LQWLHSQ4_400x400Our team spoke to Mr. Jasmine Shah, vice-chairman of the Dialogue and Development Commission, Delhi. Mr. Shah graduated from IIT Madras in 2004 with a dual degree in mechanical engineering. He went on to study at the Columbia University- School of International and Public Affairs. He has actively been a part of many large scale developmental projects and organisations like J-PAL, South Asia, and Janaagraha Centre For Citizenship & Democracy. Haindavi presents a synopsis of the conversation she had with him.

What was your life at the campus like? What are the changes you’ve seen in the campus?

It was pretty cool. I was a coordinator for Saarang two or three times and was more keen on sports than culturals. In all my years at the campus, I was a part of the badminton team, and when I was captain, we won the gold medal, at my last Inter IIT tournament, in Bombay, which was in December 2003.

When I was working in Chennai, with the Tamil Nadu government and poverty lab, I visited the campus quite often. I think the last time I was here was 3-4 years ago and there are some pretty huge changes. There are many more buildings now, and I think sadly, the greenery has gone down. One of my fondest memories of my time on campus was bonding over food at the mess in our individual hostels which provided a very cozy atmosphere. So, not a great fan of the new centralized mess buildings.

What was your outlook at life after graduating from campus?

I hadn’t intended to get into public policy when I graduated from campus. While I was sure I didn’t want to study further my inclination was always towards applied problem-solving.

I come from a typical middle-class family and at that time, I just wanted to have a good job after graduation which I did get at ITC limited, which was actually, one of the best jobs available and naturally, I was thrilled. And unlike the software jobs mushrooming at that time my job focused on core engineering and involved application of my knowledge and skills as a mechanical engineer.

The shift to public policy happened much later, during my job at ITC.

What led to that shift to public policy?

I feel like, throughout my life- from growing up in a middle-class household, to my time at IIT-M and later, is like living in a bubble. We are very disjointed with the realities of our country and in what conditions people live. So when I started working in the tobacco division at ITC and was traveling around the country visiting many factories and even lived for a while in Bihar and parts of UP reality kicked in.

And later when, I worked for a year and a half in Bangalore looking at the traffic congestions and the broken infrastructure around, perturbed me to a breaking point. I thought of us as really good engineers who do great jobs, write really hard codes, build great architecture and machines but then, why was the infrastructure in our country was so broken, why are our streets always congested, why are the footpaths in a dilapidated state when we have such good engineers?

And I realized that the problem wasn’t with engineers, it was in policy and governance.

I didn’t want to continue living in that bubble and was driven to create a positive impact on my surroundings. After I quit my job at ITC, I wanted to explore the world of policy and governance, and understand if there are real impactful solutions to the problems and if someone outside the government could bring about real change.

And fortunately, I came across an organization called Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, in Bangalore, that was doing some amazing work in urban policy and governance issues. And so, I spent the next couple of years working with them and a few other non-profits.

That was my shift-

I felt helpless at the reality of the country around me and felt that as an engineer I could contribute only a little while most of the problems lie with policy and governance.

Later on, I came to believe that, these problems are also rooted in the politics of our country.

And, right now I’d say I’m at the perfect balance of all these three.

Was it difficult getting accepted into Columbia University- School of International and Public Affairs because of your background being primarily in engineering?

I’d say no.

I worked for 3 years as an engineer and manager at ITC and the next 3 at Janaagraha & other non-profits during which, I led a national campaign to get youth registered for voting called Jago re!.

But frankly, getting to Columbia wasn’t difficult, because of the brand of IIT and education from a premier institute is always highly valued.

More than getting accepted into Columbia, what was much more difficult was getting the Nehru Fulbright scholarship which funded my entire study of public policy study in the US. Studying in an IVY league like Columbia isn’t an easy job, and there were no grants from the university. I’d say to get the scholarship was nearly a hundred times more challenging as it was given to only 8 people across India, that year.

You’ve also worked as the Deputy Director for Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab or J-PAL, South Asia for 4 years. What was that experience like?

It was wonderful. I worked there after I had completed my masters. J-PAL, is a network of topmost development economists in the world who are professors at MIT, Stanford, Harvard Berkeley, and other such universities, who apply very scientific methods to study programmes and policy.

I was working in the policy area, rather than on-field research and established the policy unit in South-Asia. My work was to disseminate the research to policymakers across the country so that the governments, especially at the state level, are better equipped with good quality research and evidence, to design their policies in health and education.

