Archive for the ‘public policy’ Category

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

 

 

 

Lipstick in a man’s world

Indian politicians have this amazing propensity to put their feet in their mouths. I remember the then Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra lost his post because of his comment post the 26/11 Mumbai attack “Such minor incidents do take place from time to time.” The present Home Minister of Karnataka stirred up a hornet’s nest after the horrifying incident of “mass molestation” on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve. He apparently said, according to newspaper reports, that the police force could not keep a watch on everyone and referred to the “western ways” of youngsters as a corrupting influence. More recently, he and his party men have tried to paint reports of the incident as a political conspiracy to tarnish Bengaluru’s image. However, he has been outdone by the Maharashtra Samajwadi Party chief, who has given a clear sexist angle to the episode by claiming that women should not draw attention to themselves through their attire. Not to be outdone in the misogyny stakes, the archaic Film Certification Board and its Chairman have gone one better: they have refused to certify for public screening a film titled “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, ostensibly on the grounds that the movie is ‘lady oriented’.

I strongly recommend that all these gentlemen (and the ladies on the Film Certification Board), and others of their ilk, read an incisive analysis by three women researchers on what it means to be a woman in Mumbai “Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets”. What this book brings out clearly is the attenuated access of women to public spaces even in that supposed haven of liberation, Aamchi Mumbai. Women are allowed to enter the public space on terms that  are decided by a patriarchal society. What is particularly significant is the classification of the woman when the public gaze falls on her. As long as she is in a bus, a local train or in a public park with a specific ‘respectable’ purpose, preferably with an accompanying male and with the necessary accoutrements of mangalsutra and vermilion mark (in case of Hindu women) as also ‘acceptable’ attire, in case of all women, she is deemed to be the property of another male and is not considered ‘easy game’. But let her venture forth in a public space on her own or in a group of female friends, dressed according to her own desire and seen at ‘inappropriate’ hours of the day in the vicinity of ‘undesirable’ locations and she becomes the object of unwanted male attention or moral policing, either by the custodians of law or by self-appointed moralists.

The nukkad or the street corner cutting chai shop will never be the haunt of women; you will always see apparently idle men engaging in desultory chatter, accompanied by puffs of cigarette/beedi smoke or vigorous mastication of tobacco. Obversely, look at the village ghat or the local water standpost/handpump and men will be conspicuous by their absence. The division of leisure and labour in a gender-unequal society is painfully clear. The gender discrimination is even more painfully obvious where issues like access to toilets and breastfeeding of infants are concerned. Public conveniences in cities, where they exist and are tolerably clean, are weighted in favour of male use. A vicious cycle operates here: since women are seen less in public places, urban planners skew such construction in favour of the male sex, thus discouraging women from venturing forth in public. Even such conveniences as are constructed for women do not take care of their specific biological needs. It was heartwarming to learn that specific rooms have been set aside in bus stations in Maharashtra to enable nursing mothers to breastfeed their children.

What is becoming painfully obvious is that, notwithstanding some progress in women’s access to social equality and opportunities, Indian women are still at a disadvantage compared to their sisters in many democracies of the world, including those of developing and emerging economies. Apart from the aspect of human rights (which is undoubtedly of paramount importance), India will also suffer economically if she does not harvest the benefits of what I would term the “gender dividend”. Significant movement in this direction will be possible when the following issues are focused on and tackled, at both the policy and societal levels:

Gender equality must begin at home

It was shocking to hear that 19 aborted female foetuses were recovered from a stream in Sangli district, one of the more economically advanced regions of Maharashtra state. This is of a pattern with the Indian scenario where prosperous states and the better off areas of India (especially urban concentrations) display dismayingly low female-male sex ratios. Prenatal sex determination tests are still in vogue, with the subsequent abortion of female foetuses or murder of female babies. With the lower status of women established even before birth, it follows that the girl child represents the unwanted component of the family. Not surprisingly, the girl child, who is often healthier than her male sibling at birth, comes out worse in health and nutrition status by the end of the first year of life. Nutrition, healthcare and education opportunities are lavished on the male heir, this notwithstanding enough evidence that girls outperform boys in scholastic abilities and in perseverance. Children also imbibe the ingrained discriminatory attitudes towards women in the home, which are reinforced by the latitude given to boys as compared to girls. Gender roles are also sought to be cemented in children’s impressionable minds to fix their future life trajectories. Unless a ‘Dangal’ is created in age-old attitudes and prejudices right at the family level, gender equality will remain a myth.

Equal opportunities and freedoms for children of both sexes at adolescence and beyond

Attitudes to girls harden as they enter the critical years of puberty and adolescence. The girl is now seen as a liability whose ownership must be transferred at the earliest to another patriarchal set up. Leave alone actualisation of the girl’s innate potential, even education at the secondary school or higher levels is considered an unnecessary luxury, given the fixed ideas about her destiny as wife and mother, mingled with fears about her discovery of her sexuality. To add fuel to the controversy over certain institutions of higher learning circumscribing freedom of access of girls to libraries (after certain hours of the day) and wifi facilities as also interaction with the other sex, we have no less a person than the Minister for Women and Child Development of the Government of India counselling girls that restrictions are essential to control their “hormonal outbursts”. Apparently, only girls, not boys, need to be protected from their hormones.

