Archive for the ‘government’ Category

The Twenty-first Century Animal Farm

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” (George Orwell: Animal Farm)

कुछ तो ख़ासियत है इस प्रजातंत्र मे
वोट देता हूँ फकीरों को कंबख्त शहंशाह बन जाते हैं

(There is something special about this republic;

I vote for ascetics, the wretched fellows become emperors)

(Source: unknown)

December 2017 was a milestone in Indian jurisprudence. Three CBI courts, two in Delhi and one in Ranchi, delivered judgments in corruption cases that have exercised the public mind over the past many years. The verdicts were a mixed bag: while former bureaucrats were indicted in two of the cases, politicians got away fully in one case and partially in another case. The fodder scam related to a straightforward loot of the government treasury while the coal and 2G spectrum scams involved the questionable use of discretion at the highest levels of government in the allocation of natural resources, one below the ground and the other in the air. That discretion is still alive and kicking in the government is confirmed by the replies to a recent RTI query that stated that two successive Ministers of the Human Resource Development Ministry of the Government of India have, in the past three years, recommended, as against their annual quota of 450 cases, over 35,000 cases of students for admission to Kendriya Vidyalayas, of which nearly 20,000 have actually got admission.

Which begs the question: are governments, even those which swear by eradication of corruption, really different from one another? An answer to this is sought to be given by a book  The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. The authors, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, have, based on years of research and field studies, concluded that leaders are only concerned about power: concepts like “national interest” and “welfare of the people” are relevant to them only insofar as they promote the perpetuation of their power. It is irrelevant whether the leaders are despots or democrats — what preoccupies them ultimately is how to secure power and, having occupied the hot seat, how to stay on there for as long as possible.

In this quest for power, three groups are relevant to the politician. These are the interchangeables, the influentials and the essentials. The interchangeables are those who choose their governments: in the case of India, the entire population above the age of eighteen. In the “first past the post principle” that governs Indian elections, it is enough if, say, in a three-cornered contest where 60% of the electorate votes, the winning candidate secures 21% of the vote. The size of the interchangeables that determines the outcome of the election is then barely a fifth of the voting population.

Given the social cleavages in India along ethnic and religious lines (more pronounced in rural areas and small towns), a candidate from a dominant ethnic or religious group needs to marshal the support of her group to emerge victorious at the hustings. It is here that the influentials matter: composed of those who can control “vote banks” through use of money and muscle power as well as through their command over ethnic-based patronage structures.

But, in the final analysis, the ability of the leader to acquire and retain power depends on her essentials, those in his inner circle who have access to funds and control the party bureaucracy. These essentials are a necessary evil: they help propel the leader to the top, but the leader is always uneasily aware that many among them harbour ambitions of replacing her.

The Indian political scene over the past seventy years has seen the evolution of three distinct cultures, two of which have risen and ebbed with the passage of time, while the third one is presently at its apogee. The first was the Congress culture, which was virtually unchallenged till 1967 but thereafter faced challenges from regional formations till its upset in the 1990s followed (after a ten-year second honeymoon) by its greatest electoral disaster in India’s electoral history. This culture relied on powerful caste leaders marshalling votes of their fellow caste-persons for the Congress, aided by the use of muscle and money. Post-1975, the leader always centralised power in a small coterie of essentials, with leadership of state governments and state party units being decided by the High Command, essentially composed of the leader and her trusted lieutenants. For unhesitatingly accepting the suzerainty of the leader, the state satraps (and their Delhi counterparts) were allowed to exercise patronage in a variety of government functions – procurement contracts, allocation of scarce resources (including even government housing) and postings and transfers of government servants. Post-1991, the patronage also extended to the allocation of natural resources, as the opening up of the economy led to the drying up of some traditional sources of patronage. Of course, an eagle eye was kept on all these functionaries to ensure that they delivered an adequate share of the unearned economic rent to the top, apart from checking any efforts to assert independence from the High Command.

As the middle castes started asserting their right to a share of the economic and political pie, the subaltern culture developed from the 1970s onwards, slowly at first and, with the ossification of the Congress, more pronouncedly from the 1980s onwards. More and more states spun away from the Congress universe, through the coming to power of regional parties, mostly with pronounced family and caste ties. These parties also relied on the same formula of interchangeables-influentials-essentials. Inner-party democracy was a joke and the leader cult was propagated with renewed vigour right across India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Dibang to Dwaraka. The composition of interchangeables changed with the formation of new caste and religious alliances, with the promise of Utopia to groups which had suffered from disastrous governance and lack of access to basic human facilities. But the leader and her essentials still governed with the support of influentials. These influentials were virtually allotted jagirs which they could exploit like the zamindars of yore. The bahubali (strongman) phenomenon was aided by weak state capacity in public service delivery and the virtual absence of the rule of law. While the leader and her essentials milked the state coffers, the influentials resorted to extortion, kidnapping and murder to enforce their writ and extract economic rent.

We are now in the Treta Yuga of the BJP-Hindutva culture, epitomised by a strong leader and a fully subservient party structure. Retail corruption at the central level appears to have been phased out, though the same cannot necessarily be said for states under the control of the party. The power of the essentials at the centre has been curbed, at least for the time being, with decision-making centralised in the Prime Minister’s Office. Influentials have been accommodated with MP posts or with institutional sinecures. At lower levels of the district and small towns, influentials have been given latitude to demonise minority communities, employing the icons of pseudo-patriotism, the cow and women’s honour. This, it is hoped, will keep alive the influentials’ enthusiasm to mobilise the interchangeables to support a specific sectarian ideology.

With every new political party adopting one or more (or a mix) of the three cultures enumerated above, it is difficult to be optimistic about a new socio-political culture developing in the country. This is why, despite so much heat and light being generated on essential political and administrative reforms, my prognosis remains that:

  • effective Lokpal and Lokayukta systems will never see the light of day;
  • reforms in electoral funding will be half-hearted and opaque, designed to serve the interests of self-perpetuating politicians. In any case, corruption in the public space is related to basic human greed and not just high costs of contesting elections;
  • political functionaries will never give up their basic right to patronage, be it in procurement, transfers or resource allocation: the variation will only be in whether such discretion is exercised at a wholesale or retail level;
  • administrative (including police) reforms will receive only lip service since no political formation in India wishes to forego its royal prerogative to manipulate the official machinery to meet its partisan ends. The CBI (and also other investigative agencies like the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and the Income Tax Department) will continue to be used to inconvenience political opponents and those with differing political views;
  • judicial reforms, especially in the criminal justice sphere, will be halting and piecemeal. No political outfit wishes to expose its essentials and influentials to rigorous scrutiny of the law and mutual back-scratching will allow “business as usual” to continue unchecked.

What does all this imply for the future of the inhabitants of India’s Animal Farm? The politician will continue her operations as always, untroubled by public opinion or by that inner voice that lesser mortals call “conscience”. The ordinary citizen will continue to trudge her way to the polling booth every five years, giving another chance to the incumbent or garlanding a new suitor in the fond hope that her lot will improve. And what of my former tribe of civil servants? They would be well-advised not to follow in the footsteps of Boxer, the faithful workhorse of Orwell’s Animal Farm, who was despatched to the slaughter-house as a reward for his unremitting and honest toil on the farm.

 

 

Child malnutrition: Using data more effectively

The National Nutrition Strategy (NNS), released by the NITI Aayog in September 2017, is an important milestone in India’s long fight against child malnutrition. And not just because it points to a welcome focus on child malnutrition at the highest levels of the Central government. It is in the wake of the release of this strategy that, perhaps for the first time, we are seeing a clear focus on data related to child nutrition.

Soon after the NNS was released, the Ministry of Women & Child Development (MWCD) held a national-level workshop with top policy makers, health and nutrition experts, and district collectors from over a hundred districts in the country. It was here that the spotlight was turned on child nutrition data, with the MWCD highlighting the performance of states in improving child nutrition indicators between the 2005 and 2015 National Family Health Surveys (NFHS-3 and NFHS-4, respectively).

It went on to commend three states—Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat, in that order—for performing the best in reducing under-5 child stunting over the 10-year period. However, the selection of these three states seems incongruent with NFHS-3 and -4 data, which shows Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Himachal Pradesh as having the greatest percentage declines in stunting between 2005 and 2015. Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, in contrast, came in only sixth and eleventh, respectively, in the state rankings (highlighted in the table below).

