearty eating, drinking and hospitality; this has not changed.

What has changed is the increasing range and intensity of accessible, close to world-class public discourse on issues of on a very broad range of subjects. In the first week of February Delhi was once again the site for the annual Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, organised by with significant international attendance. In these pages a few days ago reported at length on the K B Lall Memorial Lecture delivered by Andrew Sheng and organised by On Tuesday NCAER and co-hosted the launch of a book by Deputy-Governor Rakesh Mohan in the presence of the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Governor RBI and two former Governors, Dr Rangarajan and Dr Jalan. The hall was packed, and a good time was had by all.

The questions that interest me are: Why Delhi? Why now? What do people get out of it? And in these troubled times, the inevitable question: is this some kind of a bubble?

The lazy answer would be: because it is the nation’s capital. But this answer is unsatisfactory from several points of view. First, Delhi has been the nation’s capital for sixty years. Yet, based on personal observation I do believe that the rhythm has picked up massively in recent years.

It is also unsatisfactory when viewed from a comparative perspective. In my own experience and perception, the one national capital which far outdoes Delhi is Washington DC. Where Washington is concerned, moreover, while the intensity and scale of policy discussion may be of a different order, both New York and Chicago support an active policy discussion culture which was once true of Bombay and Calcutta but I believe to be less true of Mumbai and Kolkata. London has a reasonably active intellectual life, as does Paris, but I do not believe that most Asian capitals have anything comparable. Nor is it my sense that either Sydney or Canberra support activity on remotely the scale of Delhi today. Among the BRICs I have little experience of Moscow; in Brazil if there is an intellectual hub it would be São Paulo not Brasilia, and certainly Beijing receives many visitors and is now developing a nice cluster of think tanks.

So let me try my hand at some explanations. I am moved to do so not just from the spirit of intellectual enquiry, but also because the issue of how to move from research to policy impact is becoming a serious topic for foundations that support institutions such as the NCAER. As an economist, when one sees a market that exists, it is natural to examine both the demand and the supply side. Since the market has grown in rather torrid fashion of late, this framework must explain whether the main changes have been on the demand side (the audience) or the supply side (the funders, speakers and organisers), and why Delhi has been the main beneficiary, as compared with other cities in India, or indeed abroad.

My own belief is that the bulk of the recent change has been on the supply, rather than the demand side: “if you build they will come”. This should be encouraging for other cities in India, since it suggests that finding an audience is not the key constraint. It does, however, prompt additional reflection on what the supply-side ecosystem is in Delhi, what drives it and why it is flourishing in the way that it currently is. Two structural trends over the past decade, and the interaction between them, have been important in this regard. These have been India’s increasing political plurality (reflected in the rise of complicated coalition governments at the Centre); and India’s increasing involvement in the global polity and economy.

On the first point, one has only to think back to the closely-held decision-making of the Congress heyday under Indira Gandhi to realise that a monolithic political culture of that kind would not have provided fertile soil for the cut and thrust of debate that supports an active public discussion culture, be it in the media or in face-to-face events. Yet, while that might perhaps have been a necessary condition for the rise of Delhi’s equivalent of Davos man (and woman), I do not think it would have been a sufficient condition for events of the quality that are now commonplace. Those have required a foreign presence both in attendance and in sponsorship, and these have clearly been stimulated by the increasingly important role of India in global affairs, whether international finance, international security, global economic governance, climate change or whatever.

“Those who can’t, talk; those who can, do”. This paraphrase of the familiar put-down of academics might be the somewhat unkind jibe of those who contrast China’s drive for global power with India’s penchant for discussion. A suitable riposte is to point to the United States as a society that does both; one more similarity between the two cultures to add to the ones cited recently here by Surjit Bhalla. Yet if the above trends are the drivers of this recent efflorescence of talk, the enablers have been the development of a substantial infrastructure of both institutions and vendors, whose increasing professionalism is a delight to observe.

Finally, though, one has to ask the question: what does any of this have to do with formal, rigorous, empirical research? As the director of an empirical research institution, this is a question I have wrestled with a great deal. In many ways the skill sets needed for research are different from policy projection, and it takes a great deal of confidence, skill and training to inhabit both domains. However, if the structural drivers I have mentioned remain in place, I have no doubt we will develop as impressive a cadre of economically literate “policy wonks” as we have of journalists. Delhi is a good place to be if this is the business one is in.

The author is Director-General, National Council of Applied Economic Research. Views expressed are personal.