The Prime Minister (PM) has put forward a novel idea: ‘A proposal is being prepared for appointing ‘Agents of Change’ who would catalyse reform initiatives. The Agents of Change would be public-oriented personnel of outstanding calibre and would be strategically located to engineer reform,’ he said. These people would ‘cause reforms in processes and procedures that are holding up reform’, he said.
Lack of decisive decision making washes up to the PM at various levels, and his unhappiness is quite understandable. To take just two instances that are in the public domain, the European Union has taken India to the dispute settlement panel in the World Trade Organization (WTO) on duties on wines and spirits. The bound rate is 150%, but an additional excise duty is being charged, which is several times this. All the ministries know that this is untenable as per our WTO obligations, but none is prepared to take the decision to bring it back on track. Another example—a committee was constituted in 2004 to decide the kind of confidentiality and protection that would be available to clinical research and other data leading to drug discovery: After nearly three years, there is no decision as yet. One can give innumerable examples, covering every ministry. Most of these have little to do with coalition politics. Increasingly, there is reluctance in the administration to apply itself to problems, and to find a way forward.
There appear to be several reasons for this. At one level, the political executive lacks the field experience and knowledge of how things actually work at the ground level. This point need not be laboured—suffice it to say that leaders who have come from the masses and have worked their way up from district and other levels, are not at the helm of affairs. One has only to examine the performance of cadre-based parties in Tamil Nadu, and compare administrative delivery of programmes. Theoretical analysis and policy prescriptions do not ensure reforms—only hard attention to detail can. With ministers increasingly busy with the today and the glamorous, there is no one to attend to routine.
This extends to the administrative executive as well. Delivery of primary health care and education requires knowledge and application to details that is lacking. At one end, there is little reward for performing routine supervisory functions. I remember that in our younger days, disposal of files pending in our office for over three months was a criterion to judge the performance of our office, and we used to review all such cases personally to see that decisions were taken. There is now focus on the urgent and the sensational, be it the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) over the Vodafone case, or the banning of a media channel for inappropriate content. On the other hand, I doubt if anyone senior looks at how many FIPB cases are pending and for how long and why. This is true in every ministry. This is exacerbated by the lack of professional knowledge among those that deal with complex issues like those of the financial markets, intellectual property, gas pricing, etc.
The PM’s suggestion of performance-based evaluation was an attempt to correct this, but unless procedures are streamlined and responsibility for decisions fixed, this cannot work. The colonial administration believed in orderly routine of work, and this concept needs to be revived. Could the ministers take interest in the regular decision-making process of ministries? I had recommended to the highest, at one time, that every secretary should list out 20 items that he would achieve in his department during the course of a year—policy, process, administrative improvements, etc. This could be with the PM, who could review the lists at the end of the year.
Finally, these procedures are man-made. The Public Investment Board decides on public investment—it used to take a proposal six months to reach the board some 10 years back—it now takes 18. Can the PM give a call that all major decisions pending in the ministry should be settled one way or another, in six months, or the administrative heads would have to move? This would be a better approach than the call for agents of change that has overtones of external people running round the ministries, pushing selected files. There already exists a certain category of such ‘agents’ that can carry forward selective decision-making on behalf of clients, for a consideration. Such people can be seen frequenting the lobbies of five-star hotels in Delhi. They have actually become pillars of society, and can be seen in media. I am sure the PM’s remark is not an attempt to legitimize this activity or these people.
Myrdal commented that in developing countries, activity often becomes a substitute for action. It would be a pity if our governance and administrative systems become a victim of this.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the Prime Minister of India. We welcome your comments at email@example.com