Ramani table

Why the discrepancy when the data was available?

The criterion for selecting states was based on the absolute percentage reduction in stunting between 2005 and 2015. This method was flawed (and embarrassing) on two counts.
First, it failed to follow an accepted statistical principle: when computing reductions in any variable, the percentage fall relates to the reduction in value in relation to the previous base value. Second, it disregarded the NNS data, which had already highlighted reductions in stunting rates across different states over the 10-year period, rightly based on percentage reductions over the NFHS-3 percentages.

Further, departing from the NNS figures and rewarding states for good performance unnecessarily raises questions as to whether the Central government wished to name certain states because their political affiliations coincided with those of the party ruling at the Centre.

What the numbers don’t tell us

It is significant to note that the largest decreases have been recorded in the less populated states (under 25 million people). Larger states, with their high population densities (often in congested urban sprawls), their geographical diversity and greater administrative challenges, are often likely to find the issue of stunting reduction more difficult to tackle.

Also important to recognise is that states like Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu—already well ahead in indicators like stunting rates—would never win any national prize for reducing child stunting. This is because their base is already low and the scope for further improvement is, therefore, circumscribed. This may well demotivate the ICDS machinery in such states.

Since the NITI Aayog and the MWCD are going to use a new Nutrition Monitoring System (NMS) to identify states/districts/blocks that are performing well and those that are lagging, it is even more critical to employ a rational methodology in order to get a true picture of the progress registered in any area.

What we can do to get the numbers right

There are a few steps that can help present a more accurate picture for policy making.

Categorisation of states
A three-tier state structure could be developed to assess performance between successive surveys of malnutrition, whether of stunting, underweight or wasting. For instance, in the case of stunting rates, states could be classified into three categories, as detailed in the tables below.

Ramani table 2

Increase frequency of district-level surveys
With NFHS-4 releasing district surveys along with the state surveys, for the first time we have a picture of the districts’ performance in different states and the worst indicators in respect of the three parameters of stunting, under weight and wasting. We need national surveys to be carried out more often so our attention remains focused on the problem.

Regular monitoring and use of critical data
We need greater commitment from the state and Central governments to develop systems for regular collection, monitoring and use of data on child growth. For instance, child growth monitoring has been highlighted as an important component of the ICDS for many years, but has largely been ignored in practice.

While all states are required to send monthly weight data of all children in all ICDS projects to the centre, the MWCD and the states have paid no attention to this data till date. States (barring Maharashtra) do not publish this data on their websites either, although the Right to Information Act mandates placing all such information in the public domain. The result is the extremely dubious quality of data.

Specific focus on indicators and districts with poor progress
NFHS-4 lists the top 100 districts with the highest underweight rates as well as the top 100 with the highest stunting rates. While as many as 55 districts overlap across both these lists, 32 belong to just three states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

Interestingly, the NFHS-4 data shows a prevalence of high wasting rates in most states, including those that have performed better in reducing child and infant mortality rates in the past decade.
In general, while reduction in stunting percentage rates has been reasonable to very good in many states, reduction in percentages of underweight children has not been so encouraging.

With wasting remaining alarmingly high in many districts, taking up programmes to reduce severe or moderate acute malnutrition through state and community efforts will have to be one of the major focus areas of governments in different states.

Going forward, the MWCD and NITI Aayog will be faced with the onerous job of working with different states, especially Category A states, in devising practical, workable plans and programmes to make a significant impact on child malnutrition.

The first steps have been taken, with the NNS publication and the decision to set up the National Nutrition Mission. However, unless these are backed up by enlightened leadership at the Central and state levels, with a dedicated resolve to reduce the incidence of child malnutrition in all three aspects, India will continue to be an underperformer in an area that is key to the future of its population.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR), the country’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. You can access the article here

Rushing In Where Angels Fear To Tread

News reports stated that an eleven years old girl from Simdega district in Jharkhand died apparently because her family could not get their food grain entitlement as their ration card was not Aadhaar-linked. I say “apparently” because, in this post-truth age, one never knows how to separate fact and fiction in media reports. There will also be the usual controversy over whether health or nutrition factors were primarily responsible for her mortality, with all commentators blissfully unaware of the close linkages between the two. But, knowing how things work in India that is Bharat, I am certain that the failure to link their Aadhaar numbers to their ration cards must have cost many families access to subsidised food grains. This view is bolstered by reports that seem to confirm that the ration card of the family in question was not linked to the Aadhaar card.

I am not going into the merits of Aadhaar linkage to beneficiary schemes, on which enough heat and sound has been generated without any light. But I am concerned about the haste in rushing in to implement policy measures without adequate backup systems. This has a lot to do with the current obsession in governments to show results immediately. In the Jharkhand case, time could have been taken to ensure that most of the population had obtained Aadhaar cards and efforts could have been made over some months to ensure Aadhaar linkage with ration cards. But the childish enthusiasm of the political and administrative executive of Jharkhand to score brownie points with the higher-ups in Delhi probably led to their claiming that they had managed almost full linkage of ration cards with Aadhaar numbers.

The same issue bedevils MGNREGA payments in Jharkhand as well, with documented evidence that the system of online bank account transfers has resulted in inordinate delays in wage payments. If you think such poorly planned policies have troubled only the really poor, think again. Major financial decisions taken over the past year have played havoc with large segments of society, not because of lack of intrinsic merit, but because of the desire to impress the public that this is a “government that works”.

Demonetisation was intended to be the sledgehammer that would eliminate black money, check counterfeit currency and improve tax compliance through reliance on digital transactions. A year down the road, even after all the travails borne by the long-suffering public, it is evident that the black money scourge refuses to die, the introduction of more and more currency notes in different denominations will be a boon to counterfeiters and that tax compliance will become a reality only when simplified tax structures are in place and when sound legal systems exist to penalise defaulters quickly and effectively. Which begs the question of whether demonetisation could not have been handled in a more graduated fashion, with new currency notes going into circulation before the withdrawal of old currency notes.

The same thought haunts one when observing the hasty digitisation of the GST. Considering that it took thirteen years for this baby to be born, the infancy phase could have been handled better. The “tryst with destiny” has certainly altered the destiny of small retailers and merchants, many of whom find the process of filing returns excessively cumbersome. In its fourth month of implementation, technical glitches still thwart the filing of returns: GSTR1 filing for July has just been completed, with filings for subsequent months pushed to November. Despite the promises of the Union Finance Minister to process refunds expeditiously, CAs are of the view that refunds could take six months or more, affecting cash flows of businesses. Gradual phasing in of GST online systems with continuation of the service tax regime for some more months would probably have ensured less transitional pain.

Ramming Aadhaar compliance down the throats of income tax payers and bank account holders will, I suspect, unleash another Pandora’s Box in the months to come. Again, I am not questioning the rationale but the speed of expected compliance, consequences be damned. Filing income tax returns for FY 2016-17 required all those not having Aadhaar cards as of April 2017 to get them by July 2017. Pensioners and the elderly were particularly inconvenienced. Linking Aadhaar numbers to bank accounts has its own technical problems. Most banks have no robust online mechanism to enable the account holder to verify that her bank account is indeed Aadhaar-linked. Come February 2018, citizens may well be faced with the nightmare (actually, it should be called daymare) of their accounts being frozen, leading them to beg on the streets. The insistence on linking mobile numbers to Aadhaar numbers, apparently mandated by the Supreme Court, is yet another nuisance around the corner.

Make haste slowly” is a salutary motto for good governance. This tendency of the civil service is viewed unfavourably by professional politicians, obsessed with the five-year election itch: why, even an ex-bureaucrat like Arvind Kejriwal has commented unfavourably on IAS officers sitting on files. Many of us were roasted by Ministers and Chief Ministers when we insisted on listing on file the pros and cons of any decision, probably a reason for at least some of us being overlooked for prize postings. Pointing out all the possible implications of a decision ensures at least that, if Plan A goes wrong, Plans B and C can be put into operation. It is the current fashion to run down the 1991 economic reforms as being rather halting and piecemeal. As one who was in Delhi at that stage, I am happy that even those reforms that did take place at that time went through, given the attachment of establishment politicians to “crony socialism” and the hostility of an established elite to the whittling down of its gravy train.

