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Promises galore, but no delivery


Recognising that "democracy and development mean nothing for those who are not touched by the hand of progress", Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has articulated his vision for India's future in his Independence Day Speech at Red Fort. It was, indeed, a noble speech, and one that went well beyond rhetoric to define a blueprint, a plan and a programme to secure this vision. It rejected the notion of "islands of high growth and vast areas untouched by development", and sought to "reassure our farmers that their welfare lies at the core of all our concerns." Issues of poverty, displacement, human security, urban planning, agricultural and industrial improvements, employment, and, crucially, education and skill development, found detailed treatment in what is clearly a coherent and strategic perspective of India's developmental future.

But in another speech, on the same day, commemorating the 60th anniversary of India's independence, the Prime Minister noted that, for "the benefits of development to reach the poor it is essential that the delivery systems of the Government, at all levels, are more efficient and purged of corruption. The cancer of corruption must be extinguished if democracy and development have to have a real meaning for our people."

Regrettably, while the corrosive, cancerous, nature of corruption is everywhere recognised, the will to fight it is everywhere conspicuous in its absence, and the present Government has been no exception. It is interesting that, just a few weeks earlier, at a public function, Finance Minister P Chidambaram and BJP MP Arun Shourie, among others, while differing on much else, did agree on the fact that the 'delivery systems' of governance were failing, and that strengthening these was the key to the nation's future growth. There is clearly a multi-party consensus on this -but, at the same time, there is also a multi-party consensus on evading the hard decisions that are needed to clean up the system. As a nation, we have always been excellent at analysing situations -our problem is with finding and implementing solutions. And what Marx said of philosophers applies to policymakers -the point is not merely to 'explain the world', but rather, to change it.

On assuming the Prime Minister's office, among the first things Mr Manmohan Singh had promised were sweeping administrative reforms and a review and rationalisation of existing 'regulatory mechanisms' to make them more transparent and accountable. Little of this has happened and there have been many areas of intervention where unnecessary Governmental meddling is, in fact, increasingly the norm. Worse, the rot in the bureaucracy continues to deepen, even as the civil services fall increasingly into contempt and haemorrhage constantly, losing significant talent to the private sector.

Corruption is, of course, at the heart of the problem - and not just the corruption of the bureaucracy. It is the political executive that is at the apex of India's constitutional system and structure of power, and it is here that the fountainhead of corruption also lies. Corruption in the bureaucracy cannot be addressed unless the corruption and criminalisation of India's political parties and leadership is first neutralised.

Who is going to do that? A regime that must secure its majority in a Parliament that includes over a hundred members accused of heinous crimes? Political parties that give preferential access in electoral contests to individuals with dubious, tainted and criminal backgrounds? All talk of 'development and progress' is wasted unless this can be changed.

This is why we have the continuous farce of regime changes, of Chief Ministers coming to power in the various States transferring officers wholesale, with no impact whatsoever on the delivery of public goods and services. Thousands of crores have been - and continue to be - spent on poverty alleviation programmes, with little or nothing reaching the intended beneficiaries, and everything lost to organised political and administrative corruption, which has, in many States, now supplanted even the pretence of governance.

Against this backdrop, tentative measures of administrative improvement appear entirely academic, virtually nonsensical. When I read about the various 'revolutionary' steps taken by Governments - such as computerisation, the Right to Information Act, 'structural' reforms, legal and legislative measures of rationalisation - I am both amused and distressed. Nothing has any impact in a situation where basic administrative procedures are sacrificed to political corruption.

The difficulty also lies in an increasingly unrealistic assessment of the problem and the solutions that are, consequently, conceptualised. My understanding of administration, including law and order administration, has been that there is a continuous need for touring, for the assessment of delivery mechanisms and services, of living and working conditions of subordinates. The most fundamental basis of administration is in regularly doing routine things in a routine way, ensuring that the daily and 'lesser' tasks of service delivery get done. There was a time when young IAS and IPS officers would spend most of their time touring districts.

Today, officers simply refuse to move out of their Headquarters. Jurisdictions are much smaller, communications, infrastructure and transport are infinitely better, yet supervision by superior officers is virtually non-existent. Our 'solution' is to send officers on junkets to China or for training, education and 'orientation' to Harvard and other high-profile institutions abroad, to 'learn about administration'. But the best training for administration is in the district. What is lacking is not a theoretical understanding of administrative mechanisms and processes, but an administrative culture that emphasises on the hard work of direct monitoring and supervision.

I once asked a social worker in Punjab whether he had ever met an honest patwari. He recalled just one: That particular gentleman never reached his patwarkhana (office) in time, because he had to tend his own farm to make ends meet; the remuneration from the patwari's office is a pittance. I also asked the social worker whether he had come across a single honest Police Station House Officer (SHO), and his answer was, never. These are the two most basic units of administration that have been totally given over to corruption. There is no way in which you can improve delivery systems as long as these continue to sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of corruption. It is a great pity that, instead of looking to these, and creating a measure of responsiveness in the superior administration on these counts, the 'intellectual community' and people in high government offices continue to focus on pseudo solutions and politically correct sloganeering.

The Prime Minister has promised us an India where "no person or region is left out of the journey of development and progress". That 'journey', however, is overwhelmingly mediated by the nation's administrative system. Unless this is restored to health, all the thousands of crores that the Prime Minister has committed to development will go down the same black hole of corruption and waste that has consumed hundreds of thousands of crores before.

(Published in The Pioneer, August 18, 2007)





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