Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Opinion | Continuity through change: a case of four programmes

Successful policymaking is about change, which is incremental but persistent

The change of guard in 2014 was dramatic. With the first-ever absolute majority in the Lok Sabha in 30 years, the voters expected radical change in government policies and priorities. Those who voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had sky-high expectations of big economic, social and political reforms, irrespective of their feasibility. Politicians talk about this burden of unrealistic expectations. But they can’t shy away, as those are built on their own campaign rhetoric and manifestos. Post election, the sobering reality is that reversing policy direction in India is like making a U-turn with the Titanic. There are constraints from all sides: from the exchequer to bureaucracy. As such, delivery falls short of expectations, whichever government it may be. Maybe this is how anti-incumbency happens.

But wait. On closer inspection we see that change is slow—not because faster is not feasible, but because it is undesirable. Much of policymaking is done through painstaking cycles of committees, draft reports, feedback and consultations. It is slow, but delivers the right results. It is well cooked. Change is largely a process of intensifying continuity.

One big example is the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), which had a 15-year journey. It is still unfinished. Another one, the special economic zones (SEZ) policy, was debated in Parliament for over five years. Even then, it was undermined by contradictions and opposing interests of the finance and commerce ministries, with more damage being caused by proliferating free trade agreements. It might still be remade into a more workable version. Whether it is rural electrification, toilets or schools, continuity, not change, is the central theme.

Four such programmes illustrate the concept of continuity quite remarkably. The first is the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) initiated during the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The scheme aims to connect nearly 1.8 lakh villages with all-weather roads. It was funded initially as a centrally-sponsored scheme, and now includes contribution from states as well. By 2014, almost 55% of the target of 7.5 lakh km was achieved, mainly under the two United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments. The present NDA regime picked up the pace and, as of December 2017, nearly 82% of the roads have been completed. The PMGSY has had tremendous positive economic impact on the rural economy, not least because of better access to markets for village produce, faster mobility for work and externality benefits of a pucca road.

The second example is that of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). It was passed in 2005 to cover the most backward rural districts in phase I and, subsequently, expanded to the whole country by 2009. NREGA was the butt of political ridicule during the 2014 campaign, but we see that the NDA government has not only chosen to continue this important programme, but has also increased resource flow to it. The NREGA serves as a proxy unemployment insurance and is especially relevant during slack season or for drought relief. Women’s participation is nearly 50%, which has its own benefit. It has been dovetailed with work on affordable housing, toilets and building rural assets. Of course it can be tweaked and made more effective. For instance, it needs to be scaled back to its phase I avatar and be run only in the most backward districts (or talukas) of the country. However, its continuity and persistence is testimony to the fact that different governments recognize its relevance.

The third example is of the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC), India’s first, intensive, exhaustive, paperless census conducted in 2011 across all 640 districts. This was the first ever caste-based census since 1931. Its initial findings were tabled in Parliament in 2015. It is a rich data mine of extremely valuable information and insights. The most remarkable thing is that the SECC is now being used by the government to implement all its rural welfare programmes, including the NREGA.

Thus, whether it is free gas cylinders for the poor, free LED lighting, affordable housing (Prime Minister’s Awaas Yojana), rural homes electrification (Saubhagya) or the latest universal health insurance (Ayushman Bharat), all of these will use the SECC data. The data is rich and authentic and covers all households, unlike just sampled households as in the National Sample Surveys. It documents consumption patterns, wealth, and, most importantly, deprivation status of households. It thus affords a much better way of targeting benefits to the needy. The present government has simply intensified the harvesting of data from SECC (initiated by the previous government), and made its programmes more effective.

The fourth example is Aadhaar, which was initiated by the UPA and whose usage has been amplified and fine-tuned by the NDA. We need not be distracted by the judicial issue of whether it can be made mandatory for everything, or kept optional. But the fact is that Aadhaar is a cornerstone of the JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) strategy to channel government benefits to the citizens.

These four examples suffice to convey that government policies are more about continuity than change. With sufficient evolutionary tweaks, the governments try to increase the efficacy of old programmes. Successful policymaking is about change, which is incremental but persistent. Expecting anything else from a large, diverse and complex polity would be unwise.

Ajit Ranade is an economist and a senior fellow at the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

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