The rush to push through major decisions has, no doubt, been influenced by the relatively narrow window before the 2019 general elections. If the favourable results take time to mature, the government may well have to reap the whirlwind of short-term resentment. In the present climate of harking back to our glorious past, I take the liberty of recounting the story of Bhasmasura. Blessed by Siva with the boon of turning whatever he touched to ashes, Bhasmasura sought to test the boon on his benefactor. It took the wiles of the damsel Mohini to persuade Bhasmasura (in the hope of acquiring her) to place his hand on his own head and be turned to ashes. Governments would do well to heed this parable. Chasing the electorate (Siva) to test its powers, the government (Bhasmasura) is finally enticed by Mohini (the election process) to destroy its continuance in power through unwise, ill thought out steps. Yet again I resort, ad nauseam ad infinitum, to my favourite quote:

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

This article was originally published on Indus Dictum, a site where thought leaders from diverse fields, spanning business and technology to politics and modern law, contribute unique insights and experiences. You can access the article here.

The commercialisation of nutrition – Maharashtra comes full circle

The flip-flops in India’s child nutrition policies are nowhere better exemplified than in the recent decision of the Maharashtra government to issue a tender for the supply of fortified ready-to-cook pre-mixes for feeding children, aged three to six years, in rural anganwadis.

Maharashtra has, for many years now, outsourced the supply of take home rations (THR) for mothers and children below the age of three years to so-called Mahila Sansthas that in turn have subcontracted this work to private manufacturers in the state and outside.

With the tendering for ready to cook pre-mixes, Maharashtra is turning the clock back on the important Supreme Court (SC) decision of 2004 that mandated state governments to serve hot cooked meals prepared by women self-help groups, or similar locally based women’s organisations, to children attending anganwadis.

What does this imply for the ICDS* supplementary nutrition programme and what are its likely ramifications?

Quality of food supply is the first and most important concern.
It is difficult to take at face value the tender stipulations that quality checks will be carried out by the supplier organisation at in-house laboratories. Nor can one take comfort from the provision for quality checks at independent laboratories ordered by the ICDS Commissioner. Public laboratories in India are notorious for delays in furnishing reports, enabling defaulters to get away.

The 2012 report of the SC Right to Food Commissioners to the SC highlighted the poor quality of THR supplies in Maharashtra. However, despite complaints about poor THR quality, no action has ever been taken in the past against politically powerful suppliers, either in Maharashtra or other states. In any case, public laboratories in India are notorious for delays in furnishing reports, enabling defaulters to get away.

There is also the issue of whether pre-mixes supplied to children will be as nutritious as hot cooked meals, apart from the question of palatability. Even adults who use pre-mixes to quickly rustle up upmaor sheera at home will testify that the pre-mixes’ taste is nowhere close to that of items prepared from fresh natural ingredients.

With a provision of only INR 6 per child per day, there is also the very real apprehension that the suppliers will be tempted to compromise on quality to maintain their profit margins.

Quantities of pre-mixes supplied to anganwadis, and used for meal preparation, will be the next issue.
At one time, probably about four decades ago, states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat set the standard for efficient, responsive administration. Unfortunately, these states too have degenerated in administrative efficiency and probity to the levels of their counterparts in northern and eastern India. The travesty that represents ICDS nutrition supplies in Uttar Pradesh has been well documented.

When the then Minister for Women & Child Development, Government of India pushed for commercial supply of food items in the ICDS in 2008, it did not meet with the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (because it would open the doors to large-scale corruption).

The apprehensions of poor programme delivery are amplified by the top-down approach adopted in this tendering system. There is no mention anywhere in the tender document of social accountability through monitoring of supplies and service delivery by village level institutions like the gram panchayats, their health and nutrition committees and mothers’ groups, let alone their involvement in the process of meal preparation.

As one who was involved with the ICDS in Maharashtra through the first decade of this millennium, I can vouchsafe for the beneficial multiplier effects of involving local bodies from the Zilla Parishad to the Gram Panchayat, as well as local communities, in the management of child nutrition. In the present scenario, the pre-mix will be distributed from the project to the anganwadi, with no check on whether the right quantities are reaching the anganwadi.

Stipulations within the tender raise questions around corruption and the concentration of production among a handful of large players.
What is disturbing about the tender are the numerous conditions which straight away disqualify smaller groups from participating in the supply of nutrition to children. Although the tender document specifies that only women self-help groups, Mahila Mandals, Mahila Sansthas and village communities are eligible to bid, the requirements to be fulfilled by the successful bidder rule out the possibility of the tender being awarded to any small group.

There are onerous conditions regarding the high annual turnover needed to qualify, the need for a functional and operative licensed manufacturing unit and an in-house testing facility to test the quality of the premix. The three Mahila Sansthas that were awarded the THR contract had leased facilities for THR production from private agro-companies; ownership and operational control of the Sansthas as well as the companies were vested in the same family.

With the present tender also permitting the participation of Mahila Sansthas, there is ample scope for the same stratagem being employed to circumvent the SC rulings on contractors and private suppliers.

From an equity viewpoint too, the concentration of production in a few organisations denies economic benefits to a very large number of rural women’s groups, which earn their daily bread through the preparation of meals for children.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether government programme funds of about INR 2,500 crores should be channelled to a few organisations with, if previous experience is any guide, links to private producers.

Other states are adopting more equitable and empowering solutions
The move of Maharashtra to premix supplies comes at a time when other states are innovatively experimenting with public systems to improve nutrition supplies to mothers and children.

Karnataka has introduced eggs and milk in the daily diet for 3-6 years children, Orissa is promoting the cultivation of local millets and Chhattisgarh has improved its public distribution system to ensure regular food grain supplies to families.

As the foregoing discussion brings out, this policy serves neither the ends of efficiency (given the scope for possible quality and quantity aberrations), nor those of equity (concentration of supply in a few hands) or empowerment (with no role for participation of local governments and communities). Whether such a policy behoves a land that is the karmabhumi of Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar is the question that ought to concern us today.

*ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) is the largest programme in the world devoted to the care of pregnant and nursing mothers and children under six years of age.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR), the country’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. You can access the article here 

What trips street-level bureaucracy?

“There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.”  Nowhere is this proverb truer than in the government machinery of India that is tasked with the staggering responsibility of delivering various crucial services to the 1.3 billion inhabitants of this country.

Whether it is the police guaranteeing the security of the common citizen, the doctor attending to patients at the public health facility or the teacher imparting basic education to children in schools in remote areas, it is glaringly evident that citizens of India are being seriously short-changed in availing public services that are their inalienable right.

We in India, especially the middle class, are quick to blame the street-level bureaucracy (SLB) for faulty implementation of what we consider to be impeccably-designed policies.

Where does the truth really lie? An examination of the functioning of SLBs, covering anganwadi workers and their immediate supervisors in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)*, reveals some home truths on where things are going wrong.

I. Policy vs implementation

The first unpleasant truth is that programmes as packaged in statutes and administrative regulations are not quite what the SLB implements on the ground. There are quite a few reasons for this:

Focus on a limited set of activities
While the ICDS manual prescribes several duties for the anganwadi worker, the ICDS machinery focuses only on supplementary nutrition provision to mothers and children. It excludes activities such as monitoring the growth of children, counselling of caregivers on health and nutrition, and early childhood education.

Food supply is the only concern of the officials of ICDS directorates and the departments at the state level. As a result, the anganwadi worker is considered to have done her duty if she has distributed take home rations (THR) to mothers and children aged under three, and handled cooked meals for children in the 3-6 age group.

Emphasis on paperwork versus outcomes
The anganwadi worker is also required to complete a huge load of paperwork on the supply of food and on the nutrition status of children, to be sent to her superiors every month. If these duties are completed and reports sent to the state and central governments regularly, there is no accountability for outcomes. For example, the nutrition status of children—as revealed by their height and weight measurements, which are critical for determining and addressing stunting and wasting in children below five years—is never addressed in a systematic manner.

II. Leakage in programme implementation

The second shocking fact lies in the subversion of the supplementary nutrition programme by the contractor-politician-bureaucrat nexus. An average Indian state has around 75 lakh children aged below six. With a provision of supplementary nutrition at a rate of INR 6 per day to each child, the annual bill works out to approximately INR 1,350 crore. This huge budget lends itself to manipulation by vested interests.