Equal workplace opportunities and home/childcare responsibilities for both sexes

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her thought-provoking book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”, talks of how, when a woman executive is planning a family, the discussion moves immediately to what she is contemplating about her career, a question that is never asked of a male in a similar position. Granted, the woman has to carry the child for nine months, deliver the child and undertake nursing in the succeeding period. Companies and governments have taken many steps to ease the pressure on women through longer periods of maternity leave and arrangements for working from home, apart from paternity leave, so that the father can share the child-rearing responsibilities. In Sandberg’s case, her husband left his job at Yahoo and set up his own company so that he could devote time to the children at home, enabling Sheryl to devote time to her career. While the modern Indian urban family is slowly moving towards joint gender management of domestic responsibilities, social and familial pressures still constrain women’s choices. Even when the woman and her partner work out arrangements which enable her to fulfil her aspirations, she still has nagging feelings of guilt, a reminder of a society which still operates in stereotypes.

Make cities/towns truly smart to enable women to utilize opportunities

The real killer for the aspirational Indian woman is the environment in which she has to function. Forget rural India, where gender equality is still a distant goal. The urban woman has to negotiate a nightmare of situations in her day to day life, occasioned by apprehensions about personal security (especially after dark), creaky transport systems, inadequate toilet facilities, poor lighting and the male-dominated perception that she has no right to be on her own at the wrong times in the wrong neighbourhoods. India is proudly touting its smart cities. But a city that does not cater to the needs of half its population is not smart at all. Urban planning in India is in a shambles, with outmoded management systems and failing infrastructure. Women will bear the brunt of these deficiencies till governments get their acts together. Till then, we have to continue to live with privatised solutions to public problems in the areas of security, transport and sanitation, to name just three.

Need for social movements to create in women awareness of their rights and entitlements

As Paulo Freire, the Latin American educationist, observed in a different context, the oppressed internalise the values of the oppressor, enabling subjugation by the powerful for long periods of time. Indian women are no exception to this generalisation. Adopting the patriarchal set of values, women are often hostile to members of their sex perceived as deviants and not conforming to prevailing social mores and traditions, as evidenced by the ubiquity of the saas-bahu syndrome. There is also the fear in women of confronting a male-dominated society, with few support systems for women who stand up for their rights. Social change will come about only when women support each other and assert their rights to participation as equals in all aspects of social, political and economic life.

As the International Women’s Day rolls around once again, one is overcome by feelings of déjà vu. Two years ago, I wrote on the issue of the status of women in India in the context of the furore over the telecast of the Nirbhaya documentary (Cry, the Beloved Country). Mindsets change slowly in the wonder that is India, whether they be of Film Certification (Censor?) Boards or Vice-Chancellors of Universities. The good news lies in the rapidly growing access of women to education and economic empowerment and the increasing readiness of educated women (and their not so fortunate sisters) to confront misogyny in all its perverted forms. Applying lipstick will then be a matter of free personal choice, without any need to resort to covert stratagems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh! to be in Estonia

I wonder how many people in India would even be aware that there is a country on planet Earth called Estonia. Tucked away in the Baltic corner of Europe, Estonia was one of the republics constituting the former USSR. The dissolution of the Soviet Republic in 1991 saw Estonia, along with a clutch of other erstwhile republics, achieve her separate identity. But what is truly remarkable about this small country of barely 1. 3 million people with a geographical area straddling not even 50,000 square kilometres is the rapid strides she has made in the digital revolution sweeping the globe. Estonia has an e-police, e-schools and an e-cabinet: you can now even apply for e-residency in that country. Estonia is virtually the digital hub for Eastern Europe and hosts the NATO Centre for Cyber Excellence. Not that digital progress does not come without a price; Estonia was literally brought to her knees by a major cyber-attack by Russian hackers some eight years ago and, has since, tightened cyber security measures. Her logic for offering e-residence facilities to non-citizens is, among other reasons, aimed at facilitating access to the European market to foreign investors at minimal cost and with a minimum of tiresome legal formalities.

No, I am not planning a shift to Estonia. The weather there is too cold, one has to keep worrying about a possible Russian re-takeover of the country and I am too tied to the earth of Bharat Mata. But I do think wistfully of Estonia’s e-topia whenever I run into India’s bureaucratic conundrums. The latest one is something called the FATCA declaration. For the uninitiated, this acronym stands for “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”. India and United States of America have an agreement under which the governments of the two countries will exchange information on taxable transactions by residents in the respective countries. So far, so good…but what gets my goat is the declaration to be signed by every Bharatiya whenever she opens a demat account or commences mutual fund trading, specifying her country of citizenship and place of residence. I am all for unearthing stashing of black money in safe tax havens, but getting over 99% of Bharatiyas, many of whom have not even crossed the Palk Straits or the Wagah check post, to sign one more silly document is surely the height of bureaucratic stupidity. More so, because these Bharatiyas generally transact through banking channels, where details about their citizenship, place of residence, etc. are already available with the banks.

But even the meaninglessness of FATCA pales before that other abomination, inflicted on us by the mandarins of the Finance Ministry, infamously known as KYC. Used by banks, gas agencies, mobile companies and sundry others to harry the unsuspecting customer, KYC officially stands for Know Your Customer. To my mind, it stands for Keep You Confused. I suspect that each time there is a change of Finance Minister or Finance Secretary in the Government of India, 600 million bank customers are once again asked to confirm their place of residence. Why else has one had to go through this exercise three times in the past six years? It is not as though seeking address details leads to lesser tax evasion or concealment of ill-gotten gains. We read daily about the number of fake accounts being uncovered in reputed private and government-owned banks: the mind boggles at what may be going on in cooperative banks.

