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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Youth Policy

Eager to effect change at the grassroots level,a handful of young people have left their corporate jobs to work with the government,lending their Ivy League degrees and corporate smarts to policy making.

Written by V Shoba | November 28, 2010 3:06:40 am

When 29-year-old Vaibhav Gupta was appointed officer on special duty to Sachin Pilot,minister of state for communications and IT,four months ago,people walking into his office at CGO Complex on Lodhi Road,New Delhi,would invariably cast curious glances at him. “There was surprise at my age,but it wasn’t necessarily negative,” says Gupta,a graduate in economics from Cambridge University,UK,and a post-graduate in public policy from Georgetown University,US. Gupta is one of a handful of young men and women who are working with the government as OSDs,advisers,researchers and consultants,lending their Ivy League degrees and corporate smarts to policy making,traditionally a preserve of older Indian Administrative Service officers. Gupta,who worked with the World Bank in Washington on health and education for four years before returning to India to be “closer to the action”,says he has always wanted to understand the government’s internal functioning. “Now I work closely with the minister on policy issues,help him with research and data analysis and meet industry representatives,” he says,attributing the intake of young professionals in government to younger politicians in Parliament.

There is an increasing willingness among lawmakers and bureaucrats to work with youngsters,says Swati Sahni,a 26-year-old senior consultant on education to the Human Resource Development Ministry,and the New Delhi coordinator of the Global Young Indian Professionals and Students (GYIPS) group,which is working on streamlining opportunities for young people in government. “The government realises the potential of India’s demographic dividend. It is placing value on the freshness of thought that young people can bring,” she says. The GYIPS group is working on developing a two-year fellowship programme on the lines of the White House Fellowship.

For Sahni,it is an exciting time to be advising the government,with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education coming into force. “I had worked with civil society organisations earlier,but I didn’t have a context to my work before I joined the government. I now work on educational planning and management and capacity building at the state level. It is extremely rewarding,” she says.

It is this ability to effect change at the grassroots level and create social value for the future that drives young professionals from high-paying corporate careers and international business schools into government offices,says Sukhman Randhawa,a 29-year-old consultant at the office of Sam Pitroda,adviser to the Prime Minister on public information infrastructure and innovation. As someone who works closely with Pitroda on the goals of the National Innovation Council—which he chairs—and on the plan to connect India’s 250,000 panchayats through an optic fibre network,Randhawa says the government affords much-needed perspective.

“Working in your little corporate silo,you tend to have a piecemeal view of things,” says the post-graduate in social and political sciences from Cambridge University who was a TV journalist with CNBC before she joined the now-defunct National Knowledge Commission.

Randhawa works out of the Planning Commission office in Yojana Bhavan,which,she says,is now “crawling with young people”,thanks to the Young Professionals Programme,the only such institutionalised programme in the country introduced early this year. Says Arunish Chawla,executive secretary to the deputy chairman,Planning Commission,and himself a PhD from the London School of Economics,“The programme was introduced to bring in young people with at least a masters degree. We advertised positions and requirements on our website and conducted interviews. It’s a successful programme—we have over 20 young professionals working actively with us,helping us shape the 12th Plan.”

At 24,Astha Kapoor,one of the youngest consultants at the Planning Commission,works with the Voluntary Action Cell and acts as a liaison between government and civil society organisations. “I was contemplating appearing for the IAS exam,but then this opportunity came by,” says the postgraduate in social development from the International Institute of Social Studies,Netherlands. Excited to see policies being framed in front of her eyes,she says she feels as much a part of the Commission as any other employee,but admits to wearing saris to meetings to look older in the company of seasoned bureaucrats. “It’s great to see from such close quarters how the country is run. You get to sit in meetings attended by chief ministers. This is where it all happens and I get to be part of it,” says Kapoor. Six months into the job,she is now accustomed to the ways of the government,but it wasn’t easy when she was new. “We are not used to putting everything in files,or using abbreviations like OM (office memorandum) or DO (draft order) that officers use freely,for instance,and it took a while to get to used to all this. Now I’ve adapted to working here—I drink six or seven cups of chai a day!” she says.

Tushar Vashisht,a University of Pennsylvania-educated 25-year-old who quit his high-profile investment banking career with Deutsche Bank to join the Unique Identification Authority of India’s tech wing in Bangalore,where he now works on project strategy under the chairman,Nandan Nilekani,says there is a small but discernible trend of young Indians passionate about working in the social impact space. “The Warren Buffett model of giving back to society once you’ve made it big is passé. Young people,educated,highly mobile and intelligent,want to do things that will impact the country while they are still in the prime of their lives,” he says. The UIDAI,a rare confluence of private sector delivery and public sector process,has presented a fortuitous opportunity to the likes of Vashisht,who took a 90 per cent pay cut and moved from a plush apartment in Singapore to an office-cum-shared-apartment on Outer Ring Road in Bangalore,where his current role is to develop Aadhaar-enabled applications in the public and private sector. But is a career in government sustainable? At current salaries,probably not,but the experience of working with an all-star team on “a game-changing national infrastructure project” is more than worth it,says Vashisht. The son of an IPS officer,he says this “opportunity to deep-dive into India and its rural potential” will serve him well in exploring possibilities in entrepreneurship,public policy and the venture capital space in the future.