A recent LANSA study documents the systematic siphoning of public money in Uttar Pradesh through this programme. While a few packets of the THR (daliya) are distributed to families, the bulk of the supplies are sold as cattle feed, giving additional illegal income to the anganwadi worker. Silence is bought through the complicity of all those who are part of the supply chain.

The situation is not much better in respect of hot, cooked meals, where the proceeds of funds received (even if irregularly) are distributed among all stakeholders, including the anganwadi worker and the ICDS supervisor, with very little reaching children in the form of improved nutrition.

III. Socio-cultural barriers

Traditional social prejudices and behavioural patterns also adversely impact the messages being understood and acted upon. Two examples come to mind. Promoting early breastfeeding within an hour of birth has been recommended for a variety of reasons. However, social practices have often militated against this, with the belief that the child must be fed specific fluids before breastfeeding is initiated.

In the area of sanitation, proper hygiene practices and the absence of open defecation are known to promote the healthy growth of children. A recent study by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears has attributed the failure in restricting open defecation in India to social and cultural forces unique to the country. These are centred around religious practices of purity and pollution and the consequent reluctance to locate toilets in proximity to the house.

While these instances reflect the demand factor impacting the efficacy of public services, there are also supply aspects that affect client response to public services.

IV. Inadequate infrastructure

Irregularly functioning Primary Health Centres, which are often closed when the citizen has spent time and money to make her way there, act as a disincentive to use public health facilities. The problem is compounded when the health provider behaves indifferently, and/or demands illegal payments. Such experiences discourage citizens from using the facility and force many to shift to private doctors, sometimes of very dubious quality.

What is being done to address this?

India’s policy mandarins are frustrated by this lack of success at translating significant budgetary allocations and governmental effort into improved outcomes in different social sectors. They are, thus, increasingly seduced by direct cash transfers to clients and privatisation of health, education and corrective services.

However, this approach still begs the question: are citizens guaranteed access to improved services? There will still be need for regulatory agencies that monitor how private agencies function, including the quality and pricing of their services. Poor governance in direct management of public service delivery systems can easily transfer to equally poor oversight of private providers.

Take the case of the Universal Basic Income (UBI), which has caught the fancy of academics and policymakers in India. Apart from the vital issue of who will be entitled to UBI, and its fiscal implications, the question of fair and equal access to services critical to human health and development is still a moot point.

Is there a solution?

The few short-lived successes in child nutrition programmes in certain states have been the result of inspiring bureaucratic leadership, backed by political commitment. Unfortunately, results show only as long as the bureaucratic champion is around.

But long-term success in reducing key indicators of malnutrition, such as stunting and wasting, require sustained efforts to put in place functional systems that can operate irrespective of personalities and governments. These include:

  1. Evidence-based, nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions, backed by committed government budgets and active participation of different government departments and agencies.
  2. Health and nutrition protocols that are scrupulously followed, with rigorous monitoring of child nutrition outcomes to ensure accountability.
  3. Empowering local governments and frontline workers and supervisors with financial and administrative authority to deliver meaningful outcomes.

Above all, the political and bureaucratic leadership in the various states must provide a conducive and supportive environment for the effective functioning of SLBs, something that has been sorely lacking till now.

*ICDS is the largest programme in the world devoted to the care of pregnant and nursing mothers and children under 6 years of age.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR), the country’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. You can access the article here

WHEN SILENCE IS NOT AN OPTION

(The full version of the open letter of 10 June 2017 can be accessed at the wire.in)

Sixty-five retired officers from different services came together in early June 2017 to pen an open letter to the public expressing their disquiet at the growing aggression in all forms of public discourse, the open expression of intolerance of the ‘other’ as well as the easy categorisation of all dissent as ‘anti-national’. These officers between them represent over two thousand person-years of public service in various capacities in state and central governments as well as overseas. What really motivated them to move from their quiet, retired environs into the public gaze, knowing fully well that there is a substantial constituency that would run down their motivations, vilify their reputations and seek explanations for their questioning society (and, by implication, the governments of the day) for acquiescing in, if not actively promoting, an environment that fosters animosity and hatred for one’s fellow human beings and a dogged desire to enforce conformity of behaviour in social and cultural norms, right down to personal choices in respect of food, relationships and dress?

For there is no doubt that the trolls and Doubting Thomases have crept out of the woodwork to attack the recent effort with renewed vigour. The assaults focus on the usual reasons:

  • Why did these officers not raise their voice in the past to instances of vigilante violence and misuse of authority by the state apparatus?
  • Many of them must be officers beholden to the past regime for favours granted to them or must be disgruntled at not being considered for plum post-retirement sinecures by the present dispensation.
  • Did these officers take questionable decisions in their different assignments while in service?
  • Having ruined the country over seventy years with their maladministration of public affairs, these retired officers now seek to demoralise the present government and place obstacles in the way of its effective functioning.

Answering these four issues may cast light on why persons who hung up their boots years ago have deemed it necessary to listen to their inner voices.

Those who point to the apparent failure of these retired officers to agitate issues in the past forget that these officers (and many of their colleagues) observed the dharma of organisational discipline while in service. Opposing wrong decisions does not require rushing to the press at the first opportunity, though this unfortunate trait has been observed increasingly in recent years. There are several ways of standing up to blatantly wrong political decisions: persuading the politician to change her decision, pointing out one’s inability to implement the decision and, therefore, accepting a transfer. It is not correct to say that retired officers have not expressed their reservations over government actions (and inaction) in the past, be it the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, the 1993 Bombay riots or the 2002 Gujarat episode. If retired officers did not come together often to voice a collective protest in the past, it was because events did not follow a predictable pattern at that time. The current hype built up over the dietary habits of a substantial section of the population and the efforts to restrict these, the aggressive responses to perceived threats to the nation and the repeated questioning of the loyalty of significant segments of the population by responsible public figures are a recent phenomenon. Many of the signatories have served in vulnerable areas at times when the nation faced both internal and external challenges. But never in the past was the atmosphere cranked up to such a fever pitch as is the case at present and certainly not at the cost of disrupting what is still a relatively delicate social fabric.

I am not ruling out that, like elsewhere in society, some of my fellow officers cultivate an unhealthily close relationship with political patrons. Speaking for my fellow signatories, I am sure that they are not in the game of repaying favours. Most of us worked under different political dispensations: I, for one, have worked with politicians of all the four major political parties in Maharashtra. While maintaining friendly ties with all, we have kept our distance from developing too cosy a relationship with any one political outfit: call it the survival instinct, if you will. We were aware of, and dismayed by, the aimless drift of the previous regime and the difficulties in working with some of the worthies of that coalition government. It amuses many of us that we are perceived as hankering after the fishes and loaves of office post our retirement. A look at the list of signatories reveals that a significant number of them resigned or prematurely retired from government service to pursue their passions or private avenues of employment. Even those who did occupy positions in the immediate post-retirement period were fully aware of the fact that 65 (that magic number again!) was the upper age limit for gainful employment, unless you were fortunate enough to be destined for governorships, ambassadorships or a political career. In any case, a disgruntled person still harbouring ambitions would be shooting herself in the foot by signing such a letter.

The easiest way to target a person is to cast aspersions on his/her character and integrity, especially in relation to decisions taken while in service. It is always easy to be an ex post facto guru, pointing out the apparent errors committed in the past. What is forgotten are the circumstances at the time the decision was taken, the processes followed in arriving at the decision and the quality and quantum of information available to the decision-maker at the relevant time. The civil servant lays no claim to infallibility: s(he) can only vouch for her/his bona fide actions while arriving at a decision. In any case, the issues presently at stake are of a nature where passing of judgments on the past actions of a signatory are of no relevance.

