An old story with a new name

An old story with a new name

In this season of big scams, low-level corruption and inefficiency, something far more pernicious has been forgotten. The few rupees stolen from each worker in the government’s flagship schemes, the non-implementation of key aspects of “welfare" programmes, inflict damage to citizens that is perhaps equal to the loot of national resources by the few.

In mid-November, the Union government quietly announced the creation of an independent evaluation office (IEO) under the Planning Commission. The IEO would “undertake impartial and objective assessment of the various public programmes and improve the effectiveness of the public interventions."

As far as words go, this sounds fine. In reality, however, it only adds one more bureaucratic layer to an already bloated scheme of affairs. The Planning Commission, for example, already has the Programme Evaluation Organization, dating back to 1952, that is tasked with virtually the same functions as the IEO. It is as if a mere change in nomenclature could instil the fear of God in inefficient politicians and officials.

Service delivery failures and low-level corruption have roots elsewhere. In projects that are implemented over small areas or have a manageable number of individuals who receive benefits, the monitoring and implementation costs do not overwhelm the scheme. But what India has witnessed in recent years is a rapid proliferation of flagship programmes over vast areas involving vast number of persons.

In the atmosphere that prevails in India, large-scale corruption in these is a foregone conclusion. Monitoring can entail costs as high as the benefits, if not overtake them.

Creating the IEO is a weak effort to overcome this dilemma. This won’t work in any case as the IEO can at best issue reports on the functioning of programmes. History shows that these reports are seldom acted upon and the divorce between those who issue these reports and persons entrusted with implementation is complete.

Curbing corruption and inefficiency requires a scale back of these schemes. That would allow tighter implementation and enable a close watch. Once the effort is consolidated, more areas and persons can be enrolled. This, however, is anathema to those who back these projects. So until better sense prevails, we have to live with corruption, inefficiency and the IEO.

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