Says Naman Pugalia,a 23-year-old London School of Economics and Brandeis University graduate who,like Vashisht,quit a banking career to join the UIDAI,“I do have my college loans to repay but I haven’t let that influence my career choice. I’m enjoying what I’m doing and intend to continue till I can. The job demands a high degree of lateral thought which,in turn,results in a steep learning curve.” Mihir Sheth,a 25-year-old Harvard-educated former investment banker-turned-UIDAI employee,who was inspired by his four-month-long discovery-of-India tour with Pugalia last year,says he might end up shuffling back and forth between the government and the private sector. Pugalia says individuals who can traverse both the private and the government sectors will have interesting work to do in the coming years. “As rural penetration becomes important for corporate India,policy wonks can play a role. Inclusive growth and related governance needs private sector talent,” he explains,adding,“We are close to an era where the social sector can help one be a breadwinner.”

There is a sense that the discourse on public policy is set to change. It will no longer be spearheaded by a generalist mass of officials,but ride on the capable shoulders of the young. And while the process may take a while,the ball has surely been set rolling. Says Lok Sabha MP Naveen Jindal,who has appointed two young parliamentary associates to assist him with research and ideas,“Opportunities for young people to work with government are very limited now. We need many more. I enjoy working with my parliamentary associates—they are bright,they bring new ideas and present them well,they are good with Internet and research.” The sentiment may well be echoing through the corridors of power in the Capital,with over 70 MPs below 40 years of age in the 15th Lok Sabha,inspiring young Indians to be part of nation building. Take Parul Batra,a post-graduate in engineering management from Dartmouth College,US,who joined the Clinton Health Access Initiative in New York in October and works on reducing the cost and improving quality and accessibility of HIV treatment in Africa. Having seen a few friends her age recently transition into significant government or semi-government roles,the 25-year-old is looking forward to coming back and working in health and education policy in India in the long run.

Working the machinery of the government,everyone agrees,is an experience unrivalled in its scope. Twenty-five-year-old Gazal Kalra,a parliamentary associate to Naveen Jindal,who quit her job at McKinsey last year to work with Jindal on health,population stabilisation and education policy,says she is moved by “the thought that what I work on can possibly impact a billion people”. Kunal Bajaj,who as consultant to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India was part of the most dramatic changes in the sector between 2003 and 2006,says it was one of the best experiences he could have ever had. “When I interviewed with the TRAI leadership,they had amazing foresight and were convinced hiring me was the right thing to do. I worked on important telecom development policies for India. And my age was the best-kept secret at TRAI,” says Bajaj,a Wharton graduate who had worked for McKinsey in New York. For the US citizen who had intended to go back to New York—where his parents still live—the stint with TRAI turned out to be a life-altering move. “I realised India was the most exciting place to be,” he says. Bajaj stayed on in India and in 2006,started a telecom consulting company; he now heads the India operations of Analysys Mason and says he would like to work with the government again if the opportunity comes his way.

Almost everyone who jumps the fence to the private sector is drawn to the government again later in life. Randhawa says her contemporaries at the NKC who joined the private sector want to work with the government again. She herself eventually wants to start something of her own in the education sector,drawing on her experience with the government.

Vishal Dixit,a management graduate from Stanford who was part of the Prime Minister’s Committee on Infrastructure under Montek Singh Ahluwalia,and prior to that,worked on a joint project between the government and the United Nations Development Programme on strengthening state plans for human development,says once you’ve had a stint with the government,it’s a good idea to come back home to roost. “If you really want to be successful in government,you have to move out and come back with expertise in a particular field that could be useful to government—people like Nandan Nilekani have done so,” says Dixit,now the 29-year-old vice-president at Zephyr Peacock Management,a private equity firm. “I’m almost certain that I’ll join the government again laterally,perhaps in the area of infrastructure or finance,” he says. He knows well it will come at a price—eating before going out for a pricey dinner with friends from the corporate sector,for instance,he says.

While the government is working on bringing salaries closer to market rates—the Young Professionals Programme offers Rs 40,000-plus per month,under a one-year contract,renewable for up to five years—taking up a government job will always mean bracing for a pay cut. It’s a life choice one must make,and for those who see themselves sculpting India’s future,it’s a necessary one.

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