India’s implementation deficit is a microgovernance failure—an inability to successfully execute even apparently well-conceived development initiatives due to multiple weaknesses and deficiencies at the last mile of implementation. An acknowledgement of this is essential if we are to make progress in the resolution of development challenges.
A typical illustration of microgovernance failure is the alleged National Rural Health Mission scam in Uttar Pradesh. As part of the mission, each district undertakes large-scale procurement of drugs and equipments, construction of health facilities, and contractual recruitment of doctors and paramedical staff. At the primary health centre (PHC) level, incentive payments are made for family planning, institutional deliveries, and ensuring cashless maternal care.
All these activities, especially when done on scale, require that the public functionaries execute and monitor numerous instructions that form part of the guidelines for each intervention. For example, drugs procurement involves state-level standardization of a list of essential drugs and guidelines for its procurement; district-level bid process management and quality monitoring of drugs supplies, and their distribution to PHCs; and PHC-level periodic drug indents placement and updating of stock balances. And all these separate processes have to be carefully documented, so as to complete the accounting and auditing formalities. The scam revealed egregious governance failings in these activities at all levels.
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
This example clearly underscores the point that policy guidelines, even those which align the incentives of all stakeholders and howsoever comprehensive, does not address the formidable implementation challenges. The commonplace governance failures result from the enforcement of the small details of the implementation guidelines. So what are these microgovernance challenges?
I can think of at least eight everyday examples of such microgovernance failures. First, as I have written earlier (Mint, 7 April), inadequate and ineffectual supervisory oversight is arguably the biggest obstacle to effective programme implementation in India. Second, the widespread lack of basic competence and motivation among field functionaries, especially at intermediate levels. Even where activities are scripted down to the last detail, we still cannot avoid relying on individual human competence and initiative to ensure successful implementation. Third, the quality of documentation that underlies all these processes is extremely poor, most often verging on the fraudulent. Fourth, there is a strongly institutionalized rent-seeking chain within every department, controlling which is extremely difficult. Politicization and corruption are the symptoms of this malaise.
Fifth, the local political pressures faced by field functionaries are overwhelming. Leave alone transfers and other forms of administrative harassment, in some parts of the state they even face physical threats to their life. Sixth, indiscipline is rampant at the lower levels. They manifest in the form of unauthorized absence to outright insubordination. Even in the exceptional case when disciplinary proceedings are initiated, they are rarely completed. The breakdown of the regular administrative disciplinary mechanisms has seriously eroded the strength and credibility of the bureaucratic chain of command.
Seventh, the two decades of fiscal adjustment driven government recruitment freezes has left the field level bureaucracy across departments severely depleted. For example, even important regulatory positions are heavily undermanned, and cutting-edge functionaries sorely lack adequate field assistance. Outsourcing, for various reasons, has fallen far short of achieving the desired results. Finally, there is the sheer enormity of the task entrusted to a field functionary. They are challenged at multiple levels—the vast numbers of people being monitored, the geographical spread of his territorial jurisdiction, and the broad scope of their work.
All these aforementioned problems are pervasive across sectors and departments. They conspire to ensure that even when instructions are issued with great clarity, and responsibility and accountability clearly fixed, it does not get translated into the desired results. Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to this problem.
Resolving these problems require action at multiple levels and with varying time horizons. The solutions to some of them are self-explanatory. However, a few fundamental reforms are essential. One, there has to be a decisive focus on outcomes, with extensive use of data to measure them. Two, technology should be deployed extensively to capture data, track outputs, assist officials, and inform all stakeholders. Three, strengthening and revamping the supervisory machinery should be the primary focus. Accountability has to be fixed and rigorously enforced.
Four, administrative reforms should focus on depoliticization and restoring discipline and institutional credibility. Five, a phased decentralization of funds, functions, and functionaries, coupled with adequate capacity building, is essential to bring in transparency and accountability. Six, given the vast scope of work, some form of data-driven prioritization is necessary at all levels.
Macrogovernance reforms involving greater deregulation, tax reforms, removal of supply-side bottlenecks, and so on, while essential, will still leave the much bigger challenge of India’s implementation deficit unresolved. If the reasons for microgovernance failures are not adequately addressed, all the macrogovernance reforms will invariably come to naught. The aforementioned minimum agenda will be a good place to start for improving microgovernance.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org