The final charge against us merits the closest attention and rebuttal. Politicians of all hues find it most convenient to blame civil servants for faulty policies, forgetting their role in contributing to the state of affairs. Unfortunately, the aam janata, stuck as it is between the Scylla of one political party’s rule (in one five-year tenure) and its opposing party’s rule (in the next five years) has no further options and lays the blame at the doors of the civil service. Where has the political class provided the inspiring leadership to motivate and guide the civil service to deliver great results? My seniors of the Nehruvian era and those of us fortunate enough to participate as (minor) actors in the immediate post-1991 period recall the enthusiasm in the civil services in putting together and implementing plans and programmes for economic development and change. There are many dynamic officers who innovate and bring change in their districts and departments. Alas, there is little publicity for these efforts, especially in the rarefied precincts of Lutyens’ Delhi and Dalal Street. The last thing any retired officer would do is to run down the government of the day. S(he) knows the constraints governments work under, especially at the state level, and always hopes and prays for rapid development and improvement in living standards of her/his countrywomen/men.

What has dismayed us is the approach (or rather, the lack of it) to building a social consensus on issues critical to the survival of the common woman/man. India has, unfortunately, never had participatory governance: the trend towards centralisation has been amplified in recent times, whether it be currency demonetisation, regulation of cattle slaughter or ensuring the dignity of women. Matters are not helped when public functionaries routinely ventilate historical grievances and seek to lecture the public on social norms and traditions. An aspirational society with a positive demographic dividend is routinely fed with tales of past glory (with a specific religious bent), rather than developing a scientific, analytical approach to life that can meet the unpredictable challenges of the twenty-first century. Above all, those controlling the levers of power seem to have conveniently forgotten the intricate mosaic of social and economic relationships that are the hallmark of a pluralist society. Imposing uniformity and conformity will stultify society and severely damage entrepreneurial abilities. At a time when fundamentalism and religious obscurantism are gaining a toehold (and more) all over the world, it behoves India, as one of the world’s most ancient, tolerant civilisations, to act as the beacon for guiding the world through increasingly stormy waters. Our open letter is an appeal to our fellow countrywomen/men to realise their oneness with all humanity and promote compassion, love and peace rather than intolerance, hatred and violence.

The Ten Commandments – A Survival Kit for the IAS Officer

O Thou who seest all things below

Grant that Thy servants may go slow,

That they may study to comply

With regulations till they die.

Teach us, O Lord, to reverence

Committees more than common sense;

To train our minds to make no plan

And pass the baby when we can.

So when the tempter seeks to give

Us feelings of initiative,

Or when alone we go too far,

Chastise us with a circular.

Mid war and tumult, fire and storms,

Give strength O Lord, to deal out forms.

Thus may Thy servants ever be

A flock of perfect sheep for Thee.

(Hymn and Prayer for Civil Servants, published anonymously in the Daily Telegraph)

Like speeches, there are three careers an IAS officer will have: the one she visualises (often with a rosy tint) when she ascends the mountains to Mussoorie, the actual path over the next thirty-five years and the retrospective glance (post-retirement) at the career (and life while in service) she wishes she could have had. Being at the third stage of this cycle, I feel justified in offering a survival kit to the aspiring officer – “survival” because, in the light of recent events like the Harish Gupta, et al, conviction episode, just going through a controversy-free career and enjoying retired life themselves seem like unattainable goals. My homilies are addressed to only that category of officers who seek to do their job honestly and conscientiously, not to those who seek extra monetary returns from public service (kimbalam, as the Tamils call it) or those who are permanently gaming the system to occupy “plum” postings. So here goes:

  • Downplay your achievement:

You did get through what, when I qualified for the IAS, was called the “national lottery”. Notwithstanding all the coaching classes advertising the number of hours of study put in by their diligent students, let us be honest enough to admit that several factors, including Lady Luck, play a role in the process. So, with humility, accept the fact that you are now the member of a premier service, which brings with it a few privileges and don’t advertise your superiority (even if it brings you down a few notches in the marriage market). Above all, do not add the three magic initials to your nameplate and your letterhead and, please, do not rub in the fact of your success at the sweepstakes to others, especially from sister services.

  • Develop your human qualities:

It is very easy to become arrogant when surrounded by the trappings of power. Remember always the fleeting nature of things and stay focused on the essentials. Be a friend and guide to your colleagues, especially in field postings, and a source of support to every member of the public who you meet day in and day out. You can never satisfy everyone but you can certainly cultivate the habit of lending a willing ear to the grievances of the common man/woman and trying to help to the maximum extent possible. Your satisfaction should come not from the achievement of (often meaningless) targets set by your superiors but from the number of people who come to meet you when you return to your former haunts in later years.

  • In any job, insist on thorough process:

Caveat emptor” should be your motto, especially where you are the emptor (i.e., the buyer). Never buy in to arguments from bosses and subordinates that business was always done this way. We live in times where trust in the civil service has evaporated: what would have been accepted in 1975 as a good faith decision with no ulterior motives will no longer wash. Any decision on allocation of scarce resources (schools, orphanages, coal blocks, etc., etc.) should, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion. The allocation process should be accessible to all members of the public, have clear cut-off dates and have clear guidelines for selection. Where selection through a bidding process is not feasible, e.g., multiple applicants for an ashramshala or an old age home, selection from the bidders meeting pre-specified criteria could even be based on draw of lots at a public location. Of course, it would be best to aim at reducing discretion to the maximum extent by eliminating the need for licensing as far as possible and ensuring that ministerial approval is not required. If your Minister, or the Chief Minister or Prime Minister (for that matter) promise you full support for following time-worn processes, politely ask for a transfer to another post. Prime Ministers have ad nauseam promised, in every Civil Service Day speech in recent years, to protect honest decision making. We have seen the consequences today, when honest bureaucrats have gone to jail.

  • Keep track of the paper trail:

Even Albert Einstein would not remember the details of every decision he took in past years, and you are certainly no Einstein. Be rigorous in your paper work. The coal block allocation imbroglio arose, in part, because there were apparently no papers bringing out the rationale of allocation decisions in certain cases. I offer my grateful thanks to the hard-nosed Secretary of my Ministry who drilled into me the need to keep my paperwork up to date. After every negotiation, my first task was to prepare a gist of the viewpoints of all participating parties and the decisions taken or actions required and circulate these to all concerned. Keeping all the cards on the table helped in later years at the time of audit (though it did not spare me from bothersome investigations). But, a quarter of a century later, I am leading a quiet, retired life without any blemish on my career. As a matter of abundant caution, keep copies of important notings and papers in your personal custody. You never know when someone interposes in a file (on a subsequent date) some comment contrary to your view or when the next fire or flood hits the record room.

  • Travel light:

A popular baggage manufacturer used to advertise its products as “travel light”. Bureaucrats would do well to adopt this dictum. You will need to attune your spouse to your philosophy since, if you insist on process, you are unlikely to survive in “lucrative” posts. If the move is only from the fourth to the first floor of the State Secretariat, or within the same city, this is not a matter of great concern. But there will be this vindictive politician or bureaucrat who delights in moving you from, say, Nashik to Nagpur or from Lucknow to Gonda. Ensure you can move at short notice and set up your establishment in a jiffy at the new place. It helps particularly if you and your spouse/family possess a sense of adventure and can improvise even where creature comforts are lacking.

  • Get a life beyond work:

If I kick myself for any stupidity, it is for not following this maxim. Staying in office beyond 6 PM is more damaging to one’s personal life than any other vice. If your political or bureaucratic boss is determined to sit in office till 10 PM, you do not need to keep them company, especially in this electronically advanced age. Just sweetly tell them you are going home and they can call you on mobile or email you any document with a critical time-frame. I have had murderous thoughts about Ministers whose rank inefficiency in clearing files forced me to stay in office till midnight, photocopying notes for the next day’s cabinet meeting. Resist weekend office attendance like the plague: if you are forced to go, make it clear to your boss that you are doing her a big favour and expect compensatory time off in the future.

  • Make personal excellence, not the rat race, your goal:

In the middle phase of my career, I watched with envy (and not a little heart-burning) as colleagues and friends moved to the green pastures of international institutions and foreign universities. One of my seniors added fuel to the fire by mentioning that proximity to the top was the key to such lateral movements. It took me more years down the line to realise that I gained immense experience and knowledge from working in different challenging assignments at home. Set yourself goals in any job, no matter how lowly or insignificant it is considered in the bureaucratic pecking order. If you are Director of Archives, develop one of the finest repositories of historical information in the country. If you land the post of Officer on Special Duty (Revenue Appeals), set a time frame within which appeals will be disposed of and justice given to litigants. Very often, while participating in the rat race, we forget that the cheese is right there in the room where we are working.

