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Ten country chickens amongst hundreds of broilers

One of my civil service colleagues coined the above phrase on our WhatsApp group site. The context was the advertisement by the Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India inviting applications for contractual appointment as Joint Secretary (JS) in the Government of India through lateral entry. Just when the Indian bureaucracy thought it was done and dusted with the debate over the service-state allocation post-entry into the civil service rather than pre-entry, the union government set off another Diwali rocket under its nether regions. Ten JS posts in coveted Ministries ranging from Revenue and Economic Affairs to Road Transport and Commerce are up for grabs.

I have long been a votary for lateral entry into the civil services. My views have been reinforced by the complacency that grips the permanent civil servant once s(he) is assured of a career path that leads to the apex scale. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the IAS where, if you are ensconced in your state cadre, you are guaranteed an almost automatic rise to the apex scale of Chief Secretary unless death, conviction on criminal charges or lunacy parts you from that cherished goal. I am not restating my positions here, having outlined them in detail in an earlier blog (Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action). But I do have certain words of caution for the union government as it steps into this minefield.

  • Never underestimate the permanent civil service: James Hacker was neither the first nor the last Minister who failed in his efforts to reform the civil service. The Humphrey Applebys in the IAS (both former and current) are aghast at the proposed lateral entry. Rest assured that all efforts will be made to stymie the initiative. In the past, even when the lateral entrant was at the level of Secretary to the Ministry, the IAS had its mechanisms to constrain him. A popular ruse was to induct a Special Secretary or Additional Secretary from the hallowed service who would, in a sense, keep a watch on the activities of the Secretary. The argument generally used was that the incumbent lateral entrant was new to administrative practices and needed support to guide him through the byzantine maze of the bureaucracy, never mind that there was a plethora of experienced JSs in the Ministry who could have done the same job, if required. Imagine the fate of a single lateral entrant in a Ministry! If her Secretary decides to allot her, say, the Administration desk in the Ministry, her specialised talents will come to naught. So, if the government is serious, it should decide, in consultation with the Minister of the concerned department, which crucial responsibility, appropriate to her skill set, will be assigned her. The Minister and, probably, the Prime Minister’s Office, may have to monitor how she is allowed to work to ensure her effective functioning.
  • Go in for more radical restructuring: This is why I advocate more radical surgery in the short to medium-term. Governments should remember that their tenure is not permanent and that their successor governments often seek to undo all their honest efforts. Given the statist mindset of the Congress and most opposition parties, I have little doubt that they will easily be swayed by the advice of the permanent bureaucracy, as their rumblings in the media already testify. If this limited move is a precursor to deep rooted change, well and good – else, the lateral entrants will be neutralised over time.
  • Insist on changes in the states: Most programmes, especially in the social sector, falter where implementation is fully or largely at the state level. Take education, health or nutrition: the southern and western states are in a different league compared to some of the states in northern and eastern India. That this is not a given is borne out by the improved statistics in some social sectors in states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh, pointing to the importance of political leadership committed to economic development. However, it is also distressing to observe that states with a very high reputation for sound administration in the past seem to be following in the footsteps of their more backward partners, especially in the area of individual (especially women) security and law and order. This is because the deteriorating administrative mechanisms in these states, coupled with countrywide weaknesses in the legal system, have led to reduced respect for the rule of law among increasingly cynical citizens. That we will continue to be governed by parties of a variety of ideological predispositions and structures is a fact of life; that all these parties, and the governments they form, need to promote strong, responsive governance mechanisms, at the state and local government levels, is equally crucial for a healthy democracy. Incentivising good governance measures, possibly through financial flows, needs serious consideration.
  • Resist the temptation of listening to party ideologues: The present union government is pilloried whenever it initiates any such measure, largely because it has been perceived as appointing persons (with particular ideological leanings), of no great public or professional standing, to head key institutions, some of whom have exposed themselves (and the government) to ridicule by the quality of their statements in public fora as well as by their performance. Granted, it may not have wanted the same set of academics and other individuals who were the favourites of the previous regime and who enjoyed positions due to the synchronisation of their worldviews with those of the then ruling dispensation. But a rigorous selection process would have seen the appointment of persons who commanded respect in the public for their erudition and scholarship and lent more credibility to the government’s decisions. I would strongly urge that an impartial, fair selection process is put in place, involving the Union Public Service Commission, so that the public (and the civil services) are assured that standards are not going to be diluted and that lateral entrants are not seen as being favourably disposed to any ideology, other than that of constitutional democracy, as enshrined in the Constitution of India.

I revert again to the title of this blog. I am told that country chickens taste better than broilers. However, ten country chicken served up amongst many broilers will occasion no culinary delight, except among the very discerning. If the chickens are jointly slaughtered, cooked and served to patrons, it would, in any case, be impossible to testify to the quality of a particular chicken. Which is why I am a supporter of thoroughgoing reforms, even if these are carried out in stages. There should be no doubt about the final objectives or of the resolve of the government to carry through its programme. The government, for its part, should look for a place in history rather than for attaining limited political goals. When our fellow Commonwealth countries like the UK, Australia and New Zealand have undertaken extensive civil service reform, there is no reason for the biggest of them all, India, to refrain from biting the bullet.