As a matter of fact, asking for residential details of a customer wanting to open a bank account is itself a source of harassment to a citizen who moves for employment to different parts of the country every couple of years. I have read horror stories of young professionals who had to run from pillar to post to open a bank account when they moved in to stay with their parents and had no independent proof of residence. If the customer retains her bank account at the branch near her earlier residence and largely transacts through internet banking, she still needs to update her address to receive new debit and credit cards or for other transactions like securing loans. The agency that provides a service will invariably insist on a document like the Aadhaar card, passport and driving license or ration card for proof of residence, although a recently relocated customer is unlikely to have the new address on any of these documents. Nor do banks follow a uniform procedure for accepting address changes. One private bank allows for change of address through phone banking, while others ask for scanned copies of address proof. What defies comprehension is why the individual who can transfer/withdraw lakhs of rupees through net banking transactions cannot be trusted to change her address through the same net banking channel, without further verification. This underlines government’s basic lack of trust of the citizen and its permanent suspicion about her motives.

I have also not understood why the Aadhaar card needs to have the address on it at all. As a pan-India identity symbol, it is enough if it testifies to the fact of Indian residency. Updating the address every few years is an avoidable irritant for the geographically and socially mobile Indian: the fate of her economically worse-off migrant sisters and brothers is much more difficult to envision. Equally meaningless is the police verification at the time of issue or renewal of a passport, when any police station would have the list of persons whose record does not entitle them to issue of a passport. The police constable visits the house of a passport-seeker just to verify if she does stay there, never mind if the person moves house a few days after that. All this exercise does is to give a few more rent-seeking opportunities to the official machinery. It has not prevented gangsters and underworld henchmen from acquiring multiple passports at the drop of a hat.

Actually, the concept of a permanent residential address is so antiquated and irrelevant for members of the post-independence Indian domestic diaspora, who (and whose parents) have travelled wherever their employment took them. Most of us today have virtual email addresses that have survived longer than our present residential addresses. So when will our beloved Bharat be rid of this medieval fetish for permanent addresses? Probably when we move in the course of the next few months and years to a cashless economy. Once every transaction of ours leaves an electronic trail, there will be no need for any officious Finance Ministry bureaucrat to insist on an address. Till then, may I request the powers that be to content themselves with a correspondence address and trust the individual citizen when she furnishes that address?

Money…the root of all evil

“For the love of money is the root of all evil”
(Timothy 6:10, The Bible, King James Version)

The Bible makes it clear that it is not the medium which is evil but the inordinate attraction to it. Before we castigate that poor banknote or coin, let us also reflect that greed is only one of the human failings, on par with envy, fear, lust and anger. And yet, the action of the government of the day to render worthless ₹ 500 and ₹ 1000 denomination notes at the drop of a Prime Minister’s speech has left the common citizen speechless and in the grip of a welter of emotions. The intentions may be good and the purpose may be noble : there is a groundswell of support today for the government’s actions among the chattering classes, even though the silent masses are going through difficult times. But is “black money” so easily tamed? Since there seems to be popular misconceptions about “black money”, its origins and nature, some clarifications are in order.
Black money can refer to a flow or to a stock. It is the activity through which the money is generated which determines whether it is black or white, while the subsequent use of the money determines its colour at that time. For example, a private engineering college accepts a donation in cash from a student and declares only 25% of the amount as received. The remaining 75%, which is held in cash, or converted to other assets (and not declared as income), constitutes black money. If this money is used to pay cash salaries to the college employees, the money gets converted from black to white, since the employees use it for their legitimate monthly expenses. Similarly, undisclosed “black money” income parked abroad (as stock) is converted to a “white money” flow when it legally reenters India as foreign institutional investment from foreign tax havens. The roots of black money can lie where activities are wholly illegal (smuggling, drug dealing, arms transactions), or where the activity is legal, but part or whole of the amount realised is not disclosed, either because there has been some violation of permissible limits (illegal mining, capitation fees) or simply to avoid tax payments of any kind. The mythical metaphor could be Ravana’s ten heads in the Ramayana or the Lernaean Hydra in Greek mythology: chopping off one head would see more heads grow back again. A modern day analogy would be the Jackal, the terrorist tasked with the assassination of President Charles De Gaulle of France. With his multiple stolen passports and the ability to change his appearance to suit the passport photograph, the Jackal evaded stringent police surveillance and was finally stopped in his tracks by a patient, persevering French policeman only after he had managed to take a crack at his target. Black money is similar: just when the enforcement agencies think they have got the beast, it will reappear in a new form elsewhere.