  • Watch the company you keep:

As you move up the ladder, you will be gratified by the “Rockstar” reputation you seem to have. Leading businessmen, builders and even film stars flock to your office and invite you to lavish parties. Remember, none of these come without strings attached. Your subordinates draw conclusions from your apparent proximity to the high and mighty as does the public. “Owners’ pride” being “neighbours’ envy”, it won’t be long before the first complaint about a decision taken by you (which may be perfectly bona fide) favouring a particular person/group makes its way to the tables of the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. In a district, do not be seen at card tables in the evening or develop a fondness for the bottle that cheers. News travels fast and you find that the value of your currency with the public has diminished rather rapidly.

  • Develop competencies/interests for the future:

I am lucky I got bitten by the technology bug early in my professional life. A laptop computer was my partner over the last two decades of my career. Equipping myself with the basic skills necessary for individual entrepreneurship, I could move seamlessly from the protected confines of service to survival on my own. Your education does not need to end on the day you join service. It is noteworthy that many officers acquire additional qualifications while in service. A law degree or a diploma in finance enables you to branch out into areas you never dreamt of while in service. Apart from mundane professional attainments, you can aspire to develop your interests in music, horticulture, vintage car repair and redesign, spirituality, astrology or any one of a million pursuits that add richness to your post-IAS life.

  • C’est la vie:

Finally, develop a devil-may-care attitude to your life in the bureaucracy. You will have your share of troublesome bosses and recalcitrant subordinates. Learn to take all issues stoically: nothing is life-threatening (generally) and, in hindsight, most events are, quite often, somewhat ridiculous. You are passed over for a coveted posting or even (horrors of horrors) are superseded for promotion. The day after, the sun still rises in the east, birds are chirping in the trees and you are still in good health. Consider that, after taking all possible precautions and keeping your nose clean, you are still arraigned for a felony you did not commit, consequent on the efforts of over-enthusiastic (though inaccurate) auditors and investigation agencies, responding to the public demand for blood. Face it calmly, put your case forward to the best of your ability and prepare to avail of state hospitality in case the chips do not fall on your side. Fortify yourself with the thought “This too shall pass”. If you have faithfully adhered to these ten commandments, you will still enjoy life even in Tihar or Yeravada Jail.

 

Indian bureaucracy – a Kafkaesque drama

Nothing disturbed me as much in recent months as the news reports of the former Coal Secretary of the Government of India (and my former senior colleague in the Petroleum Ministry) facing prosecution in the “coal scam” case; he has now been convicted. As a Deputy Secretary in the Petroleum Ministry in the early 1990s, it may be appropriate for me to detail the travails an honest officer goes through when (s)he is required to make recommendations on major commercial decisions relating to mining rights for extracting natural resources to promote economic growth in the country. I draw on my experience in the petroleum exploration sector to highlight the pressures an officer goes through during such an exercise, given the system s(he) must work with.

The officer starts with the legacy of a socialist past, where natural resources extraction was solely the prerogative of the public sector. While (s)he may genuinely believe that opening the natural resource extraction sector to competition from the private sector will promote more efficient operations which yield dividends to the country, (s)he has to contend with hostility to such moves from influential sections within the government and legislature (both political and bureaucratic), not only because of fears of losing the powers of patronage, but also because of a mindset moored in outdated socialist economics, with little understanding of the economics of efficient economic processes. Add to this the heartburn in the public-sector enterprises of being stripped of their monopoly in the natural resource sector and you have a situation where the reformist bureaucrat/politician virtually comes up against a brick wall. We were genuinely lucky in the early 1990s of having had leaders in the political and bureaucratic set up who backed these reforms wholeheartedly. In more recent times, there has been a backlash against private involvement in the natural resource extraction sector, partly because of indifferent regulation of private producers, but also because the Indian intelligentsia has joined the rising global chorus against capitalism, regardless of its contribution to greatly improved living standards over most of the globe (including India) over the past quarter century.

The problem arises where the natural resource sector has not developed a bidding/auction system to choose among alternative bidders. The petroleum sector was lucky in this respect; petroleum secretaries in the 1980s presided over the development of competitive bidding systems, drawing on best practices in the international petroleum industry. The Coal Ministry was not so fortunate: with a behemoth like Coal India and with powerful political interests controlling patronage strings in this sector, there was little chance of allowing private sector participation in this sector.  Once Coal India fell short in meeting coal requirements of private industry, there was the inevitable clamour for permitting captive coal mining by diverse industries to meet their raw material requirements. The issue of allocation of coal mining blocks to private players is made more complicated by the fact that mining leases are to be granted by state governments. The petroleum sector has been more fortunate: the central government is the licensing authority for offshore petroleum blocks; where onshore blocks are concerned, state governments have not been involved in the process of selection of private operators but are only approached for grant of mining leases after selection of the private party by the central government through a competitive bidding process.

The Coal Ministry officials did make efforts, from 2004 onwards, to introduce an auction system for allotting coal blocks. The Law Ministry, after two years of to-and-fro consultations, covered its backside in 2006 by opining that the government could go in for auction/competitive bidding either by amending the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957 or by effecting changes in the existing administrative instructions. Anyone who has worked in government will tell you that if the options are to go in for a tedious legislative process versus quick administrative action, the former will always win the battle, given that no one in government would want to be seen as hastening the entry of the private sector into a hitherto reserved sector. Given the snail speed at which decisions are taken by government, it is not surprising that it took eight years to get government approval for the auction process.   Since there was need to augment coal supply, applications for coal blocks from end users were considered, with recommendations from state governments, by a Screening Committee headed by the Coal Secretary of the Government of India. Once such a system is adopted, the element of subjectivity inevitably creeps into the decision-making process. The Screening Committee also had to rely on information provided by Coal India, other administrative ministries and the state governments in arriving at decisions on who should get the coal blocks. It is here that the Coal Ministry bureaucracy fell afoul of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), two deadly Cs that are feared by the bureaucracy, often for their limited understanding of the nuances of economic decision making. Not only does the CAG lack expert domain knowledge of the sector it is auditing, there is also little comprehension of the peculiar requirements that necessitate specific business decisions. I can point to specific CAG conclusions in the audit of oilfield operations that have drawn derisive comments from oil industry insiders. The CBI, of course, has developed the process of endless investigations into a fine art, leading the highest court of the land to wonder if it was a “caged parrot”.

More problematic are the issues a bureaucrat faces even after a bidding process has been followed. Most officers in government, especially those in the Finance and Law Ministries, are blissfully ignorant of the complexities of the financial and legal issues relating to natural resource extraction. Getting a proposal to grant mining rights to a private investor approved right up to the level of the Union Cabinet is an exercise that would tax the abilities of a Hercules. Innumerable trips to North Block and the upper floors of Shastri Bhavan later, the anxious bureaucrat (trapped between the Scylla of an inflexible bureaucracy and the Charybdis of the ire of his (her) political and bureaucratic bosses) wipes his (her) brow in relief when the all-important clearance of the Cabinet is received. More tension is in store as the contract must be negotiated and then vetted by the Law Ministry and the Internal Financial Adviser in the Ministry before it can be signed. In my time, this exercise could take anywhere from six months to a year.

The next stage of the steeplechase is the opprobrium heaped on the Ministry’s bureaucrats by those in the public sector, government and the political class who are opposed to private participation for ideological reasons or simply because their powers of patronage have been curtailed. Parliamentarians, especially from the left of the political spectrum, vent their anger by terming any such deal a “sell-out”, blissfully ignorant or dismissive of the economic arguments favouring the decision. It is at this juncture, a couple of years after the mining lease has been granted, that the CAG generally enters the picture. From my personal experience, the CAG officials examine the issue of private participation in mineral resource extraction from a very narrow, “tunnel” perspective. There are more than enough parties ready to cast doubts on the entire decision-making process. In recent years, the excessive media attention and the need to sensationalise every issue has led to public trials in nearly every natural resource sector. Most unfortunately, the CAG has a narrow auditor’s view of the subject and does not appreciate the compulsions under which the bureaucracy functions, rather surprising when one considers that this important constitutional functionary has himself gone through the same system till a couple of years earlier. To take the “coal scam” itself as an example, the CAG has found fault with the Ministry for going in for a screening rather than a bidding process. The then Coal Secretary and his subordinates have been hauled over the “coals” for acquiescing in the procedure followed of screening applications, notwithstanding what has been pointed out earlier in this piece of the efforts of the Coal Ministry bureaucracy to initiate the bidding process. I found it amazing that a former Cabinet Secretary, in a newspaper article, took the view that the Coal Secretary should not have agreed to the screening process. Given that there was no likelihood of an early resolution of the decision regarding the bidding process and given the need to step up availability of coal, the Coal Ministry bureaucracy probably took the only course of action possible under the circumstances, taking, in all cases, the approval of the then Minister for Coal, who, incidentally, was also the Prime Minister. Holding the Chairman of the Screening Committee responsible for the accuracy (or otherwise) of the information presented to him by other Ministries and state governments violates the principle of collective responsibility. In any case, as any bureaucrat can swear, it is well-nigh impossible to verify the correctness of every fact presented.