 

The Emperor’s New Clothes

“But he hasn’t got anything on” a little child said (Hans Christian Andersen)

 Three measures taken by the central government in recent years do not seem to be yielding dividends, at least in the short term. Demonetisation started off with the promise of unearthing black money, moved on to promising a cashless nirvana and has finally only succeeded in damaging growth prospects. The Goods and Services Tax (GST), after so many years in the making, was rushed through in a matter of months with inadequate software readiness and with poor education of the masses of small retailers and traders who, willy nilly, had to move overnight to online systems for which they were totally unprepared. The informal sector has been particularly hard hit by the speed of GST imposition. Implementation of Aadhaar was pushed through as a money bill. It is still facing civil society resistance in the Supreme Court, especially because of the stubborn bureaucratic insistence on treating it as a panacea for all of India’s ills, including tax leakages and terrorism, instead of first focusing on streamlining the process of beneficiary entitlements.

What has marked all these three “initiatives” has been the attempt by the political executive to display its so-called dynamism, consequences be damned. What has been even more noteworthy is the failure of the civil service, especially at the highest levels, to caution its political masters in rushing through with measures that affect the lives of large masses of people. Like the courtiers in Andersen’s fable, they are effusive in rushing to extol these policies, without sparing a thought for harsh realities. The same could be said for the inordinate haste of BJP state governments in pushing through legislation banning the sale and consumption of beef, which has jeopardised the livelihoods of large numbers, especially from the Muslim and Dalit communities, apart from rendering them vulnerable to vicious attacks by vigilante groups.

And now, the government has dropped a bombshell — it seems to want to tinker in a major way with the manner in which senior civil servants are allotted services after selection and the states to be allotted to those selected for the All-India Services. The only document available in the public domain is a letter from a Joint Secretary in the central government’s Department of Personnel to the Deputy Director General in the Department of Telecommunications. Ordinarily, such a letter would not even be deemed worthy of notice. What has set the cat among the pigeons is the mention in the letter that the measure is sought to be implemented from later this year, which means that the batch just selected (2019 batch) will serve as the guinea pigs. As a member of the 1980 civil service batch which served as guinea pigs for the last effort at civil service recruitment process reform, courtesy the Kothari Committee report, I am bemused that views of departments are being sought without any background paper or report serving as the basis for the thought process. It almost seems as though (à la demonetisation) the decision has already been taken and a perfunctory consultation process is being gone through before orders are issued.

Many of my colleagues in the civil services (all retired) have expressed themselves forcefully on this issue. While we are almost unanimous in our view that the civil service recruitment system is in need of reform, our apprehensions stem from the rather flimsy methodology suggested for the service/state cadre allocation, which would strike at the very roots of the concept of a competent, impartial civil service. The faculty at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie and at other institutes, where foundation courses are conducted, are hardly equipped to critically assess the capabilities of officers for deciding their suitability for different services. There are likely to be three deleterious implications if the proposed course of action is gone through in haste, without addressing fundamental issues of evolving a sound selection process.

Cronyism is the probable first evil that has to be factored in. India is still a country where regional, language and caste factors exercise a strong pull. Without disparaging my erstwhile colleagues from the northern states, it is a fact that, barring the Rajiv Gandhi era, there was a predominance of three or four states, especially Uttar Pradesh, in the senior echelons of administrative decision making at the centre, in the first fifty years after independence. While this phenomenon may be partly attributed to the reluctance of officers from the southern and western states to go on central deputation, it is also a fact that positions in key economic ministries were occupied by officers from the northern states or those who kept in close touch with the levers of power in Delhi. That the fulcrum has now moved to Gujarat is no cause for comfort: it only proves that bureaucrats most in sync with the political dispensation of the day at the centre rule the roost. But, at least, central deputation has finite time limits, till repatriation or retirement ends the bureaucrat’s tenure. The mind boggles, however, at the thought that a protégé can be given a lifetime job guarantee by a favourably disposed godparent at the time of service selection.

Corruption will inevitably follow any such non-transparent process, following Lord Acton’s dictum that “…absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In an ocean of corrupt State Public Service Commissions, the Union Public Service Commission maintained its reputation for integrity in the selection process for over six decades. While one may quibble over the manner of selection — bookish, elitist, etc. — there has never been a question of individuals (or coaching classes) using the lure of lucre to manipulate the selection process. I shudder at the prospect of the future of the country’s administration being subject to the possibility of temptations being dangled before faculty in training academies, who are called on to adjudicate between the relative merits of different candidates who qualify for the civil services, especially when one witnesses the debasement of so many institutions by the pernicious influence of money power.

Politicisation of the civil services will be the obvious corollary of any post-selection evaluation mechanism. The candidate who is smart enough to qualify for the foundation course will also be smart enough to realise that s(he) can use political strings to swing the desired service/state in his/her direction. The reign of different political dispensations every five years will only add masala to the selection process. And, heavens forbid, if the same party continues to rule at the centre for two or three decades, nothing stops it from packing the civil services with officers loyal to its ideology, fulfilling the Emergency dream of a “committed bureaucracy”. In a federal set up, where parties opposed to each other may be in power at the centre and in the states, nothing short of anarchy will reign when civil servants of the All-India Services assigned to different states are looked at with suspicion by state governments. We have already had a foretaste of this in Delhi because of no love lost between the Delhi government and the central government.

