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Narrow coteries at work

There is a lacklustre quality about much of what the Government is doing at present, and many announcements – including the commitment to far-reaching and fundamental reforms articulated by the Prime Minister – have generated little public enthusiasm. The general scepticism is understandable. There is a long tradition in India of political leaders announcing extraordinary programmes for development, but the unfortunate truth is, the benefits have seldom percolated down to those who most need them. The only reforms that have succeeded in the recent past are those that have benefited a narrow segment of the population, largely as a result of the withdrawal of obstructive government controls, and the concomitant release of private initiative from the crippling licence interference.

But ‘privatisation’ cannot feed India’s impoverished millions, and one of the lessons of the relatively rapid growth of the past decade, is that very rapid growth can, unfortunately, coexist with rising levels of distress among a very significant proportion of the population. If the India that still continues to live overwhelmingly in her villages, is not only to be protected from such distress, but is to be lifted out of it, into a dynamic and self-sufficient participation in the modern economy, the Government’s role is, and will remain, pivotal. This has been recognized in the public pronouncements of the new regime. The difficulty is that the mere reassertion of the centrality of the Government’s role in the enterprise of national development does not ensure success. Indeed, it was precisely this centrality that, in the past, had systematically undermined developmental processes as the ‘steel frame’ of the administration was allowed to rust and, in places, disintegrate, and as governmental intervention became synonymous with inefficiency and corruption.

The problem, in fact, goes much deeper, to the very processes and structures that have become embedded in the operation of Government sponsored developmental projects. The allocation and disbursement or ‘utilization’ of funds has long been established as the criterion of success in all government programmes. Several central monitoring committees are set up, but even in the most ‘successful’ programmes, they fail to ensure qualitative improvements in target areas and populations.

The reason is the psychological distance that has enlarged continuously between the state and the more hapless of its citizens. The complex feedback system, official, political and voluntary, has broken down, and flows of information to the multiplicity of central monitoring authorities are restricted to arid and falsified official reports, even as the resources of critical developmental programmes are hijacked by cartels of the corrupt.

Even in the high-profile ‘Golden Quadrilateral Project’, personally promoted by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, monitoring implementation had become a growing headache for the Centre, with the CVC looking into numerous cases of corruption and misappropriation. Less visible projects are infinitely worse off, with many implemented only on paper: monies are allocated, completion certificates are issued, payments are disbursed, but the work is never done. A wide range of ‘rural development’ works – particularly rural roads, irrigation and flood control – are the perfect vehicle for this systematic and recurring embezzlement, which has been near impossible to control through any system of centralized monitoring, given the collusion of local officials and political leaderships, as well as the perfection of paperwork that a corrupt contractor-bureaucrat nexus has worked out. There is usually a spate of expenditure on such ‘projects’ just before the monsoons, and monitoring agencies regularly record their being regrettably ‘washed away’ by the fury of nature in the very first showers.

I have, over the past two years, been working on a voluntary basis in Uttar Pradesh, spending about 150 days of the year in reaching medical and other services to villages. The feedback from the thousands of people I have met over this period – in areas no further than a couple of hundred kilometres from Delhi – has been depressing. There was, for instance, supposed to be a programme for vaccination for foot and mouth disease in cattle. There is, in fact, no effective foot and mouth vaccine in India, and in village after village we heard that this had been more of a publicity stunt than a programme, and that there had been little implementation on the ground. When villagers said this in the presence of an official functionary, he berated them and accused them of lying. After that, the poor villagers just shut up and it was impossible to get anything further out of them. And this, to reiterate, is just a couple of hundred kilometres out of the national capital.

The rot has been endemic, and despite the quantitative ‘achievements’ of successive governments, the realities of the ground remain dismal in large parts of the country. States announce high percentages of ‘electrification’ of villages, but there is no electricity, and in many places, electricity wires have been stolen, or were never really put up. Despite the cheerful numbers on literacy in many States, the truth is that, for decades, there has been a continuous decline in educational standards across the country; teacher absenteeism is endemic in rural schools; and the educational infrastructure and teaching tools available in rural areas are often quite disgraceful. This rot extends well beyond the rural educational and adult literacy programmes, and comprehends virtually the entire educational infrastructure, up to the highest levels, with the notable exception of a handful of technical and management institutions which have somehow remained substantially out of the sphere of governmental meddling [though the last regime had made an unconscionable attempt at irrational interference in the fee structure and autonomy of the IIMs among this select group of elite institutions as well].

The causal dynamic of the decline of the state’s institutional capacity to implement its own programmes is, no doubt, immensely complex. But if a single factor were to be identified as the most significant within this multiplicity of causes, it would certainly be the increasing influence of narrow coteries in governance. The institutional framework of governance has been systematically eroded, at times dismantled, as a result of the kitchen cabinets that are congregated on criteria, not of performance or connectedness with the ground and the masses, but on personal relationships and loyalties. In recent times, the PMO has become one such kitchen cabinet, exercising extraordinary power and influence on all ministries and departments, and under the last regime, substantial power without even cabinet accountability on certain critical issues. The PMO has, of course, now been completely overhauled. The truth, however, is that the PMO remains the PMO, no matter how many personnel you change. There is very marginal difference between the capacities and orientation of one desk officer and another. A coterie remains a coterie, and it will matter little if the coterie around Manmohan Singh is better than the coterie that surrounded Vajpayee. Or that there are, in fact, layers of coteries within the current dispensation, with a multiplicity of ‘monitoring committees’ being appointed at different levels in the Government, Ruling Alliance and Party.

Few, if any of the ‘eminent’ appointees to these coteries can cause a stir among the common people, and the best among them – however much they may be lionised by the Press – are known only within a tiny and incestuous circle of power in Delhi. They have no base in, or connection with, India’s villages, and there is, consequently, no system in place to monitor or assess the impact of developmental programmes. The integrity of an efficient feedback mechanism, through official, intelligence, political and informal channels, will have to be restored, well before the possibility of the efficient implementation of developmental programmes can be established.

(Published in The Pioneer, June 26, 2004)





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