Medical attention was available to all those who applied,” said General Dwyer after Jallianwala Bagh. “How would those whom you have shot, apply?” said the judge: from the arraignment of General Dwyer.
My last column had discussed concerns about implementation: I had said it was not appropriate that those in government argue they are responsible only for allocations and have little control on implementation. Two years ago, the concept of outcome budgeting was introduced—it was supposed to convey the extent to which allocations have been utilized. This year’s outcome budget—available on the finance ministry website—makes interesting reading. There is little mention of the actual performance against allocations, only that processes controlling the utilization of allocations have been completed.
Consider just two examples. First, new power generation capacity in 2007-08, as a percentage of plan targets, would be perhaps the lowest ever. Shortage of electricity, as a percentage of demand, has increased by two percentage points in the last four years, and is more than 9% now. So, this summer will see more power cuts across more regions in the country. Second, three years ago, the Union budget promised a massive programme for rejuvenating water bodies, to increase surface water storage for irrigation— this year’s budget speech told us the programme has just been discussed with international funding agencies that have agreed to support the scheme. Quite a gap here.
Since my last column, I received several comments asking me to point out non-performance in various sectors, and the list is quite endless. I would rather carry on to suggest how to make things work.
I had dealt with urban service delivery last time. One commentator pointed to a significant gap in my argument—that my scheme would work when the individual could get a smart card made. A maid working in a household is eligible for kerosene, and public distribution system amenities, and to facilities such as means scholarships for her children, etc. But she needs proof of residence, indeed proof of existence. Without this, she would probably pay six times the cost for rations, kerosene, or cooking gas. This is a horrendous problem. The simplest way to handle this is to put the responsibility on the employer. As long as the employer certifies the genuineness of the person, she should get the required card. To have some checks and controls, these could be valid for a short term—say, six months or a year—at the end of which the card would no longer work until renewed. This can help verify whether the person is still employed or not. This does not take care of the unorganized, migrant population entirely, and I don’t think it should, if we are to have some order in the rural urban migration.
Let’s turn now to the rural sector. The government has to deliver a mix of services. The public distribution system provides rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene. The farmer needs credit. It is also possible to deliver fertilizer subsidy to the farmer instead of to the fertilizer company. A single smart card could do all this. Most of the rural farmers are already part of some institutional arrangement—kisan credit cards, NREGP (National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme), et al. In fact, they are better organized than the urban poor.
The core of the problem is the landless rural people—the agricultural wage labourers. Surprisingly, over the past 60 years, sufficient information has been gathered at the village level about them. Ration cards have been made; there are certificates at the school level, at the DRDAs (District Rural Development Agencies), and a number of other locations—but none of these speaks to each other. A simple private sector-led survey to put the data together to create the hologram of the person and his residence, income and family, is a possible, not an impossible, task. This is the most deserving set and is also difficult to reach—it requires greater attention from governments and greater effort by implementors. If we can do a responsible census in a two-year time frame, we can certainly do this.
Once smart cards are in place, it is only necessary to ensure availability of services. To reiterate, I am certain corruption and leakages will remain. But this system will ensure that the deserving will get the services, and that the corruption would be in the number of bogus entitlements that would continue to circulate, and be skimmed off. It will be up to individual administrations to deal with this: My concern is for those living and deserving, not for the bogus cards.
In a war-ravaged country such as Cambodia, with 80% subsisting on primary agriculture, levels of poverty in excess of 40%, and literacy levels lower than India, I am now witnessing the delivery of entitlements: I am not willing to believe or accept that we can’t do this in India, however venal or corrupt the public services may be.
S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the prime minister of India. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org