Merit is likely to be a casualty of the proposed changes. But the issue of choice also rises. Young Indians spend the best part of their productive years attempting to seize the holy grail of the civil services. Now, when the grail seems to be within reach, it could be snatched away by the whims of a few instructors or the machinations of colleagues, aided and abetted by unscrupulous elements. When certain services continue to exercise an allurement for prospective civil servants similar to that of the songs of the Sirens for sailors in Greek mythology, introducing an element of uncertainty for a further period of six months to one year after selection could lead to one of two consequences: (a) it could discourage bright young women and men from seeking to join the civil services, or (b) more damagingly, it could encourage the entry of elements who seek to obtain their desired service/state through any means, mostly foul. If you doubt me, just see the type of candidates who are standing for elections to legislatures and Parliament. Gresham’s law of the civil services will then operate with a vengeance.

Let me hasten to add that I, and most of my retired friends in the civil services, are strongly in favour of reforms in the processes of selection to the civil services as well as subsequent career advancement. We recognise that there has been considerable heartburning over the fact that a single examination decides the future life trajectory of an individual. You could argue that so does an IIT or IIM selection process, but then these are not lifetime guarantees. The IIT/IIM graduate still has to compete with others for entry into a particular line of employment. At the same time, given that there is so much hype to get a “prestigious” civil service job, the selection process has to be insulated from pressures and influences. In an earlier blog (Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action), I had proposed wide ranging changes in the structure of the civil services, including the abolition of the All-India Services and making all appointments contractual, to meet the administrative challenges of the coming decades. While I am sure that there will be plenty of views on (and criticism of) my suggestions, I strongly feel that cosmetic changes are no solution to a bureaucratic system that is perceived by the mass of the people of India as unresponsive, lethargic and tyrannical. It is possible that some variant of what I have proposed could be devised, with implementation in stages. But unless the issue is addressed at all levels of government — central, state and local — and efficiency and accountability are introduced in governance, the Indian public will continue to be shortchanged in service delivery and India’s long-term growth and development prospects will be affected.

The need of the hour is a close, hard look at what is wrong with our governance systems and how to improve these. Merely toying with service allotment or state allocation is no solution: if anything, these will worsen the situation and lay the government of the day open to the charge of changing the system to suit its political requirements. It would indeed be ironical if a government that swears by Sardar Patel were to demolish the edifice of the civil services built up by him, without developing a viable long-term alternative. Were this to occur, we can only take refuge in the words of the late Jayaprakash Narayan “विनाशकालेविपरीतबुद्धि”(when one’s doom approaches, one’s intelligence works perversely).

No Shades Of Grey for India

I am not, as you might think, advocating the banning of the erotic book and film which have titles similar to the headline of this blog. But I am getting increasingly convinced that operating in grey areas is something Indians revel in. The new millennium has offered adequate proof that Indians abhor convention and thrive on discretion. While departing from the former allows for abominable behaviour even in the temples of Indian democracy, adhering like blood-sucking leeches to the latter enables the growth of the rent-seeking economy and polity. Where laws exist, bend them to suit oneself and one’s clan (even if discreetly) and, where they are silent, may the devil take the hindmost, decencies be damned.

Let us start with the legislatures, the roots of democracy in India. Over the last decade, we have seen the top two legislative organs of the country, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, apart from a number of state assemblies, being held hostage by elected representatives. Rushing to the well of the House, disrupting legislative business, indulging in fisticuffs and even grabbing the Speaker’s mace have been par for the course. A very far cry from the conventions in the British Houses of Parliament, where the Speaker’s word is law and where, once the Speaker has risen from her chair, all members on their feet must resume their seats. Of course, the farce commences even before the assembly commences its first sitting. Karnataka 2018 is its latest and most dramatic example. After a rather dubious decision by the Governor, the Supreme Court (SC) stepped in to order an immediate trust vote on the floor of the House. Flouting established convention, the Governor departed from the established procedure of appointing as pro tem Speaker the senior most elected member, generally from the opposition, to conduct the proceedings prior to election of the regular Speaker. This was obviously done to smoothen somewhat the winning of the trust vote by the newly sworn in Chief Minister (CM). Unfortunately, for the BJP, the SC fettered the discretion of the pro tem Speaker such that the CM had to resign within thirty-six hours of being sworn in.

But conventions have died a painful death in India over the years, assisted by constitutional functionaries. At the behest of whichever party is ruling at the centre, Governors of states have twisted the provisions of the Constitution of India, notably Article 356A, to help dismiss elected governments of a political hue different from the centre. As India steps squarely into the era of hung Parliaments/Assemblies and coalition governments, Karnataka and, before it, Goa, Manipur and many other instances represent the जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस (he who holds the stick controls the buffalo) mentality that dominates the Indian psyche. “Show me the Governor and I’ll show you the government” seems to be the prevailing motto. This blog does not have the space to go into the Sarkaria Commission recommendations on government formation in the states or the SC rulings in the SR Bommai and Rameshwar Prasad cases. But common sense would dictate that, after a tiring, costly election process, that government is sworn in which has the best chance of lasting the next five years. When the largest party falls well short of a majority and there are not enough independents and members of other small parties to help it cross the half-way mark, the logical course of action would be to invite post-poll coalitions of other parties, which have affirmed their joint intention of government formation, and give them a chance to prove their majority on the floor of the House. The Governor does have discretion but, as a functionary who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, (s)he is duty bound to act in a manner which does not reek of political partisanship.