At times, in our country, it feels like there isn’t a lot of research put into policy making. The demonetisation policy was a major step taken and many global economists were apprehensive of what its effects could be. A decision like that, which impacts the lives of so many people, must be made after doing a lot of supporting research and studies.

Essentially, the idea is that, instead of wasting the budget on ideas which may sound good but have been proven to be failures, we could invest in more impactful tested policies from vast pools of knowledge that already exist.

I learnt a lot from my time at J-PAL, especially in the areas of health and education, where significant research has been done and positive strides have been taken in our country.

You’re now working as the Vice-chairperson for Delhi Dialogue and Development Commission. What led to you taking up that job?

I think it’s a convergence of the principles that I believe in and a perfect opportunity. Policy is, in essence, one of the best tools that we have to affect change at scale. Any decision of the government affects the lives of crores of people. So, to be able to use this tool to create impact led to me to take up this job. Moreover, institutions like this, in which someone outside the government – like me – is placed at this minister-rank position, don’t come by too often! So I was pretty thrilled to work here.

Also, I believed the kind of politics practiced by the Aam Aadmi Party was honest. This was a huge reason for me to take this position. Because, at the end of the day, policy is not technical alone. There are underlying principles that are shaped by the government or the party in power.

I felt that the AAP government, led by CM Arvind Kejriwal, fundamentally believes that education and health care are the top-most priorities of the government, allocating 26% of the budget to education alone.

So yes, it was all of those things combined that led to this position and work.

Given the unconventional nature of your work, could you tell us a little more about the intricacies of, and your satisfaction with your job?

For a position like this, you can’t expect a very structured job profile. At the end of the day, I see myself as a problem solver rather than think of my work as a job.

In a sense, this institution that I head in Delhi is an advisory body to all the ministers of the Delhi Government. It’s essentially a think-tank for the Delhi Government, and we work with various ministers. Recently, the transport minister wanted us to work on the electric vehicle policy for Delhi, and the forest minister wanted to reduce cutting down of trees in Delhi, and on transplantation. So you can see that it needs a lot of versatility from my team and me.

There are certain areas that we have expertise in, but there is no lack of expertise outside the government, and with institutions like mine, the objective is to marshall that kind of expertise.

But governments tend to be inert, and usually do not rely on these kinds of experience easily. People would have to wait for days and months to be able to meet the top-level executives. Instead, the Delhi government designed and created this institution so that we could tap into these resources and be accessible to all the knowledge and talent that lies outside the government, to solve some of the most complex public policy challenges.

While I enjoy my job thoroughly, it requires me to be very open and flexible.

In terms of work hours, it’s literally a 24/7 job. There is no room for a weekend or a holiday, and even though I do take breaks, I’m kind of required to be on the job all the time.

So yes, it’s quite taxing but I very well enjoy it!

What is the most important thing you’ve learnt on your job?

A belief that good politics, when combined with good policy can, in fact, create wonders.

And I believe, that in our country, it’s not a deficiency of either that’s preventing progress but a lack of their combination. When we’ve had really good people at the helm of our government, for some reason, they fail at policy design.This is because the technical part of policy is quite challenging and you have to remember that the easiest of things have already been done.

So, if you have to improve health care, or education, or reduce pollution, the answers aren’t very straight forward and require you to really work towards finding the right answers and implementing them.

A major constraint in India, I believe, has been the politics we have. Some high priority topics have been sidelined and efforts have, at times, been directed at lower priority causes. Our low rank in the Human Development Index and World Hunger Index is a reflection of this. So, I’m glad that I’m in an institution that offers a fundamentally different set-up of governance and politics.

In closing, do you have any advice or message for the students who are learning about your story and journey?

I’d say it’s a pretty exciting field if anyone does want to play a role in the larger picture.

I know that at times, it feels very daunting. These governance problems of the country seem too large to be resolved. But everything that I’ve done shows that change is possible.

While you definitely need to find the right kind of institutions and people to work with, there are wonderful opportunities that exist within and outside the government too. I say this as someone who’s been in the government for 2 years after 12 years outside it.

If you’re someone who enjoys complex challenges, I assure you, you’ll find nothing more complex than governance challenges in India. It’s also what keeps me going – the scale and magnitude of the challenges are so massive and there are indeed many opportunities where individuals can make a difference.

Of course, you’ll need to be open to not having a very structured career path; it’s not like you join an organization and keep growing in the same. You need to be open to change, and willing to persevere and embrace this kind of journey.

The vision is to realize the essential principles of the constitution as an equal country, where social justice and facilities like health care and education are a way of life.

So, essentially, work with a resolve to realize our constitution, and towards impactful change!