One of the most important things that the PMRDF does is that it allows you to ask the right questions

Nitin ShuklaNitin Shukla

“One of the most important things that the PMRDF does is that it allows you to ask the right questions” – Neelakshi Mann [MGNREGA Sameeksha (MoRD), 2012] @ PMRDF retreat, Bhopal 2013.

In my mind, this is the most valuable thing I received from the PMRDF. It captures the essence of it succinctly for me. A small essay as this cannot begin to capture the entire spectrum of understandings gained from this but I will try to capture as much as I can implicitly.

Inequity is easy to see in India and more so in its urban centers where I spent most of my life. At some point of time, I began asking questions about why, when I would come out of an expensive restaurant in a big city, I would most likely be greeted by a double amputee crawling at the gate with a bowl by his side or something equally, if not more upsetting. In my observation, this is a highly replicable sight meaning the foundation that makes it thrive is also replicable. Explanations on organized mendicant conglomerations aside, there was something that tied into this and the root had to go deep down. I think that’s really where it all began for me in 2009.

Close to a year into my fellowship, my view is that the answers lie in system design.

Most, if not all things in the natural universe are non-linear, complex and highly unpredictable. Social systems are highly representative of these three. As systems scale, they need to accommodate for variation. If a system can adapt to variation, it will survive; alternatively natural selection is always around to clean things up.

A problem in high complexity environments is scaling systems. Growth cannot be inorganic and the system needs to learn before they grow. Now replace ‘system’ with ‘welfare scheme’.

”There is a need to concurrently evaluate our progress, instead of evaluation being retrospective.” – Jairam Ramesh [Union Minister of Rural Development] @ PMRDF retreat, Bhopal 2013.

Using retrospective analysis to plan for the future is a fragile way of going about the problem of scale. Adapting to variation will include past data on system behaviour and environmental variations encountered. While prediction models are designed based on these principles, they fundamentally cannot account for concavity errors. Simply put, if you are crossing a river that you assume is 4 feet deep on average, this does not account for  the 9th step being 20 feet deep. This is model error that leads to exponential biases. In the example, the bias is negative and you stand to lose a lot at step 20. The negative bias, as presented in the example is a concavity and we encounter several such errors in the field, speaking about implementation specifically.

Opaque systems that offer no optionality are fragile by design. Consequently any stressor can potentially disrupt such systems. In conception phases of ground rules, stochastic processes are often dealt with in ways that assume them to be deterministic. The vast subset of random variations that a system may encounter in the grassroots of Saraikela, in my experience can produce concavity in any plan that you may conceive. Enough to destabilize, more specifically, a non-optionality based and opaque undertaking.

The Fellowship has allowed me to work in schemes like the IAP, the MGNREGA, the UID and several others in minor time frames. It is the vision of the Fellowship to empower young people through firsthand experience of difficult areas so they can use the insight into the disciplines that they venture into next, contributing to paving the roads of the future, for us all. It’s been a privilege to see the things I have seen and the questions it has made me ask of others and me. I am grateful for having been awarded this opportunity.

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Nitin Shukla is based at Saraikela-Kharsawan, Jharkhand. Nitin is a B.E. in Telecommunications Engineering  from Visvesvaraya Technological University, Karnataka. Prior to the fellowship, he has worked independently as an entrepreneur for little more than a year trying to address information access in rural/semi-rural areas. Following this, he has worked in the telecommunications sector in a medium enterprise, gathering insight on BoP customer trend and service provider behaviour in BoP markets.

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