Governments of all political persuasions have never been respecters of conventions. Recently, the Income Tax (IT) department raided the Badami (Karnataka) resort owned by an MLA-hopeful of the Congress during the election process. Nothing wrong in this, except the timing! Did the raids by the IT department and the subsequent attention supposedly lavished on him by the Enforcement Directorate have anything to do with his recent switch of loyalties from the BJP to the Congress? This worthy, after many twists and turns in the saga, appears to be as yet with the Congress, but who knows what the morrow brings? There were also disquieting media reports that loyalty of some MLAs was sought to be bought by promising leniency in investigation of economic offences in which they were allegedly involved. With the reputation of central investigative agencies already at an all-time low, efforts at their subornation are a cause for worry.

In the prevailing gloom over the functioning of the legislature and the executive, the performances of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the SC give cause for cheer. In what was a bruising election, the ECI ensured the free exercise of franchise, though the role of muscle and money power in influencing voters is still a disease that requires remedy. The SC moved swiftly to check efforts to influence legislators and its eagle eye ensured that no attempts were made to monkey around with the trust vote process.

In the final analysis, however, it is the moral fibre of individuals that will determine the development of healthy practices in a democracy. We had the newly sworn in BJP CM of Karnataka announcing a farm loan waiver, transferring key police officials and seeking to augment his party’s strength in the trial of strength by nominating a legislator from the Anglo-Indian community (until restrained by the SC). We had the top legal functionary of the Central Government, the Attorney-General, foregoing his beauty sleep to appear in the predawn SC hearing and advancing ludicrous arguments that effectively encouraged horse-trading (man-trading??). We had the newly-elected MLAs apparently so vulnerable to inducements and threats that they had to be shepherded like preschool children, with no guarantee that they will not play truant in the coming months. To this date, government formation by the JD(S)-Congress combine has been bedeviled by the chase after lucrative portfolios. We had electronic media representatives treating this entire episode as a chess game and speculating on who will bring money and muscle to bear on government formation. And, finally, there is the ordinary citizen, inured to the reality that, to get ahead in life, you need to jump the red signal, help your wards cheat in examinations and part with mamool to grease your way through government. Where is the sense of shame and probity in all these individuals, and countless others? One senses no sadness or weariness in witnessing the repeated drama, just another Roman circus for the masses.

At least for the near future, we seem to be in a situation where it may be necessary to codify important conventions to get over the Indian aversion to following commonly accepted norms. There is already a code of conduct for elections. Similar codes need to be evolved for, among other things, procedures of government formation at the centre and in the states, conduct of legislative business, appointment of governors, powers of investigative agencies once elections have been announced and conduct of private activities of legislators that conflict with their public roles. These codes need to be implemented rigorously with salutary penalties for their infringement which could range from public shaming to loss of office.

However, nothing will really change until the educated thinking classes assume the responsibility for setting our derailed democracy back on the rails. Let us not forget that a diverse group of thinking Indians, seventy years ago, drafted one of the most glorious modern-day Constitutions. Keeping it alive, and enriching it further, is, alas, a task our present generation has failed in miserably. Karnataka is the latest manifestation of the terminal disease afflicting our democracy, which needs skilful doctors, not butchers. We ignore this at our own peril.

 

A sense of déjà vu

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I am rather fond of using this phrase, but only because the same patterns keep recurring like bad dreams in one’s life. The Karnataka state assembly elections have come and gone and we are back again to Ground Zero. The electorate has once more, in its wisdom, chosen not to anoint any one party as the clear victor, leaving the space open for fun and games. The ball is now in the court of the Governor of Karnataka to decide whom to invite to form the government. Sauce for the BJP goose is not going to be sauce for the Congress gander. No party is likely to emerge pristine white from this exercise over the next couple of weeks. The Congress missed the bus in Goa and Manipur in 2017, despite being the party which won the largest number of seats. It was not even invited by the respective Governors to form the government. Instead, the BJP was allowed to cobble together a motley assortment of partners and stake its claim to form the governments in these two states. At that time, the Congress went blue in the face screaming about the shenanigans in government formation and how its claims were ignored. Today, the same Congress is ready to go in for a shotgun marriage with the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)) to hang on at least indirectly to power, even if it means ceding the king’s throne to its junior partner. Not that the BJP is any better. The same party which went hell for leather to seduce its partners last year is now sanctimoniously quoting the constitutional scriptures of the Governor being duty bound to invite the party which has won the largest number of seats.

As if this were not enough, we are left wondering how the numbers game will play out. Given the role that Governors have played in recent years, we need not be overly surprised if the Governor does indeed invite the largest party, the BJP, to have the first go at government formation. With 104 seats in the legislature, the BJP will need seven more legislators to support it when it has to prove its majority in the house in the near future. Partial support can come from three legislators, one of whom is an independent and two from smaller parties. But to win the trust vote, the BJP will still need to ensure that its 107 supporting legislators constitute 50 percent of the number of legislators present and voting. Presuming that the opposition parties issue a whip on the vote, the only way the BJP could win the trust vote would be for five or more opposition legislators to either absent themselves altogether or abstain from the voting process. To prevent such moral (and not so moral) suasion from occurring, the only way out for the Congress-JD(S) would be to sequester their flock at an appropriate location and produce them fresh and ready at the time of the trust vote.