In these days of highly fungible economies, the very processes of economic and government functioning give immense scope for the generation of black money. Since I started this article with a quote from the Bible, it would be appropriate to list the Ten Commandments that the Government of India must follow if the current demonetization drive is to come anywhere near yielding the desired results:
I. Thou shalt make bank accounts mandatory and easily accessible
The innovative idea of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) to provide every Indian citizen with a bank account has seen as many as 254 million accounts being opened till November 2016. By the government’s own figures (gathered from banks), nearly 25% of these accounts have zero balance; there is an average of about ₹ 2500 in the remaining accounts. The geographical spread of these accounts would be highly skewed: remote tribal and rural areas are likely to be underserved. It is the poor with no access to bank accounts who have been hardest hit by the demonetization exercise. The significant percentage of zero balance bank accounts is testimony to the fact that bank accounts are still not perceived as useful by the poor, especially where they have little bankable surplus and where bank locations and timings are such that they cannot easily be accessed. Making the opening of a bank account by every citizen above the age of 18 mandatory would popularise the use of banking services and compel hitherto reluctant bankers to actively seek customers. There will still be areas where access to bank branches is difficult, either because of geographical location or, more often, because of timings which do not suit the customer. It is here that the Second Commandment comes into play.
II. Thou shalt actively promote the cashless economy through the use of technology
Mobile wallets and payments through mobile phones and computers using internet and wireless technology can obviate the need to visit banks. Use of point of sale (POS) terminals at all transaction outlets would promote cashless transactions. Money transfers (salaries, etc.) can be done online or using mobile phones. Banking correspondents can ensure needed cash payments from and deposits to customers’ bank accounts. This will need some knowledge of how to use these systems. Having seen how quickly nearly 900 million Indians have mastered the use of mobile phone software, including the use of WhatsApp and the downloading of videos, I do not foresee any problems of adapting to modern technology. There is, of course, still the need to ensure that the temptation to escape the electronic trail is checked…enter the Third Commandment.
III. Thou shalt declare illegal and void any cash transaction exceeding ₹ 10000
Given the Indian propensity for jugaad, all efforts will still be made to evade scrutiny of economic intelligence agencies by going in for over and under the counter cash payments, to avoid payment of direct and indirect taxes. Black money will be converted into holdings in real estate and gold/jewelry. To ensure a clear electronic trail of all transactions, any cash transaction over ₹ 10000 should be made illegal and liable for punitive action, including confiscation. This will also, hopefully, check the widespread and pernicious practice in India of large-scale cash transfers in real estate dealings to evade payment of capital gains tax, stamp duty, registration fees and other related levies.
IV. Thou shalt demonetize ₹ 2000 and ₹ 500 notes
The rationale for introducing ₹ 2000 notes when the lesser denomination of ₹ 1000 has been scrapped has raised many eyebrows: suitcase payments become easier when the number of currency notes required to be packed into the suitcase are reduced by 50%. A strong case can be made for scrapping all currency notes of a denomination greater than ₹ 100. In fact, there is growing support from American economists for withdrawing from circulation the 100 dollar bill which, they feel, helps only drug dealers, terrorists and illicit activities while rarely being used for transactions. India may not be quite in the same cashless economy boat as the USA, but moving the economy in the cashless direction requires demonetization of ₹ 500 and ₹ 2000 currency notes. The presence of currency in only small denominations from ₹ 1 to ₹ 100 would force reluctant merchants to go in for cashless technology. It would also render more difficult the task of using low denomination currency notes in large numbers for high value transactions.
V. Thou shalt make Aadhaar and PAN card details mandatory for all transactions above ₹ 10000
Despite the objections of neo-Luddites opposed to the universal deployment of the Aadhaar card for all, it is heartening that, for schemes like the LPG subsidy transfer, Aadhaar cards are being linked to bank accounts. Since opening a bank account does not require either Aadhaar card registration or PAN card details, there is every scope for diversion of unaccounted for income to benami accounts. What is urgently required is to link Aadhaar and PAN card details and to make PAN details mandatory for any transaction exceeding ₹ 10000. This would check possible misuse of bank accounts which are not on the income tax radar (due to non-availability of PAN details) and would also ensure that non-income taxpayers (like agriculturists) are not used as conduits for undisclosed payments.
VI. Thou shalt discontinue top-level political decisions in all discretionary matters
A major scope for corruption lies in the centralization of decision making powers at the political apex, especially in state governments and local bodies. Whether it is the posting of officers, the permission to start primary schools or the award of contracts for anything from chalk pieces to supplementary nutrition for children to major constructions, the ministerial seal of approval is a must. This has spawned a major corruption industry which enmeshes a significant portion of the bureaucracy as well. We are also often regaled with stories of the MLA or local body corporator who becomes a multimillionaire within a year or two of getting elected. The standard defence is that elections are a costly business, although how that justifies corruption is beyond one’s comprehension. Be that as it may, there is no denying that, apart from lowering administrative efficiency and providing substandard services to the aam aurat/aadmi, high-level political corruption is a significant source of black money, often ploughed back into real estate and conspicuous consumption. Since this is a disease that cuts across political boundaries and is particularly common at state and local government levels, the Government of India must, through a combination of incentives and shaming, compel governments to restructure their governance processes and decentralize decision making powers.
VII. Thou shalt implement a sound public procurement policy
The Government of India had introduced a Public Procurement Bill in 2012 to regulate and ensure transparency in procurement by the central government and its entities. The bill was allowed to lapse and there have been no efforts subsequently to resuscitate it. Most state governments have no public procurement policy or legislation in place. Even in the few states where such legislation has been passed, its effectiveness has never been assessed. Since, apart from administrative postings and patronage in resource allocation, public procurement is the greatest source of political and bureaucratic corruption, some urgent action on this front is essential to check amassing of illegal wealth by the politician-bureaucrat-businessman trinity.
VIII. Thou shalt eliminate the inspector raj through online processes
The permit-license raj was curtailed in 1991; unfortunately, the then government lost steam before the death blow could be delivered to the inspector raj. There are still too many ‘inspectors’ in local bodies, police, road transport, liquor licensing, education, industry and labour welfare, whose major function appears to be the collection of economic rent, for themselves and those above them in the government hierarchy. Some streamlining of licensing processes has taken place but the overall picture is still one where the inspector-tout system flourishes: just visit any Regional Transport Office and see for yourself. This corruption has two “black money” aspects: firstly, the unlawful gains to the organs of the state and, secondly and more dangerously, the operation of a parallel economy that can threaten national security and financial stability. Technology is, again, the only answer. As more processes go online, self-certification by licensees and only minimal, essential contact with the human element can help reduce corruption and harassment.
IX. Thou shalt streamline the justice system to deliver just deserts promptly to all bribe-takers, bribe-givers, tax evaders and hawala traders
As an American jurist put it “The millstones of justice turn exceedingly slow, but grind exceedingly fine”. Justice in India often seems inordinately long in coming. It is rather ironic that, in recent times, a public prosecutor of Indian origin investigated and secured the conviction of two well-known individuals of Indian origin on charges of insider trading in a matter of four years in the USA. While we may not all support his approach, it is a fact that high profile cases involving top political and bureaucratic functionaries in the previous central government are still far from closure even in the trial court. Lengthy, tortuous legal processes not only breed cynicism in the populace at large (not a healthy sign for a democracy) but also embolden lawbreakers with political and economic clout. Sincere and speedy implementation of the provisions of the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act, Prevention of Money Laundering Act, Prevention of Corruption Act and related legislation will show that the government means business. Along with the government, the judiciary also needs to tighten its processes and dispense justice fairly and speedily.
X. Thou shalt ensure that all elections are funded only through legal contributions and that all transactions relating to elections are closely monitored
The final Commandment covers a subject which is at the foundation of the efforts to tackle the genesis of black money: electoral corruption. Election funding is itself a small portion of the black money generated. But the politician-businessman nexus that unaccounted election funding sustains has deleterious long-term implications for the economy as well as for the credibility of democracy in the eyes of the people. There are politicians who proudly claim that they have never enriched themselves personally but have taken money only for their political party. Political parties have never been required to account for the sources of their funds and have stubbornly resisted efforts to bring them within the ambit of the Right To Information Act. Demonetization should bring about a situation where all receipts and all expenditures, small or big, by parties and their candidates can be electronically tracked. This will give the Election Expenditure Observers far more teeth than they have at present. With rigorous monitoring of electoral expenses, the last fig leaf for justifying corruption before, during and after elections will be gone.