The final nail in the bureaucrat’s coffin is the entry of the courts and the CBI into the drama, which gives a truly Kafkaesque twist to the entire episode. Once the unfortunate man (or woman) has entered this chakravyuha, from which there is no escape, life is a series of courtroom appearances, punctuated by terms in prison. The tortuous legal processes ensure that the case(s) drag on for an inordinately long time, well into the bureaucrat’s retirement phase of life and sometimes after (s)he has passed on from this world. The present government’s decision to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (PCA) to exclude the all-encompassing sweep of the pernicious Section 13 (1)(d)(iii) of the Act has been criticised by high-minded corruption crusaders. This sub-section defines “criminal misconduct” inter alia as “while holding office as a public servant” obtaining “for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest”. This catch-all provision can be used to nail almost any action of a bureaucrat since every decision (even the sanction of a private school) will lead to pecuniary advantage for some person. It is regrettable that the fundamental judicial principle of mens rea, which is the most important determinant of guilt under criminal law, is given short shrift in the PCA. To their misfortune, the former bureaucrats of the Coal Ministry have fallen afoul of this travesty of a legal provision.

Harish Gupta and his former colleagues have been found guilty of not only criminal misconduct (under the PCA) but also of criminal conspiracy and cheating under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. No prior sanction of the Government of India under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code was obtained as required under law. This, and other issues will, no doubt, be raised in appeal, but it is scarring for a bureaucrat, known for his rectitude, to have his reputation besmirched by imputations of such conduct, especially when he was implementing the executive policy in force at the time he was in office. For all the public impression that bureaucrats lead the life of maharajas, let me (as an ex-member of that tribe) emphatically state that most babus (as we are pejoratively known) are just about able to afford one post-retirement home and live off the pension. The honest bureaucrat has only the fig leaf of his (her) integrity to cover him (her)self, the rest of it, including his (her) hard work, impartiality and simplicity of living, having been torn to shreds in recent years, when there has been a virtual “French Revolution” effort by innumerable Madame Defarges to vilify the character of the bureaucracy and watch, with unctuous relish, as bureaucrats are dragged on tumbrils to the guillotine in the presence of a blood-thirsty public. It is in this context that the Prime Minister’s assurance to bureaucrats of support for their bona fide decisions, in his Civil Service Day address on April 21, 2017, lacks conviction. The former Prime Minister was the Coal Minister when Harish Gupta allegedly committed the “crimes”, but he has not uttered a word in support of his erstwhile beleaguered colleague. Not only that, he, and his political deputies, have got off without even a slur on their conduct. Who knows which bureaucrat of today will be making the rounds inside Tihar Jail a decade hence! It will not be surprising if the bureaucracy adopts the motto “each man to himself and the devil take the hindmost”. Little wonder then that, today, the offspring of politicians, film actors and businessmen follow their parents’ professions, while the well-educated, talented daughters and sons of bureaucrats become lawyers, IT professionals and academics. If the bureaucracy loses valuable human capital, we have only our systems to blame for it.

 

Maximum Government, Minimum Governance

No, I have not got the title wrong, as some people might think. It is just that a government elected on the platform of delivering efficient service with minimum intrusion into the lives of individuals is doing exactly the opposite today. And it is not just the executive wing of the state which is displaying this enthusiasm to “govern”. As if to match the executive step for step in this exercise, the Supreme Court has ruled that all liquor vends within half a kilometre of highways will have to shut down. So, after being told what she can eat and wear, who she can be seen in public with and what she can read and view, the aam aurat is now being lectured (and hectored) on where she can buy what she wants to drink.

Not that spirits that raise the spirits are popular with our stern, killjoy leaders (let me add a disclaimer that I don’t touch the stuff myself, so there is no personal grievance involved). Chief Ministers who had a beef about beef are now concocting remedies to counter heady brews. Gujarat state and Wardha district in Maharashtra state were the only two regions to traditionally face total prohibition, probably because Mahatma Gandhi had a link with both areas. I have often wondered how IAS officers in the states survived the schizophrenic experience of simultaneously administering both liquor prohibition and augmenting liquor revenues. Probably a case of the left hand not bothering to know what the right hand was doing. Bihar went in for total prohibition in the wake of a heady election victory for the incumbent government in 2015. There are few studies on the effectiveness of this move but I am willing to eat my proverbial hat if anyone claims that liquor is no longer available in Bihar. No state in India, leave alone Bihar, can boast of an efficient, corruption-free administrative machinery that can implement such measures. Driving liquor supply (and corruption) underground will benefit neither public revenues nor public ethics.

It is, however, more the issue of government priorities rather than a specific, ill-conceived policy that ought to worry us. We see the central government tripping over itself in its haste to streamline tax administration and plug leakages. While the indirect tax reform (through GST) was long overdue and welcome, the same cannot be said for the slew of measures to reform the direct tax regime. Starting with the midnight knock (and shock) of demonetisation and the twists and turns in policy over the past five months, the citizen has faced innumerable hurdles in accessing her own, hard-earned money. ATMs have run dry (and continue to do so at various places), bank staff are loath to honour even bearer cheques (as I have personally experienced) and customers are being discouraged from visiting bank branches. Honest tax-payers are now being arm-twisted to go in for Aadhaar registration or forego their right to file income tax returns (though not from paying income tax). So, we will have a situation in Financial Year 2017-18, where people wanting to pay income tax will be unable to do so in the absence of PAN identities but will still be liable for harassment by the IT petty bureaucracy: a compelling instance of maximum government but very poor governance.

We are also witness to a rash of cases where the state is unable, or, worse, unwilling, to enforce its writ in observance of the rule of law. Cattle merchants, if they are from the minority community, risk their lives in transporting cattle even for bona fide commercial purposes. That these instances occur in states ruled by the same party which is in power at the centre rules is cause for even greater concern. Governance starts with the guarantee of the citizen’s right to life and liberty as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In fact, we may term “government” to represent hard power, in the sense of enacting rules and regulations and enforcing compliance with these. “Governance”, on the other hand, represents the soft power of the state, in the sense that citizens voluntarily comply with laws based on a broad consensus on values and an ungrudging acceptance of certain behavioural norms. Governments function successfully when governance systems are seen to be impartial, nonpartisan, reasonably incorruptible and based on the rule of law. India is, and has been, through its independent history, afflicted by far too much government and inadequate governance.

The seeds of big government were sown in the early years of independence when the state sought to arrogate to itself a role in virtually every area of public functioning. Nehru’s grand vision of the “command economy” drew trenchant criticism from prescient observers like C. Rajagopalachari. Whether in the production of consumer goods or in the provision of important social goods like education and healthcare, the tentacles of government reached everywhere: the problem was the shoddy delivery of goods and services. 1991 saw some changes, with, over the following years, competition in sectors like banking, telecom and automobiles improving both the quantity and quality of goods and services. The problem lay in the approach to liberalisation: the licence raj was dismantled to a considerable extent but the inspector raj remained strongly entrenched. The ultimate irony arose during the decade-long UPA regime, when a Prime Minister turned into a pale shadow of his earlier avatar as a progressive Finance Minister. Oppressive government continued through the entire period – the instances of retrospective tax demands, messing up the telecom revolution and discouraging private investment in the petroleum sector through a combination of ham-handed regulation and excessive doubt of private sector motives come to mind – so much so that private investment slowed down to a trickle and investors hesitated to put their money in India.