Let us presume for a moment that the BJP loses the trust vote or that, wonder of wonders, the Governor actually invites the Congress-JD(S) to form the government and prove its majority. Even then, the Congress-JD(S) have to ensure that some of their legislators do not jump ship by resigning from legislatorship and introducing uncertainty regarding the future of their government. The memories of “Operation Kamala 2008” must still be touching a raw nerve in these two parties.

So, the resort to resorts will continue. As an old Maharashtra hand, I still remember vividly the coup attempted in 2002 by the BJP-Shiv Sena against the Congress-NCP Vilasrao Deshmukh government in Maharashtra. The Congress legislators (and some independents) had to be spirited away from Maharashtra to a resort on the outskirts of Bengaluru. That Bengaluru continues to be the favourite last resort of the Congress was proved yet again in 2017, when 44 Congress legislators from Gujarat had to be housed here prior to Rajya Sabha elections to prevent them succumbing to the insidious charms of the BJP. History is now set to repeat itself yet again: do you wonder now why I find this exercise repetitive and not a little nauseating?

Actually, the entire Karnataka election process followed the time-honoured pattern. All parties fell over each other nominating candidates with dubious track records, many having criminal cases pending against them. No candidate from the three major political parties campaigned on the specific plank of addressing issues germane to the electorate, whether these related to agriculture, law and order, food security or health care. In any case, the healthy yesteryear habit of house to house campaigning has long been abandoned; in the current elections, probably only the AAP and Swaraj India candidates adopted this approach. Cash, liquor and other freebies are rumoured to have been freely distributed to win votes.

I am not one of those who subscribe to the view that state funding of elections is going to cleanse the Augean stables of electoral corruption. With governance processes still hugely dependent on discretion, and distribution of scarce resources — land, housing, licences, contracts, etc. — centrally controlled by the politico-bureaucratic nexus, elections to political bodies, whether at central, state or local levels, represent the pathway to self-aggrandisement and enriching one’s clan. Making local area funds available to elected representatives has only enabled distribution of patronage to a larger group of cronies. Even moving to a system of proportional representation will not solve this problem: the same worthies will find place in the lists of all political parties.

A change for the better will be possible only when:

  • Elected representatives at the central and state levels confine themselves to enacting legislation and lobbying for public/private projects in their constituencies rather than having any direct role in disbursing patronage in the form of funds or other scarce resources;
  • The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution are implemented in letter and spirit and financial and administrative powers are genuinely devolved to rural and urban local bodies;
  • Patronage at ministerial level, especially in the state secretariats, ceases;
  • Strong anti-corruption ombudsman structures at the centre and in the states, with powers of investigation and prosecution, are created;
  • Corruption cases are fast-tracked and completed within two years of institution so that the fear of early retribution exists, especially in the political class;
  • Inner-party democracy is made mandatory through legislation, so that political parties cease to be the fiefdom of individuals and families.

I am not sanguine about good sense prevailing on our political representatives to implement the above reforms. Till such time as these come about, we will continue to be “entertained” by political drama. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette “If they don’t have jobs, let them have circuses.” O Tempora! O Mores!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

You may be wondering why I am resurrecting a schmaltzy 1967 American rom-com movie, fifty years after we saw it on screens in India. True, it played on the theme of interracial marriage, so relevant in these days of “love jihad”. But that is not why I dwell on the guest who is coming to dinner. I am intrigued, and not a little amused, by the recent directive from the Prime Minister, no less, to his party MPs and Ministers to dine with Dalit families. That, more than seventy years after independence and after the enactment of a progressive Constitution that enjoins the virtues, among others, of equality and fraternity, elected representatives who represent all citizens, including its disadvantaged poor, have to be issued a firman to break rotis with those traditionally beyond the pale of the caste system is a telling commentary on the deep cleavages that still fissure Indian society.

What strikes me as ludicrous is that those representing the people have to be told to interact with them. Recent months have seen stories of Chief Ministers, belonging to the dispensation ruling at the centre, eating at Dalit houses. We have been fed with salacious details of how plates, food and water were organised from outside so that the VIP could be captured on celluloid enjoying his victuals in the Dalit house. A very recent news report has detailed the elaborate exercise of a ruling party MP dining at a Dalit house. This former civil service colleague took to politics after a career in the civil services. I wondered whether he didn’t find this entire exercise unreal, given the interaction that civil servants get to have with all sections of society in the course of travels across villages and towns during their working years.

From personal experience, my extensive travels across Maharashtra have taken me to tribal habitations, Dalit vastis and urban slums. I have been privileged to be the guest of poor families, who have shared tea (often without milk), poha and any other food item in the house with the unexpected guest. Many politicians I have known have also accepted food and drink readily during their tours, without bothering about the caste, religion or social status of their hosts. Which is why I find it inexplicable that a national political party finds it necessary to impose a diktat on its party men (and women) to interdine with members of a particular social group. Does this imply that, over the past four years, these peoples’ representatives have given the cold shoulder to the poor and disadvantaged, to the extent of not even visiting their humble dwellings and sharing chai-biskut with them?