I write this piece at a time when the nation is probably going through one of its greatest phases of turmoil since independence, rivalled only by the churning of the polity in the closing months of the Emergency in 1977. As one who lived for over a decade in the vicinity of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s aborted capital of Daulatabad, his other aborted experiment with currency comes to my mind. Of course, 2016 is not 1333 and we are not minting brass and copper coins, though the flimsy quality of the Rs. 2000 currency note makes me slightly apprehensive. There will always be insinuations that raw political calculations dictated the demonetization decision. The current pains that large sections of the population are going through could have been mitigated somewhat if some of the Ten Commandments had been implemented prior to the “surgical strike” on the currency. As matters now stand, systemic changes on the lines suggested above would give the government some victories on the black money front in the months and years to come. Human greed will remain, the craze for conspicuous consumption and the Big Fat Indian Wedding will continue unabated and the Cayman Islands and other tax havens will always beckon those with an insatiable appetite for moolah. But the government would at least have the satisfaction that it made earning a fast buck that much tougher for those who are never going to respect the rule of law, while also ensuring that it does not make the wretched life of the common (wo)man even more wretched.

Palghar – lessons for Maharashtra (and other states)

It was that time of the year again…the rains came and, with them, the sense of déjà vu that stories of child deaths in tribal areas of Maharashtra evoke in the public mind. The procession seems endless: Melghat in the 1990s, then Nandurbar in the first decade of this century and now Palghar in the second decade of the twenty first century. The political and administrative actors have changed in the intervening years, economic and social changes have taken place in town and countryside but the same problem seems to return to haunt us with a recurring, almost numbing regularity. Opposition politicians (who seem to forget that they were in power for a decade and a half till very recently) are ready with their criticism of the first two years of the present ruling dispensation. The usual knee-jerk reactions are on full display, with Ministers of the concerned departments undertaking flying visits to the affected areas and attempts being made to rope in the medical fraternity, nonprofits and civil society to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, there is no well thought out strategy to tackle the problem of child malnutrition on a long-term basis, whether it be in Maharashtra or in any other state in India. It might, therefore, be apposite to outline what should not be the focus of public policy in the immediate future — both short and medium-term — and what strategy could yield handsome dividends in the next few years.