Hopes for an economic renaissance soared again when the new government assumed office in 2014, on the promise of good governance rather than big government. Unfortunately, apart from certain positive steps like the GST legislation, the present government has fallen into the same habits that characterised earlier governments. Ideology has had a role to play in this but there is also the Pavlovian suspicion of the average citizen. With the central government (and its regional formations) obsessed with the dietary and cultural habits of its citizens, policing of consumption of certain forms of meat and of the mingling of those of opposite sexes has come to the fore, with vigilante right-wing groups acting as self-appointed guardians of morality. Article 11 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law…” Recent incidents like the lynching of those transporting cattle (and the subsequent police action against the victims of violence) and the illegal intrusion of police in the private relationships of consenting adults violate this universally recognised right as well as the constitutional guarantees of rights to liberty, freedom of association and to practice any profession or carry on any trade, occupation or business. The recent moves of demonetisation and tightening of the direct tax regime, while ostensibly directed against tax evaders and corruption, hurt the small man to a far larger extent. What is forgotten by those in charge of policy formulation is the enormous scope for tyranny in the petty bureaucracy charged with enforcing laws. The income tax official has acquired substantial powers of raid and seizure in enforcing his writ on the hapless tax payer, the lower municipal and police official has considerable scope to harass butchers and slaughter houses in checking “illegal” slaughter of animals and the local thanedar can question any man and woman seen together, in public or elsewhere. What is forgotten is the centuries-old “Indian” tradition of oppression of the average citizen by the lower bureaucracy and the continued inability of the higher bureaucracy (and the political class) to enforce norms of probity on this gargantuan bureaucracy.

Ultimately, the citizen will experience freedom only when technology (and strict enforcement) compel the lower bureaucracy, especially at municipal, thana and village levels, to conform to standards that are taken for granted in more mature democracies. It is not the central government that administers these levels of the bureaucracy: however, by its own actions, it should create an enabling environment where governments at lower levels are shamed into action to ensure responsive, corruption-free bureaucratic functioning. As of today, there are still no serious efforts to restructure the bureaucracy at all levels, review outmoded laws and make it easier for the citizen to carry on her daily professional and personal life. The recent United Airlines fracas in manhandling a passenger cost the airline over half a billion dollars in lost market value as investors punished it for its executive excess. Governments lose far more in the election market place when the public withdraws its confidence in the incumbent government: 2004 and 2014 are chastening examples for the political elite in India from both sides of the spectrum. Enforcement of the rule of law without unnecessary intrusion by the arms of the government is, in the long run, a far better guarantee of a happy citizen and a happy society, as also of the continued survival of governments.

 

No discussion, no debate, no consensus

The government came up with forty amendments to central statutes as part of the Finance Bill, 2017. Nothing unusual, you might say, except that some of these amendments affected certain basic rights of the individual. By presenting these amendments in a Money Bill, the government managed to push them through without much debate in the Lok Sabha, where it enjoys a comfortable majority, and bypass the Rajya Sabha (where it is in a minority) altogether. This stratagem is becoming popular with the present government. They used it in 2016 to push through the Aadhaar Bill with a number of provisions that sought to virtually make obtaining an Aadhaar number mandatory for the citizen. This, despite litigation pending in the Supreme Court on what could be the scope of Aadhaar and the Supreme Court’s repeated directions to the government that it (the Supreme Court) would be the final arbiter on what the Aadhaar scheme could cover. Now, in one stroke, the government has gone beyond the provisions of even its own Aadhaar legislation to compel the honest taxpayer to register for Aadhaar. Come July 1, 2017 and the Kafkaesque situation could well arise where, after paying her income tax for the financial year 2016-17, the taxpayer finds that her income tax PAN has been invalidated and she cannot file her tax return, rendering her liable for financial penalties and incarceration.

The Finance Bill 2017 has also incorporated other amendments which merited taking the considered advice of the House of Elders, the Rajya Sabha. Certain tribunals have been abolished, their functions being taken over by other tribunals, without any clear rationale being spelt out. Not only that, the central government has armed itself with extensive rule-making powers to determine inter alia the qualifications, manner of appointment and removal of tribunal members and their emoluments. Given that the government is itself a litigant in a number of cases coming up before these tribunals, public confidence in the impartiality of these tribunals is likely to be severely shaken. Existing financial limits on contributions by companies to political parties have been removed and there is no need to disclose the party to which contributions are being made. Draconian powers of search and seizure have been given to officials of the income tax department: welcome back, inspector raj!

If these facets of unilateral exercise of executive power, unchecked by legislative oversight, were confined to just the Finance Bill, one could have ascribed it to overzealousness of the Finance Minister and his mandarins. Alas, the unbridled exercise of power has contaminated many other areas of government and society. Don’t like books that run contrary to your worldview? Just drag the publishers to court and let them stew in their own juice till they capitulate (Dina Nath Batra vs. Penguin/Wendy Doniger). Take offence at comments about a historical figure in a book? No problems, go ransack the venerable institution that worked with the author and destroy priceless, age-old artefacts and manuscripts, as goons of a ruling political party in Maharashtra did in 2004 (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune). The availability of alternative methods of civilised expression is apparently foreign to most citizens of the world’s largest democracy.

Mahatma Gandhi observed in 1947 “In India, no law can be made to ban cow-slaughter…It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.” Like many of Gandhi’s sage views, this one too has been consigned to the dustbin, with states vying with one another to ban the sale of beef. In 2017, one state, Gujarat, has legislated to punish cow-slaughter with imprisonment for life. Not to be outdone, the Chief Minister (CM) of Chhattisgarh has declared his intention to hang those guilty of cow-slaughter. A non-binding Directive Principle of state policy has been converted into laws that infringe the right to liberty of the citizen (and even the right to life, if the honourable Chhattisgarh CM were to have his way). Meanwhile, summary justice (or, rather, injustice) is meted out by vigilante groups to those suspected of involvement in alleged cow-slaughter.

The newly-installed theocrat CM of Uttar Pradesh has trained his sights on Romeos through his anti-Romeo squads (William Shakespeare is turning in his grave, four hundred years after his death, at the ignominy being heaped on one of his most romantic characters). I shudder at the unlimited latitude given to the police force of Uttar Pradesh, not known, even at the best of times, to exercise moderation in its interpretation and implementation of the law. Dating in UP will soon be a dated concept, with no Juliet worth her salt daring to be seen publicly with, you guessed it, a Romeo.

Actually, Juliets in India are having a tough time even completing their education. School and college managements from Varanasi to Vellore have decided that information will enter the craniums of their female students only if they are suitably attired (suitability being decided by the management). Not only that, women students must keep their distance from male students (apparently to keep hormonal outbursts at bay), eschew library work after 6 PM and forego the privileges of wifi (to keep corrupting internet influences away).

And then, to top it all, we have that abomination called the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It was bad enough when the CBFC puritans arbitrarily decided what was viewable only by adults. But now we have situations where certification is refused altogether for “lady-oriented” films. The latest news is that a film dealing with the demonetization episode is being referred by the CBFC Kolkata office to Delhi, so apparently terrified is the local officer of taking a decision on merits.

So, seventy years after India’s tryst with destiny, the Aadhaar-enabled, celibate, vegetarian, male Indian enters a Brave New World where he apes Gandhi’s three monkeys – “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” One does not necessarily dispute every decision taken by the government of the day. It is only that in a country with multiple sub-nationalities, religions, languages and traditions, a culture of debate and discussion ensures wide acceptability of laws and regulations, so essential for a functioning democracy. Jawaharlal Nehru, that inbred democrat, whose name is anathema to many of those in power today, wrote fortnightly letters to Chief Ministers uninterruptedly for over sixteen years from late 1947 to the end of 1963. Despite enjoying an unrivalled political status, Nehru was keen to justify his policies and explain their rationale and the motivations underlying them. Even in today’s rather vitiated political atmosphere, it would be statesmanlike for leaders to explain their actions to others, especially those opposed to their policies, and seek a broad consensus on the way forward. We would hardly want a scenario where people, on whom decisions have been thrust, echo the words of the disillusioned poet, penned by the inimitable Sahir Ludhianvi, in the film Pyaasa:

तुम्हारी है तुम ही संभालो यह दुनिया

यह दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है