What I find more reprehensible are the accounts of apparently stage-managed dinners. There have been reports of meals at certain locations being organised from outside the Dalit vasti, although the actual consumption by the VIP took place in a Dalit home. More to the point, the visits to the Dalit habitations, whether by a Chief Minister, Minister, MP or MLA, do not often see any tangible improvement in the living conditions of local residents, partly because of the poor governance and infrastructure systems in place and more so because of the lack of opportunities for benefiting from economic growth processes.

That such publicised dinner visits reek of symbolism is one of the unfortunate spinoffs of such exercises, captured beautifully by the inimitable Hemant Morparia in a recent cartoon.

While there are many sincere politicians at different levels, there is no denying that, in the race for one upmanship that politics, in India and elsewhere, has descended to, photo opportunities are used to advance ones’ reputation in the eyes of those who matter, especially in these days of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. It would be extremely heartening if the visit by a Minister / MP / MLA was followed up with intensive efforts to address the shortcomings in delivery of public services that were observed during the visit. Unfortunately, such visits tend to be one-off instances, restricted to mentions in the press and reports to political superiors on one’s efforts, spectacle rather than substance.

The other issue of concern is the widening gulf between the elected representatives and their electorate. Sighting an MP/MLA in the constituency between two elections is akin to spotting a black swan. Why, even getting to see the local corporator on the streets is a rarer occurrence than seeing a blue moon. MPs/MLAs, many of whom do not even regularly stay in the constituencies that elected them, have no system of judging the extent to which they are meeting the specific requests of their constituents (with honourable exceptions like Shashi Tharoor and Jay Panda). The result is a growing disillusionment and cynicism in the electorate, which looks to extract short-term benefits near election time, a dangerous trend in a democracy.

Having reached the ranks of the senior citizenry some time back, I feel entitled to offer my two bits of advice to MPs and MLAs.  Firstly, do try to leave your constituency looking somewhat better than when you first got elected. Insist on certain standards of efficient public service delivery, especially in the areas of health care, education and food security. It is saddening to see the ramshackle state of the public health services, ICDS and public distribution systems in constituencies that have been the pocket boroughs of particular individuals or families for years on end. Use technology to monitor processes and outcomes and develop a cadre of local youth who can facilitate the reach of basic services to the public, particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

Secondly, please use your term(s) in elected office to meaningfully contribute to the passage of effective laws that improve the economic and social conditions of your fellow citizens. This will require less of rushing to the well of the legislature and disrupting business to drive home some inane political agenda. Let me assure you that the public is heartily sick of these shenanigans and, at the first availability of a suitable substitute, will boot you out of office.

Thirdly, make it a habit to spend at least two or three days a week travelling to every area of your constituency. You have over 1800 days in office, enough to cover most villages and towns in your area. Drop in unannounced into homes, preferably in the late evenings, when you can meet with families and groups and share their joys and sorrows, as well as understand their grievances. Forget the meals, sharing a cup of tea, where you pour half the sweet concoction from the cup into a saucer and offer the latter to your host, will create a bond between you. Will this guarantee your reelection? Sadly not, elections are won and lost on a host of other considerations — religion, caste, emotions and money power. But you will have the enduring satisfaction of having participated in the lives of your less fortunate fellow women and men, giving them the strength to live another day, month and year to fight the ongoing battles of their lives.

 

Reducing Child Malnutrition – Action Backed By Data

After many stops and starts, the National Nutrition Mission (NNM) is being launched by the Prime Minister on 8 March (International Women’s Day) at Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. I have heard some rumblings about the NNM’s excessive focus on data monitoring and the lack of a specific programmatic focus. This is but to be expected from the Indian intelligentsia, which always looks upwards for policy and programme inspiration. In the last fifteen years, we have been snowed under with programmes designed to improve access to healthcare, employment and food. Most of these programmes have not fitted in with the lumbering public service delivery mechanisms that are a characteristic of most Indian state governments. Additionally, their implementation has been bedeviled by inadequate budgetary provisions. It is time that we move from policy obsession to action focus, as admirably enunciated by my friend Sanjeev Ahluwalia in his recent article (Junk Policy for Action). Hence, my two bits on what needs to be done in the sphere of reducing child malnutrition.

For a start, with the Fourteenth Finance Commission mandating an increased devolution of central financial resources to the states from 32% to 42%, the time has come for state governments to stop crying that they are being deprived of “mother’s milk” by the centre. Along with such budgetary provisions as accrue to them from the centre, state governments need to responsibly start making significant budget provisions for the nutrition, health and education sectors, which will contribute most to reducing the incidence of child malnutrition and mortality. States also need to take a hard look at their policies for supplementary nutrition provision to mothers and children under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme. This area that has seen phenomenal corruption enriching contractors, politicians and bureaucrats and has drawn the ire of even the Supreme Court but has not altered politico-bureaucratic behaviour in the least, except the search for more ingenious methods to pull wool over the eyes of the Court. Schemes like the Karnataka Mathru Poorna programme, which provides a hot midday meal to pregnant and nursing mothers, need to be replicated, with close social monitoring to minimise leakages. Supplementary nutrition to children in anganwadis (and, where they are under-3, at home) needs to rely on local food preparation by mothers’ and self-help groups.