What is definitely a losing proposition is the obsessive focus on the centralised supply of nutrition to affected mothers and children. There seems to be a misconceived notion (at various levels of government, nonprofits and civil society) that augmenting supplementary nutrition to mothers and children through the existing channels of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) system will help matters. The past (and more recent) history of state-directed and centralised nutrition provision through the ICDS system has been controversial, with repeated attempts (across many states) to circumvent the Supreme Court-directed policy of empowering local communities and families to meet the nutrition requirements of their mothers and children. The experience, over the last one year, of the Abdul Kalam Amrut Aahar Yojana in Maharashtra, aimed at providing one hot cooked meal to pregnant mothers and to nursing mothers in the first three months after delivery, has not been very heartening either, given the less than enthusiastic involvement of the ICDS machinery and the glitches in timely fund allocation to local committees tasked with provision of the nutritious meal. Since the National Food Security Act, 2013 has mandated a cash maternity entitlement of Rs. 6000 to mothers, in addition to access to food supplies through the Public Distribution System and through specific nutrition programmes for pregnant and nursing mothers, the possibility of cash transfer of the entire entitlement to women through Aadhaar-linked bank accounts needs to be closely looked at. This would not only check programme leakages but also reduce wasteful expenditure on overheads on state-run programmes. However, this requires a separate study, so the issue will not be further pursued here.

Reducing chronic malnutrition in under-5 (“U5”) children is a process that involves factors like accelerated economic development and the behavioural changes that rising income levels bring. But, rather than passively waiting for economic development to reduce child malnutrition, governments (and their extensive machineries) can take proactive steps in the short-term to reduce acute malnutrition (and the accompanying mortality) in U5 children. This article focuses on these measures.

The first step is the use of real-time, accurate data, based on anthropomorphic indicators, to get a grip on the exact geographical regions (going right down to every individual anganwadi) where child malnutrition levels are highest, be they remote tribal hamlets or congested urban slums. Currently, monthly recording of weight for age (based on the WHO growth norms) is the only criterion used to assess child undernutrition in the ICDS. This exercise is carried out (if at all) perfunctorily in anganwadis in most states in India. In any case, no systematic analysis of this data, for policy planning and implementation purposes, is undertaken by any official of the departments or directorates/commissionerates tasked with improving the status of child nutrition in India. What is needed is a rigorous exercise to weigh all children in the state every month. If this is not done monthly for logistic reasons (although required as per the existing job chart of the anganwadi worker), weights of all U5 children should be scrupulously recorded at least once in two months. The Jatak software, already developed for use in some areas of Maharashtra, Kerala and West Bengal, would enable porting child weight data online through use of interactive voice response systems and obtaining immediate anganwadi-wise data on the number of severely underweight (SUW) U5 children.

Step number two would involve the lists of these SUW children (anganwadi-wise) being made available online (through a web-based health module linked to the Jatak SUW child data) to the Primary Health Centres (PHC) in whose area the anganwadi falls. The Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs) and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) working in a PHC area would then record the height/length and weight of each U5 SUW child in the health sub-centre area, with this data being subsequently ported into the health module. The software would automatically provide to the PHC, anganwadi-wise, the list of U5 children falling in the severe acute malnutrition (SAM) category.

Once the U5 SAM children are identified, they need to be medically examined to assess whether their condition requires them to be admitted to Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres, also termed as Child Treatment Centres (CTCs) and located in Primary Health Centres. Children suffering from environmentally induced diseases (tuberculosis, pneumonia, etc.) or congenital conditions (sickle cell anemia, heart disease, etc.) would be admitted to CTCs. Apart from children requiring treatment at specialist medical facilities, others would stay in the CTCs for a period of up to thirty days. The treatment protocol prescribed by the WHO would be followed to improve the health and nutrition status of these SAM children. It would also be desirable to provide health, hygiene and nutrition education to the caregivers (mostly mothers) who stay with the children in the CTCs, so that there is no relapse in the nutrition status of the children after their return home. Maharashtra had started the salutary practice of providing an allowance to the caregiver staying with the child in the CTC to compensate for loss in wages; this was an added incentive to ensure that children were admitted to and underwent the full course of treatment in the CTCs.  Monitoring of the health and nutrition status of these children by health workers needs to be done regularly for one year after their discharge from the CTC to ensure there is no relapse.

Children in the SAM category not requiring medical attention can, along with children in the moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) category, attend the Village Child Development Centres (VCDCs) at the local anganwadis to receive supplementary nutrition at two hour intervals in accordance with a laid-down nutrition protocol. As the pioneer in developing the VCDC concept, which has been internationally acclaimed, it is unfortunate that the Government of Maharashtra has not financially supported this initiative for the past three years.

Zeroing in on the geographical areas with the worst incidence of severe wasting (SAM) in U5 children would definitely reduce child mortality, given that SAM children have a mortality rate over nine times as high as children in the normal category. It would also check the impairment of cognitive and physical capabilities of U5 children, enabling them to lead fuller, more productive lives as adults. The tragedy lies in the failure of governments in India to systematically adopt the approach outlined above. My experience as Director General of Maharashtra’s Rajmata Jijau Health and Nutrition Mission is that, when U5 child mortality occurs, no attempt is made to trace the case history of such children: specifically, their nutrition and health status in the months before their death and whether any efforts were made to improve this status. A systematic use of real-time U5 children nutrition data to enable focused health and nutrition interventions followed by rigorous monitoring of treated children on an ongoing basis would help reduce mortality rates. Even using the current ICDS projectwise monthly progress reports (MPRs) on U5 children nutrition status (in terms of child weights) would give some idea of the areas in a state most prone to child malnutrition. If we examine the latest available ICDS MPR for Maharashtra for March 2016 (available at www.icds.gov.in), we observe that the ICDS projects with the highest percentages of severely underweight children are largely located in the tribal pockets in the districts of Palghar, Nandurbar, Amravati, Nasik and Gadchiroli, the very areas which have been at the centre of child death controversies for over two decades. If all the ten states of India with a percentage of SUW children over 10 percent of the U5 child population, as revealed by the 2013-14 Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) data released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, were to rigorously monitor the monthly weights of children, they can put in place strategies to tackle SAM and reduce mortality in U5 children in the high burden areas.

India has the rather dubious distinction of being ranked 120 out of 130 countries in the prevalence of wasting in U5 children (Global Nutrition Report 2016). The 2015-16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) shows that large states like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have as many as 14 (out of 35) and 23 (out of 50) districts respectively with a severe wasting (SAM) rate of over 10 percent of the U5 child population, while U5 child mortality rates are as high as 58 and 65 (per 1000 live births) respectively for Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. So what holds our governance systems back from taking positive, proactive steps? Firstly, a complete absence of focus on what is the extent of the problem, where the problem exists and what policy measures are needed. Secondly, a failure to enforce accountability (in the ICDS and public health bureaucracies) for high rates of child malnutrition and mortality. And, finally, indifference to the debilitating consequences of child malnutrition, which society and the polity contribute to through inaction on a variety of fronts and a lack of compassion.

Improving child nutrition: the way ahead for Maharashtra

The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) data on maternal and child health and nutrition outcomes in Maharashtra provides sobering food for thought. This data does not provide the cheer that the 2012 UNICEF Comprehensive Survey on Nutrition in Maharashtra (CNSM 2012) brought to Maharashtra, with the showing of a stunning reduction in under-2 child stunting rates (between 2006 and 2012) from 39% to 23% and a corresponding reduction in under-2 child underweight rates from 30% to 22%. The NFHS-4 figures, which cover under-5 children, show a reduction in stunting from 46% to 34% and in underweight from 37% to just 36% over a ten-year period between 2005 and 2015. More tellingly, the NFHS-4 data reveals that high malnutrition rates are not a feature only in predominantly tribal districts; districts like Parbhani and Yavatmal (with tribal population percentages of 2.2% and 18.5% respectively) show stunting rates over 45%. As many as 13 districts in the state show underweight percentages in excess of 40%. What is disquieting is the fact that districts in Vidarbha, like Buldhana and Washim (apart from Yavatmal), and in Marathwada, like Jalna and Osmanabad (apart from Parbhani), show a high percentage of underweight children. Considering that the campaign to reduce child malnutrition in Maharashtra had its beginnings in Marathwada in 2002, the regression in performance of districts in this region indicates that the gains in child nutrition in the first ten years of this century seem to have been lost in the past few years.

Another noticeable feature of the NFHS-4 data for Maharashtra is the variance of its figures from the ICDS monthly progress reports (MPRs) of the corresponding period. Since the NFHS-4 survey was carried out in mid-2015, a comparison of district-wise under-5 children underweight percentages as shown in the June 2015 ICDS MPR was made with the district-wise figures of the NFHS-4 data. The analysis shows that as many as 20 districts showed ICDS MPR underweight percentages which were more than 25 percentage points below the corresponding NFHS-4 percentages (Table 1). Unless one wishes to contest the accuracy of the results of the NFHS-4 sample survey, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the ICDS MPR figures are understated. My personal experience, as a former Director General of Maharashtra’s Rajmata Jijau Mother Child Health and Nutrition Mission (“the Mission”), is that there is generally a tendency, on the part of the ICDS machinery (not just in Maharashtra, but in most states) to underreport underweight numbers, both because of lack of emphasis on accurate growth monitoring, as also to avoid criticism.

TABLE 1: MAHARASHTRA – STATE AND DISTRICT VARIATIONS IN UNDERWEIGHT PERCENTAGES

 

District NFHS-4 Under-5 under-weight (%) ICDS MPR June 2015 figures (MUW+ SUW) (%) Variation between NFHS-4 and ICDS (%)
Ahmednagar 31.1 11.15 19.95
Akola 39.3 7.13 32.17
Amravati 33 16.02 16.98
Aurangabad 36 7.99 28.01
Bhandara 32.5 4.99 27.51
Beed 36.9 7.84 29.06
Buldhana 41.3 10.21 31.09
Chandrapur 40.3 16.06 24.24
Dhule 47.5 11.56 35.94
Gadchiroli 42.1 19.98 22.12
Gondia 40.1 7.42 32.68
Hingoli 36.9 9.82 27.08
Jalgaon 36.4 12.78 23.62
Jalna 43.6 7.50 36.10
Kolhapur 31.2 4.30 26.90
Latur 34.5 6.26 28.24
Mumbai 22.7 17.81 NA
Mumbai Suburban 28.9
Nagpur 33.6 11.83 21.77
Nanded 34.4 6.68 27.72
Nandurbar 55.4 31.05 24.35
Nashik 42.9 10.64 32.26
Osmanabad 44.5 8.80 35.70
Parbhani 42.3 7.37 34.93
Pune 25.6 8.64 16.96
Raigarh 38.6 6.01 32.59
Ratnagiri 28.9 8.24 20.66
Sangli 24.8 3.87 20.93
Satara 27.8 7.93 19.87
Sindhudurg 25.2 11.85 13.35
Solapur 34.6 6.58 28.02
Thane 40.3 17.21 23.09
Wardha 36.1 9.73 26.37
Washim 42.9 6.51 36.39
Yavatmal 49.1 8.79 40.31
Maharashtra State 36.0 10.55 25.45

Sources: NFHS-4 (2015-16) and Maharashtra ICDS MPR (June 2015)

 The above analysis becomes even more relevant in the context of the recent furore over child deaths in Palghar district (newly carved in 2014 out of the existing Thane district and comprising the predominantly tribal-populated talukas), attributed to the high child malnutrition rates in this tribal region. Why has this state of affairs come about in a state which, barely a few years ago, was in the forefront of efforts to reduce child malnutrition and whose achievements gained national and international recognition?