At the same time, the central government can help matters by acting as a funnel for data dissemination and technical advice. A huge volume of data relating to maternal and child health and nutrition process and outcome indicators flows into the central government data servers every month. The ICDS monthly progress report is supposed to be sent online every month by all state governments to the Ministry of Women & Child Development, Government of India (MWCD). Even if it is sent (itself a matter for investigation), no one looks at it, let alone sends analysed data back to the state government for remedial action. The Mother and Child Tracking System (MCTS) was introduced by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India (MOHFW) with much fanfare in 2011 to track the health and nutrition status of mothers and children from conception through delivery to the time the child reaches the age of 5 years. Not a byte of this voluminous data collected over the past seven years has been made available to, or has been used by, state government health and nutrition machineries to improve their capabilities to better serve mothers and children. If the NITI Aayog, MWCD and MOHFW work together to make all this extremely useful field-level data available to state government formations right down to the anganwadi and health sub-centre levels, they will have contributed more to reducing child malnutrition and mortality than all the central government efforts over the past forty years.

But having all the data is not enough; using it judiciously is even more crucial to successful outcomes. Since the Prime Minister is launching the NNM in Rajasthan, an example from that state will highlight what I mean. May I refer you to a report in the Hindustan Times of 27 February 2018 (Programme to address all malnutrition causes). This piece details the programme to tackle severe wasting or severe acute malnutrition (SAM) through community involvement, known in nutrition circles as Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM). The first phase of the CMAM initiative was undertaken in 2015-16 in 41 blocks in 13 districts of Rajasthan. That over 2.25 lakh under-5 children were screened and nearly 10,000 children were enrolled in the programme, of whom over 90% are reported to have recovered from SAM is good news. At the same time, this is still touching only the tip of the iceberg. These 13 districts are home to over 24.50 lakh under-5 children, of whom, if one goes by the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) figures, over 2.50 lakh children fall in the SAM category. Even if one takes just a cross-section of blocks in these 13 districts, the CMAM screening of 2015-16 ought to have uncovered a far greater number of SAM children than 10,000. Screening of entire child populations in selected areas was probably the reason for the lower number of SAM children identified, since the ICDS-health machinery would have been able to reach only a limited number of children with the resources available. Since the ICDS is supposed to record weights of all under-5 children monthly, it would have been a far more effective strategy to identify severely underweight (SUW) children (those with weights less than three standard deviations below normal) and then record the heights of these SUW children to arrive at an accurate assessment of the number of severely wasted children.

The news report states that the Mission Director of the National Health Mission, Rajasthan claims success for the CMAM exercise. Apart from the low numbers of SAM children reached, there is no supporting evidence to show the extent of non-relapse into SAM of the over 9000 children who are supposed to have moved out of SAM. I would be rather sceptical of a CMAM programme which does not give specific data on the same children one year after their release from the facility where they underwent treatment. The Rajasthan government now plans to expand the programme of Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition (IMAM) to 50 blocks in 20 districts (which include the original 13 districts) of the state. IMAM is a programme developed in geographical contexts where civil strife and ethnic unrest lead to worsening of children’s nutrition status. It has to be applied cautiously in settings where child malnutrition is a chronic condition rather than an emergency situation. Rather than getting caught up in acronyms, it is desirable to focus on the fundamentals. The 20 chosen districts have an under-5 child population of over 45 lakhs, with a reasonable estimate (based on NFHS-4 data) of about 5 lakh SAM children. To avoid spreading resources (financial and manpower) too thin and to get the maximum mileage for the money spent, it would be advisable to track the weight of every child in every anganwadi in these districts and to identify the anganwadis with the maximum burden of SAM children. The heights of children falling in the SUW category could be recorded by a health functionary, who would also assess any prevalence of disease in the child requiring treatment. These SAM children could then be treated under the prescribed SAM protocols, with the highest-incidence anganwadis being taken up first, and other lesser-incidence anganwadis being taken up subsequently, depending on the financial and organisational capacity to treat the children. The condition of these children should be followed up for a year subsequently by the three As, the Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and the Anganwadi Worker (AWW).

I am not discounting the importance of an integrated approach to treating child malnutrition, covering behavioural changes in families and communities and the need to focus on policy interventions in nutrition-sensitive sectors like drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and livelihoods. What I am worried about is that in the enthusiasm to do too many things, the central issue of tackling the immediate problem of SAM will be lost sight of. This is the reason why the Rajmata Jijau Mother-Child Health and Nutrition Mission of Maharashtra, the first of its kind in the country, focused on specific action areas in a sequential order, with fairly gratifying outcomes. Unless we adopt the same talisman that Gandhiji adopted, substituting the “most malnourished child” for the “poorest and weakest man”, we are unlikely to remove what has been, and continues to be, a blot on India’s development story.