Over the last five years, during the second phase of the Mission, there was a move away from data monitoring at a disaggregated level ranging from the district down to the Anganwadi. The Mission focused on behavioural change processes at community and family levels and on pilot initiatives to promote nutrition-sensitive projects in association with corporates/nonprofits. While these yielded results at the micro-level, there was no specific focus on scaling up these initiatives or ensuring their sustainability. More importantly, the emphasis on strengthening health and nutrition systems at the cutting edge levels, a significant feature of the operations of the first phase of the Mission, was not stressed in the second phase. Neither was there systematic follow up of the under-5 child nutrition status at the ICDS project level, a measure which is crucial to monitor the high malnutrition burden areas. With little pressure on them to monitor or ensure achievement of key nutrition outcomes, the ICDS machinery at the Zilla Parishad level and below paid little attention to outcomes.

There was also a diminution in the role of the Mission in terms of coordinating the nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive activities of different government departments. Departments continued to function in their respective silos; even fundamental activities like the medical facility based treatment of severe acute malnutrition and the community management of acute malnutrition suffered setbacks on account of budgetary cuts and what can only be termed as the absence of a clear policy focus. The lack of coordination in the nutrition-sensitive/specific programmes of different departments is manifest even to date in the manner of implementation of the Abdul Kalam Amrut Aahar Yojana, a maternal nutrition scheme aimed at pregnant and nursing mothers. The ICDS machinery is yet to wholeheartedly take responsibility for making this programme a success; delayed fund transfers to the village level and failure to put in place effective monitoring systems continue to bedevil the programme even a full year after its commencement. Few systematic reviews of the child malnutrition position have been undertaken at the apex levels of the political and administrative hierarchies in recent years.

The need for a mission approach to tackling child malnutrition in Maharashtra arose in the early 2000s out of the perceived inability of the ICDS machinery to make a significant impact on reducing child malnutrition despite almost three decades of its existence: its overwhelming focus on supplementary nutrition, the lack of attention to under-3 children and the failure to adopt a data-based implementation strategy. Frequent transfers of officers at the helm of affairs of the ICDS and the Department of Women & Child Development (DWCD) and absence of accountability for outcomes have bred a “business as usual” approach. The situation on the ground has deteriorated to the extent that over 70% of posts of Child Development Project Officers, the lynchpin of the ICDS programme, lie vacant today, with the DWCD apparently unable to draw up a recruitment policy for this crucial post. The creation of the Mission was expected to engender a sense of purpose in the ICDS, improve its coordination of activities with other departments and enforce accountability for measurable outcomes. This approach, largely successful in the first phase of the Mission till 2010, has been diluted greatly in the second phase.

As matters stand, the government of the day, despite having in hand a clear proposal on the modalities for launching the third phase of the Mission, has not been able to take a decision for over eighteen months. Current thinking seems to be in favour of subsuming the operations of the Mission within the ICDS Commissionerate, a move that will make the Mission a toothless entity and, in effect, ensure a regression to the status quo prevailing prior to 2005.

Ultimately, any structure to tackle child malnutrition can only be effective if it is staffed with personnel with the passion and commitment to make a difference. The indifferent experience of a number of other states that launched Nutrition Missions based on the Maharashtra model is a clear indication that standard bureaucratic interventions will not work. Maharashtra is free to experiment with any governance structure for addressing the issue of child malnutrition. There are, however, certain fundamental steps that are a sine qua non for making a significant dent on the problem:

  • Accurate, real-time data has to be the basis for a strategic approach. Both the health department and the ICDS need to use technology to gather real-time data on maternal and child health and nutrition to strengthen systems to tackle underlying causes. Maharashtra made a beginning in 2011-2012 using the Janani and Jatak software systems for individual mother and child tracking to monitor maternal and child health and nutrition outcomes with a view to build service delivery capabilities of the health and ICDS systems. Unfortunately, both departments have not made use of these softwares, specifically customized for Maharashtra, to aid them in efficient service delivery.
  • A far greater sense of accountability needs to be enforced in the ICDS and public health systems, as well as in other departments with a role to play in reduction of child malnutrition and mortality, from the Secretariat to the village level. A clear political message needs to go out that the death of even one child or the continued prevalence of stunting, underweight and wasting in under-5 children will not be tolerated.
  • Whether as a Mission or as a high-level council under the Chief Minister, there needs to be an organisational structure that coordinates the activities of government departments/agencies, nonprofits and civil society organisations. This body would plan strategies for high incidence areas, garner financial and other resources for tackling malnutrition, help develop innovative, sustainable programmes and set time-bound, measurable goals.