Delhi-rium on the Delhi-gation of Powers

Since my recent Facebook post (shared also on the IAS Association page) has stirred a hornet’s nest, with retired and serving civil servants as well as concerned citizens voicing their opinions, I am constrained to bring out this blog on the AAP vs. AP episode (for the uninitiated, AAP refers to the Aam Aadmi Party, currently governing Delhi and AP refers to Anshu Prakash, a member of my erstwhile service and currently at the centre of a tornado for which he is in no way responsible). The facts have been aired ad nauseam on print, electronic and social media, but they bear repetition because so many of the principal actors have given their own versions or sidestepped the fundamental issue altogether.

A Chief Secretary (CS), the highest civilian functionary on the bureaucratic side of the state government, attends a meeting called by the Chief Minister (CM) at midnight. The subject of the meeting is shrouded in doubt — while the CS has mentioned in his police complaint that the discussion was regarding the release of TV advertisements on the completion of three years in office of the AAP government, the AAP has, through a written statement and through the mouth of its Deputy CM, claimed that the meeting was about the non-release of food rations because of faulty implementation of the Aadhaar scheme. Aspersions are being cast on the contention of the CS that he was assaulted by two persons in the presence of the CM and Deputy CM. Even the written complaint of the CS to the police, the record of his medical examination the next morning and the statement before a magistrate by the CM’s Adviser are being discounted, though these are now the subject of police investigations.

In my Facebook post, I had raised certain fundamental questions, none of which have been answered to this day. Calling the CS alone for a meeting, which took place at midnight, without summoning the concerned departmental secretaries, with some (apparently) MLAs present, on a subject that did not require overnight resolution, is itself enough to raise eyebrows. The studied silence of the head of the government on a complaint of assault (in his presence) of his senior most civil servant, is even more perplexing. But what takes the cake is the blasé attempt to pretend nothing ever happened, even after all the documentary evidence that is now in the public domain. And now, we have an article in a leading national daily by a leading AAP spokesperson (Ashish Khetan: Indian Express, 24 February 2018) which is a litany of complaints about the asymmetric division of powers between the Governments of India and Delhi.

The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act of India, 1991 (NCT Act) has inter alia laid down the procedure for elections to the Legislative Assembly and specified the duties and responsibilities of the Lieutenant Governor and Ministers (including the Chief Minister). It is clear that there is an ocean of difference between the provisions governing the functioning of the Delhi government and those relating to any other state government in India. Public order, police, land and services are subjects not under the control of the Delhi Government. This has been the ground-level position ever since elected governments came to power in Delhi since 1993. But even when the parties in power in the Delhi government and at the national level were of different political persuasions, business was conducted smoothly between the two governments and little friction was evident. The situation changed after the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections, when the BJP was steamrollered by the AAP, which came to power with a staggering majority.

It is obvious to anyone that there is no love lost between these two parties. But, unfortunately, the mutual acrimony has poisoned the very functioning of democratic governance in Delhi. “Give and take” has been replaced by “thrust and parry”, with the odds heavily loaded in favour of the central government. Gone are the days when a Congress CM could informally obtain her choice as CS from even the NDA government. The collateral fallout has been the grinding of the bureaucracy between the BJP and AAP wheels. But what has been most unfortunate has been the conviction in the AAP that civil servants deputed to the Delhi government are Greeks in Trojan Horses fulfilling the agenda of the central government and are hell-bent on sabotaging the honest efforts of the state government to improve the lot of its people (and thereby improve future re-election prospects). This has led to the current impasse, where the fourth CS seems to be on his way out within a span of three years.

Civil servants are bound to serve the government of the day, whatever its political hue. During my service days in Maharashtra, we moved seamlessly between BJP-Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP governments, with not even a ripple in the bureaucracy as the reins of power were handed over from one to the other. Colleagues from other states with more combative political formations were surprised that the Maharashtra CS and senior officers were not disturbed even after the transfer of power. At the end of the day, since the permanent bureaucracy (whether All-India or state services) are recruited through open competition, the only scope for politicians lies in juggling officers around.

What did occasion surprise was the volatile reaction across wide sections of the Delhi civil services to the incident involving the Delhi CS. It seems to indicate a simmering resentment about the way the bureaucracy has been perceived (and treated) by the political executive over the past three years. Anti-corruption pogroms reminiscent of the French Reign of Terror are great for popular consumption, but, when not accompanied by systemic reforms, occasion insecurity in the civil service. This angry response from the Delhi bureaucracy should serve as a warning signal to the AAP leadership. You may have an astounding mandate from the people and be riding the wave of public popularity, but governance ultimately has to be through the permanent bureaucracy. Appointment of any number of party commissars and Parliamentary Secretaries can never substitute for the cutting edge that services the aam aurat/aadmi. Debasing the value of the civil service and treating them with contempt will lower the motivation and morale of even the honest, sincere workers (of whom there are many) and lead to a fall in the quality of public service delivery.

Of course, there are issues that need to taken up with the central government and the judiciary, when the state government feels its legitimate powers are being whittled down or that not enough powers have been vested in the state government to enable it to carry out its duties and responsibilities. There are democratic avenues for resolving such matters, including, finally, the court of the people, which assembles once every five years to give its verdict. Good work will be recognised and (hopefully) rewarded at the appropriate time. But frustration with legal shackles should not be vented on the bureaucratic whipping boy (and, increasingly, girl). As AAP seeks to widen its all-India reach, it would be salutary to remember that Delhi is not Bharat and that solutions have always to be sought within the constitutional framework.